CorSec Headquarters, Coronet.
It was just like home. The cubicle office desks, the coming and going of agents between units and floors, the heightened sense of purpose floating in the air. Even the damaged caf dispenser seemed familiar. Sulen payed close attention to the man standing behind the transparisteel panes of the captain's office and looked away as he walked out. In his forties, the man sported the same air of disgruntled confidence as any CorSec agent.
But Eclan Trudov was no detective, let alone a cop. With his graying hair cut short and brushed back, an unkempt beard and tired eyes no one would think the man had once sported brown robes and a lightsaber. He was one of the few Jedi Masters that survived the termination years ago, and somehow he was now living safely behind the charade that was his career at Corellian Security.
Sulen brought his eyes back down to his computer when Trudov passed by and towards the lifts. Using his blending skills to the fullest to appear as a mere temp, his passed training and career in the Coruscant Security Forces made wearing plain clothes and doing demeaning tasks easier. After he was done filing in daily rapports he did some cleaning around the water cooler and replaced the caf cartridges in the dispenser.
The floor progressively emptied as lunch time struck and Sulen made his way down to the refreshers. He checked that every booth was empty before locking himself inside.
TARGET LOCATED AND IDENTIFIED. STANDING BY.
He confirmed the message and sent it on the encrypted link to Jusik's private comms. Sulen waited a minute, then two. The datapad did not bleep for another ten when he had to leave the refreshers before it got suspicious. He received a reply when sitting in the mess hall.
COPY. STILL ON THE MOVE. DO NOT ENGAGE.
He rolled his eyes and accidentally gazed over a small group of black-clad police officers sitting a few tables to his left, their shoulder emblazons showing the Tactical Response Team's insignia. He could not spot Jusik among them however. Someone laid a metallic tray on the table and sat next to him with little care whether he liked it or not. Sulen directed his attention towards the entrance of the crowded mess hall, pretending to be brooding about personal matters.
Eclan Trudov liked having lunch alone, apparently, and was nowhere to be seen. Sulen's neighbor cleared his throat and poured himself a glass of water. His uniform sleeves were black. And he had neatly groomed blond hair. Only then did Sulen notice the combat vest, the pocketed belt and holsters. The man was rather short for a commando...
"What are you doing here?" he told Jusik, not without a hint of irritation. "I thought we agreed on the rendez-vous point..."
"I was hungry," replied the former Jedi. "Training does that to a body. Not like your comfy temp job."
He cringed. They should have swapped positions but having a Force-sensitive too close to Trudov was asking for a monumental scene. Sulen lifted his chin towards the rest of Tactical.
"How do you suppose you can shake them?" he mumbled quietly.
Eating like he had been starved for a week, Jusik took his time maybe as a mean to divert eavesdroppers from their exchange. "Will get to that when I will. Oh..."
Sulen followed his stare to someone leaving the room through the hissing doors. It was Trudov. According to his timetable the archive floor was his next destination. Jusik was given the same intel and did not seem worried.
"What if he sensed you?"
He faced the swift, but icy wrath of his blue eyes for a second before Jusik took a relaxed breath.
"Maybe he did."
The question felt out of place now. For three days it had been difficult to pinpoint Jusik whether it was in location or in general presence. Was it some sort of cloaking technique or a mind-diverting trick, Sulen was not sure yet. At least he felt reassured now, Vader might not have to kill them both in a near future.
If he had known this three days ago, then maybe he would have taken different precautions. But orders were orders, especially when coming from a Sith lord.
Tyrena Beach, three days ago.
The holo-image of a white-clad soldier flickered on the outdoor table. Sitting on the deck of the beach house, Runa refrained from sighing while listening to her brother talk.
"You worked hard doing everything you could to escape this: settling down, having kids. How ironic."
She shrugged with a smile. "I still get to kick ass while at it, so that's well worth the sacrifices. And you should see her someday because she could use an uncle figure."
Aresu was busying herself on the shore below, picking up sea shells. Devik nodded a few times.
"I can imagine that you're happy then. You had the right call marrying Bardan I think, though I don't understand the hurry." He spun his helmet between his black-gloved hands while letting himself get distracted by something outside the holo field. "We're due out to patrol the desert with the company. Ori's watching over my spot in the transporter. I should go..."
