Star Wars: The Clone Wars Short Stories: Elusion IllusionMichael A. Stackpole
Michael A. Stackpole
Michael A. Stackpole
SEVEN DAYS AFTER THE BATTLE OF GEONOSIS.
Aayla Secura suppressed a rising sense of anxiety as she entered the council chamber high in the Jedi Temple. Jedi Master Mace Windu stood with his back to one of the arched windows that revealed an expanse of Coruscant cityscape. To the right of the doorway stood another Jedi sniffing at the petals of a flower placed in a wall niche. He was a Caamasi with long and supple limbs. Golden down covered his body, with purple fur masking his eyes and sloping up in stripes to his crown.
Aayla bowed toward Mace Windu. “Forgive my lateness, Master.”
At first, Mace nodded slowly, as if only distantly hearing her. Then he looked up at the Twi’lek and gave her a more certain nod, clasping his hands at the small of his back. Aayla felt a wave of serenity flow through the Force, from the Jedi Master to her. He said, “Though the war leaves us thinking that there’s not a second to lose, you are not late. Right now, the portal of opportunity we’re afforded is not yet closed.”
He nodded to the other Jedi. “This is Ylenic It’kla, a Jedi Knight of Caamas. He’ll work with you on this particular assignment.”
The Caamasi offered Aayla a slender hand, and she shook it. Ylenic held her hand firmly, but she knew he was exerting only a fraction of his strength. The fluid motion with which he had turned to greet her suggested speed and power that would make him a formidable warrior. With his long reach, Ylenic could be a deadly duelist if he were at all practiced with a lightsaber.
Aayla smiled at the Caamasi and looked back to Mace. “How am I to serve, Master Windu?”
“This is a delicate mission, Aayla, one that requires guile and intelligence, not just martial prowess. You have proven yourself with the latter at Geonosis.”
“But the former, Master?”
“I have meditated on this matter, and you are the right choice.”
“Yes, Master,” said Aayla. She wondered what Windu was leaving unsaid, but she quelled the questions in her mind.
Mace nodded in acknowledgement of her discipline. “Corellia, due to the influence of Garm Bel Iblis, has declared itself neutral in the current conflict. Despite this stance, both the Republic and Confederacy of Independent Systems exert some influence on the world. Along with a few other neutral worlds, Corellia has become a haven for refugees from both sides.”
Aayla raised one eyebrow as she grasped the implication. “And havens for those who would profit from trade with both sides?”
“Your knowledge of trading practices on Fiyloth serves you well, Aayla.” Mace smiled briefly before composing his face in a more serious expression. “In preparing for the war, the Techno Union started many development projects. Most of the researchers had little concept of how their work would be used, but one of them figured things out. His name is Ratri Tane. He stole his project’s critical files and the only working prototype of some very valuable circuitry. He’s sent his wife and child into hiding and he has made his way to Corellia. From there he seeks to hire transport to a place where he and his family can live in peace.”
“Tane is from Corellia?” asked Aayla.
“No, Coruscant, though his wife was from Corellia - the city of Coronet.” Mace ran a hand over his jaw. “We believe Tane stole the prototype and files as insurance in case the Techno Union found his family before his return.”
Aayla nodded. “And you wart us to find him and retrieve the files?”
“Yes,” he said. “But it must be done quietly.”
“Will we have any help from the Jedi on Corellia?”
Mace shook his head. “No, and that is why you must be careful. They have become somewhat territorial, and with the politics of the system being as complex as they are, this is understandable. When Corellia declared itself neutral in this conflict, loyalties within the Jedi there were split. Siding with the Republic might bring the war to the Corellian system, the system they’ve sworn to protect.”
Aayla frowned. “But they are Jedi.”
Ylenic opened a hand. “They are Jedi, and will defend the peace in their system.”
“And if we need them to defend peace in the galaxy?” said Aayla.
