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Star Wars: Red Harvest.
Wim Nickter stood just outside the circle, awaiting first blood.
The cold morning air of Odacer-Faustin tasted like ozone, numbing his tongue and lips, making his heart pound harder in his chest until it actually shook the heavy fabric of his wind-resistant tunic. He had climbed the seventy-seven steps to the top of the temple with the other students, muscles aching, sweat from his exertions still drying in the wind. The lightsaber training session was over. Now the duels would begin.
In the three standard years since he'd arrived at the academy, Nickter had come to antic.i.p.ate these duels with a special kind of excitement. A tall, rangy seventeen-year-old with a thatch of jet-black hair, he gazed into the circle with hungry blue-gray eyes that matched the unforgiving landscape almost perfectly.
Nickter looked down. From the top of the temple, the Sith academy resembled nothing so much as a partially demolished wheel, its spokes radiating crookedly out from the central hub of the tower. Its ancient chambers, enclosed walkways, tunnels, and temples, and the great library that served as its haunted heart had all long ago begun to crumble and deteriorate from decades of acc.u.mulated snow and ice, and the constantly shifting tectonic eccentricities of the planetary crust. The result was a sprawling ruin of forgotten s.p.a.ces-some of them palatial-groaning under tons of age-tortured Sith architecture.
It was here that they'd come, Nickter and several hundred others, to learn everything they needed to know about the dark side of the Force.
Directly across from him, Lord Shak'Weth, the Sith Blademaster, took three steps forward into the open s.p.a.ce, turning to regard the students from beneath the hood of his cloak. For a moment, the wind had fallen still; all was quiet except for the sc.r.a.pe of his boots across the flat, uneven surface. The Blademaster's stony countenance betrayed no hint of expression. The thin, lipless slit of his mouth never moved. No comment was made, nor was any needed. This was the moment when the first challenge would be made, and Nickter-along with all his peers- had heard the rumors.This was the day that Lussk was going to issue his challenge.Rance Lussk was the academy's top student-a Sith acolyte of such fierce promise and potential that few, if any, dared approach him, let alone face him in a duel. These days he spent most of his time in private training sessions with Shak'Weth and the other Masters at the academy. Some said that he'd even sat in meditation with Lord Scabrous himself, up in the tower... although Nickter had his private doubts about this last bit. He hadn't met a student yet who actually claimed to have been inside the tower.Even so, he waited, holding his breath.The group had fallen absolutely silent.A moment later Lussk stepped forward.He was an agile, muscular figure in a robe and tunic, with a long face and flaming red hair that he'd grown long, pulled back and kept braided so tightly that it pulled on the corners of his pale green eyes, giving them a slightly slanted look. Rut his most outstanding feature was the self-contained silence that hovered around him like a lethal cloud. To approach him closely was to experience a climate of dull dread; the one or two times Nickter had accidentally b.u.mped into Lussk in the halls of the academy, he'd actually felt the temperature drop along with the oxygen content. Lussk emanated menace; he breathed it our like carbon dioxide.Nickter felt his whole body fall still, save his pounding heart, as Lussk turned slowly to regard his fellow acolytes with an indifferent, almost reptilian stare. As far as opponents went, there were only a few worthy of his time. Lussk's gaze pa.s.sed over Jura Ostrogoth, Scopique, Nace, Ra'at, some of the most skilled duelists in the group. If challenged, Nickter wondered, would any of them accept? The humiliation of backing down was nothing compared with the potential catastrophe of losing to Lussk in the circle; in his hands even a training blade, with its durasteel shaft and millions of microscopic toxin-filled barbs, could deal out disastrous injury.Lussk stopped, and Nickter realized that the red-haired acolyte was staring at him.Lussk's words hung in the air."I challenge Nickter."
At first, Nickter was certain that he'd misheard. Then the reality sank in and he felt his innards drop, as if the ground itself had abruptly vaporized beneath his feet. Time seemed to have stopped. He was aware of Shak'Weth and all the apprentices turning around to look in his direction, waiting for him to step forward or back down. As a purely practical matter, Lussk's selection made no sense-although he could hold his own in practice, Nickter was clearly the other student's inferior, providing no opportunity to hone his skills or even offer the others a good performance.Still the challenge hovered in the air between them, unanswered."Well, Nickter?" the Blademaster asked."What do you say?"Nickter lowered his head, feeling a slow familiar warmth crawl into his cheeks and neck. He was aware that a formal reply wasn't necessary. Simply bowing his head and stepping back would be answer enough, and a moment later the whispers would begin as what little prestige he'd manage to garner here in the last two years began to evaporate around him. It was an unwinnable dilemma, of course, but at least this way he would walk away intact. Several of Lussk's previous opponents hadn't been so lucky-the last three had left the academy after losing to him. One had taken his own life. It was as if losing to Lussk had... done something to them, inflicted some profound inner wound from which there was no recovery.The answer was obvious. Nickter would just step backward and bow out.And so he was as shocked as any of them when he heard himself say,"I accept."The murmur of surprise rippled audibly through the other apprentices. Even Shak'Weth c.o.c.ked one th.o.r.n.y eyebrow.Nickter blinked, unable to believe what he'd just said. He hadn't meant to speak at all. The words had bubbled out of him involuntarily. Looking up at Lussk, seeing the slightest hint of a smile curling at the corners of that small, unremarkable mouth, Nickter realized that, of everyone here, only Lussk was unsurprised by his response.And for the first time, Nickter saw what was happening.This wasn't about dueling at all.It was about something else entirely."Well, then," Lussk said, beckoning with his free hand,"Come on."Before he knew it, Nickter felt himself being sucked forward into the ring, one foot and then the other, dragging the rest of his body along with it. His heart raced as his body registered that this was actually happening. No, his mind protested, I'm not doing this, I don't want this, but that didn't matter because all he could see now was Lussk's smile broadening enough to show a faint yellow glint of canines behind the lips. Nickter knew what was going on, and what was worse, Lussk knew that he knew. Lussk's eyes were braziers of pure, s.a.d.i.s.tic pleasure, and their intensity transformed his otherwise plain face, distorting it somehow, making it appear horrible.They were face-to-face