Fist in the Firelight
Wilk rose on his hind legs, peering into the sarcophagus. Inside was a mummified body with an elaborate sigil woven into the wrappings. "It would be a lesser encroachment to rob his descendants than open this vessel."
Palmer said, "Death, by definition, nullifies disruption."
"All the same," said Obi-Wan, "we shall be respectful."
Coda studied the sigil: a tree with human-like veins coursing through the branches, contained within a spheroid. It took only a moment to spark her memory. "It belongs to the first order of the gods."
"In historical terms: the Mercian Council," said Palmer.
Wilk interjected, "This symbol is known to me."
Obi-Wan snapped to attention. "How?"
"At a camp in the Dead Zone, a Mandalorian showed me a rubbing transfer, from a monument denoted 'The Dream Chamber.''
Coda and Palmer gave no sign of recognition. But that didn't mean there was nothing to it. Indeed, for all Obi-Wan knew, his older iteration may be lurking about there. "What is The Dream Chamber?" Obi-Wan asked.
"I am not apt to attempt conjecture," replied Wilk, "but I would find you an audience that you might rightfully adjure."
Obi-Wan's jaw set, and he turned to the exit. "There's daylight yet. And plenty of horses."
"More desert. How wonderful," Coda mumbled to herself.
When a populace rebels, nothing and no one can quell the attempt. Security forces gunned down dissidents. Row after row fell in heaps. But there were always more. And each wave was angrier for the fate of the one before it.
The horde pressed relentlessly until finally overwhelming superior arms. They dragged security to the ground. Taking their guns. Bashing their skulls.
Improvised grenades left everything burning. Angry silhouettes stood atop speeders, pumping fists in the firelight. Teens raided stores for clothing, games. Suspected loyalists—judged so at a glance—were dragged and murdered.
Julian sprinted through the streets, a smoking graveyard.
"Turn into the alley—then a left at the junction," R2 said through his comlink.
Julian obliged, Quinn's stretcher beside him. Ahead in the alley were two rioters with homemade grenades.
"Look at that: a fuckin' loyalist!" The rioter raised his explosive. Julian drew his gun and blasted the grenade. Both rioters burst into flames. They bucked and screamed. Grasping at air.
The doctor hurried past. He turned at the junction.
A thug leapt out, pinned him to the wall. Julian raised his gun. The thug grabbed his wrist. He slammed it on the wall. The blaster fell. The thug threw a punch. Julian dodged but too slowly. The fist smashed his ear.
He was thrown to the ground. The thug mounted him. Julian threw him off. He scrambled to his knees—before taking a boot. Julian screamed as his shoulder popped from its socket.
The thug leapt to mount him. Julian rolled from his path. He lifted his shoulder then slammed it on the ground. The cruel pavement put it back in its socket.
The thug kicked him in the side. Once—twice. Three times more. Julian rolled to the stretcher. The thug lifted his boot.
Julian kicked his other leg out from under him. The thug cracked his head on the stretcher as he fell. He landed prone near the doctor, dead or unconscious.
Julian blinked back pain tears. His comlink crackled in shuddering grasp: "W—where now, R2?" Silence. Static. "Come in, R2! R2-D2, are you there?!"
Sidious smiled as he entered the Tangent. Faithful R2 was there to receive him. The droid had tipped him off that Aayla was alone. Things would have been simpler with the Master's willing aid. But he still had a path to victory. Along it he'd destroy the seditious scientist.
"Have you established a link to The Memory Master's database?" Sidious asked.
"Copy everything to the Tangent. Take care he does not discover you."
"I understand," R2 beeped.
Sidious reached out through the Force, or rather attempted to, before cynically remembering his vessel's limitations. But it wouldn't be long now. Soon his dominating will would have means to impose itself.
"Before you do," Sidious said. "let us give Knight Secura a push toward her potential."
Sidious monitored from the security station as R2 breached the lock and entered Aayla's quarters. The droid sealed himself in with her.
From her cross-legged pose, Aayla levitated, unfolding her legs so she came down standing. The choleric scrutiny that was now her default trained on R2. "What do you want?"
"His only desire is that he fulfill yours," Sidious said through the PA.
Aayla reached for her saber, grasping air. Obi-Wan had taken it when he confined her to quarters. Her wild, bloodshot stare fixed on the camera. "Who are you?! Where is Julian?!"
"The tedium of Jedi," Sidious sighed. "'Where are my friends? Please don't hurt them.' You care not for the answer; it is dogma speaking through you. There's only one question that matters to Aayla Secura."
