The Red Sector was lively tonight, and not with the kind of clientele that Thal liked to see.
Stormtroopers escorted officers and well-dressed dignitaries. Members of the Mandalorians, from half-plate neophytes to the full-armored veterans, could be seen patrolling the streets or walking along with rich patrons as bodyguards. There were even small squads of battle droids — themselves non-autonomous members of the Brokers collective mind — scanning the streets for trouble and standing guard next to significant establishments.
Apparently, word about the Corellian Sector had gotten around. Either that, or else something new had happened during Thal’s absence.
Regardless, he had an urgent job to do. The Brokers owed him information. Whether or not they had managed to find a satisfactory amount, it didn’t matter. He had to chase down every last lead available to him at this point. He wouldn’t last long without another job, but he also couldn’t give the Sith any more time to evade him.
He had to finish this quickly.
It took him an hour waiting in line to reach one of the Brokers.
“Ah, Thal Lirin, how are you doing?”
“Fine, Broker, you know why I’m here.”
“In fact, I do not. I can calculate a number of reasons for which you might be here, but I cannot conclude anything. Thus, there is little I know about why you are here.”
Great, one of the philosophical ones.
Droids were odd devices. They had a tendency to develop personality quirks as all of that conflicting data in its personality core — designed to mimic human mental processes — constantly found new and interesting ways to interpret its purpose.
Nothing too dangerous, but still annoying on occasion.
“I’m here about that information I asked for, why else?”
“I note the impatience in your demeanor. I also note your use of a rhetorical question, and so will not answer. Let it be sufficient for me to say, however, that there are numerous reasons we can think of for you to be here.”
Thal didn’t respond, he simply waited while the droid worked with a datapad on his desk.
“Ah. Here we are. It says the research is incomplete. You requested an extensive database, and we have not quite completed it.”
“I expected as much. But I need it now.”
“Understood. We will agree to provide you with a copy of the information for the sum of five thousand credits.”
So much? Wow.
Thal queued up the amount on a credit cylinder and passed it to the droid.
“I am sorry, Thal Lirin,” the droid said after scanning the code into his datapad. “It seems your account has been closed. Do you have another that you can pay with?”
“Closed?” Thal said after rousing himself out of his stupor. “What-?”
Damn. Of course. That bastard Gaul does move fast.
Thal checked his pockets. He had about fifteen hundred on hand in hard credit chips.
“I don’t have enough. Can you give me a loan?”
It was risky. The Brokers were notorious when it came to collections. And if he didn’t get a job soon, he wouldn’t be able to pay it off. But he had to have that information. So he’d do whatever it took to get it right now.
“I am sorry, Thal Lirin. After consulting with my associates, we have deemed you to be a poor investment at this time. You understand the situation, of course.”
A poor investment? The situation?
“Damn it! Are you telling me he’s already gotten to you?” Thal whipped a blaster out of his coat holsters. “What did he tell you? Talk!”
“Threatening a representative of the Brokers will yield no result for you,” the droid said in a mechanically automatic voice, much different from the near-emotive one that Thal had been speaking to a moment ago. “During a situation where the safety of our representative is questionable, all connections to the Brokers shall be severed, until such a time as we can determine that our operation shall not be compromised.”
Thal reached out with the Force. He was a master at detecting and disrupting energy patterns. He had heard of Jedi who could detect droids as if they were living people, even follow wireless signals while they were in use.
The message was prerecorded, loaded onto the droid so that he could sever connections with the network and not jeopardize the entire organization while still informing the client of their error.
But this representative wasn’t the only droid in the room. And Thal had noticed the two guard droids from outside immediately react to his blaster by storming into the conference room and brandishing their own.
He reached out for them, searching for a signal.
“Drop the weapon, sir.”
There it was. A tenuous link, to be sure — or else his ability to read the signal was feeble — but it was there, nevertheless.
“Thal Lirin, we order you to cease threatening our associate. Drop the weapon.”
Just a moment longer, and then he could find its source. It routed itself through several other droids, a network crisscrossing through the entire Red Sector. But it always led higher up, to more and more elite tiers of processing power, until it reached… there, in the center, a veritable sun of computational networking power.
The droids opened fire. Thal dove out of the way, narrowly avoiding the blasts that burned the representative to slag.
Reaching out for the networks with the Force, Thal disrupted the energy flow to the guard droids’ network receives, rendering them inoperative. Then, with two quick shots, he rendered them inoperable by destroying their processing cores.
Stepping out of the meeting room to meet the crowded line waiting to see the Brokers, Thal could tell that at least the first few people in line had been able to hear the brief firefight inside.
“Sorry ‘bout the mess,” he said as he brushed past them. They’d be disappointed, he knew, for waiting in line that long just to find the representative lying in a heap. But sometimes that was life, so they’d get over it.
In the meantime, Thal had a Prime Broker to find.
The energy signals he had traced implied that the network core was housed somewhere in the Undercity below the Red Sector. That seemed strange to Thal, because the Brokers owned the Red Sector. But, then, things in the Undercity could be extremely well-hidden, especially if no one knew they were looking for it.
It frightened Thal, not because he had to descend once more into the Undercity, but because of the immense and extensive networking power that the distance implied. They could have agents in over half of New Vertica, from the Promenade to halfway into the Corellian Sector, without anyone ever knowing it. How many droids in the Diplomat’s own household were actually Brokerage droids, connected to the network but pretending to be standard models?
