The five Mandalorians stood in the entryway a long time before they began to walk up toward the bar and someone finally noticed them.
“Hey,” said one of the patrons at a side table. “You’re not allowed to be here. This is an aliens-only bar. Go to one of your human establishments.”
The Mandalorian nearest the creature cut off his tirade as he passed with a backhanded slab to the face. The dull thud of armor against flesh left a sickening sound hanging in the air as the five men strode implacably forward.
“Vensar. That’s no way to treat our fellow patrons.” The Mandalorian in the center of the group spoke in a clipped accent, with military precision.
Former Clone? thought Thal as he watched. Or just a member of the support squads?
From what Thal knew of the traitorous Grand Army of the Republic, any Clones who had lived through the war would be approaching fourty, or even fifty physical human years by now. That was the point when things started breaking down, and these men seemed to be in a much more capable shape than such an age would imply. This led Thal to believe that they were, in fact, true Mandalorians and not renegade troopers.
“Sir,” said the bartender from his protected position. “They are correct. This bar is… it’s reserved, for… for non-humans. Couldn’t you go across the street?”
“Oh, don’t worry, bartender,” said the leader as he removed his helmet to reveal the rugged face of a man in his mid-thirties. “We belong. Boys?” He nodded to the surrounding Mandos and they each took off their helmets. Beneath it all, Vensar was just as cruel-looking a human as his actions had implied. But the other three were an Iktochi, a Trandoshan, and a Neimoidian of all things.
And now that their helms were removed, Thal noticed the other clear signs of their non-human stature. The slightly crooked joints of the Trandoshan, the tell-tale dangling horns of the Iktotchi, the diminished coordination of the Neimoidian. They were all clearly trained the same, and so their movements and deameanor was similar, but they could not overcome their physical differences.
Now Thal understood. They weren’t Mandalorians. At least, not the kind that truly scared him. They were members of the Mandalorian army — a gang like any other.
“A small explanation may be in order, yes?” said the leader in his careful, measured tones.
No one responded, so he continued on anyway.
“I represent the Mandalore of Nar Shaddaa. We began training again last year after the unfortunate incident a while back. These three are among the first graduates of the new program, and we wanted to treat them to a special night. They mentioned that they often came here in the past and wanted an opportunity to do so again. I hope you’ll honor the wishes of a few, lucky aliens who have worked so hard to get where they are.”
The man crossed his arms at his waist and Thal could see a hold-out blaster pistol held in his right hand, while his left rested on the trigger of what looked to be a wrist-mounted flamethrower.
“I trust that no more persuasion will be necessary than my humble request.”
It was obvious that the majority of patrons were still uncomfortable with the Mandalorians’ prescence. But there was little they could do without starting a fight with five better-trained, better-armed mercenaries. A fight that would likely lead to a systematic investigation and intervention by the Brokers.
So everyone sat there while the Mandos sauntered up to the bar and placed their orders. Their leader had the decency to not insult the clientelle or the bartender by ordering a drink, but the other human wasn’t so mindful of the company he was in. He had made his way through four glasses before Thal left, and looked to be on his way to out-pacing the Gamorreans with little effort.
Despite his temptation to watch the speederwreck that would be the result of the Gamorreans and the Mandalorian facing off in a drinking competition, Thal decided that he had had enough of the Scum-Suckers Cantina and stepped out onto the street in order to make his way toward one of the Brokers.
It shouldn’t be too hard to find them, he told himself. They were everywhere in the Red Sector.
The line of petitioners stretched around the bar, passed by the performance stage, wound through the gaming tables, and extended out the door of the City Lights Cantina. Apparently, it was a busy night.
From what Thal knew, the Brokers were a communal AI sentience — a network of droids all hard-wired to one “Prime Broker,” as many called him. They communicated and deliberated to a degree, but decisions were ultimately made by commands from this chief program.
What that meant, in the reality of many peoples’ lives, was that no one ever saw the true master of the Brokers, just as few ever saw the true master of any other crime gang. But they could receive an answer from that chieftain almost instantaneously, and speed could mean everything on Nar Shaddaa.
But with so many “Sub-Brokers” and other droids plugged into the network, Thal found it surprising that they could ever have a waiting period for clients to speak with them.
Maybe that was the point. Maybe they intentionally kept a low count of actively operating droids in order to make themselves seem special and scarce. But that notion kind of defeated their implication of being “all-seeing and all-knowing and always there, for your convenience and your doom” in the Red Sector.
