Chapter 1: Prologue
“...This marks the end of the official tutorial for Old Republic Online. I wish every player the best of luck... and may the Force be with you.”
As the holographic figure dispersed in flickers of blue lightning, the polished stone plaza in front of the Senate on Coruscant was utterly silent. Almost ten thousand Corellians stood in huddled knots of terror and disbelief. They’d signed up to play a game. To use Kayaba’s new and unique holographic sense-surround technology to see and touch the ancient history of the Republic. Now?
Survive the Galactic Civil War? Face the enemies of the Old Republic - the Mandalorians, the outlaw species, the entire Sith Empire - when nobody had anything beyond half-charged blasters and chipped vibroblades? Find and defeat the Sith Lord?
Panic rolled out in whispers. Soon it would surge to shouts, and screams-
“Klein!” A young, grim voice, from the shadows of a street leading away from the panic. “Follow me.”
Sunlight poured down on the flowering gardens of Alderaan. Drakeflies darted through the breeze, emerald and sapphire motes dancing over climbing roses and dipping down to brush tail-tips in the running stream. The water cast back glints of silver and blue, then nothing at all as it ran under the shadow of a bridge-
Blue light thrummed. Bits of metal rained into water; blaster muzzles, flamethrower gauntlets, half of a vibro-sword.
“Take the transport to the Black Iron Citadel. Or I’ll stun you all and throw you in anyway.”
The redheaded leader of the Titan’s Hand bounty hunters laughed even as she backed up, blaster leveled on her black-clad foe. “I’m still Lightside-marked. You can’t raise that ‘saber to me-”
A rush of wind, and azure energy hummed by her throat. A stray red hair touched it, crisping in an instant.
“I’m a solo.” Black eyes were as cold as space. “A few days on the Darkside means nothing to me.”
Strength against strength, Shien and Jar’kai should beat Makashi. But Heathcliff was stronger, his cortosis-forged shield had shorted out Kirito’s white ‘saber, and one blade just wasn’t enough. Ataru and Sokan honed against the most horrid creatures of the Sith Empire failed against Heathcliff’s precise forms. Even his most lethal Force technique had been shrugged off by Heathcliff’s impenetrable armor.
He was a clearer. Heathcliff was a duelist.
Now the Sith ‘saber was burning the heart out of him, red light glowing in his vision as everything else faded....
Blinking text in the darkness. You are dead.
And this was such a stupid way to die. Everyone’s lives were hanging in the balance, Argo’s visions had shown that, and he’d just given up-
There is no death, Asuna’s voice whispered. There is the Force.
Despair was of the Dark Side. He wasn’t done yet.
Seize the energy. Absorb it. Redirect it.
Asuna was dead, her white and red robes empty on the floor. But Asuna was still with him in the Force, a healer strong enough to mend even a mortal wound-
And I only need a breath longer.
Kirito opened his eyes. And reached out.
Heathcliff blinked. “What-”
Lambent Light slapped into a translucent hand. Ignited.
ORO’s creator stared down at the white fire impaling him. And smiled.
Let this be enough....
The world fell apart.
“Game cleared,” a woman’s computerized voice announced. “Logout initiated....”
Hot. Wet. A familiar slimy sea-salt tang in his nose as someone pulled breathing gear off him.
Bacta. Kirito’s hand curled around something wooden and solid - the arm of a chair? - as someone ran a cleaning tube over him, warm air sucking away the last of the healing liquid. But a tank wouldn’t have helped. I’m not sure if even Asuna could have put me back together after that....
“-Kirigaya? Youngling, can you hear me? It’s Healer Agnei Salleth. I know your mind has been elsewhere for quite some time....”
Kirito blinked. Everything felt so heavy.
But it seemed to clear his vision; he was looking down at a slender chair arm, dark wood polished to bring out the subtle grain like spots on a black thanta. Something was wrapped around the wood, pale tendrils with odd knots spaced along them-
....Those are my fingers.
Not smooth. Not digital. There was a glint of fine hairs, a little pale scar he’d gotten training with Suguha, wrinkles that flexed and vanished as he tightened his grip on wood.
Real. This is real....
The room shook, dust falling from the ceiling as heavy artillery boomed. Beside him, a tall, dark-haired woman in Corellian-green Jedi robes drew in a sharp breath-
Kirito was on his feet before he’d registered the words; before he could think through the fact that the tramp of armor, the yells, the whine of blaster bolts hadn’t happened yet-
An unfamiliar ‘saber was in his hand. The door slammed open. White armor surged through.
Wrist, throat, leap - organized and uniform armor, this is a fireteam, there have to be more-!
There were. His feet touched the top of the doorway as he blurred into a roll past those who’d held position out by the lift; the blue blade licked out once, twice, impaled-
Six bodies hit the ground. Only one was still breathing.
Numb spots in the Force chilled to empty places where the troopers had been, dark and aching with the grief of lives cut short. He couldn’t bear it....
Don’t think. Do!
They’d been guarding the lift. That meant they meant to use it.
There could be more of them. A lot more.
If this is the Corellian Enclave, then the lift codes are....
His fingers danced over the keyboard without further thought, locking in, medical emergency override, quarantine this floor-
Slender fingers followed his. Quarantine all floors this level to roof. Code Aleph.
Kirito blinked in disbelief. “You haven’t changed the code? In thirty-six hundred years?”
“Very funny. It took us a while to realize how deeply Kayaba had sliced into our systems... never mind. Good idea; I should have thought of it before.” She sucked in a breath. “That should keep the lifts locked until they slice it open again. It’ll buy us some time.”
“Time?” Kirito trembled, staggering back against green robes. More darkness was spreading with every breath, voices crying out in terror as heavy blast-cannons crackled, and somewhere in the distance lightsabers sang.
The healer’s hand on his shoulder was a steadying flow of calm. “Kazuto. Youngling, be in the present. Here and now.”
Kirito thumbed off the lightsaber, trying not to shake. This is real. “This- I’m sorry, I-”
“Keep it,” Healer Agnei said firmly, a wave of her hand scooping a blaster off the floor. “At least one of us knows how to fight.” Brown eyes weighed him, worried. “Youngling. Help me get the patients out.”
“Out? But if the lifts are locked-”
From inside his room, small feet thumped, and a familiar young face in beaded pigtails poked out of the doorway. “Pina says it’s clear up to the roof!” Red eyes widened. “Kirito! You’re awake!”
Lump in his throat, he nodded. “Silica.” If she’s alive, then- but Pina was in the game. Wasn’t she?
“Then let’s hope it’s clear from there down, as well,” Agnei said briskly. “Good work, youngling. Get your partner, and help Lau and Nanami bring down the rest of the flock and the eggs. We can’t leave our friends here.”
“Right!” She gave Kirito an uncertain smile, and dashed back inside.
“The stairs,” Kirito realized, finally recognizing where he was. South end of the Corellian Enclave’s Healing Annex, as far from the Annex’s landing pad and operating rooms as you could get and not be inside the Enclave itself. Which made it the perfect spot to hide the emergency stairs behind scanner-proof walls. “The evacuation route.... What’s going on?” He knew what it felt like, between the cannons and the tremors and the cold breath of fear.
A heavy assault on an entrenched Jedi position. Like we lived through in the Sith assault on the Corsucant Temple... but that was the War! Who could be attacking us now? That armor insignia - it looks like the Republic’s. But the Senate doesn’t have an army! None of this makes sense!
There was one way to get more information. If this was real, then....
It’s not real. It can’t be. I’m no Jedi; I’m not even a padawan like Sugu. It was just a rare subclass-
In the game. Where you couldn’t feel mobs through the Force. You couldn’t feel anything die - unless it was another player.
Impossible or not, he’d felt the troopers fall.
Don’t think. Do. Clear your mind, open yourself to the Force, and see-
It was like reaching out his hand to touch the sun. Something surged back to him, washing away fear in a blaze of welcome. :Kirito!:
:Asuna.: Love, worry; the ferocious determination to never give up. :You’re alive!:
And beyond her he could feel more brightness; Klein and Agil and so many others.
We’re alive. And someone’s trying to kill us.
He’d worry about why later.
Fourteen. CorSec Agent Guenith Nyx cursed under her breath, weaving her speeder through Coronet City’s thin graveyard shift traffic. Fourteen more dead. Damn Kayaba to Hell.
At least with that many dying at once, odds were it’d been a boss fight, not PKing. She hated PKing.
Though it makes the murder investigation easy. Talk about documenting your crimes....
Well, simpler, maybe. Not easy. They had to review the holographic footage from Akahiko Kayaba’s little historical murder game, document not just who’d dealt the killing blow, but why, bring all the paperwork to the courts to get murderers tried in mens absentia, and then arrange the special ambulance speeder transport so they could detach the convicted, speed them to the secure medical facility, and hook them back up before Kayaba’s little death helmets could kill them. Because if someone ever did bring Kayaba’s house of horrors tumbling down - some of those people needed counseling and probation. Some needed five to ten for manslaughter. And some....
Guenith shuddered. She wasn’t going to sleep well again until Laughing Coffin was all in permanent shackles. Though given what the Corellian Enclave had uncovered about some of the players, maybe not even then.
Not that CorSec planned to breathe one word of that, much less write it up in reports. A few agents like herself and Rostek Horn knew, because someone had to know the headache the Jedi had on their hands. Poor guys. Thai Golia might be one of the best undercover partners she’d ever had, but she was not looking forward to backing him up when the Jedi Master tried to explain to RETCO’s CEO that his beloved daughter would probably never be a good corporate wife.
At least the Kirigayas are taking it okay. Poor kid; if her brother does wake up, she’s going to have to deal with him in the dojo all over again-
There were lights dancing on the Corellian Enclave.
Heck of a time for a lifeday celebration....
Army shuttles. Ranks of white armor. Cracked stones falling from the Enclave’s walls. Those red lights were blast-cannon bolts.
Guenith grabbed for her commlink; nobody, but nobody attacked CorSec’s Jedi and got away with it-
:No! Get clear!:
Thai! She’d know her partner’s mindtouch anywhere. Hang on, I’m going to get help-
:Anyone you bring will die.:
“You’re a Jedi!” Klein yelped, and ducked behind a stone pillar as red blasts ricocheted around him. “Can’t you, you know, tell ‘em we’re not the guys they’re looking for?”
“I might as well suggest you take up target shooting blindfolded,” Anton Gelis said acidly, hugging the wall himself as more troopers surged out of the North lift. A bit unworthy of a Corsucanti Jedi and member in good standing of the ExploriCorps, perhaps; but he’d been woken at an unholy hour, dragged out of a bacta tank, and currently found himself one of the few armed persons between a host of civilians and their own army. Which made no sense whatsoever. “Clones tend not to fall for mind tricks. It’s as if they’re not quite there.”
“Oh, great. Mandalorians.” The redhead checked his blaster in one quick motion, and went back to shooting at white armor. “I hate Mandalorian mobs-”
“Head down!” Anton deflected three bolts in quick succession. His knee ached abominably, but he put that aside; it was healed enough to stand on, and that would have to do. His current allies were willing enough, and oddly skilled for civilians, but even if only one in ten had needed to be dragged from a tank, they were all as shaky as any patient just out of bacta. They’d never survive if they didn’t work together.
Right now, he wasn’t certain they’d make it if they did. Granted, this was his first time on Corellia and the local smugglers were legendary, but he couldn’t imagine that dealing with even the most black-hearted sentient-slaver would be reason enough for Army troopers to attack a Jedi Temple. What in the galaxy was going on?
Agil’s chuckle echoed from the closest doorway behind them, as he and Lisbeth wielded laser probes to do rather unwise things to a collection of stun grenades. “If you hate ‘em so much, how come you’re hogging all the EXP?”
“Well, if it didn’t take you so long to set up a special, Mr. AOE....”
Ah, yes, Anton decided. I most definitely have a headache. “Do any of you speak plain Basic?”
“We’ll explain later.” Braced between the ceiling and the top of a doorframe, Argo was a shadow of not-here as she flicked stray objects into the air to block trooper sightlines.
Which made Anton’s headache even worse, if that were possible. Argo was barely old enough to go to the Academy; too old to be a youngling, too young for a Knight, and no braid to mark her as anyone’s padawan. So how had she learned such fine control of the Force? The Corellian Order had sidestepped any questions when he’d asked about the dreamers earlier, quietly murmuring about protecting patient privacy. He’d sensed no deception then, so he’d repaid courtesy for courtesy, and tactfully avoided more questions.
I should have asked. Promptings of the Force or no.
He was regretting it now, and not only for his own sanity. These few were out here fighting, yet he could sense thousands more of their fellow patients impatiently hovering behind doors on this floor and uncounted floors of the Annex above; odd helmets cast aside, save for specific datachips stripped and tucked away for safekeeping at Argo’s advice. All agitated, and determined, and quite well aware trained soldiers were coming to kill them.
Anton had expected fear, and many of them were afraid. Yet far more were less afraid than frustrated.
If they had blasters, they’d be here fighting.
Which was a thoroughly daunting prospect to a Jedi trained to protect the peaceful citizens of the Republic. These patients didn’t feel like ordinary natives of Corellia. Instead, they felt to an ExploriCorps Jedi like the smugglers, outlaws, and tramp freighter crews of the Rim Worlds; itching for a fight, yet seasoned enough to stay out of the line of fire until they had something to fight with.
What’s happened to these people?
Argo eyed what Lisbeth was doing, and frowned. “That’s not the standard recipe.”
“Standard?” The young mechanic hmphed, adding a last fillip of some clear liquid she’d snatched from a supply cabinet. “I’m a professional.”
“Yes, well.” Anton batted back a few more bolts, and tossed the fallen blasters toward his allies. “A professional what?”
“Ooo!” Lisbeth stabbed something in the depths of a grenade’s circuits, and pulled out her probe with a satisfied smirk. “You’ll see.”
“Yes, he will.” Argo stiffened, like a hawk-bat about to pounce. “Ki-bou’s got the lifts locked down. Now!”
Jedi or not, Anton barely had time to react before his young allies picked up the blasters and started filling the air with a hail of bolts. Klein was screaming like a banshee, Argo had scraps of paper doing a fair impression of a blizzard whiteout-
Agil stepped into the clear, and threw.
The blast flung them like a rancor’s backhand. Anton curved his shoulders just in time to keep his skull from a rather nasty knock on the wall. As it was, that was going to hurt in the morning.
“Okay,” Klein groaned, “that had a lot more kick than I remember.”
“We’re not level 86 anymore.” Agil was rubbing his head. “Ow.”
Argo was already up and moving, lips white as she leveled her blaster toward fallen clones.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Klein moved as fast as any smuggler; one hand on Argo’s wrist, the other pushing the muzzle up. “No.”
“You can’t feel what they were planning.” Argo was straining against his hold; arms shaking, dark eyes wide with horror. “They’re going to kill everyone! Order 66 - the Jedi are traitors, kill them, execute anyone who tries to stop you-!”
Truth. Anton felt it in the Force, chill and unyielding as Hoth’s winter. The clones are following orders? He swallowed, horrified. But - they follow the will of the Senate, and the Chancellor- how can this be happening?
“Doesn’t matter,” Klein said; not budging, even as his own hands shook. “They’re not Jedi. You are. That way lies badness, and ominous theme music.” He shoved, just a little more, and let out a low whistle as Argo’s grip went limp. “Leave this part to us scoundrels. We’re made for it.”
“Besides.” Agil yanked a cord out of a shattered utility belt, whipping fast loops around the wrists of any clone still breathing. “Can’t get comm codes out of corpses. You of all people know that.”
Argo hesitated. Eyed the troopers.
And grinned, deliberately cracking her knuckles.
We’re only going to get one shot at this.
Asuna glanced back at her fellow players, checking how well her eyes slid off them as they hid in the empty corridor. Yulier was just another shadow on the warm white wall; Thinker... well, it was a good thing he had a doorway to scrunch himself into. Likewise for the rest of the Knights of Blood here, and the other stray players who’d gathered behind her, ready to rush the vine-wreathed desk of the Annex’s central communications hub.
I don’t want to rush armed troopers, Asuna thought, determined. White armor stood out against the warmer white walls and hanging green vines the Healers used to soften the atmosphere; moved as solid blocks in front of the ranks of old-fashioned medical texts behind the desk. Bed sheets, curtain cords, and blunt objects against blasters? Bad idea.
But so long as that enemy squad held the central desk, they were a threat. And blasters had nothing to do with it.
If they call in reinforcements, we’ll never get out of here.
So far Argo’s vision of the players being shot in their hospital beds had been too close to coming true. If the rest of it was on target, fire and death and the Temple falling....
We’re out of time.
Asuna let out a steady breath, and nodded at Yulier. :Twitch it one more time.:
She felt the older woman’s grin. Yulier knew lightwhips. The vines creeping over the main desk were no trouble at all.
“There!” A blaster leveled at green leaves. “I saw it move!”
One of his older squadmates groaned. “You’ve seen it move for the last three minutes, 333. Relax. All the Jedi on this level are dead.”
“But what if it’s a Neti in disguise?”
A gloved hand clanked against a helmet in disbelief. “For the last time, shiny. Neti are walking trees. Not vines-”
Yulier swept her hands back and closed, vines whipping around all ten troopers’ arms and throats.
They’re wearing atmoglove bodysuits. If they get time to think they’ll know they can breathe.
Her people weren’t going to give them that time.
Asuna didn’t have Kirito’s knack for turning the battlefield into a storm of weapons. But bouncing the entire medical library off the troopers’ heads? Not a problem.
Her Knights surged out of cover with a roar; most throwing whatever heavy trays and vases they’d found in their wards, one or two punching air to press stun grenades on troopers’ belts as Thinker twisted a fist to tangle limbs in suddenly feisty office chairs. Asuna leapt into the melee even as the last blue concussion blast faded, high kick sailing over a blaster bolt to catch the squad leader right in the throat.
The crunch would haunt her nightmares.
Dead, dead, unconscious, wishes he was unconscious....
The troopers might be odd numb spots in the Force, but this close she could read enough to sort the quick from the dead. A few gestures, and her people had the living bound up in sheet-knots.
Doesn’t matter how strong and armored you are. Leverage is leverage. If you can’t get it, sheets are as good as utility cable.
Reluctantly, Asuna yanked the helmet off one of those still breathing. “Who are you? Why are you trying to kill us?”
The dark-haired man under the plastoid armor glared at her. “Clone trooper 52-K-5. I have nothing to say to traitors to the Republic.”
“Clone trooper?” Yulier stroked a shivering vine, pale hair shimmering as she shuddered. Not the silver it’d been in the Old Republic, which was disconcerting all on its own....
Asuna shook off the chill. “Traitors?” she said in disbelief. “We’re Corellian citizens!” Granted, her family still kept their Humbarine name, but the Yuuki clan had been happily established here for generations. Just ask any of her father’s business partners.
“Clone trooper 52-K-5. I have nothing to say-”
“Then you don’t mind if I do the talking.” Thinker crouched down by the bound trooper, smile as absentminded as his ruffled brown curls. “You’re a clone trooper for the Republic? That’s interesting....”
Yulier gave Asuna a thumbs-up. She nodded back. The guild leader of the Republic Liberation Force could talk to anyone. If there was something they needed to know, Thinker would get it out of him.
If there’s time. Argo’s vision said there was no time....
Slipping in behind the main communications console as her Knights picked up any spare weapons, Asuna checked the comm settings. Blinked, trying to settle the feeling of familiar-yet-not in her head. It looked almost exactly like the comm system for a Corellian corvette.
Well, why shouldn’t it? We’re on Corellia.
She punched buttons slowly at first, then faster as nothing blew up. That should set the broadcast to every level above the ORs. If they’re only using the emergency entrance level to move troops through the Annex, we can pull this off.
Still. It was better to keep her message as cryptic as possible. “Guild leaders and solos, rendezvous for boss planning session immediately!”
The Annex’s main medical lecture hall was just where Kirito remembered it from the game. Though it seemed a bit better lit, with a few more holoprojectors up and running by the instructor’s lectern to show a rough diagram of where the enemy was hitting the Enclave. And there hadn’t been explosions going on in the background.
None of that mattered next to the warmth in his arms, the scent of Asuna’s hair as she hugged him back.
He wasn’t sure which of them had thought it. He didn’t really care. He could feel her, as fiercely as he had since the night they’d married. He hadn’t been sure he’d ever feel that again-
A familiar fist pressed down into his hair, ruffling it to smuggler-scruffiness. “Damn, you’re okay! Don’t you ever do that again!”
“Klein,” Kirito groaned, trying to bat fingers away.
Asuna chuckled in his ear, and pulled back enough to give him a raised eyebrow.
Kirito sighed, and nodded, relaxing his grip. Invading enemy first. Damn it.
And then I need a haircut.
Feeling the gaze of the silent Jedi Healer like an IR beam between his shoulders, Kirito glanced around the mostly-full room, picking out guild leaders, ship captains, and a few stray solos like himself, dedicated or crazy enough to fly one-man fighters. With rare exceptions, ORO hadn’t had the instantaneous teleports common to other online games. If you wanted to get to Alderaan from Nar Shadaa, you had to fly there.
Flying, he loved. Space travel - not so much.
At least I’m not a useless wreck once we clear atmosphere anymore... focus. “Who’s shooting at us, and how do we stop them?”
Behind him, Healer Agnei cleared her throat. “This could take more time to explain than we have-”
Argo’s hand waved from under a holoprojector. “Slicing, almost got it... now.”
A new skeletal model of the Enclave and Annex sprang to life, blooming with red spots that matched the directions he’d heard things going boom from. More wireframes glowed into pixilated forms, linked to small screens showing Enclave security footage; troops and blast-cannons assaulting the front of the Enclave, while smaller groups of soldiers poured from gunships on the Annex landing pad, marching through the hospital’s ground floor toward the rear of the Enclave.
“We are so dead,” Klein said numbly.
“Not dead yet,” Agil said firmly, eyeing the brown-robed Jedi peering past him at the hologram. “You better call your buddies in the Temple, Anton. They’re about to get ambushed.”
“I would, if I had a local commlink.” Anton’s accent was pure Coruscanti, but the way his eyes narrowed at Agnei reminded Kirito of some of the sneakier Jedi Masters in-game. “And if I knew what the blazes was going on. Why is our own army attacking us?”
“Because they have orders,” Asuna said grimly. “Thinker couldn’t get them to talk much, but he’s sure of that.”
“Order 66.” Argo was holding onto a blaster like it was a dead rat. “In the event of Jedi officers acting against the interests of the Republic, and after receiving specific orders verified as coming directly from the Supreme Commander, GAR commanders will remove those officers by lethal force, and command of the GAR will revert to the Supreme Commander until a new command structure is established.” Shuddering, she handed the blaster back to Lisbeth. “The Annex is providing aid and comfort to the Jedi, who are traitors to the Republic. So after they kill the Jedi, they’re going to... finish the job. Here.”
“You read that from their weapons?” Kirito felt a chill down his spine. In the game, Argo’s object-reading had rarely been wrong... and never when she’d handled an object taken from another player.
In the game.
“This-” isn’t possible, no it has to be, we did it, “doesn’t make sense!” Kirito waved at the room, the hologram, Agnei’s ‘saber still at his belt. “We’re out of the game! How can we still be using Force abilities?”
I’m not a Jedi. I don’t reach the threshold. Grandfather tested me. Argo, Asuna - they probably had families who didn’t want to let them go. But I-
“Game?” Anton said carefully.
“A few months before the Clone Wars started,” Agnei began.
“Wait, wait - Clone Wars?” Klein blurted out. “You mean those are Mandalorian clones? Whose bright idea was that?”
Agil planted a hand on his arm. “Later,” he said firmly, eyeing the rest of the room. Who looked just as upset as Klein, if a little less vocal about it.
Kirito didn’t blame them. Mandalorian NPCs weren’t always the enemy, but they were armed, dangerous, and touchy. The only thing that reined them in from wiping each other and the rest of the galaxy out was the fact that their culture clung to family as fiercely as they gripped their armor. What kind of family would Mandalorian clones have?
Obviously, not one that taught them to leave Jedi alone. This is bad.
“A genius holo-programmer, Akihiko Kayaba, created a new form of training simulator,” Agnei went on. “His NerveGear put the user’s mind into an artificial reality, and his game - Old Republic Online - made that reality a simulation of the most deadly years of the Galactic Civil War. Very exciting. Quite the attraction for youngsters, and anyone else who wanted to learn about ancient history.” She took a breath. “But once the game had gone public for a few hours, he locked the system so no one could get out.” The healer glanced around the assembled guild leaders, then back at Anton. “Everyone you see has survived the past three years in the midst of the Sith Wars.”
“...I see.” Anton shifted his stance, as if ready to summon his ‘saber in a swift ignition at a moment’s notice. “That would explain the experience with blasters. But-”
“The Force responds to the mind and will, and NerveGear drew off what science knew of induced training trances already,” Agnei shrugged. “Either Kayaba sliced our databases even earlier than we realized, or he got lucky. Most of our dreamers simply learned very quickly what they needed to survive. But for some... put a sensitive into enough life-threatening situations, and things may happen.” She gave Kirito a wry look. “We finally had to move everything fragile out of your ward, youngling. And before a few months ago, I wouldn’t have thought Devaronian porcelains were fragile to anything less than a blaster bolt.”
Kirito coughed, face burning. The Force had been in the game. He’d never thought anything they did might have effects in real life-
His blood ran cold. If it did - then they know.
:Stay calm.: Asuna’s hand found his. :They don’t know.:
Probably not. If she knew he’d ever used that - Suguha would have put her own ‘saber through his heart.
:She’s your sister!:
:Exactly,: Kirito thought back, keeping the bleak expression from his face with an act of will. :Kirigayas don’t leave their kin on the Dark Side.:
:It wasn’t Dark!: Asuna objected. :You used it to save people.:
:In the game.: Kirito tried not to wince. :Kayaba was a genius, but he wasn’t a Jedi. ORO was just a recreation of how he thought history happened. This is a real war.:
Asuna frowned, thinking fast. “Mandalorians aren’t good at subtle when it comes to taking down the enemy. If they think any of us are Force-users, they’ll assume all of us might be. We have to get out of here, or we’re all dead.” She shot a glance at Agnei, then at Argo, who was punching buttons on a console and muttering under her breath. “We need a secure comm to the Enclave. They’ve got to know the clones are coming!”
“I’ve got frequencies,” Argo nodded. “But it looks like the clones are monitoring a lot of them. If we’re going to get through to the right guy, I need a name.”
“Master Thai Golia,” Agnei said swiftly. “He’s the lead Master of the Enclave-”
“Let’s hope he’s still alive to lead anything.” Argo tossed Asuna one of the comms. “It’s open!”
The sound of heavy blasters came over the link, along with the distinct high feedback shriek of lightsabers parrying energy. “Master Golia!” Asuna kept her voice sharp, precise; every word pitched to pierce the chaos of a battlefield. “This is Vice-Commander Asuna, speaking for the ORO guilds. Healer Agnei’s with us. The frontal assault’s a diversion; the clones are infiltrating through the Annex-”
“Are they? Well; I think we can do something about that.”
A deep, familiar voice; Kirito had to catch his breath, remembering the tall Corellian Jedi who’d taken Suguha as his apprentice. He could see Master Golia in his memory, steady and calm and solid as Corellian granite.
“Speaking for the guilds, are you?” Golia went on. “So our dreamers are finally awake. And not a moment too soon.” His lightsaber hummed, and stone crunched. “Agnei, old friend. Can they get the noncombatants out?”
Agnei glanced at the worried faces around her, and nodded. “They’re already moving people into the tunnels.”
“I’m afraid you’ll all have to move faster.” Golia’s breath came swifter for a moment. “This is no simple rogue assault. The Dark Side clouds it-”
“It seems it’s the Supreme Chancellor’s direct order,” Anton stated. He laughed once, dry and bitter. “Master Yoda did suspect the Sith Lord might have influence in the Senate.”
“He did indeed,” Golia said wryly. “Vice-Commander?”
Asuna glanced at the guild leaders; got their nods, even if a few like Schmidt of the Divine Dragons swallowed hard. “Anything we can do, we will. We mostly have blasters, but....”
“Evacuating the Temple won’t be enough,” Anton put in swiftly. “If this is a Sith assault - we have to get off-world. It won’t be safe, for us or for Corellia, if we stay.”
Asuna drew a breath. “So we need to think about where we’re going to go, while we’re moving.”
“Except the worlds we know about are centuries out of date,” Kirito said wryly. “I think that makes a difference.”
“A bit,” Anton agreed dryly. “The galaxy’s been explored a great deal since the time you knew. But there are still places we could be difficult to find. If I had a starmap from the library....” His voice trailed off, as he eyed the sudden grins of interested players.
Kirito didn’t blame him for being nervous. Argo’s grin had teeth. “Library,” he breathed. A real library. With real datachips, not more fluff text that told them nothing Kayaba didn’t want them to know. Datachips that hadn’t already been scattered by Sith bent on wiping Jedi lore from the galaxy, dooming ancient techniques to be lost forever. Space, he wanted to know.
“Unruined library.” The information broker grinned wider.
“Library about to be ruined,” Klein grumbled.
“Retrieval quest!” Asuna punched the air. Cleared her throat. “If that would help, Master Golia?”
“It would,” Golia said simply. “I have a few noncombatants who need to be pried out of the library. And if you get there... there are ways to open a few shortcuts in the tunnels below. You’ll need them.”
Something creaked. And crumbled. And roared.
Artillery meets very big chunk of rock, Kirito deduced. Oof.
“That should buy us some moments while they bring up another....” Golia sighed. “We’ll send the padawans to help you.”
A chill crawled down Kirito’s spine like a swamp-leech. He tried to shake it off. No... no, don’t say it....
“Please... take them with you.”
Anton looked as shaken as Kirito felt. “Master Thai!”
“I’m counting on all of you to look after them,” Golia said bluntly. “Agnei, old friend... you know how to deal with the effects of a severed bond.”
The healer went white.
“Don’t say that!” Asuna thumped a fist on the lectern, hard enough to make the hologram fuzz. “We’ll get to the library. We’ll get them out! And then we’re coming back for you!”
Kirito had to shake his head, as words ceased to make sense. The padawans. The Jedi are sending away their padawans. With us. Because....
Because they’re not going to survive this.
No. No, they couldn’t die! These were Corellian Jedi. Their people. Their family. He knew Master Golia. He’d learned his first faltering steps of Shii-Cho in the dojo under the Jedi Master’s watchful eyes, before Grandfather had turned him away and Thai Golia had bowed to the logic of the tests....
Padawans don’t stray from their masters.
A/N: AOE - Area of Effect, generally refers to something that does damage over a large area.
Order 66 quoted from Chapter Twenty of the novel Star Wars Republic Commando: True Colors.
GAR - Grand Army of the Republic.
Shii-Cho -“Determination Form”, the first form of lightsaber combat taught to Temple younglings.
The Corellian Enclave, aka the Green Jedi Enclave - this is the Jedi Temple of the Corellian Jedi Order. In EU canon, the Corellian Jedi have a long history of disagreement with the main Jedi Order based on Coruscant. A lot of the arguments boil down to two important differences. First, Corellian Jedi have families. Second, they tend to look out for the Corellian Sector (24 inhabited planets including Corellia) first, and worry about the rest of the galaxy later.
Midichlorian counts: okay, here I have to both provide info and authorial license. In SW canon, average humans have a midichlorian count of 2500; about 500 above “can’t feel the Force at all”. 5,000 was supposed to be “mildly sensitive”, while the cutoff limit for Jedi training was supposed to be 7,000. An average Jedi was supposed to have 10,000; Qui-Gon Jinn had this count. Obi-Wan Kenobi, 13,400. Luke Skywalker, 14,500. Yoda, 17,700 - the highest naturally known for any Jedi. Vader had an unnaturally high count of 27,700.
In comparison, Lando Calrissian and Han Solo were supposed to have 3,300 and 1500, respectively. Which makes no sense whatsoever. Force sensitivity is supposed to correlate with luck; in fact, in books post-Return of the Jedi, Luke finds Jedi candidates by looking through records of people with amazing luck. And who do we know who has “bad feelings” on a regular (and highly accurate) basis? Not to mention, “Never tell me the odds!”
So I’m going to follow a few of the lesser-known bits of EU info. First, midichlorians aren’t produced by sentient creatures as part of their own body. They’re symbiotic organisms that aggregate in response to Force usage. Essentially, even though they’re in the bloodstream, they’re more akin to gut bacteria than mitochondria. This means that if you’re in an area that’s midichlorian-poor for some reason (as Kryal snarked, maybe you don’t eat your midichlorian yogurt!), then you’d have a low count. No matter how much Force you used.
Second, various medical treatments are canonically known to lower midichlorian levels; anesthesia, for one. And we don’t know how long they take to recover.
Both of which add up to a phrase beleaguered statisticians often have to drag out for people trying to analyze data: “Correlation does not equal causation.” Or in plainer English, just because you get high winds on a clear sunny day, doesn’t mean high winds cause the sun to shine.
In other words, a high midichlorian count is strongly associated with Force sensitivity. It doesn’t cause it.
