Middle City Coast District, Taris. Day 3.
There had been fire, lots of it. Bardan knew because he could smell the ashes and the things that burnt beyond recognition once.
He could hear and see the glass of all the windows breaking in the same second from a shockwave, sharp pieces tearing through flesh. Then a shrieking wind of flames that swept across the cityscape.
But that was just the beginning of his torment, the worst was that he had to hear the agonizing screams of the people that survived the first wave of explosions. If he was lucky, one voice would be loud enough, close enough to actually cry right next to his ears so that he could wake up.
It felt like falling off a roof top then landing on the mattress without a hit, just parting his eyelids to see daylight, and hearing the rain that drummed against the transparisteel window panes. The room around him was clean and bright, the furniture fairly new and the rug was soft to the touch when he reached to it. There were no ashes left. Bardan turned around and met Runa sleeping peacefully, totally unaware of what he had just been through.
He shut his eyes in order to resume sleeping, and the falling sensation came back. The darkness of a past night returned when thousands of flames were crawling on the ceiling and he felt a distinct presence right where he was lying. He heard nothing for a moment, only his own pulse beating within his ear canal, and worst of it all he could not move. This was a typical nightmare situation that he couldn't wake from but even knowing that he was dreaming didn't help. The presence right beside him reeked of fear, anger and sorrow. He heard its fast, heavy breathing and he started to panic. They said that immolation was the slowest, most painful way to die.
All he could do was to turn his head around and find out what, or who it was.
You can do it. Just do it, and it'll be over. And so he did.
The shape was dark, undefined, not really there but still there. It had no traits or attributes he could focus on, but it "stood" over him and stared. He was too stunned to think of doing anything, he didn't want to blink from fear that it would do something he wasn't prepare for. Bardan just knew… This wasn't a vision from the past.
He heard a sound from across the apartment and looked to the door. A fraction of a second later the dark shaped had disappeared.
Then brightness gradually came back inside the room, and he heard the rain falling again as if it was all just a dream. A dream he just had with his eyes open.
He sighed and tried to relax, curling himself up against Runa and feeling her bare skin against his face but he couldn't shake the thought that he was being watched. He wanted her to wake up and comfort him with her voice. Another part of him wanted to spare her being troubled over things they couldn't change anyway.
Runa shivered slightly and pulled the blanket up to her neck, she turned her head to him. "You look like crap... How much did you sleep?"
"Didn't do that hibernation thingy," she said slowly, then ran her fingers in his hair. "What's on your mind?"
Now that he felt better he turned around and saw only the door to the refreshers, no blurry black cloud. Snuggling under the sheets he breathed in her musky scent and laid his head on her breast, letting her heartbeat soothe his mind.
"We can't stay here," he whispered. Somehow he didn't want to be heard by anyone else. "This place is… in lots of pain."
He waited for her to take the news in. "I know a Mon Calamari who won't be happy about it," she cynically replied. "Tell me what you saw."
"Later." Her skin was soft as silk under his palm and he slid his hand from her belly and over to the last rows of her rib cage, feeling an uneven dent to her left side. "I don't want to think about it right now. Does it still hurt?"
"A little," she breathed. "I got used to it."
She shifted under him and pulled herself out of bed; her nude form moved across the room careless of who or what was watching. Her face was spotless now but Bardan counted the bruises that she wouldn't allow him to heal, explaining that she could conceal them and it wasn't worth him wasting his energy, something he had partially agreed on.
He heard the water running in the refreshers and she came back to whisper in his ear, her breath in his neck making him shiver as he recalled something else that stalked him in the same manner.
"It's a large bath tub," she said and she squeezed his bicep. "And it's clean."
Within the past several days he hadn't ceased to be amazed in how many ways she was able to lift his moods and generally take his thoughts away from his own person. Barely a week ago they were strangers, because she was a dreamer and Bardan couldn't explain how she could get along with the pragmatist that he was.
"Are you gonna get up," she continued, "or do I have to scrub my own back?"
It was unchaste and lustful but it got him out of a gruesome reverie until the next time he had to be alone in that room. The rest of the apartment didn't give him that much of the creeps though he'd still want to be as far away from it as possible.
It rained a lot that day, even as daylight faded it still poured when he was standing outside by the piers in a set of civvie clothes. He had this black leather jacket that looked much like Kal's and he wore it to look mundane in any second grade slum. Bardan just waited and looked towards the skylanes that stopped on the walking paths; there were some pedestrians outside, mostly human, dressed in working uniforms and raincoats. Nobody paid attention to him or Runa and he felt intruding by staring at them.
She combed her short brown hair with her hand and shook the water off it. "In times like these I'm glad I'm not a Wookie."
"It could be worse. At least it's not Jabiim."
"You were on Jabiim?"
Raindrops fell inside his collar and he braced his shoulders, shivering slightly. "Nasty, wet, muddy place. Lots of Separatists, too."
"Ramble on, old man." She finally got up to the droid and placed her order. The smells of greasy nerf steak and fried veg made him drool in expectation, Runa picked something from the flimsi pack as they walked on. "My backwater country girl likes you better when you act your age."
