Thal stared at the notations on the slip of paper and felt his hands begin to shake.
She’s not the only one, he thought with dread. They’re training here. Building an army...
He tried to take a deep breath to clear his mind, but it seemed like the world just continued to spin out of control. The body on the floor, the paper in his hand, the memory of that woman dropping down from the sky to kill the Imperials. Scarlet blade mixing with crimson bolts to cut angry swaths through white armor.
It was impossible to focus, to orient himself. His head was beginning to ache between the eyes as he vision blurred.
He lifted a hand to rub between his eyes, hoping to at least alleviate things a bit.
Thal thrust the paper into his coat pocket with a flash as his eyes snapped open to find Johram staring at him from the other side of the room.
What do I do? he thought. I can’t tell him about the shipment.
Focus, came another voice, as if from a memory. Keep your mind on the present task. Why are you here?
“He’s dead,” Thal said, standing up and motioning toward the body. “Brutally. You can come have a look if you want.”
The Weequay trudged over and bent down beside Thal. Thal showed him the hole through the abdomen and pretended to puzzel over it for a while.
“Whoever it was, they had to be planning this for some time,” Thal said. “To have this level of discipline and patience… it’s disturbing, even for this city. Look, they even cauterized the wound so it wouldn’t bleed through the clothing. Sickening.”
It really was, now that Thal thought about it. If it hadn’t been a lightsaber that killed this man, the alternatives were only more frightening, but simply on a smaller scale. A serial killer or contract killer with the kind of brutal strength mixed with calloused patience that it would take to commit something like this was terrifying, and Thal hoped he would never have to face someone like that.
But that was only if his theory about the Sith was wrong, and judging by the smuggler’s slip in his pocket, Thal was confident that he was on the right track.
“Pretty clean for such a messy way to kill,” said the Weequay, lowering the shirt again. “Wonder how they did it.”
Thal nodded carefully, hoping that it looked like he was agreeing with the Weequay’s assessment of the scene. In truth, he was panicking inside.
If he doesn’t believe me about the killer… if he thinks I’m hiding something… what will he tell the Diplomat?
He had to switch tactics. Focus the man’s attention elsewhere. Fast.
Why are you here?
Thal nodded toward the general disarray of the apartment. “Did you find the records of our shipments? The Diplomat will want some evidence of the man’s dishonesty.”
Johram glanced over at the piles of papers and other objects, then returned his gaze to the Corellian, shaking his head. “Nothing,” he said gruffly.
Why is he so concerned with the body? Thal thought, worried. Does he suspect that I know more than I’m letting on?
He had to distract him.
“Well, we should probably get going, then. If you can’t find the records, then we really shouldn’t be here anymore. Someone might come in and think we did this.”
“Too late,” came the clipped, Corellian voice of a CPA investigator.
Thal stared, not at the man standing in the door, but the three accompanying security officers.
One would’ve been no problem. Two, even, would’ve been manageable. Three might have proven difficult — it depended on how Johram was in a fight. But four was beyond Thal’s current ability.
They’d have to talk their way out of this one. Again.
“So, gentlethings,” said the investigator as he crossed the threshold and entered the apartment. “How are we doing today?”
As he stepped about the room, Thal noticed one of the security officers move into the apartment and open a security panel to begin deactivating the alarm hidden there.
Dammit. How did I forget to think about that? Thal thought, mentally kicking himself. Of course a disreputable supplier is going to have his hideout alarmed.
Legitimate men of every profession in the criminal underworld regularly protected their homes — from which they usually did business — with alarms and other devices. At the very least, it helped them know when someone came snooping around. Other times, things like this happened.
It was a regular practice. Thal had simply been too impatient to remember it, and had charged ahead with little thought to the consequences.
“Quiet folk, I see,” said the investigator, continuing his turn about the room. “Would you mind stepping over here to the wall so my man can have a look at the body?”
Thal and Johram glanced at each other. Thal could see the carefully restrained fury in the Weequay’s eyes. He was made for this — close quarters combat against multiple opponents. It was a specialty for the species, but Thal could see the careful discipline that Johram had developed in opposition to that instinct. It tempered him, making him fit in better amongst the cultured criminal element — such as the Diplomat’s operation — but likely reduced his capabilities in combat.
Thal complied, and Johram followed. They stood against the wall near the door.
The investigator motioned to one of the two men still standing in the doorway, and the man rushed forward to comb over the body.
He found the hole almost immediately.
“Woah,” Thal heard the man breathe. “Sir, you’re going to want to look at this.”
The investigator glanced toward Thal and Johram with an expression that said, “Uh-oh, someone’s in trouble!” before moving over beside his medical examiner.
Thal glanced at the security officer, who was still fiddling with the alarm. He then glanced toward the door, where the last officer was standing guard out in the hall.
This was it. Their only chance.
Thal reached into the holsters hidden beneath his coat and drew out his twin blasters. With a squeeze of each trigger, he dropped the investigator and the examiner. Then, as the technician and the guard turned toward him, he dove behind the counter, beside the bodies.
Johram was quick on the uptake, drawing his own blaster and loosing two shots into the technician before the guard managed to draw his weapon.
The bolt that the guard managed to get off before Thal shot him merely grazed Johram’s shoulder. The Weequay was tough, Thal noticed, as the pain of that shot didn’t seem to phase him at all.