"You don't know anything about me!"
"Oh, I'm afraid I do," he mocked her. "Behold, little Jedi, the fate of Miler Crata."
Aayla snapped back as R2 projected a hologram. There in blue, scored with scan lines, was Miler's face behind glass. He was banging on a door, screaming, afraid.
"Landon! You're killing me! Open the door! Open the bloody door!"
"I'm sorry," choked Landon.
"Don't do this!" cried Miler.
"There's only one tank. We'll never make it together."
"We can make it! I promise! We'll bloody make it, mate!"
"I can't take the chance."
"You son of a bitch! I will haunt you forever! Every moment, ya bloody—"
Blood sprayed on the window, misted in smoke. Miler's body dropped and vanished.
Color drained from her face. Her tentacles throbbed. She stumbled blindly, toppling a chair. She grasped for her bed. She came up short, crashing to the floor. Her hand flew to her chest. A sob wrenched free. "No! No—it's—it's a trick. You're lying."
"Search your feelings. Face your pain."
"I won't believe it! I—I—"
"Landon Solo left him to die."
Aayla screamed. Force energy burst in every direction. Her desk tumbled to the door. Fissures formed in the walls. R2-D2 fell on his back.
Sidious' cackle echoed through the Tangent. And there was so much joy in it that it felt like his first. All his life he'd dragged the Force away from its will. But now he would do it as an ordinary man.
"Let me go! Open the door!" screamed Aayla.
"In time, little Jedi."
On the ceiling a durasteel vent suddenly rattled. Opal smoke squeezed through the grill, billowing through the room. Aayla hadn't time to guess what it was before her eyes felt very heavy and she collapsed to the floor. That horrible laugh was the last thing she heard before losing consciousness.
Obi-Wan marveled at Wilk sitting upright on his horse, paws on the reins. He felt there was much he could learn from him, starting with Meirleach.
Wilk said, "I can apprise you of the camp. But I invite discrete queries, lest I inevitably descant, testing the seams of your Jedi manners."
"What can you tell me about the Mandalorian?"
"That for being the fairer sex, she is no less formidable. The sheriff keeps peace with a gentle hand, until such time as disorder becomes unrelenting that he may need the Mandalorian."
Obi-Wan said, "Then why weren't you safe? Why was Galen in danger?"
"The fate of one child is beneath their concern."
"I've been to five hundred worlds, met thousands of children. Not one was beneath my concern."
"We will see," said Wilk.
Padme stared unseeing at the horizon. Her lips, in their ludicrous purse, came close to her nose. Having never seen this expression, Landon pulled alongside her.
He watched her before saying: "It's honorable to wanna fight."
Padme said, "Those seeking honor are not honorable at all."
"Don't become Kenobi. Self-loathing doesn't suit you." Any mention of Obi-Wan would usually elicit something, but her head didn't move. "If you want to fight, I'll teach you how. The basics, at least."
"Amidala, go find Prince Charming."
Padme swallowed. "Thank you, Landon."
Little Galen was asleep on Brummel's horse, leaning heavily on his arm. Coda rode alongside them. The sight of Brummel and the boy was unpredictably natural. She could picture them at a lake, little Galen being taught to skip stones, with Brummel wearing a smile she hadn't yet seen.
Coda would not deny there was murder in his soul. But it's in all of our souls. That his was reaped made him no more wicked than an ordinary man. Could he ever believe that? Had he even tried to?
She watched him shift for Galen's comfort. "Have y'ever thought of bein' a dad?"
"I expect it's better my nature dies with me."
Something in his voice wasn't right. But she didn't know what. "I admire your convictions: all except that one."
"What did I do to earn your faith?"
"You didn't earn it," Coda said. "It simply is you did nothing to lose it."
Brummel was pale. Every second breath seemed to fail to reach his lungs. "There was a time I thought differently," he said after a silence. "About being a father."
"It didn't work out," Brummel said thickly.
Most of the encampments beyond Cuimhn existed in little corners of dead cities. Meirleach was unique in that it filled the husk of an old strip mall. Through the years, they'd expanded, fashioning scrap into homes, trading posts, and disreputable watering holes. All it took to fulfill a dream was reliable labor. Thus patriarchs and matriarchs, for whom such labor was free, dominated the camp's barter economy.
Meirleach's power families had little interest in authority. They were content to live comfortably and to let live all others. The camp's unique stew of prosperity and lawlessness made it a hub for ruffians. Criminals and bounty hunters flowed in and out.