Something pinched at her chest, and Runa knew it was the mention of his duty. His calling. His contained cheerful posture told her that now was not the moment to question why he was still there. They had already grown apart - in less than a month – and she couldn't begin to imagine how she could explain that to their parents.
She swallowed her bitter remarks. "Watch out for yourself over there, Dev."
"Same goes for you," he said. "I'll probably comm you again in a few days. Say hello to Bardan for me."
The shape of the Stormtrooper with her brother's face disappeared and she saw the silhouette of her husband, jogging barefooted along the shoreline. She adjusted the fit of her vest around herself thinking of getting into shape, someday. If she looked around idly and ignored the few ships in the sky it was possibly the first moment of complete peace she'd had in a long time. Letting her mind drift farther it was easy to forget that they were hiding or running away.
Bardan jogged up the hill and climbed up the deck, panting. She handed him a glass of water.
"Careful there," she said. "You could become fit and healthy if you keep this up."
He smiled back at her and sat on the other lounging chair, tugging air into his sweaty shirt. "I have to make my efforts look believable."
"Oh, you got me convinced."
"If only that applied to what I'll have to do tomorrow..." He took a long sip of water and kept silent as if shy about his prowesses in bed. "Let's just hope Korrado holds his end of the deal."
Runa kept an eye on Aresu, still wandering on the strand. "Make sure he does. I don't want to leave thinking there's a traitor waiting to hand your head on a plate to Vader."
He looked over at her and reached across the table to touch her hand. It sent a shiver down her spine; she let the feeling take her back to the refreshers earlier that day when they'd had nothing better to do but to enjoy some privacy. Then the news of that CorSec operation came in and completely ruined the moment. Bardan looked distracted again.
"If he does turn against me," he thought out loud, "then I'd have a chance to save you."
"Well, didn't we just argue about this? We have to get Aresu out of his reach. So... we either live separately or die together..."
Sighing at the sky he got up and pulled her to him. "I like when you get all dramatic."
"Aren't you supposed to be more of a practical man," she spoke back, merely inches away from his face.
"Well I could always use some more exercising," he purred, clearly defining his intentions by directing her hand beneath his waistband and into his trousers.
"So what now," she said, amused. "I thought you weren't going to play with your saber in public anymore."
He laughed and lost his composure; Runa liked that they'd grown comfortable enough not to care about appearances. The only problem was Aresu who could not be locked in for safety while they were fooling around. But those were Bardan's sometimes irrational compulsions that she had to look out for.
"Another time," she said, gently pushing him away and fought against his disappointed expression. "Gives you something to look forward to. And survive."
"I know," he said, his voice full of mixed emotions and he hugged her tightly, making it hard to breathe. "One day this will be all over and we can be happy together."
"Well..." She hesitated. "You don't have to cry over me, it's not like I'll be gone forever."
He let her go to rub his eyes with the back of his hand. "It's not that. I know it's stupid but I have to fix this. All that's happened so far was my fault and I want to make it up to you." He caught his breath. "You deserve better than this. So if I fail here, you can go back home to your friends and family."
Home. The word brought her to a place and time where all that had happened in the last weeks would've been a dream. Getting back to her job, her apartment and the old routine would certainly make him seem like one of the many fantasies she used to have.
"Now I really don't want to go. You'd make a terrible life coach."
Eventually the night came with the time to say their goodbyes at the spaceport. Holding her bag containing her armor and the rest of her belongings she let go of his hand to buy the tickets to Ord Mantell.
"You're lucky these don't require identification," said Aresu in her back. "I would have taken a detour though."
"We can't afford the odds of a high jack in an unknown system..." Runa turned and gave her the boarding pass.
"Stay with the crowds," suggested Bardan. "And don't separate. I'm counting on you, Ares'ika."
She nodded firmly to him and started making her way towards the shuttles. Runa followed with Bardan in her trail.
"Promise me you won't get back with an old school crush or anything," he joked.
The line of passengers slowed them down and Aresu was already unpacking her datapad to browse the HoloNet. Bardan stood beside them, slipping his hand into Runa's but she kept her smile to herself. While abandoning him might have been a scary decision he made the pain bearable by his presence. For a moment she felt confident that he'd be in her heart along the way.