now, close enough that Nickter could feel that terrible coldness spilling out of Lussk's pores, and Lussk raised his training blade, its shaft hissing up through the air as he placed himself in standard ready position.Don't, Nickter wanted to say, his eyes silently pleading, but instead he saw his own blade go up. It was too late. Whatever was being done to him-whatever Lussk was doing to him...Lussk's blade swung down hard and fast. Nickter reacted instantly, with instinctive speed and agility ingrained from countless practice sessions. Metal struck metal with a clang that shook the air, reverberating through the circle around them and making it hum like a high-voltage circuit. Something snapped to life inside Nickter, and when Lussk came at him again he was ready, deflecting Lussk's next thrust with a sharp, unhesitating parry and snapping back with a move that suddenly created an opening between them. From what sounded like far away, Nickter heard the crowd let out a slight, appreciative mutter. He'd already outlasted their most pessimistic expectations.Lussk charged forward again, and Nickter sprang to deflect the thrust, less skillfully now. That fleeting sense of competence was already gone, stripped away, replaced by a dizzying loss of perspective. How had he gotten so close, so quickly? Lussk was moving too fast, and Nickter's blade seemed to have come to life all on its own in his hand, jerking and slashing to hold Lussk off, but Lussk's cold smile told the whole story. I own you, maggot, it said, the strength of the other cadet's will booming through Nickter's skull, and you will do as you're told.No. Nickter's jaw clenched, summoning what remained of his resolve. He understood now that his only hope lay in freeing himself, wresting his will away from Lussk's authority. What the other acolyte was practicing on him now was obviously some advanced Force mind control technique learned from one of the Sith Lords at the academy, perhaps at the knee of Scabrous himself. Had the rumors of his secret tutelage been true after all? Whatever the case, for reasons known only to Lussk, he'd decided to try it out this morning on Nickter, and Nickter had nothing to counter with.With an audible grunt of effort, Nickter surged forward again, blade at the ready, only to be met by a bemused smirk of contempt, as if Lussk expected nothing else. In a series of moves, Lussk sequenced seamlessly from a brutal and precise Makashi attack to the more acrobatic Form IV, flipping up from a standing position, spinning midair, and landing behind Nickter before he'd even had a chance to react. Too late, Nickter heard the blade hiss off to his right, whipping across his elbow, and he let out a sharp, agonized cry as his hand went numb, fingers springing open to release his blade.Helpless, disarmed, he felt the cold tip of Lussk's durasteel come to rest against the back of his neck, biting into the skin just below the base of his skull. There was that awful numb sensation that Nickter knew all too well, the second before the nerve ending registered an overload of pain.At least it was over.Now, Lussk's voice throbbed inside his head. It was low and toneless, an irresistible command. Push yourself backward into my blade.Nickter resisted, straining forward, muscles drawing taut in his neck-but it was useless. He couldn't hold back. The pain swelled, doubled back on itself, grew infinitely worse, shrieking through him, and some grim, instinctive part of him knew that he was seconds away from severing his own spinal cord, shorting out his brain, and extinguishing all remaining thought in that final instant of consciousness. He sucked air through his teeth and looked out, as if from some great distance, at the laces of the others outside the circle, staring him down. Their eyes were bright and eager, awaiting the inevitable coup de grace.Curse you, Nickter thought, curse every stinking one of you, I hope you all have to endure this torture or worse, I hope you each suffer like I am suffering now, I hope...With a gasp, Nickter lurched forward, suddenly free, away from the blade, reaching up to place one hand over the painful but ultimately superficial wound it had left just above the bony k.n.o.b of his vertebral prominence. He could barely manage to keep his hand upright. The battle-both physical and mental-had reduced his body to a blurry hologram of its former self, muscles trembling, wrung to rags, skin and hair drenched in fresh sweat. His head felt like it was going to explode. He couldn't catch his breath. Turning around to face Lussk on legs that seemed as though they might betray him and buckle at any moment, he caught a glimpse of the other acolyte's impenetrable green eyes.You only lived because I let you, those eyes said, and Nickter understood that in the end, Lussk's act of mercy had sentenced him to the greater humiliation of unwarranted survival.He looked away, turned, and made his way through the crowd. No one spoke or made a sound as he followed the stony steps downward from the top of the temple to the snow-strafed walkway below.
By noon, news of Nickter's defeat had traveled through the entire Academy. None of the other students had seen what had happened to him afterward, but Jura Ostrogoth a.s.sumed that Nickter had gone to the infirmary to be treated for his physical wounds... or back to the dorms to lick his less tangible ones.
"Either way," Jura told Kindra, the two of them ducking past the crooked slab of stone that marked one of the five entranceways to the academy's library,"it doesn't matter now, does it? He was barely sc.r.a.ping by anyway."Kindra nodded but didn't say anything. They were on their way to the dining hall for their midday meal. After a brief reprieve this morning, it was snowing again, harder now-thin, sand-drv pellets seething over the ground in front of them, creeping up over the walkways and drifting up against the academy's outer walls. Jura, who'd grown up on Chazwa in the Orus sector, was well adjusted to such weather and walked with his robe open at the throat, hardly noticing the wind gusting through its fabric. He'd seen other acolytes from warmer climates trying to affect the same air of brazen indifference through chattering teeth and blue lips, but the cold truly didn't bother him, never had."What about Lussk?" Kindra asked.Jura cast a sidelong glance at her."What about him?""Did anybody see where he went?""Who knows?" He wasn't quite able to disguise the annoyance in his voice."Lussk comes and goes as he pleases. Days go by without anyone seeing him. From what I've heard..."He let the words trail off, looking up at the tower that rose from the very center of the academy, an immense black cylinder jutting against the gray sky. Every so often, black vapor would billow up from the top, staining the sky, raining down thick and gritty bits of ash, and the smell was bad enough to make his eyes and nose water. Unlike the cold. Jura had never gotten used to smoke and ash."What have you heard?" Kindra asked.He shook his head."Just rumors.""I've heard them, too." She was staring at him pointedly."And not just about Lussk.""What are you talking about?""Nothing," she said, and walked past him into the dining hall.
