Conduit to the Scorekeeper
There was no such thing as a failed experiment. A disproved hypothesis was as precious as anything. Thus the Memory Master smiled gaily at the eryops corpse floating before him. So exquisite was death that even poetry failed to render its meaning.
He couldn't tear his eyes away, not even when his lab admitted a guest.
"My plan is proceeding perfectly," Sidious said. "Soon Aayla Secura will fall to the Dark Side. Then you will lure her here to complete the memory transfer."
"I will not," said the Master as he admired divine death.
Sith yellow fringed the eyes of Sidious' young vessel. Dark power stood ready in the shadow of his voice. "You do not refuse me."
Finally, the Master broke from his prize. "The arrogance of humans," he sighed. "You mistake me for a servant. What I did for you, I did for the joy of it. The challenge. Understand, Emperor Sidious: you were merely a jester, performing for my amusement."
Sidious raged, rushed. But without the Force to add speed, his assault was preempted. The red dot of the Master's pistol marked Sidious' forehead.
The emperor's rage slunk back in the shadows. "You will regret this," he said.
The Master smiled. A new hypothesis. "We will see in time."
Obi-Wan knelt beside his friend, prone on the chamber floor. Quinn's feral eyes glowed in the lantern light. His tunic was half-burned away, revealing his chest, which was charcoal-black from third-degree burns. The scales had melted into one black mass.
Sadness, revulsion ripped a shriek out of Obi-Wan. "Oh, Quinn... my old friend..."
"I am humbled you count me so," the reptile mumbled.
Obi-Wan's eyes spilled silent tears. "How bad is the pain?"
"The nerve endings were destroyed. I feel... strange."
Obi-Wan stood. He wiped his face on his tunic. "We'll get you to Julian. Hold on—I'll need help moving you."
Padme and Quinn found themselves alone. She stood first at a distance, like he was fire or spikes, before gingerly crouching by the Jedi's shoulder.
"How have you—" Her small voice faltered. "How are you still—"
"I have slowed my metabolism, thereby slowing the poison."
She didn't know Trandoshans could do that. There was much she didn't know, about them or him. Perhaps if she'd cared to, their rapport would be different.
She took Quinn by the shoulders, pulled him to her lap. Aggravation, disgust: she searched for these things. But they were not tendered. "Why did you do this?" Padme whispered.
To Quinn, it was obvious. That the answer eluded her brought gentle amusement. "Because I am a Jedi, and you are the senator from Naboo."
Padme's eyes slipped shut. Tears flowed down her cheeks. She squeezed his claw.
Obi-Wan returned, Landon at his side.
"Holy God," said Landon.
Coda splinted Palmer's leg using armor from a corpse. The enigmatic archaeologist was resting comfortably.
Now she sat with a field kit tending to Brummel. The gash on his neck, made by his own saber, would scar unmistakably. Forever he'd carry his choice to defend her.
Coda gently applied bacta, followed by a bandage. She withdrew with a caress, earning a strange look she didn't bother to interpret. That he felt anything but resentment toward her was a miracle of insight, to say nothing of his fierce defense.
"My angry angel," Coda breathed. "Why do you not hate me?"
Brummel looked off, and she wondered if he knew it was just as revealing. The infinite panorama that was his sorrow did not end in profile. He said, "I cannot hate that which I aspire to be."
Obi-Wan and Landon carried Quinn up the stairs. They set him on the dirt beside Palmer. Coda and Brummel hurried to meet them.
"Oh my God," Coda said. "We have to get back to Cuimhn."
"He'll never make it," said Brummel.
"He'll make it," Padme growled.
Obi-Wan called one of the mercenaries' horses. "Landon, take Quinn and Palmer to the Tangent."
Palmer objected, "I've walked on worse. And you know you can't spare me."
"Nor can you spare the imbecile," Quinn hissed. Landon frowned but said nothing. "I will ride on my own. You must continue the mission."
Obi-Wan's penetrating stare failed at deterrence. "You counsel madness. You'll never make it on your own."
Quinn's head lifted at the corpses all around him. "Who will stop me?"
Obi-Wan blinked, releasing a breath. "Who indeed," he said thickly.
Landon took Quinn by his remaining arm. Together with Brummel, he lifted Quinn and swung him onto the horse. The Jedi slipped his clawed feet into the stirrups.
Padme moved to his side, a goulash of thoughts. From the moment on Halm when he challenged her presence, Padme had reduced him to a contemptible thing. Only now, too late to matter, did she realize his objections were not to her but for her. That failure of insight would soon sever fine fibers from the soul of the universe.
