Thal found the elevator easily enough.
It was, contrary to Amalia’s report, not functional. But the shaft seemed easy enough to climb, so he began the descent that way.
As he climbed down, the images in his memory began to sharpen again. Soon, he knew he was back on the right track.
Once he had descended eight levels through the elevator shaft, he climbed out through one of the doors.
All right. Now all I have to do is find a heavily-guarded centralized computer intelligence network. Should be easy to spot, right?
He crept through the hallways and tunnels of the abandoned level, searching for any familiar signs from his memory of the signal. It felt like he was getting close. But he couldn’t be sure of just how close it was.
There was little need for him to find out, however, as two bulky guard droids stepped out from what had originally appeared to be piles of rubbish.
They were brandishing heavy blaster rifles and seemed significantly more robust than the ones Thal had encountered on the surface.
“I’m guessing the same trick won’t work twice,” he said aloud. “Or are you all incompatible with the learning process?”
He smiled and reached out with the Force.
A moment later, he had severed the network connection and rendered the two droids inoperable.
“Impressive, we had wondered how you had done such a thing.”
Thal turned to find a sleek, humanoidal droid standing before him, flanked by four more guard droids.
“Are you the Prime Broker?”
“No. I am a chief representative, one of the keystones that extends the Prime Broker’s will to our subordinates. Without me and my brothers, the entire network would collapse, and so we are given a level of autonomy — both in order to better serve the Prime Broker, as well as in reward for our loyal service.”
The droid stepped forward slowly, until he was face to face with Thal.
That’s when he noticed the eight other guard droids emerging from the walls to surround him.
“My presence here should be flattering,” said the droid. “It should show you how great a threat the Prime Broker considers you. Under normal circumstances, he would use his own guards and attendants to deal with intruders. But considering your… unique talents, he decided to send for me. Truly an anomaly.”
The droid stepped around Thal with little regard for his presence. Then the droid raised a hand and waved.
“This was, please.”
Thal took a deep breath and followed.
The droids led him down the passageway toward a large, well-fortified, dome-like structure at the center of several tunnels branching off like spokes on a primitive wheel.
“Inside,” said the chief representative, motioning Thal into a tunnel. “He is expecting you.”
Thal crouched down to walk through the tunnel. He felt a bit silly, bent over and creeping through what was — so far as he could tell — a large air duct.
Maybe that’s the point, he thought. Even if you do manage to find the Prime Broker, they want you to come to him in a position of servitude. Clever, if so.
At last, he emerged, stepping into a large, round room.
In the center, hooked up to a multitude of wires and cables that spidered their way across the floor and into the walls and through the air into the ceilings, was a large, bulbous droid. It almost looked like a retrofitted, oversized E522 Assassin Droid. But such a thing was not made for the complex networking and data processing that were required from this droid. Thal was actually surprised that there was a droid at all. He had expected a massive computer, whose sole purpose was dedicated to tracking the various records and policies that kept Nar Shaddaa running each day with some modicum of organization.
Maybe that’s what all those cords are for. They’re augmenting the core droid’s processing power with external drivers. Almost makes sense.
Almost. But there were still a few things that didn’t fit.
Throughout the room, around the networked droid, scurried various technical droids. And lurking the background, a geonosian.
Thal smiled in triumph.
So, the Brokers aren’t nearly so independent as they would like us to believe. They still rely on flesh-and-blood creatures in some capacity. Even beyond their various enterprises.
“The attendants,” said the chief representative, suddenly appearing behind Thal. “They care for our Prime Broker, repairing and expanding him as necessary.”
“What about the Geo?” Thal said.
“He is the master attendant. When there is a problem that our attendants do not know how to fix, or that our Prime Broker is unable to repair for one reason or another, the master attendant steps forward to guide and herd the attendants in the task.”
“You aren’t worried that he might turn against you?”
If droids could smile, or laugh, Thal would have thought that the chief representative was doing so now. The droid certainly came close with its tone.