His midday meal in front of him-a stringy lump of mubasa hock and canned montra fruit-Jura Ostrogoth pondered the dining hall around him with a watchful eye. He'd been around long enough to know that violence begat violence, that news of what had happened to Nickter could easily inflame some other apprentice's desire to move upward in the academy's pecking order-and Jura was just high enough up to be a target.He ate alone, as did most of the students, with his back to the wall as much as possible. There wasn't much talk, just the steady clink of utensils and trays. When you were here, you powered through the meal as quickly as possible and got back to your training sessions, or study, meditation, and Force drills. Time spent socializing was time wasted-it showed weakness, a lack of discipline and vigilance that was practically an invitation to your enemies."Jura."He paused and looked around. Hartwig was standing there with Scopique by his side. Their trays were full, but neither one of them looked like he was planning on sitting down there."What is it?""You hear about Nickter?""What, at the temple?" Jura shrugged."That's old news."Hartwig shook his head."He disappeared.""Shocker." Jura shrugged, turning back to his food. He was peripherally aware of the other apprentices nearby inclining their heads ever so slightly forward to eavesdrop on the conversation, and wondered if there might be more worth hearing."He's probably off someplace feeling sorry for himself.""No, I mean, he literally disappeared" Hartwig said."The med tech, Arljack, told Scopique all about it. One minute he was at the infirmary getting treated for that cut on his arm. Arl went to check on one of the other patients and when he came back, Nickter was gone.""So he just walked out."Hartwig leaned forward, lowering his voice."He's the fourth one this year.""What's that supposed to mean?""You know what they're saying."Jura sighed, realizing where the conversation was going."You've been talking to Ra'at too much.""Maybe so," Scopique said, speaking up for the first time,"bur maybe in this case, Ra'at knows what he's talking about."Jura turned all the way around and glared at him. Scopique was a Zabrak, and his tribal tattoos and the array of vestigial horns sprouting up from his scalp had always been a source of deep pride. In conversation, he tended to keep his head tilted slightly forward for dramatic effect, and with the light behind him, so that the shadows of the horns cut down over the geometry of his face like daggers. For a moment the two faced each other in tense silence."We've all heard the same thing," Jura said, keeping his voice even."Thinning the herd, the experiments... What's your point?"Scopique leaned in close."Lord Scabrous.""What about him?""If he is abducting students for his own purposes," Scopique said,"then someone needs to find out who might be next."Jura let out a dry little laugh, but it didn't come out as dismissive or scornful as he'd hoped."And how do you plan on getting that information?""I'm not," the Zabrak told him, and pointed at him."You are.""Me?""You're perfect for the job. Everyone knows you have the survival instincts of a hungry dianoga. You'll find a way."ura pushed back his chair and stood up in one fluid motion. Swinging one hand forward, he reached up and snapped his fingers tight around the Zabrak's throat, clamping down on the windpipe hard enough that he felt the cartilage pop. It happened so fast that, despite the strength and weight discrepancy, Scopique was caught off guard- but only momentarily. When he spoke again, his voice was calm, almost casual, and quiet enough that only Jura could hear him."There's a saying on my home planet, Ostrogoth. Only a fool turns his back on an unpaid debt. You think about that." Scopique nodded slightly at Jura's arm."Now, because you do still have some value to me, I'll allow you to remove your hand from my throat voluntarily and save face in front of our peers. But the next time I see you, you will tell me what you've found out about the disappearances." The Zabrak smiled thinly."Or else the rest of the academy will soon see a side of you that I don't think you want them to see-a very unflattering side. Do we understand each other?"Jura's jaw tightened; he was too angry to trust his voice for a reply. Instead he managed a curt nod."Good," Scopique said. A second later the Zabrak turned and walked away. When he and Hartwig stepped out the door, Jura Ostrogoth earned his untouched meal to the waste receptacle and dumped it in, tray and all.He'd lost his appet.i.te.
Outside the dining hall, back out in the cold. Jura stalked through the snow, fists clenched and trembling at his sides. After he'd gone a few meters from the doorway, where he was sure no one could sec, he stepped into a narrow alcove and stared at the stone wall. Fury boiled in his chest.Or else the rest of the academy will soon see a side of you that I don't think you want them to see, Scopique's voice mocked in his head. Do we understand each other?Jura's thoughts flashed back four standard years to the day he'd first arrived at the academy, a scared and ignorant kid from the other side of the galaxy. He'd spent his first couple of days keeping a low profile, avoiding everyone, hoping to get his bearings before anybody had a chance to push him around, but that wasn't how things worked around here. On the third morning, he'd been in the dorm, making up his bunk, when a fist swung out and smashed him hard between the shoulder blades, knocking him to the floor where he lay gasping for air.When Jura managed to roll over and look up, he saw a gigantic Sith apprentice named Mannock T'sank looming over him. T'sank was stronger and older than Jura, and the smirk on his face was one of nearly homicidal glee."You look good lying there on the floor, newbie," T'sank leered at him."You know what you'd look even better doing? Licking my boots." He'd held out one of his filthy leather dung-kickers, waving the roc right under Jura's nose, close enough that Jura could smell the tauntaun droppings-T'sank had been sentenced to cleaning the paddocks for some minor offense."Go ahead, newbie. Give them a good tongue-polish."Even then, Jura had known this was a test; how he responded would determine the way he was treated forever after in the Academy's court of public opinion. Grimly, with the air of someone planning his own funeral, he had stood up and told T'sank exactly what he could do with his boot.The results had been even worse than he'd expected. T'sank punched him in the face so hard that Jura blacked out, and when he woke up his entire head was a gonging carillon of pain. He couldn't move. There was a dirty rag stuffed in his mouth, crammed so far back that he almost choked on it. Looking down, he saw that he was naked and tied to the bunk by his feet and ankles while T'sank stood over him, grinning with malevolence that bordered on madness. When Jura tried to inhale, he started gagging and panic took hold of him; he lost all control and burst into frightened tears, while T'sank howled with laughter.And then, abruptly, the laughter had stopped. His last memory of T'sank was the thin, surprised yelp that the s.a.d.i.s.tic apprentice had let out right before he'd gone flying backward out the door. When Jura had craned his head and looked up through tear-blurred eyes, he'd seen Scopique standing there. The Zabrak had made no immediate move to untie him. Instead he'd been holding what Jura realized was some type of holocam, pointing it at him while the lens autofocused."Smile," Scopique had said from behind the cam, walking around the bunk, still recording Jura where he lay struggling to regain control of baser bodily functions."Hold on, let me get your good side."When he was satisfied with the footage, he'd put the recorder away, yanked the rag out of Jura's mouth, and untied him."Get up," he told Jura."Come on." He glanced back out the half- open doorway, where T'sank had landed, half conscious and crumpled."I gave him a good shot to the head, but it won't keep him down forever."Jura struggled to his feet, wiped the blood and snot from his nose, and hurriedly struggled back into his robes."Thanks," he mumbled.Scopique waved Jura's grat.i.tude off as if it disgusted him, then ejected the holocartridge from the cam and slipped it into his pocket, giving it a protective little pat."For safekeeping," he said, and Jura got the message. None of what happened had been about kindness or mercy. Jura was in his pocket now, and however long he stayed here, the Zabrak wasn't going to let him forget it."And newbie?" Scopique had said, on his way out the door."Welcome to the academy."
Welcome to the academy.Jerked back into the present moment by the blazing flames of his own anger, Jura blinked away the image of the cartridge in the Zabrak's pocket. Standing here in the shadows between buildings, the urge to lash out was something he could no longer master. He raised both hands and unleashed a burst of dark side energy into the wall itself. Electric heat leapt through his wrists and palms, slamming into the rock, cracking it down the middle.He closed his eyes and exhaled, momentarily relieved. He knew he should have saved his anger, held on to it and used it in one of the combat drills, but he couldn't help himself.Opening his eyes again, he looked at the cracked wall. It had been strong, bur now it was damaged, its value weakened in some fundamental way by what had been inflicted on it.I am that wall.Turning away, he stepped back out of the shadows, his mind already trying to work out how he was going to get Scopique's information for him.
3/Deep-Down Trauma Hounds
Nickter awoke in the cage.