Wilk had warned Obi-Wan of a few in particular. Topping the list were brothers Sligo and Chulaain, gun-slinging Sarkhai who worked for the highest bidder. Yet they aspired to be more than mercs and, for reasons unclear to Obi-Wan, believed they needed Galen.
At the fringes of town, Wilk warned them: "I am very sensible that contention is your custom, but I hope in this matter you find abstinence agreeable. Let us bow our heads, and strike no enmity, before reaching the Sheriff."
Landon said, "What the hell are you talking about?"
"Don't cause trouble," Obi-Wan translated.
"God damn—is that really what he said? It's like he's padding an essay."
Padme smiled to herself. She pulled her horse alongside Obi-Wan's, feeling that together they could honor Wilk's mandate.
Obi-Wan's crew trotted up main street, into the heart of the old strip mall. The acrylic signs had been removed, but grimy outlines remained: Grotto's Collectibles, Twi'lek Twilight, Meirleach Electronics.
Surrounding them were street vendors hocking their wares. Blaster parts and trinkets, mended metal and mynok meat. A Tired Young Lady sat stoic at a kissing booth.
Sellers, patrons froze in place, casting dubious glances at the Jedi's party. But more than anyone, they were focused on Galen. Expressions of sympathy, avarice. Among some, perhaps, even scornful countenance.
Brummel felt the boy stiffen and looped an arm around him.
Sligo and Chulaain emerged, wearing blasters on their hips. The louder, more brutish one, Sligo's face was tattooed with the markings of a night stalker. On one cheek was a long scar.
"Welcome back, Wilk," Sligo said. The wolf bared his teeth silently. "And you brought your little friend," the gunslinger grinned. "I had him before. This time, I will keep him." Sligo ran a finger along his scar. "And you'll pay your debt, you unholy beast. As god as my witness, I will—"
Landon drew his gun and blew his head off.
Sligo's corpse rocked on its heels before falling supine. Chulaain cried out. Stupefied, revolted, he didn't even think to reach for his blaster. The crowd froze also.
"I hate grandstanding," Landon said.
Obi-Wan drew a breath slowly. So much for bowed heads. Landon had painted a picture of who they were, and to stray would be dangerous. "If there are others who'd have the child," Obi-Wan said, "let it be known your life is forfeit."
The townspeople scattered, making a path for the horses.
Obi-Wan's crew went forth, passing Chulaain, still riveted where he was.
"At least he died before god," Brummel said savagely.
Julian staggered through the street. Pain rippled through his shoulder with the shock of every step. The grip on his blaster grew ever-tighter.
Straight ahead was the abandoned factory that secreted entry to the Master's world. Julian stole a glance at Quinn in stasis. The reptilian's face was frozen in peace.
Julian cried out. He was suddenly on his stomach. A hand wrenched at his blaster. Julian fired on instinct, felling his attacker.
He rolled on his back. Another Rodian lunged. Julian's blaster exploded its jaw. Teeth dispersed like tossed pebbles. The tapir-like snout became angel hair pasta.
Julian turned on his side, screaming in pain. He grabbed the stretcher and pulled himself standing.
He stumbled the rest of the way to the factory.
The stretcher's stasis field flickered and failed. It wasn't meant for extended use. The stretcher now useless, he pulled Quinn to his feet. The Jedi growled, blinking awake. His slung his one arm over Julian's shoulder.
They entered the elevator through the holographic wall.
"Almost there," the doctor promised.
"I fear you are correct."
The doors whooshed open. They staggered down a corridor to the Master's lab.
The Master smiled at the eryops clinging to life inside a tank. It was a moment of discovery, unquenched curiosity versus thirst insatiable. Was it the breakthrough he sought, or simply uncommon will? Every being seeks survival in greater or less degree, but none more than non-sentients, who lack all notion of quality of life.
His console exploded, flashing sparks in his face. He leapt from his chair, blinking furiously. "What is the meaning of this?"
"We don't have time for your bullshit," Julian said. "Quinn needs your help. He's been poisoned."
Quinn said, "An unhallowed atrocity disguised as man."
The Master thought for a moment. "Ah, yes—Mister Bender, I believe. An amusing endeavor."
Julian pictured a crater in the bastard's skull. "If you created it, that means you have the counter-agent."
"Somewhere in my records," the Master allowed. "But I'm afraid I can't help you."
"Because it does not interest me."
Julian raised his blaster. "How about now?"