The protocol droid scanned each passenger's pass before they could walk up the ship's boarding ramp. Aresu kept hers ready and Runa felt something warm in the small of her back.
His face looked concerned, if not full-blown shocked as he felt her body. She sought an answer out of him but, mouth gaping, he hesitated. A bit too long.
"You're scaring me," she said in a tone that meant she wasn't joking. "What's going on?"
He revised his stance and swallowed hard before giving her a reply. "I'm-... I'm sorry, Runa."
She turned away from the droid and grabbed Aresu's hand to step out of the line, determined to cancel the trip if need be.
"Will you just tell me what's the matter with--"
"I heard you the first time!" she hissed.
Aresu laid a hand on her stomach and nodded after a few seconds. "He's right," she said. "And it's a girl."
Bardan and Runa both looked at her furiously and she just shrugged them off, going back to her datapad.
She turned back to him. "How? Why now?"
Confused and helpless, he looked like he was going to cry again. "It just happened... I should have been more careful."
Her sudden realization wasn't as she had expected how this day would come. All she knew was that neither of them had wanted it, they already had a child and she did not feel ready to bear one.
It was the end of the line and the last of the passengers boarded the transport.
"Ticket, please," repeated the droid.
Runa felt Bardan's hands holding her shoulders and she looked into his blue eyes. Her mind drifted and she wondered if their child would have the same.
"We'll talk about it later," he said.
"But what if--"
He hugged and kissed her before she could word out her thoughts – awful thoughts. Now that it was very real she couldn't even begin to visualize the process...
Aresu dragged her on towards the ship and they presented their passes. Runa turned around to give one last look at Bardan, her friend, unable to keep her brain from working the maths.
What did you do to me...
The transporter took off and soon Tyrena was a bright patch of street lights and gardens on the southern coast. She wondered if she would miss it, although she never took the time to see the city. Something told her she'd still have another chance.
CorSec Training Facility, two days ago.
He let his mind drift a second at a time between sit-ups but each memory of her, every word that still rang in his head made him lose focus and the pain grew stronger. The instructor with his datapad was watching over his progress and, after fifty he had to move to the next exercise.
Bardan got to his feet and ran down the trail to the chin-up bar.
What did you do to her?
He lost his grip on the bar and fell rather hard against the floor. His left knee complained a little but he masked the pain with his Jedi training and resumed the exercise. This time there was no more room for Runa, just his goal: pass the tests, join the CorSec Tactical Response Team and blend in until he could assassinate one of the detectives at the headquarters.
He finished at a shooting test with mobile targets. Earlier that morning he had studied a series of holovids describing tactical insertions and close-quarter combat situations. Actually he never slept that night.
The holo images that appeared inside the labyrinth represented typical targets or obvious civilians – children, frightened women – that disqualified him if they were shot. One door opened brutally and he pointed his A280 rifle at the image of an elderly man that gasped in terror.
Part of the Jedi training was to sense people's intentions before they even stepped out in the open but for that to work they had to be alive. In this exercise Bardan doubled his caution, relying on his eyes only to judge whether something, someone, should live or die.
Six enemies properly shot by the end of the training house and Bardan made his way out to deposit his weapon and protective visor.
"Impressive results, Agent Allyn Denal." One of the recruiting officers appeared to be the team sergeant. "Take ten and meet me in the briefing room."
Calculating his time left under the shower her image struck him unexpectedly: furious, shocked and strangely detached. Then the soothing light of the unborn child within her, already sparkling brightly in the Force, surely bound to become as strong and determined as her mother. It had happened, there was no turning back. Even if they aborted the pregnancy it would crush them both and nothing would ever be the same.
Bardan regulated his breathing and finished cleaning to equip the black fatigues with his fake name on it. Moving on to his next step, the interview that would get him into the team or not, he vaguely remembered of Devik when he was supposed to infiltrate an imperial base. The thought eased his mind and gave him the necessary courage he needed to keep a straight face.
The team's instructor and sergeant was of average build, mid-forties and kept a balding head shaved. Bardan had to get the same crew-cut regulation beforehand to fit his back-story.
