Ord Mantell, day 8.
He blasted the door lock open with a miniature charge, caring very little about the racket and made his way into the apartment, pistol out. The panicky Gdan was trying to hide inside a clothing cabinet but his prominent backside kept the door from closing.
Runa proceeded silently into the room and without hesitation, stepping around the mess of discarded food and broken furniture, the white and lilac beskar'gam looking like a second skin on her now.
"We don't want to harm you," Biran said, "just tell us where the money is."
The thief whimpered in the closet but didn't show intentions to come out.
"If I tell you who took it will you leave?"
Sighing aloud to make a point, he pulled the door open and dragged the Gdan out. He fell comically and it was painful to watch him get to his feet. They had to keep focusing on either of his three eyes as well.
"Okay, okay!" he raised his six-fingered hands up. "It's not here, I placed it in a separate bank account. You can have it if you let me go. It's a lot of money!"
Biran caught a glimpse of his daughter looking at him tentatively. It was typical newbie recklessness, he ignored her.
"Let's get you to a cash dispenser then."
It was better for the subject not to know what was going to happen to them in the end. With Runa the job seemed a lot easier even if it didn't require any special use of force, just having numbers on his side sped things up. Not to mention the matching armors that screamed "militia" for added threat.
On their trip down to the streets Biran used the private link to chat with Runa. "See? Pretty easy stuff. All you have to do is never show your cards, just like in a game."
"Sure seems simple once you figured out how to track them down," she replied flatly.
"You'll do the talk next time," he said, with a smile at the prospect. "You'll be surprised."
There was a short silence on her part. "Looking forward to it."
She certainly had lots on her mind, so mentioning anything in the future, possibilities, plans... all would remind her that Jusik might not return as promised. Biran still needed to adjust to the idea of them together but after all, every female mando needed to be paired up or married by that age. The difference always seemed to hit harder when it happened to you, especially when there was a former Jedi involved.
The Gdan nervously punched his codes in the credit machine while they waited patiently.
"You look in good shape," he tried again, attempting conversation to feel less awkward. "Your mother worried a lot about you, but you could guess that."
Again that silence. "I'm sorry I couldn't get around to contact you."
The credits started flowing and they had to contain the Gdan in case he'd make a run for it with the money.
He had a tight grip on his upper arm. "Alright, time to pay your dues."
"Hey! That's not what we agreed!"
They shoved him into a speeder. Runa stood outside and looked Biran in the visor. It was difficult to see her as the docile, gentle girl she actually was when she wore that mask too but something struck him as different about her now. Normally she would have been zealous about catching her first bounty with her father, now she seemed... distant.
"I thought about going back to my place for a couple of days," she said. "Get my stuff sorted, so to speak."
"Don't you have everything you need back home?"
"Just some time alone." Holstering her pistol she threw a look around the street. "Will you watch over Aresu for me?"
"Of course." He knew about the young Padawan and didn't enjoy the idea of having yet another Jedi in his surroundings. Besides the kid could use some structure and discipline too if she were to live under the constant threat of the Empire. "Are you okay, ad'ika?"
He waited for her to muster the courage to give him an answer, ignoring the captive inside the vehicle.
"It's something I'd rather discuss while Bardan's here."
"Sounds fair." He padded her shoulder. "You remember when I said never to trust a Jedi?"
"How could I forget."
"Bardan and I have been talking lately, something I wasn't expecting since I thought you two had to lay low... He's all right, Runa. The things he said, what he did was worthy of a mando'ad. So I guess I was wrong about him."
Her shoulders slightly dropped and she nodded. "Thank you for telling me. It means a lot."
"Perhaps I should also tell you that he asked me permission to marry you."
She froze and even her breathing stopped. "He did?"
"It was long overdue if I understood right," he chuckled. "So I gave him my approval."
Despite the layers of armor and weaponry she came over and hugged him, banging her helmet against his.
"I'll try to be home tonight."
And she strode on down the sidewalks without looking over her shoulder, soon blending in the crowds of pedestrians. Biran got in the speeder and had to listen to a whining Gdan on the backseat.
"What was that all about?"