So in this AU, when the gamer “Jedi” were tested as youngsters, many probably had counts in the 6,000 to 6,990 range; below the cutoff, but not far below. And Kirito? Heh. In SAO canon, he lost his parents in a traumatic accident when he was about a year old. In this AU - space pirates. His rescuers probably had to sedate him. Which would have knocked down his count. And if you’re told you don’t have what it takes to do something... often, you can’t.
Until you’re locked in a death game, and it’s break the rules or die.
His official count? Insert Shrug of Author. He’s good enough; that’s all that matters.
Where are you, kid? Guenith chewed on her lip as she flew in a wide circle around the Enclave, haunted by the memory of innocent black eyes. Damn it, Sugu, you’d better not die in there....
She tried to shut the image of her partner’s padawan out of her mind. Suguha was still too young to go on missions where they knew there was going to be shooting. Golia wouldn’t have her fighting with him.
Not if he had any choice. Oh, space, Thai; find a way for her to get out!
The CorSec agent swallowed a sob, and went back to exchanging terse messages with the rest of Coronet City’s emergency personnel. Cordon off the area. Don’t let anyone in. Tell everyone to get out.
Golia was right; the clones were taking shots at anything that came near the Enclave. Maybe she couldn’t get in there, but she could at least keep anyone else from dying-
:There is yet something you can do.:
Guen gripped her commlink so hard, she heard the casing crack. Partner, so help me, if you say dying in there is the Will of the Force-
Sorrow draped over her shoulders like a cold cloak; yet deep within, she felt a flicker of unquenchable hope. :My friend. Would I call out to you if there were nothing you could do?:
Guen swallowed, and scrubbed at wet cheeks. Talk to me.
:The Selonian Tunnels.:
Oh, space. That was so, so risky. Name aside, there were some areas of the tunnels where there weren’t many Selonians. Instead there were smugglers and slavers and things, not to mention the rumors these past months of smuggled Separatist droid assault groups-
:The young ones can do it.: Utter confidence; it slowed her racing heart, let her breathe a little easier. :What they can’t do is seize enough shuttles to escape the city without getting caught.:
Shuttles? Guen let herself start swearing.
:Landspeeders? Or anything else that comes to hand. Be creative. But make certain you’ve at least three, and more if you can. You’re going to have to move about six thousand people. And they won’t all be going the same direction.:
Six thousand- what the hell? Where did you find six thousand-
Golia’s grin floated in her mind like a Cheshirean slashcat’s.
You’re evil. You know that, right? Guen thought at him, deliberately wry. Light Side of the Force, my foot....
A silent laugh. :And when you’ve found what comes to hand - meet them here.:
A back alley behind a transparisteel-topped shopping mall filled her mind. She knew it, down to the last trash bin and nerfburger wrapper. But that’s miles from-
:Yes. I only hope it’s far enough. The Dark Side clouds everything.: A cool pressure touched her face, like a ghostly hand cupping her cheek. :Be strong. They need you.: A whisper of sorrow. :I only wish we’d had more time.:
Master Thai Golia sighed, feeling Guenith tear through the sky away from the Enclave. “She’s on her way.”
Knight Moka Pyramis cupped a pale hand, lifting a distant blast-cannon clear of the steps below the Enclave before she tossed it into clone troopers like tenpins. “Can they do it, Master Thai? A Jedi must keep his mind in the present. And they’ve spent three years with theirs in the Sith Wars.”
“At the moment, I wish we’d spent a few days there ourselves,” Thai Golia said wryly. “The forceshields the Enclave had thirty-six centuries ago would come in handy right now.”
The younger Jedi nodded, gaze going distant; strengthening the living, comforting those joining the Force. “I’m sorry, Master. But I think you ought to look twice before you say that.”
“Oh?” Careful not to let himself be backlit by a stray blast, Thai Golia peered up and out. Even with all the lights of Coronet City, you could still make out the stars.
The stars are moving.
A moment to reach and feel, and he knew what Moka had seen. Blocky, triangular; over a kilometer long, and armed to the teeth.
A Jedi Cruiser. How ironic.
“They’ve decided the LAAT/i gunships don’t have enough firepower,” Golia observed. “That, or they’ve finally realized their infiltration team ran into trouble.” He breathed out, releasing tense nerves to the Force. “I suppose it was only a matter of time.”
“Fifteen minutes,” Moka stated. “That’s how long it will take to get low enough in the atmosphere to target the Enclave without wiping out half the city.”
Golia inclined his head. Moka frequented the shipyards even more often than most Corellian Jedi. She’d know. “I see.”
“We closed the main blast doors to the Annex, but they’re cutting through. And some got in before we could lock the doors.” Hazel eyes were sober. “Master, we can’t hold out fifteen minutes.”
“We won’t have to.” The Jedi Master reached out to that sense of waking light; most pouring down into the tunnels, some peeling off to use windows and utility lines to bypass the blast doors and clones entirely as they headed for the library-
Most of Vice-Commander Asuna’s folk were heading for the library. A smaller group of players was darting off down and west once they made it through the windows. Heading for....
Deflecting a lucky blaster-rifle shot, Thai Golia had to smile. That sense of light-and-storm was unmistakable.
Kirito’s raiding the lightsaber workshops. Now, why didn’t I think of that?
Oh, Sugu, you’re going to have your hands full....
The younger padawans bolted through the pillared hall ahead of her, those who could use the Force to rush yanking along those who couldn’t. Suguha turned back toward the blaster fire, using Soresu to parry blasts back at white armor even as her feet sought that one patch of difference-
Brown leather boots caught on rough stone, where her fellow padawans hadn’t quite finished polishing a new tile into place after an unfortunate mess with sodas, acid, and a Hutt pizza.
They said they’d make you “one with everything....”
Which was a stupid thing to think about when she was getting shot at. But if she tried to think she wasn’t going to be able to move at all-
Feet braced against rough stone, Suguha sprang, and caught the base of one of the polished granite pillars. Going up!
She spiraled around and around, letting stone take as many blasts as she parried. A push with feet and mind, and she was in the air to the next-
“We’ve sliced the inner systems, Squad Leader.” The Force brought her words that hadn’t been spoken yet. “Closing the blast doors-”
Her grip on the Force slipped.
In midair, she saw a clone’s finger pull the trigger.
Move, move, bring your blade around-!
She crashed into polished gray stone, sliding down into a crumpled heap at its base. Smoke rose from green robes.
“Careful, 423!” A low growl. “Some of them can fake being dead.”
But she couldn’t panic. She had to think. Think. No matter how cold the stone floor was or how her heart sped up as she heard the blast doors closing. Why hadn’t Master Golia told her it was so hard to think when your shoulder felt like it was on fire and people really were trying to kill you-
Stone under her fingers. Polished stone.
“Better safe than sorry, trooper. Double-blast her from here-”
Hands against the floor, Suguha pushed.
She skidded down the hall like a water drop on a greased skillet, pain forgotten in the thrill of moving air and doing what every padawan eventually got grounded for doing.
Sorry, Master Golia. I promised; never again. But-
Metal was sliding shut in front of her. Blasts pocked the stone behind her. Suguha gulped, jinked and slid, and braced herself for one clumsy leap....
Two fast blaster bolts fired under her. Going the other way.
A blue-white blade deflected an incoming shot, as she scraped through in one desperate tumble.
“Open the blast doors!” filtered through armored metal. “Open the-”
“Oh, I rather think not.” A brown-robed Jedi stabbed his blade through a precise area of the controls. “Suguha Kirigaya? The others said you’d be the last one in.”
“Y-yes, sir!” Sugu managed, as a massive black man in hospital robes and a utility belt hauled her up and into the library by her good arm, and an auburn-haired girl dressed much the same broke out a first-aid kit. “Knight Gelis?”
“Anton will do, Padawan.” ‘Saber deactivated, the Coruscanti Jedi hurried back to the astrogation section of the library. “Look after her, if you would... yes, take those next! Focus on the Corellian Sector and the Outer Rim; we’ll take the worlds in between if we have time....”
“You’re Sugu?” The older girl yanked back her seared green tunic in one fast, spark-bright burst of pain; then came the dripping-acid swipe of a cleansing wipe. “Sorry, this is going to hurt, but we have to get it clean. Your brother’s okay.”
It did hurt. But if Kazuto was okay, was awake - Sugu focused her will, and pushed the pain aside. “Where is he? Who are you?”
“Asuna. The Wookie-big guy is Agil.” Asuna gave her blaster burn one more quick glance, then slapped on a bacta patch. “We’ve worked with your brother a lot. He’s leading the party hitting the ‘saber workshop.”
“Hitting the....” Sugu darted a glance around the room. The open escape tunnels, the hordes of strangers pouring in and out; the quick plunder of every condensed, light datacore and holocron the library had, tucked away in travel-packs and improvised pouches. “What are you doing?”
Asuna gave her a wry look. “We’re taking the library.”
“I see that!” A movement in the crowd parted the throng near the healing section for a moment; Sugu saw Healer Agnei pump a fist in triumph at cleared shelves, before she started herding younglings and strangers down into the tunnels. “But why? Master Golia told us to run!”
“We are running,” Asuna said firmly, snapping the aid kit shut and checking her blaster, before heading to an ancient history shelf. “From the Sith.”
The Sith? “But - they’re gone!” Sugu protested. “That’s the Army.”
“Who else do you think could toss a whole army at the Enclave?” Agil glanced back toward the library doors, frowning. “Come on, you damn fool solo....”
“Anton and Master Golia agreed it was the Sith.” Asuna kept her eyes on the shelves she was stripping. “The Sith use the Force, just like Jedi-”
“The Dark Side!” Suguha scowled, holding Asuna’s pack open for her. This couldn’t be the Sith. There were only ever two Sith, everyone knew that. How could two people take over the Army? But if Master Golia wanted them to take the library, they’d take the library.
Asuna weighed one of the heavier printed tomes in her hand, and regretfully left it. “It’s still the Force.”
How can anybody say that calmly?
“They can use Jedi techniques, if they twist them,” Asuna went on. “Once they control the Enclave, they’ll take the library. Everything they can use, they will. Everything they can’t - everyone they can’t! - they’ll destroy. That’s what they do. That’s all they do!”
“Ease up on the throttle, Vice-Commander.” Agil bumped a fist against her shoulder. “We get out of this, I’ll take you to a little rock quarry one of my wife’s cousins owns, and you can break stuff until you feel better. Right now we need your head in the fight. We beat Kayaba. We’re out.”
“Kirito beat him,” Asuna said grimly, fingering her blaster. “Where is he?”
Kirito? Suguha tried not to roll her eyes. Right. They only know him by his game ID. Like everybody else he ever talked to.
Master Golia had told her Kazuto’s screen name, right about the time things had started getting weird around some of the sleeping players. Her master didn’t let her see the game holograms, of course; those were part of CorSec’s ongoing investigation, and even if she was a padawan the courts would frown on a sixteen-year-old Human in the middle of their evidence. But when he viewed the holos with Agent Nyx her master was watching over her brother, even if he couldn’t get Kazuto out of the game. It’d made her feel a little safer.
And it was about the only thing that had kept her from panicking when things started flying around in Kazuto’s ward. Sure, her brother was a little Force-sensitive. Every Kirigaya was. But all-out telekinetic bursts of mayhem? That shouldn’t have happened.
Except it had. More than once. And Master Golia had frowned, and checked on what CorSec could slice out of the game....
And afterward, looked very, very thoughtful.
“Wars can be won or lost in the mind before they ever reach the battlefield, Padawan. And your brother is fighting for his life.
“And doing fairly well, at that....”
She’d tried to get more out of him, but getting Master Thai Golia to turn loose of a secret that was CorSec-classified was like getting stone to talk. Wasn’t going to happen.
Healer Agnei wasn’t talking, either. Though she’d told Sugu that she did know what was up with Kazuto, and... he was going to be okay. If he made it out alive. And he had.
My brother beat Kayaba? How?
“Don’t worry.” Agil glanced over the library; following his gaze, Suguha found she could see who was done and out, and who needed to be hurried up a bit. “He went with Lisbeth and Fuurinkazan. If anybody can keep your boyfriend in one piece, they will.”
Boyfriend? Suguha stiffened. My brother can’t be somebody’s boyfriend! He’s not even old enough to chase girls! Wasn’t, anyway-
A clatter at the back of the library had people parting like water. A bunch of guys with blasters and one girl with a huge hydrospanner staggered in; panting, lugging mechanics’ toolkits and field packs, and obviously about out on their feet.
“Need some help over here!” Agil suited actions to words, lifting one of many kits off a guy with spiky brown hair. “Issin! Lisbeth! Where are they?”
Issin traded a desperate look with Lisbeth, and gulped. “Well....”
Klein cursed and ran, hoping at least one of them knew where they were going. “This sounded like a lot better idea three squads ago!”
Kirito said nothing. Probably saving his breath, even if he did make running look easy.
Then again, he’d made cutting down that first squad of clones that had followed their noisy decoy run away from Lisbeth and Fuurinkazan look easy, too.
Heh. He had help.
Which was something the more successful guilds had figured out a while ago: always, always pair up a Jedi with someone who didn’t make things go all floaty when they tried to think. Jedi were capable of some pretty amazing stunts, sure. Witness three of ‘em holding the Skull Reaper’s attention while the rest of the raid blasted the giant droid to pieces. Or Kirito, taking down the Gleam Eyes boss with two ‘sabers and a scream. Or - heh - Kirito again, the idiot, surviving three years solo.
But good as Jedi were, they were also vulnerable to things that would wash right over your average trooper or smuggler. If Klein had to shoot somebody - well, he didn’t like it, but you did what you had to do. If Kirito cut someone down....
He feels them die. All of them.
Hurting Jedi were reckless Jedi. And he really didn’t need to see Kirito wing-walking in a starfighter dogfight again. Really.
Left, right, right; man, they built this place like a big granite maze.... “Oi, Kirito! I know I’m no awesome Jedi, but I think the library’s supposed to be that way!”
“That would take too long!” The Black Swordsman’s face held deadly intent. “We need a shortcut.”
“...Oh, yay. Shortcuts. I hate shortcuts.” Coronet Starport, be advised we have achieved wing-walking levels of crazy-
Klein turned and fired and fired; trooper blasters weren’t meant to be used as a pair, but what the heck. He only had to keep a steady aim at the clones with one hand anyway.
The other was shooting at Kirito.
Please be as good as the game....
The blue blade Kirito was carrying was no Elucidator, but it did the job. His partner deflected blasts with quick, sure parries, startling agonized screams from clones suddenly hit from angles they knew Klein couldn’t reach.
Smuggler-Jedi combo: ‘Saber Trickshot!
That was what the players had ended up calling it. It was one of the craziest of the Outside System Skills, and Klein swore he’d heard the ORO servers yelp in protest the first few times they’d pulled it off.
Come to think of it, he’d been doing a bit of yelping himself; trapped in Mandalorian shackles while the rest of Fuurinkazan was holding off a bar brawl and Kirito was being strafed by drunken Ugnaughts with an armed ‘speeder. And then he’d seen the look on his buddy’s face change from grim concentration to a sudden grin.
“I have an idea....”
Two troopers down. Klein stopped shooting and kept running as the rest of the squad fell back a bit, with a few Mandalorian cracks about their mothers wearing shoes in the house and using their guts for-
That was the scary thing about Mandalorians. When they made threats like that, you knew they were going to try it. “Kid, you so owe me a drink!”
“Sorry!” And yes, Kirito was grinning as they dashed on. Doomed. They were so doomed. “Not legal!”
“I know slicers who can fix that!”
Well. He had in the game. Real-life slicing couldn’t be that easy, even if Argo had pulled it off-
And maybe the clones chasing them weren’t idiots at all. Because the last turn had brought them face to face with a pretty little meditative alcove shrouded by hanging vines and backed by what looked like a-
Klein thumped into it before he could stop.
Ow. Rock. Damn it.
He slapped the side of a blaster against the solid wall, turning enough to give his partner a glare. “Kirito? Buddy? Shortcut?”
“Ah.” Kirito was panting as he skidded to a halt, one hand reaching out to brush the wall as if the solo could feel every grain of polished granite. “About that....”
Small and metal clattered toward them.
Of course they had grenades, part of his mind snarked. AOE weapons were Jedi-killers, and everybody knew it. Weren’t too good for any innocent bystanders, either-
But Kirito had the fastest reaction time of anyone in the game. Anyone.
A flick of pale fingers, and all the blinking balls of doom flung themselves back around the corner.
Coughing, Klein waved away falling dust; ears ringing, trying not to sneeze. Oh man, he was never going to get used to the smells of some poor bastard who’d been trying to kill them getting splattered all over the corridor....
Something on the floor was blinking.
Aw, no. Klein looked at the Happy Fun Ball of Doom blinking maniacally on the floor, and took a deep breath. “Kirito. Buddy.”
“It’s all right.” Kirito held up one clenched fist. “I’ve got it.”
“I see that.” From the simple fact that it hadn’t gone off. Yet. Gah, Jedi. “Mind telling me why?”
“Well....” Kirito shifted his fingers a little, as if that mental grip weren’t the only thing between them and messy oblivion. “Remember how I said this was a shortcut?”
“Yeah.” Klein rapped his knuckles on the now-dusty wall. “About that.”
“Well, it is.” Kirito had a sheepish grin that made Klein want to hide. “We just have to be a little creative.”
Silica muttered something she’d heard near a rundown starship hangar as she raced down a small side tunnel after stray first-levels. Silly stupid idiots....
Pina chirruped at her, the feathered dragon flying overhead as she and Padawan Lau tracked down the stragglers. Which was weird. Or it should have been. In the game Pina hadn’t been a dragon; she’d been a hawk-bat Silica had rescued from a cargo hold, hitching a ride on a freighter from Coruscant to Alderaan. Lau had said Pina was really a feather-drake from the tropical mist forests of Velx-Shel, and that most people never saw them because they were shy - but then the troopers had been attacking and there had been all these people to get moving, and she was really, really hoping all the noise would stop soon so she could ask Lau more. Starting with, how could there be a Pina in the real world at all?
But hawk-bat or dragon, Pina was still that same warmth in her mind, like curling up in sunlight.
Lau gave her a quiet smile, the teenager’s blond hair bright even in half-lit tunnels. “They’re just scared, you know.”
“Everybody was scared,” Silica grumbled. “I can get why people didn’t leave the starting level on Coruscant-”
Lau raised a golden brow.
“Okay, I can get it a little,” Silica admitted. “But if they were so scared they stayed put then, how come they’re running now, when we’re in the real world?”
“Sometimes, people just don’t make sense,” Lau admitted. “Even when you’re listening to the Force.” His smile sharpened; quiet and subtle, like Pina wriggling before she pounced a pile of peanuts. “There they are.”
“Everybody, wait up!” Silica rushed up to one of the most wide-eyed runners and grabbed his arm. “You’re going the wrong way! The padawans know these tunnels, but we don’t. If we don’t stick together, we’ll get lost.”
“Stick together?” The gray-haired man looked even more wild-eyed. “There are troopers shooting at us, girl! We stayed in Coruscant so no one would be shooting at us. Which means they’re shooting at you, and if you think we’re going to keep up with clearers-”
Lau jerked his head up, dark blue eyes searching the tunnel roof. “Everyone, please step back.”
Oh, he was good, Silica thought gleefully, brushing dust away from her eyes as the crowd swayed back toward the main tunnel. A light push with the Force like that wouldn’t so much as make a mid-level blink. But for the weak-minded, it should be more than enough-
The dust pattering down was bigger. Grit now. Rocks-
Silica dragged one of the slower girls back, as stones came down in a grating roar.
“Chrr.” Claws catching her hospital tunic, Pina rubbed her head against Silica’s cheek.
“...Ow,” groaned out of the rubble.
“Could have been worse.” A familiar clearer brushed dust out of black hair, getting to his feet with a few winces.
Kirito! Silica grinned. Then frowned up at the rock fill that’d taken the place of part of the ceiling. Nobody seemed to be blasting their way down through it. Yet.
“Could have ended up in a garbage chute.” A very dusty redhead blinked up at her and Pina. “Feathers?”
“Pina?” Kirito looked startled as the feather-drake chirped at him, then shyly delighted. “How?”
Ooo, you don’t get to find out before I do! “Asuna!” Silica said into her commlink. “We’ve got Kirito and Mr. Klein!”
“You do? How?”
Silica wrinkled her nose; in amongst the tang of shattered rock were other familiar burnt scents. “I think he blew something up. Again.”
“I’m coming down there!”
Silica narrowed her eyes at a suddenly alarmed Black Swordsman. “You’re in trouble now!”
Agil filched one more new movie-holo off the shelves, and took a last look around for any interesting sections of info the RLF’s bucket-line hadn’t hit yet. Getting Thinker and Yulier on the data-hunt had been gold; they were used to organizing bunches of people, and they’d been able to get their guild to grab anyone who didn’t have something to carry and match them up with bags, packs, and even pillowcases full of datacores.
Data was important, but Agil was going to make sure they got some of the fun stuff, too. For people who liked to avoid getting too wrapped up in emotions, whoever stocked the Enclave library had interesting tastes in comedies....
The RLF’s bucket-line was dribbling shorter.
Oh, frack it, Agil thought. Thinker might let his heart get in the way of his head, but Yulier had a damn good danger sense. If they were getting out of here with data still on the shelves, it was time to go. “Wrap it up and close up, people. We’re leaving in three.”
Schmidt and more than a few Knights shot sharp looks his way. “Asuna wished us to send a relief force to the Jedi,” Schmidt reminded him.
“We’re out on our feet,” Agil said bluntly. “Most of us are barely moving. Kirito just dumped himself down into the tunnels, and you know he doesn’t blow stuff up unless he’s running low on options. Fuurinkazan just headed down after Klein; I’m not asking them to come back up here. And Master Golia’s trusting us with his kids, Schmidt.” He felt the seconds ticking, and made himself take a breath. “If they’re going to have any chance holding the clone troopers off, they can’t be looking after us.”
One of the younger female Knights - Rainshadow, Agil thought - shuddered. And swallowed hard. “You don’t think they have a chance.”
“They’ve got an army knocking down their door.” Agil had to work to get the words out. “I don’t know why or how - but it’d take a miracle.” He straightened his shoulders, and stalked across the room to grab some of the slower pokes. “Let’s go.”
Moka straightened. “They’re cutting through.”
Thai Golia nodded, preparing himself. “Then it’s time.”
Fifteen Knights and Masters still alive within the Enclave walls... no, fourteen now, Knight Cadwallis was fading into the Force.
We’ll be enough.
Linked together, they reached out to the light retreating down the tunnels. And, yes, to the clones coming to kill them.
:Go. Run. Live.:
Light fled. The clones - hesitated.
One of many, Golia reached upward.
Size doesn’t matter.
In the skies above, the Star Destroyer suddenly lurched. Panic flared on the bridge, a voice raised to forget targeting one spot in the city, just fire-!
We can’t have that.
One at a time, Golia and his fellow Jedi crushed the main guns, feeling the explosions of misdirected energy wreak havoc on hull and superstructure. Horror rippled through lives trapped in the metal shell. Some broke, abandoning ship.
A small mercy. I hope it doesn’t come back to haunt you, children....
For a moment, he let himself see two of those children in his mind’s eye. Small, dark-haired, and so fiercely brave. One who was his padawan, and the other who should have been.
“Don’t get greedy, Thai,” Agnei had scolded him, that first startling day when Kazuto had pulled power from the Force to save a life. “You already have one Kirigaya student. You’re just going to have to share this one.”
So it seems, Golia thought now, a faint smile on his face. You’ll have to train all of them, Agnei, old friend. I’ll be laughing from the Force as you do....
He slammed his fist down.
No, no, this isn’t happening!
But Guenith was CorSec to the bone, and CorSec agents did not panic. Even as her heart cried out, her fingers yanked the controls to get more altitude. Being down in the ground clutter was going to be bad-
Untold tons of metal struck stone.
The shockwave tore the controls from her grip; tried to tear her from the sky. She was too busy to cry, yanking and thumping and cursing the universe as she twisted around cross-town ‘speeder, hotel, tree-
Over a kilometer long, and half a kilometer wide. Ten turbolasers, fifty-two laser cannons, and a few proton torpedo tubes thrown in for luck. One of the largest ships still capable of landing on a planet, armed and armored enough to carry out independent assaults on entire systems.
When it struck Coronet City, the crust of the planet keened.
The loss of the ship was estimated to cost the new Empire well over fifty million credits for the Venator alone. Fortunately, as a later bureaucrat would note in the Imperial account books, this ship had seen hard use in the Clone Wars and thus was under-equipped and woefully understaffed, with only one hundred V-19 Torrent starfighters, thirty-one ARC-170 starfighters, barely seventy Eta-2 Actis-class light interceptors, no Walkers, only five thousand and seven crew, and twelve hundred thirty-six clone troops with their assigned LAAT/i gunships - most of whom had been on the ground assaulting the Enclave.
The loss to Corellia was... much larger.
: You’ll have to train all of them, Agnei, old friend. I’ll be laughing....:
If he weren’t dead, Agnei decided, as she dodged crumbling stone and Force-pushed fragments away from frightened younglings, she would have had to kill him.
Later. When the world wasn’t coming down on top of them.
“Master Golia! Master Golia!”
And Force be praised that Agil was a friend of Kirito’s. There weren’t that many people who could carry a screaming Jedi padawan over their shoulders.
:Run,: Agnei pushed at every living mind in the tunnels, drawing on all the fierce calm she’d learned in the Hyperspace War to keep going when her heart was torn to pieces. :Run, children. Run-!:
With a roar like a thousand mountains falling, the world came apart.
A/N: Soresu - Form III lightsaber combat, developed as a defensive technique to survive without being hit in general and to combat blasters in specific.
RLF - Republic Liberation Force; Thinker and Yulier’s guild in this AU.
Jedi Cruiser - one of the smallest Star Destroyers, Venator-class. “Small” being a relative term....
The avalanche of air stilled, and Guenith raised streaming eyes. Green branches were caught in her ‘speeder canopy, and from the way she had to jiggle the controls she’d lost a bit of a tailfin. But none of that mattered. Somehow all her evasive maneuvers had flipped her around, and she was staring at the Enclave.
At near-white flames, as the collapse of hyperthrust engines vaporized anything that hadn’t been crushed.
There was an empty spot in her mind. In her heart.
‘Speeder set stationary, Guen leaned her head on her hands and cried.
A steady voice finally penetrated the fog. “...Nyx. Agent Nyx, it’s Horn. Come in. Nyx-”
“R-Rostek.” Guen tried to swallow. “They- h-he....”
“I’m looking at some emergency holos right now.”
There were voices in the background of his comm, Guen realized numbly. The awful sound of a man and a woman, weeping.
Valin. Oh space, that’s got to be Valin and Nyche. They were visiting ‘Mom and Step-Dad’; they weren’t in the Enclave! “You - you need to get moving,” she managed. “You need to... correct some files....”
Because someone wanted to kill Jedi and Rostek was currently hiding a young Knight and his wife in his apartment. Not to mention Scerra Horn had been Scerra Halcyon before the Clone Wars had widowed her, and Master Nejaa Halcyon had been somewhat infamous in certain circles. Most of them very bad ones, who’d sell innocent people out for five credits and a laugh. They might be afraid enough of Rostek not to talk.
“Yes, I know.” Rostek’s voice held a honed, angry edge. “It’s amazing what kind of opportunistic ghouls we have on this planet. Why, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a slicer draining the Enclave accounts right about... now.”
Good. Credits would help. She didn’t know how yet, but ready credits always helped. “You’d better report that, then,” Guen got out.
“Hmm, I’ll have to check some details first. Wouldn’t want to file a false report.” A breath. “Do you need assistance?”
Guen touched the controls, and deliberately set off at the speed limit, ignoring the flames behind her. “Not yet.”
Agil shifted in the rocks and the darkness, feeling a breath stir the hairs on the back of one hand. So the girl he’d dragged down here was still alive. Good. Though... she was quiet. Way too quiet.
Then again, Kirito doesn’t talk much, either.
No question the two of them were related; he’d seen that in the tilt of Suguha’s head, those stubborn black eyes. Though the ‘saber at her belt raised all kinds of warning flags in his head.
Kirito’s little sister is a Jedi. A real one.
Corellian Jedi had families; Agil knew that as well as anyone. But Kirito had never claimed to be a Jedi, even after he’d stumbled into the subclass in the game. NPCs called him one. Other players called him one. Kirito? Agil had asked him once, flat out, when he was toting up some replacement circuitry for the swordsman’s Starfighter and they were in the shop alone.
“The game says we’re Jedi. I just ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Which had been weird enough to stick in Agil’s head for years. Who on Corellia hadn’t imagined themselves in green robes, just once? ORO had even let people pick Force-sensitive as a starting option; it lowered your hit points, but some players found the extra warning time on incoming enemies was worth it. Kirito had been one of them.
While it was in the game, it was just weird. Here in real life, with Kirito’s real Jedi sister over his shoulders? Agil couldn’t shake the feeling that things were about to get complicated.
First things first. Agil listened to the fading groans and patters of falling stones, the whimpers and curses of other players getting louder as people realized they weren’t quite dead. Cleared his throat. “Sounds like we’re gonna live after all.” He kept his voice level, even a little cheerful; trooper and merchant to the core, always ready for a fight or a sweet deal. “Anybody got a flashlight?”
“Think I’ve got one....”
There was a silence, broken by a few sneezes at the swirling dust.
“Damn it, no Inventory anymore....”
Anton held up his ‘saber to shed its glow over the chamber, looking even more wan and pale than blue light could account for. He swept his gaze around their lighted patch of tunnel, nodding as he noted who was hurt, and who merely shaken. “Well. That was... interesting.”
“So’s counting a rancor’s teeth,” Agil said wryly, shifting the girl on his shoulder until he could get a good look at her face. “But I wouldn’t want to try it twice.” Doesn’t look hurt. But the way she’s got her eyes scrunched shut - if she’s not out of it, she wants to be. “Now what?”
“Now?” Anton drew himself up, wincing a little as he put weight on one knee. “Now we find the other groups, and catch our breath. No one will be coming after us.” His voice dropped. “Not after that.”
That, what? Agil wanted to know. But as long as it was over, they had something more important to worry about. “Problem with that.”
“Problem?” Anton’s gaze rested on Suguha, then went to a few other unconscious players and younglings. “Ah. Problem.” He took a deep breath, and sighed. “The young are not used to mass deaths. In a way, I suppose it’s a mercy.”
Okay, now they were straying into spooky territory. Agil frowned. “What’s going on?”
Oh boy. Keep him calm. “Anton. Talk to me.”
“I’m not one of the great Jedi,” Anton said quietly, gaze straying to the glow of his blade. “I’ve never been more than average. Which is why I was in the ExploriCorps. So I’ve never been as... strongly tied to my brothers and sisters as some Jedi. But I had those who were my friends.” He hesitated, eyes haunted. “And there was a youngling back on Coruscant. Davi. I thought... exploration isn’t as dangerous as a battlefield, but you do want padawans to be old enough to keep their wits about them. I thought I might take him as a padawan in a few more years.” The Jedi swallowed. “Argo was right. Order 66... they’re gone. They’re all gone.” Blue eyes beseeched Agil. “He was four.”
The merchant winced, and laid Suguha down. Crossed the rubble-strewn tunnel, and gripped the Jedi on the shoulder; just like he would any poor soul who’d lost a guildmate. “I’m sorry.” He jerked his head toward Suguha as she curled on herself, whimpering. “But these kids are still alive. And they need you.”
Kirito blinked, and breathed, and tried to feel anything beyond pain. Before tonight, he hadn’t seen anyone from the Enclave in three years. He hadn’t seen most of them in far longer; since Grandfather had finally tossed him out of the dojo at ten, he’d only seen Master Golia when Sugu came home for family weekends, and a few other Knights in passing. He didn’t know them.
Crushed by falling stone. Heart seared out by a blaster. Blazing out of existence as fire and light and impact split the world....
He didn’t know them. But he could have described every detail of how they died. And not just the Jedi.
Electrocuted as circuit mains shear apart. Crushed in the controls of a Star Destroyer’s gun. Seared and seared and seared-
He ducked his head against Asuna’s shoulder, clinging to the pulse of her light.
:What - what was that...?:
He didn’t want to move. He didn’t want to think. Mind and body both ached. But Asuna needed him.
:Death,: Kirito answered reluctantly. :A lot of death. Grandfather said there were ways to shield out enough of a battle to keep moving, but....:
ORO had never taught them anything like that. Why should it? Most of the deaths in the game were NPCs and monsters. Programs, that had no presence in the Force. Except for one.
Kirito caught Asuna’s frantic hand, pressed it to his chest over the thin datacase he’d filched out of Agnei’s ward. :She’s here.:
A faint presence in the Force. Unaware. Sleeping. But still real.
How a program could have a life in the Force, Kirito had no idea. But Kayaba’s Mental Health program was alive. He’d known that from the day they’d found her.
:You take her now.: Kirito tried to smile as he pressed the shockproof case into her hands. :You know I keep getting into trouble.:
Brown eyes narrowed at him, mock-angry, as she tucked the case carefully into a sealed belt pouch. :We’re not done talking about that grenade, mister-:
“Kid, you’re okay,” Klein said hoarsely, switching on a glowstick and handing it back to Harry One. “Your dragon’s right here, she’s fine... ow, damn it. Why do I have a hangover without even a night before?”
