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Chapter 06

Carida, Colonies Sector. Day 5.

[Log Entry #11. Recruit ID: ST001289155 - Security Level 4]

Today was the beginning of my second week into Basic Training and we're short of two guys in our dorm already. At first I thought Jaio would have dropped out by now but I was wrong. She beats me at endurance drills; she was probably born on a high gravity planet like this one, the cheater. She's the kind of girl that talks and acts tough but knows when to shut up. I think you would have liked her.

We're in the desert boot camp right now. There is no air conditioning indoors and I'm passively enjoying sitting in my own soup. We're not allowed more than one shower a day, and only for 10 seconds so I'll let you imagine the scent of this place. A hint: it reeks.

The first thing we did this morning was running around the field with our uniform on, temperature regulators and helmets off for twenty minutes. Then we did some shooting for a couple hours, and finished with more running. It's called acclimating and it sucks. We're supposed to be doing this for ten days before going on with the real exercises. But I looked myself in the mirror tonight and I think I look a bit tan now: well, mostly sun-burnt. Keryl puked in his stuffing bag right after lunch and I don't think he's going to get clean fatigues tomorrow so now he's scrubbing them in the sink.

I talked to a weird guy at dinner yesterday. He looks older than most recruits and kept cool when I asked him where he came from. And you won't believe this, Runa, because I didn't believe it either. He says he's from Mandalore. I said OKAY and he asked me if I knew other people from there. He seemed a little too friendly and confident for a newbie and wouldn't stop chatting about a girl he met just before enlisting wishing he could have a way to talk to her from here. This is why I stopped sending you messages and began writing a journal instead. I'll keep the comlink as a last resort when I start feeling like I might die here.

[Entry saved. Time: 2154]

Lower City, Entertainment District, Taris.

He walked the streets, helmet concealed by his cloak, trying not to look specifically mando nor Jedi. Confusing people generally did the trick to be ignored. The sidewalk was largely populated with countless species, Bardan even saw a few faceless figures like himself, only wearing different masks but nevertheless trying not to be recognized. But he was still one of the rare humans in Lower City.

The location that Eevy picked seemed like a popular club. Bardan entered without looking too closely at the display pictures, just glad that nobody asked him to show ID or to remove his helmet. A waitress that could have used a bit more clothing on her walked up to him. She had jewelry on her lekku's and purple skin, or maybe it was painted.

"Welcome to the Lekku Lounge! My name is Lunya and I'll be serving you tonight. Would you like a private booth?"

Bardan smiled under his buy'ce and nodded in greeting. "Actually I'm here to see your female Mon Cal… Big cranium, rather petite and brown-skinned."

The Twi'lek waitress held her notepad against her breast in total confusion before going Oh! and laughed nervously.

"I was thinking you had the wrong place for that kind of service. We only offer lekkued shows. Right this way."

There was a main stage occupied by three dancers, and near the back end of the room were doors and curtains to those private booths she had mentioned. He counted twelve customers currently in the lounge but the smoke and music made it seem busier. Lunya lead him around the main stage and placed a menu card on the table where his Mon Cal pal was sitting.

She had credits in her hands and was watching one particular Twi'lek on the stage; she had blue-green skin and flower tattoos all over it. Bardan directed his gaze back on Eevy who seemed to be ignoring him.

"I didn't know this was your type," he said before removing his helmet. He brushed his now brow-length hair back and told himself to think of a way to keep it held down inside the bucket.

"It's a friendly place," she replied with a more relaxed voice than usual. "And they don't ask questions."

He watched her taking a long sip from a glass of emerald fluid. Then someone placed a similar drink in front of him. Lunya suggestively winked to him and left.

"I wanted to apologize," said Eevy. "They placed a transmitter on me and now they know I went off road."

The green alcoholic drink was sweet and made his tongue and throat numb for a few seconds.

"Just so you know there's an inquisition going on," she continued. "They wanted to use your wife as bait because they can't track you directly. I'm so sorry, Bardan."

She started sobbing with her shoulders and squinted her big globe eyes shut.

He gently patted her arm, sending a comforting wave through the Force although he would've preferred not to deal with her wounded conscience. "There, there. Just tell me where they are now."

"Somewhere in Middle City, in a temporary base. They use no markings but they all wear black uniforms. One of them is called Invader or something like that."

"Vader," he nodded. "What did he tell you?"

Lunya showed up again, interrupting their conversation, to place a bowl of warra nuts on the table. The tattooed Twi'lek onstage started doing a few low moves to catch his attention, a sight he really didn't need to see right then. Seeing female Twi'leks always got him thinking of Laseema who was taking care of Kad at the moment.

"You should probably give her something," Eevy said, sniffling through her large nostrils.

"So this is the 501st operating out of uniform, if I understand what you're saying." He handed a hundred credits worth chip to the blue-green girl that took it with her lips, dangling her lekku's in his face then he gestured for her to move away. "Are you sure it's me they're after and not someone else?"

"I'm sure. They said it had to do with an outpost that you attacked, they showed me a recording…" She threw a warra nut in her mouth. "Fifty thousand. That's how much they were going to pay me."