Mace shook his head. “That is a matter for later, Aayla. Your mission is to find Tane and extract him. Ylenic has been to Corellia before. The two of you will fly a smuggling ship, and you will be in command. You will be looking to move any number of cargoes, but will prefer passengers. To Tane, you will appear to be the perfect escape from Corellia. Briefing files have already been loaded into your ship’s computer.”
Aayla smiled, much preferring the undercover role of a smuggler to being a slave dressed in too little to conceal a comlink, much less a lightsaber. “I’ve seen plenty of smugglers and seedy pilots. I can do this.”
Mace nodded and held up a hand. “You can expect to find the Techno Union hiring a variety of criminals to find Tane. You must be especially wary of Gotals. Their horns make them sensitive to emotions and possibly even the Force. They are common among the criminals of Coronet, so watch for them.”
“I understand,” she said, growing excited at the prospect of this mission. Through the Force, she sensed both Mace and Ylenic react to her unchecked delight. She reined in that emotion and glanced down. “I shall be very careful, Master.”
Mace nodded solemnly. “I know in you we’ve made the right choice.”
Aayla settled into the co-pilot’s seat in the cockpit of the Kuat Leisure I21-B modified yacht Flare. “Gear’s all stowed. What do we have for a cargo?”
Ylenic punched a button on the command console. “Foodstuffs, mostly. Delicacies that ex-patriots can’t live without. We’ll get a good price for them.”
She laughed. “Do you think the Jedi Council is much concerned about that?”
The Caamasi shook his head and punched the ignition control sequence into the ship’s computer. The ship’s twin turbines came online with a whine. Ylenic shunted power to the repulsorlift coils, and the ship floated delicately before rising into Coruscant airspace. They were departing from a commercial spaceport so they would attract little or no attention. Although Aayla did not like to dwell on the prospect, she was certain there were both mechanical and living spies watching the Jedi Temple and all other sensitive areas on Coruscant to transmit data to the Separatist leader Count Dooku - wherever he was.
Ylenic received clearance to leave the atmosphere, set the navigational computer for the prescribed outbound vector, and switched on the autopilot. The Flare left the angular streams of daily traffic behind, and soared past the highest towers to join a thin line of ships departing the Republic’s capital. Aayla watched the other ships, big and small, private and commercial, and even a few vessels with the distinctive red hulls denoting official Republic duty.
“How many of those ships do you figure are leaving on secret missions?” she asked.
The Caamasi smiled, “I would think, Aayla, that all of them carry secrets of one sort or another. Illicit operations, I would assume for most. A mission like ours? One or two, perhaps.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Am I?” The Caamasi’s amber eyes softened slightly. “How do you draw that conclusion? I am guessing without a shred of evidence - no sense of the Force, just idle speculation.”
“It seemed correct to me.” Aayla felt color rise to her cheeks and streak her lekku.
“This question should not be a cause of embarrassment, Aa
yla. The Force might well speak to you in ways it does not me.”
She thought about that possibility as the ship made the transition from atmosphere to the dark cold of space. The Flare inverted, giving her a view of Coruscant’s surface, especially the glowing lines and flickering lights of the night side. The skylanes appeared like giant circuits with luminescent electrons moving along them. She picked one out and focused the Force on it, trying to receive some sense of its purpose. She felt nothing she could consider even the merest of impressions.
“Probably not the Force,” she admitted, “but a guess on my part, too.”
Ylenic smiled and scanned the computer readout, “At least we are guessing along the same lines. This bodes well for our effort. We are clear for the jump to hyperspace.”
Aayla nodded and gave the order, “Go.”
The Caamasi flicked two levers forward, engaging the hyperdrive. The ship lurched forward and the stars went from pinpricks to bars all pointed down into a well that exploded up at them and filled the viewport with bright light. Aayla raised her hand to shield her eyes before the viewport dampers kicked in.