How had he never seen it before?
There was an old lift near one of the larger buildings in the Red Sector that led to some of the old access tunnels that, Thal knew, could be navigated to reach the Undercity.
He didn’t have time to prepare, nor did he really have the means. The Brokers discovering his predicament should have been obvious, yet it had still unsettled him. How long would it be before others knew of his weakened state? He was no longer associated with the Diplomat, which meant certain factions could make his life very difficult with no repercussions.
It just meant he had to work even faster.
The true Undercity was almost a hundred stories below the currently accepted “surface” of New Vertica. It was an older part of the city, built up and around as more and more people flocked to the Smuggler’s Moon until it was eventually abandoned and forgotten by much of the populace.
There were still millions of sentient beings who lived down there, but it was more of a wilderness in temperament than the actual surface of many planets. Thal had never thought the gang wars of the upper cities were too dangerous or sinister, because he had spent several months fleeing or hiding from gang conflicts in the Undercity.
Fortunately, he didn’t have to descend into the true Undercity. The signal, so far as he could tell from the brief moment he had glimpsed its source, was located some sixty-four stories below the surface. It also seemed to be radiating from the center of the building beside the lift he had to take, so that was convenient.
Unfortunately, the lift itself wasn’t as accommodating. It gave out about ten stories down, apparently too old or in such a state of disrepair that it decided to take the day off.
With a sigh, Thal pried open the doors and climbed out in order to make his way through the tunnels of the Undercity on foot.
Within an hour, he was lost.
The multitude of construction projects that either had been started, then abandoned, or else directly contradicted each other combined into a densely packed patchwork of turns, switchbacks, split levels, and other confusing arrangements that were impossible to navigate, even with Thal’s brain.
He tried to reach out with the Force, to search for the network that way, but it seemed that he could only do so while in the presence of a signal’s origin or receiver.
Instead, he was simply lost.
After wandering the tunnels for about an hour more, Thal settled down beside a steam duct in order to catch his breath.
As he sat there, slowly growing more and more discouraged, he thought he heard a faint, broken sound echoing through the tunnels.
Rising from his position, he wandered toward where he thought it was coming from. As the noise grew more distinct, he thought it sounded like sobbing.
Sure enough, curled up in a nearby corner, he found Amalia crying.
It took her a moment to notice him. When she finally looked up to find him standing there, she turned away and curled back into her little ball.
He crouched down beside her and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, holding her as he had so many months ago.
At first, she resisted, then she shifted in his arms to wrap her own around his neck. Soon, she stilled her sobs and simply relaxed in his arms, breathing.
“What’s wrong?” he said after a time.
She didn’t answer.
“Why are you down here, Amalia?”
“Where else’m I s’posed t’go?”
He didn’t have an answer for that. Instead, he held her tight for a moment before pulling away.
“Is this about the money you owe?”
She looked away.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t mean to be so blunt.”
“No, but you are. That’s why you’re so hard to deal with, Thal. You don’t have any kind of sense for how people are feeling. You’re a computer, or a droid even. There’s nothing with you. No feelings.”
Thal looked down at the floor, away from the potential dangers of her accusing stare.
“I still try,” he said. “I try to understand.”
“Maybe that’s why it’s so frustrating,” she said, nestling her head in his shoulder. “I know you can’t do any better.”
He knew he shouldn’t say anything. That would’ve been right decision. It would’ve been what she wanted. Unfortunately, he still spoke.
“I do feel,” he said. “I feel emotions just like you do.”
He felt Amalia tense in his arms and immediately regretted his words.
“No, Thal,” she said, barely loud enough for him to hear. “Not just like me.”
She disentangled herself from his embrace and stood.
“What’re you doing down here anyway? The Diplomat send you looking for me afte rI didn’t pay or something?”
“No,” he said. “No, I… I’m no longer associated with the Diplomat.”
She didn’t say anything to that. Whether she was surprised, or whether this was something she had expected, Thal couldn’t tell.
She just waited for him to continue.
And she knew he would.
“I’m looking for something,” he said. “Some information. I need to get it from… Well, I thought I could find them down here. But I got stuck.”
“Oh,” she said. He knew she likely didn’t understand what he was talking about.
“It doesn’t really matter,” he said, reaching into his coat pocket. “I’ll figure something else out.”
Thal pulled the credit chips out of his pocket and handed them to her. “Here. Take it. Should be enough to settle your debts. Maybe even get yourself a job or something.”
Amalia stared at the credits with wide eyes.
“Really? For me?”
Thal nodded up the tunnel. “Go on. Get out of this dump. I can’t stand to see you here like this.”
“Thal, I… is this all you have?”
Thal didn’t answer. He didn’t know if she was grateful or just looking for more. Either way, he wasn’t about to let her know what a dire position he was in.
Somehow, though, he was pretty sure she already knew.
“Thal… thank you.” She leaned up and kissed him on the forehead. Then, as she turned to leave, she pointed down the tunnel. “There’s an old apartment lift back there that still works. Take the second hallway on your right. Might get you closer to wherever you’re going.”
Thal nodded his thanks as she began climbing into a maintenance shaft, leading away toward the surface.
An apartment elevator? It’s worth a shot.