Thal took a step back from the Verpine, but it was no use. He was trapped by the crowd of droids.
“What will you do with me?”
“Kill you, most like,” said the Verpine. “But we are open to other possibilities, as they occur to us.”
Thal had no wish to see either of those outcomes. Taking a deep breath, he reached out with the Force.
The Verpine said that everything flowed through the Prime Broker and into the rest of the networked droids. So affecting the Prime Broker should affect the rest of the Brokers.
Thal searched for the transmission signals, but it was like flying in a Kaminoan hurricane. The veritable storm of signals in the room drowned out any one packet of energy from his perceptions.
So he sought out the biggest.
There, in the center of the room. The Prime Broker’s receiver.
Of course, Thal thought. The Prime Broker receives a signal just like all the others. How could I have forgotten so quickly?
It would have been difficult to isolate and disrupt all of the Prime Broker’s transmitters anyway. This way would be much easier.
Reaching for the receiver with the Force, Thal disrupted the flow of energy, cutting the Verpine off from his network.
“Ah! What have you done?” The Verpine was buzzing with mania. He leaped atop the railings around the pedestal and glowered down at Thal. “You have destroyed our hive? How!?”
The Geonosian in the back of the room finally stirred himself and spoke in a language that Thal didn’t understand.
The Verpine listened, then turned his attention back to Thal with a near-awed expression.
“You… have the most fascinating powers.” He climbed down from the pedestal. “But it is no matter. They have received their orders. The droids will continue carrying them out until you repair the receiver, and allow me to transmit another one.”
Thal didn’t need the Verpine’s explanation to see that he was being cornered. While the kriffing bug had his moment, Thal had been leaping and scrambling out of the way of the rapidly enclosing droids, drawing on the Force more and more heavily as he did so in order to catapult himself over the taller droids.
Apparently, he needed a new plan.
He couldn’t run; the droids would easily catch him in the tunnels. He couldn’t fight; there were too many, and the room was a volatile battleground, likely to to explode in spectacular and unpredictable fashion should a stray blaster bolt find its way into a crucial system or power source.
Obviously, affecting the Verpine’s control over the droids hadn’t helped. So killing the bug, though satisfying, wouldn’t help him at all.
Thal dove away from a trio of droids as they nearly cornered him on the second level of the atrium. Vaulting over the railing, he dropped down to the lower level again, right in the middle of another cluster of droids.
Damn. What am I supposed to do?
Thal looked up at the Prime Broker, still staring at him, at the center of a web of networking cables and database links.
He’s the center of this, thought Thal. Despite the Verpine’s occasional interference, that droid is still the mastermind of this whole operation. He’s the only way I’m going to get out of this.
Drawing upon the Force, Thal leaped up to the pedestal, standing just beside the Prime Broker.
“What is he doing? What-, what are you doing!”
The Verpine scrambled toward him. His once-cool and controlled presentation had evaporated in the face of Thal’s potential threat to his precious hive.
Thal smirked, glad to have provoked such a strong reaction. But the but had no reason to worry. If anything, Thal was more worried about himself.
Time to roll the dice.
Taking a deep breath, Thal reached out with the Force and found the Prime Broker’s receiver again.
Good. Now follow it in. Go deeper.
The energy disruption was still there, but just below that were the circuits and brain cores that made up the Prime Broker’s network-decision-making programs.
This time, rather than cutting it off, Thal sent a small pulse of energy through the core, hoping for a miracle from the Force.
The effects were immediately noticeable.
The Prime broker spasmed, growing rigid, and then limp, and then returning to a neutral state.
But nothing else happened.
“What did you do, what did you do?”
The Verpine climbed atop the Prime Broker, checking cords and cables and connections and generally scrambling all over the surface of the overly large droid.
“WHAT DID YOU DO!”
The droids continued closing in on Thal’s position, and he was too tired to evade them anymore. He was done. He had tried everything he could think of.
They had won.
Thal sank down to his hands and knees, all will drained from him.
He was finished.
The Sith would escape him.
He had failed.
The Jedi were done, their time in the galaxy had fully come to a close.
Then the droids stopped.
Thal looked up.
One by one, they began to spasm, just as the Prime Broker had. But as they finished their spasms, they didn’t grow inert. Instead, they each began doing something different. Some started conversing with each other. Others started dismantling wall panels. Still others fled the scene. And there were nearly a dozen other reactions.
