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Star Wars: The Clone Wars Short Stories: Elusion Illusion, Page 2

Michael A. Stackpole

  “I’ve spotted a Gotal,” she whispered to Ylenic.

  “There was a second.” When he noticed her surprise, the Caamasi tapped his nose lightly. “They have a scent of old sweat and mildew.”

  “And I thought they looked bad.”

  They exited through another portal and turned east. The crowd thinned as they moved fart her from the spaceport. On the kilometer-long walk, the passages grew dim in a few spots, but they encountered no trouble. That didn’t mean Aayla couldn’t sense people lurking in the darkness, but she and Ylenic were judged by the cut of their clothes, so they aroused no special interest in the urban predators.

  Treasure Ship Row--or simply “the Row,” as natives seemed to call it--surprised her because of the cosmetic overlay of lights and signs. All were bright and kept in good repair. They gave the area an air of respectability, which she suspected was more to shield the establishments from the scorn of its commercial neighbor; than any fear of outrage from its visitors.

  Homestar stood a quarter of the way along the Row, on the south side. It could have been mistaken for a planetarium on any other world. The music issuing forth might have dissuaded some from making that mistake, but otherwise the facade seemed plain. It did not excite the senses and, save for the odd collection of people coming and going, could have been described as unremarkable.

  As Aayla and Ylenic entered the place, however, “unremarkable” gave way to “impossible.” The doorway opened on a tall and wide set of stairs leading down into a round pit floor. A circular bar dominated the center, with concentric rings of round and curved tables spreading out around it. All around the walls and hanging from the ceiling were platforms and cages in which dancers undulated to the music. The band played on a stage directly opposite the stairs, and the area in front of their stage had been cleared for patrons to dance.

  And dancing they were, in combinations of species that defied cataloging. And the manner in which they danced sent a shiver down Aayla’s spine. She knew enough of the art to pass as a dancer, and she had a Twi’lek’s delight in the sensuous movements a body can make. Those beings on the dance floor might well have been having fun, but to her eye they appeared to be writhing spastically as the result of some excruciating poison.

  Ylenic shut his nostrils completely. “No, I do not like how they look, either.”

  The Caamasi led the way down to the floor and halfway around on the left. In the centermost of the table-rings they found a small space where they could stand. Ylenic moved around so he faced away from the bar, and she stood facing him, allowing them to cover the entire cantina. They punched in their drink orders on a small datapad built into the table. Soon a droid brought them two tumblers of Corellian whiskey, which they left untouched on the table.

  As she studied people, Aayla could definitely see that Jedi on Corellia must have their hands full. The war had exacerbated the situation by bringing in a lot of beings under a lot of pressure--and adding to that mix agents of either side who wanted to cause trouble.

  And if war came to this place... she shivered. Geonosis had been a wasteland before the battle, but the aftermath was still hideous. Droids blown into shards, Geonosians dead in droves, Jedi killed and hideously maimed. And the losses among the clone ranks were appalling.

  Ylenic laid a hand on her forearm. “What is the matter?”

  “Just remembering the first battle,” she said.

  Ylenic nodded. “It must have been terrible. While I would have gladly stood with my comrades, I am happy I do not carry memories of that event with me.”

  “There she is!” With a leathery slap of his wings, Lorfo, the Toydarian from the spaceport, landed on the edge of their table. “You were the best bargainer at the port, so I have a deal for you,”

  She shot him a withering glance, but something beyond him caught her eye. Aayla tapped the back of Ylenic’s hand. “To your right, fifty degrees. That’s him, near the two Gotals,”

  Ylenic looked and then nodded and breathed deeply. “I have him, and them.”

  “I have a deal for you, pretty one.” Lorfo repeated, chuckling. “Forget them. Their boss would have nothing for you.”

  Aayla frowned at Lorfo. “Not now.” She moved past the Toydarian and started around the ring of tables on the outside. Ylenic mirrored her path on the inside.

  The Gotals spotted Tane at the same time as the Jedi and started directly toward him. He saw them and spun, looking for an escape route.