"Cheap chakaare."

"But of course now I'm as good as dead here."

Bardan sighed and crossed his arms on the table. He knew about the sort of inquisition that the Empire was doing against Jedi, renegade clones and all the Republic civilian and military personnel that didn't report for their Imperial duty. Vader was leading the Purge operation, giving no trials and making sure all were accounted for on a death list. He had watched a leaked holo-surveillance feed of how Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker, was slashing and dashing padawans and younglings alike in the Jedi Temple. That was how they were planning to rule the galaxy. And by they he meant the Sith. There was no point in plaguing Eevy with that detail.

"So what are you going to do now?" she asked sadly.

He pocketed a handful of candied nuts and drank another sip of his cocktail. "I'm still thinking."

"I feel like I haven't done much to really help, Bardan. I'm so sorry. Tell that to your wife."

He nodded again, stretching his lips in a forced smile. Runa would be pissed, he was certain of it; she had placed hopes on Eevy in order to feel safe on this planet. But nothing was less safe than this. And they weren't even married yet. He let that thought sink in until it started to hurt in his chest.

"You should leave while you still can," he told her. "Let me handle this and just look after yourself now, Eevy."

She smiled gratefully and bobbed her large head. "Have you decided what to do yourself?"

He stood and dropped a few more credits for the waitress. "I'm going to turn my self in. If it's me they want then I won't let them get to my family."

"I wished we had met in better circumstances, Bardan. You're a good man. How do they say again… May the Force be with you."

"Who knows," he replied and put his buy'ce back on, "we might actually meet again."

He walked out and only let his mind race when he was back in the speeder. Vader. Shabla Vader was after him. They knew his name, what he looked like and also that he was a Mandalorian now. There were possibly people watching him from the moment he entered the club and waiting to make their move. Bardan sensed them from the oppressing feeling of being stalked. It was easy, he just had to look out for male humans wearing black uniforms. He checked the seats of the T24, running his glove-scanner over everything to detect bugs or any other remote devices. If they wanted him dead it was nothing more simple than half a dozen small charges under the chassis and a remote det. But there was none of that: they wanted him alive. The faint call of the pulsing beacon caught his attention. This time, he knew what to find at the other end.

In his comlink channel display he couldn't find Runa's. She used to have it open now and then in case her brother would try to contact her but not anymore. Good girl, he thought. He knew how worried she was about Devik, because every time she mentioned him her eyes would water up, but she could put that aside now. Bardan had to tell her what was going on, though. Whatever happened with him, she had to remain hidden and prepare to escape with the Aggressor.

He waited a long minute with his comms, staring at the HUD without blinking, just contemplating his options. What about running away now and letting the inquisition hunt him as far as they could? He would have to leave Runa and Aresu behind either way. The girl was now able to hide her Force imprint, one less thing to worry about. They were tough, both mandokarla. They could go back to Mandalore and seek their own help without him.

Ten minutes had passed and his head was against the command panel. He was writing a text message in his comms.

Mhi solus tome. Mhi solus dhar'tome. Mhi me'dinui an--

He squeezed his eyes shut, knocked his helmet against the panel, and deleted the phrase. Don't be stupid, you'll be back for her. You'll tell her face-to-face. He started the engines and flew off the main skylane to dive towards the Under City, the most dangerous place to be on Taris, the living space of the Rakghouls. He wrote another message.

GET BACK TO THE SHIP AND WAIT FOR MY SIGNAL.

The Under City was deep below the sky bridges and lights of the urban life. People lived in whatever they could find in the trash and built their shelters out of it. The ground seemed covered in soil but it was a mixture of fungi and whatever fungi would grow on. Taris had never had a patch of apparent natural soil for thousands of years.

The Force beacon was like a sudden scream when he got nearer to its source. He was basically in a large cave when he had to stop and turn the airspeeder around to land. Rakghouls were merciless, salvage, animalistic creatures that attacked all living things and contaminated them with a disease that would rot the flesh and mind. He had to be cautious.

Switching his helmet-light on he jumped to the ground and started looking down through the mist created by the microscopic breathing flora. He was glad he had his breathing filters on. He got to a crouch and found a pulsing amber glow that, when he waved the fog out, turned out to be a pyramidal object with carvings on it. An old Jedi artifact. Or Sith, he didn't know. Hovering his hand over the pointy object he summoned a simple wave of Force to inflict its activity, ordering it to shut down. The artifact complied and stopped pulsing, going completely dark.

There was a deep, raspy breathing closing in, mechanically enhanced and regular as a metronome. Bardan turned his head around to see a black shape in the mist, which felt like a pit of absolute darkness in the Force. Switching his light off, he knew he would never forget that imprint or the sensation of fear it suggested. His instincts told flee but his reason said negotiate. He stood up and acknowledged him with a nod.

"Lord Vader."