She swallowed and met his eyes. "Goodbye, Jedi."
Quinn bowed his head for the first time in his life. "Senator."
Shadows swathed the feint smile of Sidious. He stood, arms crossed, looking down on Prin, a permanent tableau of betrayal, misery, eyes filled once with oblivion now staring into it, rigor mortis struggling to unclench. The metal slab was a temporary station. After the autopsy, Vorka would report her death, delivering her body to the department of inquisition.
"How gently, how quietly young women die," Sidious mused. "Davit knows not what her death will mean."
Beside him, The Radical was feverishly intense. Sidious held back a grin. What a perfect instrument this demagogue was. For years, the Radical had fomented unrest, calling publicly for reform while plotting in secret Cuimhn's dissolution. Only his closest disciples knew what he planned.
"What will you do," asked Sidious, "when you've destroyed the current order?"
"We will build a new one, centered on dignity. The ruling class will be stripped of its wealth. Equal shares will be given to the people."
"Some will refuse to let go of the old way."
The Radical glowered. "They will learn,or be purged. We won't allow hate to disrupt our future."
There is nothing, thought Sidious, quite like the young. How easily, and shamelessly, they shroud themselves in the cassock of ignorant indignation. The young feel they've invented everything, except the scourge of oppression, which ever-changes form like the whims of a changeling, pervading every aspect of every thing that they want for themselves. Thus the true scourge, which they might've once known, becomes a needle in a haystack.
Sidious offered a pansophic smile. "You are very wise, sir."
He reached into his coat, producing a data chip. "Here is my droid's recording of the incident. When you are ready to broadcast, my R2 unit will patch you into the holo-news. Everyone in Cuimhn will see your message."
The Radical held it in his palm like life itself. "And what about you?"
Sidious blinked at his reflection. He raised a finger to his jaw. "I think I'll slip into something more comfortable."
The Radical stood, hands clasped behind his back, waiting for the droid to signal he was live. The nondescript basement would conceal his whereabouts, but his face would be plain to all of Cuimhn. There was no going back. He'd spark a revolution or die a fool.
His commlink beeped. The Radical was live. He stared into the camera with steely resolve.
"Good evening. Last night, Davit Vorka held a private affair for elites at his residence. At approximately 2200 hours, his receptacle—Prin Gareth—suffered 'The Schism.' That's a sanitized way to say she went insane." The Radical was split-screened with R2's recording. "Approximately one hour later, Mister Vorka harvested her memories and had her killed. This is the reality of our immoral system."
The Radical snarled. His voice was electric. "For far too long, we've worked within its parameters to try to achieve change. That time is over. Civil disobedience is a vaccine against change, created by oppressors to preserve their power. Mareth cannot be reformed. It must be burned to the ground. Every day, we give away pieces of ourselves: precious memories we will never recover. Our literal identity is ceded to elites. And what do they offer? Callous indifference. Social violence. Prin Gareth is only the latest receptacle killed by her employer. How many must die before we say no more?
"Let us, together, make Prin Gareth the last. Tonight, I ask you to join a movement to take what we are due. Blood will be shed, but our tears will not. We will save them to consecrate our monuments to victims.
"Tonight begins the struggle to destroy this system. And we start with its creator. The man whose cruel imagination conceived our misery. Tonight, we will kill The Memory Master."
Julian sank heartsick in his chair, as the Radical's missive played on a monitor. Mareth's economy was repulsive, but the Radical's elixir could prove far worse. He'd seen it too many times on too many planets.
And what of The Memory Master?
Julian tapped his comlink. "R2, are you seeing this?"
He awaited response when a proximity alert blasted through the Tangent. His eyes snapped to a monitor. It showed Quinn on a horse, going limp then tumbling from it.
Julian gasped. He grabbed his kit and bombed through the corridor. "R2! Get me a bloody stretcher!"
He deployed the ramp, leaping to the bottom. Julian dropped to Quinn's side where an arm should have been. He opened Quinn's eyelids, finding his normally yellow eyes a fiery orange. A bad sign. The worst sign.
R2 brought the stretcher. Julian shook his head to clear it. His wiry frame trembled as he pulled Quinn to the stretcher. "Not today," he said through gritted teeth.
Padme stood in the portico, watching the horizon where Quinn had disappeared. All was calm, and quiet, and still.