:They need us.:
Kirito held out a hand to Asuna. Bracing themselves against each other, they staggered to their feet.
“Probably every sensitive got hit,” Kirito managed, blinking at the darkness until it cleared to the odd half-light of Shadow Vision. “Is everyone still with us? Kunimittz? Dynamm?”
The chorus he got from the six guildmembers of Fuurinkazan was more of a groan than a yes, but it was comforting anyway.
Asuna had her hand on Silica’s forehead, biting her lip as Pina chirped and cooed to the younger girl. “She was protecting the rest of the flock - there are more of you?”
“Chrrl.” Pina rubbed her cheek against her tamer’s.
“Treat it like shock,” Kirito suggested, crouching down for a better look. “We’re not dead, we just felt-” No. Don’t think about it. “Remind her Pina’s alive. That we all are.”
“Right.” The Force gathered around Asuna’s hands like a healing waterfall, as she willed wholeness, protection, we’re here.
Silica drew in a ragged breath, red eyes wet. “I tried. I tried....”
“Chrrr.” Pina perched on her shoulder, tongue flicking out to lick the girl’s ear.
“You didn’t try. You did,” Asuna assured her. “You and... the other padawans? Pina’s showing me someone with blond hair.”
“The dragon is....” Klein groaned. “Never mind. Why do I even ask?”
“Because you can’t stand not knowing?” Kirito said impishly. “Besides. You’re good at finding alternative uses for the Force. Why push the droid when you can disconnect the circuits, indeed.”
Fuurinkazan’s leader blanched. “Battledroid... connected... whole factory... gaahhh....”
“Lau!” Silica wobbled to her feet. “He was helping me. He was nice. We’ve got to find him!”
Klein switched on another small glowstick from his utility belt, and grimaced at the dust still drifting from the ceiling. “We need to find everybody. We kind of got sidetracked.”
Issin grinned at him. “Oh, and whose fault is that, Leader?”
Deadpan, Klein jerked a thumb toward Kirito. “His.”
Kirito managed a weak grin. “Maybe just a little?”
“You took one of Kirito’s shortcuts?” Kunimittz snickered. “I thought you learned after the one with the Mon Calamari in the sushi shop.”
“Okay, that was a mistake,” Kirito admitted.
“Or the sarlacc nest.” Dynamm shuddered, his space pirate’s mustache bristling.
“It ate the rancor, didn’t it?”
“Or riding the thantas through the Mandalorian revival meeting.” Dale winced.
“Can you think of anything else that would have had enough firepower to take down that gorog?”
“We’re trying not to think about it,” Issin snarked at him. “Jedi are crazy.”
Kirito sucked in a breath, trying not to cringe. It should have been such a small thing, compared to everything that had already happened.
But this is the real world, and we’re in real trouble. With all of the low-levels caught up in the middle, instead of hiding out on Coruscant. There are too many of us to start a fight in our own ranks. “Do me a favor,” Kirito said, trying to keep his voice level. “When we get back to the others, don’t call me a Jedi. Not in front of my sister.”
“What, don’t want to brag?” Klein bounced playful knuckles off his shoulder. “Though I gotta tell you, I’m dying to see the girl I got punched for-”
“Sugu is a Jedi.”
Klein’s mouth dropped open.
Issin eyed their fearless leader, and shook his head. “Seriously?”
“She’s... she was Master Golia’s padawan. Has been since I was eight.” Kirito looked at cracked walls, motes of drifting dust and the faint Force-glimmers of cave spiders. Anything but stunned faces. “He’s the one who brought the ship down on top of us.”
Thinker stumbled out of the dust, coughing; a few younger members of his guild clinging to his tunic. “Wait, Asuna said you were in the side passages... I was lost. Yulier’s never going to let me hear the end of it.” He blinked at them; looking bemused, if you didn’t read the wariness in his eyes. “What ship?”
Oh, this wasn’t going to be fun. “Guide us back to Yulier, while we look for Padawan Lau,” Kirito offered. “I’ll tell you what I know.”
I’ve seen more disreputable groups of refugees, Anton thought, sitting down on a seat from a wrecked speederbike, still a touch foggy around the edges. But not many.
Though these patients were some of the most organized refugees he’d ever seen. Even before Agnei had started chivvying and coaxing the last of them into this underground hangar, deftly as a nerfherder.
For a moment the Jedi let his aching head rest on interlaced fingers, breathing in the peculiar clammy-and-stone taste of a cave still at least half natural. Sighed, and looked up at the yellowed antique glowpanels worked into the cavern roof, then back across at clumps and knots of people in anything from plain hospital tunics to scavenged utility belts to a few unmistakable green robes.
What a motley spacer’s crew we are.
Even calling this half-hewed cavern a hangar was far too grand a word. Outside of a repulsor-driven ore-cart and a patchwork-colored hover-van, most of the rattletrap vehicles here were two and four-being speeders, all of which looked as though they might have seen better days sometime in the past century.
Still, they were transport, after a fashion. And Corellians always seemed to perk up with the promise of a swift getaway. He could sense the clenched panic start to ease out of the assembled host. At least, those who hadn’t just dropped to the floor somewhere relatively clear of rusty parts.
Healer Agnei already had her shaky padawans and younglings checking the worst of those. The middle-aged healer stood watching over them, strong as a wroshyr tree rooted in the great forests of Kashyyyk. He had no idea how she was managing that.
Well. Not quite true. He’d asked, one moment when they were trudging the tunnels mostly out of earshot, if there were anything he could do to help give the younglings part of her resilience.
“Only time can do that. I was in Thyferra, twenty-five years ago.”
Which meant she’d been in the midst of the Stark Hyperspace War, and that itself was enough to make him bow graciously and ask no more. A healer, forced to work on the wounded and the dying with no bacta to hand; no wonder she had steel in her soul.
Agnei was going to need it. People had stopped to catch their breath. Once they had it, there were going to be questions.
I’ve more than a few of my own. They were trapped in a gaming simulation? A simulation that taught them to fight? How? Why?
Agnei deliberately scraped a mechanic’s stool into one of the brighter pools of light, and stood on it to view the crowd. “As some of you already know, I am Healer Ageni Salleth.” She paused, and Anton felt her deliberate calm. “As of about twenty minutes ago, I am the most senior surviving Jedi of the Corellian Enclave.”
A thousand whispers; fear and anger and dismay like ink dropped in a clear pool.
Agil stepped into the edge of the light, burly as any clone trooper. Padawan Suguha was huddling behind him, wan and blinking. “Agil, Merchant’s Guild clearer. Let’s let the lady talk.”
They know him. And trust him, Anton reflected. They don’t all like him; bit of a sharp bargainer, it would seem. But they do respect him.
Good. Healer Salleth could use all the help she could get.
“Three years ago, when Akihiko Kayaba issued his ultimatum that he would imprison you in the Old Republic simulation until you found the Sith Lord, CorSec moved you all to the Healing Annex,” the healer went on. “We are... were... one of the few facilities on the planet capable of handling both experimental technology and large groups of people affected by an unknown syndrome. Which was exactly what you were. We couldn’t be certain Kayaba was telling the truth. There were a million wild theories as to why you might be dying. Zombie viruses sliced in from the HoloNet were one of the tamer ones.” Her smile faded. “And it’s just as well you were in the Annex. Other hospitals have all too often been very busy. For most of the past three years, the Republic has been at war.”
But not disbelief. Anton raised surprised brows. They’re not ordinary civilians. They’ve been in a war, in their minds, for three years. They can believe our worlds went to war again.
Sometimes he wished he still couldn’t.
“The Grand Army of the Republic - a clone army, led by trained officers and Jedi - has been doing their best to push the Separatists back and reopen the trade routes they’ve mined. The last I heard, people believed the war would end soon.” Agnei paused. “But now, something has gone terribly wrong.”
A hand waved over red hair, as Klein cleared his throat. “That’s putting it mildly, ma’am. I still want to know whose bright idea it was to clone Mandalorians.”
Anton ignored the groans and outright curses that followed that little observation. How odd. With hair like that, I should have seen Fuurinkazan from the start.
I did see them. And yet, it’s as if my mind simply passed them by-
A black head bent close to auburn, and Anton sat up straight.
Kirito. Asuna. Silica and her... whatever that may be. And there’s Argo, lurking in their shadows. Four Force-strong younglings. In my mind’s eye, they should glow.
They didn’t. Kirito was only a shadow in the Force; the rest were concealed behind him like a moon’s face in darkness.
That young man hides like another being would breathe. Why?
“-Execute Order 66.”
Cursing his wandering wits, Anton dragged his attention back to Agnei.
“According to an object-reader I trust, this order has been given to every clone trooper in the galaxy.” Agnei’s brown eyes scanned the crowd, searching for reactions. “The Jedi have been declared traitors, to be executed on the spot. Anyone with them can become collateral damage.”
Anton searched the emotions rising from the crowd, and almost whistled. Perhaps a third of the patients were scared and just wanted to go home. The rest?
They’re frightened. But they’re angry.
The Sith had made enemies this day. He only hoped they all lived long enough for the Dark ones to regret it.
“You are still my patients, and I will get you someplace safe,” Agnei said firmly. “But to do that will mean leaving areas the Enclave controlled, and entering the Selonian Tunnels.” She glanced over the crowd again. “It’s the only way to get you up to the surface. It should be relatively safe-”
Anton kept a scrupulously straight face, as some of Fuurinkazan had a sudden coughing fit. Master Golia had just dropped a Star Destroyer on their heads. Compared to that, what wasn’t safe?
“-as long as we stay together, stay quiet, and keep guards and scouts on our perimeter,” Agnei went on. “I understand your clearing groups have some experience with that. Let’s take a quick break, sit down, and get some water before we start moving again-”
“Don’t listen to her!”
There was a commotion near the front of the main group; Anton stood straight and craned his head to catch a glimpse of an angry man with odd knob-styled brown hair and the start of an impressive black eye.
Yulier’s work, Anton judged, sensing the young lady’s mingled irritation and satisfaction as she eyed the bruise, and Thinker’s rueful agreement. What did he do to annoy her enough to resort to violence?
“Ask her!” The vocal brunet stabbed a finger toward Agnei. “Ask her, where are the rest of us? The RLF had prisoners! Where are they?”
Anton drew a sharp breath, and tried not to drop his hand too near his lightsaber. Somehow, the mood in the cavern had turned ugly. And he didn’t even know why.
“Kibaou.” Agil gave the man a look Anton had last seen on a Wookie who’d just heard one carpet joke too many. “Three years, and you’ve still got no manners.” Face set, he turned to Agnei. “But the man’s got a valid question. Where are the red players? I haven’t seen them. Any of them.” He rubbed the back of his neck, deliberately casual. “You want the truth, I was kind of expecting at least one of Laughing Coffin to pop up and try to blast me in the back. You know. For old times’ sake.”
“The red players.” Agnei looked a little less certain, and suddenly sad. “The murderers.”
Anton felt a chill. Murderers?
“There were limits to what we could slice from the game while it was running, but CorSec was able to access records of every death,” the healer went on. “The official government decision was that while we couldn’t remove players from the game, the Enclave should not have to suffer the presence of those who embraced the Dark Side. Anyone convicted of murder was removed under CorSec authority and taken to a secure ward.”
“So you say,” Kibaou flung at her. “Where?”
“What, you want Laughing Coffin loose?” Agil shot back, incredulous.
“Maybe you trust Jedi, Agil, but the rest of us need proof!” Kibaou straightened, managing to make the hospital tunic look almost like a uniform. “We’re going to get to the surface. We’re going to find out what you really did to them-”
“We’re not going to find anything but ashes.” Thinker stepped into plain view, Yulier at his shoulder. “Ten minutes offline, and the NerveGear would fry your brain. Wherever CorSec took them can’t have been far. If they were in a locked ward, on the surface....” He let his voice trail off, and shook his head.
Anton winced. The mood wasn’t as ugly as it had been, but in a way that was worse. Whoever these Laughing Coffin people had been, whatever they’d done, no sentient would like the fact that they’d been helpless to save themselves.
“What bothers me is that there are some people missing who I know weren’t marked as red players,” Thinker frowned. “There was one in particular, Rosalia-”
Silica went white, then furious pink, cradling the feathered creature on her shoulder.
Agnei braced herself, and nodded. “I know the name. She was convicted of multiple counts of conspiracy to commit murder and accessory after the fact.”
“And we’re supposed to believe you remember every criminal?” Kibaou accused her.
“The leader of the Titan’s Hand guild? I remember her,” Agnei said tartly. “Mostly because when CorSec checked her avatar’s location before the transfer, they found her already confined in the Black Iron Castle. That didn’t happen much.”
“She was caught in the act,” Thinker said dryly. Nodded, and crossed his arms. “I believe you. Though I can see why some wouldn’t.” He swept his gaze over the rest of them. “One way or another, we need to get to the surface. I think we should work with the people who’ve been helping us-”
“I’m not listening to a Beater!”
Anton tensed, trying to sort out the sudden blaze of mixed emotions swirling through the room from Agil’s silent, straightforward snarl.
If our burly friend were a less controlled man, Kibaou would be a smoking corpse on the floor. Anton caught a glimpse of Kirito’s pallor, and Asuna and Fuurinkazan’s sudden mass of hard looks. Make that smoking ashes. What in the blazes is a Beater?
Thinker gave Kibaou a level, deliberate look. “Excuse me?”
“Come on, everybody knew it,” Kibaou snorted. “You never shared the questline. None of you Jedi ever did-”
Agnei’s eyes were hard, and her stance had a sudden stillness a trained fighter would recognize as threat. “That’s because there was no questline.” She tilted her head to eye the brunet, almost casual. “Only the ability to use the Force.”
Looks rather like a gaffed fish, Anton reflected. He held polite neutrality on his face, even as he reached out to the healer through the Force. It was always tricky to do so with a stranger, but... she seemed kind, and in control of herself. And Corellians were better at telepathy than most Human Jedi; one reason he’d been sent to recover here, instead of a ward closer to the Rim. :Might I ask why you’re speaking to him as if aggressive negotiations are your next option, and you’d prefer it?:
:Because he’s an idiot. If he’d tracked down a rancor in the game and gotten himself killed, he’d be another one we chalked up to Kayaba. But none of us were that lucky.: Brown eyes glittered. :Kibaou’s got a big mouth, and just enough brains to keep himself alive. Which means instead of getting himself killed, he gets good people who listen to him killed. And what better people have had to do to keep good people alive....:
He could see flashes of a great hall in Coruscant’s undercity; armed mercenaries, desperate fighters, an oddly agile Hutt armed with some sort of giant vibroblade. A battle to the end that they’d won, despite deaths-
Because Kirito took over command.
:Let’s just say, Kibaou didn’t take it well.: Her thoughts were wry, calculating her next word and gesture. :You’re ExploriCorps. You know the type.:
Ah, yes. “If I’d landed on that planet with two kingdoms about to go to war with each other and a third sneaking in to pick the bones, I would have....” And on, and on. Never mind trusting the Force; never mind that Jedi as mortal instruments of the Force still needed a bit of mortal knowledge to go on before they cut loose with a lightsaber. And certainly never mind that, as in his last mission, when you were up to your neck in rabid cyborgs, it was hard to remember that your original intention was to deliver a stern note that a certain roboticist ought to be reminded to take his bloody meds.
He’d ended up delivering the note, all right. He rather imagined the medics responsible for removing it from its point of delivery had a few pithy things to say about him.
Anton wasn’t quite sure, even holograms from the Council might fuzz a bit, but in his debriefing he’d had the oddest impression Master Yoda had had a hard time trying to keep a straight face. Which was unsettling, given Master Windu had been wearing the Frown of Serious Disapproval. Or as that wild card Rahm Kota had once called it, the “you’re forcing me to have an expression” face. Anton had been bracing himself to be recalled for a session of retraining on top of everything....
Only Master Yoda had suggested he take a slight detour, and have his injuries seen to in the Corellians’ Healing Annex. Where he could bring a few personal messages, from Corellian Jedi in the Temple to their brethren who hadn’t left the planet.
That detour had saved his life.
So far, at least, Anton considered. :Tell me about that fight, later?:
:Oh, I can do better than that. I was the healer in charge; I have quite a bit in my medical records. I have a feeling I’m going to need it....: “Ah, I see,” Agnei went on, every inch of her cool and collected. “You think everyone who can use the Force ends up in Jedi robes? That’s never been the case; not in the Sith Wars, and not now. There are always some Force-sensitives who slip through the cracks.”
Face still diplomatically neutral, Anton gave her a mental tap on the shoulder. :Most beings have no reason to know that. It’s understandable that they misunderstood-:
Agnei’s focused intent never wavered. :And when this one misunderstands, he rouses mobs.:
Anton saw a flash of a black-haired boy donning a mob’s contempt with a dark cloak, and winced.
“We know that.” A brown-haired young man who folded his arms like he was used to wearing trooper armor; Schmidt, if Anton recalled the patients’ boss meeting correctly.
“It was in the historic material on ORO, before the main release,” Schmidt went on, glancing around to gather nods and interested looks. “That’s why Force-sensitive was an avatar option.” He glanced toward Kirito’s small group-
Anton’s eyebrows almost jumped. He didn’t have trouble finding them. Interesting.
“And I know the Jedi players spread the info on what happened after they triggered the quest,” Schmidt snorted. “Argo’s Guides, anyone? The whole, You are strong in the Force, you need training line. Not everyone got tested back then. Some Jedi found adults, and trained them. Before the Sith could find them. Ancient history.”
Anton braced himself, and cleared his throat, stepping away from the shadows that had concealed him. “Not quite so ancient, in fact.” He gave a polite nod to both Schmidt and Agnei, ignoring Kibaou. “It’s rare, but I myself know...knew... a Jedi taken in hand by Master Yoda after Master Windu found him. At eighteen. He was rather hot-headed, but no one was more determined to serve the Force.” Be alive, Kota. You’re stubborn enough; I only hope you were lucky, as well.
“As he said,” Agnei nodded. “Not everyone is tested. And of those who are... I have reason to believe the test isn’t always as accurate as we thought.” She paused. “And Kayaba knew it.”
Agil and Thinker were trading quick glances; Thinker flashed a further look at some of the other guild leaders, including Asuna. Anton breathed in confusion and decision, and wasn’t surprised when the glances went back to Agil.
They trust him to ask good questions, as well. Interesting.
“So Kayaba knew a weird bit of Jedi trivia.” Agil crossed dark arms. “Why would he even care?”
“Programming,” Agnei said succinctly. “I won’t even try to explain it; I’m no slicer. But those who are tell me that for something like ORO to work, a lot of things inside the supercomputers have to go exactly right. Some of them very, very tiny things, at a level where even someone weak in the Force might be able to change the odds.” Her smile turned wry, as she spread her hands to the crowd. “Or as one slicer put it to me in tiny words? ‘Force-sensitive - ack! Electrons - mommy! Computer - fffzzzt!’”
Anton strangled a giggle, as some of the survivors started to laugh. There were reasons Jedi equipment was so very, very hard to damage... and why droids were generally kept away from the youngest students until they’d shown they were past the point of throwing childish tantrums. Even so, it was a rare youngling who hadn’t managed to melt at least one motivator by the time they were seven. And the younglings usually had the concepts explained to them in much... larger... words.
Must not laugh. I have to keep my wits about me. He’s a paranoid idiot - but right now too many of them are confused enough to take him seriously. Must not... oh, my aching ribs....
Kibaou glared at the smiles and snickers, all but glowing dark red with bruised ego. “So if your sensitives could do that,” he sneered, hands on hips, “why didn’t they just fry the servers and get us out of the game?”
Anton caught a fair number of dark looks aimed at the idiot. From Agil’s direction, he distinctly heard knuckles cracking.
Poor calculation on your part, Kibaou. Anton relaxed, just a little. It’s one matter to rile up a frightened crowd against a nebulous “they”. Quite another to slander a Jedi Healer who’s been treating every last soul here.
“Because Kayaba’s programs didn’t let them,” Agnei stated, voice pitched to carry throughout the hangar. “You know he researched the Sith Wars. He knew the history of Jedi who’d been found and trained as adults. He knew there could be powerful sensitives playing his game. And he knew that he would be threatening their lives. The Force responds to that. Anyone who might have an ability, could have had it awakened.” Her gaze swept the crowd. “So he decided to use that defense against itself. Any sudden blast of chaos in the program around a player, and specific subroutines kicked in, to train the player to use the Force in their minds. And not on the electrons around them.”
Anton swallowed, throat dry. They weren’t just trapped in a simulation of the Sith Wars. They were trapped in one that taught them to fight - and to use the Force.
It sounded like something out of the most bizarre holo-movies. You couldn’t use a program to teach someone the ways of the Force....
Except, in a way, that is exactly what holocrons are.
If Agnei was right, and the Sith learned of Kayaba’s simulation - they wouldn’t have to train in secret anymore. They could twist the program, scatter it across the galaxy, and wait.
Which meant that the Enclave’s secrecy made frightening sense. If Old Republic Online made it into Palpatine’s hands, and from there to the Sith behind him - he shuddered at the thought.
Agnei looked almost as ill as he felt. But she squared her shoulders, and looked at Kibaou, gaze level and unyielding.
The younger man flinched from her gaze, looking to the crowd for support. Shoulders stiffened as he found none.
Scowling, he flopped down to sit on a rusty toolbench.
Just enough wits to keep himself alive, indeed, Anton concluded. Best to keep an eye on him. That man is determined to be trouble.
“Now, if we could please get back to the fact that someone just tried to kill all of us?” Agnei stated to the hangar at large. “If the Army’s after us, then they have more resources to find us than just one Star Destroyer. They’ll bring in scanners, and hunter droids. The Enclave died to cover our tracks. Their sacrifice will be in vain, unless we are not here when our enemies come looking.”
“Damn straight.” Agil stepped forward, nodding at Agnei and scattered padawans. “But everything they did won’t help if these clones can ID you on sight.” He shrugged, obviously regretful. “I’m as Corellian as you are, ma’am; I know the uniform means a lot. But everybody from the Enclave is going to have to equip something that’s not Shoot On Sight Green....”
A/N: The Corellian Jedi traditionally wear the green of the Corellian flag. Which can be kind of... obvious. *G*
“Not the hair-!”
Silica blinked, eyes wide, as Asuna wrapped long black hair more firmly around her hand and dragged Kirito back before he could jump into one of the two-seated racing speeders. Fuurinkazan was heading over there, and she had a feeling she ought to be wishing Mr. Klein luck. They were going to need it. Asuna and Kirito, with real speeders? She could feel the sonic booms already. “So Pina’s a- a therapy creature?” She stroked her blue-feathered friend, who rustled sleepy wings. “I’ve never heard of anything like her.”
Nanami nodded, the lock of hair that had been his padawan braid dipping over green eyes. Lau’s friend hadn’t spoken much, checking carry-crates for any signs of damage as they packed them into one of the larger four-person speeders, and focusing a quiet healing aura on eggs in a well-padded nest. But he was warm, and careful, and Pina was quite clear that this was a Human who deserved to be around feather-drakes.
Also, he carried peanuts.
“You wouldn’t have.” Lau pulled a gray turtleneck over his head, discarding his green tunic. There weren’t a lot of spare clothes in the various lockers; according to Healer Agnei, this had been one of the Enclave’s little hideouts for undercover CorSec operations, not a real emergency shelter. But there were enough that by trading stuff around a little, they could at least get everybody out of green. “They’re very smart, and they’re sensitive to the Force. We only know about them because some of the nest elders asked us for help when smugglers tried to take some of their hatchlings off the planet.”
“Really smart.” Silica shared a sleepy blink with her friend. “She saved my life, in the game. I got into trouble, and she jumped in the way of an anakkona who was trying to eat me. I - I thought she was going to die.” Constricted and bitten, the little hawk-bat almost had; would have, if Kirito hadn’t shown her how to stabilize her friend in a healing trance until they could get the rare Alderaanian medicine fragile bones needed to recover. And if Pina in the game was somehow connected to Pina here.... “How did she do that?”
“They are Force-sensitive,” Lau pointed out. “And she liked you. We don’t know how she influenced the program, but somehow, she managed to make a link with the Pina you knew. Nanami was worried about that, he thought-” He cut himself off.
“She might get hurt?” Silica scrunched in on herself, unhappy. She’d tried to be careful, she had - but the ever-shifting maze that was Kashyyyk’s layered deathtrap of a forest was too much for any player alone.
Kirito had walked through it. But Kirito was awesome.
“If you hadn’t loved her back, she would have been,” Lau said steadily. “She did suffer a shock. But you tried to protect her from the program, and your friend Kirito is a pretty good field medic.” He reached over to scritch behind feathered ears. “When she did wake up, she told us to call her Pina.”
Oh, good - wait. She told you? “They’re sapients?” Silica blurted out, cradling Pina close. The feather-drake purred, radiating smugness.
“We don’t really know,” Lau admitted. “They’re smart enough to know people who feel like the Dark Side are trouble.” He glanced away, blue eyes sad. “And to grieve.”
There was a lump in Silica’s throat; she had to work to get words past it. “I’m sorry. About the Enclave, and... everyone.”
“Chrr.” Pina rubbed her head against Silica’s cheek-
And there was an image, whispering into her mind like fog. A great, green forest on a knife-edged plateau, vines and creepers drinking deep of the ever-present mist.
But part of that green was rent and tattered, one of the great trees battered down by a windstorm, woven nests crushed in the wreckage. Feather-drakes in all colors of the rainbow flew over and landed in still-standing trees, keening their loss and preening the injured who’d survived.
:Warmth. Shared sadness. Cuddling together to bask in the returning sun.:
“Very smart,” Lau said softly. Touched his hand over his heart, and gave Silica a faint smile. “Nanami and I lost our masters in the Clone Wars a year ago. We’ve been working under Healer Agnei’s direction, until... until the war eased up enough for someone to take us on as their apprentices.” He took a deep breath, and climbed in to test the speeder controls. “I guess we’ll have to figure out something else.”
“We’ll help,” Silica said impulsively. “We had to figure out a lot of our own training. The Jedi NPCs who got us started - after a few weeks, they’d be gone. Either they had to leave on a mission, or you got separated in a fight, or....” Her throat closed up.
Or a Sith Lord found both of you, and she told you to run.
Saa had told her that. It was one of the reasons Silica had trusted Kirito enough to bring Pina and join him in his starfighter to leave Kashyyyk. She could feel that echo of pain inside him, then. Like she felt it in Lau now.
So she made herself swallow now, and lift her chin. “Kirito helped me find out what I was doing wrong to meditate. I know we can figure more out.”
“He did?” Nanami’s voice was lower than she’d thought. Rhythmic, not rough from disuse as she’d halfway expected. “Strange.”
“Not that strange.” Lau gave him a speaking look. “The Kirigayas have always been strong in the Force.”
“They have?” Silica felt like she’d fallen down a tree-rabbit hole. “But he said I was like his cous- I mean his sister!”
“He told you Suguha was his cousin?” Lau’s brows climbed. “They don’t talk about that much.” He stroked the dashboard, a ripple of the Force checking for any shorted circuits their quick look under the hood might have missed. “But I can see why he’d think that. Suguha’s strong in the Force. Especially when she’s protecting someone she cares about.”
“Hmm.” Humor glinted in a green gaze, as Nanami raised a dark brow at his friend.
The blond turned pink. “You want me to ask... but that could get them in trouble!”
Nanami raised the other brow.
“Well... yes, I guess they might find it anyway....” Lau trailed off, even redder.
Silica looked between them, then raised her own eyebrow at Nanami. Or tried to. It wasn’t as easy as Kirito made it look.
“It’s not hopeless,” Nanami said simply. “We have friends. Every Jedi has helped someone, somewhere. We just need to reach them.”
“R-Right.” Silica made herself smile, determined. Despair was of the Dark Side. And they didn’t need any more of that around. “Um. If you’re okay here, should I go see if Healer Agnei needs more help? She’s really busy, and she can’t be looking everywhere, and Pina still thinks we should bite that Kibaou guy.” And now it was her turn to blush. You didn’t bite people. Even if their heads were thicker than duramin steel.
“Oh, a feather-drake can do a lot more than bite.” Lau’s wink was pure mischief. “You take care of her, and she’ll take care of you.” He waved her toward the next two speeders over, where Agnei and a swarm of younglings and helpful players were packing everything the healers had been able to carry off.
The first speeder seemed to be going fine, even if Teacher Sasha and her Church kids were getting in each other’s way half the time from pure enthusiasm. The second speeder-
Agnei and a girl were arguing. “But Kazuto can’t use the Force!” the girl protested, just above a whisper.
Black hair. Black eyes. That has to be Kirito’s sister!
Agnei had her full attention on the girl. “Sugu, the past two and a half years say he can.”
“In his sleep. In that awful computer dream. But he wasn’t missed!” Sugu insisted. “Grandfather tested him after they found the wreck. He failed. None of us wanted to believe it, but - you know my brother. He’s not a light in the Force. He’s not even there. That’s why Grandfather had to get him out of the dojo-”
“Is that what he told you?” Agnei cut her off. “I need to keep a list of asses to kick when I finally rejoin the Force. Seta Kirigaya may be second in line.”
“Grandfather was right!”
“No, he wasn’t. He made a mistake. We all did.” Agnei brushed some dust off her hands. “This isn’t the time to drag up Thai and Seta’s favorite fight, Padawan Kirigaya. Your brother is strong in the Force. These people are alive thanks to that strength. Whatever future the Corellian Order will have, he’ll be a part of it. As will many more of these clearers.” She winced. “Whether they like it or not.”
“But they’re not Jedi,” Sugu insisted, fingers fretting at the edge of a tan raincape slung over her shoulders. “If they try something that worked in a game - people could get hurt.”
“You might be surprised. I was.” Agnei sighed. “When we have time to talk I’ll tell you about Kamino, and clones, and flash training. CorSec has the information in case things go more wrong. In short - Kayaba was able to pass his game off as based on a training simulator for very good reasons. What worked in the game, will work. They have the training.” She frowned. “At least the physical techniques. We’re still not sure how deeply Kayaba hacked us once the players were in the Annex. But I can tell you right now your brother’s a better swordsman than I am.” She let out a soft hah. “Which reminds me; we need to ask if anyone has a spare ‘saber. He’s a Jar’kai specialist.”
Silica almost giggled, as Pina radiated wry amusement. She’d never seen Kirito’s two-‘saber style herself, but everybody had heard about the Gleam Eyes boss fight. Even most Jedi didn’t walk away from a fight with a sapient reshaped by Sith Alchemy. It’s Kirito. He’s awesome. We knew that already!
“Denying what is, is one step away from denying the truth,” Agnei said, a little more gently. “And that’s a road no Jedi should start down.” She put a hand on the padawan’s shoulder. “Suguha. I know you’ve always wanted to protect your brother. And he does still need our help. He’s fought for his life for three years. We’re going to have to teach him how to live when the fighting stops.” She smiled, a little sad. “But he fought all these years to come back to you. Let him help you, Sugu. He has the strength now. He earned it with his own blood.”
She wants to protect him? Silica bit her lip. She knew how awesome Kirito was. She didn’t even know what to say to someone who could protect him.
“Chrrr.” Pina nipped her ear; cheer up, pay attention.
Right. Because Kirito had believed she could get that strong, even if it took her some time, and - who were those guys slinking away from the speeder, looking all kinds of embarrassed?
I have a bad feeling about this.
“All right, bend it,” Asuna directed the Jedi in nondescript blue and gray as he sat in the doorframe of one of their scout ‘speeders. “Without using the Force.”
Kirito hung back, already sure what the results would be. Asuna was going to be a good Healer. She’d noticed that flash of pain as Anton changed out of Jedi robes, and tracked him down faster than a slice hound would find a jambalaya pot.
Sure enough, as Anton’s knee bent, he winced.
“Right,” Asuna declared. “You’re not walking.”
“Young lady,” Anton began.
Asuna planted fists on her hips. “Can you use a blaster?”
“Er... well, yes,” the Jedi admitted.
“Can you use Foresight?” Asuna persisted.
“It’s not my strongest skill, I’m more attuned to the Living Force-”
Asuna rolled right over his words. “Is there anything you can do as a Jedi, besides fight, that you can’t do just as well sitting down?”
Anton opened his mouth - and sighed. “Logic. Damn.”
“Getting wounded in ORO could put a Crippled Status on you,” Kirito shrugged. “We learned to deal with it.”
“We can’t dunk you in bacta and we don’t have time for a healing trance,” Asuna said practically. “Sit down and give it some time to heal normally. Besides.” She patted the ‘speeder hood. “If you weren’t flying this, Kirito would be.”
Kirito heaved a heartfelt sigh. For someone whose nickname was the Lightning Flash, she was being incredibly sensitive about that last time he’d gone jinking through a half-built space station to dodge a swarm of angry space pirates. He’d come out the other side with all his weapons intact and the original paint, what was the problem?
Well. Most of the original paint-
Kirito stiffened. Please don’t let that be who it feels like.
It was. Tetsuo wasn’t in purple or a tank’s trooper armor. Keita didn’t have his laser lance. But he could never have missed the surviving Black Cats.