He peered into the rear view mirror before replying, his voice full of constricted emotions. "When your kids start growing up you'll understand."
"You have kids?"
It was the common reaction towards the fact that Mandalorians were family people too. Biran started the engine.
"Not ashamed of it."
The three-eyed thief snorted. "If you teach them to be scum like you, I suppose not."
It hurt, surprisingly. Biran took a sharp turn around a corner and decided that he wouldn't care what happened to the Gdan after he got the reward.
His thoughts went to Devik and what kind of children he'd raise. The last image of his son was that of a young man, so strong and full of life. To think that he'd given up on lifelong plans to become an independent, smart warrior among his family was appalling. Biran would have suspected Runa to be the type to follow under a greater authority, to feel useful in a big structure with a chain of command. Perhaps Bardan had changed that about her.
It was painful because he wasn't sure he knew his kids in the first place.
She entered the store and silence settled as if there was a power surge and eyes raised up from the shelves. A cleaning droid emitted a squeaking whistle before cowering down an alley, apparently able to associate combat suits, armor and weaponry with the large concept of danger. The cashier at the other end of the shop looked very alarmed and couldn't keep his large lips from trembling. If he were any more scared he would have hidden under the counter.
Runa had to show her gloved-hands up to prove her peaceful intentions. "Just want to buy a couple things." And walked down the alleys of the drug store.
Of course among the millions of tags, names and categories she couldn't find a simple "early pregnancy test" and once she spotted the right shelf, there were just too many to pick from. She settled for the one with the less flashy-colored package and gathered her courage to cash it in.
The Sullustean shopkeeper stared at her for a second too long, then down at the item, and finally seemed to want to ignore her. The T-visor always produced that kind of reaction from people, as if they felt pressured by it in some way. She paid for the item and found her way out, slightly faster than the way she came in.
It was a chemical test and it wasn't completely reliable, still she needed to have some kind of outside opinion. While waiting for the result she cleaned around her two-room apartment.
No child could be raised in such a small home. It wasn't a home, it was a hideaway, a place to spend the night at best. Bills piled up in the inbox of the structure administration panel. She could as well declare herself dead to the authorities and never come back. She would have to have that cleared with the clinic...
That was another thing. She opened a file from her job and wasn't shocked to read a warning letter. The next one was telling her that, due to a prolonged and unjustified absence she was fired from her position as a medical first responder. That kind of hurt, she'd worked hard to get that job.
Her wrist timer bleeped. Reluctantly she went to the table in the living room and found the test tube. Runa didn't want to believe what Bardan and Aresu had sensed. There was still a slim chance that they had tried to pull a prank on her.
The test was positive.
It was strange and still rather unreal, yet she didn't feel any different. Obviously she became different from when she first left Ord Mantell, a month ago, switching diets, becoming more active mentally, physically. And she had started sleeping with someone. Completely out of phase with reality it had never occurred to her that such ordinary accidents could happen.
You stupid, stupid girl.
Runa wanted to throw the tube into the trash compactor but held up, realizing that it was her genetic signature still on there and someone might get curious about a discarded pregnancy test. She would have to dispose of it more safely.
It had been almost twenty hours since it happened, a medicated solution would be the simple option right then and waiting would only complicate the matter. Soon her hormones would kick in and she might actually want it. No, she wasn't going to use an unborn baby as a substitute for the one she loved. Bardan would come back – alive – he wasn't a risk-taker or stupid. He would've told her to do what was best for all of them and not base her decision on emotions or philosophies.
She ran back to the drug store without a single clue on whether she'd find the right medicine – as if it actually needed to cure anything – then it struck her that an embryo with Force powers could be tougher than most. Was it all worth the hassle? Maybe it could already speak to her.
"I need help," she told the Sullustean cashier who stared with his huge black eyes.
"Would you like a different pregnancy test?"
"No, I know I'm pregnant." She took a long breath and tried to calm herself. You can do this, he doesn't know you. Soon it will all be over. "And I have to terminate it."
Coronet, day 9
Bardan woke up in a bed he didn't know, with a foul taste in his mouth and a pulsing headache. Someone came over to him as he sat up, feeling muscle pain and a full bladder.
