Thal slept in late the next day. He needed it after his late escapades the past two nights. The day passed quickly, especially with the Diplomat away for the afternoon and evening. Night quickly fell again, and so Thal made his way back to the Red Sector to continue scrounging around for information.
Drelga proved difficult to track down, but Thal finally ran into him a few hours before dawn in an even lower-class joint than the Scum-Suckers Cantina.
“I don’t know how you manage to find these places,” Thal said to his former friend as he sat down on the other side of the table.
“It’s easy,” said the Dug. “I keep asking for lower prices and the bartenders keep sending me ‘elsewhere.’ Elsewhere, it seems, is right here.”
Thal offered a noncommittal grunt.
Drelga leaned back and settled deeper into his benchseat. “Alright, Thal. I know when you’ve a mind to get after me for something. What’s it this time?”
“I need information. Discretely.”
Drelga held up all four of his hands. “Hey, I’m not informant. I keep my ear to the ground for the kind of tidbits that’ll help me get along, y’know? But not much else beyond that.”
“I understand. But you also have a lot of friends. Friends in much lower circles than I can reach. Some of them are likely to know a few things.”
“Maybe,” said the Dug with a modest shrug. “But it’s not likely to be reliable.”
“That’s why I came to you.”
Drel fixed him with confused expression that made his long, narrow face look even more wrinkled and bony than usual.
“If I wanted reliable information, I’d go to the Brokers,” said Thal. Which I have, he thought. “What I want is rumor, legend, and hearsay. Got it?”
“Well, now…” said the Dug. “Rumor I can do. Rumor I’m particularly skilled at.”
“That’s what I thought,” said Thal, smiling.
“What is it that’ya need?”
“I want to know about the Separatist leaders, especially those that tangled with the Jedi.”
It wasn’t too risky, Thal decided. Showing curiosity to Drel about Jedi wasn’t likely to backfire for him. The Dug hardly payed attention to details like that — certainly not the way the Brokers or the Diplomat did.
“Jedi and Sep leaders, eh? Odd thing to ask about, Thal. But I’m guessing you’ve got yer reasons.”
Thal remained quiet.
Drelga rubbed his chin thoughtfully with his forearms before speaking. “The problem with talkin’ ‘bout Seppie leads is that they pretty much all tangled with Jedi at some point or another. Rumors about these things’ll be flyin’ all over the docking bay. You sure you don’t wanna get a bit more specific?”
Damn. Even Drel? Why was everyone so inquisitive lately?
“Sure…” said Thal, being careful that he didn’t overspeak. “I need to know about the warhero… um, what was his name?”
“The Skywalker boy?”
Thal nodded. Sure, why not? He was a commonly involved opponent of Dooku and his ilk. Skywalker would likely lead Thal right to the Sith.
“Well, that helps. Some. ‘Course, there’re enough rumors and legends about him alone that you could probably be busy for months.” The Dug leaned forward conspiratorially. “There’s this one, popular theory, that it’s the Skywalker boy what ended the war by killing the Seps and Jedi all at once, and that now he’s the Emperor’s personal executioner. That big, black-armored fellow in the death’s mask? It’s Skywalker, all covered up to hide his identity. Why else would he wear all that armor?”
Drel arched an eyebrow at him in a very human expression that said, “Betcha never thought of that, eh?”
Oh, Drel, Thal thought. It’s so much simpler than that. They dress him up because it’s not just one man. They’ve got a whole squad of those terror-machines running around the galaxy, leading various legions of their soldiers on an Imperial crusade against the Jedi.
But he couldn’t tell the Dug that. It would’ve been too suspicious.
“Anyway, narrowing it to just Skywalker and the Seppie leads should help to limit your reading load. Or, listening load, I guess.”
Thal inclined his head respectfully. “Thanks, Drel. I appreciate it.”
The Dug shrugged. “No problem, friend. Though it will cost you.”
Naturally. Thal hadn’t expected anything less. The thought had occurred to him that he might wriggle his way out of the payment, promising Drel a favor or two later on, but he eventually decided to simply pay whatever the Dug asked him. It wasn’t likely to be much.
“What can I do for you?” he asked as he reached into his coat for a portable credits cylinder — it was a device that he could encode to transfer a certain mount of funds from his account to the account of whoever he gave it to. It wasn’t seen often amongst the lower-level criminals, but men like Thal could afford to buy them by the caseload, thus making it an efficient and simple way to facilitate transactions, without the risk of carrying around pockets heavy with physical credit chips.
“Nothing so measurable, Thal, please,” said Drel, waving away the credits. “Not among friends.”
Thal did not like the look of that smile. But he slipped the coded cylinder back into his coat anyway.
“Like I said, Drel, what can I do for you?”