Asuna moved to cover his left side, hand not yet on her blaster. Anton’s presence in the Force sharpened, but the Jedi seemed to only raise curious brows as he rested both feet on the floor. “Is there something we can help you with?”
Keita glanced at them both, then looked intensely at Kirito. “Can we talk to you? Alone?”
The last time you didn’t want to talk, you wanted to kill me, Kirito thought bleakly. Only you knew you couldn’t. I was a Beater, after all.
So they’d just expelled him from the guild and warned him never to cross their path again. Which had felt like a blaster bolt through what was left of his heart, and he’d just - walked. He still didn’t know what insane impulse had made him give his location to Argo, but when he’d checked the local starport message board for a ship going somewhere, anywhere....
Fuurinkazan’s Grasscutter had almost landed on top of him. Klein still insisted it was luck.
He’d managed to avoid Tetsuo and Keita for two years. But this was the real world now, and he could read his greatest failure in the guilt on their faces, and....
No. We’re out of the game. It’s over. “No.”
“Kirito, we just want to talk,” Tetsuo tried.
The swordsman slashed his hand through air; one short, sharp no. “Healer Agnei wants the three of us as one of her scouting teams. We need to get moving.” Anton’s knee was bad, but he was ExploriCorps; there probably wasn’t anyone else here more familiar with whatever weirdness might be loose in the Selonian Tunnels. Pairing him with two Force-sensitives who could move and fight made sense. “Whatever you want to say, talk.”
Keita looked at the other two; by the way he swallowed, apparently recognizing the Vice-Commander of the Knights of Blood even without her red-and-white robes. “We just wanted to say we’re sorry. We didn’t... we didn’t know.”
“Know?” Kirito said blankly. “Know what?”
“Your sister,” Tetsuo waved over toward Healer Agnei’s speeder, some yards out of earshot. “She said - your family really thought you couldn’t use the Force? At all?”
“That?” Kirito shook his head, trying to jar loose a sudden ringing in his ears. “You think that matters? Now? Why?”
“Well, I know that back then we said, about the Jedi....” The usual smile was completely gone from Tetsuo’s face, as he tried to find the right words.
“You really didn’t know what you could do,” Keita managed. “You didn’t know how to save them-”
Calm. Calm was what he needed, and he needed it right now. Because he could still see that horrible trap in his nightmares. First Ducker going down, then Sasumaru; and Tetsuo and Sachi were too far away, even if they were still fighting. Sachi was fighting so hard, he had to stop hiding how good he really was, he had to get to her-
I have to stop hiding!
The world had blurred. And he’d brought his vibroblade up just in time to block the blow that should have killed Tetsuo.
Sachi had been two yards farther away.
She might as well have been on the moon.
I am the eye of the storm, Kirito thought now, trying not to see her sad smile as her avatar shattered. I am the mote on the wave. The anger is real, but I will not use it....
He opened his eyes, and saw Keita flinch.
I won’t use the anger. But I’m not sorry, either. “I don’t want to hear it,” Kirito said quietly. “I didn’t tell you the truth about my level. I didn’t tell you I’d been to some of those planets before. But I told you the truth about everything else. And the minute we knew we were in trouble-” He had to stop, and push down the storm inside again. “I did everything - everything - I could think of to get us out of there alive. And... I failed.”
It still hurt. It would always hurt. But the acid in the wound was what these two had said when he’d survived. After all those months partying together, after all the battles they’d lived through - Keita and Tetsuo had assumed he’d let their friends die.
“You’re sorry,” Kirito got out, almost tempted to laugh. “My whole family’s been sorry, Keita. They had such hopes....”
No. No, that’s not the Black Cats’ fault. Just - let it go.
They’re going to push it, Anton realized, seeing young shoulders braced under hospital tunics. Bad idea, that.
A very bad idea, when a lethally trained youngling had just managed to get his storm of emotions under control. Especially when there was an equally lethal young lady who was just as strong in the Force to back him up, who had no friendly feelings toward these Black Cats whatsoever.
So much pain there.
And in what seemed a well-meant attempt to right an old wrong, these two risked pushing that pain to the breaking point. Why was it that so many people failed to realize it was pain, not anger, that was most unlikely to unleash the rancor within?
We can’t lose anyone to the Dark Side. Not ever - and especially not now!
...Not that I can say that flat out. Jedi are supposed to be diplomatic. Anton cleared his throat. “Tetsuo and Keita, is it?”
They jumped; as well they might. “How did you know-?” Keita started.
“Your thoughts are quite loud,” Anton said dryly. Which wasn’t, perhaps, the most diplomatic thing he could have said. But they were in a bit of a hurry. “Speaking as one who’s done some negotiations in his time, I suggest you consider your mission complete. You’ve delivered your message. It’s been heard.” He tried not to sigh. “Now please, go away.”
Testuo winced. “Look, we were friends-”
“Were being the significant word, in this case. You’ve missed three years with your parents, so I’ll stand for them this one time,” Anton said severely. “Forgiveness is not something one can earn. It is given. Or it is not. Meditate on that.” He slid in behind the ‘speeder controls. “Shall we?”
Asuna nodded, and hopped into the passenger’s seat. Kirito clambered up to perch on the back a little more warily, keeping an eye on the pair as they accelerated away.
Distance made the young man relax. A little. Black eyes flicked toward him. “You shouldn’t have to get mixed up in this.”
“On the contrary,” Anton stated. “As a responsible student of the Force,” one of the few still alive, space, he wanted to break something just as much as these younglings did, “every Force-sensitive in this accursed mess is my responsibility.” And Healer Agnei’s, as well. But she had a healer’s duty to all her patients. She couldn’t favor the younglings. No matter how much she wanted to.
Lucky I’m not a Healer, then.
Now it was Asuna who gave him a considering look. “Even though we’re all Corellian heretics?”
Er. Heh. That had been a bit of a sore spot from time to time, historically. Especially, if he recalled certain texts correctly, during the Sith Wars. “Any port in an ion storm?” Anton offered.
That won a smile, and a subtle easing of the Force around the pair. “Better buckle up,” Asuna advised him. “This storm’s not over yet.”
Doors parted, and they plunged into shadows.
Tunnels ought to be creepier, Klein thought, blaster resting against his shoulder ready to hand as Argo worked on slicing some door controls while Lisbeth stood ready with a toolkit. He’d led Fuurinkazan through the undercity of Coruscant, a dark place of rust, stale oil, slavering rakghouls, and manic murdering droids. Through the mud and chitin-walled hive-cities in the sinkholes of Utapau; and if he never had to ride another feathered lizard again, he’d be happy. Through the underwater cities of Naboo’s Gungans, a place that brought whole new meaning to the one that got away. He’d even survived a venture into the cavern systems of Dagobah’s merciless swamps - and the less said about that little field trip into the Dark Side, the better. Even today he could wake up screaming from the visions of his guild betrayed, murdered, tortured into monsters with Sith Alchemy by a black-robed Kayaba....
Kirito had saved them then; a shadow among the shadows, Elucidator’s black blade singing as their Jedi held it upright in a formal salute.
“Ashla, mother of life, spread your wings over us. Bogan, father of death, withdraw your claws; turn aside from your prey....”
A Dathomiri witch-chant, Kirito had told them later. Along with, don’t teach it to someone you don’t trust, it’s kind of shadowy.
“What did we see in there?” Klein had demanded, still rattled.
“I don’t know. Computer scenarios? The operating system’s worst-case predictions for the players, based on right now?” Kirito had shrugged. “Whatever it was, let’s get off this mudball and mess it up.”
Couldn’t argue with that, Klein thought now. They’d done their best, and they were alive. He should focus on that, and not on how Corellia was pulling an epic fail on Gruesome Tunnel Crawls.
Really, he shouldn’t complain about tunnels that - so far - were wide enough to be upper-city side streets. Corridors that were damp, but not dank; only the occasional drip of water from an offshoot leading up or a crack in the wall. Halls that were lit, if barely, by antique glow-panels, with blue-glowing moss only clinging to a few darker corners.
All told, this part of the Selonian Tunnels added up to mostly maintained, but not always. Which put the hairs up on the back of Klein’s neck. Could be they’d just hit these tunnels during a lull; it was still at least an hour before dawn. Or....
They could be watching us. Right now.
“They probably are,” Argo muttered, hands splayed over the controls to feel the last commands input. “Six thousand people can’t exactly sneak anywhere.”
Klein rolled his eyes. Argo was Argo. “What have I told you about picking thoughts out of my head?”
“Not to charge you for them?” the information broker smirked. “You don’t mind when Kirito does it.”
As if the difference weren’t obvious. “He’s a guy.”
“Flamehead has a point,” Lisbeth chuckled. “I wouldn’t want some strange guy poking in my mind.”
“Oi!” Klein started. “The kid’s not strange.”
Two pairs of skeptical female eyes glanced at him, then at each other.
“Okay, maybe a little,” Klein admitted. “He’s gotten better this year. Asuna’s been good for him.”
“So have you,” Argo observed. “He does a good lone sand panther act, but at the end of the day he needs a den to curl up in. Even if it’s just a patchwork tramp freighter.”
“Hey! Grasscutter’s a little rough around the edges, sure, but she’s sturdy-”
His voice caught, as reality crashed in. The Grasscutter was gone.
It was like a sucker punch to the gut. The battered ship he and his guild had salvaged on Corellia, and rebuilt with sweat and tears and help from everybody willing to lend a hand, the trusted friend that had carried Fuurinkazan between hundreds of worlds... was gone.
My ship. Damn it, how can you be a smuggler if you can’t even get off the planet?
Klein bit his lip, and tried to shove the panic and dismay back into the closet where they belonged. Everybody had lost what they’d built for the past three years. Lisbeth’s forge, Agil’s shop; Argo’s informant network. Heck, even with a lightsaber, Kirito was probably feeling twitchy. He’d used Elucidator so long, a regular ‘saber wouldn’t even sound right, anymore.
Twitchy or not, Klein was glad Kirito’s bunch were poking one of the side tunnels leading away from Agnei’s route while Argo worked on this main door. If there was trouble about to ambush them from that passage, Kirito and Asuna would find it.
...Which wasn’t the most reassuring thing he could have thought. But Klein refused to believe Kirito would do anything stupid. After three years in the Sith Wars, they were out. The real world didn’t have bosses you had to fight your way past or die. If trouble could be avoided, bluffed, or mind-tricked into heading the other way, Klein knew those two would do it.
Real world still has ships, though. And damn it, I want one.
Not the kind of dream a young corporate salaryman was supposed to chase. But the lure of visiting other planets had been half the draw of ORO in the first place. To hear the hatch hiss open, catch alien scents, and know that stepping outside would take you somewhere else... it was more addictive than deathsticks.
“You’ll get Grasscutter back, one way or another,” Argo said, tapping out a few codes to disable any alarms that might be linked to this door. “Because no matter what happens, we know one thing for sure. We can’t stay on Corellia.”
“We can’t?” Klein said blankly. Because yeah, the Jedi had been tossing that back and forth in the planning session before they’d broken out. But seriously. Leave the planet? For real? He had family here. He had a job, a life....
All of which had suffered a three-year interruption by the Sith Wars. That had in turn just dumped all of them into another war, where Mandalorian clones were shooting at anybody they thought were Jedi-
If they shot at Jedi, they’d shoot at Kirito. If they shot at Kirito - or Asuna; or heck, any of the sensitives, Silica was darn cute with that feathery menace - Fuurinkazan would shoot back. Law of nature. Like gravity.
“We’ve lost the habit of staying out of trouble.” Argo traded a meaningful look with Lisbeth. “Everyone who made it out of Coruscant has. If someone pushes us, we push back.”
“And if Healer Agnei’s right about the Republic having an army, there’s a lot more of these guys in white to start the pushing.” Lisbeth tapped her hydrospanner. “We need to be somewhere the Army isn’t. But... if they just came for the Enclave....”
“Help me get this cover off.” Argo touched spots on the surface, backed off a little as Lisbeth applied her ‘spanner with a grin and a low whine of machinery. “You know Sith never stop with just Jedi.”
“I know. I’m just... scared.” Cover set aside with a click, Lisbeth glanced back down the tunnels, where Agnei, the Knights of Blood, the Divine Dragons, and who knew how many other guilds were helping the RLF guide tired and frightened people through the maze. “Leave Corellia, and our families, and - everything?”
I’m not trained for this, Klein thought ruefully. “Lis? Do you think you could never pick up a hydrospanner again? ‘Cause that’s what it’d take if you stayed, and we both know it.” He tapped his blaster. “Every time I pick up one of these, or get behind the controls of something... I feel it.” Oh, he was no Jedi. But like Lis, and Fuurinkazan, and half the clearers he knew, he had knacks.
That’s what the players had ended up calling them, anyway. They weren’t quite Outside System Skills; they always tied into something you could put skill points into and level up, like Piloting or Mechanics or Trick Shots. But there was a difference between someone who could use a Skill, and someone with a knack using the same Skill while they were focused.
Do it right, and you can bend the universe.
Which might be enough to get him in trouble, if someone got suspicious. It’d at least made the ORO servers cranky, those first few months when desperate players had started bending the rules. He didn’t know what it might do to whatever the Army was using to detect Jedi.
And I don’t want to stick around to find out.
“I know,” Lisbeth muttered, watching over Argo’s shoulder as she dissected more circuitry. “It just doesn’t seem real.” She brushed back too-long bangs, fretting. “But if it is, if we have to go into space - it’s going to take a lot more than just a ship. Right?”
“Yeah,” Klein agreed, going over supply lists in his head. “Things can go wrong even when you know your ship. If we grab something, we’re not going to know if it’s got cranky maintenance problems. We’ve got to be ready for breakdowns. On top of that....” He had to take a deep breath. This was scary. “Argo. You said Order 66 went out to the whole galaxy?”
Something sparked under her fingers, and Argo relaxed a little. “It did. Every clone trooper. Everywhere.”
“Then we’ve got to find a planet where there aren’t any clones,” Klein concluded. “That means hanging out in some out of the way asteroid belt or nebula while we decrypt military communications.” He had to blink at that; the fact that he was pretty sure they could was kind of neat. “And that means it could be a long time before we make a safe planetfall. So yeah. We need supplies. A lot of them.”
Argo nodded, making an adjustment to the security circuits that was probably rerouting them from detect door tampering to door? What door? “More than just food and medical packs.” Dark eyes slid to Lisbeth.
“We can grab blaster bits in any back alley near a starport,” the mechanic shrugged. “And I got all the special tools we’re going to need from the ‘saber workshop raid; training-grade crystals all the way up to everything in those restricted sections Kirito cut open for us. We’ve got the whole rainbow. I know I saw some good-quality Eralam and Permafrost crystals, and there’s got to be a half-dozen Barab ingots rattling in with the rest of them....”
Klein gave them both a wary look. He knew at least half those names as lightsaber crystals, sure. But why did Argo look like a customs inspector who’d just had a bottle of untaxed Corellian brandy fall into his lap?
Argo’s brow climbed into the shadows of her hood. “The restricted section?”
Lisbeth flushed pink, and lowered her voice. “In a Jedi Enclave? You think we’d find Firkrann crystals anywhere else?”
“Noooo,” Argo drew out the word, grinning. “No, you wouldn’t. Heh heh... Ki-bou’s going to hug you.”
Lisbeth ducked her head, even redder. “I don’t know... they didn’t have a Chandrilian obsidian anywhere in there. I looked.”
Klein did a double-take. The tone had been disappointed, but that cat-about-to-steal-sushi look was unmistakable.
Lisbeth hadn’t missed it either. “Don’t even try it.”
The information broker squinted at her, and hmphed. “I am going to figure out the technique for making one of those.”
“Better have a droid on hand for the activations that blow everything up.” Lisbeth tapped her ‘spanner against her chest, looking smug. “Can’t slice data that’s only in my head, Rat.”
Argo held up one finger. “We have access to the game files now. I so could.” A second finger went up. “Wanna bet?”
Like a whisper of wind, the massive metal door slid open.
Klein whistled. “Damn, you are good.”
Argo looked at the door. Peered down the shadowed corridor beyond, as if it might sprout sarlacc tentacles.
Looked back at them, face blank. “I hadn’t started that sequence yet.”
Klein swallowed. Oh, this is not good....
“...Did you hear something?”
In the front of the main group of survivors, Yulier brought her fist up; stop. The scouts hadn’t reported any trouble, but Sasha had ears trained by keeping a couple dozen kids out of trouble on Coruscant. If the young apprentice teacher thought she heard something....
Thinker took a deep breath, and murmured, almost too low to be heard. “Everyone, be quiet.”
The subtle influence rippled outward like water.
I’m not asking. I’m not commanding. But it might be a good idea....
Eyes half-closed, Yulier listened.
Murmurs of hundreds of uneasy people. A whine of metal in the distance, slightly out of rhythm with the pulse of air through old vents. There was an acid tang in the current moving past her face; she couldn’t tell if it’d been there before.
Somewhere nearby, something was moving.
How far? How big? What is it? The BGM’s not giving us any clues-
Yulier almost buried her face in her hands. This was the real world. Of course there was no background music. They’d have to go with what really existed. Ears, eyes... and that tenuous sense of the Force.
The game gave us specifics when we tried to sense where we couldn’t see. Now it’s like trying to grasp fog.
Whatever it was, it was getting closer.
Above us? To the right of us?
She could feel tension singing around her, as people readied blasters, vibroknives, and whatever else they’d scavenged as weapons.
A small hand crept into hers. Fear and determination trembled in it, like sparklers in the night.
Not one of Sasha’s kids, Yulier realized, glancing down at an unfamiliar redheaded girl with wide green eyes. One of the Enclave younglings? Stay calm, little one. We’re going to get out of this.
I just wish I knew how.
There was a rattling from the ducts. Louder. Closer.
Please. Oh please, we’re so tired, no one wants to fight anymore.
But she would, Yulier knew. They’d come this close to going home. She wasn’t about to let a monster stop her now.
Only I can’t go home.
It hurt. But not as much as she’d thought it would. Home was with Thinker, wherever he was. His head on her shoulder; his warm, flickering presence in the Force. Give that up, just so she could go back to Coronet City?
Yulier leaned into that sense of fierce defiance. Thinker might have problems fighting other players, sure. But whatever was coming this way wasn’t Human, or she’d have sensed that by now.
Metal rattled and screeched. Yulier strained her ears, trying to determine if that was metal on metal, claws on metal, or something worse.
Blasters lifted. The little girl beside her had her hand on her unlit ‘saber.
:Wait,: Yulier whispered to the youngling. :Wait....:
Rattling passed like a distant thunderstorm overhead, screeching and clanging farther away.
Faint scrapings of metal. Echoes, dying away.
Yulier swallowed, and made herself breathe. From the sudden susurrus of exhalations, she was far from the only one.
:...Are you a Knight?:
Yulier looked down into eyes green as sun through the leaves on Alderaan, and had to catch her breath. “No,” she managed. “Not yet.” :Thinker?:
:Of course, beloved.:
She swept up the girl into her arms, cradling red hair with one hand as the little girl sniffled against her shoulder. “I’m Yulier. My fiancé is Thinker. What’s your name?”
“Nomi.” Yulier stroked her hair, content to just stand quietly for a moment. “We’re going to be all right.”
“I bet it was killer droids.” Dynamm waved as he walked past Agil, part of the steady trickle of people to the rear as guilds rotated out tired scouts for fresher clearers.
Kunimittz smirked, and punched his shoulder. “You always think it’s killer droids!”
“Hey, I’m right part of the time....”
Healer Agnei groaned, rubbing the bridge of her nose as she paced alongside her supply and kid-stuffed speeder. “Force preserve us.”
“Don’t mind them too much,” Agil advised, keeping his voice low for the pair curled up napping on top of Agnei’s kits. Kirito could sleep through anything short of a concussion grenade, but Asuna might be a little more jumpy. “Fuurinkazan’s a bunch of comedians, but they’re always good backup when stuff hits the rotating turbines.”
From the pilot’s seat, Anton hmphed. “I doubt our merry band of smugglers is the problem-”
“Hold up a minute.”
The half-light of the tunnels wasn’t as bad as some dungeons Agil had been in, but it wasn’t enough to get a good look at the claw marks in ceracrete. The merchant reached up to trace the cold edges with a fingertip. “Better toss a blanket on those two, Healer. Anybody walking should be okay, but staying still too long’s going to make people start taking damage from hypothermia... damn, whatever made these is tall. Selonians?”
“Looks like,” Agnei agreed. “I don’t know why we haven’t seen a tunnel warden by now.”
“Selonians?” Anton eyed the clawmarks, hovering the speeder in place. “I’m not familiar with that species.”
“Two-meter mustelline bipeds,” Agnei filled him in. “They like to build their cities under surface cities. They live as separate nests working together with almost one will. There’s an extensive colony here under Coronet City.”
Anton nodded, eyes hooded. “Will they contact the authorities?”
“Not likely. They’d rather leave Human problems to Humans.” Agnei glanced up at the nearest vent, as if she could peer through stonelike layers to listening furry ears. “They live more like insectoids than mammals, but individuals do get curious. I’d have thought at least one would come out to ask questions.”
“Maybe they don’t want to get shot.” Agil took another step, and jerked a thumb toward a scorch mark halfway down the wall. “Blaster burn. Couple days old, I think. Though it doesn’t look quite right.”
Both Jedi started; Anton drew a sharp breath. “Blasters have changed a bit since the Sith Wars.” He craned his head to peer at the faint lines radiating from the oval scorch. “Our scouts didn’t mention this.”
“Sure they did.” Agil shrugged. “They said this place looked like trouble had come through.”
Anton raised a curious brow. “And for you, trouble normally includes blasters?”
Agil had to do a double-take. “Has for the last three years. We’ve got blasters. We can shoot back.” He chewed that thought over. “That bother you?”
“Violence is like a storm. It can be horrible while it’s happening, and the aftermath may be as exhausting as it is deadly. But sooner or later, it must pass. A wise Jedi saves his worry for more long-term problems.” Bringing the speeder back to its steady course with a few light touches to the controls, Anton shook his head. “Forgive me if I am prying, Healer; but does your Order not teach younglings not to instigate bonds of their own?”
“Of course we do. But they’re afraid. And most of them are orphans now.” Leaving the scorch marks behind, Agnei knuckled what had to be a massive headache. “They’ve lost everything, Knight Gelis. Home, parents, masters. The clearers may not be fully trained, but they have a Jedi’s will to protect. They feel safe.” She sighed. “I didn’t expect this. I should have.”
Agil glanced between the two full Jedi, putting the pieces together. “Bonds? You’re talking about Force bonds, right?”
Anton raised a curious brow. “You’ve heard of them?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know; I’m as strong in the Force as your average tree,” Agil grinned at him. “But I’ve heard some. Kirito sacked out in my shop once in a while, and almost everybody in the clearers and midlevels dropped by. They needed to talk. And I’m a good listener.” He shrugged. “Force bonds are part of what masters use to train apprentices, right? A link in the Force, so you know if the other guy’s getting in trouble. Carries feelings; sometimes even thoughts.” He glanced at Agnei. “You want honest, I used to think that was a little creepy. But after the third time somebody shows up out of the blue to save your butt when you had no way of getting a message out? Eh, it grows on you.”
The healer looked surprised, and faintly pleased. “Your average tree?”
“Long as your average tree’s not a Neti, yeah.” Agil picked his next words carefully. “I got the picture that those bonds were about family, too. That’s why you’re worried about your kids. They’re hurting, and we’re here; and you don’t know us.”
Sighing, Agnei lowered her hand. “I do know most of you are very good people.”
“Yeah?” Damn it, he did not want to stick his nose into a family mess. But... Kirito. The kid would never let him go into a boss fight without backup. Agil wasn’t going to leave him hanging. “If you think we’re good people, how come you’re keeping Suguha busy anywhere her brother isn’t?”
Agnei gave him a measuring look, as if she could use the Force to poke all the way to his bones.
She probably can. So? Agil matched her, stare for stare.
“It has nothing to do with you as players.” Agnei measured her words out like flecks of spice. “It’s... personal. To the Kirigayas.”
Oh yeah. This was going to be a mess. Agil let a breath sigh out. “Personal have anything to do with why he never calls himself a Jedi?”
“Ma’am, if it weren’t for the Black Swordsman and the Lightning Flash, none of us would be alive,” Agil stated. “We’d cleared maybe three-quarters of the systems. The Sith were retreating, but we knew it’d just take one slip for them to take us all out. And we’d just lost fourteen clearers.” He had to pause, just for a moment. It hurt. And it was going to hurt a lot more, as soon as they had time to stop and think.
Focus. Give them the important stuff. “We were this close to all dropping over the edge.” Agil tried not to shiver. “Forget falling to the Dark Side. We damn near jumped off the cliff. We gave everything our best shot, and a third of us died. And there were - space, at least a hundred planets still left to search. We couldn’t do it. We were out of options. Out of hope. Out of time.”
He felt Anton’s eyes on him. Watching.
“By this time I can pretty much spot when the Force is pushing something,” Agil stated. “It’s no accident that we woke up in time to get the kids out. And you can thank Kirito for that, too. He yanked out a hunch, and he was right.” He glanced into the speeder, where chestnut nestled next to black. “Those two beat the Sith Lord. They cleared the game for all of us.” Agil softened his voice. “Lady, he’s my friend. If he’s in trouble, I want to help.”
Agnei blew out a breath, obviously considering how much of what truth to tell.
Okay, let’s cut that off at the pass. “You don’t have to tell me much,” Agil shrugged. “Kirito likes to keep things private. All part of that mysterious stranger in black thing he’s got going. Just - if something’s going to hurt him, clue me in.”
“You really are his friend,” the healer murmured. “Force knows, Kazuto needs one.” She drummed fingers against her thigh, thinking. “For the past sixteen years, Kazuto Kirigaya has been at the center of one of the longest-running arguments between Masters this Enclave has ever seen.”
Agil tried not to trip over his own feet. Say what?
“Mind you, it was a very quiet argument,” Agnei went on. “But it was serious, Suguha had her chosen side, and she doesn’t like to be wrong.”
Agil blinked, adding the time up in his head. Sixteen years? He’d have sworn Kirito wasn’t more than seventeen. Eighteen, tops. “Um....”
“He really didn’t tell you.” Some of the tension slumped out of Agnei’s shoulders, but she looked more resigned than relieved. “Then I will. Hopefully we won’t come off too badly.” The healer looked past him, into memory. “The Kirigayas have been Corellians for... oh, over a century now. But Kazuto was born on Humbarine.”
Agil tried not to whistle. That was more history than he’d gotten out of Kirito in years.
“Knight Aoi Kirigaya had gone there as part of the Corellian trade delegation,” Agnei went on. “She met a brilliant young slicer, one thing led to another... and when Kazuto was old enough for easy space travel, they decided to come back to the Enclave.” A muscle in her jaw jumped. “They never made it to Corellia.”
Agil took in that focused anger, and put it together with one of the few times he’d seen Kirito come close to losing it. “Space pirates.” He still remembered a do-or-die run on Laughing Coffin’s battleship, damn. “No wonder he hated spaceflight.”
Agnei’s nod was tight and choppy. “A tramp freighter happened to come out of a jump close enough to catch the distress call a week later. The captain admitted later he was mostly thinking about salvage. The way the ship had been blown... they didn’t expect to find life signs.”
Agil winced. “But they found two.”
“No. They found one.”
Agil’s jaw dropped. “But - his sister-”
“Ears,” Anton advised, covering his own.
The rattling wasn’t loud, but it was penetrating; air and what sounded like fist-sized chunks of ceracrete knocking through the ventilation system somewhere above. Agil grimaced, and redoubled his visual sweep of the surroundings as they quick-marched past. The noise might be covering their movement, but it’d cover anything else, too.
Assuming there’s anything else left. Hive species don’t leave outlying areas unpatrolled. If the Selonians aren’t keeping an eye on us, something went really wrong for them.
Which didn’t mean something was going to go wrong for his fellow players. Whatever it was could have just hit and moved on.
Yeah. Right. Since when do we get that lucky?
“Kazuto was adopted as Suguha’s brother,” Agnei said, as they made their way past the racket. “Midori Kirigaya and her family took in her sister’s son, once he could come home from the hospital. Which took a while; the freighter crew had to sedate him to get him into a lifepod, and - well. He was a mess.”
Anton had sat up straight at sedate. Agil gave him an evil eye. “What?”
The Corsucanti Jedi cleared his throat. “I believe our healer is getting to that.”
Agnei gave him a look askance. “So you know?”
“I’ve had reasons to investigate odd effects on midichlorian counts. Very toothy reasons,” Anton observed. “Agil, if someone ever invites you to visit Felucia, find an urgent reason to be elsewhere. Flesh-eating bacteria, trees that fall on you to try and eat you, rancors as just part of the food chain... it makes Kashyyyk look positively friendly.”
Agil smirked. “I thought Jedi were supposed to honor and respect all manifestations of the Living Force.”
“I most certainly respect Felucia’s,” Anton said dryly. “Next time, I’m bringing a flamethrower.”
Not going to laugh. Not going to....
“Though I might not have mentioned that to Master Yoda.” Anton coughed. “Once the boy’s identity had been ascertained, you checked his records and noticed a discrepancy?”
“I wish. I wasn’t the healer in charge of his case,” Agnei stated. “I’d like to think I wouldn’t have missed the obvious, but-” She spread empty hands. “The records were missing or destroyed. Master Seta Kirigaya, Kazuto’s grandfather, had a fresh test done, to see if the boy should be taken into training.” She gave Anton her own evil look. “As you’ve guessed, he didn’t pass.”
Agil looked between them. Pointedly rested his gaze on the black-haired kid who’d taken down Kayaba.
“This might be regarded as heresy by some of the Council Masters, but the midichlorian test isn’t quite the gold standard most might think,” Anton informed him. “You have to dig for the information in rather odd corners, but... bluntly? Anesthesia and sedation can knock down a count quite a bit.”
Oh, hell. “The Enclave missed him,” Agil stated.
“And that’s when the argument started.” Agnei sighed. “At the time, Thai Golia was only a Knight. But he had the nerve to argue anyone with as much luck as Kazuto ought to be taught anyway.”
That name, Agil knew. Hard to forget a frantic girl screaming it in his ear. “Suguha’s master thought her brother ought to get trained?”
“Thai was her master from the time she was eight,” Agnei corrected him. “Midori is a determined and intelligent woman, but she’s no stronger in the Force than your friend Klein. Seta taught Suguha from the time she was born.”
And now he knew why Agnei had a headache. “Ma’am? We’ve got a problem.”
“I noticed,” the healer said wryly.
Anton was flicking glances toward both of them, even as he steered the speeder around the next corner in the tunnel gently enough not to jostle an egg. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand...?”
“That is one advantage of Coruscanti traditions,” Agnei said wryly. “You generally don’t have to deal with sibling rivalry.”
“Everybody on Corellia dreams about green robes when they’re a kid,” Agil filled in the bewildered Jedi. “Jedi versus vicious space pirates! Vroom, slice. And Sugu grew up knowing she was going to be a Jedi. Kirito-”
“He was going to be a CorSec slicer, like his mother,” Agnei stated. “Or perhaps a corporate negotiator, like his father. Though of the two, Master Seta preferred CorSec.... Why are people stopping?”
“Don’t know.” Agil frowned at the thickening crowd ahead of them. “Man, what I wouldn’t give for some Instant Comms. Wait; somebody’s coming back here... Schmidt?”
The Divine Dragon trooper nodded at him, then gave Agnei a serious look. “Healer. There’s a split in the tunnels ahead.”
Agnei stared at him. Pulled a mini-map out of her pouch, activating the holo to be sure. “There’s no split in the tunnels!”
Schmidt traded a rueful look with Agil; the maps of legend don’t show all of the dungeon. What else is new? “There is now.”
A/N: Rakghouls are pretty much the SW equivalent of infectious zombies; the result of a Sith bioweapon that turns beings into mindless mutants. The original outbreak occurred on the planet Taris, but they also supposedly lived (live? That’d be an eep.) on Coruscant. Given this critter first appeared in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, our heroes have met them.
...And this is why anyone who survived ORO would have a bone-deep understanding of Sith as bad news.
Of course non-Jedi can have Force talents. Han Solo got the universe to bend in just the right direction how many times?
Sedation and anesthesia suppressing midichlorian counts is EU canon. It’s explicitly stated that if a high midichlorian count had to be preserved, people would be operated on without them. Ouch. And now we know why Jedi need healing trances. A lot.
For anyone who really wants to know the crystals Lisbeth’s thinking of... here’s some bare-bones, there’s more detail on Wookiepedia.
Barab ore ingots are found in every color, and produce a clear blade that burns almost to the point of losing cohesion.
Chandrilian obsidian - not canon, but Chandrila has Jedi tombs, so the planet being a source of lightsaber crystals would be likely.
Eralam crystals produce a clear, superior lightsaber beam.
Permafrost crystals, from Hoth, give the blade an icy blue color.
And Firkrann crystals would be in the restricted section, where they could be studied by the Enclave’s swordmasters. They’re noted to be used specifically by the Dark Lords of the Sith... they’re compatible with Force Lightning.