(Not that that was their official motto, but it’s kind of difficult to shake a reputation once you’ve earned one.)
Regardless of the reasons for it, Thal still found himself standing at the back of a near-endless line outside of the City Lights Cantina. And he simpy didn’t have time for that. So he set off in search of another member of the Brokers to inquire after Amalia’s situation.
A little poking around, and he was able to find a willing informant who could point him to a little-known antiquities shop down one of the side streets in the Red Sector. The shopowner made enough money from his rich, if infrequent, clientele to afford to pay the Brokers for a member of their collective to permanently oversee the transactions, providing a sort of legal protection that helped protect him against the repercussions of a potentially slighted contact or client.
Because the shop was seldom busy, Thal would have no problem communicating with the Brokers through this lonely member. The only difficulty would be persuading the shopowner to let him have access to the droid. But Thal didn’t forsee that being an issue.
He payed the informer his token fee, as well as a handful of extra credits to keep him in a good mood, then he entered the antique store and approached the counter.
A Muun stood behind the counter. Damn. They were good with money. It was hard to swindle a Muun, and he would likely manage to negotiate a deal in his favor out of Thal’s simple request.
Even so, this was really his only option at the moment.
“Greetings,” said the Muun upon noticing Thal. “How can I help you today?” His tone suggested only a slight hint of disbelief that Thal actually wanted to be there. It was clear that Thal was not of a station to be able to buy such relics, nor was he showing any overt or implied interest in them. Still, Thal understood the shopkeeper’s attempts at civility — potential buyers could be found anywhere.
But the civil tone was unnecessary, as Thal soon proved.
“I want to speak with the Brokers,” he said.
The Muun raised his eyebrows in an expression that both implied surprise and served as an invitation for Thal to continue.
“I know you have one of their sub-agents on lease to oversee your transactions. If you’re not busy at the moment, I’d like to borrow him.” He made it a point to not pause or glance around at the mention of the store’s activity. By maintaining a deadpan tone, he hoped the owner would be a professional about the situation, rather than falling into some ridiculous pagentry that negotiations could sometimes become.
“Sir,” said the Muun. “I would like to impress upon you the importance of my contract with the Brokers. They are generous to have provided me with a sub-agent and I would be grievously wronging them by exceeding the boundaries of my terms with them. To put it another way, I do not believe they would want me to let you contact them in such a way. There are official brokerage stations all around the Red Sector. Surely you can go to one of them, yes?”
He could. But he didn’t particularly want to. After seeing the line at the City Lights Cantina, Thal dreaded the thought of spending his night in line at one of the busiest Cantinas in the Sector. Even if it wasn’t at the City Lights, he knew that the Brokers would’ve had the logical intelligence to set up their stations at places that benefited them. Crowds drew greater crowds, and so the biggest, noisiest, and most heavily controlled entertainment venues in the Sector would likely be where he could find the Brokers’ representatives.
Even if that’s what the Diplomat would’ve wanted, or what Venlyss and Moza would’ve recommended, Thal had no love for the course of action that trapped him in a public space with dozens, or even hundreds, or people he didn’t know.
“You’re sure we can’t make an arrangement?” he said, carefully parting his coat to reveal the holstered blaster at his side as he reached for a credit chip and quietly set it on the counter beneath his palm.
The implications were not lost on the Muun, and he carefully revealed his own weapon hiding up a sleeve of his gown. “Yes,” he said. “I’m quite certain.”
Thal knew he could take on the Muun in a fight. He was faster, better trained, and would be the initiator. In most fights, the one who struck first — if he struck hard enough — won.
But he wasn’t interested in pursuing such a course of action. He knew it would have too many consequences in the long run, and so he just nodded and withdrew his hand with the credit chip held firmly in its palm.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave now, sir. I’m closing soon.”
Thal nodded and slowly withdrew from the store.
Outside, he leaned against the wall and watched the crowds passing by with their multicolored decor garishly complimenting the neon lights. He was frustrated. He only ever analyzed visual representations in his surroundings when he was frustrated.
What do I do now?
Several possibilities ran through his head, each more undesirable than the last, until they began looping back upon each other again. Everything seemed to come back to waiting in line as his only option. At least, it was the only option he could find that didn’t put the Diplomat or himself in any physical or societal danger. But at this point it was unlikely that he would even reach the end of the line by the end of the night. That was not efficient.