The wide, toothy grin the spread across the Dug’s face was almost predatorial. “Just a small favor, Thal. That’s all. A small favor.”
Thal hunched down next to Drelga on the rooftop, peeking over the top of the sign for the low-class cantina in the Duros Sector.
Drel had filled him in on their way down through the city’s depths. The Dug’s employers was wanting to collect on a bounty that had been put out for a Duro informant who had fed some bad information to the Hutt. It was a respectable sum, but hardly enough to warrant the attention of a full guild member.
Of course, that also made Drel’s employer think it wasn’t worth the trouble of getting directly involved himself, but he had liked Drel’s work in the past, so he had decided to put the Dug and his “notable accomplices” to work on a new type of project. One that didn’t involve as much face-smashing.
While Drelga said he had been a bit annoyed at the downplaying of his chief services, Thal got the impression that the Dug had accepted the job, along with its hefty payment, eagerly.
“Now, remember,” said the Dug urgently. “Me and my boys’ll be watchin’ the whole time. We got our sightlines covered and you’re gonna be in fine shape — fine shape, my friend. So just… get down in there and do your talking thing, right?”
He patted Thal on the back and then clambered up the wall behind them to reach the next tier of the building’s rooftops, where his Twi’Lek and Quarren associates were waiting with blasters ready.
The plan was fairly simple. Because the Duros were a fairly xenophobic lot — at least here in their Sector of Nar Shaddaa — they wouldn’t take kindly to Drel and his “dangler” friends. They would, however, have a grudging respect for Thal — both because of his intellect and his species’ physical similarities to their own.
So, once he succeeded in not getting kicked out of the cantina where their target was hiding, he would survey the area and identify a plan of action — hopefully one that helped them get the mark outside, where they could deal with him as a group.
In other words, he was going to do all the work and receive none of the credit.
Well, aside from the agreed dredging up of rumors that Drel would do. Thal supposed that was fair.
Thal took a deep breath and glanced up and down the street to see if anyone would see him as he dropped down, but his angles were insufficient. Someone could easily be waiting in the doorway to the cantina, and it would be highly suspicious for him to drop down from the rooftop.
He could feel Drel’s impatient gaze on him.
There was no easy way to climb down without drawing suspicion. The buildings were stacked atop each other in an unbroken wall for miles along this street without any exterior access ladders or other scaling equipment. It had been an arduous-enough process for them to get their sniper’s nest setup where it was. Trying to find a legitimate way down without breaking into someone’s upper-story window would take too long.
Thal heard Drel clear his throat. The Dug didn’t understand the position Thal was in. They could destroy their entire illusion of legitimacy of someone noticed Thal sneaking down from above.
What could he do, though?
You’ve always got the old tricks.
Thal shoved the idea from his mind almost immediately after it entered. But that wasn’t nearly so fast as he had done so in the past.
The weight of the lightsaber in its hidden pouch against his waist drew Thal back to the idea.
Why didn’t he just use the Force? What was stopping him?
He glanced up and down the street again. Still no one.
It had been so long… was he still… capable?
Thal closed his eyes and reached out with all his senses. He felt it, like the vibrations of a rowdy celebration through a thick wall. It pulsed there, faintly, yet full of that infinite and unending power that was life itself.
The familiarity was there, Thal was shocked to find, as if this power remembered him.
How could it? I’ve been gone for so long…
It overwhelmed him.
He tried to calm himself, to breathe in and out, to focus on the infinite weight of that power pushing at the walls of his mind.
His walls, Thal realized. Not the walls of this world or that anyone else had put up. They were his own protections against… against what?
The thought caused Thal to suck his breath in suddenly and draw closer within himself, away from that wall with its pulsing power trying to break through.
Force-users, especially Jedi, were hunted and killed daily by the fabled Imperial Inquisitorial branch. Practically a ghost story to most folk, and an extremely unlikely possibility to someone like Thal — whose presence would be masked by the sheer mass of people on Nar Shaddaa — the Inquisitors were nevertheless a very real possibility in the galaxy he now found himself living in.
Huddling atop the roof of the Cantina, Thal looked up at the dark sky. It was seldom that he could see the stars on Nar Shaddaa — the potent combination of light pollution and actual, chemical pollution was an effective blockade for any stars that might peek through — but here, in the lower levels, where the light was not quite as strong, Thal thought he could see a few, faint twinklings.
Were they really out there? Looking for him?
The Inquisitors… Would it do me any good to open myself up to the Force again, with all its power and pain, only to be hunted, found, and slain by those traitors?
Thal sighed, returning his gaze to the street below him.
With a deep breath and a decision, he vaulted over the side of the rooftop and dropped down to the ground.
The cantina was, predictably, full of Duros.