At the tunnel fork, Argo touched one curved wall with her fingertips, and nodded. “This tunnel is new. Only a few days old.”
Schmidt scowled. “It looks older.”
“Someone went to a lot of trouble to make it look that way.” Kirito shook off the last bit of sleepiness from his nap, and crouched low enough to touch dust on the floor. He wasn’t surprised that Agil had woken him up for this. Most clearers knew his maps were always good; which meant he’d survived venturing into unknown territory to make them.
He rose, sniffing the gray residue on his finger. “Old ceracrete. Cave spider cobweb, I think. Fur, and... trogosnail slime. Hah.” He traded a wry look with Klein. “You ought to know that one.”
“Quick way to make stone look old,” the smuggler said ruefully. “So... what? Somebody built a whole new tunnel, wired it with stuff from a century back and fifty-year-old glowpanels, and slimed it?”
“And used a vacuum to blow in old dust,” Kirito nodded.
Klein groaned. “Oh, I hate it when you grin like that.”
Kirito blinked. “Like what?”
“Like you’re going to clean out the whole sabacc table,” Klein grumbled. “I hate it when you do that!”
“A Jedi using the Force to win at sabacc,” Schmidt folded his arms. “What a surprise.”
Hand over her mouth, Argo almost muffled a snicker.
From the twitch of Klein’s eyebrows, he heard it just fine. “Nope. Kirito bluffs more on bad hands. Then the guys who are really cheating panic, and it’s all ‘sabers and blasters from there.” He scratched under his red bandana. “How bad is it?”
Argo got up, face serious. Pointed down the new tunnel. “That one would be safe. I sense stealth. Deception. But also relief.”
“And... you’re going to say we need to take the other one,” Klein sighed. “Kirito. Why?”
“Because that’s the tunnel on Agnei’s map,” Kirito stated. “I don’t have a chrono, but it’s less than an hour until dawn. We know this way leads out. And the only chance any of the others have to go back to a normal life is to get up to the surface, away from the Enclave, before anyone can link them to these tunnels.”
Schmidt gave him a long, squinty-eyed stare. “Any of the others?”
“You’re a clearer,” Klein nodded toward the man’s blaster. “You want to go back to a normal life?”
“It might be better if you can.” Kirito gave the man a cool, calculated look. “If the Sith have control of the Republic’s Army, we’re going to be dodging every law and authority from here to the Outer Rim. Smuggling might be the most legal thing we end up doing. And Sith never stop hunting Jedi. Even if we get off the planet, we’ll be looking over our shoulders forever.”
Schmidt stared back, then shrugged. “If. You’ll get off. If we have to throw you off.”
Argo tapped her thumb against her fingers, evidently recalculating the odds. “You’re not coming?”
“And you should know why, Rat. A lady was murdered and... I didn’t want to admit it. Until you turned up, Swordsman. This...” he growled, low and angry. “This is murder a thousand times over. Someone needs to tell CorSec the truth.” Schmidt’s lips turned up in a fierce smirk. “Besides. How long would even Jedi last without an information network, eh? You already have ideas.”
“Maybe one or two,” Argo allowed. “Let’s go talk about it, while our experts figure this out.” With a last, searching look at Kirito, she headed back toward the main body of the survivors.
Klein waited for them to be out of easy earshot, then eyed Kirito. “Please tell me that look wasn’t what I think it was.”
Kirito peered down the older tunnel. Half-lit, silent; but there was the faintest tang of decay curdling the air. “Sentient beings died this way.”
“Oh, great. So we’re going to walk into the obvious trap, and hope we get lucky.” Checking over his blaster, Klein sighed. “Okay, before we start bluffing? I want a little more backup.”
“It’s not going to be as bad as you think.”
Carefully stretching his knee as they waited for the scouts to pick a passage, Anton double-checked that neither Kirito nor Suguha were in earshot, then gave the healer a cautious look. “How bad do you think I think it is?”
Agnei’s dark brows bounced up, ruefully amused. “He’s not a young usurper threatening a planet’s throne, Anton.” She shifted against the side of the speeder, straightening a fold of her tattered navy jacket. “He’s her brother, and she does love him. She just loves her grandfather and her family’s traditions, too.” She looked up at the ceiling, as if the answers might be written in runes on gray curves. “If I could just give her a good reason... what am I saying, I can’t even explain it to myself. Even with a depressed midichlorian count, how could we all have missed how strong he is?”
“I’m surprised you have to ask.” Anton couldn’t quite hide a smile. Really, if he’d been here from the start, he might have missed it as well; but the lady deserved a break from her own pity. “After all, that’s precisely what he intended.”
Agnei’s head came down fast enough, he almost heard her neck crack. “What?”
“Agnei.” He gave her a sober look. “You missed him because, for some reason, all the boy’s Force abilities have been bent on hiding him.” And he might not know family, but Anton thought he had an idea what that reason might be.
“Aoi,” the healer whispered. Almost buried her face in her hands; held them away with an effort of will. “She carried him, she bore him; she would have been bound to him from the beginning. If she had any warning, when the pirates came-”
“She would have told him to hide,” Anton finished. “Younglings can be very literal.” Hurt younglings, even more so. Year-old Humans might be near helpless; year-old Force-strong Humans, not so much. If Corellians trained their Jedi from birth as well, as Agnei said Suguha had been-
He would have felt her fighting, and her fear. And then - emptiness.
No wonder the boy had hidden himself away. A trained padawan would be in shock after their master passed into the Force. He was amazed the Enclave survivors were on their feet at all, even with two already-orphaned padawans and that chirping dragon to help them cushion the aching emptiness. If it weren’t for Lau and Nanami, the clearers would likely have to load them into speeders and hope for the best. A child? Anton didn’t even like to think about it.
...Which was likely why Suguha was taking the situation with her brother so badly. Master Golia would have been able to adapt and move on, and a dutiful padawan would have followed her master’s lead. Without him, she had only her teachings to guide her. Even if some of those teachings had been... less than accurate.
“Aoi told him to hide, and then we never told him it was safe to come out.” Agnei rubbed at the back of her neck. “Well. At least I have an idea where to start working on the trauma.” She tapped impatient toes against the floor. “If only I had something solid to show Sugu! I can believe the sedation knocked his count down then, but why hasn’t it ever come back? I’ve tested him monthly, ever since he tore his ward apart. It’s never come near the limit.”
“I would imagine it’s difficult for midichlorians to populate a bloodstream they can’t find,” Anton said dryly.
Agnei blinked. Clapped a palm across her eyes.
“Healer Salleth?” Anton ventured, unsettled.
“Right in front of my fracking nose....” Agnei took a deep breath, and lowered her hand. “How? I’ve researched midichlorian behavior for the past two years. Medications, homeworlds, blood chemistry - there are thousands of confounding factors I never knew about, until I dug deep in the archives. How did you know?”
“Felucia,” Anton admitted. “And a bit too much curiosity for my own good. The planet’s organisms are saturated with the Force, light and dark. The Felucians have never tested high enough for any Jedi to search out a youngling for the Temple, yet they can disappear when they’re standing in front of you. And more than a few native lifeforms can take your head off with a Force blast, if you’re not cautious. After the third time I dodged that, I ran a few tests.” He grimaced. “When the test says the creature that nearly fried you with Force-spawned fire has no more midichlorians than you’d find in a Devaronian bandara, you have to conclude something is wrong.” Anton tapped the side of the speeder, thinking of a beloved Temple he might never see again. “And I’ve met Master Tholme.”
“Precisely.” Anton gave her a searching glance. “He’s one of the lesser-known Masters, at the Council’s behest. I’ve only encountered him a few times myself. He is a master of stealth, able to pass by even Jedi watching for danger. And how could Jedi be deceived, unless he could entirely mask his presence in the Force?”
“Huh.” Agnei looked distant, as if she peered into memory. “Thai was right all along. How he must be laughing now....” Her voice caught, and she rubbed her eyes.
“We will hold a memorial for them,” Anton assured her, trying not to let his own voice tremble. “Later.” Breathe. Be in the moment. Even when a dark part of your soul wishes to tear the world asunder-
Belatedly, that pricked his memory. “Er. When you say, tore his ward apart....”
Agnei choked off a laugh. “I wasn’t lying about the porcelains, Knight Gelis.”
Oh dear. “How strong do you think... ah, silly of me to ask.” Annoying, how many of the Temple’s estimates of a Jedi’s strength demanded an accurate midichlorian count. “Why did he unleash telekinesis in - well, a waking dream?”
A bit of color came back into the healer’s face. “Oh, now, that’s interesting. Kirito appears to have developed his own variation on normal Jar’Kai techniques-”
“Healer Agnei!” Dynamm; his mustache stark points over thinned lips, looking even more of a space pirate than usual. “We’ve found the way out, but there’s a problem....”
The tunnel looked like a war had raged through it.
Silica swallowed hard, following in Lau’s footsteps as the blond murmured coaxing words to one of the shakier padawans; a stripe-haired Firrerreo born in a Corellian spaceport, who kept bursting into hiccupping sobs at odd moments.
Silica couldn’t blame her. Even if the scouts had moved the bodies - after checking for booby-traps, Nanami had smiled to see - you could still pick out the stains and shed brown fur where dead Selonians had lain. Her imagination could run with it from there. Even as a midlevel, she’d walked through enough of Kayaba’s war to connect blood and blaster scorches into a mob of Selonians fleeing pursuing enemies, blasters cutting them down....
She shivered, and forced her feet to keep moving. The Selonians had left the bodies. Humans wouldn’t do that unless there was no other choice.
But they’re a hive species. The good of the nest comes first. Maybe they just think it’s better to wait. Let the dead help the nest by making the enemy think there’s no reason to come back.
Silica hoped so, anyway. Because they were getting closer to wherever the blasters had come from. And even though Selonians were supposed to be fierce warriors, tearing intruding gangs to shreds with their claws alone, there was no sign their opponents had lost anyone.
It could be a trap. We know that. But clearers wouldn’t lead us into mobs we couldn’t handle!
Not on purpose. But everyone had heard about the disaster on Nar Shadaa, a year into the game....
Pina fluttered down to rest on Silica’s shoulder again. Alert. Watchful. :Wind moves. We move with it.:
“Heads up,” Nanami’s murmur came from behind, just loud enough to hear over the crate-laden speeder. “We should be almost at the factory.”
The factory. Silica shivered again, hope warring with fear in a stomach tied in knots. The way out!
That’s what Healer Agnei had told them. To cut down on competition and transport costs, this nest of Selonians had built their factory right under the Brightleaf Mall. Chronos, motivators, various small electronic parts that were a mere sideline compared to the torrent of high-tech components bigger nests provided to the Corellian Engineering Corporation; the local nest had made it all, and loaded their wares on a lift that rose into a warehouse built into the mall itself.
That lift was their goal. The way out.
She wanted to sit down and cry. Just for a minute.
Silica took a breath instead, and lifted her chin, even if her eyes burned. Clearers did this every day; seeking out unknown dangers, balancing their lives on the edge of the vibroknife. Kirito did this every day.
So I can do this. Just for a little longer.
“Chrrrl.” Pina rubbed her head against Silica’s cheek.
“Just a little longer,” Silica whispered. “Then we’ll be out. On the surface. In the air.”
If we have to fight in here, we’re screwed.
Asuna glowered across the droid-littered factory floor the way a trooper commander would glare across a mined battlefield. And for a lot of the same reasons. Too many blind spots behind welding shields and automated cargo loaders. Too many deactivated droids with unknown programming and a motley variety of potential weapons: welding torches, vibrocutters, multiple arms to tangle and squeeze.
Just moving people through here is going to be a nightmare.
“As a way for healthy Jedi to sneak out, works.” Klein looked over the factory floor between them and the loading lift with the same kind of disdain he’d use on the lowlife who tried to talk him into a Hutt-backed sabacc game. “As an escape route for regular hurt people? Sucks.” He squinted at the floor. “Not to mention those.”
Asuna looked down at the faint wheel-like tracks on gray ceracrete, and shuddered. She didn’t recognize the markings, but something about them made her skin crawl.
Make that, because I don’t recognize them, Asuna admitted to herself. Unknown mobs are the worst.
Unknown mobs that had torn through deactivated manufacturing droids and computer banks, yanking out parts and key circuits. That had tracks that seemed to shift from single-wheel to blurry rectangles meters apart. That hadn’t left one dead body of their own, while a half-dozen Selonians were scattered in decaying lumps on the factory floor. Whatever these mobs were, they were not good- “Knight Gelis! You shouldn’t be up.”
“I shouldn’t be fighting,” the Jedi corrected her, limping up to them. “Hopefully, a good look will allow us all to avoid that... oh. Damn.”
He bent to peer more closely; Klein caught him by his left arm to keep the strain off his knee. Anton sighed, but didn’t shake him off.
A moment of study drew another muttered curse, and Anton gripped Klein’s hand to straighten. “Droidekas. At least two. Likely more.”
Klein traded a glance with Asuna. “Okay,” the redhead drew out the word, “what’s that? Besides really bad news.”
“Selonians are supposed to know how to fight,” Asuna nodded. “But it looks like they didn’t even take one of their enemies down....” She eyed Anton’s set jaw. “And you’re not surprised.”
“You don’t know what droidekas... ah.” Anton held out a hand. “Commlink, if you’d be so kind?”
Asuna handed hers over. During the walk Lisbeth and other mechanics had retuned all their salvaged commlinks to the same frequency. Almost every major guild had at least one.
“This is Anton Gelis,” the Jedi said plainly. “We’ve found signs of droidekas. You’ve missed the Clone Wars until now, so I will keep this brief. If you are unarmed and see a giant bronzium wheel rolling toward you, run.”
Bronzium, Asuna frowned. That’s not blast-proof, but it’s strong. Armored droids. Great. “And if you’re armed?”
“Try to blast them before they can unfold,” Anton said grimly. “The usual models have starship-class fusion generators that power twin blasters and their own deflector shields. There’s a weak point at the top of the shield you can get a lightsaber through; I’ve never had the bad luck to need to try it. They don’t need light to see, and they are very. Very. Fast. I very much hope they’ve slaughtered here and moved on. But if they haven’t....” Trailing off, he met Asuna’s gaze.
She held it, even if she wanted to shake. Kirito was leading the scouts currently sneaking through the factory to find the best route for the speeders. He needed every scrap of information and determination she could give him. So we woke up into another war. We’re not stopping now!
“If you’re armed, and you’re certain you have the nerve for it - get in close,” Anton said quietly. “Their blaster arms can’t aim inside a certain arc.” He drew a breath. “But I sincerely hope they are not here. They kill trained troopers. They kill Jedi.”
Great. So what else is new? Asuna took the commlink back. “You heard him. Stay in your groups, and keep an eye out. We’re going to move through here as fast as we can. Quietly.” :Kirito?:
:So far, this is the clearest route we’ve found.:
The path unrolled before her mind’s eye like an ancient tapestry. Asuna nodded, and raised her commlink. “Here’s the plan....”
“Sings-to-Steel, huh?” Agil balanced one of Sasha’s youngsters on his shoulder, free hand helping one of the elderly players work his way over the conveyer belt bisecting this part of the factory floor. “That’s a cool screen name.”
Whoa. Hear the enthusiasm, Agil thought wryly. Not that he could blame the boy. They’d finally woken up from Kayaba’s custom-built nightmare, and now they had to walk through a real war with whoever was trying to kill off their own Jedi; Separatists, their own army, at this point he really didn’t care. Jedi were the good guys, damn it. Just look at Kirito, and Agnei, and Anton. Any of ‘em could have bolted and made it into hiding by now. But they hadn’t. They were here, risking their necks, because people needed them. Anybody who tried to take them down deserved to go down, hard.
And why the hell did the Republic even have an army? There hadn’t been an Army of the Republic for something like a thousand years. Much less a clone army - and those two words put all kinds of chills down Agil’s spine. Each planet was supposed to have their own armed forces to smack any pirates who got too big for their britches; and if a problem was big enough to give multiple planets trouble, they got together and solved it. That was how the Republic was supposed to work.
The Republic works ‘cause everybody protects their own; and everybody knows if you send ships off to fight, they’re your people. Set up a clone army instead - who do they really fight for? Who cares about them?
Well. Whoever they really fought for had ordered them to kill Jedi. And anybody who happened to be around Jedi. Agil had it in mind to point out that was a bad idea. Just as soon as he knew who to swing a vibro-axe at.
“I see I missed an excellent opportunity.” Nishida kept his eyes on the floor as Agil helped him get back to better footing; the elderly player wasn’t exactly frail, but he had to be well into his second century. “I could have spent the past three years being called something cool.”
“Yeah?” Sings-to-Steel perked up a little.
“Yes, indeed.” Nishida let go, ducking under a tangle of overhanging cables and manipulator arms. “Droideka-slayer, perhaps; though that would have been too much of a boast for an old fisherman like me.” He paused, gaze caught by an access plate that still hung by one dangling screw. “I think Gelis is right, Agil. They’ve been through here.” He pointed to the hanging panel. “I believe those are the sort of circuits they’re programmed to sabotage. Or scavenge, if they’ve been instructed to spend a long time in the field.”
“They are, huh?” Agil fingered his blaster, suddenly wary. Old fisherman, my foot.
“I used to be part of Argus’ computer security department, before Opening Day.” Nishida ducked another cable and walked on. “About... oh, five years ago now, some poor young secretarial hire flubbed sending a memo; instead of connecting it directly to External Security, she pulled up the security keyword and just sent it to anyone it pinged. Gave us all nightmares....”
Agil saw his stride falter, and slowed down so he wouldn’t bump the man. “Nishida?”
“Huh. I haven’t had a droideka nightmare in two years. Imagine that.” Nishida shrugged, and picked up his pace again. “I don’t know that much, young man. Only that they’re a Separatist weapon, and very dangerous.”
“Separatist?” Agil frowned at the word. He was pretty sure he’d heard it tossed around by some spacers in the Dicey Cafe, years back, but he hadn’t dredged up the details in a while. “That noise about some systems saying the Senate was corrupt, and they wanted to be left alone, right?”
“It got more serious than that,” Nishida informed him. “At least serious enough that we were on the lookout for data piracy. So far the NerveGear only works for Humans, but the sensory translation programs have been targets of black-market cyberneticists.” He gave Agil a sharp look. “And no organization orders combat droids unless they plan to use them.”
“Yeah, but... on Corellia?” Agil objected, disbelieving. “Anybody wants to leave the Republic, we’d just tell ‘em bye, have fun, leave a trading route open for us.”
Behind his glasses, Nishida’s dark eyes were grim. “Exactly.”
Exactly? It didn’t make sense, damn it. Attacking Corellia, smugglers and risk-takers to the core, if you wanted to leave the Republic? That made about as much sense as-
As using your own army to attack Jedi. “Sith. Damn it.”
Small fingers tapped on the side of his head. “Huh? I don’t get it.”
“Start a war, drag in the Jedi,” Agil summed up for the kid. “Use a war to get an army to kill the Jedi. That’s the Sith all over the place. Get the Dark Side going - get people angry, not thinking straight - and they come out on top.” Which means dropping killer droids on top of us makes sense, damn it.
Corellians had a long, long history of biting anybody who poked them, going all the way back to the original human rebels bolting off Coruscant twenty-odd thousand years ago. Arrange for the Separatists to attack Corellia, and they’d stay in the Republic, instead of taking the chance to tell Coruscant and the Senate to stuff it.
And we’ll hate every minute of it. Which makes the Dark Side stronger. Far as the Sith go - win, win, win.
“Here.” He picked Sings-to-Steel off his shoulders, offered him to Nishida. “Footing looks better up ahead.” And I might have to move.
Damn, I hope we’re wrong....
Hate blast shields, Klein griped to himself, eyeing the gray barrier meant to protect a welder from his tools. Hate ‘em.
The redhead poked a bit of rag on a metal rod around the corner of it first, just in case. He trusted Kirito and Argo and anyone else with Force-senses to warn him about an upcoming ambush. Heck, he trusted his own senses. But sometimes droids could fool the Force, and cloaking devices could fool your eyes, and Sith could fool everybody.
Rule of survival in ORO: if you didn’t have a clear line of sight, you assumed there was a mob back there.
Well. That’s what clearers are for. Smirking at little at himself, Klein waggled the rod.
No blast clipped the cloth. No stealthy tentacles crept out of hiding. No cloaked figure materialized to drag him to a screaming doom.
Another breath, and Klein whipped around the blast shield.
Klein glared at the next clear stretch of factory floor like it’d called his mother an Ugnaught. Sighed, and turned to wave the first ‘speeder forward, putting on a smile for the nervous padawan in the pilot’s seat. “Okay. Let’s move people up.”
“Augh!” A fist crashed down on the ‘speeder’s dashboard. “It’s too much!”
“Whoa!” Suguha grabbed Pellegrin’s hand before her fellow padawan could jerk the ‘speeder controls directly. “Just calm down. Let’s take a second to think. There has to be enough room. We just need to see it.”
That, or yank out the lightsabers to clear the bottleneck of droids and machinery. Which was really, really tempting.
Master Golia, what should I do?
But her master wasn’t there. He wouldn’t ever be there again. Tall and strong and kind, you’d never think he was kind the way his voice was like mountains grinding down....
Pellegrin’s curly brown hair was damp with sweat, and his face was wet with tears. “Why are we doing this? Without Master Mauchell....”
“Because they’d want us to!” Suguha snapped, feeling those words like acid on a wound. “Because we’re Jedi, and we don’t let this stop us-!”
The dark-haired player was almost as curly as Pellegrin, and he was... well, a bit blocky, even after three years in treatment. But he was calm in the Force.
Not like a Jedi, Suguha thought, blinking. Like a tree in the sun. Or a rock in a stream, with water flashing light around it.
“Dale. Fuurinkazan,” he nodded at both of them. Reached into the cockpit, and put a hand over Pellegrin’s forearm. “Relax. Just take a deep breath.”
Skin contact. Suguha stepped back, startled, as Pellegrin gulped air and calm. He’s letting Pellegrin lean on him. “Who taught you that?”
“What, how to calm Force Adepts down?” Dale smiled at her. “Lady, I’m a tank.” He looked her over from head to disreputable spacer boots, and grinned. “Man, no wonder your brother punched Klein. If I had a little sister like you-”
Suguha stared at him. Hard. Because the thought of her older brother punching anybody was ridiculous. She was a Jedi. She could look after herself and him.
Dale cleared his throat. “It’s funny, but sometimes a straight line isn’t the shortest way to get somewhere.” He tapped Pellegrin on the arm, then flattened one hand and rocked it in the air, like a pilot dipping his wings.
Pellegrin stared. Looked at the tight gap they had to squeeze through, and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Right. Argh....”
Holding out his own flattened hand, Pellegrin breathed deep, and slowly tilted it.
The ‘speeder tilted with it, and eased through the gap like melting butter.
Suguha let a breath whoof out of her, and followed in Pellegrin’s wake. At least it’d been her fellow padawan in the speeder, and not Kazuto. Her brother would have taken that gap without ever slowing down.
He’d have made it, too.
Something CorSec could, unfortunately, attest to. Just about every Kirigaya ended up with a file full of moving violations eventually; after several thousand years hosting their own Jedi Order, CorSec had flung up their collective hands and created a broadcast code for crazy Jedi air stunt. Kazuto just had the dubious distinction of racking up his first charges at ten.
Trying to get himself grounded to get out of summer camp, Suguha recalled ruefully. Didn’t work.
Though the fit he’d thrown on the shuttle up for the first camp spaceflight had. Whining children, the teachers had been prepared for. Panic was rarer, but they were trained to handle that, too.
Her brother didn’t whine, and he didn’t panic. He just went paler and paler... and the moment they crossed out of atmosphere, he went catatonic.
She’d never, ever been that scared again. Until tonight.
Master Golia said we have to get off the planet. How? Suguha winced, and shook her head. Stupid. All we have to do is have Healer Agnei put him in a healing trance before we get off the ground. He’ll hate it, but he’ll live.
She hoped, anyway. Kazuto had always been a quiet presence in the Force, but after that awful trip, he’d faded so far she’d thought he was dead. Even today, when she was better trained, she couldn’t feel a trace of the bond they’d had as siblings....
There was a flutter in her sense of the Force. Like the cool breath of a downdraft, before the storm behind it broke the summer heat.
Scouting near the front of their caravan, her brother turned. Across the factory floor, black eyes met hers.
It is you. It is you!
Faint, and oddly out of focus; every time she tried to get a grip on Kazuto, he wasn’t quite there. But their bond was alive again, she had a brother again, and if he were in arms’ reach she’d hug the breath out of him.
A cool breeze, and a chuckle. :I hope not. Breathing’s important.:
She wanted to cry. And giggle. And hug him even harder. :You can send!:
All Jedi could pick up emotions through the Force; almost all of them could get across a few words when they were in dire need. But full telepathy wasn’t common off Corellia. Outside of Knight Gelis and Padawan Lau, she’d never met another offworld Human who could do it.
:A lot of us can.: A shy touch, like fingertips on the back of her hand. :I missed you. I missed everyone.: Worry, like a cold draft down her collar. :Mom and Dad?:
:They - they should have been far enough away from the Enclave.: Suguha pictured a city map in her head, hoping. :I want to reach out to them, but....:
:If you didn’t feel them die, they’re alive.: His surety was tinged with watercolors of old grief. :We have to get ourselves to safety first, Sugu. Then we’ll find them.:
It made sense. But the worry caught on the raw edges of her mind, dragging pain across that emptiness where Master Golia had been.
Mom, Dad, please be okay....
Midori Kirigaya didn’t hesitate, tossing her most important computer off the roof into the backseat of Agent Nyx’s speeder before tossing herself in after it. Minnetaka scrambled in right behind her, still grumbling and bleary; her husband never had favored a slicer’s odd hours.
The CorSec agent didn’t wait for them to secure a harness. She just lifted and banked away from the rooftop garden as if she’d paused by their skyscraper on a graveyard shift whim, and was now heading back to her scheduled rounds.
As they made a right turn into thin pre-dawn traffic, sirens wailed. Official CorSec green-and-whites swooped down on the Kirigaya residence, lights flashing.
“Okay, we cut that a little close,” Agent Nyx said faintly. “Next time I see a certain friend of mine, I’m going to bounce spitballs off him for routing the pickup to you guys first.” She took a deep, deliberate breath. “I just hope that gave other families enough time to pull off their safehouse plans. This is bad. This is worse than anything.”
“Worse?” Minnetaka checked Midori’s seat restraint, then his own. “The Enclave is burning! Some mad Hutt crimelord or space pirate finally decided to take out the green thorns in his side, and you say it’s worse?”
“It wasn’t a Hutt.” Glancing in her rearview mirror to check traffic behind them, Nyx switched vertical lanes. “Space, I wish it was.”
Not a Hutt? Midori traded a worried look with her husband. “We got the message to activate our safehouse plan.” Her family hadn’t expected to need that for a few more years, when Sugu started going on more dangerous assignments. But they’d started planning it anyway. Those criminals who had the luck and brains to escape Corellian Jedi often had the wits to find out those Jedi had family. And while scum like that usually didn’t have the guts to take on the Enclave, an ordinary family was a much more tempting target.
So if you had a Jedi in your family, you made plans. You learned to use a blaster - even if only on stun. You figured out escape routes. You taught yourself to fly and drive like a maniac if you had to. And you might even keep a set of fake ID on hand, with CorSec’s blessing. Just in case worse came to worst, and some of your loved one’s work followed them home.
Worse than Hutts. And the Enclave is gone. Midori tried not to close her eyes. If she did she’d see the holos again. The news of the falling starship, those horrible fires.... “Is Suguha even alive?”
“I think so.” The agent’s voice was tight. Controlled. Half a breath from weeping. “Thai... Master Golia said he was sending them into the Tunnels.”
And the Selonian Tunnels ran deep, Midori knew. That might have worked.
“Kazuto?” Minnetaka asked.
“...I don’t know.”
Midori winced, gripping Minnetaka’s hand as it found hers. Take the NerveGear off, and people would die. But if they didn’t take it off... she didn’t see any way the ORO victims could have escaped. “What’s happening?”
Passing streetlights glittered in the agent’s eyes. “The Army got orders that the Jedi are traitors to the Republic. All of them.”
Blood rushed in Midori’s ears. The words didn’t even make sense. Master Golia would have laid down his life for Corellia. How could anyone call Jedi traitors?
“Padawans, and anybody associated with Jedi, are supposed to be held for questioning,” Agent Nyx went on grimly. “I hear Headquarters is trying to stall on that. But there’s a limit to how much stalling you can do when there are clone troopers with blasters in your face.”
“That’s insane!” Minnetaka burst out. “This isn’t the Rim Worlds, or some Huttspace backwater. This is Corellia!”
This is insane, Midori agreed silently, mind tumbling over itself as she tried to put the slim handful of facts together. Which would have been easier if the part of her that was a mother weren’t beating her breast in anguish, wailing for her lost children. Both of them. Kazuto might have been born Aoi’s son, but Midori had loved him from the moment she’d first held him.
Don’t give up on him. He’s beaten the odds before. If Suguha’s alive, and Agent Nyx thinks she is... oh, Force. I can’t lose them again!
“That’s insane,” Minnetaka repeated, stunned. “That’s... who do we report this to? What are we going to do about this?”
“Funny thing about having a Grand Army of the Republic.” Agent Nyx’s smile was all sharp teeth. “There’s nobody we can report them to. Except, oh, maybe our Senator. You know, the guy in the Senate that keeps voting Palpatine more emergency powers? Palpatine, who’s the Supreme Commander of the army that just killed my partner-!”
The ‘speeder didn’t wobble. But Midori braced herself in her seat anyway. Your partner. Suguha’s master. Oh, my poor baby. “Do you want one of us to drive?”
“...No. No, I can do this.” The agent shook herself, jinking right to pass a recycling transport chugging along in the fast lane. “I don’t know what you’re going to do. But Thai told me there was a Sith out there, and there is no way in the galaxy I’m hanging around while it comes here. I am getting off this planet. And I’m taking every poor kid who got out of the Enclave with me.”
“To go where? And do what?” Minnetaka demanded.
“To stay alive!” Nyx gripped her controls hard. “I don’t know. All I know is....” She made herself breathe. “If I stay here, I’m going to do something stupid. Thai wouldn’t want that. Not when I can save lives instead.” She loosened her hands, and swung them into a slow, northbound loop, toward where banks of parking lot lights glinted off a long, transparisteel-covered building. “Of course, this probably counts as just as stupid....”
A glint of light, something was moving-
Argo stared at the suspect droid as others walked past behind her, heart thudding in her chest. It wasn’t moving. It was just a reflection of light from one of the ‘speeders gliding past, glinting in dead optics.
Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering, Argo reminded herself, forcing stiff legs to move. Fear is of the Dark Side. Let it go.
Though it was silly not to be just a little afraid. If the Force was created by life, then it was preserved by what saved life. Any good clearer was a little afraid. It kept you sharp.
Let it come, but let it go, Argo told herself, walking on with the flow of survivors. Be afraid if you have to be. But never strike just because you’re afraid. The Sith know fear the way a gourmet knows wines; they can use it against you....
It was like turning a kaleidoscope, and seeing all the colors fall into a new pattern. Suddenly it made sense.
Ki-bou’s not the best with big picture stuff. Asuna’s busy running this evac. Who can I- aha. “Agil!”
The big trooper turned toward her hiss. Saw her wave, said something low and encouraging to the kid and the old fisherman he was with, and waded through the crowd to her. “Argo. What’s up?”
“I know what Order 66 is for.”
Agil almost whistled. “For how many credits?”
Argo flicked her fingers; one tiny Force-push thwap on the head. “For real, trader. It’s not just to wipe out the Jedi. It’s to keep us rich Corellians in the Republic, where Palpatine and his Sith can shake us down.”
“Wha....?” Agil walked with her, brows wrinkling in a scowl of concentration. “Wait. If he says the Jedi are traitors-”
“And if he says it long and loud enough, people are going to believe it,” Argo bit out. “Just look at Kibaou.”
“Most places in the Republic, it’s not going to matter much,” Agil went on. “Thousands of Jedi, over a million living worlds - most people aren’t going to care. But we’re Corellia. Nobody’s going to buy that....”
“Except the rest of the Republic,” Argo nodded. “We’re rich. We’re rebels. We do what we like, and we laugh at the idea that any other planet can make laws we don’t like, just because there are more of them than us. Well, now it’s their turn to cash in. They’re all going to be watching us. Waiting for us to prove we’re traitors, too.”
“Damn,” Agil breathed, heartfelt. One dark fist clenched. “Damn it, we’re running away....”
“We have to.” The words caught in her throat; Argo forced them out anyway. “We have to get off the planet. The Sith are going to be looking for survivors. We’re not Ki-bou, who can hide in a shadow and look like a tree. And we don’t have time for him to teach us that trick. Any of us who can touch the Force - we have to go.”
“Bottlenecks.” Lau studied the lift ahead of them, blue eyes sober and worried. According to Agnei’s map, it would take them up to the surface inside a mall warehouse. And then... well, they’d have to see. “I really hate bottlenecks.”