He had no memory of how he'd gotten here, or how long he'd been inside. The last thing he remembered was sitting in the infirmary, waiting for Arljack to come back and check the wound on the back of his neck. And in fact, for one disoriented moment, he thought he was still there. It's cold in here, he'd started to say. Hey, Arl, yon mind turning up the beat a little bit?But this was not the infirmary.He tried to sit up and slammed his head against the metal bars above him hard enough to make him let out an angry moan of pain, Just exactly what was going on here? The cage was small, forcing him to remain hunched forward, either on his hands and knees or in a slouch-shouldered sitting position. The top part of his tunic had been ripped away, leaving him naked from the waist up. His back hurt, really hurt, from the base of his skull all the way down to the bottom of his spine-a low, steady throb that made his molars ache.As if to mock his immediate claustrophobic situation, the room outside the cage was very large, and very dark. From inside, Nickter could see almost all of it. It was a circular s.p.a.ce, perhaps fifty meters across, illuminated by an irregular a.s.semblage of flashing monitor equipment, candles, and torchlight. Laboratory equipment crowded every available surface and corner. Pipes and wires were draped from tables and desks, connecting odd piles of disjointed equipment, condensers, flasks, beakers, and burners. The walls were gla.s.s, and although he couldn't see anything out there but darkness, Nickter had the vague feeling that he was very high up.Sudden realization blindsided him.He was at the top of the tower."You're awake," a voice said.
Nickter jerked upright at the sound of the voice and very nearly screamed.Standing outside the cage, staring down at him, was a tall, broad- shouldered, black-robed figure that blended almost imperceptibly into the shadows. Nickter already knew exactly who it was, even before the flickering torchlight of the room revealed the man's face-a long, bony sculpture of bone and half-lidded eyes, the famous curvature of the peaked upper lip, how it always seemed to be smiling slightly at some secret thought. A fresh spasm of apprehension leapt through him, raising hackles across his back. The eyes were the worst part, he thought: how almost silver they were, how they seemed to glitter with a feverish acc.u.mulation of ambition and indifference."Lord Scabrous," he said, or tried to say. His mouth felt parched, and his lungs couldn't seem to get enough air."What am I doing here?"The Sith Lord didn't answer. But the eyes kept staring down at him... past him, somehow, as if there were something else inside the cage with him.He could smell himself, the stale cheap grease of panic and perspiration seeping through his skin. The pain in his back had intensified from a throb to a sharp stabbing agony that shot down his ribs and up into his neck. It was getting worse by the second, like the sting of sweat in an open wound. Whatever injury had been inflicted upon him, it was deep, and whole packs of nerve receptors-those obedient trauma hounds-were circling back and forth, busily delivering the bad news.Groping around behind him, Nickter felt something cold and smooth and hard sticking out of his skin just above the base of his spine. He looked around and saw what Scabrous had been looking at-it was some kind of tube, implanted directly into a vertebra. The sticky ring of exposed flesh around the wound site felt raw and hot, swollen, and it burned when he touched it. Sliding his hand upward, he felt another tube above it, and another, coming out of his back, all the way up to his neck. There were at least six of them protruding out of him, as big around as his linger. He realized that he could feel them pulsating inside his spinal ca.n.a.l-that was the source of the gnawing pain."What... what is this?" he asked, aware of how different his voice sounded already, high-pitched and wobbly."What did you do to me?"Scabrous still didn't answer. He wasn't even looking at Nickter anymore. He had walked around behind the cage now, where the tubes ran between the wire bars into what looked like some kind of mechanized pump with a wide flask mounted on top.Rattling around inside the cage, Nickter stared at it. The flask was full of murky reddish yellow liquid. Next to the pump sat a small black pyramid covered in lines of engraved text-what he realized, through his pain and fear, had to be a Sith Holocron. They'd learned about it at the academy, but he'd never actually seen one before.And then he saw other things, dozens of them, in gla.s.s bottles lined up across the wide platform next to the pump.Flowers.All black.All different.All dead.Nickter squirmed in the cage. None of this made any sense, and the irrationality only intensified his mounting terror. He was sweating profusely now-it was dripping off him in big, oozing droplets. The urge to beg, to grovel, to bargain for his life, or at least for an end to the pain, was almost irresistible. The only thing that stopped him was the suspicion, based on everything he'd heard about Scabrous, that the Sith Lord wouldn't even listen. Scabrous stood behind the cage, alternating his attention between the flowers and the Holocron. Finally he selected a flower, opened the gla.s.s chamber on top of the pump, and dropped it inside."What is that?" Nickter asked."What are you doing?"Scabrous glanced at him, as if hearing him for the first time. When he finally spoke, his voice was low and resonant, deeper than Nickter remembered. There was an awful intimacy to it, as though the Sith Lord were whispering directly in his car."You were humiliated today at the temple, Wim Nickter-humiliated badly. You have shown yourself to be weak and easily defeated.""It was Lussk!" Nickter burst out."He used the Force on me, he..."Scabrous lifted his hand."There is still one way in which you may yet prove useful. That is the offer I make to you, one of redemption."Then he pressed a b.u.t.ton on the pump.Staring at it, Nickter saw the black flower swirling in the reddish yellow fluid, its petals shredding as it dissolved. The pump let out a faint whining noise, like half a dozen odd vacuum parts called into dubious service. At first he felt nothing except for the odd vibration of the tubes in his back.Then the pain he'd been enduring up till now became abruptly, horribly worse. It slammed through his body, gouging through every millimeter of his nerve endings, turning them white-hot.Nickter arched forward and screamed. The pain owned him: he surrendered to it utterly. It became a vast, all-encompa.s.sing neutron star, and as it sucked him forward he saw Scabrous watching him through the cage.The last thing Nickter saw before he blacked out was Scabrous turning away from him, swinging his arm across the long counter above the pump, sending the flowers and their vessels crashing to floor.
Pergus Frode didn't mind his maintenance duties at the Academy's landing pad. It meant he got the first look at the new arrivals, often a pretty sorry lot, and he was privy to some sensitive information even before some of the Sith Masters found out about it. Not a bad gig for a pilot - turned-grease-monkey whose last job had been wiping down engines at the Kuat Drive Yards.