The Master's mouth pinched inward. Was there no civility remaining among men? "Doctor, he's dead already," the Master said.
"Let's try this another way," Julian glowered. "A thousand feet above you, there's a citywide uprising. And the people blame you. Any minute now, hundreds of revolutionaries will come for your blood." His grimly low voice suddenly exploded: "And I'll make damn sure you're here if you don't help me!"
The Master grew weary of lesser beings' threats. But he could suffer degradation for eventual pleasure. He moved to the console and searched his database. "It will take time to synthesize..."
The elevator thrummed, grinding up the shaft. It must've been called by someone on the surface. Dread unspooled in Julian's chest. It was too late. They were out of time. Quinn would die and he along with him.
The Master pulled back. "There's an escape hatch in my office. It leads to the catacombs. But we must leave now."
"Put the info on a data chip," Julian demanded. "We'll manufacture it on the Tangent."
"Doctor..." Julian whirled at Quinn, barely standing with the help of a table. Quinn's scaly face was a ghostly lime. He peered at the empty middle-distance like he saw an apparition. "That is too long to survive," Quinn said.
"Then we make a stand here."
"Your heart is Trandoshan," Quinn said fondly. "You have many battles ahead—but let this one be mine. I am ready for the Scorekeeper."
Julian swallowed through a bone-dry throat. His stricken heart reached through the Force like trembling fingers. "I'm sorry, Quinn," he said, and tears fell.
"I am not... my noble friend."
Julian clasped his arm and then followed The Master. Inside the office was a false floor panel. The Master triggered the invisible keypad. Blue light rimmed the panel and it promptly retracted, revealing a ladder to the catacombs.
Julian blocked him from entering.
"What are you doing?" The Master demanded.
"Give me one damn reason to let you live."
More degradation. There was only one play and The Master knew it. "Because Darth Sidious is on Mareth. And I know what he's planning."
Julian's jaw tightened. It could be a deception, the last calibration of his liar's tongue. But he could afford to discover that later. He shoved the Master to the floor and followed him down the ladder.
The elevator stopped. Quinn listened to the rioters pour down the hall.
He freed his saber and it flashed from nothingness.
Capillaries of memory swelled and burst.
"I will rely on my protectors."
"He who imitates good always falls a little short."
"You're a traitor!"
"Temptation is a fallacy. Fallen Jedi are only Sith the Dark Side didn't want yet."
"Neither Jedi nor Sith are proffered freedom."
"Tell me: what will our place be, when all of this is over?"
"He served with valor."
"Perhaps too much."
"What has been will always be. All the life in the universe is trapped in a loop."
"You are a Jedi, and a warrior. Soon you will be a father."
"Her name is Reetra."
"Oh, Quinn... my old friend."
Quinn's breath came ragged. Fear, rage polluted the Force.
A mob of ten rushed in. They destroyed everything around them. Glass shattered. Consoles exploded. Plastic and durasteel covered their clothes. Fire filled their eyes when they looked on Quinn. He saw no reason to inform them he wasn't The Master.
Two men fired blasters. The bolts were sent back, riving flesh from their skulls.
Quinn flicked his claw, throwing a rioter headlong through a window.
The next man lunged. Quinn flipped, landed behind him, and halved him at the shoulders. The upper half fell like a blood-covered bust.
Quinn's back exploded with pain. He whirled at a woman wielding a pike. He kicked her to killing range and ran her through with his saber.
The remaining men circled him. Quinn felt his own blood puddling beneath him. His vision swam. He staggered in place.
A rioter screamed, "Look at us, you son of a bitch! These are the faces of your victims!"
"Yes, they are," Quinn hissed.
He Force-pulled the rioter onto his blade. Then kicking the corpse free, he swung his saber in an arc, taking two heads.
The final two rioters fired blasters. Quinn deflected both shots, opening smoking gulches in their heads.
He staggered the table, using it to stand. He fought for footing in a pool of his blood. The squeak of his boots was the only sound—until the elevator thrummed, moving up the shaft. Soon more rioters would seek their revenge.
Quinn pushed off the table. He held his saber and waited.
He blinked once and found himself flat. His deignited saber lay well out of reach. Warm blood gushed from his back, and he lost sensation throughout his body. Wide-eyed, tight-lipped, he stared at the ceiling.
There above him, haloed by the lab lights, an inky form coalesced. It was splendor and strength beyond all he knew.
"Scorekeeper," Quinn whispered.
"Your children are waiting," said a voice.
His chest filled with peace and Quinn Pascal died.