"Rise and shine, new guy."
Rubbing the sleep from his eyes he saw the slim figure of a young woman he had talked to the other night. Kyra – if he was correct – was the expert sharpshooter in the team. A sudden feeling of nausea punched at his stomach.
"What—" he began, coming to his senses. "Where am I?"
Kyra threw a Tactical uniform at him and walked away, herself already dressed up and ready for work. "In my bed, don't you remember that I took the couch? Now get up."
She seemed irritated, which Bardan took as good news for him. Hurriedly slipping into his black combat uniform he realized that even sober he hadn't a single clue where he was supposed to stay in Coronet. Something that he should have taken care of if he hadn't wasted time over other things.
"I don't even remember drinking that much."
The girl – she was probably Runa's age, but he refused to compare – drove him down the streets in her open speeder, long locks of blond hair floating in the wind.
"I guess I'm to blame for that," she replied flatly. "You just kept going on and on about your wife, had to shut you up and get your mind off her. Obviously it worked too well."
"Shab." He rubbed his jaw and wished he could rewind the last ten hours to just sit himself in a hotel room.
Kyra looked him briefly. "What did you say?"
"Nothing." Again that punch in the stomach. "So, nothing happened that I might regret?"
"Don't flatter yourself, Denal. After you puked and fainted in the gutter I volunteered to pick you up and get you to a nice, warm bed. I'm just glad you were too phased to even realize I was female."
"Oh. Well in that case I'm very sorry."
She parked her speeder on a terrace designed for vehicles. "It happens. But after what I saw last night I have to ask. Why did you even take the job?"
The real answer was too much to bear, he had to rely on his training to put a lid on his feelings.
"Because I believe in a greater good and I want to protect the innocent."
"Come on... You're such a nice guy with a few drinks in you." She smirked at him.
Once they were in the building and on their way to the changing rooms he took a long breath and sighed tiredly.
"Alright, the boring truth," he said with a light cynical tone, "is that I'm not sure I want to stay here for long. Never liked desk jobs and this is all I can do."
"You mean shooting people?"
He tried smirking but ended up frowning. "That's quite reductive."
"Trust the expert," she shrugged. "But if you love your girl so much, you don't belong here."
They were alone in the locker room, apparently in earlier than the rest of the team. Bardan checked his personal locker and made sure the second compartment within was still securely closed. He grabbed his belts and went to the weapon room to get his CorSec standard issue blaster rifle for no apparent reason. Sometimes he did things according to intuition and his old training would encourage him in that direction. Ultimately though, he'd have to stop doing that undercover.
"You're not supposed to carry that around, silly." Kyra shot him a suspicious glance. "Put it back."
The sirens yelled and red lights blinks all around. Bardan wanted to smile and boast about his abilities then was reminded that he wasn't in friendly territory and he couldn't act or talk freely. Runa would have brightened him up with a joke or given him focus to get on with the objective. But she wasn't there and he missed her. Even the loud alarms or running down the halls with fully geared Tactical couldn't distract him from the memory of her and Aresu when they were happily playing on the beach.
An hour later, at the central nature park in Coronet where people would sit and eat lunch. Or, overlooking the park and aiming down. Position taken on one of the surrounding buildings together with another sniper team on different vantage points, the lock was on a young male Twi'lek in the park, holding a suspicious device in one hand and a repeating blaster in the other. Kirsak was speaking to him down there, trying to find out his motives, who he was and how he could get everybody to go home safely. He could be heard on Tactical's link.
Bardan's elbows started complaining, unaccustomed to laying in prone for so long. He limited the shaking in his gloved fingers by relaxing his respiration, fighting the numbness creeping up his arms.
"Looks like you did this all your life," said Kyra's voice right beside him. She had taken the spotting position, looking down her own scope. "Of course I'm not expecting you to try and impress me..."
She had asked to team up with him. Her almost white blond hair was tied in a neat pony tail under her black cap, smiling lightly against the headstock of the weapon. He found it reminiscent of another time and place where Runa had been doing some shooting, but her hair was long back then. They were barely becoming friends at that time. The Twi'lek turned thirty degrees and he adjusted his aim. A stronger magnification showed that the man carried explosives in his vest.