  Aayla felt someone grab her right shoulder, She twisted away and, without thinking, flicked her left hand at the Toydarian clinging to her. She gave him only a tiny push with the Force, but that was enough to bounce him back onto their table, splashing their drinks onto a pair of Grans. The two aliens blinked all six of their eyes in surprise and grabbed Lorfo.

  Aayla’s action had alerted the Gotals. One continued after Tane, while the other drew a blaster and fired a shot at Aayla.

  Time slowed for her even as she saw him reach for his weapon. As it slid from a well-worn holster and a thumb snapped the safety off, her right hand had disappeared into her jacket and grasped the silver cylinder of her lightsaber. She had it out and pointed down before he finished arming at her. When he hit the trigger, she ignited the blue blade and batted the scarlet bolt high, making it pass between two caged dancers,

  The music swallowed both the whine of the first bolt and Lorfo’s outraged cries, but the light of the second bolt scattered Homestar’s patrons. Aayla had to deflect it high again, for if she missed in trying to direct it back at the shooter, she’d kill dancers or members of the band. The patrons’ panic spread to the dancers, and the band faltered, save for the lone Dorenian Beshniquel player tearing off on a riff in counter-point to the whine of blaster bolts.

  The bolts not only dispersed the crowd but showed the Gotals’ allies the location of their foes. Fully alive in the Force, Aayla felt someone coming at her back. She spun, bringing the sizzling blue blade a round and down through a wrist. The hand and the vibroblade it had been holding dropped away, accompanied by a hiss of pain. She clipped her attacker on the head with the blunt end of her lightsaber and slashed right, driving away another bolt.

  She spun to follow her cut and dropped into a crouch to scythe the blade through the center post of a table. The gunman who had leaped upon it tipped and tottered, then pitched over. His blaster sprayed an arc of fire toward the ceiling as he went. With a minor thrust in the Force, Aayla pushed him into two others ruffians, spilling the lot of them to the floor.

  A Weequay leaped over the tangle of limbs and came at her with a truncheon held low in his right hand. His thumb hit a button, and the end of the weapon sparked as he thrust it at her, Aayla shifted onto her right knee and brought the blade up and over in a cut that sheered the truncheon in half. She ducked her shoulder, catching the Weequay in the stomach, and tossed him up and over in a somersault that toppled another table.

  Panic and fear surged through the cantina, and in its wake came a near silence. Patrons and dancers had fled the building or crouched behind whatever cover they could find. Aayla glanced left and saw Ylenic, his cloak off, his green lightsaber gleaming. Around him lay a number of ruffians, all of them radiating enough pain for her to know they were alive and likely to stay that way.

  Four humans pushed in against the tide of customers fleeing through the entrance. Three of them, two men and a woman, wore the green-and-black uniforms of CorSec officers. In their wake followed a tall man, quite slender, with black hair and cold gray eyes. He paused halfway down the stairs to take in the whole scene as his people rushed forward, drew their blasters, and leveled them at the Jedi.

  Ylenic’s blade vanished, and Aayla likewise extinguished hers. One of the CorSec officers put his blaster back in its holster and bent to check the one-handed man who had been wielding the vibroblade. He glanced back at his boss, got a nod, then produced a comlink and called for medical services.

  The tall man approached Aayla and waved Yl
enic over, “I am Inspector Rostek Horn of the Corellian Security Force. You are Jedi?”

  Aayla hesitated for a moment, but before she could answer, Ylenic spoke. “Yes, Inspector, we are Jedi, passing through the system. We inquired at the spaceport where music and food might be had for weary travelers, and we were directed here.”

  Horn raised an eyebrow. “You are not dressed as Jedi.”

  Aayla nodded. “Given the neutrality of Corellia, we thought keeping out-presence hidden would avoid creating unnecessary tensions.”

  “Unfortunately, Inspector, it did not.” The Caamasi patted Aayla gently on the shoulder, “These individuals hoped my companion would wear something more revealing and dance for them. I was taken as harmless, since I am Caamasi.”