Thal crossed over the threshold and approached the bar, ordering a diluted drink with the hope that it wouldn’t dull his nerves too much.
Casting his gaze around the room, Thal searched for the man they had sent him to find.
It was… difficult, to say the least.
Though Thal considered himself well-versed in the different species’ defining physical traits, it was two different things to study a subject and to put that knowledge into practice. For him, all the Duros looked more-or-less the same. And when that blanket lack of familiarity mixed with his natural near-sightedness as a Bith, it made him a poor candidate for picking their mark out of the crowd.
So he sat, sipping his drink, and thought.
Did they give me a name? Defining personality quirks? Clothing habits?
He searched the exhaustive catalog of his mind for any concrete piece of information that he could apply to the situation.
There. The name. It was as good as anything else he might have used.
Rana. Rana Baaks.
Well, let’s see if this works.
Thal wrapped his long fingers firmly around the glass of liquor and stood abruptly up from his stool and began shouting at the nearest Duro, trying very hard to stagger as he walked.
“Rana Baaks…” he drawled in a sterotypically human way. “How long’s it been? Three? Four months? Wow, have I been looking for you…”
The Duro stared up at Thal with blank, stupefied eyes.
Come on, come on, Thal pleaded silently. Say something. React.
The Duro continued to stare for a moment and then simply blinked before saying, “I’m not Rana Baaks.”
Perfect. Thank you.
“What! You’re not?” Thal swung himself around, purposefully off balance, and took a gander of the room before turning his gaze back to the unfortunate Duro. “Well, who is, then?”
“I am,” came a voice from a table below the stage.
Thal spun toward the voice and froze.
Damn. She’s a woman…
Rana Baaks stood erect beside her table and glared at him.
“What do you want?”
Thal had difficulty falling back into the drunken attitude. He stumbled down the stairs all too gracefully, and his swinging from side to side was too measured and coordinated. He tried to throw himself into the role, but his mind kept analyzing, critiquing, and telling him that he was trying too hard to look drunk.
He was halfway toward her when she called him out on it.
“You can cut the act, Bith. We all know you’re not drunk.”
Thal froze and then straightened out. “Perhaps, but you can’t deny that I was good entertainment while it lasted.”
Several of the gathered Duros chuckled. But not nearly enough.
More importantly, his witticism apparently failed to warm Rama’s icy heart.
“Now, tell me, what do you want?”
“Outside? Somewhere a bit more private?”
“Does your speech contain private matters?”
“Then you will deliver it here. As you said, your antics are good entertainment.”
That drew a chorus of laughter. Again, though, she did not participate.
He had reached her table by then, where he found two male Duros, apparently bodyguards, sitting in her attendance.
What am supposed to do about this? The whole room thinks me a joke.
Thal looked up and into her eyes — cold, hard, calculating eyes that evaluated risks before taking them. But they were also hungry eyes, eyes looking for the next potential opportunity.
Either that, or they were simply alien eyes and Thal had no idea what to look for. The chances were equally likely.
But it did give him an idea.
Leaning close to her, Thal whispered urgently into Rana Baaks’ ear. “I have information for you. You’ll understand if I don’t wish to share it amongst so many prying ears.”
She stepped back, ostensibly to give the impression that she was reviled by his conduct — which only produced more alien laughter, of course — but Thal could see the processors of her mind working through the possiblities, weighing the risks.
Finally, she nodded to her two bodyguards to follow, and then led the way out to the street with a curt reply of, “They come with.”
Thal did not argue, and simply followed.
As they emerged from the cantina, Thal brushed past Rana to stride across the street.
“Where are you going?” she called.
“Away from the crowds,” he said in reply.
She followed him, bodyguards trailing after her.
“Alright, now are you going to tell me what this precious information is?” she said as she reached the other side of the street.
At that moment, two blaster shots dropped the two bodyguards. Thal had his weapons out in an instant. One arm wrapped around Rana’s neck, holding her in place against his chest with a blaster buried in her shoulder. His other hand lifted a blaster to her head.
“Shh. Don’t squirm. Don’t cry out. They’ll kill you if they have to, and I’d rather not see you come to harm.”
A moment later, as Thal managed to drag Rana back into the shadows of the buildings, Drelga clambered down with binder cuffs and a gag.
“Good job, Thal. Nice work.”
With the Duros bound for transport, Drel signalled his two associates to begin the long journey back to the ground. He and Thal had decided to take the Duros through the streets of the abandoned sector in order to reach a transit terminal.
Along the way, they spoke of their arrangement.
“Like I said, I’ll see what I can dredge up for ya, Thal. It’s an older topic in the rumor world, by now, at least, but there should still be enough material ta keep you busy.”
And with that, Thal was another step closer to finding the Sith.