"People sure aren't ready for the Empire," Kyra thought out loud. "Wouldn't be surprised if every civvie would go separatist tomorrow."
"And they'd be counting on you to defend them against the Imperial Army."
"You mean us, right?"
"Oh... Sure. I was talking generally."
"Whatever happened to protect the innocent, then?"
Kirsak's voice cracked in their comms. "This one's a no-go, we need options."
Bardan took a short breath, blinked and waited a second for his sight to focus back on the target. "I got the solution," he transmitted back to Kirsak.
The key was to knock the detonator out of his hand before he could contract his fingers on it. No one could aim that precisely at such distance.
"Perimeter's clear but he could still create a lot of mess. Are you sure about it?
"Then go for it, Allyn."
Just pretend that's your real name.
Already in a state of semi-trance, projecting his will towards the individual a hundred meters down was simple as flicking a light switch. Bardan pressed gently on the trigger. The ion bolt discharged along a straight trajectory towards the Twi'lek's head and Bardan watched the palm-sized detonator fly off a micro-second too soon.
It didn't matter, they could watch the holo recording a thousand times to understand what happened and he'd be long gone.
"Like I said, that's your thing. Shooting people."
Kyra slapped his back supportively as they wrapped it up and when to the CorSec transport. A few others nodded at him, congratulated his shot. Others ignored him as they passed by. But all of this didn't matter in the end. They weren't his friends, he wasn't actually part of their team and he wasn't supposed to be there.
Kirsak, leaning against the driver's door tipped his cap as he walked by.
"Outstanding performance, kid."
Bardan nodded at him, smiling but not too much.
"They really teach you to be that good in a space station?"
There it was, the questioning. Carefully measuring his voice to pick an explanation; it was hard not to tell the truth.
"I practiced in zero gravity," he answered, letting his breath shake slightly. "Maybe it helped, or I was very lucky."
"Indeed you were." Kirsak extended a gloved hand to take his in a firm grip. "This whole park could have blown up had he not dropped the det."
He returned to his rented speeder after duty hours that night, browsing his datapad to seek for the whereabouts of his next target. Trudov was registered in a building south east of the center, quite a long walk from the HQ. The job could be done quickly if he was careful and he'd be with Runa in no time. He longed for a peaceful moment with her if only to talk about their unborn child. While he loved the idea of having a baby with her it was still a Force beacon for Vader and his hired assassins all around the galaxy.
Drops of water fell on his windshield. Then three. It was pouring after a minute.
A loud knock made him startle.
Looking to his left he saw a very cheerful Kyra through his window pane, in light grey and blue civilian clothes, wet hair flowing around her neck. She giggled at him as he rolled the window down.
"Care to give me a ride? My speeder has a big hole in the roof."
Smiling at the reference to the open-top vehicle he unlocked the passenger door and waited for her to get in before powering the engines.
"Quite the weather here," he commented.
"This is excitement for you, space boy." She ruffled her golden locks and looked at the device on his lap. "What got you so fascinated?"
"Oh." Lie to her. She's not your friend. "Upsetting cash flow. Got to check this with the bank in the morning."
He took the speeder to the main axis and up north where he believed she had taken him the other night. Rain drops slid up the windshield and the whole city was a labyrinth of smog, blurry lights and grey towers.
"Take a left to Commerce District," she notified before seeking his eyes. "If you got credit problems you can always stay at my place for a couple weeks... sort yourself out and wait for your paycheck."
"A generous offer but I wouldn't be able to pay you back."
She smiled. "It's a friendly deal."
Bardan made a point of looking at her sideways. "I can't accept it."
"You know," her tone hardened, she was getting angry, "you're too good for someone who flew light-years away from you. She should feel ashamed."
"And your opinion matters because...?"
She returned his glare in defiance. "That's my street."
He parked the vehicle between other speeders along the sidewalk and waited. Kyra straightened up the collar on her jacket.
"So when are you planning to leave us?"