"So you really don't want to know what got me busy for three years."
She threw a look over her shoulder. "I'll find out eventually."
"You're very trusting for a mando."
Gleaming with joy at what he told her she nodded her chin towards the pier. He followed her gaze to see silhouettes of marching men under the rain, and they wore the distinctive Imperial gray battle drab uniform with black helmets and visors.
"The infantry," he thought out loud.
"Does it look like they're coming our way or is it some kind of optics effect…"
"They're coming this way."
Bardan counted six of them which was not even enough for a small platoon and he stood on the sidewalk with Runa who ate another fried protato - protein enhanced root veg - as if watching a celebration march. They were all men in their early twenties, as he could see from their lower faces that weren't hidden by the black visors, with unmatched skin tones and traits. Bardan couldn't recognize ranks but he guessed that their sergeant wore the same uniform.
They watched the troopers walk down the road and turning at the curb before heading back to their speeder.
"I'm getting tired of thinking 'that was close', isn't there anything we can do like pay them off?"
The T24 was a small airspeeder and he felt cramped up inside with his humid clothes and the smell of food invaded the cabin. Finding the air conditioning control he turned it on to dry off.
"They're not politicians or thugs," he replied, "but mostly military with a strong belief in the Imperial order."
"Yeah," she agreed. "I visited their indoctrinating program."
He looked at her. "Yes, you did."
"It was… compelling. As a young adult looking for strong values and a big family to belong to I can understand how someone would adhere to them."
She shot him a painful look as if she was going to lose her temper. "I'm not blaming you or anybody for Devik. He knew what he was going up against and he decided to go his own way."
"Like I said," continued Bardan with a reasoning voice, "I would've gone myself. That mission was far too dangerous for you."
He ignited the propulsion engines and took the speeder in the air. Not wishing to go back to the apartment just yet he maneuvered the vehicle around until he found a lane down below, under the bridges and into darker alleys and paths that looked a lot like the lower levels in Coruscant. And the more he looked down, the harder it was to turn away from it. A voiceless call allured him from down there, in the darkness.
"I think I just saw a panhandling droid," said Runa. "Where exactly are you taking us?"
Bardan dodged a swoop bike that bolted a little too close to his hull from the opposite lane. Runa gasped and grabbed onto her seat.
"I'm sensing something around here."
"And by that I hope you mean loot, riches, or a puppy. Otherwise, slow down."
It was unnerving and it just wasn't like him to change course on a whim but he needed to call out to his senses and focus on the light he had seen before. Closing his eyes he visualized the life signature through the Force and it responded like an echo. The rest of his surroundings were turned into translucent shapes and orbs of faint colors.
"I hate it when you do that," groaned Runa. "Hand over the controls."
Opening his eyes again when he had a lock on his target he took the clumsy T24 into a deep canyon of old streets, between weathered constructions that no longer served any purpose other than basements for higher buildings.
"It's around here," he said then landed the airspeeder in an alley and switched the headlights off. They weren't in the Under City yet so that wasn't the planet's ground level. "And I think it's not moving."
He thoughtfully shook his head. The presence felt similar to him as a distress beacon with no signature, it was impersonal and even when coming close there was nothing changing about it.
Runa handed the flimsi food pack to him in an offering gesture while addressing him a puzzled look.
"I'm just weighing our liability here," he explained and ate a fry. "If we head out there I'll want to know what I'm up against."
"So is it a Force thing that calls to you when someone's in danger?"
He opened his mouth to start explaining how it worked but stopped mid-thought at the realization that she might not understand and would grow apart from him.
"It's… freaky mystical stuff."
"That doesn't answer my question."
He squinted back at her. "Alright. It's like that tingly feeling of knowing you're not alone somewhere, on a larger scale. Only difference is that I can see it in energy waves… does it make sense so far?"
"I remember the feeling but it's more imagination than real perception in my case."
"It's real most of the time," he informed.
"Okay, then… closet-monsters are real?"
"I warned you." He looked through all the window panes but saw nothing more than ruins and trash in the dark. If nothing was going to show up or change in the Force presence he'd have to leave without answers. "How can there be absolutely nothing going on here…"
She joined him in staring at the darkness around them, her breathing started to increase in speed. "We can't be all alone, I heard there are swoop thugs everywhere ready to dismantle any stopping vehicle."
Bardan looked at his coat on the backseat and checked his belongings failing to find his rifle, lightsaber or datapad. Going out there with only the small blaster in his boot was ridiculous.
"Damn it. Sorry for bringing us here, with no weapons, no map…"
"Isn't there anything you can do? You can talk to people through the Force, can't you?"
The "beacon" was still emitting but he didn't dare reach out to it, only did he stand and stare from afar. Bardan knew that whatever was calling it was able to listen as well.
"It won't show itself," he quietly replied, "so I won't either."
"Maybe they're expecting you."
She pointed at five o'clock towards the shape of a moving person in the field of garbage and discarded vehicle chassis. It walked in direction of the underground gallery complex north of them and stopped as Bardan laid his eyes on it.