“We have no need to fear,” it said, and then motioned Thal forward.
“Prime Broker,” the droid said, stepping forward first. Thal had no doubt that they were having their own conversation through the network, and that this outloud nonsense was only for his benefit. “I present to you Thal Lirin, formerly of the Diplomat’s crew, now searching for you this past day. Would you speak with him?”
The droid in the center pivoted enough to turn its visual scanners toward Thal. It did not speak.
The other droid, however, did.
“The Prime Broker has granted you an audience. Step forward, Thal Lirin.”
Thal did so, already growing tired of this sham.
“You seek the information you requested.” The ponderous voice of the droid filled the chamber, echoing from hidden speakers in the walls. “Here. Take it and go. Bother us no more.”
One of the attendants stepped forward with a datacard held in its hand. It offered the card to Thal.
He ignored it.
“I don’t have time for that anymore,” he said. “I need a direct answer. Where are the Sith?”
If droids could blink, Thal would have thought that the Prime Broker had done so then. But droids do not blink.
“There are no Sith on Nar Shaddaa,” the droid said. “Accept our gift and leave.”
“You’re wrong,” Thal said. “Or else you’re lying to me. There are Sith here. I’ve seen them. I’ve seen their work.”
“Do not forget, Thal Lirin, that you are of the same make as they. Should the Empire learn of either your existence or the existence of another Force-using doctrine making its home on Nar Shaddaa, they would be here with the Inquisitors almost instantly. We can have them come today, if you’d like.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“Do you feel threatened? Fascinating.”
Thal whipped out both of his pistols and pointed them at the Prime Broker, while still making sure to pay attention to the attendants and others in the chamber.
“I’m tired of this,” Thal said. “Tell me what I need to know.”
The Prime Broker regarded Thal with what looked like a pitying expression.
“Do not threaten us, Thal Lirin. Violence solves nothing.”
Thal didn’t back down.
“If you were to destroy the singular entity that I am, you would not succeed in destroying us. Cut off the head, and our body may write for a time, but the network will gather around another and the hive will live on. You cannot destroy us. The Brokers are eternal.”
Thal studied the droid for a long moment, then lowered his blasters.
The Prime Broker leaned closer to him.
“You think you see so much; and yet you do not even know what you are looking for.”
Thal peered into the unflinching photoreceptors of the droid. How had this thing become so…philosophical? How had it mustered the initiative to build a massive network of droid lawyers and business-owners? How had it hatched this plan? It was too…creative for a droid.
You don’t know what you’re looking for.
Thal closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and reached out with the Force.
There. An incoming signal.
Thal opened his eyes.
“You’re not the highest authority here,” he said.
None of the droids reacted.
Thal tightened his grip on the blasters.
“Show me your master. Where is he?”
“Interesting,” the droid finally said after a pause. “What trick allows you to see past the facade?”
Thal raised the blasters again.
“You won’t live long enough to find out if you don’t give me some answers soon.”
“Calm yourself, Thal Lirin. There is no need. We are coming.”
We? There’s more than one?
A moment later, a hatch opened beneath the podium that the Prime Broker sat upon. Crawling out from within was a tall, thin, green, insectoidal humanoid. It wore what amounted to rags that hung off of the creature’s skeletal frame, and its large, bulbous, black eyes took in the whole room at once.
Thal noticed that one of the creature’s antennae was damaged.
“Who-? What are you?”
“Come, now, Thal Lirin,” said the creature. “Surely a skilled biological researcher such as yourself would recognize a Verpine.”
He didn’t. It amazed him. He had studied dozens — maybe even hundreds — of species from throughout the galaxy, but he had largely been interested in the humanoid and mammalian varieties. This… this was something completely different for him.
“You… you’re controlling the droids?”
“We would not say that we are controlling the droids,” said the Verpine. “We merely tell the droids what they should think.”