It all depended on tonight, if Trudov was still alive then he'd need to stay with Tactical but he was going to make sure he wouldn't miss. He had the weapon sitting on the backseat, under his coat. Yes, he was already gone.
Kyra, deep blue eyes riveted on him, waited. Of course answering meant to start a whole discussion about it. He just wished she'd step out of the speeder.
She eased herself closer in her seat and directed his face towards hers. Her thin fingers brushed his cheek as she tasted his lips. Parting them slightly, curious to know how it felt like, and immediately regretted responding. When he was younger he'd wished for something like this to happen but now... he felt nothing; just a stranger's mouth, and a scent he wasn't used to. For some reason he thought about Runa. Hers had a delicate hint of lime.
"Come home with me," she sighed, clinging to his hand.
She was a beautiful, petite, athletic woman with hair of gold and blue eyes – just like his. Fierce, witty and joyful, she would have been someone he'd dreamed of. However, a much different woman had filled that spot. She was no warrior and yet Runa was fighting since the very day he met her, against her weaknesses, against enemies, adapting to an ever-changing lifestyle, coping with business she couldn't completely understand. Bardan sometimes wondered if she'd make the same choices if they had never met. Now she was pregnant with his Force-sensitive child, another dangerous responsibility she had to carry alone.
He let a moment pass, listening to the rain drumming on the rooftop. "You should go now."
It took her a while to process the order and she left with a disapproving look on her face. He didn't watch her walk down to her building and wasn't going to think about the kiss. One thing preoccupied him now and that was Runa's safety. Next stop was Tyrena to retrieve his gear and his ship. By the time he got back it would be night time and Trudov would be home too.
It was good to be in armor again. Not only did it keep him dry in the rain but it seemed to make his doubts and worries less significant, the weight of every beskar plate and weapon reminded him of his duty.
Trudov was a careful man, switching directions irregularly, looking over his shoulder when he walked and using different apparel each time he switched buildings or vehicles. After he got out of a diner to pick up food he had a hat on, then when he got out of the public transports to walk home he had a different colored-coat. The man even had a little limp at times. One thing though, Bardan could sense him miles away. Maybe the former Jedi Master didn't suspect other Force users to be after him. Regardless, Bardan took his own precautions and made his way to the man's apartment minutes before he got there himself.
There was no plan in his mind, no method. He had taken a stranger's life that day, at a safe distance and without a fight – he had to, the man had a bomb for Force's sake. Fencing in the Jedi training had probably molded his mind around fairness, to give the enemy a chance to defend itself otherwise it was an execution. Bardan felt comfortable with the idea, it felt honorable. Yet he stood in the Jedi Master's apartment, wearing his lightsaber-proof armor and gadgets, searching for a way to get his prey by surprise.
Trudov eventually arrived, finding his home in complete darkness, unable to react fast enough, though not because of his age, most Jedi were still powerful at fifty. He was probably too busy looking at the visor, or the pistol. And Bardan had come to the conclusion that battling wasn't going to make his conscience any cleaner if he survived. Blood sprayed all over the door because of the piercing effect of the shot; if he looked closer Bardan would bet he could find the bullet lodged in the panel. He knelt down beside the corpse on the ground, careful not to step in the blackish red puddle forming around the head.
The man didn't carry his lightsaber, but a small blaster, had several wallets and cardholders in his coat, some under different identities. Bardan took his datapad, just in case, and hurriedly searched the rooms for the lightsaber, in vain. The ancient Czerka Adjudicator pistol – easier to handle than a Verp in short range combat – had produced a loud blast when he shot Trudov so he needed to be out of there before the neighbors warned security.
A new feeling filled his heart as he walked out of the apartment and took the lift down. Was it accomplishment? Freedom? No, that couldn't be right. His right hand had shot twice that day without shaking, taking the lives of two individuals that had no consequence on his own. And he felt strangely detached, almost sad about it. Taking the route to the starport he opened his private link to contact what he had to think as his client. He waited almost a full minute for the black masked man to appear on his HUD.
"It's done," he said with the most neutral tone he could muster.