What if I start over?
The thought occured to him as he continued his unending cycle.
Start over. Go back to the beginning. That was it.
Or, it was something, at least.
Thal returned to the hanger bay of The Elegant Empire, where the Brokers’ sub-agent assigned to the vehicle’s passenger and employee contracts was waiting to process new applicants with the ship’s captain and manager.
Fortunately for Thal, both of those men were aboard the ship right now, and they had no need of the droid while in flight, so Thal had a brief window of time during which he could attempt to contact the Brokers.
“Droid, activate,” he said as he approached.
“Unrecognized vocal signature. Please state your authority and intent.”
“My name is Thal. I’m an agent of the Diplomat, who owns this yacht service. I am here to request records of the Brokers’ dispute with our employee Amalia. Understood?”
“Accessing network. Please stand by.”
Thal waited a moment whilel the droid finished initializing its systems. Then, a new voice issued from its vocalizer.
“Greetings, I am designation BRK-791. I understand that you represent one of our partners. Please state your inquiry again for the record.”
“I want to know what happened with Amalia. The Diplomat said she’s had some issues with you.”
“Searching for the record now.”
Several seconds passed while Thal waited impatiently. He was so close!
“Ah, yes. The bartender. Unusual, as most altercations from establishments such as these involve the entertainment, as the humans so charitably call it.”
Save me your personal commentary, droid. Just tell me what I need to know.
“It seems that one of the patrons propositioned her, thinking that she was, in fact, a member of the entertainment staff. She took issue with this and assaulted him with a glass of alcohol. His eyes were damaged, and he spent three days in a bacta tank at the expense of our establishment. As such, we are owed additional compensation for these damages, and your organization’s outstanding debt comes to one thousand credits.”
Thal swallowed. One thousand wasn’t much for most people — it was a drop in the bucket compared to the Diplomat’s total revenue. But the Diplomat hated indecorous behavior, and Amalia was a firecracker. He would likely force her to pay the full amount for this, and maybe even cut her wages. It would be difficult enough for her to pay the amount without a loss of revenue, nearly impossible if she started earning any less.
He could pay for it, of course, without much effort, but she would never allow it. Besides, to do so would imply that he cared again.
“Is that all?” he said to the droid.
“That is all that appears in our records, sir. Will you be needing anything else?”
“No,” he said. “Thank you. Power down.”
The networked droid’s personality vanished without a trace in an instant and the droid shell drooped into standby.
Damn it, Amalia! Why do you always have to make things difficult on yourself?
More frustrated than before, and unwilling to wait for The Elegant Empire to return — both from a lack of patience and an inability to face her right now — Thal stalked out into the night. He wandered the streets of the Red District for a time, barely taking in its sights, sounds, and smells.
The feel of the place, though, that clung to him all too readily. One part polished artificiality and the other an organic stickiness. It was the final irritation that began to make the skin of his head crawl with disgust as he moved through it.
Soon, though, he cooled off and decided to return to the hanger. Some part of his mind knew that the yacht had returned and likely disembarked its passengers and crew by now. The chances of him finding her was slim; the chances of him finding her in a talking mood was nonexistent. But some other part of his mind still called him back to the hanger. A feeling, almost, as if he hadn’t closed all of those away behind walls of intellect years ago.
As he approached the hanger, he began to notice a change in the air. The emotional texture of the crowd had shifted, growing more distinct. The droning buzz of activity had given way to a mixture of wary passivity and sharp concern.
Then the hanger entrance came around into sight and Thal found a small press of people packed into the alley entrance nearby.
Something happened here, he realized. No one ever looks outside themselves when there isn’t something out-of-the-ordinary to see.
This was a problem. The operations of the respectable criminal organizations like the Diplomat’s depended on a certain apathy from its public. A routine coming and going. Anything that disrupted that consistency — especially if it happened nearby to one of their establishments — only ever caused problems, and often required cleanup.
Which translated to extra work for Thal.
In any case, he wasn’t going to fix anything by standing on the edge of things. He had to get involved. So he pressed through the crowd to get closer to the scene.
What he found surprised even him.
A body, severed in two from shoulder to opposite waist, lay in the darkness of the alley. The wound was cauterized, leaving a stench of charred flesh hanging in the air. The man wore the rank insignia of an Imperial customs officer on the breast opposite the slice. A wound that seemed to be baffeling the surrounding spectators, but that Thal knew could only have been created by one weapon.