The Verpine climbed up onto the podium and began stroking the Prime Broker’s shell.
“In the early days, we had to tell the droids everything. But now… now we merely inform. We guide. If something needs our attention, we are there. But often we are mere observer to the glorious, autonomous network that we have built.”
“So, you built all this… for money? And yet you still live in a decrepit apartment barely above the Undercity line?”
The Verpine turned back toward Thal.
“We saw chaos, and wanted control. Discipline, Thal Lirin. That is what a hive has. Disipline amidst the chaos. That is all we sought, all we continue to seek. Money… it is merely a tool. We expand our hive, our network, our control. Soon, Nar Shaddaa will know discipline. It will all be within our hive. It will follow rules and structure. It will no longer be a rampant sea, but a collection of pools. Each with its own purpose.”
“You realize this idea is never going to settle with the rest of us, don’t you? The Smuggler’s Moon likes its freedom, and its anonymity.”
The Verpine’s eyes narrowed predatorialy. “You are not free, Thal Lirin. You are not anonymous, Thal Lirin.”
“You don’t know anything about me before I came to Nar Shaddaa-”
“Thal Lirin. Bith. Aged 42 standard years. Born on Coruscant — not on the Bith homeworld of Clak’dor VII. You lived your earliest years rising through the upper levels of the planet’s Undercity, until the Jedi found you, that is.
“Your time at the Jedi Temple was uneventful, but productive. You focused your studies on Xenobiology, though you would soon join the order of Sentinels after the incident with Xanatos at the Temple. Dedicating your life to hunting down the followers of the Dark Side taught you many new tricks, making you a skilled infiltrator and spy during the Clone Wars.
“You dropped off the starmap for a time near the end of the war, but rose swiftly in the past several years as you earned the attention of the Diplomat… who recently dismissed you from his services.”
The Verpine turned away from Thal and stepped around to the back of the podium. Peeking out from behind the Prime Broker, the Verpine added an addendum to his recitation.
“Or… was it you who left his services? The accounts differ. If so, that was quite a mistake. You would have had your answers by now if you had simply stayed.”
“What? What are you saying, creature?”
The Verpine began tinkering with the circuitry of the Prime Broker, ignoring Thal.
“Are you saying Gaul knows where the Sith are?”
“Oh, so his name is Gaul? We had often wondered about that.”
Thal silently cursed himself for giving away the identify of his former employer. Despite the way they had parted, he had promised himself that he would not sink so low as to give away the man’s identity. If only because it would give the Diplomat greater cause to come after him.
“I told you, Thal. There are no Sith on Nar Shaddaa. But if you insist on pursuing this line of thought, the Diplomat may have some information that you’d be interested in. After all, he instructed you to investigate, didn’t he? Why wouldn’t he follow up with others?”
Thal didn’t respond. He turned silently inward, examining what he knew.
The Verpine was right. Gaul had encouraged him to learn more, he had been noticeably disturbed by the news, in fact. For some reason, the Diplomat was acutely interested in the Sith attack that night in the Red Sector.
Dammit. Why didn’t I stay? Why didn’t I see it?
He had to return to the Diplomat. Find out what he knew. It might be the only lead he had left.
“Where are you going, Thal Lirin?” the Verpine said as Thal turned to leave.
“I’m going back to talk to the Diplomat.”
“And you think we can let you do that?”
There were guard droids now. Surrounding him.
He turned back toward the Verpine. All the droids were noticeably turning their attention toward him.
“Verpine communicate on radio wave frequencies. It is how they form a hive. We were… damaged… cut off from our hive. We came to Nar Shaddaa, and found a new hive. A hive we could build ourselves. The droids are our hive now. And we are its master, Thal Lirin. Only us.”
The Verpine stepped toward Thal. The droids followed suit.
“You are a threat to the hive. You know of its mechanics. You have powers that we do not understand. Powers that can disrupt the hive. You are a danger.
“We cannot allow you to leave.”