  Aayla opened her senses to the Force, trying to determine whether Ylenic was using a Jedi technique to influence the inspector’s mind. He was not. She did know the ability to manipulate minds depended on the target’s strength of will. She suspected, quite strongly, that Inspector Horn would have been close to impossible to influence that way.

  More CorSec officers arrived and began to gather the casualties. Horn studied those being hauled away in silence. He nodded. “This crew’s caused trouble before. They’re not going to tell us anything. There don’t seem to be any other witnesses, so your version of events must be the truth.”

  He looked closely at Aayla. “Unless there’s anything else you want to tell me?”

  “Not a thing, Inspector.”

  “Defending yourselves is not a crime, but I’ll need to see your identification.” He pulled a datapad from his pocket and began entering their information. “Have you communicated with the Jedi here?”

  “No, Inspector.” Aayla twitched her lekku in the equivalent of a shrug. “We wished to be no bother.”

  “That’s probably best, then, to be no bother. You’ll be leaving soon?”

  Ylenic nodded. “Very soon, Inspector.”

  “Good. Don’t let me keep you.”

  Ylenic took Aayla lightly by the elbow, but she gently freed herself and turned back to Horn, “Inspector, if you don’t mind, a question?”


  “When you said they were a crew, you didn’t mean they were from a starship, did you?”

  “No, small time hoodlums who hire out to whomever’s being free with credits.”

  “And in this case?”

  “I don’t know who, yet, but I will.” He smiled slowly. “You will be long gone by then.”

  “Of course we will, Inspector.” Ylenic bowed gracefully. “A mere memory by then.”

  The Jedi left the cantina and cut through the crowd gathering around the medical transport. Already they heard stories of wholesale slaughter within the club. Aayla braced to hear the words “Jedi” and “Lightsaber” used, but most folks were recounting how they had narrowly been missed in a hail of blaster fire. Their role appeared to have escaped notice in the chaos.

  Instead of heading back toward the spaceport, Ylenic walked farther east. His long-legged stride ate up the ground, and Aayla found herself trotting to catch-up. “Where are we going?”

  “Away from there, I am seeking, perhaps in vain, a whiff of our quarry. Did you get anything?”

  Aayla cast her mind back, sorting through recently perceived sensations, but she found nothing she could attach to Tane. She’d seen him, but she had not sensed him in the Force, and that surprised her. Given his situation, he should have been radiating anxiety with the intensity of a solar flare. “I got nothing.”

  Ylenic stopped, and his shoulders slumped. “I do not like this.”

  “Do we assume they have Tane?”

  “He was spirited out quickly, or else he escaped and is being trailed. Either way, I think we have to assume he is in unfriendly custody.”

  “It’s my fault this went bad, isn’t it?” Aayla frowned. “I used the Force to flick Lorfo away, and that alerted the Gotals.”

  Ylenic took a deep breath in through his nose and snorted. “For you, the Force and telekinesis come easily, and you use them almost unconsciously. While what you did was a mistake, you were far more circumspect in how you dealt with your assailants. Had CorSec not arrived so quickly, we could have hidden our lightsabers and been away without anyone identifying us as Jedi.”

  “Except for the Gotals.”

  “Yes, the key point in it all. This is why time is now of the essence. Before, we could lay out bait and wait for Tane to come to us, but now we must find him.” Ylenic rested a hand on her shoulder. “Your question of Inspector Horn was good, by the way, and I wish he could have shared useful information with us.”

  Something tugged at the back of Aayla’s mind, but before she could focus on it, the dry flapping of wings and a grating voice drove it from her mind. “There’s the pretty lady. She’s a Jedi.” Lorfo hung in the air and laughed. “I’m most impressed. She bargained without using her powers.”

  Aayla smiled as much in apology as in greeting. “Who would want to cheat an honest merchant?”

  “If only I was one.”

  Her pale eyes narrowed. “Lorfo, you knew the Gotals. You know who they are working for.”

  “Yes, yes. I told you they would be no good for dealing.”

  “I need to find the Gotals and their boss, Lorfo. Do you know where they ate?”