Tonight, for instance-when the Corellian cruiser banked and began descending into the snow-strewn landing lights-Frode knew exactly who it was. He would have known even if Darth Scabrous's HK droid hadn't been standing right next to him, whirring softly to itself in antic.i.p.ation. Frode didn't mind droids-most of the time he actually preferred them to organic life-forms, especially on Odacer-Faustin."Statement: I shall alert Lord Scabrous, sir," the HK said,"that his guests have arrived.""Sure, good," Frode said, watching as the cruiser extended its landing gear, feeling the decks absorb its settling tonnage. A moment later the main hatchway whooshed open, and the landing ramp dropped down with an unceremonious clank.Coming forward to meet it, Frode watched as the two bounty hunters stepped down-swaggered down was more like it. The first, a tall, stocky, bald man with a permanent sneer in green-tinted goggles, stopped at the bottom of the ramp and looked around disdainfully as if he wasn't at all sure he even wanted to stay. He was carrying a metal case under one arm, linked to his wrist with a thin chain."What do you think, Skarl?" the bald man asked."Cold enough for you?"The flight-suited Nelvaanian standing next to him wrinkled his snout and gave a brief snarl, revealing a row of sharp, inward-pointing upper teeth. Then he and the man both turned and glared at Frode, who had already taken a step back."Where's Scabrous?" the man demanded, lifting the metal case."We brought his package. He's supposed to meet us here.""I will take you to Lord Scabrous, sir," the HK said, gesturing back in the direction of the academy's main grounds."He is my master, and I have been dispatched to escort you to the Tower. You and your"- the droid glanced uncertainly at the Nelvaanian-"copilot?""Skarl's my partner," the man said."My name's Dranok. Anything that's worth having in this galaxy, you can get through us." He made no move to follow the HK."Speaking of which, your boss better have the rest of the credits he owes me for this little beauty. It wasn't exactly easy to procure."The HK responded promptly."Answer: Payment has been arranged in full, sir. Rest a.s.sured that you will receive it shortly."Dranok nodded, the surly expression never quite leaving his lips as he glanced around the snowy terrain surrounding the landing pad."What a pit." Glancing at Frode, he jerked one thumb back in the direction of the ship."Keep her hot, Acc. We're not staying on this rock one second longer than we have to. And refuel her while you're at it- think you can handle that?""Sure," Frode said,"no problem." He'd already decided he didn't care for the man or his partner, but he was careful not to let it show in his voice."It'll be ready when you get back."Ignoring him, the bounty hunter turned and followed the droid with the Nelvaanian easily keeping pace to his right, paws crunching in the snow.
By the time they reached the tower, Dranok had already decided how he was going to handle this.Right up to the moment they'd landed, he hadn't been entirely sure about his course of action. It was nothing personal: he and Skarl had always worked together well enough. The Nelvaanian was a superior tracker, and always good in a fight. Plus he was loyal, a trait that Dranok obviously didn't share. But money-wise, things hadn't been going so well lately-their last few jobs weren't paying as much as he'd hoped, and Dranok was tired of splitting everything down the middle.So it was settled, then. Once Scabrous paid the balance of what he owed them..."Statement: It's through here, sir," the HK said, gesturing up at the tower."Right this way."Dranok paused in his tracks and looked up. He'd seen some weird architecture in his time, but the Sith Lord's tower was unsettling in a different way. It was imposing, yes, and much taller than it had looked from the air, but there was another quality to it, an indefinable sense of wrongness, as if it had been built at some unnatural angle so that it seemed to curl down on top of him like an immense black claw. He'd once overheard talk in some s.p.a.ceport about the Sith, how they'd learned to manipulate spatial geometry itself, creating buildings that were, in themselves, detached from physical reality. The guy telling the story had claimed you could get lost inside a Sith labyrinth and never escape. Dranok had dismissed it as a lot of drunken superst.i.tion, but looking at the tower now, he wasn't sure. He didn't like standing in front of it, and liked even less the idea of going inside.But that was where the payment was.And that settled it."All right." He turned to Skarl."You better wait out here, just in ease something goes wrong."The Nelvaanian looked at him and gave an uneasy growl. This isn't how we normally do things, that growl said. This isn't standard operating procedure."Hey," Dranok said, with all the brusque, hail-fellow-well-met heartiness that he could muster,"trust me, will ya? We're both safer if you're out here watching the door. I'll settle up with Scabrous and bring the money out."And before Skarl had a chance to argue, he followed the droid inside.Even though they were out of the wind, Dranok felt the temperature drop sharply. It was dark enough that his first few steps were guided mainly by the pale blue lightspill from the HK's dorsal processor array. A second or two later, his eyes began to adjust and he could make out the wide, circular s.p.a.ce around them, supported by pillars and ma.s.sive stone arches that made up the tower's lowest level. The air smelled wet and dirty, and there was an unpleasantly musty human component to it that reminded him of the bathhouses on some of the Inner Rim planets he'd visited."Statement: Hollow me," the HK's voice said from up ahead, gesturing to a waiting turbolift. Dranok ducked inside, and as the door scaled shut behind him, he realized that the droid had not followed.He was alone.The turbolift shot upward fast enough to leave his stomach behind. Dranok felt the first p.r.i.c.kle of unease down the small of his back. The lift was still rising. Was it raking him all the way to the top?Finally it halted, and the doors opened."Lord Scabrous?" Dranok called out, loud enough to make himself heard."Your droid sent me up." He realized that he was holding the metal ease in front of him like a shield."I brought your package."Silence. It was a big circular room-to his eyes, it looked like a laboratory furnished by somebody with a serious fetish for the arcane. Dranok had heard that some of these Sith Lords could be decidedly peculiar, mixing technology with the ancient ways of their people, preserving the old ways whenever possible. This proved it.Tall arching windows made up the surrounding walls, with sconces, candles, and torches protruding above them, along with pulsing panels and banks of lights. Machinery hummed with a low, irregular drone that made the air itself seem to vibrate in Dranok's nostrils and the pit of his throat. He made his way past the piles and tables of scientific equipment, not particularly liking the way the torches made his shadow leap and twitch across the bare stone floor behind him, as if there was some- one following on his heels. A smell hung in the air, thick and familiar but as yet indefinable-chemicals? No, it was sweeter than that, almost cloying, like a cooking smell.He walked over to the window and glanced down through the falling snow at the academy below. From here it looked