"Looks like a little girl," Runa wondered. "Bardan, wait!"
He put his jacket on and showed his palm to the young person, intending no harm. Much unlike his wishes it ran away in the other direction to hide in a tunnel, a sewage tube.
"Nice approach." Runa walked passed him and began following the stray.
Bardan let her take the lead and kept at a safe distance. She got to a crouch near the opening and called out into the permacrete tunnel.
"Hey there, little girl. We're not gonna hurt you, you can come out."
No reply, but soon he could see the small-sized tunic of what used to be robes. Filthy, ragged, regulation brown robes.
"A padawan," he stated. "Great."
Runa did a good job at ignoring his remark. "What's your name, sweetie?"
The girl, now obviously a human with dark skin and long, scruffy black hair, stood up with whatever dignity she had and looked straight at him. "What are you?" she spat.
Bardan, hands buried in his pockets forced a smile. "Answer the lady's question."
He regretted not having his beskar'gam on but either way the print he left in the Force was a cold spot, nothing but void. It was something he had trained himself to do for years and he wasn't going to lay that armor down.
"Aresu Kurn," the girl replied to Runa. "Now leave, this place isn't safe."
Runa looked him sideways with amused confusion. "We'll leave if you come with us, you could use a clean-up and some meat on your bones."
Bardan reached for her arm but retracted immediately and stepped back. It wasn't a day for losing a finger from a teenaged-built lightsaber. And it was pink. He gave her his best don't-play-that-game-with-me look.
"Stay away!" she shouted. "I won't let you harm him, you'll have to kill me first."
"Little girl, what are you talking about?"
She was fierce and seemed able to take a leap if that made her life easier.
"She's talking about the beacon," he explained then turned to the padawan. "It's not who you think it is. You'll have to take my word for it."
Her grip on the hilt didn't loosen, she just took a sidestep with her eyes piercing at him across the pink laser blade.
"How can I trust someone who's neither dead nor alive."
The padawan was short, underweight and weak from starvation, he could easily disable her but then what would Runa think…
"Defend yourself!" she yelled and raised her weapon to strike.
"I'll try not to damage you."
The Force was the ultimate power in the universe. A full blow of Force could obliterate a star. Bardan knew that it was all about nuance and delicacy.
Aresu was on the floor in a fraction of a second, deep in unconsciousness. Runa hurried to her and measured her pulse before steadying her head checking for clear airways, as a true medic. Bardan borrowed a second to watch her.
"What did you do?" she sighed with worry.
He got on one knee and lifted the girl in his arms, very short from the ruthless salvage fighter from moments ago.
"We need to get out of here. Now."
She came to when he laid her down on the couch in their apartment and Runa was already preparing a change of clothes after she had her cleaned. He wasn't sure if he was comfortable seeing the padawan using the outfits of his cyar'ika.
"Explanation time," Runa said as she brought a glass of water and uj cake for their guest. "First, the beacon thingy, please."
"It was my master," said Aresu. "He's still alive and he needs me."
Bardan stored her lightsaber in a locked compartment where he also kept his beskar. He turned around and grabbed a piece of uj cake before sitting right next to Aresu. He felt her unease and the lingering fear that had kept her alive for a long time without needing to change out of her robes.
"Relax." The cake was sticky, it made him sound more approachable. "Let me find out exactly what happened."
She pulled away but he took her wrist and shut his eyes, placing himself in a semi-trance that allowed him to receive whatever memory was contained in her head. She had basic symptoms of malnutrition, and borderline sociopath disorders after two years spent on her own because her master - a Twi'lek he didn't know - was mugged by swoop gangsters and fell off an aerial bridge. She really had no idea if he was dead or alive.
"Your master wasn't there today," he said, letting her go. "In fact, no one was. Nobody you know, anyway."
Runa watched speechless and just circled the padawan girl with a comforting arm. Bardan went over to the kitchen space to get his datapad and inquired "Aresu Kurn" in his search engine. Her master showed up in the KIA list, and she was MIA. Whoever delivered her alive or dead to the Empire would receive a prize of two thousand credits. Barely worth the trip.
"You're Korunnai. The human subspecies with built-in midichlorian genes."
"And what happened to yours?" she snapped. "Why can't I sense you?"
He recalled what one of his friends told him and it made him smile. "Because I'm special."
"He's using a cloaking technique," Runa interjected. "He can teach you someday."
Bardan nodded, in awe of how much she knew about him already. The pack of food was heating up in the oven and he divided its contents in three plates.
"So if that wasn't my master," slowly spoke Aresu, "what was it?"
"A trap of some kind. If it got me there, it could attract many other Jedi in this system."
The girl got up to stand before him like she wanted another affront. "But you're nothing like us. What are you?"
This time he felt slightly insulted and wished she could just sit down and be afraid of his T-visor, like everyone else. But she was being stubborn.
"Tell her, cyar'ika."
Runa came up to them and comically landed her hands on the girl's skinny shoulders. "He's a bounty hunter."