  “Well.” The little winged creature rubbed a finger over his bulbous nose. “I am a merchant. I’ll refund you ten percent on our previous deal.”



  “Done!” His voice rose triumphantly, and he soared into the air. Floating down a bit awkwardly, he grinned and pointed down an alley heading south. “This way, not far, hurry.”

  The Jedi raced after the Toydarian. Their course soon turned west again, through rubbish-choked alleys that set Ylenic to sneezing. Aayla assumed the alley’s miasma was for him the equivalent of blinding lights to her. Her sympathy for his discomfort only increased as she found the stench so revolting in a few places that she had to pinch shut her nose and breathe through her mouth.

  Lorfo led them to a small warehouse with tall, heavy-duty shelving units crammed with duraplast crates. Lights burned deep in the warehouse’s heart, and Aayla heard voices inside. She refrained from reaching out with the Force so she would not repeat the mistake she’d made at Homestar.

  Turning, she pointed Lorfo back toward the door. “Thank you for your help. You don’t want to be here if more trouble happens.”

  He darted down, kissed her hand, and gave her a wink. Spinning almost elegantly, he fluttered off low to the ground and, as quietly as possible, left the warehouse.

  Aayla and Ylenic crept forward, slipping through tight spaces, peering around corners. She dearly wished she could use the Force to get a sense of her surroundings. Ylenic had been correct--sometimes using the Force came so naturally to her that she did so without a second thought. Now, not being able to without alerting any nearby Gotals, she felt blind.

  They had crossed three-quarters of the way to the heart of the warehouse when two voices rose in the center of the building. One was clearly surprised, and the other shouted the first down, then let forth with a great laugh. As the echoes of its laughter died, the voice called out, “You Jedi might as well come in. Things are well outside your control. If you would like to see Ratri Tane live, I suggest you cease skulking about.”

  Aayla glanced at Ylenic, and he nodded, so they both straightened from crouches behind crates and walked forward. She kept her head up and covered her surprise as those gathered in the middle of the room came into view. She’d wondered how their presence had been betrayed, but the first creature she saw, hovering there, explained everything.

  Lorfo shrugged with only a trace of embarrassment. “You should have given me twenty percent.”

  Beneath the hovering Toydarian stood four individuals. The two Gotals from Homestar pointed their blasters at the Jedi. Between them were Tane and a
large, heavy-set man with a florid face, a bright shock of red hair, and freckles so thick they almost masked his eyes as effectively Ylenic’s purple fur did his. He held Tane in front of him, with his left arm around Tane’s throat and a blaster jammed into his ribs. A twitch of the trigger would broil Tane’s heart.

  The man smiled, revealing a tumble of teeth that made Lorfo’s grin look tike a work of art. “My name is Tendir Blue, and I’m actually pleased to see you. The Techno Union and its allies were willing to pay very well for Tane and the things he’d taken, but Count Dooku is exceptionally generous when Jedi are delivered to his keeping.”

  Aayla estimated the distance between her and the Gotals, knowing she could clear the seven meters in a leap. If she could keep herself from being hit by blaster bolts, she could cut them down and: arrive just in time to watch Tane collapsing with a smoking hole in his chest.

  Blue punched his left thumb down on something that had been concealed in his fist. From above and behind Aayla, crates creaked open as six Trade Federation battle droids unfolded themselves. Their limbs straightened with a clatter, and their blasters oriented on the two Jedi.

  The large Corellian smiled even more broadly and stated what Aayla already realized. “As you can see, it is quite impossible for you to do anything. Even if you were to cut down the Gotals, my droids would kill you, and I should certainly have killed Tane by then.”

  Aayla shook her head. “Kill him, and you don’t get the prototype or the files.”

  Blue laughed and Tane looked crestfallen. “He was so eager to leave here, the silly man had the files and prototype on him. While my clients would love to have him in their possession, they have instructed me that his life is expendable. Will you have his blood on your hands?”

  The Jedi remained silent.

  The Corellian ground the blaster’s barrel hard against Tane’s ribs. “Your lightsabers. Slide them over here, slowly, or Tane dies.”