like a ruin, abandoned and forgotten. The occasional faint glimmers of light that burned in the windows of one of the buildings-some kind of dorm, he a.s.sumed-only made it look more hollow somehow, a place that had fallen into the possession of ghosts.You're getting jumpy, he scolded himself. Cut it out.He turned and walked back toward a stack of machinery half buried in shadow. Something crunched under his boot, and he paused to look at it.Flowers.Squatting, the bounty hunter set the metal case aside-it was still cuffed to his wrist-and reached into his pocket for a glow rod. He switched it on, shining it down in front of him. The crunching had come from broken gla.s.s, test tubes or vessels that Dranok guessed had held the different species, before they'd all been dumped or thrown unceremoniously across the floor.He opened the metal case and looked at his own flower, the alleged Murakami orchid itself, comparing it with all of those scattered over the cobblestones. The black-market spice dealer who'd sold it to him had guaranteed that it was a genuine article, the rarest in the galaxy, stolen from a secret Republic bio-lab on Endor. The dealer had even provided him doc.u.mented proof, complex chemical and gas spectroscopy equations that Dranok had pretended to understand.But now, looking at these other flowers on the floor-rejects all- Dranok found at least two that looked exactly like it.His breath caught in his throat.He'd been duped, and now..."Dranok."The bounty hunter froze at the sound of his own name, the voice turning his breath to dry ice in his lungs. Up ahead, standing between him and the exit, a tall, dark-cloaked figure gazed back at him from the other side of a long stone table. Dranok realized that he was looking into the face of a man with long, refined features, the aquiline nose, raked brow, and prominent cheekbones stretched out until they were almost a caricature of arrogance. Thick gray hair, a strange silvery blue color, swept back away from his forehead. The figure extended one long- fingered hand, gesturing him forward, and at the same moment Dranok saw the man's eyes flicker and pulse as if reflecting the burst of some far-off explosion."Lord Scabrous.""Did you bring the orchid?""Where is it?"A bluff, then-the bounty hunter realized that it was his only way out. He had bluffed his way out of tight spots before. This would be no different."This is it," he said with manufactured brusqueness, holding up the open case to show its contents."The Murakami orchid, as you requested."When Darth Scabrous didn't move to take it-in fact, he didn't seem to move at all-Dranok unlocked the chain from his wrist, set the case down in front of the Sith Lord, and stepped back. Still, Scabrous made no indication of coming around to examine the flower. His eyes remained locked on Dranok."Did you come alone?""My a.s.sociate is waiting outside," Dranok said,"Just in case.""Your a.s.sociate.""That's right.""And you have brought no one else with you?"Dranok scowled a little."Who else would I have brought?"Scabrous apparently didn't judge the question worthy of reply. The bounty hunter frowned, genuinely flummoxed now, his confusion only tightening the clenched fist of anxiety in his guts."Enough questions," he shot back, hoping the tone of impatience might help mask the fear."I delivered the orchid as we agreed. Now where's my money?"Scabrous still didn't make any move to respond. The moment stretched, and in the pursuant silence Dranok realized that he smelled something else gathering around him, growing more potent, stronger than the reek of dead flowers: an aroma of roasting meat that had slowly begun to fill the air. Despite the tension, he felt his mouth beginning to water. It had been a while since he'd eaten. His stomach gave a noisy growl."You have failed me," Scabrous said."What?""That is not the Murakami orchid.""How can you tell? You haven't even looked at it!"Scabrous lifted his head slowly. His entire body appeared to stiffen, to grow taller somehow-an illusion, certainly, but Dranok still felt himself raking a step back, like an unruly child being taken to task, spreading his hands out in supplication."Now, wait a second...""Sit down."Dranok felt his knees buckle involuntarily, and he dropped down hard on the stone bench that HE hadn't realized was there."Despite your failure, your payment awaits you." Scabrous gestured behind him, to an arched doorway that Dranok hadn't noticed before, and the HK droid stepped out pushing a cart with a huge silver tray on top. The droid wheeled the cart to the table and set down a plate and utensils in front of Dranok, along with a cup and a pitcher."Help yourself."Dranok shook his head. Whatever was underneath the lid of the silver tray, he wanted no part of it. And he realized now, with the merciless clarity of hindsight, how everything he'd done-taking the job, trusting the shady fence who had sold him the orchid, coming back up here alone-had all been links in some colossally ill-advised chain of disaster leading up to this penultimate moment of reckoning. Yet he could not stop his hand from stretching forward toward the platter.And reaching out, he lifted the lid.He stared at what lay underneath, sudden horror piling up inside his throat like a clogged siphon. It took less than a second to realize that the s.h.a.ggy thing in front of him was the severed, stewed head of his partner, Skarl. The Nelvaanian's mouth had been pried open wide enough to accommodate the ripe red jaquira fruit that had been thrust between its jaws. Dead, boiled eyes gaped up at him with what almost looked like accusation."What's wrong?" Scabrous's voice intoned, from what sounded like very tar away."You fully intended to betray him, did you not? I simply saved you the trouble." And then, leaning forward:"A traitor and an incompetent. One wonders how either one of you managed to survive this long."Dranok tried to stand up and discovered that he couldn't lift his weight from the chair. Suddenly every part of him seemed to weigh a ton."Let me go.""Every traitor makes a meal of his allies." Scabrous held up a knife and fork in front of the bounty hunter's face."This is your last meal, Dranok, and you must cat it, every morsel. That is the offer I present to you. If you can do that, I will allow you to walk out of here alive."Dranok recoiled, struggling harder to pull himself free. But the only part of his body that he could move was his right hand, the one that Scabrous was allowing him to lift in the direction of the dining utensils. Jaw clenched, he grasped the knife from the Sith Lord's hand- and then thrust it forward, as hard as he could.The knife didn't even get close to its intended target. Scabrous flicked his own hand in the bounty hunter's direction, a simple, almost offhand gesture, an act of disinterested dismissal, and Dranok felt his throat pinch shut, his windpipe siphoning down to a pinhole. A sharp and immediate weight seemed to have clamped down over his lungs. Tears of panic flooded his eyes, and his heart started pounding as he thrashed frantically in the seat, blackness already closing in around the edges of his vision. All at once everything seemed to be happening from a great distance away.As Scabrous released him, allowing him to slump down from the seat to the floor, the last thing Dranok heard was the sound of some kind of creature shuffling and breathing and making a noise that sounded oddly like laughter.