"Good." The comlink took away a lot of the booming effect of his fabricated voice. "You're proving yourself a worthy asset, Jusik. I may have more work for you in the future."
A tingling in the back of his neck nagged at him. "Before we get to that, let's discuss the terms again. Where do my wife and daughter stand now?"
The dark lord seemed to be taking a moment to think the question over. "Their fugitive status was lifted as we agreed."
Bardan breathed in. "And if I decide to stop working for you?"
"Irrelevant. Once you prove your allegiance to the Empire you are expected loyalty regardless of any contract."
That made sense, as absurd as it sounded.
"It is being transferred as we speak."
He was right; in another green layout module he watched the credit balance go up fifty thousand. Relieved, Bardan nodded sharply.
"One more thing." He directed his gaze around the HUD to place a file into the outbox directory. "If you could get your lackeys to change my personal data with the following modified one, it'd be great."
Waiting patiently for the transfer to happen, Vader crossed his arms thoughtfully.
"So it is done, then. You confirm that Jedi General Jusik perished on Coruscant during the execution of order 66."
That night was painful to remember. Streets flooded with civilians caught in the crossfire, hundreds of clone troopers in blue-marked armor containing the masses. Lightsabers dancing amidst blaster bolts before dying, leaving robed corpses on the catwalks. Bardan had watched some of it like a horror show while looking for Etain. That night, he found her body and retrieved it aboard the Aay'han with the Nulls and Omega. He remembered himself clad in full beskar'gam, kneeling beside her wishing he'd been there to save her. It could have been him lying there with a smoking saber wound to the stomach.
Vader made him snap back to reality. "Tell me, Gotab. What would make a Jedi resign and join a band of mercenaries?"
He snorted in disdain at the question, feeling he didn't need to explain himself yet again, especially not to the servant of the biggest double-crosser of all time. A servant with a lot of power and influence. As repulsing as it was, Bardan needed him as an ally, his family could use that.
"Depends on the person," he answered coldly. "But I don't believe one can make important life choices solely based on a philosophy. The Jedi order was dysfunctional to begin with, I'm surprised only very few actually drew the line."
Vader lifted the chin of his helmet as if to say something, but Bardan needed to focus on his piloting as he arrived at the starport. The way Vader was inclined to chat about conceptual ideas was disconcerting, it was very much like talking to a fellow Jedi.
"Trudov was one of them. He used his powers for his own benefits and to push the Corellian sector to insurrection."
He parked his vehicle at the rental lot and walked to the docking bay. "I wouldn't know about that."
"Leave the investigations to me, bounty hunter. I will contact you if we need your services again."
"Very well," Bardan said, nodding imperceptibly. "My lord."
He blinked the communication off and proceeded towards his ship, with its sharp-ended mandibles carrying the ordnance that pointed towards him in a frightening welcome. Survival made people do more or less ethically acceptable things, but even that concept itself seemed absurd now. When did he quit thinking of himself as a loyal servant of the Republic? Why did any allegiance matter when killing had to be done somehow? If Vader hadn't hired him to kill Trudov, he'd have sent another bounty hunter who'd have failed and died. And another. Maybe a young mando'ad would have taken the job, allured by the credits and the challenge.
Powering the engines from his remote access he went to the refreshers as the Aggressor started lifting on its repulsors. Catching glimpse of his reflection in the mirror he stood for a moment, taking in the sight of what he had become. The HUD's automatic analysis overlayed his own physical properties on his mirror image, showing his vitals and gear status. He was fine. He pulled his helmet off and ran water in the basin. Yeah, he still looked the same after killing two people. Runa would probably never even ask what he did, leaving him the liberty to decide when to let her know.
His message alarm bleeped inside the helmet.
I HAVE WHAT YOU NEED. WHEN CAN I SEE YOU?
Relief washed over him like a breeze. One last task, and he was free. He even wanted to comm Runa to tell her the good news – of course he wasn't certain of it, he'd have to test it – that midi-chlorians could be controlled. That their children would be safe. That having his own biological offspring wouldn't present a danger any longer.
That his own baby daughter could live.
But those were dreams. And he wasn't one to chase illusions.
to be continued