The two of them stood amidst the bodies and stared.
“This… is a problem,” Johram said.
Thal nodded in agreement. “We have to go,” he said. “Now.”
The Weequay didn’t argue, he simply turned and strode out of the apartment.
Thal noticed that the man hadn’t holstered his blaster, and so neither did he.
It was slow going in the apartment building, they checked and double checked each corner before rounding it, afraid that there were either backup officers or curious residents poking around the area.
None presented themselves, and Thal counted them fortunate. Even so, they didn’t have much time. Either someone would pass by the scene and call the CPA, or else that alarm — which may or may not have been fully deactivated, so far as Thal knew — would draw the attention of security officials and they woudl send more CPA officers. Either way, they had to move quickly if they hoped to escape any more trouble.
“Attention, residents of apartment T3-A5R.”
Too late. Damn.
The voice came over the interior loudspeakers, which meant there was no excuse for not hearing it. “You are being ordered to remain where you are, the building is currently on lockdown while CPA officers search for a dangerous team of murderers. One is a Bith of shorter stature, while the other is a Weequay of about average height. If you see theses men, do not approach them. They are considered armed and dangerous. Please wait for CPA officials to assist you and apprehend the killers.”
What? How did they get our descriptions? Thal thought over the encounter with the officials. Dammit. That technician must’ve been on the comm with the security office. That’s why he was taking so long with the alarm. How’d I miss such an obvious detail?
It was not shaping up to be a good day for Thal.
“Come on,” the Weequay said. “We’ve got to get moving.”
“Didn’t you hear the announcement? They’ve got CPA security officers on their way in.”
“Right, and I don’t intend to be standing here when they arrive. We can try to get to the roof and look for a way over to one of the other buildings, escape that way.”
“Won’t work,” said Thal. “They’ll have men on the turbolifts. They’ll get to the roof before us.”
“Maybe,” said Johram, checking his blaster’s ammo. “But there’ll probably be fewer up there than there are coming up those stairs.”
That sounded reasonable, but Thal was still hesitant. A lot of his actions today had seemed reasonable at the time, and now they were about to get killed.
“What if we went through one of the apartments? We could even go back to the scene, if we don’t want to disturb other residents.”
“Why?” The Weequay’s blunt questions cut through Thal’s already thinning ego.
“We could… escape through a window… or something. Scale down the outside walls?”
“Which they’ll likely have watched,” said Johram impatiently.
“You don’t think they’ll have the roof watched?” Thal said, suddenly realizing what bothered him about the Weequay’s plan. “They’ve probably got airspeeder support. There’re probably more men coming down the stairs than there are coming up.”
“Stop,” said Johram. “We don’t have time. Up? Or down? Choose.”
Thal glanced at the stairs leading up to the roof, then at the stairs leading down to the street. How was he supposed to decide between the two? Either one seemed just as likely to kill them.
There’s a way for you to be sure. The thought crept upon him suddenly. Just this once. You could try it.
It had been so long, though. Would he be able to control it? The infinite power? Would he have the discipline to surrender to the Force without being overwhelmed?
“Quickly, Thal,” Johram said, and Thal thought he could detect a faint hint of impatient fear in his voice.
I have to do it, he thought. It’s the only way to be sure.
Thal closed his eyes and sought deep inside his mind for the barriers that separated him from the Force. With a single breath — in and out — he weakened the barrier, feeling it erode before the implacable flood of power.
A second breath thinned the barrier further, and Thal could feel the energy shaking the remnant of his mind’s barriers.
With the third breath, the barrier’s vanished. Quakes of power rippled out from that point through his entire mind. It spread like an explosion, filling his entire being with the long-forgotten cleansing spirit of the Force. Hot, then cold; fire, then water; overwhelming, then subtle. The Force was all things to him as it consumed his being.
It was… freedom. Liberation from the shame, the regret, the loneliness. He surrendered himself to the euphoria of this all-encompassing power. This energy that permeated the universe.
His eyes snapped open at the call of his name and he found Johram staring at him with a frightening urgency.
Fear? There was no fear for Thal, only the Force.
Emotion, yet peace.
The words of the litany; the old words. They filled his mind again. Long-forgotten recitations echoing from long-forgotten years.
Stop! he commanded himself. You have a job to do. A duty. Save yourself; destroy the Sith!
With the fourth breath, the unceasing flow of the Force bent to his will as he searched through its lines of energy for the other living beings in the building. The sea of power narrowed and bent into a current, entering the river of Thal’s mind, Thal’s purpose, Thal’s will.
A wave of Thal’s consciousness spread out from where he stood, unhindered by physical constraints such as space, time, and matter.
An echo of his perceptions returned to Thal as the Force found the energy of living beings, both sources and conduits of its power. Families huddled in their homes. Unscrupulous men and women fuming in their apartments. Security on the roof. Security on the street. Anger. Fear. Passion. Broiling storms of emotion, each contained within a man, a woman, a child. Agents of the Force’s will, and providers of the Force’s power.
With the fifth breath, Thal brought his mind fully back to the present, containing the infinite Force within the course of his lower self.
“We go up,” he said.
Johram nearly bolted for the rooftop stairs.