"Master. I am ready to begin again."Seventeen-year-old Mnah Ra'at stood in the center of the academy's combat simulator, the one the students called the pain pipe, wiping the blood from his split and swollen lip. He felt no pain now, only a burning desire to attack and avenge what had been done to him. The fact that the damage had been inflicted by an automatic system as part of his training didn't matter at all to Ra'at. He was angry, and his anger made him strong.Up above, Sith Combat Master Xat Hracken sat back inside the control booth, one hand resting on the wraparound suite of controls. Though he was human, Hracken was built more like an Aqualish, bald, bulky, and broad across the shoulders, his wide, olive-skinned face pinched into a perpetual scowl like stapled bundles of oiled suede. The hour was late, and he and Ra'at were the only ones in the simulator. Hracken, like Blademaster Shak'Weth, had been teaching here at the academy for decades, and he had seen students like Ra'at come and go-acolytes who seemed to require little or no sleep, who insisted on continuing their training late into the night, sometimes into the morning-and he'd seen how it caught up with them in the end. After a moment's consideration, he tapped the intercom."That's enough for tonight," Hracken said."No." Ra'at glowered up at him with red and baleful eves."I want to go again."Hracken rose from behind the control deck and stepped forward so that the apprentice could see him through the transparisteel window."You defy me?""No, Master." Ra'at's tone was only slightly mollified-a symbolic obeisance to the Master's authority."I only wish to train under the same regimen as Rance Lussk."Hracken nodded to himself. He'd expected as much. From the moment he'd arrived here, Lussk had set the pace for the academy's most driven pupils, all of whom wanted to fight, train, and study as intensely as he did. What none of them seemed to understand was that there could only be one Lussk, and those who challenged him found themselves sharing the fate of Nickter, among others.Still, Master Hracken had to admit that he found Ra'at's ambition intriguing. Ra'at was easily the smallest in his cla.s.s, wispy-haired and fine-featured, and two years of training hadn't added more than a few ounces of muscle to his spindly frame. But he had deep steel in him, a kind of gritty, semi-psychotic rage, and a will to power that drove him to do whatever was necessary to get ahead. He also had some very peculiar ideas. It was Ra'at, after all, who had started the rumors that Darth Scabrous himself was abducting students and taking them up to the tower in an effort to find one powerful enough to succeed him. He'd argued the case so successfully that some of the students-and even a few of the Masters-wondered if he might be right.Now Hracken wondered if he had finally grasped Ra'at's ultimate goal.He touched the intercom again."All right, then, once more."Without so much as a nod of acknowledgment, Ra'at dropped back into fighting stance, shoulders squared, jaw set. It was as if he'd known all along that the Master would acquiesce.All right then, Hracken thought, let's see how good you really are.He tapped in a sequence of commands and watched the simulator come to life below him. An automated series of heavy swing-arms arced out from either side, each one of them two meters wide, closing in so that Ra'at had to jump to avoid being crushed. He dived between them easily before going into a tuck-and-roll, successfully dodging the third obstacle, a spring-loaded picador pike, five meters long, that thrust itself unexpectedly downward from the ceiling. Hracken nodded again. It had been the pike that had caught Ra'at last time. Now he was faster.Are you fast enough, though? That's the question, isn't it? How about when you can't see?Picking up a pair of thermal lenses from the counter beside him, Hracken adjusted them over his eyes, then reached over and switched off the lights. Darkness swallowed the room, vast and total. Hracken flicked on the goggles. His vision helioscoped into a hundred brilliant variations of fluorescent green before resolving itself into focus, and he leaned forward with keen interest.Down below, the now-blind Ra'at stopped in his tracks, processing what had just happened, and in that second the wall behind him burst open in a whistling array of heavy rubber whips, slashing into the air. Ra'at jerked forward, but it was too late-the whips drove him to his knees. Hracken saw the apprentice's face clench, his lips drawn back in pain.It's over, he thought, and reached to switch the lights back on.But it wasn't.Ra'at was on his feet again instantly, jumping clear of the whips. Hracken immediately realized that the apprentice was no longer hampered by vision, or lack thereof: now he was relying entirely upon the Force. When the swing-arm came down again, Ra'at reached up, grabbed it, and actually held on-a move that the Sith Master hadn't seen before, even from Lussk-riding it all the way up to the ceiling. At the apex of its arc, he let go, twisting and launching himself headlong through open s.p.a.ce to catch hold of the spring-loaded rod as it came spiking out of the wall.It was a move of unprecedented grace and absolute precision. Ra'at spun himself around the rod once, twice, three times, building speed, and fired himself directly at the window of the control booth.Master Hracken jerked backward. Ra'at slammed into the transparisteel with both hands, actually clinging there for a split second, long enough for Hracken to see the student's face staring straight in at him.Then he dropped.Hracken whipped off the goggles and turned on the lights. Light roared across the room, filling every corner. He saw Ra'at standing down below, his face flushed, shining with sweat, shoulders rising and tailing with the effort of catching his breath. Despite his obvious exhaustion, the apprentice's face was almost incandescent with leftover adrenaline. When he saw Hracken coming down the stairs, his eyes filled with expectation, awaiting the Sith Master's judgment."Interesting," Hracken said."Tomorrow we'll see if you can do it again."Ra'at blinked at him."Master?"Hracken looked around."What is it?""Lussk... in combat simulation, has HE ever... ?"The Sith Master waited for Ra'at to finish the sentence, but in the end the apprentice simply nodded and looked away."Tomorrow," he said.
Walking back to the dorm with his cloak drawn up over his shoulders and his wounds throbbing in the frigid night air, Ra'at stopped and glanced back at the simulation bunker. He was aware of what the other students and Masters said about him-how he was too small, too weak, in thrall to his own paranoid delusions-and he didn't care. Tonight he'd shown Hracken what he was capable of. Soon the rest would see.He stepped over a high snowdrift that had formed outside the library, making his way around the eastern wall of the building until he found himself in the shadow of the tower. It was snowing steadily, bur Ra'at could still make out the tracks leading up to the tower's main entryway, two sets of prints along with the familiar tracks of the HK droid.Ra'at felt the requisite twinge of jealousy. The tracks in the snow meant that Lord Scabrous had brought visitors here, very recently. The Sith Lord had invited them into his sanctum, and they had stepped inside. Ra'at, who had never been inside the tower and could only imagine its secrets, wondered who the visitors had been. Lussk? Nickter? One of the Masters?Slipping off his glove, Ra'at placed one bare hand directly on the closed hatchway, imagining for a moment that he could feel the power pulsating out from inside, power that he would do anything to possess.Someday, he thought, I'll go through there myself.Until then, he would keep practicing.
It was after midnight in the academy's main hangar. Finishing up the last of his maintenance ch.o.r.es, Pergus Frode found himself glaring at the Corellian cruiser still taking up s.p.a.ce in the corner of the landing pad. He'd refueled the craft and kept its engines hot, as its pilot had demanded, but that had been several hours ago and there'd been no word from the bounty hunters. Now it was late and he wanted nothing more than to shut things down, go back to his quarters, and collapsed into his bunk.With a sigh, he went back to the hangar's control booth and scaled the hatch behind him. At least it was warm in here, a haven away from the wind. When he'd first taken over the job almost ten standard years earlier, Frode had retrofitted the booth to meet his needs, installing a personal thermal convection unit for hot meals along with a datapad for his favorite holobooks and holomags. As a hired hand, he had no Force powers and no particular allegiance to the Sith per se; he'd only encountered Darth Scabrous on a handful of occasions. But the last and only time that he'd ignored orders to stay up and wait, he'd spent a week in lockup icing a broken jaw.Settling back with a reheated cup of Javarican espresso and a well-worn holo of Hot Ships, Frode saw something flicker past the booth. He sat up and wiped a hole in the steamed-up gla.s.s, peering out. The HK was standing there, its photoreceptors focused in on him.Frode stood up and opened the hatch."Hey."The HK turned and looked back at him."Query: What is it, sir?""How much longer are those guys going to be in the tower?" Frode pointed at the cruiser."I mean, their ship's just sitting there, eating our fuel.""Response: I suppose you ought to shut it down.""But that guy Dranok said...""Statement: He won't be coming back, sir. He, or his partner."Frode blinked."What, you mean, like, ever?""Response: That is my understanding, sir, yes."Pushing back his mission cap to scratch his head, Frode turned his attention speculatively back to the bounty hunter's vessel."You know," he remarked casually,"a ship like that's gotta carry a pretty sophisticated flight computer.""Statement: I'm sure I wouldn't know anything about that, sir. The equipment of such vessels is not part of my programming, and...""You don't think Lord Scabrous would mind if I yanked her out, do you?"The HK regarded him blankly."You know, set it aside. Sc.r.a.p-market value on that thing's not too shabby.""Statement: I'm sure you could help yourself," the droid said, with bottomless indifference, already turning away to go about its business.Settling his cap back on his head, Frode nodded and got his tools, whistling a little under his breath as he did so.Maybe, he thought, tonight would turn out well after all.