He watched the other masked man, waiting for his response as he moved closer - his gait was somewhat rigid. He was taller than a clone of Jango, not the height he remembered from the holos, and that was supposed to intimidate but Bardan saw through that. The black morbid mask and armor were only a notch more fearsome than his own and equal if not inferior in protection than beskar. He carried no apparent weapon other than a lightsaber at his side. Regardless of Force powers Bardan had the upper hand so far.

"Bardan Jusik." His voice was deep and loud, clearly artificial. "You are not easy to find."

"Flattering. What gives me the honor of having you personally arrest me?"

Anakin Skywalker had been a Jedi General like him. He knew orders, discipline, and general rules of engagement. That was his chance.

"I'm offering you a deal. Work for me and your friends will not be harmed."

His heart beat more rapidly at the mention of Runa but he steadied his breathing and wiped her away from his thoughts. Now was not the time to get emotional. He let his reason take over.

"The Jedi Counsel tried before you," he bargained. "But they didn't offer a price. I'm listening."

He felt Vader's relief of victory as he stuck his thumbs in his belt, breathing calmly like a well-greased machine.

"Serve the Emperor, and you will never have to worry about money or your security."

Bardan would have normally shunned the idea of serving another man - Jedi or Sith - and he was appalled at himself for even considering the idea. Runa was still in the back of his mind and the feelings that lingered with her, attaching him constantly to her, got him to neglect his most precious gift - his freedom. His gut feeling cried for him to run for his life, something he could manage but, what about the ones he had to carry along?

The comms icon blinked in the corner of his HUD. It was Runa.

WHERE ARE YOU?

"Do this for her," Vader continued on a persuasive tone. He had picked up Runa's presence as well.

Bardan switched his comlink off and couldn't repress a sigh. The memory of Skywalker slaughtering children on holovids haunted his mind's eye and he saw himself at his side, in black robes and wielding a red lightsaber. He felt his stomach churn at the idea. He would slot himself before turning into a Sith.

In his pocket he had a small private beacon linked to the Aggressor, resting in the middle of warra nuts he'd taken from the Lekku Lounge. That thought distracted him as he pressed the activating switch. He even thought about that tattooed blue-green Twi'lek and her oh-so-suggestive dance which almost made him laugh in his helmet.

He knew it was off-putting, and it served its purpose. It had taken his mind off of the ones he cared for the most.

"If I accept," he finally replied. "It would be under several conditions."

Vader seemed more than annoyed. He was angry now, but still remained somewhat calm. "I'm listening."

"First," he said carefully, "I want the bounties lifted for me and a list of names I'll provide later on."

"We'll see." He said after a pause.

"Secondly, I want a guarantee that I can put the contract on hold, whenever I wish and without repercussions. And finally--"

"Watch yourself, Jusik."

"…And finally, I don't hunt or kill children."

No reaction. The chakaar was totally at peace with his past. To hell with it then, if he got his kicks at killing innocents he could do it himself.

A brisk vision came up from his memory of a bright day on Coruscant as he was sitting in the library. One year before the Clone Wars and the Battle of Geonosis, he was eight-teen back then and had just passed his trials. He remembered being happy about not having a braid anymore. Most young Knights would celebrate together with their group of friends but he didn't. His mind was so relaxed that he just sat in the Jedi Archives, browsing HoloNet articles in a semi-meditative state.

A younger man, a padawan, had taken a seat opposite from him on the holo-computer tables and seemed very agitated and upset. Bardan had looked up from his screen and noticed the young man's braid. The padawan had stared back at him with bitter envy and snuck his nose back into his studies. There had been no ground for a conversation or even an acknowledgement between them. If only he had known, Bardan thought to himself, how that boy turned out later on, he would have talked to him that day.

Back into reality Vader stood in front of him only paces away, seeming just as thoughtful as he was, although Bardan was ready to bet that his memory was of another place and time. The mention of the younglings certainly had something to do with that. He decided to change the subject.

"And another thing… Let Eevy Tolod live. She may be a coward but she has her uses."

"You're very demanding," Vader finally said, "for someone I should execute on the spot."

He heard the familiar hiss of a ship's engine. Bardan let out a short cackle. "I'm a Mandalorian. Get used to it."

He picked up the ancient artifact, now a dense piece of triangular metal and tossed it to Vader who caught it one-handed before walking out of the cave. Something moved in the corner of his vision and his sensors brought the category as "unidentified" when inspecting the species it belonged to.

"I'll let you know when to find me," he added. "And watch out for the Rakghouls."

The roars of the Aggressor was loud enough to scare off any vermin around, chasing all the mist in a large perimeter. He saw Runa at the controls through the canopy and she opened her mouth wide, looking above him. He turned around to see Vader standing there. Bardan just walked up the ramp, wondering if he had done the right choice.

When the hatch opened to reveal a young lady in white and lilac painted armor, his doubts flew away. He held her close in a tight hug as if he hadn't seen her in months.

"What the hell, Bardan?" she whispered. "Who, or what is that?"

"Let's get out of here. I'll explain later," he sighed, pulling his bucket off. "Say hello to our new boss."

He watched the dark Lord of the Sith disappear behind the closing hatch doors and asked himself if killing him wasn't actually the better option. Vader was certainly thinking the same.


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