"So I understand you've worked a long time off world," Sergeant Kirsak said, sitting casually at the corner of the glass table. "Your file here says you wish to serve closer to home and protect your fellow citizen – now, tell me." He leaned forward with his hands meshed. "You're on a field call. You found a vantage point on a hostage situation, your teammates count on you to save this poor victim's life, someone you don't know, a fellow citizen. Every second counts. Then all of the sudden you hear a familiar voice, or recognize a vehicle in the distance. It's your mother, she is sick. Or your wife going into labor..."
Bardan lowered his brow, surprised that he had to use that example.
"...but you have to keep your mind on the job. What do you do, son?"
Respecting a short lapse before answering, Bardan took a breath, hands idly tapping the tabletop.
"Take your time," said Kirsak, smiling kindly.
"The hostage could be anyone's mother or wife so... I have to deal with the task at hand before looking into things that do not require my immediate assistance."
The sergeant looked him intently before nodding.
"You can place events on a priority list, that's good. On a calm mindset it always works. But out there, when one mistake means death, can you really set your private life aside while you weren't really used to proximity work? This is what I want to know, Allyn. A lot of my men fail after a month of service because they didn't know themselves on the field."
He thought back in time when "field work" meant traveling light-years everyday, trying to keep hundreds of troopers up to date with objectives and bringing them news when there were any. Sometimes he'd had to give more time and effort to solve problems but he didn't mind the self-sacrificing. Back then, there had been no wife or child waiting for him to come home. The cause and the principles used to be everything to him.
Sergeant Kirsak leaned back in his chair and checked his wrist chrono.
"It's never an easy question to ask ourselves, son. Even after years of experience you never know what's going to get to you. It says in your file that you're single, that means no attachments and you might not feel too concerned for the moment--"
"There is someone," Bardan blurted out on a whim, "but she lives halfway across the galaxy."
Kirsak smiled again. "Long distance thing, then?"
"We trust each other." He felt himself smiling stupidly while he'd almost cry over Runa a few moments earlier. Talking probably wasn't such a bad thing after all.
"That's good too. Gives you something to fight for."
Bardan nodded thoughtfully. "We have to find our ways to cope."
"I wish it was easy for everyone." He stood and extended his open hand. "We like to know each other on the team and I had to make sure you knew where you're headed. Welcome aboard, Allyn."
He shook his hand and immediately sensed the good emanating from Kirsak while something deep inside caused a lot of pain in his soul. A torn marriage, children too long unseen and solitude. Suddenly he did not feel so different and almost wanted to share more of his experience but restrained himself. Bardan thanked him and walked out of the room to get his things into the staff locker room.
It was an easy place to get used to and he let the thought of actually working here settle in his mind. Of course once Trudov was dead staying was out of the question. His unavoidable departure would be more painful than he'd predicted.
CorSec Headquarters, present time.
The alarm went off and the entire floor seemed to shake as all lockers opened and closed at various intervals, heavy boots ran down the hallways and the sounds of clips and straps intensified the reality of the purpose they all shared.
Bardan jogged along with the group of men and women, adjusting the communication device around his ear and making sure nothing was detaching itself from his combat vest. The armor plates were a little tight, perhaps the measurements were fine but the few weeks spent on his wife's food had probably changed that. Thankfully the black battle dress uniform was loose-fitting to provide maximal movement.
It was a multiple hostage situation, on the investigation floor which meant lots of rooms, very small operating margins and plenty of collateral casualties if anyone misfired. Kirsak led the seven-manned team up the building, himself clad in the same combat gear minus the weapons and he interacted with the people in charge.
"We're going to need a command post so we can work with the first responders." He motioned to one tall man. "Clear a perimeter around the the windows on this aisle, I don't want any orderlies getting stuck in the hallways. And make sure everybody respects the lock-down. Denal, with me."
Bardan made his way between the six other, real commandos who eyed him cautiously and followed Kirsak across the large room of cubicle desks. The agents here did not seem to pay mind to him in particular, but showed much disdain towards the weapon he was carrying. The first on site security personnel directed them towards a transparisteel sealed room in a corner of the floor. The panes were tinted and set to full opacity and the doors were locked.
"The cams were destroyed and the gunman won't negotiate. At least he chose not to trap the captain on his lunch break."
"Any idea who he is?"
"That new guy, Ris Mangel," replied the officer. "Some caf-dispensing temp we hired last week."
"Okay, I'm going to need a picture and full history on him."