Horses stood undirected, waiting on their masters' successors. The worst of a dozen races littered the sand. Bodies were cleaved, limbs mangled. In the midst of it all, she suffered not a scratch.
"Do you wanna play soldier—or do you want your friends to live?"
"Are you all right?" Obi-Wan asked. Gentle pressure on her shoulder made her face him. He took her far-off stare as concern for their friend. "Don't give up on him, Padme. His pertinacity may yet be put to good."
There was no time to waste contending with her guilt. So it was paramount not to show it. Padme forced herself to nod, smiling tightly.
Obi-Wan took both her hands, pressing a kiss to them. "There could be more coming. We can't stay here." He walked from the portico to Wilk and Galen.
The erudite wolf lifted his head. "Mister Kenobi, my deepest regrets for your friend's discomfiture." When Obi-Wan struggled to respond, Wilk growled bemusedly. "Forgive my sapience. I have neither means nor compulsion to explain it. But with sincere expectation, I offer friendship."
"Accepted," Obi-Wan said. "Where did you come from?"
"We are travelers, wandering among the camps of the Badlands. Resting when needed, being merry when possible. But swiftly departing, before providence frowns or local well wishes are totally exhausted."
"Are you running from something?" Obi-Wan asked.
"People wanna use me," little Galen said.
Obi-Wan tilted his head. Use him for what? He placed a hand on Galen's shoulder, moving to eye level, before Padme's voice stopped him.
"Obi-Wan? There's something in that sarcophagus."
There was no match for the toxin in Republic files. Mareth's records were no help either. That meant no antidote. And there wasn't time for him to find one. Quinn had only hours when that would take weeks.
Julian returned to Quinn's bed. He forced a cheery voice: "I trust the other guy is a sight worse off."
"He is dead," Quinn said.
"Well, I'd say that qualifies."
He'd made the reptile as comfortable as he could. On his head was a hot compress. Bacta soothed him where he'd lost his arm. Yet every breath he had to fight for.
Quinn's eyes were strange, like he was dreaming with them open. He lifted his claw. Julian puzzled before he realized he should take it.
"Doctor," Quinn hissed, "there is something you must know. It must not die with me."
"None of that quitter talk," Julian chided.
"You must listen, Doctor. I am a Jedi in my mind, and in my soul. But my heart is Trandoshan. And it once belonged to one named Draka."
"Marriage is arranged. The heart is not involved. Draka was something else: my conduit to the Scorekeeper."
The Trandoshan goddess, Julian recalled. Appeased by acts of valor and strength. "But you were married also," he said.
"Yes. She birthed eight children."
"Where are they now?"
"They are dead," Quinn said. "Their eggs were in a hatchery, in my hovel on Trandosha. After a great hunt, I did not return home. Instead I had decided to offer Draka my heart. I do not remember her answer—that is the memory I gave for your data." His claw squeezed, cutting Julian's hand, but the doctor didn't move. "I returned at nightfall to a hovel in ruins. My wife's charred corpse was hung for inspection. Seven eggs were destroyed. Only one had survived."
Julian's forehead creased. Pain wormed in his stomach. "God damn, mate..."
"Her name is Reetra," Quinn said, "and she walks her own path. Never to intersect the one chosen by her father."
Only a hint of emotion tinged his voice, but to the doctor it was enough. Julian had taken enough confessions, all from a deathbed. He could make this something else, though. If he saved Quinn's life, all these words would amount to a friendship.
"There's no such thing as never," Julian said. "We have to get you to the Memory Master. With his help, I think we can beat this."
R2 drew their attention to the holo-news. Cuimhn was burning. A giddy multitude poured through its glowing viscera like a swarm of bees provoked to their purpose. The sluggish response of the constable's office condemned to smoldering ruins the business district. Stores were looted; monuments toppled; and elites cowered indoors while swearing allegiance.
"That's about right," Julian said bleakly.
Quinn beseeched him, "You cannot venture there. You are too important."
"If I don't, you'll die."
Julian held his gaze, reckoning with Quinn's resolute aura. In watching men die, the doctor had observed that the strength of one's principles correlate to the breaths that are left in his body. Yet he also observed that a precious few were different. And for this he loved them.
Julian turned to R2. "Get the stretcher ready: maximum stasis. And stay on your comm. I'll need your help to chart a path around the riots. Meet me at the ramp in five minutes. I'm headed to the armory."
"Doctor?" Julian turned at Quinn's voice.
Ice-cold eyes had heated lukewarm. "I am glad you're not a Jedi."