A few began to level their blasters at Thal.
Thal decided it was time to go.
Filling himself with the Force, he practically flew up to the access tunnels, whipping out his blasters and loosing a flurry of shots at the armed droids as he passed.
He landed. He scrambled. And a minute later, he was outside of the sanctum and bolting down the street.
He made it a handful of steps before he froze in place, his heart suddenly feeling very cold. His palms sweat, his skin was clammy. His entire being felt like it was slowly sinking into a mire.
What if he couldn’t find his way back? He had to stop and think about the route he had taken to get here.
But then he would be standing here when the droids recovered. What if they caught him again?
What if he did escape? There was no way he could finish his self-appointed task.
He could never find the Sith.
He could never face Gaul again.
It would be better for him to just stay here. At least the droids had a purpose for him. His own was feeble… worthless without the Council’s approval.
Thal was too afraid to move, for fear of the unknown. Yet he was too afraid to sink down and rest, for fear of the coming droids.
He simply stood there, paralyzed by his fear. Unable to move one way or the other.
What is going on? he finally thought. What happened?
A minute ago, he was bolting for freedom. And now he was inert. How had his attitude shifted so suddenly?
It was… unnatural.
Out from an alcove to Thal’s right, a Kel Dor emerged.
The same Kel Dor that had been following him all week, Thal recognized immediately. And the Kel Dor had been following him, he finally realized. There was no other explanation for his being down here.
What’s more, Thal could feel the focused aggression coming off of the Kel Dor, directed at Thal exclusively.
Thal’s fear increased.
It’s the Sith. They’ve caught me.
“Yes,” said the Kel Dor, voice distorted through his breather. “You’re trapped. But don’t worry, little creature. We won’t be staying long.”
Thal heard a faint scratching behind him and could feel the distinct energy patterns of droids scrambling after him through the access tunnels.
“Hm. It seems whatever tricks you performed to entertain the Brokers has failed to pacify them. My own are impotent against mechanicals, so we will have to move quickly.”
As the Kel Dor turned around, Thal felt as though breath rushed back into his body after nearly drowning, dispelling all numbness from a moment before.
“What-?” he began, but he couldn’t find the words to finish.
“I will explain later,” said the Kel Dor with a wave of his hand. “For now, you are coming with me.”
The Kel Dor crouched down and entered the alcove he had emerged from mere moments before, clearly expecting Thal to follow.
Thal looked back, feeling the approaching droids. Then he looked toward where the Kel Dor had disappeared. He really had no choice. Even if he were to run, either the droids would catch him or the Kel Dor would freeze him with fear again.
So Thal, heart still racing with fear, crouched down and followed the Kel Dor into his narrow alcove, hoping he wouldn’t regret it.
They wound their way through tunnels and alleys and alcoves all throughout the lower levels of the Red Sector, climbing steadily.
Once, Thal tried to ask where they were going, but the Kel Dor had not responded. He merely continued leading the way through the tunnels.
At last, they emerged from the lower levels, climbing through a few levels of upper sewer systems to reach the current street level of the Red Sector.
It was nearing morning.
“Come,” said the Kel Dor, motioning Thal toward the nearest cantina.
A few moments later, they sat across from each other in a public booth, sipping hard drinks without a comment shared. Thal’s was diluted, as usual. The Kel Dor, apparently, wasn’t as affected by alcohol as many other species, despite his apparent fragility.
(Thal made a mental note of how the Kel Dor would lift a flap of his mask to pour the drink into, and would lower it again before breathing.)
When the drinks were about half-finished, the Kel Dor finally spoke.
“Who are you?”
Thal was shocked. This mysterious master of fear, a man who had stalked him for the better part of a week, did not know who Thal was?
Impossible. It must be a ruse.
“Perhaps you’d like to tell me who you are first,” said Thal.
The Kel Dor hesitated. Then he nodded.
“My name is Zyn Par. I am… well, was… a technology advisor to the Hutt.”
“But that’s not who you truly are,” Thal said, taking another sip of his drink.
“No,” Zyn Par said with a shake of his head. “No, and that is why I fled. The Hutt learned of my… gifts.”
Thal leaned back, surreptitiously reaching for his blasters.