“We didn’t have them much in ORO.” Silica bit her lip as she tried to guess what Lau and Nanami were seeing. Padawans had to know more than she did about real-world fighting, right? “Except for Opening Day on Coruscant, we were never all in the same place.”
She had to hold back a sigh. She didn’t know what they were seeing. She saw a lift near the northeast corner of the factory floor, railing on three of the four sides, with one long side left open for loading; evidently Selonians weren’t worried about somebody slipping off mid-lift. Big; you could fit two ‘speeders on if you were careful parking, or a lot more people if they didn’t mind standing on each other. But not big enough. Not with six thousand people to move.
“Well, this is a bad one,” the blond padawan sighed. “They’ve reinforced the repulsors, so we can fit... maybe two hundred people at a time. But this is going to take a while.” He glanced at Nanami. “Going up with the scouts?”
Nanami nodded, opening a cage door so a glossy brown-and-buff feather-drake could flutter out onto his shoulder.
“Be careful.” Silica rubbed Pina’s head, trying to stay calm. “Some of the clearers had quests evacuating refugees. They were hard.”
Green eyes creased in a quiet smile. Nanami murmured a soundless word to his feather-drake, who nodded, and took off for the lift.
Moving silently in his companion’s wake, Nanami glanced back over his shoulder. And winked.
“He thinks you’re brave,” Lau confided, checking over their speeder and the nest crates so everything would be ready to go up once the scouts said it was safe.
“N-no!” Silica protested, looking anywhere else as the lift rose. They weren’t out of the tunnels yet, right? It only made sense to keep looking for danger. Anywhere that wasn’t near Nanami. “I’m scared a lot.”
“Every Jedi gets scared sometimes.” Blue eyes went distant, as listening seemed to sweep out from him. “They’re up. No problems yet.”
Pina’s claws kneaded her shoulder, ready to launch. Silica took a deep breath, and let it whoosh out. Get ready. Get ready....
The lift came back down. More people got on; Silica recognized some of them. Mid-levels and low-levels and probably some of the KoB clearers, from the nods they traded with Asuna.
And up. And down. Lau raised an eyebrow at her.
Silica shook her head, feeling Pina’s determination. “We’ll stay down here for a few more lifts.”
“Good luck, then.” Lau maneuvered his speeder up onto the lift, the rest of it filling with people.
Silica watched them rise out of sight, half-wishing she were going up with them. But Kirito and Asuna and other people she knew were still down here, and she didn’t want to feel like she was leaving them behind-
“Chrrrl!” Pina took to the air, head swiveling east. :Squeaking metal-grinding there!:
“Kirito!” Silica yelped. “Droids!”
The east wall exploded.
A/N: Devaronian bandara - an insect that gathers in swarms on beaches.
When bronzium rolls, it sounds like glass and thunder.
A half-dozen shadows wheeled into the fray, flashes of copper and seared-dark in the scattered lights of their prey. Not that the droidekas knew, or cared; seeing the world not with photoreceptors, but composite radiation sensors oblivious to light, darkness, or the fog of war. Behind them lurched their doorknocker; what most clone troopers would have thought was a modified B2 super battle droid. Those Jedi and troopers who’d survived the Outer Rim Sieges would have correctly identified it as a B3 - and lethal, even if its primary left arm’s rocket launcher and plasma cannon had been reduced to black gaps of torn metal and ruined circuits. The Selonians had died hard... but they’d died.
A Clone Wars commander would have ordered a strategic retreat. Damaged or not, one droideka was easily a match for most Jedi; and every Jedi general and commander had heard how it’d taken two Council Masters - no less than Mace Windu and Saesee Tiin - to take the first B3 down. Yes, retreat might leave a few thousand civilians in harm’s way... but war was war, and civilians could be expendable.
ORO’s survivors didn’t know this, and wouldn’t have cared if they had. Every survivor, from the highest-level clearer down to the most frightened denizen of Corsucant, had lived through three years of the Galactic Civil War. Three years of the Old Republic and the Sith Empire doing their damnedest to destroy each other; when every Jedi studied combat first and diplomacy afterward, and even the greenest trooper in the field knew he might have to face down a red lightsaber. Three years of living - and dying - with one unshakable truth.
You do not leave a party member to die.
They were exhausted. They were unarmored. And all too many of them had no better weapon than a vibroblade.
They’re here. So many people are here.
Stepping out of her ‘speeder to join the small crowd in the mall parking lot, Guenith had to stop and rub her eyes. Smoke stinging them. Had to be. After all, there were a good dozen off-duty firefighters here... ones who’d been forcibly turned away by arriving clone trooper reinforcements, and finally called off by their captains when it was clear there was nothing they could do but let the Enclave burn itself out.
Firefighters. Paramedics. Off-duty CorSec agents, looking just as shell-shocked as Guen felt. And more than a few kids and parents with hastily thrown-on clothes, faces that odd mix of hope and fear written all over the Kirigayas.
In the middle of it all was one face Guen didn’t recognize. A tall, blonde woman in a coat and apron, handing out steaming mugs of mocha and coffee.
No. I do know her. “Madam Mills?” Guenith blurted out. “Kathy Mills?” Of course. The Dicey Cafe was in the Brightleaf Mall, but.... “What are you doing here so early?” The mall wouldn’t be open for at least another hour. That was the only way they’d get away with this.
“Cooking takes a lot longer when you don’t have a partner. I have to get in early.” Andrew Mills’ wife gave her a fierce look. “They say you need to move six thousand people who are supposed to be dead. You think the ORO patients might be alive?”
Six thousand people, when there couldn’t be more than two dozen padawans. She’d finally figured it out. “I hope so,” Guenith said raggedly. “I had... a dying declaration that this was the place to come.”
Anyone associated with CorSec gave her a sharp glance at that one. As well they might. Other planets might not care, but on Corellia, if someone knew they were going to greet the Grim Commandant in person, their last words were legitimate legal testimony.
Thai had known what he’d been about to do. What the Enclave meant to die doing.
Those fires are their last words. The Grand Army is our enemy.
What Corellia could do about it - she didn’t know. Not yet. “Thanks for the coffee, ma’am.” Guen raised her voice so all the crowd could hear. “Let’s get inside before people start wondering if there’s a gas leak.” She paused. “Which might not be a bad idea, if things get a little sticky.”
Wry laughs echoing after her, Guenith led the way inside.
“So how are they getting here?” Agent Pin Griffiths fell into step with her; from the blond’s slouch hat and spaceport roustabout gear, as determinedly off-duty as she was. “Can’t be by air, they’d already have transport. Can’t be ground, that got fried. Which leaves....” He eyed the tiled floor.
Guen straightened her shoulders. “Yeah, so?”
“Then we’ve got a problem.” Pin tipped his hat back as they headed down the mall’s main drag. “One of my Selonian contacts finally made up her mind that she’d better drop a minicred.”
Oh, finally. Selonians were fast as a whip when it came to putting electronics together or biting and blasting anybody unlucky enough to end up in their nests, but ask them to make a decision that didn’t benefit the nest directly? Stars might go nova quicker.
“Seems they had an injured fertile male almost fall into her nest, so the nest mother really wasn’t keen on making a noise about it.” Pin rolled his eyes toward the dark sky outside transparisteel.
Ouch. Selonians had two sexes like most mammalian species, but most of the females were born sterile; more workers for the nest. And there weren’t many males born at all. Damn right the nest mother would have done her best not to let a whisper get out. “But your informant was?” Guen asked. Which gave her a really, really bad feeling. Pin’s contact was almost certainly a sterile female; they were the only ones who usually dealt with humans at all. For a worker to go against the nest mother....
“He landed on them out cold, with bad burns. Nest mother said it must have been an industrial accident.” Pin grimaced. “A couple hours ago, he woke up and said droids. Now, my friend said he was fading in and out - but she thinks he was describing wheelies.”
The hairs on the back of Guen’s neck shivered upright. Wheelies. Trooper slang for droidekas.
“I turned in the report before somebody called me,” Pin went on, coldly matter-of-fact. “Last I heard, CorSec was going to do a poke into the tunnels, based from here, armed for droid.” He paused. “Lucky us, the Special Weapons guys had a few late nights. They were planning to get here around noon.”
So they’d probably miss Special Weapons, but they might have to deal with killer droids. “Oh,” Guen deadpanned. “Yay.”
Pin grinned at her, CorSec sardonic to the bone. Then sobered, and lowered his voice. “You up to this? Everyone knew you and Golia were... close.”
“Everyone?” Guen sputtered, making a right down the wide hall. If her mall map was good, the Selonian-stocked electronics warehouse was this way. “What do you mean, everyone?”
“Oh, come on, Nyx. Everybody down to the ‘speeder maids was taking bets on when you two would finally rent a room and....” He winced. “Sorry.”
“Yeah, you should be-” Guen cut herself off, a chill going down her spine. It was faint, muffled, but....
“Is that blaster fire?”
“Your mother was a vaporator!” Klein ducked sparks from one droideka’s return fire, and kept plinking back at the huge battle-droid and anything that hadn’t unrolled yet. “And you can’t even speak Bacchi!”
In ORO, smugglers could taunt mobs into focusing on them, rather than the troopers and stray Force-users trying to punch the enemy’s ticket. Klein had no reason to think that little quirk of the game would carry over....
Except that it was working. The desperate groups of clearers and midlevels that had swarmed toward the break-in were drawing the droidekas south, along what was left of the east wall. Away from the low-levels still streaming toward the lift.
But there’s so many people to get out... focus. Party members, mobs - keep them on you! “Hey, scrap parts! Get your sights calibrated, I’m over here!”
For a moment, all he could see was the corona of blue around the battle-droid’s tiny left arm-
A spinning blast shield took the bolt; shattering into gray bits of metal, but just enough cover that he dodged with nothing worse than a sunburn. Klein grinned at his guild. The welding station shields were no cinch to move, but a few vibroblades and five willing shoulders had done the job-
From the droid’s larger right arm, fire roared.
Oh, that’s just not fair....
Flames spread a blast of volcano heat on the other side of the room. Suguha broke into a sweat. If the battle-droid’s flamethrower moved this way-
Don’t think! Do!
She was more than busy enough where she was, as she and the other padawans like Pellegrin used all the speed the Force gave them to swat bolts away from screaming survivors. She wanted to do more, she wanted to be in that fight-
“Why can’t we just- just smash that thing?” Pellegrin panted. “One good push, and....”
“And you’d draw its fire to no purpose, Padawan!” Anton’s voice rang over the bolts. “Density projector. It won’t push. Masters have tried! Leave it. As long as we’re over here, we should only be incidental targets. If it opens up with those blaster cannons we won’t save anyone.”
Which was why she wasn’t in that fight. She’d never fought droids before and Healer Agnei said the survivors had and these people needed her. Vibroblades couldn’t parry blaster fire.
They can’t parry flamethrowers, either!
But someone - no, a bunch of someones - were pushing the flames back, torrents of red and hungry yellow recoiling as if from invisible walls. Some parts of the fire just hit air and clung, gnawing away oxygen but unable to move farther. Others coiled back and wrapped around nearby droidekas, streaks of bronzium armor glowing red with heat.
Ha! Eat that-
A bolt seared flesh, and lashes of fire raged free.
There was screaming.
It’s not me. It’s not me!
Suguha pulled her emotions back to herself, like yanking in a kite from a hurricane. She had to stay calm. She had to fight-
Blue. Fluttering near one of the droidekas. Over the bobbing pigtails of a running girl in hospital white.
She’s running right for the shield!
Pina’s shimmering Force-breath struck the top of the droideka’s shield. For a moment energy fought energy, blue crackling against soap-bubble iridescence-
For one second, the bubble shattered.
Silica leapt through the hole before the generators could reboot, tumbling past surprised receptors. A twist, a turn, and a bounce, and she dodged blasts, tripod stamps, and flailing arms.
“If you’ve the nerve, get in close.”
She was a dagger specialist. Close was her friend.
Move and keep moving and you’re too slow, you big meanie!
Contrary to their press releases, the carnivorous insectoids of Colla IV had known exactly what they were designing droidekas to do. They were self-mobile weapons emplacements, with shields and firepower sufficient to withstand anything up to a heavy artillery strike. But most of all, they were meant to be terrifying. Their enemies were meant to flee, to put distance between themselves and oncoming death; distance droidekas used to tear them apart. Their programming gave them countless strategies for every imaginable foe, from a single Jedi with a lightsaber to a battalion of clone troopers to Star Destroyers striking from orbit.
They had programs for mad beings with vibroblades, as well. Most of which could be summed up with one word: ignore. A thousand researchers had proven a vibroblade wielded by mere flesh and bone was no match for bronzium armor.
Silica’s knife had rather more Force behind it.
Agil felt his jaw drop, as the little midlevel jumped back out of a clatter of bronzium shards. The ex-droideka’s pair of generators hit the floor with a strong enough thunk to vibrate his feet, tilting and leaning at crazy angles. Kirito said she was good, but damn!
He wished they were all doing that well. Fuurinkazan and other clearers had managed to shred another droideka with blaster bolts before it could unroll, every droid had at least little pieces chipped off of it, and they’d managed to keep drawing the droids’ aggro onto them instead of the padawans batting stray bolts away. If this was a regular fight, they’d have things under control.
Agil took a potshot at another blasting droideka, grumbled some Devaronian curses under his breath as its shield came back up just in time, and dodged back behind Kirito’s parrying ‘saber. Damn it, he’d thought he had that one, before Silica had jumped over a twitching leg and his target had skittered back-
Worse than a boss fight. If this were an ORO fight this down to the wire, Argo would be fighting with us.
Instead she and Lisbeth and a bunch of others were doing ungodly things to the lift controls, probably overriding every safety protocol known to Humans and a few even the Selonians had forgotten were in there. Because that was the only way to keep the lift running - and if they didn’t keep people moving, there was going to be a slaughter down here.
There already has been.
He wasn’t looking over toward the medics. He was not going to look at the people they’d dragged clear, fighters who’d gone down and might not get up again. The smell of burned flesh was more than enough.
Keep it together; keep everyone moving. You can pass out later.
He hoped. If Agnei’s apprentices weren’t up to handling whatever was on the next level, he was going to have words with somebody....
The warehouse was chaos.
Sweat and ozone assaulted Guenith’s nose, with a follow-up punch of seared flesh as she got through the main door. Fire alarms and security sirens and who knew what wailed in her ears, screeching louder as the lift hatch snapped back again to deliver another load of exhausted survivors. Tiles seemed to shimmy under her feet, making something primitive in her brain start screaming to run the other way; in a mall rated for thousands of shoppers on every square foot of retail space, she didn’t want to think how much mass it took to shake the floor.
I could stop. I could wait, see what comes out, I don’t have to run in there....
She gritted her teeth and forged through the sea of frightened people, Pin and a team of burly fire paramedics backing her up. It wasn’t a mob, not yet. People had enough wits left to see the CorSec holo from her ID and clear a path. But from the shakes and the hollow eyes, that was about all they had left.
What the hell is going on down there?
“-Bucket-chain, damn it! Kids out first!” A brown-haired man with what had to be a clone trooper’s blaster grabbed people by the shoulder and got them untangled into groups, all the while keeping a wary eye on the lift area. “And someone slice those damned alarms off!”
“Agent Nyx, CorSec! We’re here to help!” Guen forged the last few feet to get in yelling range; almost face to face, with the noise, and she couldn’t help but agree about the alarms. “Are you in charge here?”
“Schmidt, Divine Dragons,” he shouted back, and jerked his thumb toward a knot of stillness in the midst of the crush. “You want to help, start with them!”
Spirits of space, have mercy.
The taller paramedic with her bit out a curse at the burned bodies, then dropped down by the young healers working on them and started snapping orders over his comm. His partner had already broken out their kit, checking for life signs and sticking triage tags on bits of intact clothing.
Pin traded a quick glance with her, blaster already drawn and not set to stun. “What in the nine hells is going on down there?”
Schmidt bared his teeth, as the last refugee scrambled off and the lift dropped like a stone. “The big one has a flamethrower.”
Triage, Agnei told herself, as she shoved and pushed and glared people onto the lift. Children out first.
As many as they could manage, at least. The youngest players had mostly clumped together with Sasha, and almost all the Enclave younglings had gravitated toward her as well during their harrowing march. They were up and out, now. But children being children, there were always a few strays.
Red hair gleamed next to pale down the line, and Agnei grimaced. Nomi wouldn’t leave Yulier, and she wouldn’t leave Thinker-
Anton all but materialized behind the argument, seizing the RLF leader’s shoulder with a growl. “All of you, go! They need leaders upstairs to keep the lift area clear.”
Thinker reddened, but nodded, swinging Nomi up into his arms as they ran for it.
Agnei held her breath as she had so long ago on Thyferra, and squeezed off a blast. Across the room a dangling ceiling tile dropped onto a droideka’s shield in a rain of sparks. Pitiful in terms of damage, but it might give someone a momentary distraction. “Funny, I didn’t hear any comms about needing leaders. And get off that-”
Anton’s blade swept in front of her, deflecting the shot that had chased hers back. “It’s common sense,” he grumbled, side-stepping for a better angle on incoming blasts. “And if we don’t make it, those two are the best chance the younglings have of staying in the Light.” Three more swift movements; he barely limped. “And I can heal myself a bit. I am fine.”
For another ten minutes, at that rate, Agnei almost snapped back.
But she didn’t. He was right, curse it. He was at least as fighting-fit as the clearers.
...And none of them were going to last ten minutes.
We’re in the real world. Asuna yanked one hand back to slam droideka pieces against still-intact shields. Enemies don’t just shatter into pixels.
Which on the one hand made for a very messy battlefield. They’d lost at least two clearers down or dead from just tripping over factory junk. On the other....
They have generators to power those shields. If the one Silica shredded didn’t just go boom- “Agil! Can your team get the adds grouped together?”
“Ranged mobs!” Agil swore. “You know pulling them is like counting thantas’ teeth-”
Pieces of a manufactory droid crashed into the melee, courtesy of KoB muscle and Force. They smashed against raised shields in a spray of light and sparks, bouncing two of the droidekas back-
One droideka’s tripod feet ended up yards closer to Rainshadow. In a blink it collapsed into a wheel, rolled back, and unfolded again, narrowly dodging blaster fire from the dozen or so clearers who weren’t trying to snipe the boss battledroid.
It had to take down the shield to roll, Asuna realized, hunting through droideka bits by mind. That one felt like metal, and that one like circuits, where were the darn generators.... Why would it risk blaster fire to back off, when all Rainshadow has is a vibroblade-
“Agil! They’re combat droids!” And finally she had two pieces that felt heavy and sparkly in her mind’s grip, about time! “They saw Silica!”
“Got it!” Agil raised his voice. “We need to push, people! Vibroblades and rush ‘em!”
Asuna fisted her hands, yanking the two generators into the air and arcing them over the droidekas as clearers yelled and charged. Praying that she’d guessed right - and that the basics of combat droid programming hadn’t changed that much in thirty-six hundred years.
People could program a droid for the battlefield, and obviously someone had. But no programmer could write threat algorithms to cover every possible contingency. A droid had to be able to build some of its own. In this case, carrying vibroblade plus highly aggressive tactics equaled close range threat.
But improvised algorithms were always buggy, and always slower to operate than standard programming. If the droidekas focused on the clearers....
They can’t timeslice their data fast enough.
Asuna drew her fists together, and slashed them down.
Two generators impacted in the midst of four clumped shields. And there was light.
The floor reared like a bucking wampa. Guen dropped to the tiles, catching one of the firefighters who’d just made it in, and biting back a yelp as someone else’s elbow thumped over her kidney. Whatever that had been, they’d better put a stop to it before more people got killed-
Scrambling to her knees, Guen stared. Smoke and lightning crackled on a sudden breeze, carried by gusts surging from the gaping floor up to a shattered hole in the transparisteel roof. The east wall of the warehouse... pretty much wasn’t there anymore.
Neither was the floor, for at least three meters from the wall. And counting.
“Everybody out!” Schmidt shouted. “Go, go, go!”
Guenith stayed where she was, even as people scrambled past. The floor under her would probably be good for oh, at least another minute. And if there was another blast like that - she wanted to see it coming.
And the smoke was clearing, meaning she might get a chance to see just how badly they were screwed. Schmidt had said there were a half-dozen droidekas and some kind of bigger droid. Even with the usual civilian tendency to exaggerate threats, it really didn’t sound healthy down there-
Something huge moved through the smoke and sparks. One primary arm gone, the other shredded; but two smaller arms were whining up to speed, spitting blue bolts of blaster fire.
The adds are down.
Kirito bared his teeth, shaking out his free hand as bits of bronzium pattered down. Fingers itched and tingled, like the worst case of pins and needles; absorbing energy that’d blasted toward them and reshaping it into a shield against the rest had left nerves trembling and cranky.
It’ll pass. Fight!
Whoever had had the bright idea to put a density projector in a battledroid ought to be hunted down and shot. Two generators going off hadn’t even made it quiver. And if it was programmed anything like the ones in ORO, it knew that last attack had used the Force. It’d be looking for Asuna.
It’s looking for a Jedi. And I’m the one with the lightsaber.
One arm whined and lifted.
Aiming away from the clearers. Toward the other concentration of lightsabers.
A body of matter has limits, Master Golia had told Suguha, more than once. The Force can help us go beyond those limits, but not forever. Build your endurance so you can survive as long as possible.
She’d done that. For years. But her arms ached and her lungs burned and she didn’t know at all how Argo and Lisbeth were still jury-rigging the lift controls, damping down one sparking misfire after another. The world had narrowed down to the next ready stance, the next droideka bolt to parry away.
“Odd thought,” Pellegrin panted beside her, trembling just as much as she was. “If that thing’s got a density projector, wouldn’t that be the densest part?”
Suguha wiped sweat off her brow, trying to catch her breath. He was right about one thing, that was a weird thought-
I can’t see!
Suguha blurred into motion, trusting the Force to parry the bolts she couldn’t see. Too many, too fast; this was the battledroid, not a droideka, and why was it shooting over here-?
The lift. It doesn’t want us to get away!
The world slowed, clear as a vision.
Five more bolts before they turn it. I’m not fast enough.
She was already moving to parry the first. She’d get the second; maybe the third. But she couldn’t run, any bolt that cut through her would go on to blast Lisbeth and Argo and the controls, all those people on the lift-
Pellegrin’s green blade swept in front of her.
Blast after blast struck his lightsaber, drawn in by a flux in the Force that tingled down her spine. She’d known Pellegrin was training to absorb energy - but that was remote stings, not blaster fire! If you didn’t redistribute the energy fast enough-
The scream etched her soul like acid.
She caught him. She didn’t care if another bolt came.
“Over here, you walking scrap heap!” A desperate bellow echoed across the room. “Damn it, we’re the ones shooting at you-!”
:Don’t try to talk.: Suguha pressed her fingers to his forehead to block the pain, trying not to look any lower. :I’ll get you to Agnei-:
:...I’m not sorry.: His breath stopped. :I’ll tell the Masters... you’re not coming yet....:
Silence. A silence that seemed to roar in her ears, deafening the whole world.
Her eyes were clearing.
Two lightsabers in her hands. One she’d built under her master’s watchful eye, and would not part from it while she breathed. The other - grief and pain and sacrifice.
Wouldn’t that be the densest part?
Igniting the green ‘saber, Suguha threw.
Secondary target eliminated. Primary target-
Primary target: missile attack.
Metallic, energy source contained, stable, light weight. Determination: No threat, ignore-
Battledroids were oblivious to light. The lightsaber’s power cell was clearly visible. The blade itself-
She got the density projector, Kirito realized, as the top-heavy droid staggered and clearers scattered back to avoid getting squashed. Or blasted, as metal arms now fired almost at random. It has to focus on its balance. And that’s going to mean more improvised programming, meaning all its processing slows down. We’ll have the upper hand now.... Oh no.
He didn’t know how much experience Suguha had had with battledroids, but he knew enough to guess what algorithms were currently running in this one’s processors. It wanted to kill. But its escorts were down, its ability to select targets was compromised, and the clearers were a much tougher nut to crack than the Selonians had been. Which meant if it wanted to keep killing, it’d be looking for the easiest targets-
A cool breeze that tasted of smoke and night wind brushed his face, and Kirito glanced skyward.
Stars, shining through a hole edged with glittering shards of transparisteel. A way out.
It’s not a boss. It can leave! And if it gets away from us-
The world slowed as he reached out a hand; calling, pleading....
A fallen ‘saber snapped into his grip, blazing green.
Oh, there’s no way he’s going to charge that-
Yes, Guen realized numbly, as emerald and sapphire blades began their mad dance, yes he was.
Right horizontal slash, left uppercut slash, spin-
She’d seen it before. She could almost hear Master Golia swearing beside her as he watched the technique yet again, picking apart how Kayaba had reinvented skills modern Jedi had all but forgotten.
“Starburst Stream is a kata,” Thai had finally summed up, after she’d grabbed his ear and threatened to feed the younglings rock candy if he didn’t start making sense. “A set pattern of movements, bringing body and mind into harmony. These days, most of us are taught forms. An entire style of fighting, which may or may not use the Force within it. We strike with the ‘saber, and push with a wave of our hands. A kata is different. Like a meditative chant. Or the Dathomiri witch spells... don’t tell the Council about that, they get twitchy....
“Jedi gave up spells ages ago. Too much akin to Sith Alchemy, the Masters declared. But they’re still in our records.”
And Kayaba, Guen thought now, as her hair rose on end and every fragment of metal and transparisteel suddenly lifted and hovered, was one hell of a hacker.
Guenith didn’t even look; just slapped the barrel of Pin’s blaster up, and prayed the discharge would get lost in the noise of sharp edges hurtling down like lightning. “Shoot it, and he’ll just get mad.”
She couldn’t blame Pin for trying. Distance played tricks with scale; if she didn’t know what she was looking at, she would have mistaken the battledroid for a weird humanoid in armor chasing a gleaming mote of green and blue, as a whirlwind of debris coalesced into a dragon with transparisteel eyes.
It’s a really big dragon.
Kirito shredded the droid from the front. The debris-dragon tangled it from the rear; wings of metal lashing out to deflect blasts away from the swordsman, claws tearing at damaged armor. One of the droid’s remaining arms shattered, spitting sparks and splinters into the howling wind.
“That - what the hell is that?” Pin stammered.
“Jar’kai,” Guen said simply. A real answer would take way too long. And the youngster had just reversed his grips to tear into the second half of the kata; corkscrew slashes down the armored torso, forward grip, X-slashes down and up- “Shield your eyes!”
Pin probably wouldn’t cover them in time. Nobody believed how fast Kirito could move. Not even other Jedi.
Guen peeked through her fingers anyway. Spin and thrust and lunge-
The dragon breathed, a thunderbolt of glass and lightning.
The battledroid vaporized.
Ears ringing, Guenith coughed, watching metal ash float upward as she tried to convince herself gravity worked. For a moment her bones had seemed weightless, as if will and faith were enough to shift the world.
Then the planet dragged at her again, ashes falling around the clearers. Around the young man still poised in a lunge, green blade extended and arms beginning to tremble.
“Go to them,” Agnei said quietly, gathering Suguha into her arms as the girl whispered old words over the fallen. “I’ll see to those who haven’t seen war before.”
Anton inclined his head, and limped over to where the clearers had collapsed to catch their breaths. He could do this. He’d dealt with souls just emerged from battle before.
Souls, yes. A thunderstorm?
That had been the most terrifying aspect of that impossible dragon-blast. It had looked Dark, vaporizing all in its path like the Force Rage legends whispered the Sith could tap. But he’d felt the young man’s emotions, clear as fires at midnight, and there had been no rage in him. Anger, certainly; and worry, and a fierce love for family and friends and partner that still shook Anton to his carefully-cultivated Jedi core of calm.
But no rage. Only - determination.
It was as if one of the great sea-storms of Dac turned, and looked, and decided to act.
Yet he’d sailed those storms before. The key to survival was respect, not fear. Skill in the Force aside, Kazuto Kirigaya was a living being, like the rest of them.
Just a bit more concentrated, Anton thought wryly, reaching the exhausted clearers. Behind him he could hear the lift moving again. Good. He’d seen troopers this weary before. Fortunately, not often. “I believe it’s time for us to withdraw.”
Ah, that had their attention. Many of them looked inclined to argue, particularly Asuna where she was huddled next to Kirito; Klein gripped each of their shoulders and murmured something too low to hear.
Agil’s glance slid that way long enough to make sure no one was about to take drastic measures, before he gave Anton a weighing look. “If those things have reinforcements....”
“If they did, they’d be here by now,” Anton said bluntly. “Droidekas are many unpleasant things, but subtle is not one of them. Whatever might still be down in these tunnels, we’ll have to risk. We know what’s coming up there.” He pointed up, toward the gaping hole in the sky.
“Whoa, they’ve got flying buddies?” Klein said numbly. “That’s just not right.”
“Flying-?” Anton choked off an entirely inappropriate snicker. Stress. Stress and adrenaline and just being so very, very tired, yes. “I take it there were no morning news holocasters in ORO?”
“Well, no. Not unless Argo or somebody set up a newscast....” Klein looked up. “Oh, frack.”
“Oops,” Kirito said, in a very small voice.
“Stop that,” Asuna said firmly, fingers wrapped around his. “We had to keep it from getting loose near civilians. You stopped it.” She looked around at what remained of the other droidekas. “We have to wipe their memories. We can’t leave any trace of... who’s still alive.”
Or who’s not, Anton finished to himself, as the survivors wearily got to their feet. We can’t leave data that any Jedi were here. Alive or dead.
“I think we can manage that.” A slender, dark-haired woman in a spacer’s long pants and jacket made her way toward them, flashing a holobadge from a wrist bracer. Hazel eyes were red with weeping, but her voice was steady. “Agent Guenith Nyx, CorSec. Kazuto Kirigaya? I know it’s been a while....”
“Agent Nyx.” Kirito let out a relieved breath, pale with worry and grief. “Suguha. She’s... she lost Master Golia... but you already know, you lost him too....”
The agent stopped in her tracks, hints of color blooming over her cheekbones. “Oh, you have got to be kidding me. You haven’t seen me in three years, and Thai, and - you knew?”
Black eyes stared at her, incredulous, before Kirito buried his face in his palms. “Three and a half years ago. Sugu... was out at the summer festival.”
“Right,” the agent said warily. “Both of you were-”
“I wasn’t.” The young man gave her a look that managed to mingle embarrassment and resignation in one deep sigh. “Our kitchen counter.”
The agent’s face reddened. Anton’s eyebrows rose.
“Ooo, I got to hear more about this,” Klein grinned.
“No, you don’t!” Kirito yelped. “If you can help us with the droids, Agent, we could use it. But... I don’t think we can take much time to assist in your investigation-”
“I’m not investigating anything.” The agent’s voice caught. “Thai asked me to get you out, and that’s what I’m going to do. And then....” She shook her head, blue-black hair falling forward to shadow her face. “Then I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.” Asuna raised her chin, and stepped forward to look Nyx in the eye. “You’re coming with us.”
The agent’s eyes flashed. “Your parents might have something to say about that.”
Parents. Anton almost cursed himself, then and there. Damn. I knew Corellians had families, and I didn’t think it through. The ORO survivors - they’ve seen war. They know they’ll need to do hard things to survive. But how can I take these children from parents who don’t know the danger? Who won’t know the danger, until it’s too late....
“My parents-” Asuna swallowed, face pale. “They can’t know I’m still alive. They’d never survive what a Sith would do to them.”
Kirito touched her shoulder. “Asuna.”
She tilted her head, brown eyes meeting black. For a moment Anton felt the echo of sorrow and determination, as two minds met and mingled.
Kirito drew in a breath, and nodded. “Okay.” He glanced away, where Silica was hugging a slightly singed feather-drake. “Come on. Time to rotate out.”
That brought a faint smile back to the girl’s face, as she scrambled to join the rest of them heading toward the lift.
“Time and past time,” Klein grumbled, as they walked past a few firefighters heading for the parts of the wall still on fire; talking into commlinks, directing the low drone of a fire-hovercraft to loom overhead, blocking out the stars.
And rather neatly blocking any news holos who might be sneaking this way, Anton thought, feeling oddly cheered.
“And don’t think I missed you two looking at each other,” the redhead grumbled on, as they settled onto the lift. “We get to a place where they’re not shooting at us, you two are going to talk out loud. With words.... What?”
Chuckling under his breath, Anton shook his head. “Forgive me. I’m not accustomed to being around ordinary people who are comfortable with Jedi. It’s - well, rather odd-”
He cut himself off, as Agnei shoved a tear-streaked Suguha onto the lift before it could rise. “Go.”
“But,” the padawan protested.
“I won’t leave him alone,” Agnei said gently, stepping back toward a lone, still form. “Go to your parents.”
Hugging herself, Suguha shuffled in with the rest of them. Agent Nyx’s breath hissed between her teeth. “Sugu?”
“Agent Nyx!” Black eyes were wet and red-rimmed. “I couldn’t save Master Golia. I couldn’t even save....” She glanced back toward that still body, breath hitching.
The lift was crowded, but Fuurinkazan knew how to use their elbows, Anton saw. The agent folded the girl into her arms, rocking her soundlessly.
Agil glanced back toward Agnei as the lift began to rise, then gave Anton a look full of weary sorrow. “What was his name?”