Ylenic nodded. “We will make the journey in four jumps. This course will add several hours over a direct trip, but it will mask our point of origin. It will also bring us into the Corellian system on a vector that is not much watched by pirates.”
“Good thinking,” she said dryly, “I would have suggested or approved that planning,”
Ylenic reached out with his right hand and patted her on the left shoulder. “Yes, Aayla, you are in charge of this operation, but as your pilot I sought not to bother you with this sort of tedious detail.”
She gave him a quick smile and a nod. “I do wonder why Master Windu placed me in command.”
“Do you?” The Caamasi canted his head to the side. “This means you doubt the wisdom of our Masters, or else you doubt yourself.”
“Our Masters, no.” She shook her head firmly. “But myself, yes, a bit. I am hardly the most experienced Jedi Knight in the galaxy, or even on this ship. You have been a Knight longer than I, so I wonder why I am not subordinate to you?”
“This is simple: while I have been to Corellia before, I have filled a more traditional role. The Caamasi often counsel and mediate, and this is what I do most of the time. My skills as a pilot are likewise valued, but seldom have I spent time among the people we will meet while seeking Tane.”
Ylenic’s voice had strength, but it came quiet and warm. She liked listening to him, and watching his right hand move through the air as he spoke made his comments almost hypnotic. What he had said about the Caamasi was true, and they were highly valued for their skills. They were also known as pacifists and, try as she might, she could not remember ever seeing or hearing of another Caamasi Jedi.
Aayla commented on that fact, and Ylenic nodded as if expecting the remark. “It is true, we Caamasi have not produced many Jedi. It is also true that I am a pacifist.”
“But here you are, willing to take part in a war,” She frowned. “Doesn’t that violate your philosophy?”
“There is a point at which pacifism, while seeming good, can serve the dark side.”
“How can that be?”
His fingers extended, then half-curled back in on themselves, “There are those, especially within the Confederacy, who could characterize the Jedi as bloody-handed and aggressive warriors. Is that accurate?”
“No. Jedi are defenders of peace, counselors. We use our combat skills only as a last resort, only when forced to.”
“Exactly. So, while we value peace and abhor violence, we know there is a point where we may have to place our lives between those of innocents and people who would harm them.”
“It is just as clear, Aayla, when pacifism becomes evil. If beings are capable of protecting others but refuse to take action to preserve their own sense of peace, they are being selfish. They place themselves and their sense of peace over the peace of others, and so they defend a philosophy instead of lives. In this way, they fail everyone. This is where their choice is evil.”
She nodded slowly. To do nothing in the face of evil was to condone it and permit it to prosper, “This Tane, then, is he being evil?”
Ylenic’s face screwed up in concentration, and Aayla caught a quick sense of some emotion she couldn’t identify.
“He is acting to save his family,” said the Caamasi, “so I would think not.”
She nodded. “What you say is wise.”
The Caamasi nodded appreciatively. “I have a question, if you do not mind? Why do you doubt yourself?”
“I am young, I am inexperienced.” She searched his face, looking for any sign in his amber eyes that these reasons rang true for him. She caught flickers through the Force, but nothing more. “This is a delicate mission. If it goes wrong, it might create a bad feeling with the Corellian government. They might see our effort as the Republic interfering in their affairs, and that might help ally them with the Separatists. That is quite a lot of responsibility to deal with.”
“Good points, all.” His eyes narrowed slightly, “Does it concern you that you have doubts?”
Aayla thought for a moment, then a moment longer. “No, I think it is good. I trust in my skills and training, but without doubts, without realizing that things could spin out of control, would become arrogant, a failing that could lead to the dark side.”
“Very good, Aayla Secura.” Ylenic smiled broadly. “Now you know why you are worthy of being entrusted with so important a mission,”
Both Aayla and Ylenic managed to sleep and meditate on the journey, so they arrived in the Corellian system refreshed and ready to act. A pair of security fighters looked them over as they came in past Selonia, but flight control cleared them on a vector for Corellia. The city of Coronet was just slipping into dusk as they landed at one of the myriad spaceports in the seaside city.