“So you’re one of the Sith, then?”
The Kel Dor looked at him with head askance. Thal took that to mean that he was confused.
“What is a Sith?” Zyn Par said.
Thal narrowed his eyes in what he hoped was an impatient gesture. He was quickly realizing how much power he actually had at this meeting. A public place, to prevent Thal from exposing himself as a Jedi. Uncertainty as to his identity, revealing a lack of knowledge.
This could still turn out in his favor.
“All I know is that I have this gift,” Zyn Par said. “At first it was… strange, confusing. I did not understand how it worked. So different from the predictable patterns of technology that I had become accustomed to.
“But soon, I learned how to control it, at least a little.”
He stared down at his four-fingered hands and Thal almost thought he could feel a measure of regret emanating from the Kel Dor.
No, don’t fall for it. He is Sith. He is a master of deception and manipulation.
But his initial instinct was beginning to fade. Perhaps this lost, lonely man was, in fact, just a hapless bystander with the infinite power of the Force.
Thal almost laughed at that thought.
“I thought I was the only one,” Zyn Par said. “I’ve been practicing for years, and though I’ve felt… glimmers of a similar power in others, I’ve never felt it so… controlled as I feel it in you.”
“You… found me in the Force? When?”
“When I first saw you in the swoop shop. I somehow knew what you were. I could feel the conflict within you. The focus and control mixed with the fear and rage. It mirrored my own conflict.”
“There is no conflict,” Thal said hotly. “You are mistaken.”
The Kel Dor folded his hands on the table and stared down at them. “Perhaps I am,” he said. “But it is clear to me what you are. And what you are capable of.”
Is all of this even possible? Thal thought as he stared at this fragile man who wielded the Force so expertly as to put certain knights and even masters to shame. Could it be that a simple bystander could harness and master the power of the Force without training? Simply by… by “feeling it out?”
And was it possible that a Force-user as powerful as this Zyn Par apparently was would be intimidated by Thal’s own, feeble control of the Force?
It was not what Thal had expected to learn during this conversation.
“You are on a mission,” Zyn Par said. “You have purpose.”
Thal did not respond. He had quickly learned how important and powerful knowledge was in this confrontation.
“I wish to follow you. To help. I have lost my purpose ever since I fled the Hutt. I left my family, my career, my life. Everything. I left everything for this gift. And now… I do not know what to do, or where to go.”
“How long ago did you leave them?” Thal said at last.
“Years. My son was newly born and we had recently returned from Dorin.” The Kel Dor sighed. “He must be nearly a young man by now.”
Thal nodded, simply to show that he was engaged with the conversation.
That means he’s likely been drifting about Nar Shaddaa on his own for at least as long as I have.
If Zyn Par truly did learn how to wield the Force on his own, ten or more years would have easily given him enough time to hone that small knowledge into a powerful weapon. One that he had deftly employed against Thal down in the Undercity.
It’s likely his only trick, though. Thal restrained himself from smiling in triumph. He really was the one in power here.
What a refreshing turnaround.
It gave him an idea.
“Zyn Par,” Thal said. “You asked me a simple question. One without a simple answer.”
The Kel Dor nodded.
Thal continued. “My name is Thal Lirin. But you shall not call me that. I was a member of the Jedi Order. But you shall not honor me as one.”
“What, then, will you be to me?”
Thal smiled, triumphant. He could see the hunger that Zyn Par projected into the Force. A hunger for companionship. For knowledge. For purpose.
Thal would give him that purpose.
“You cannot be numbered amongst the numbers of the Jedi,” Thal said. “But we can still do the Council’s will.”
He leaned forward, drawing Zyn Par deeper into his fervor.
“We are now two, but we shall find more. We shall be the guardsmen of Nar Shaddaa, protecting it from the threat of itself and others. We shall save the galaxy by cleansing its most rotten pore.”
The Kel Dor’s appetite simply grew as Thal fed him with purpose. The man was ravenous, had been for years. And as Thal saw the effect his words had on him, he realized that he had seen dozens, hundreds, thousands, even, just like Zyn wandering the streets of Nar Shaddaa. More willing lives to add to his cause.
Elation filled him at his newfound power.
“We shall be the guardsmen,” he said again, softly. “And I shall be the Sentinel.”