“Pellegrin,” Anton said quietly. “I wish I’d known him better.” I wish I’d saved him.
“Don’t we all.” Agil scowled at Kirito. “And what do you think you’re doing?”
Unlit ‘saber in hand, Kirito hesitated. “It’s his, Agil. It should go back to him. For the pyre.”
“You turn loose of a working weapon you know how to use before we get breathing room to get more, I’m going to have Asuna put you out.” Agil crossed his arms, and glared at Nyx when she looked up. “He helped save our lives. Let him keep saving them.”
The young man nodded, obviously not happy.
Well, who would be? Anton thought. The lightsaber is the heart of our teachings. It’s one thing to borrow a friend’s at need. Quite another to take up the blade of one who has passed into the Force. I know some Masters would call it only superstition - but there is a debt there, not lightly carried.
A debt that must be doubly painful to a Corellian, Anton realized, seeing how Kirito’s eyes went to Suguha before he tucked Pellegrin’s ‘saber up his sleeve. A Corsucanti Jedi might not know much about families, but Force help him, he’d seen far too many funerals. Families sought connections to those they had lost. To not have their child’s lightsaber for that last farewell... it must be a far more bitter pill than he’d yet realized.
At least I know some of what I don’t know, Anton reflected as the doors opened over them. Though I’d better start learning. Quickly. “Mistress Asuna? I’d like to help, if I may. Are there specific reasons your family-”
“Yes,” Asuna cut him off. Reddened a little, as the lift rose and settled. “I’m sorry. But there are a lot of people depending on them. They wouldn’t leave. By the time we could explain that this was real, that I have to hide from the Sith instead of-” She cut herself off, this time. “It’d be too late. For everyone.”
Instead of play the corporate wife, Anton caught her thought like a shout in that silence. Oh dear. No wonder the young lady was bolting. He’d seen the mess created when Count Dooku had renounced the Jedi Order to take up his hereditary title. The sort of pressure an interstellar corporate heir would face would be far worse.
And she’d seen the danger, recognized it, and decided. All in a few hours. There was a girl with nerves of pure durasteel.
Then again, she may have been thinking about this for some time, Anton considered. Even on Corellia, I doubt there are many who’d be willing to live with the fact that their life-partner truly does know what they’re thinking. He glanced at linked hands, auburn and black heads touching for a moment before Asuna and Kirito took their turn walking off the lift. And to leave a bond so strong, for a mere corporate alliance.... I couldn’t bear it. Why should she?
Then it was his turn to step onto what remained of the floor. No way to cover this up as “nothing happened”. I wonder if Nyx has a plan?
Well, they’d have to disentangle her from Suguha for a moment to ask-
The girl’s eyes widened. She pulled free, and stepped off the lift, eyes brimming with tears and desperate hope as she headed for two civilians mixed in with the paramedics and firefighters.
“Mom! Dad! Kazuto’s awake!”
A/N: Aggro - sometimes AKA hate or threat. The mechanism for how a monster prioritizes which player to attack next; effectively, how big a threat a monster considers you.
Adds - smaller mobs (monsters) that accompany the boss monster.
Dac- the home planet of the Mon Calamari.
Chapter 8: Chapter 7
He looks like hell, Midori thought, in that endless second before they reached her son. Too pale; too thin, despite all the Enclave’s medics had been able to do. Hair too long, caught back by what looked like a stray circuit tie. And the plain hospital tunic and pants looked like they’d been stampeded over by a herd of wild nerf.
But he was alive. Alive, and awake, and... holding hands with a girl? That was new.
“Mom. Dad.” His voice was a little deeper as he hugged them; a little older. But mostly just tired. “This is my partner, Asuna. Asuna? These are my parents, Midori and Minnetaka Kirigaya.”
Partner sounded like such an innocuous word. To most Humans, even to most Corellians, it was. But Kirigayas were CorSec and Jedi, and neither of those used partner lightly.
This is the person I trust at my back, Kazuto had just told them. This is the one I trust with my life.
What had happened in that game, that their son had decided he had a partner?
The auburn-haired girl bowed, Jedi-formal. “I’m glad to meet you,” Asuna said politely. “We didn’t talk much about the outside world in ORO, but I know he missed you.”
Minnetaka caught her eye, and nodded, even as he reached out to hug Suguha to them as well. “We need to talk. Somewhere that isn’t falling down or on fire,” he said dryly, turning them all toward the doorway. “What happened down there? It was like a bomb went off.”
“No, not a bomb,” Asuna shook her head. “Two droideka generators.”
What? “There were two droidekas down there?” Midori frowned Guenith’s way as the agent caught up with them. Why had her babies been anywhere near Jedi-killing droids?
“Um.” Guen scratched the back of her neck, eyes red-rimmed and just a little sheepish. “Actually....”
“Six droidekas,” Kazuto said, matter-of-fact. “One other combat droid we’ll have to ask Anton about. If we run into another like that, I want to know its weak spots.” He smiled at Suguha. “Good throw.”
Her daughter recoiled. “How can you say that? Pellegrin is dead!”
Pellegrin? Midori winced, and saw her husband’s shoulders slump. They hadn’t met the young padawan often, but he’d been a nice boy. One more death on top of the Enclave; it hurt.
“And what you did down there,” Suguha was pulling back, face pale, “that was Force Lightning-”
“No, it wasn’t,” Guen said firmly. “And your master knew all about it. I’ll explain. Later.”
But Kazuto had already pulled away, face as cool and neutral as Aoi’s in the middle of a riot. It chilled Midori’s heart.
“You should talk to Rainshadow and the other Knights,” Kazuto said, turning to Asuna. “Sort out who’s staying, who has to go. I’ll touch base with Argo, Lisbeth... and Sasha, I hope. Between us we probably know every midlevel and lower whose knacks are too strong to hide-”
“And first you’ll come sit down by the nice lady with coffee for a few minutes.” A scruffy redhead draped an arm over Kazuto’s shoulder with casual ease. “Before you fall down. Starburst Stream’s tough enough on you without a night like the one we’ve had.”
“Klein,” Kazuto protested.
“Fuurinkazan’s all going, so don’t argue.” Klein waved at some grinning guys dragging droid parts. “We like flying cargo.” He paused, and winked. “Sometimes even legal ones.”
“Should I be hearing this?” Guen said wryly.
“You’ll get used to them,” Asuna smiled, as Fuurinkazan hauled a grumbling Kazuto off. She nodded at Midori and Minnetaka. “Forgive us, but we have to get moving if we want to avoid the Army’s attention.”
“We’ve got speeder-buses,” the agent stated. “Just make sure people get sorted while we wipe the droid brains.”
“Transport should be enough for anyone staying,” Asuna agreed. “Those of us who are leaving will need a few things if we want to get to the spaceport without being noticed. Like clothes.”
“I know,” Guen said practically. “Head for the Chasm and Asteroid Belt Outfitters. Someone I know’s set up a lump-sum emergency fund to pay for what we’re about to commandeer.” She glanced back at a pressure-spray of water and chemicals dousing the hole from above. “Everything’s going to smell like smoke anyway. The owners’ll probably be grateful we took this stuff off their hands.”
“Someone who thinks.” Asuna reddened a little, and covered her mouth with her hand. “Sorry... I ended up handling a lot of our guild logistics, it could get exhausting when nobody else thought about what we’d need.... Thank you.” She eyed Suguha. “I need to talk to you. Later.” With a parting bow, she hurried off.
“And I need to talk to you right now,” Guen said firmly. “All of you.” She glanced between the three of them. “The Enclave didn’t want this getting out. So it didn’t go beyond the Masters and a few people in CorSec. Short version? Kayaba found a way to train Force-sensitives.” She took a breath. “Even ones who didn’t know they had anything to train.”
Midori’s hand found her husband’s. Father said Kazuto had no talent. That Aoi’s son - his grandson - had no strength in the Force. But he acts like a Jedi, and that lump in his sleeve; like Thai when he didn’t want to be noticed.... “Kazuto?”
“His training’s got some holes in it, but Thai said....” Guen swallowed. “Thai said he’s one of the best swordsmen the Enclave’s ever seen. He was a clearer. If he wasn’t good, he wouldn’t still be alive.” She glanced toward where auburn hair had disappeared into the survivors. “Asuna’s almost as good, and she has at least half of a Healer’s training on top of that. Healer Agnei was going to take over her training if she made it out. The tricky part was figuring out who’d help her train them, because you can’t split those two up. Not now; not for at least a few months, Agnei said. They’re hurt inside. They need each other.”
Suguha stiffened. “They’re hurt-!”
“I lost him too, Sugu.” Guen gulped a breath, and rubbed tears away from wet eyes. “I lost him, and I miss him, and it hurts. But I’ve lost people before, and... your brother’s not trying to hurt you. He smiled because he’s alive, and you’re alive, and he’s trying to keep you that way. He’s trying to keep you moving, so you don’t have time to think. Because if we stop, if we even slow down....” A tear broke free, painting a wet sheen down the agent’s cheek. “Then all we’re going to want to do is crawl into a hole and hide. For days. And we can’t do that yet.” She glanced back over her shoulder, where another load of survivors was coming up the lift. “I’m going to make sure it looks like droids and CorSec did it all.”
Midori hid a frown. There was pleading, mixed with the pain on Suguha’s face. “If that wasn’t Force Lightning....” Her daughter shuddered. “What did he do?”
“Talk to Healer Agnei,” the agent said firmly. “She saw Master Plo Koon use something like it on Thyferra.” She waved a hand, as if spreading out unruly notes. “It’s a long, complicated explanation. The way I boiled it down, it is Force Lightning. It’s just not Dark.”
Midori raised her eyebrows, and stepped closer to her daughter. “How is that even possible?”
“Thai called your son a force of nature.” Guen’s smile was faint, and bittersweet. “I don’t think he was joking.”
My son, Midori thought, proud and worried at once. Her quiet, determined son, who’d been told all his life that he would never be a Jedi; that he was expected to aid the Force in more mundane ways, catching lawbreakers and protecting innocent civilians. My son is going to live his life breaking the law. Because he is a Jedi.
Minnetaka reached out and put a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “How can we help?”
“Tell everybody who’s staying, if anybody asks you why you’re missing a few hours since the Enclave went up, you were assisting CorSec with inquiries.” Guen sniffled, and almost laughed. “Outside of that.... Make sure they get the right sizes? It’s been three years.”
Silica stood in the middle of racks of silk, lace, and frills, curious feather-drake on her shoulder, and didn’t know where to look to stop blushing. “I can’t- this is silly!”
“You’re fifteen. You need some of this.” Lisbeth surfaced from a stack of less-frilly undergarments, waving a pale gray bra in triumph. “Come on! I found athletic stuff in your size.”
Kirito stamped a foot, and breathed a sigh of relief. Finally, a set of boots that fit right.
“Basic black. Why am I not surprised?”
He grinned at Klein, and let the smuggler haul him to his feet. The redhead’s jacket was a little brighter than his guild colors, but the crew was recognizably Fuurinkazan again, down to Klein’s rakish bandanna over raggedly trimmed hair. It was amazing how comforting that was. “You look better.”
“We drop you in a dark alley, we’d never find you again,” Klein smirked.
“So, same as always,” Kunimittz quipped.
Dale rolled his eyes; the tank amused by the lighter fighters. “You think we’ll look enough like trouble trying to look decent to keep real trouble off our backs?”
“I hope so.” Kirito shrugged into a black longcoat, and sighed. “Cloth.” Not his familiar leather armor, light and impossibly tough, treated with the alchemic recipes strict Jedi would never use and solo players couldn’t afford not to use. Not even regular leather. Damn it.
“Yeah, yeah; live with it like the rest of us,” Klein shrugged. “It bites.”
“Does it ever,” Harry One grumbled. “We’re going to get Lisbeth and the rest of the armorers set up soon, right?”
“Blaster would go right through this stuff,” Issin agreed. “I feel naked.”
“And there isn’t even an Ethics Code to save us,” Kirito deadpanned.
“Oi!” Klein ruffled his too-long hair. “Wait, right... Dynamm?”
Kirito’s eyes widened, as Fuurinkazan’s pirate moved in with mini-vibroshears and a wicked grin. “DNA,” the swordsman objected. “Cell traces-”
“Sweat, blood, burned skin?” Klein shrugged. “Anybody does a serious sweep of this mall, they’ll find us anyway. Sit.”
Fearing for his ears, Kirito sat.
Vrummm. Snip. Whine.....
“There!” Almost smirking, Klein stuffed cut black in Kirito’s pockets, then hauled him back up and dusted off his shoulders. His smile bent a little, serious and thoughtful. “Damn. You look like you belong in a spaceport now.”
His head felt oddly light. Kirito had to half-shut his eyes a moment. Space. Real space, not the game.
The last time he’d left atmosphere for real, he’d panicked. He couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, only that it’d been dark and lonely and Suguha had been so scared.
He never wanted to scare her like that again. Suguha was a Jedi, and fear led to the Dark Side; but more than that, she was his sister. He didn’t want to hurt her. He’d tried to go into space again, he’d tried to get past that crippling fear....
But he couldn’t. No matter what he’d tried.
Until the ORO beta.
It wasn’t easy. The first few times he’d tried even riding a shuttle that dipped out of atmosphere and back again, his sheer level of panic had almost set off the NerveGear’s safety logout. But he’d known his body was on Corellia, no matter where his mind saw he was, and that had been just enough to keep the fear from blacking him out.
I can do this, he’d thought, after that first terrifying test run. I can do this, I can learn to face the void again.
And then Kayaba had locked them in, and panic wouldn’t log you out anymore.
I can do this.
Klein weighed him with a look. “You going to be okay?”
“I have to be.” Kirito took a deep breath. “But maybe I shouldn’t be flying the first time we break orbit.”
The redhead sighed, and bumped his shoulder. “You’ll be okay. Come on! Let’s get this traveling circus on the road. Just wait ‘til you see-”
“Asuna.” Eyes wide, Kirito headed for her.
White blouse, loose and flowing. White half-gloves protecting her hands. A cream jacket trimmed with dark blue, above a darker blue skirt; fashionably long in back, short in front to show off sheer white leggings.
Next to her, I’m a stormcrow by the cresting waves.
Well, this was one crow who didn’t mind a bit. The view was awesome.
...Funny, that throat-clearing off to the side sounded familiar.
That’s Mom. And Dad. And Sugu.
...Why do they all look like someone grazed them with a stunbolt?
Klein rapped a knuckle on the top of his head.
“Shake your head, your eyes are stuck,” the smuggler grinned. “And you’re giving your folks a heart attack. How old are you?”
“Seventeen, I think?” He glanced at Asuna, who seemed caught between a blush and a giggle. Then at his family, who ranged from the pure disbelief on Sugu’s face, to surprise, to outright amusement in his father’s set of shoulders. “Is something wrong?”
“Son,” Minnetaka said gravely, looking behind himself, “I think we’re going to have to have a talk.”
Looking behind, why-?
Oh no. There was Lisbeth in red and silver. Silica, blushing bright pink in her long green coat, Pina curled on her shoulder like an exotic bird. And Argo, with a wicked grin gleaming from under her dark gray hood.
What do I do?
His mother straightened, and broke the stalemate by striding forward to wrap him in a hug. “How long have they all been chasing you?” she murmured in his ear.
“Erk?” Kirito managed.
“That long, huh?” Her hug tightened, comforting; then eased. “We’ll have to find some nice boys for the others.” She backed off enough to wink at him. “That, and I need to let them know what partner means to a Kirigaya.”
That sounded good. If a little scary. “Are we set to go?”
“Almost.” Asuna stepped out of the shop to hand her blaster to a wary CorSec agent in a slouch hat. “You too, Klein.”
The blond agent gave him an even warier look. “We’re going to incinerate all of these.”
“Can’t have Army serial numbers floating around, right,” Klein sighed, handing his over. “We’ll just have to find the right guy in a back alley... what? What’d I say?”
Groaning, the CorSec agent slunk off.
Minnetaka chuckled quietly, watching the agent retreat. “You’re Grasscutter’s crew, aren’t you? I think I like you already.”
Fuurinkazan’s attention snapped to him. “What do you know about Grasscutter?” Klein frowned.
“Mostly that you never started blasting if you thought you could talk your way out,” Minnetaka stated. “And that you got my son out of some very tight spots.” His smile was bright with mischief. “I like smugglers who think before they fight. They tend to live longer.” He shrugged. “But we can talk more after we’re clear of here.”
“And we should get clear, fast,” Argo nodded. “We’re the last group that’s going to be disappearing. Anyone else still here can trickle out with the rescue crews-”
Somewhere outside, transparisteel smashed.
“Sorry!” A rangy guy in a firefighter’s outfit gave a sheepish shrug as they swarmed out the shop door. The rest of his team was staring at the droideka arm now lodged in a shelf of jewelry cases, and heaving heartfelt sighs. “My fault.”
Shoulder to shoulder with Asuna, Kirito told his racing heart to calm down. “It’s okay,” he called out, eyeing how CorSec and willing help had strewn droid parts around to make it look as though half the fight had taken place up here. “That looks good. Good scatter of debris.”
“There’s a good scatter of debris?” his father murmured, shaking his head as they walked.
“If it looks right, yep,” Klein agreed. “Trust me, we’ve seen a lot of them.”
“But I bet they don’t get to wreck places often.” Lisbeth scanned the shattered shop cases with a mechanic’s practiced eye. “There’s an art to it... huh.”
Kirito blinked, then deliberately strode on, with a swirl of his coat to draw away watching eyes as she pounced. If Lisbeth had seen something in there she wanted, he wasn’t about to stop her.
We’re leaving Corellia. We’re leaving home.
And we might never come back.
Together again, they strode out an alley door into dawnlight.
The sun. There was a lump in his throat as Kirito looked over the glow tinting everything subtle gold. Lau and Nanami were waving Silica in toward their speeder, and there was a white hover-truck for the rest of them. This is real....
“Hey.” Agil stepped around the corner of the truck, pulling down the sliding hatch on a cargo compartment half-filled with kitchen appliances. “I’d like you all to meet my wife, Kathy.”
From the driver’s seat a blonde woman waved, her smile a mix of joy and determination.
“Ma’am,” Kirito said, joining the ragged chorus of hi and glad to meet you.
“Don’t worry, I know you’re all gamers.” Kathy eyed them. “We can talk more later. You haven’t had nearly enough coffee to face people yet.”
On the one hand, ow. On the other... well, yes.
“Coffee later,” Agil said, waving them into the crew compartment. “For now, we’ve got snacks.”
They had the hot sandwiches divvied up and half-devoured almost before the truck lifted. They weren’t quite as good as Asuna’s sandwiches, Kirito thought, but then what was?
Warm; almost too warm, with this many people jammed into too few seats. He was snuggled up almost on top of Asuna. And nobody was shooting at them.
Huh. Odd not to have a hard lump of armor under his head when it dipped down onto her shoulder. Kind of nice, though....
I knew marrying into the Kirigayas would change my life. Minnetaka felt his wife breathe against him as they watched over their children. But not like this.
Fleeing the law. Fleeing the Army at the very least, with a group of strangers, a daughter wounded to the soul, and a son returned from the very jaws of death.
Intellectually, Minnetaka knew he couldn’t have expected anything else. It’d been three years. And Master Golia had given them all too many stark details on the history Kayaba had trapped the ORO players in. It hadn’t been like the Stark Hyperspace War, blowing up and over in a year. It’d been a long, hard, brutal struggle between the Old Republic and the Sith Empire, and the survival rate of those involved had been... grim.
Ten thousand players. Only six thousand survivors.
And it wasn’t just death their son had faced. The Sith Empire had been a place of almost unimaginable cruelty. Torture, murder, slavery; bioweapons that made the afflicted into cannibalistic madmen. All of those had been normal to the Sith. Accepted tactics. Because the philosophy of the Sith was power. Those who had it were everything. Those who didn’t, were insects to be crushed under a Sith’s black boots.
Kazuto walked into that. As a game.
There was no way anyone could have known what Kayaba would do, or that the Republic would tear itself apart in a real war. None of this was Kazuto’s fault.
And yet part of him just didn’t know what to do. He’d lost a shy fourteen-year-old son who hid from the world and the Jedi behind a computer screen. He’d gained a seventeen-year-old who walked like a seasoned spacer, critiqued how to wreck a mall, and didn’t so much as blink when the building he was in was on fire.
Not to mention, who’d apparently been right in the middle of a fight with combat droids where people had died, and wasn’t even shaking afterward. Who did that?
You know who. Just look in a mirror. It’s been years, but... if you had to, you would.
Force, what do I do? I want to take care of my son. I just... don’t know how....
“He’s a good kid.”
Minnetaka raised a brow at the young lady in gray a few seats away. That wasn’t the kind of thing girls usually said about the object of their romantic affections. Not to mention, Argo hadn’t tried to squeeze into this row with Lisbeth. “You’re not after my son at all, are you?”
“Aw. But chasing Ki-bou is fun!” Argo glanced Lisbeth’s way to make sure the younger girl was drowsing, then grinned, all fond mischief. “Like I said, he’s a good kid. He helps people out of jams, and a lot of them haven’t been lucky enough to find another guy as good to help. Lisbeth and Asuna are good friends. Makes it easier on them if they think there’s someone else putting her fingers into the mix.” She chuckled. “And Ki-bou always knew where to find a good bath.”
“He helped you out of one heck of a jam, that’s for sure.” Agil leaned back over his seat, tall and dark and tired as Minnetaka felt. “That first planetary guide....”
“What else could I do? Kayaba’d dropped us in the middle of his war. If we didn’t start putting the pieces together and find the damn Sith, we were all going to die.” Her smile was gone, face haunted by something Minnetaka didn’t want to name. “I knew it was risky. I didn’t expect... that. Why did he do that?”
“Nobody expected that.” Agil shook his head. “That’s the only reason it worked.”
Minnetaka felt Midori shift beside him, and asked the question he knew was on her lips. “Expected what?”
“Um. Long story.” Agil’s jaw worked, as if he tasted something bitter. “First month, a lot of people were scared. They thought the beta testers were holding out on them. Turned out in that first boss fight, Kayaba’d changed things up, so the betas didn’t know much more than the rest of us. Kirito... well. He got the idiots’ attention. Outed himself as a beta tester, and made it damn clear how much things had changed since Opening Day. Saved a lot of people, in the long run.” Brown eyes met Minnetaka’s. “But it left him playing solo. A lot.”
Minnetaka held his gaze, drawing on a reserve of will he hadn’t needed in years. It was easier than he’d expected. He didn’t want to think ill of the dead, but the fact that Master Golia had told his partner Kazuto could use the Force, and not his son’s family - if the man weren’t incinerated, they’d be having words. “How bad was it?”
Agil almost squirmed. “He handled it.”
I never doubted he could. “You look a little young to remember the Stark Hyperspace War,” Minnetaka observed. “I was in it.”
That had Argo’s full attention. Interesting.
Agil coughed. “Kirito never mentioned that. We didn’t talk about the outside world, much.”
“He knew. Though maybe not all the details,” Minnetaka admitted. “I was only in it on the edges. And I don’t regret it. I never would have met my wife, otherwise.” Regret losing the family he’d had before the war - yes. Always. But the dead were dead, and he had children to think of. “Still, I’ve seen people panic and riot.” He was not going to shudder at the thought. Jammed in the way they all were, Kazuto wouldn’t have to be a Jedi to feel it. “How bad?”
For a long moment, Agil looked at him, as if trying to add anyone named Kirigaya up in his head all over again. “He headed people off before it ever got to a riot. You should have seen him. Teenage kid, nobody should have taken him seriously - but he’d just killed Illfang, and he walked like a guy even a bounty hunter wouldn’t cross. I’d never seen anything like it, and I’d run the Dicey for two years.”
Midori chuckled against Minnetaka’s side. “And we thought he was just picking up my bad habits.”
Minnetaka felt warmed, and just a bit proud. “I’d say sorry, love, but I think I should have taught him a few more.”
“Hmm.” Midori leaned her head on his shoulder, and winked at Agil. “What my husband isn’t saying is, he wasn’t officially in the war.” She smiled. “He was a blockade runner.”
Agil blinked. Rubbed his eyes, as if he couldn’t believe his ears.
Argo was grinning. “Edge of the war, huh?” She gestured with both hands. “An edge here, an edge there?”
“Something like that,” Minnetaka admitted.
“...I thought you guys were CorSec,” Agil got out.
“CorSec, scoundrel... you know how it is,” Midori said casually. “Your partner ought to be your friend, first. And if you can’t trust the guy smuggling in your bacta, who can you trust?”
Minnetaka’s ears were red. He just knew it. “Did I look that sappy when I first saw you?”
“Yes,” Midori said firmly. “Yes, you did.”
Heh. Well, at least they knew their son was serious. “I got out of that line of work after I got married,” Minnetaka told them. “Though sometimes I think it was a lot more honest than negotiating for corporations. I thought about going back to freighting a few years ago, but....”
Argo nodded, as if fitting the pieces together. “Ki-bou couldn’t fly.”
“What, seriously?” Agil blurted out.
“He tried.” It’d cut Minnetaka to the bone. Kazuto wasn’t being stubborn. He wasn’t trying to get attention, no matter what some of the school instructors thought. He just couldn’t leave atmosphere without passing out. And no one could figure out why.
Because we believed Seta. Minnetaka almost winced, thinking of his traditional, stubborn father-in-law. And Seta said Kazuto was under the threshold.
If Kazuto was strong enough to be trained now, if he’d always been strong enough to be a Jedi-
Then he remembers. Damn it. Minnetaka suppressed the urge to beat his head against the back of his seat. Honored Father-in-law, you were an idiot.
“Minnetaka?” Midori murmured.
“You start training Jedi young to protect them from Dark emotions, right?” Minnetaka pointed out. “Because if you’re strong in the Force, you remember things. Even if you’re just a baby.”
“You do?” Agil gripped the back of his seat, obviously interested.
“Mostly just emotional imprints,” Midori informed him. “You have to be really strong in the Force to remember anything from when you were... very young....” She paled. “Oh no.”
“If he remembers the pirates,” Minnetaka took a deep breath, “then it all makes sense.”
“Pirates,” Argo murmured, stroking her cheek.
“Kirito hates pirates,” Agil said grimly. “One of the only things that makes him lose it. What happened?”
“Let’s just say, he has a good reason not to want to be in space again. Ever,” Minnetaka said, just as grim. “How in the galaxy did he make it through ORO?” The whole game was about hunting down the hidden Sith Lord. Kazuto was a clearer. He had to have left Coruscant.
“He’s got a stubborn streak a system wide,” Argo shrugged. “I know Fuurinkazan helped him out. You should talk to them.”
Yes, he should. Though maybe after he’d indulged in some target practice, so he could talk to Healer Agnei without resorting to veiled threats of what he’d ensure happen if she ever held out on him about his children again. Agnei and Thai had been absolutely candid about the dangers Kazuto had faced, how many narrow escapes he’d had, and the names and faces of those who seemed to consider his son an ally. But they hadn’t breathed a word of Kazuto training as a Jedi.
His wife was a CorSec slicer. His daughter was a Jedi apprentice. Who in the galaxy had they thought he’d leak any of this to?
I need to know. And not just because I’m an upset father.
Getting off the planet was only a temporary solution. If they wanted to stay alive and out of clone hands, they had to identify their enemy.
Though off the planet is a good start. “Do any of you have an idea what we need to stay on the run?” Minnetaka swept his gaze over everyone awake. “Ships, supplies?”
That got a few traded glances. “I’ve got a good idea what we’d need in ORO.” Agil grimaced. “Kind of a couple thousand years out of date.”
“Lucky for you, I’ve been in the spacelanes a little more recently,” Minnetaka said wryly. “Midori?”
She already had one of her secure computers up and running; some kind of data-gathering agent, by the look of it.”Checking your contacts to see who hasn’t been arrested lately. And what’s in port that we might be able to buy.”
“I love you,” Minnetaka breathed. He gave Argo and Agil a determined look. “Let’s make a plan.”
“The beach?” Anton said, aghast.
Kathy Mills’ voice over his commlink had an almost visible grin. “Why not? If you were in trouble, would you go to the beach?”
“Well... no,” the Jedi was forced to admit.
That was actually a valid point. Shaking his head, Anton followed the rest of their ragged caravan down to the smoothed sand parking lot. “I’m not looking forward to this.”
Agnei’s eyes were still red, but she gave him a determined wink as she looked up from her resting patients. “You don’t like the beach?”
“I’ve hardly been to it often enough to dislike it. It’s simply... I’ve had to conceal my identity as a Jedi once or twice for a mission. It was never pleasant. And this threatens to be far more long-term.” Anton sighed. “I suppose that may be easier for the survivors. They never knew they could be Jedi in the first place.”
Agnei was quiet as he circled to find a spot. “...That’s not entirely true.”
A pilot’s discipline made him set down first. “Excuse me?” he asked once the engine was winding down.
“Half of those who gained their training in ORO were on record with midichlorian levels high enough for acceptance into the Enclave.” Agnei folded her hands in her sleeves, giving him a weighing look. “Asuna’s count is over twelve thousand.”
“Over twelve-!” Anton sat up straight in his seat. “Why wasn’t she in the Enclave?”
“The Yuuki family heads a large corporation. They didn’t need a Jedi in the household. I doubt her parents even told her she had the ability.” Agnei shrugged. “I know Argo’s parents did tell her, but they wanted her to be old enough to decide for herself which path she wanted to take.” Brown eyes closed, almost in pain. “It’s in their medical files. Why do you think Thai had to destroy the entire Enclave? It wasn’t just to save us.”
Anton’s heart seemed to skip a beat, as he put the implications together. “You knew of Corellians who could have been Jedi, but aren’t.”
“Oh, hundreds,” Agnei nodded. “Thousands, if you count the whole Sector. Though we seem to have scooped up a very high proportion of Corellia’s younger potentials in ORO.”
Thousands. Anton took a deep breath. Never tell a Corellian the odds. “Why? There were so few of us, we needed your help!”
“How could we give our children up to people who’d tell them they could never love someone?”
It could have been an accusation. But Anton could see the pain in her eyes. The grief. Her brothers and sisters in the Enclave were dead, and she had loved them.
As I did mine, Anton admitted, trying not to think of a youngling with a bright grin and tousled hair. “How can you do that? How can you be attached, and not risk Falling?”
“You can’t,” Agnei answered. “No one can. To love is to risk. Grief and anger can damage the strongest of us, and sometimes all you can do with a heartbroken Jedi is knock them senseless until you have enough medics to sit on them.” It was almost a smile. “Anton, the Corellian Order decided a long time ago that the real danger wasn’t attachment. It was possession.”
Heresy. And yet.... “I don’t understand?” Anton said carefully.
“People aren’t things,” Agnei clarified. “They have their own minds, their own wills, and their own lives. If you love someone, that love is yours; never force it on one who doesn’t return it. If someone you love dies, grieve. If they’re in danger, act. If they fall to Darkness... remember that you are still a Jedi, and do what you must.”
He shook his head, uncertain how to reply. “I’ve seen parents’ love for their children. How... how could even a Jedi ever...?”
“That’s why we are an Order, and not simply Force-using families scattered and alone,” Agnei said firmly. “If one of your family Fell, you contacted the Enclave for help.” Her lips pressed into a thin, pained line. “And you kept them from harming the innocent until help could get there. Any way you had to.” She chafed her arms, as if driving off a chill. “We aren’t that different, Anton. Not where it counts. No matter what the Council might say.”
That wasn’t an entirely comforting thought. “I’ll have to consider that,” Anton temporized.
“So will I,” Agnei nodded. At his look askance, she almost rolled her eyes. “You didn’t think all the ways of Coruscant would have to disappear just because you’re surrounded by crazy Corellians, did you? Our Enclave....” She had to stop a moment, and breathe. “They’re gone, too.”
“You’re right.” Anton felt a bit chilled himself. “Neither your Masters nor our Council saw this coming. We were simply fortunate enough to be in a position to escape the cataclysm. We....” Heh. Jedi were never supposed to use this phrase. “We simply got lucky.”
“Somehow, I doubt it was luck that our survivors fought free when they did,” Agnei said grimly. “Remember what Asuna and the others said? They knew they were running out of time.”
Anton almost whistled. “And if they learned of Jedi ways as they were taught in that ancient War, when the Sith were common opponents - they may have been able to see through the darkness that clouded us.”
“Maybe,” Agnei agreed. “One way or another, we’re alive. If either of our Orders had all the answers, then...” Her voice was ragged with unshed tears. “Then we wouldn’t be here, lost in the shadows.”
“No,” Anton said quietly. “No, I suppose we wouldn’t.” He rose from his seat, glad the ride had finally given him enough time to finish healing his knee. “I don’t know how familiar you are with Corsucant, but we’re allowed to have friends. I’d be honored to count you among them.”
That won him a weary smile. “And I’d be honored to accept.”
Stepping forward, Anton hugged her.
Oh, but it was good to be held. Warmth, and arms around him, and a heart as sore as his own....
Curiosity brushed at him, like a giggle caught in bubbles. And there was silence where there should have been conversation amongst the injured.