Hestizo Trace rolled over, drew in a deep, resigned breath, and lifted her head from the pillow. The small, nondescript sleeping chamber where she'd awakened had already begun to fill with soft artificial light. Although she was all alone here, she could feel the orchid waiting for her down below, some two hundred meters away but close enough to hear its voice quite clearly in her mind.
Hestizo! Emergency!She sat up, pushing off her covers. What is it? What's wrong?My incubation chamber! Come quickly!Realizing now what the voice must be referring to, she relaxed back down. Oh."Oh?" Alarm flashed through the flower's tone. This is serious!I'll be down in a second.Hurry, please!Okay, she told it, all right. Hold on to your petals. I'll be down there in a minute.The orchid retreated in her mind, only marginally placated, as if still awaiting a formal apology. Honestly, Zo didn't mind its presence in her thoughts; the bond that they shared was, after all, part of her ident.i.ty, a Jedi in the Agricultural Corps, one of the talented handful whose psychic green thumb kept her here in the nurseries and labs of the Marfa facility.Marfa was a hothouse, its varying atmospheres, temperatures, and moisture levels all carefully maintained to foster the widest variety of interstellar fauna in this part of the Core Worlds. But it was the Force sensitivity of Zo and her fellow Jedi that drove the different species to their fullest potential. At twenty-five, Zo understood that there was innate value, even a kind of n.o.bility in such things, nurturing every form of botanical life and encouraging every facet of its development and exploration.Rousing herself fully from the last lingering vestiges of sleep, she slipped into her robe and headed up the corridor to the refresher. The faint sense of uncase followed her, an unwelcome remnant of some other unremembered dream. She dressed for the day, choosing her lab frock and hood from a rack of identical uniforms, attributing the tinge of restlessness to that same nameless malaise that sometimes waited for her upon awakening here on Marfa.Opting out of breakfast, she followed the concourse up to Beta Level Seven. Marfa's planetary status was constantly shifting with the position of solar activity and galactic cloud patterns, but B-7 was currently the busiest and most vibrant of the various cultivation and growth bays honeycombing Marfa's surface. Usually most of her fellow Jedi could be found there in the mornings, starting their day with de facto meetings to update one another on progress and research, and share their immediate plans for the future.The turbolift doors opened on an eye-watering expanse of green, and Zo stopped there as she always did, letting the great familiar cloud of humid warmth wash over her. The smells of countless different plants competed for her attention-sap, fruit, and flower mingling in a mind-boggling banquet of fragrances.Tilting her head back, she looked up on 150 standard meters of high-ceilinged vines and dangling root systems. All around were narrow, self-sustaining forests of succulents and subspecies and high trellises overrun with loops and whorls of growth so varied in color and size that only through sheer day-after-day familiarity was she able to process it all.She could already feel them.Her mind tuned instantly to the internal hum of hundreds of different vegetative life forces, each vibrating according to its own particular emotion, some low and oscillating, others pulsing high and bright to match the explosions of flowers that sprang from their stems. Many of the plants were local enough that she recognized their greetings in her mind, as she pa.s.sed by. Zo walked among them, allowing their rustling enthusiasm of leaves and stalks to distract her from the nagging tug of unease that had followed her up from below.
"Good morning, Hestizo." Wall Bennis was the first actual voice she'd heard this morning. A tall, soft-spoken man with calm brown eyes, the Jedi ag-lab director was waiting for her behind the thick red stalks of a malpaso tree with an extra cup of caf."Sleep well?""Until the orchid woke me."Bennis handed her the cup."Any idea what's going on?""I've got a pretty good guess.""You do?""Mm-hm.""That's good, then." He went distractedly back to his own work and then seemed to remember something."Oh, and Zo? When you get a minute, would you mind taking a look at the pulsifarian moss colonies on B-Two? There seems to he some kind of secondary parasite growing in the soil.""You always save the glamorous stuff for me.""You're the only one who can understand it.""The moss or the parasite?""Both, I think.""I'll take a look." She carried the caf across B-7 until she'd reached the private incubation chamber in the far corner of the room. Deactivating the air lock, she stepped inside, rescaling the door behind her.Finally, the orchid burst out. What took you so long?You're not the only plant on this level. She took her time checking the temperature and moisture readouts on the wall unit, making incremental adjustments to both, and then walked over to the only plant in the chamber, a small orchid with black petals and a thin green stalk, its fronds seeming almost to quiver with impatience. For a moment she stood sipping caf and looking at it.I was cold during the night. Exceedingly unpleasant.Actually, I turned the temperature down in your incubation chamber,; she told it. Almost a full two degrees, on purpose.Why?I've been telling you for ages that you're a lot heartier than you thought. Now you know it's true. Fact is, you could probably survive a twenty-degree temperature drop, maybe more, and you would have been just fine.That's cruel to test without warning!If I'd told you, Zo replied, then you would have gotten yourself all worked up over nothing.The orchid withdrew into sulky silence. As flora went, it was one of the most Force-sensitive species in the galaxy. The problem was that it knew it. Zo put up with it anyway, and most of the time she was happy to dedicate herself to studying its abilities and providing for its needs. Every so often, though, it needed to be reminded why it had endured for thousands of years: it was far more durable than it gave itself credit for.Zo? the orchid said now.What is it?Something's wrong.What now?Outside... something's happening.Zo reopened the incubator's hatchway and stepped back out. Standing motionless in front of the chamber, she realized several things simultaneously.First, that the initial sense of wrongness she'd been experiencing up until now had nothing to do with her work here on Marfa. Contrary to what she'd initially supposed, the feeling was emanating from an outside source, an interloper, something that clearly didn't belong here. It hadn't been a dream; it was an alarm.And second, despite the silence, she wasn't alone.
Zo? The orchid's voice asked. What is it?Give me a second. She listened to the entire greenhouse with her ears instead of her mind. She heard no audible voices, but that was to be expected. Her fellow Jedi often worked for hours among their individual species without speaking a word. Much of their daily routine was accomplished in absolute silence.Pausing halfway down a long aisle overgrown with leafy stalks, Zo looked up. Far overhead, she found what she was looking for, an 800-year-old panopticon willow, a perfect specimen of organic surveillance, draping its limbs in a dense canopy of emerald-dripping lace. Each bud was tipped with a tiny golden eye.Zo placed one palm flat against the s.h.a.ggy trunk, allowing its root strength to pulse through her, aware at the same time that the tree was embracing her as an equal. She felt her ground-level perspective surging up through its branches, spreading out along colonies of sharply focused eyes. Her vision shifted, wobbled, and became clear again. She was now gazing down at herself and the entire floor from far above, from the willow's point of view. The tree's branches shifted and Zo felt a slight shimmer of cognitive dissonance as her perspective aligned itself and she saw the familiar robed figu