"No offense, sir, but we should just blow the ceiling and smoke the room. Flush them out, you know?"
Kirsak rubbed his chin with his gloved hands. "Hm, too dangerous. If he works here he knows how we think too. Just let me talk to him."
The man shrugged. "Alright, but we did that already. You're wasting time..."
The sergeant leaned against the glass panel and rapped his knuckles at the door.
"Ris, this is Sergeant Kirsak from the Tactical Response Team. I was told that there is something you want, but we need to talk about that. What do you think?"
They waited a few seconds. Bardan stood a few steps away from the door, weapon ready.
"I don't want to chat!" yelled a voice through the door. Korrado's voice, and he was shouting very loudly. "I just want an hour without being disturbed, okay?"
Whatever he was doing, he was good at acting crazy. Remembering his unofficial briefing Bardan had to use that one hour to convince Kirsak to get in at one point.
"I hear you, Ris. But first I'm going to need a guarantee that the people with you will be safe. Can you promise me that, son?"
"How many are they?"
Kirsak was then handed a pad with the files of the hostages, and one with Korrado's alias. He resumed talking in his briefing tone.
"Alright, guys. What we have here is one hour of tension inside that room. That means thirty minutes tops until we have to engage or extract at least one hostage. Mister Mangel here is using decoys, they have to be released or else this could turn sour for him. He doesn't have a file so we know he's not a killer. Let's not come to that."
One of the commandos spoke in the comm. "If this is personal revenge he must have planned it for weeks. I wouldn't underestimate him."
"Good point, Nylo. What does this inspire you, Allyn?"
Bardan snapped to and thought of something clever to say. "After something like this he is done, professionally. I think he's got nothing left to lose."
"You mean we could slot him if that meant solving the problem?"
"I meant that after this hour he could kill everyone in this room, himself included. We need to find his motives."
Kirsak nodded sharply at the team. "Let's get some alternate surveillance running."
He ran over the list of hostage and Eclan Trudov's file showed up, just as expected. Bardan tried not to peek too suspiciously over Kirsak's shoulder yet demonstrated genuine interest. Besides knowing what was going on inside, he couldn't help but sense the tensions and fears of the various people being held against their will. But he could not sense Trudov. They were both using the same cloaking trick.
Bardan revised his position facing the door and held his rifle more comfortably from his armor webbing.
"Okay, Ris," said Kirsak, continuing the negotiations. "I'm going to ask you to release one person. Because we all have a job, and mine is to make sure everybody gets home safely. In exchange I'll help you get what you want. You help me and I help you, how does that sound?"
A few silent seconds passed. Then a blaster shot behind the door.
"Ris, what's going on in there!"
The door slid open and suddenly the whole of Tactical was stacked to enter the room. Bardan squeezed in but Korrado was nowhere to be found, except...
Eclan Trudov was standing in the middle with a pistol in his hand, still pointing at the inert body of the "temp" on the floor. Someone in black tackled Trudov and the weapon got confiscated from him. The former Jedi Master let himself subdued without a word.
"Don't move! Let's see some hands!" shouted a commando, ready to cuff him.
Bardan saw to the remaining four people sitting on the ground, in state of shock, and got them to leave the room one by one. Trudov now being placed in custody walked out with his eyes down as if he knew what was really happening.
Kirsak, arms crossed against his combat vest, seemed annoyed and saddened. He put a knee down to inspect Korrado's body, but seeing the charred flesh that was the wound in his head there was nothing to do about it. Even Bardan felt strangely angered.
"He had nothing to lose, right?" sarcastically said the sergeant.
The paramedics arrived to clean up the scene and soon every office worker and agent would be able to get back to their daily occupations.
With Trudov in detention it was investigation time and the questioning had to be left to better qualified personnel while Tactical stepped back, having resolved the conflict. Bardan waited a moment in the locker room until everyone was done stowing their equipment back on their shelves. Nobody asked him anything, respecting his quiet time. But he had different things in mind.
It was too soon to march down there and just kill Trudov. It wasn't the Jedi way and it wasn't fair. Bardan knew those things but cared more about coming out of there alive. He'd have to wait another day.
"Hey, Denal." It was the tall one from the team. "We're going for a few drinks after duty tonight, are you in?"
He let a smile form on his face and welcomed the offer. "Sure."