The lights had just begun going in the section of the town known as Treasure Ship Row. Aayla found that the place paled in comparison to Coruscant, but that could rightly be said of any other city in the Republic. Though there had been little in the way of cloud cover on the flight in, once Ylenic landed and popped the hatch, the city’s humidity dragged at her.
Aayla shivered, “This air just feels wrong.”
Ylenic sniffed and wrinkled his nose, “It smells worse.” They had chosen clothes that suited both their assumed roles and their personal preferences. For Ylenic this was a red kilt that ran to his knees, with small boots and a sleeveless blue jacket that buttoned to the throat and had long tails in the back. Over that he had thrown a black cloak that shrouded his form and let him easily conceal his lightsaber,
Aayla bound her lekku in a braid of black and brown leather strips that attached to her traditional Twi’lek headgear. Black boots came to her knees, and red- and black-striped leggings from there to her waist. A black and red tunic that was cut to expose to midriff and cleavage matched the leggings. While she took no great pleasure in revealing clothes, she knew such raiment was both unrestrictive in combat and distracting during trade negotiations. A black nerf-hide jacket cut short enough to reveal of band of blue flesh at her waist completed the outfit and let her conceal her lightsaber within easy reach.
A number of “commodities brokers” approached the ship and immediately began bargaining for the cargo. Aayla haggled with a pleasure that surprised her. She mentally split the lot and sold off each piece, pitting broker against broker. She refrained from using the Force to sway the brokers, but could sense avarice building as the bidding grew furious, and then panic rising as the prices became too dear. Within half an hour, she had disposed of everything at a tidy profit.
As she finished, Aayla noticed Ylenic talking to two of the brokers who had withdrawn from bargaining as they learned the Flare carried nothing in the way of serious contraband. She politely refused the offer of a drink with a flapping Toydarian and wandered over to join the Caamasi. Th
e two shady brokers, a cloaked human and a Devaronian, acknowledged her with a nod before leaving.
Ylenic smiled at her. “You enjoyed yourself.”
Aayla nodded but then froze for a moment. “I thought I had kept my emotions closed to the Force.”
“You did, but you also smiled, and your victims were relieved when the bidding was over.” He gestured casually in the direction of the retreating brokers. “Those two asked what we were looking to take away with us, I suggested that while the hold was sufficient for almost anything, a yacht carries passengers better than cargo. Word will spread, and if Tane has been making inquiries, he will find us.”
From the data files they’d received from Master Windu, Aayla knew they were looking for a human male of average height and weight, with green eyes, light hair, and a recently grown full beard. As humans went, he was not bad looking and not very old. Still, there was something about him that seemed unlike a research scientist.
Then again, she mused silently, if he were nothing more than a typical dataworm, he never would have undertaken the theft or sent his family away to safety.
Ylenic pointed to one of the passageways heading north. “Our friends indicated that those who seek quiet passage off Corellia often look for opportunities at a cantina called Homestar. I suggested we would find our way there.”
They headed out together, with Ylenic clearly shortening his strides to match her gait. Despite wearing a cloak, he moved quietly. If he weren’t there at the edge of her vision, she might have thought he had vanished.
Losing him would have been easy, she thought, as they moved from the freight section of the spaceport to the passenger terminal. Throngs of people milled about--predominantly human and Selonian, but with enough Neimoidians, Devaronians, Weequays, Klatooinians, and even Bith to demonstrate what an important crossroads Corellia had become since the war began.
Aayla watched for Gotals and spied one lurking near a group of Neimoidians. She saw no other obvious dangers, and even from the Neimoidians she sensed no malevolence. She knew it was foolish to assume that every member of a particular species would be in lock-step with its leadership, but she decided to err on the side of caution and keep her senses open for potential enemies.