Reluctantly raising his head, Anton stared toward the back of Agnei’s large speeder turned improvised medical carrier. Sunlight was flooding them from the east, and no few young survivors were gathered around, obviously there to help patients and supplies out. Including Silica and her feathered friend. Who was giggling at them.
For some reason, that giggling didn’t seem to be nearly as disconcerting as the smiles on the young girls’ faces. A sort of smile he actually knew, from long-ago days as a youngling himself.
Awww, they’re so cute!
...He was doomed.
Agnei cleared her throat, gently disengaging herself. “We’ll have to consult further on the subject later, Knight Gelis. I do want to know if your knee gives you any more trouble.”
“Yes, of course, Healer Salleth,” Anton answered, disconcerted. Consult had made some of those giggles audible, and the way even wounded patients were ducking their heads and whispering at each other... doomed. :You did that on purpose.:
Agnei winked at him. Silica blushed, and made herself busy helping people unpack the supply cases.
He could hear the giggling spreading to other groups forming around the rest of the caravan. Along with the whispers. Argh. :Would you mind telling me why you did that?:
:They’re teenagers, Anton. You know as well as I do, there’s only one thing on most of their minds.: A soundless chuckle. :If they can giggle about us, they won’t be as scared about what happens next.:
And they had every right to be scared. He was scared. But too much fear would paralyze them all. :A sound tactical maneuver,: Anton allowed, following her down the stepped bumper in the back. His boots crunched softly on white sand. :You are a sly, devious, risk-taking Corellian, and that was utterly evil.:
:Now, now.: Agnei glanced back at him, eyes bright with suppressed laughter. :Jedi don’t believe in revenge.:
:Revenge, no,: Anton commented, heading for the growing gathering of weary survivors. :Payback, however....:
For a moment, Agnei’s hand brushed his. :Bring it on.:
Chapter 9: Chapter 8
“-No word yet from Coronet City spaceport on suspected reasons for the pre-dawn Star Destroyer crash,” a blonde and buxom HoloNews reporter said breathlessly. Her hologram played at near life-size, volume set to be just at little louder than the wind whistling in through the open hangar door, or the razor hounds playing tug-of-war under a customized freighter with a long nerf bone. “Investigation and rescue efforts are continuing under Army supervision-”
Wiping grease off his hands with a vicious swipe of a cloth, Vinap Thaniel muted the hangar holocast, and tried not to snarl too loudly. It’s official. The galaxy’s going crazy.
Maybe that report was enough for the groundbound, but anybody with half a brain and stardust on their boots knew Star Destroyers didn’t fall out of the sky by accident. And the so-called Grand Army of the Republic didn’t supervise rescue efforts with heavy artillery in the background. The GAR shouldn’t be supervising rescue efforts on Corellia at all; that should be CorSec and the Jedi.
Where are the Jedi?
Not one word on the holocast about them. Not one. You’d think some spacer-off-the-street would have had something to say into the blonde’s mike about their guys in Corellian green poking their noses into things.
...Except every spacehound with half a brain was already hopping off the planet. Heck, if Vinap didn’t have most of his credits sunk into this shipyard he’d be off the planet. He had a bad feeling about this-
Scaly ears flicked up, and his buddies dropped their bone-toy. The razor hounds traded a glance as they rose, hackles up, ready and able to lunge at whoever was coming through the open hangar door.
“Zeus! Apollo!” Vinap snapped. “Don’t eat the customers... er?”
Scaled tails were wagging.
“Aww.” A little girl, couldn’t have been more than fifteen, with brown hair caught in pigtails and a feathery sharp-eyed winged alien clinging to the shoulder of her green longcoat. “You guys are so good! I bet you don’t let anybody in here who doesn’t belong. Who’s a good razor hound, yeah you are....”
Zeus and Apollo were letting her scritch them. Right under the chin-scales. Vinap pried his jaw back up off the deck, and stomped that way. His buddies were very well-behaved razor hounds, sure, but he was going to give this crazy kid a piece of his mind.
“Master Thaniel?” A taller, older teenager, following right behind her; pale skin, black hair, and black longcoat lending him a little more bulk than Vinap judged he really had. “Oh good, you’re in. The Flying Thantas are saved! I see you’ve already met Beast Master Silica-”
“-Allow me to introduce the rest of our advance team.” The teen in black waved a dramatic hand to his right. “Our gallant sharpshooter, the Red Samurai, Klein!”
A redhead in a rakish bandana waved back, grinning.
“Our acrobat and sword-dancer, the lovely Lightning Flash!”
A smiling auburn girl in white and blue made a slight bow at his left, with an air of he’s mine that made Vinap hide a knowing snicker.
“Our publicity agent, the Elusive Argo!”
A brown-haired girl in a hood, with painted-on whiskers and eyes that glimmered with mystery. Her bow was deeper, almost Jedi-formal; but there was nothing Jedi about the heavy leather half-gloves on her hands. Those subtle glints of metal and circuitry were vibro-claws, or Vinap would eat his hydrospanner.
“Our magnificent mechanic, Lisbeth!”
Red and white and a huge hydrospanner over her shoulder, hefted like it was nothing. Vinap made a mental note never to tick Lisbeth off, even if the pink-haired girl did look just barely eighteen. Anybody who could handle equipment like that knew how to break it, too....
Wait a minute. He knew one of the adults hanging out in the back of this little circus. It’d been at least a year, but - Minnetaka Greensleeves? Sure, he went by Kirigaya now, all respectable and signed up with a CorSec charter by way of marriage, but he’d never failed to have a helping hand or listening ear when an old friend had trouble, even with his own kid locked into that awful computer-deathtrap of Kayaba’s. What was he doing dressed like a spacehound again, face carefully straight except for the gleam of mischief in his eyes-
A really familiar gleam.
Corellia’s nine hells. This kid is-?
“And of course our doctor Medic Sally, our bookkeeper Master Giles, and our technical assistant, ‘Taka Greensleeves,” Kazuto Kirigaya rolled on, with a flick of hand that all but shouted, I have to take them or there’s all this yelling, you know how it is.
Oh, spirits of space. Minnetaka’d gotten his boy out. Somehow. And given they were using cover stories, apparently whatever he’d done either wasn’t quite legal or tied into a CorSec mess somehow....
And I don’t need to know, Vinap decided. This is going to be one heck of a drinking story later. “And he is?” Vinap jerked a thumb toward the dangerous-looking dark guy by the medic’s shoulder. Who was grinning at him, metal glinting from one ear.
“Well of course we need a roustabout.” Kazuto blinked at him; big black eyes in an innocent face that had just the faintest edge of don’t push if you don’t want blood on the walls. “Doesn’t everybody? Agil does an excellent job of... taking out the trash.”
He had to get falling-down drunk with Minnetaka later, Vinap thought, trying not to either stare in awe or break down in helpless laughter. The kid had the tone just perfect. “And what does that make you?”
“I’m the fixer, what else?” A polite bow. “Kirito, at your service. Though I hope you will be at ours, shipmaster. Given the current uproar in the Inner Systems, the ongoing War, and some rather craven behavior by the last vessels we took passage on - well. The Flying Thantas find ourselves in need of quite a bit of tonnage.”
Vinap nodded, trying not to snicker. The kid had either practiced this story enough to have it down cold, or he had all Minnetaka’s gift for crafting a legend on the fly. “And the Flying Thantas are...?”
“We’re a traveling circus.”
Of course they were.
“...And then he said, do me a favor, ‘Taka. When your boy really cuts loose, give me a heads-up so I can jump for cover. As in, somewhere out of the star system.” Midori snickered behind her datapad.
“I thought Anton was going to melt.” Guen shook her head as she sat on some spare crates and watched everyone else swarm around loading their three newly-acquired ships; almost tempted to laugh herself, if she weren’t still caught between relief and pain. “You could see it all over his face. Corellians! You’re all crazy!”
Midori dragged and dropped a file, and arched an eyebrow. “Let’s just hope we’re crazy enough.”
“No kidding,” Guen breathed. Hopefully any plan that bent a Jedi’s brain would confuse a Sith into a frothing fit. Though she was a lot more worried about confusing the Army. She’d dealt with Force-users throughout her career; one more on the Darkside couldn’t be that hard to steer clear of. A whole army? That was a lot harder to run from.
That’s if we can stay together long enough to run. Elbow on her knee, Guen propped her chin on her fist. Her face probably looked like she wanted to shoot somebody right now. Fair enough; she did. Because apparently Sith and the whole Army after them weren’t enough for some people. Those tense minutes on the beach, when she thought everything was going to fall apart then and there....
The CorSec agent made herself take a slow, deep breath, considering what the guilds and the parents had and hadn’t done. The Enclave had tried to tell parents and family what the victims were mixed up in. She knew they’d tried; she’d been a shoulder for Thai to lean on when he had to break the news to yet another family that someone wasn’t going to be coming home.
They’d tried. But it was hard for anybody to sort out the reality of still bodies in a dreamworld versus minds that had been in the Galactic Civil War.
At least nobody got shot.
It hadn’t been that close a call. She hoped. But the guilds had assumed they were running this little escape, and the parents had assumed they had some say in what risks their little darlings would take now, and no few players had said screw getting off the planet, they had a mad programmer to tear into little pieces.
At least Kirito had stopped that cold.
“Kayaba is dead.”
He’d stood there, shoulders straight, a shadow in the sunlight. Looked over the crowd on the sand, like Guen had been looking over it; noting who was angry and who was curious and who was just too stunned to move.
“He revealed himself at the end of that last boss fight,” Kirito had gone on, almost steadily. “He’d heard about Argo’s vision. All the higher-levels had-”
Asuna’s hand had brushed near his; Guen could almost hear the silent, Stop.
“Kayaba didn’t reveal himself willingly,” the young Healer said dryly. “Kirito took a chance. If it hadn’t worked....” She shook her head, and fixed that intensity on her black-clad partner. “But how did you know?”
Kirito’s gaze flicked to his family, then went distant. “I can feel the Force moving when someone uses it. It wasn’t that useful in the game; mobs and bosses were using programs in the computer. But I could always sense another player calling on it, if they were nearby.” Black eyes were bleak. “Only when I dueled him, I never felt him use the Force.”
“When you dueled-” Argo’s eyes went wide under her hood. “Ki-bou. What did you do?”
“What he had to.” Asuna drew herself up, pitching her voice to project over the murmurs and the waves. “Listen. We didn’t have time to do much planning before. We still don’t have much time, but we need to make sure we all agree about where we’re going. Our next step is going to be the spaceport, and if the Army doesn’t have a Star Destroyer parked in orbit right over it, they’re dumber than a floor waxer with a fried motivator.” She let the chuckles rise, then swept them with a serious look. “If they find out who we really are, we’re all dead.”
She’d stood straight, gaze eagle-fierce. “This is as quiet a spot as we’re going to get. If anyone thinks they’d be better off staying on Corellia than getting off the planet, now’s the time to say so.”
Well. There’d been a lot of yelling - Guenith had added to it herself - but between the Army tried to kill us and the Sith will try to kill us, people had made up their minds pretty darn quick.
A traveling circus. Guen grinned now. It didn’t explain their supply of ready credits, traveling entertainers were usually just this side of broke... but usually wasn’t always. And it did explain everything else; odd people, different accents, weird flying alien beasties, gear and clothes scraped together from anywhere they could get it. Heck, it even explained having wizards and doctors along. As long as nobody looked too hard, they’d be fine.
And Vinap Thaniel was definitely not looking too hard. Too busy grinning at the cute little swindler, awww, I don’t care if he’s adopted, ‘Taka, he’s definitely your kid....
Force, she loved Corellia.
I love it. Guenith winced, hearing the holocaster warm up for some kind of news report. Yet another breathless how-much-we-don’t-know-about-the-Enclave, probably. The thought turned her stomach. We all love it. And now we’re going to have to leave it.
There wasn’t any choice, really. Too many clones on Corellia, and the whole Sector was too close to Coruscant and the Senate for comfort. They had to get away from anywhere with Army ships, and that meant heading out for some nice, quiet Rim planet nobody wanted. At least until they had enough time to catch their breaths and start thinking again. Anton and the other pilots had even been able to nail down a good rendezvous point; some planet called Trigalis, she thought. Anton hadn’t given many details, except wet, green, much like Kashyyyk, but not nearly as lethal as Felucia.
If he was trying to be reassuring, he’d failed.
Not that their stray Coruscanti Jedi had time to be reassuring. He was either poking the big CR-90 that’d take the bulk of their people or having intense conversations with anybody who thought they could pilot. Every ship was getting at least one person who had real-life experience flying in space, even if that put a teenager like Nanami at the helm. Which according to Agnei was all for the best anyway, as every ship needed at least one healer and Lau and Nanami were a team their main medic had no intention of breaking up.
There’s a story there, Guenith thought, recalling how Agnei had winced at the thought of separating the two orphaned padawans. Hope I live long enough to hear it.
Whatever their story was, it almost couldn’t be worse than Vinap’s casually-dropped hints. The shipyard owner’s free and frank gossip about what he’d heard from other spacers had curled Guen’s hair.
The Jedi Temple is burning.
That much, they’d managed to piece together from spacehounds who’d snuck and jumped out-system from Coruscant before the Army blockade could stop them. The rest of the rumors from that city-world - who knew. Jedi Masters attacking the Supreme Chancellor? The 501st clonetrooper legion shooting civilians out of the sky? A figure with gleaming gold eyes, who if you even looked at him, you might choke to death?
“It’s a fairly common Sith ability,” Asuna had told her, when Guen started to laugh at that one. “We’ll need to have everyone practice breaking chokeholds. If you can hold that image strongly in your mind, sometimes you can hold the choke off. Even if you aren’t a Jedi.”
Choking someone to death was a common Sith ability. Guen shuddered now, remembering. Okay, maybe their surviving Jedi had a reason to be freaking out.
Though their best reason for panic, pure and simple, was just how few Jedi there were left. Traders came to Corellia from all over the galaxy, and the ones who’d made port today might have been singing verses of the same song.
“The Jedi are dead,” Guen muttered under her breath. “The troopers say they were protecting civilians. Some kind of takeover move against the Senate, and everyone knows the Jedi don’t want to win the war, or it’d be over by now.... How can those offworld creeps believe that? How could anyone believe that? We know Jedi. They never want a war!”
“We know Jedi.” Midori’s eyes were shadowed as she traced her fingers over program code. “Most planets don’t. Not like Corellia. Why do you think my grandfather left Humbarine to begin with? They have old warrior traditions. You’d think being a Jedi would only add to a dojo. But it doesn’t work that way.” She rested her datapad on her lap, shifting her shoulders to loosen tense muscles. “Most people fear Jedi. And fear leads to the Dark Side-”
“The Supreme Chancellor is about to address the Senate in an emergency session!” came the breathless blonde reporter. “Cutting to live feed in five, four, three-”
An echoing, immensely vast chamber appeared in the hologram; Guenith had only seen images of it a few times before. Every time she had trouble grasping the sheer size of the place. Every one of those dots was a huge hoversled in itself, carrying a Senator and all their retinue as they spoke and debated.
The one front and center drew every eye. Red-robed security in faceless helmets with some kind of electrified pikestaff, the horned alien major-domo whose real name and rank she could never remember... and one frail figure in a dark hooded robe, yellow eyes glittering in a ravaged face.
Is that... that can’t be... the Supreme Chancellor?
Palpatine drew a breath to speak-
Steel streaked through the air, hitting the holocaster dead center. The hologram died in a wail of sparking circuits.
Damn it! We needed that news, who would-?
Glancing around the hangar, Guenith realized it was more like who wouldn’t. Knives, blasters, and more esoteric or improvised weapons had appeared out of nowhere, and every player with a clear shot was aiming right at the dying holocaster.
Kirito stood halfway across the hangar, another throwing spike in hand and face white as a sheet. “We’re lifting. Now.”
“You’re saying the Supreme Chancellor is a Sith.” The water in Agent Nyx’s glass was trembling.
“Yes,” Kirito said briefly, trying not to look too closely at fresh, bad memories. It was hard enough to be in space for real, packed into the CR-90 with nearly four hundred other players and relations. Thinking about Sith Lords made everything worse. “We saw several in ORO. That kind of damage, of... corruption, comes from decades using the Dark Side. Sith can hide it with a glamour, but it’s always there.” He could see it in his mind’s eye; the ravaged face, the alien yellow eyes. The thought of any of that ever taking hold on people he knew....
It’s too crowded in here. And there are too many scared people. We need to calm down.
At least his family and Agil’s together were a large enough group to legitimately claim their own cabin away from the crowd. Which Anton and Agnei were taking shameless advantage of for a little peace and quiet to think, now that they were in hyperspace and everyone’s wounds were treated. It was good to have Agil here, smiling at Kathy, quiet and solid as a mountain. It’d be better to have Fuurinkazan, but they were off in one of the small freighters making sure they knew how to fly it for real. He’d see them again when they all broke out of hyperspace at Trigalis.
Patience. We need it. Right now.
“You saw....” Guenith swallowed hard. “That was a game.”
“Based on all too real historical records of the Jedi Civil War, as I understand,” Anton said bleakly. “I’m afraid that game was all too accurate, Agent. What I’ve seen on Felucia....” He closed his eyes a moment, and shuddered. “Those are, indeed, betraying marks of the Dark Side.”
“How could he have hidden it for so long?” Agnei sounded more dazed than afraid, as she held onto her mug with pale knuckles. “He worked with the Coruscanti Order. He met with the Council on a regular basis.”
Shock. Kirito traded a glance with Asuna, silent question. Up until a little while ago Agnei had managed to keep herself and the other medics busy tending wounds, cuts, and general exhaustion. Now she had a moment to rest. Any clearer knew, that was when all the doubts and I should haves sunk their claws deepest.
:I’ll help her,: Asuna assured him. “Sith can be good at hiding what they are,” she said out loud. “The Jedi thought they’d wiped them out after the Ruusan Reformation, right? A thousand years. They’ve had time to get good.”
“Scary thing is that the Jedi thought they’d killed them off at all.” Agil cracked his knuckles, thinking. “You can wipe out a species. Hell, get a fleet big enough, you could wipe out a planet. But using the Dark Side, thinking that power’s the only thing that matters - that’s an idea. You can’t kill an idea. Just the people who’ve got it.”
“And that’s what the Supreme Chancellor - the Emperor - is doing,” Midori said, half to herself. “Wiping out the Jedi. Everyone who doesn’t want to use the Force for power.”
“He can’t!” Suguha burst out. “We can’t let this happen!”
“He can’t, and he won’t,” Minnetaka said firmly. “He’s already failed. We’re alive.” His gaze met Kirito’s from across the room. “And we’re going to stay that way.”
For a moment, Kirito could hardly breathe. He’d seen that look before. From Klein. From Asuna. From every clearer he trusted.
We’re alive. And I’m counting on you to help us stay that way.
There was a lump in his throat, and a suspicious prickle threatening his eyes. “I missed you all,” Kirito got out. “So much.”
“Aww.” Lisbeth swept in through the cabin door, grinning. “And it’s only been a few hours!” She nodded at Asuna. “Good news and bad news, Vice-Commander.”
“Bad news first,” Asuna directed.
“We can’t make the best armor here on the Night Skimmer. Not the stuff you and Kirito need,” Lisbeth said seriously. “Regular trooper armor, sure, I’ve got people started on that; it’s calming some of the worst scared ones down. But not alchemically treated leather. We need to test those recipes in the real world first, and I’m not doing that without a lot more atmosphere to play with if things go wrong. Same goes for any esoteric ‘saber designs. I can probably build the pieces, with help, but putting them together on a ship this small is just asking for something to go wrong.”
“Alchemy?” Anton asked warily.
Kirito tried to look innocent. “So what’s the good news?”
“Between Agent Nyx’s contacts,” Lisbeth nodded at the agent, “and Master Thaniel’s, people really came through for us. We’ve got shipboard flack vests and plenty of blasters. And with the parts we lifted from the workshop, anybody who needs a regular ‘saber can build one.” The mechanic winked, and held out a dark jewel case. “And we have these.”
Suddenly hopeful, Kirito opened the box. Nestled against silvery velvet were faceted black gems, drinking in light and casting it back in moonlit rainbows. Chandrilan obsidian. The key focus gem for a darksaber.
Looking up, he was almost blinded by Asuna’s smile.
You’ve failed, Palpatine. You can’t kill the Jedi. You can’t destroy the Light Side. We won’t let that happen.
We’re going to live.
Whatever happened, it’s over, Senator Bail Organa told himself, hands folded in his sleeves as he waited in his home office for someone to step into the holoprojector field planets away. There’s nothing you could have done. You know that. You knew it the moment that young Jedi gave his life to save you on Coruscant.
Leia’s soft coo tickled his ears, followed by Breha’s laughter. Bail smiled, even if his heart was still heavy. We had to move slowly. We can’t draw attention to her. Not with that masked beast at Palpatine’s side....
No. Not a beast. He had to remember that. More metal than flesh, and hopelessly corrupt - but the Emperor’s mailed fist had once been a man.
One day, we’ll have to tell Leia the truth about Vader. About everything. And then... I hope she will forgive us.
A harried older man in a Corellian Security uniform appeared in the projection. Stern, straight; hair cropped as short as any Imperial pilot’s, though with rather more gray. “Senator Organa?”
“Agent Rostek Horn.” Unclasping his fingers from each other, Bail gave him a courteous bow. “I hope not to take up too much of your time. But I have questions regarding the security of the Empire, and your superiors said you’d be the best person to ask for answers-”
“You want to know about the Jedi.” Agent Horn grimaced. “They’re dead, Senator. I assure you that danger to the Empire is ended.”
Oh, Bail knew that pitch of voice too well. Usually only whispered in the shadows, by politicians too frightened to speak where Palpatine’s agents might hear. Force willing, Horn would never get caught up in politics.
“I’m certain CorSec is enforcing Imperial law with all the attention to detail your system is known for,” Bail said levelly. He should know. It’d taken him weeks of wading through holoforms even to get Horn’s name. “I was actually looking for more basic information. As a Senator, I dealt with many Jedi during the Clone Wars, and made a few visits to the Temple on Corsucant.” He paused, deliberately letting the silence stretch. “Imagine my surprise when I learned there was another Temple. On Corellia.”
“The Green Jedi Enclave. We don’t talk about that much, Senator. I’m sure you can understand why.” Agent Horn’s face was studiously neutral. “Yes, I was one of the CorSec liaisons with the Corellian Temple, before they turned traitors to the Republic. As you undoubtedly know from my record. What did you want to know?”
Everything, Bail wished he could say. Is there something we can teach Leia? Is there some way we can keep her safe? Her father was one of the most powerful Jedi the Order has ever seen; could she be Force-sensitive as well? How would we know?
Instead, he brought up a hologram of Coronet City, a few days after the Temple had been destroyed. The explosion of the hyperthrust engines had vaporized the hull and much of the surroundings, but the twisted superstructure of a Venator-class Star Destroyer still loomed over black desolation. “I wanted to know about... this.”
Agent Horn grimaced. “Not much to say, Senator. A bunch of treacherous Force-users can make one hell of a mess.”
“Obviously,” Bail said dryly. If Palpatine can do this, then how can we ever hope to - no. Despair is of the Dark Side; Kenobi told you that a dozen times. There will be a way to defeat him. There has to be. “That’s partly what’s so odd.” Careful; choose your words very carefully, Senator. The galaxy is full of fear, these days. “It’s not well known, Agent Horn, but I was in the vicinity when the 501st Legion started their assault on the Temple on Coruscant.”
Horn’s eyes narrowed slightly. “That must have been a rather uncomfortable position to be in, Senator. Even for a man who’s helped fight off more than one assault on his diplomatic courier ships.”
So Rostek Horn had read up on him as well; and more than was in the standard HoloNews files. Interesting. “It was that,” Bail allowed. “But the damage at the Coruscant Temple, after it was pacified, wasn’t nearly so... extensive.”
“The 501st is a crack legion,” Agent Horn observed. “I doubt whoever was in place here was as quick off the trigger.”
“Whoever?” Bail allowed himself a raised eyebrow.
“Ever seen a Venator’s engines go up?” the agent said dryly. “We couldn’t even find carbonized ash of most of the men. Hell, we still haven’t sorted out how many citizens of our own died. We could have lost a million in that firestorm, and no one would know for sure-” He cut himself off, shoulders stiff. Shook his head. “My apologies, Senator. I still get worked up about that night. My grandson... my daughter-in-law was having a difficult time. I could have lost most of my family.”
“I sympathize.” Bail inclined his head. “This war has been hard on families.”
“Then it’s a good thing the war is finally winding down.” Agent Horn unbent enough to smile. “May I express my congratulations on the birth of your daughter, Senator? It’s good to hear of a family having joyful news in these dark times.”
“Yes, thank you,” Bail said graciously. He’s hiding something.
But what? And more importantly, was there any way to pry further without risking someone who might be an ally?
No. Not over the HoloNet. This is risky enough as it is.
“I suppose I was just trying to explain the inexplicable,” Bail said, thinking fast. “I can’t imagine what it must have been like on the ground, watching a Star Destroyer fall out of the sky.”
“Oh, I can show you the holos, if you like.”
Instincts honed in negotiating the highest of stakes sat up and bit him, hard. “There are holos?” Bail said carefully. “I didn’t find any when I searched.”
“Well, of course not!” Agent Horn looked mildly affronted. “It’s a matter of Imperial Security. Why should we give the Separatists any more information on how to bring our ships down?”
Bail had to sit on the urge to applaud. The party line, masterfully performed.
“But since you are on record as voting for Chancellor Palpatine as Emperor-”
As Padmé asked me to do, Bail thought bleakly. Give up my vote to save my life; so that those of us who know what Palpatine is might survive.
“-and since you’re head of the Senate Security Committee - you are, of course, set up to receive secure data, sir?”
“Of course.” Bail set his codes, and nodded. The console beeped, warbling with a long transmission.
Horn settled back into a parade rest as the console fell silent. “Is there anything else I can do for you, Senator?”
“Not tonight.” Bail smiled. “Thank you for your time, Agent Horn. And if you’re ever on Alderaan - I can speak for my wife when I say we’d love to meet your family.”
The holo went dark. Bail checked the file he’d received, and sighed. Raised his finger over the button to play-
Breha was at his side, Leia tucked against her shoulder. “You don’t have to see this,” Bail said softly.
“But I do.” His wife gave him a determined smile. “Of course I do. You can’t bear this all alone, hotshot.”
No. He couldn’t. Maybe he should be stronger, less afraid....
They called Skywalker the Hero Without Fear. Where did that get him?
Bracing himself, Bail activated the holo.
It wasn’t long. Mercifully.
He’d seen the damage Master Yoda had wreaked to protect Coruscant. The green alien might be one of the quietest, most peaceful souls Bail had ever met - but to defend the Senate, the head of the Jedi Order had pulled starships from the sky.
Whoever had acted on Corellia hadn’t been nearly that powerful. But it was enough.
As cannon after cannon flashed in explosions, and the Star Destroyer hammered down on the Enclave in fire and ruin, it was more than enough.
Fires still burning, Bail switched it off. “Space....”
Breha was wiping her eyes. “Oh, Bail. What a horrible revenge.”
“...It doesn’t make sense,” Bail said slowly. There was something off in that holo; or maybe something Horn had said. “Jedi don’t believe in revenge.”
Breha shook her head, pacing the room as Leia roused with an upset cry. “Shh, shh... the troopers were coming to kill them, Bail. Of course they-”
“No.” He rarely interrupted his wife, but he was sure of this. “Master Yoda, Master Kenobi - they didn’t blame the clones. The troopers were following what they believed was a lawful order. The Corellian Jedi would have fought to their deaths. They would have killed the clones if they had to, to survive. But bring down an entire Star Destroyer on their own people, when it wouldn’t change anything? Jedi don’t believe in revenge.” Bail took a breath, thinking hard. “Even if they didn’t know about Palpatine, they knew a Sith Lord was out there. Killing a ship like that - Force, wiping out part of a city! - it feeds into all the lies Sith have spread about Jedi. Space, it practically seals Palpatine’s story about the Jedi as traitors to the Republic in carbonite! No one’s going to ask questions about whether they were betrayed after this....”
“No one’s going to ask questions,” Bail said softly. Reached blindly behind him for a chair, and sat down.
Breha’s hand settled on his shoulder. “You know something.”
“Know?” He had to laugh, at least at himself. “I don’t know anything.” He leaned back against carved wood, recalling happier days. “Did you know Master Kenobi compared me to a Corellian bartender, once?”
“He does have a sense of humor.” Breha shifted a chair to sit by him, knee to skirted knee. “What don’t you know, then?”
“Well, I had to ask around after that.” Bail smiled at her. “Can’t call a man out for slander if it’s true, after all. Imagine my surprise when I found out Master Kenobi wasn’t exaggerating. Much.” He paused. “Though Corellians are much better at smuggling than I’ve ever been.”
“Better at-” Breha sucked in a sharp breath.
“No one’s going to ask questions,” Bail said again, a curious mix of fear and wonder churning in his heart. “It fits exactly what Palpatine wants people to think. The Jedi were traitors. The Jedi were murderers. There could be a million Corellians dead in a mass grave.
“Or... there could be less.”
Breha glanced at the deactivated projector, face pale. “You think...?”
“I don’t know,” Bail admitted. “If you asked the man on the street who lived in the Temples, he’d say Jedi. But I walked their halls on Coruscant.” He had to pause, fighting a pang of grief. “Most of those inside the walls were children.”
Breha brushed back dark strands of Leia’s hair. “We can’t ask Agent Horn.”
“No, of course not,” Bail agreed. “CorSec’s diligently upholding the official version of events-”
“Bail.” His wife arched dark brows, fondly exasperated. “We can’t ask him.” She held their daughter closer. “Or do you think we’re the only brave family in the galaxy?”
“I could have lost most of my family.”
He’d read up on Rostek, just as the Agent had researched him. Official records claimed the man had a wife, a son, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson a few months younger than Leia.
“Oh.” Bail took a deep breath, and reached out to his wife. “Thank you, my dove. I can overlook what’s right under my nose sometimes, can’t I?”
She tapped him on that nose. “With luck, you won’t be the only one.”
Bail had to chuckle at that. “Jedi don’t believe in luck.”
“Then we’ll just have to believe in it for them.”
He knew that voice. That wasn’t just his wife. That was his Queen, sovereign ruler of Alderaan, who’d come to a decision. “My lady?”
“Master Yoda said the Dark Side clouded everything. But Palpatine never missed a step.” Dark eyes gave him a solemn look. “What if the Dark Side only clouds the future for Jedi?”
And the darker the war had become, the tighter Palpatine had woven his net. “You think the Light Side might cloud the Sith?”
“If the Sith draw power from anger, hatred, and fear, then Alderaan must become a place that gives no shelter to the darkness,” Queen Breha Antilles-Organa declared. “We will set an example for the galaxy; for all those cowed and dismayed by the declaration of the new Empire. We will be just and upright beings, a planet where all species are welcome, and those cast adrift by the tides of war might find refuge.” She drew a breath, and put away that sense of majesty. “We have to be careful, Bail. We can’t draw too much attention. But we must never surrender who we are.” A tear slid down her cheek. “I remember Padmé. She loved so deeply....”
Rising, Bail reached down and held her.
“We need to show Leia a better way than the Emperor’s,” Breha said at last. “And if she’s... like her parents... it can’t be a show. We have to believe. We have to hope. We have to laugh, even when everything seems darkest.”
Laugh, Bail reflected. He hadn’t had much to laugh about lately. “I take it you have some ideas?”
Breha leaned her forehead against his a moment, braid pressing against his hair. Tilted her head back, and smiled. “As a matter of fact... your sisters have been commenting that I don’t get out enough.”
Rouge, Celly, and Tia. Sometimes he thought all his problems could be solved if he ever managed to lock Palpatine in the same room with them. The Antilles and Organa families had strong women.
Breha chuckled at the look on his face, and smiled down at Leia. “I don’t mind, little one, but now that you’re old enough to be a little sturdier... would you like to see animals? And acrobats, and people doing amazing things?”
“Animals?” Bail felt slightly adrift. “Acrobats?”
“Tia’s maid Kasteen says there’s a new transgalactic circus in the system.” Breha winked at him. “Their main ship is still in orbit, but they shuttled down the tents and performers two days ago. Tia says Kasteen can’t stop talking about them. High-wire acts with no repulsors. Magicians. Even a petting zoo of animals from across the galaxy for the children.”
A circus. Bail thought of that, and a seared scar on Coronet City, and the pain of Padmé’s funeral.
I’m sorry. The dead are dead. We have to care for the living, now.
He gave his wife a smile. And if it was a little sad... so was hers. “So who are these paragons of Mistress Kasteen’s virtue?”
“They call themselves the Flying Thantas.”
A/N: This story was inspired by a few bits from the Clone Wars cartoons, The Force Unleashed (games and graphic novels), and stumbling on an odd fact about Jedi Archivist Jocasta Nu’s apprentice in the Extended Universe. Apparently, Padawan Jin-Lo Rayce managed to survive Vader’s assault on the Corsucant Temple by being lost in the stacks.
...He then managed to elude the whole Purge and establish an entire order of Force-Adepts, the Agents of Ossus. Librarians rule!