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Star wars reputation, p.1
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       Star Wars - Reputation, p.1

           Ari Marmell
 
Star Wars - Reputation


  It wasn’t even genuine rain pattering down around him, muting the hum of the speeders and skiffs high above. Real rain could never have wormed its way among the various obstacles to reach the city’s lower levels. No, this was condensation, dripping from the undersides of bridges, roadways, and TaggeCo grav-cranes overhead. Oily, polluted, stinking and stinging, it was enough to drive almost anyone to seek the nearest shelter.

  Almost anyone. Not the hunter.

  Broad-brimmed hat and sturdy coat of nashtah hide shed the putrid water as efficiently as any forcefield, but even if they hadn’t, the figure crouched beneath them would likely never have noticed the precipitation. From a flat and leathery face beneath that brim, the sinister crimson eyes of a Duros peered not at the multitude of towers above and ledges below, or the glimmering of a thousand lights, but into the years ahead.

  War’s coming.

  Most people didn’t like to think about it, didn’t want to admit it. They pretended the Trade Federation’s recent embargoes were flukes; ignored the growing whispers of separation and secession from the Outer Rim systems; placed an almost religious faith in the new chancellor’s abilities to reunite a fractious Senate.

  He knew better, the hunter did. He could smell it in the air, across the length and breadth of the Republic. Might be a few years, yet, but war it would be.

  And there was money to be made in war. A lot of money; more wealth than even the greediest Corellian could imagine. But he needed the name, the reputation, to claim it, which was why he’d taken this fool’s errand of a job in the first—

  His eyes snapped back into focus with a single blink at the sudden vibration in the metallic band on his left wrist. Something had tripped the portable sensor field—independent from the building’s internal security, and not nearly as easily bypassed—the Duros had placed on the roof below. Indeed, even as he rose for a better view, a glimmer of green luminescence shone, briefly but brightly, from a darkened hatch.

  “Suppose it’s about that time, then…” the hunter muttered, his voice a rasping, rolling growl. Spindly fingers ran across the custom blasters at his waist in a final check, and then he was off and running. Coat flowing behind him like wings, boots spraying a wake of filthy water, the bounty hunter hit the edge of the platform and leapt.

  “Blast doors down! Blast doors down!”

  Akris Ur’etu, lord of the youthful but rich and brutal Skar’kla Consortium, cringed at the sound of his own voice, shrill enough to drown out the slamming of the heavy slabs. He knew it made him sound panicked, even cowardly, and couldn’t do a bleeding thing about it. When the Bothan crime boss grew agitated, his shadow-gray fur stood on end and his voice screeched like the felines he so greatly resembled.

  Still, whatever his people thought of his bravery—or lack thereof—they obeyed. Half a dozen guards, human and otherwise, crouched throughout the room or flattened themselves against the walls, blasters and slug-throwers trained on the nigh-impregnable door. Ur’etu himself clutched a holdout blaster in one paw, hidden behind his magnificent desk of blood-red greel wood.

  “Is it him?” he demanded, his tone now slightly more under control. He ran his empty paw over his head, as though he could force his fur to relax. “Are we certain it’s him?”

  A bronze-scaled Trandoshan thug opened his maw to speak, but the answer quickly became moot. A pinprick of glowing heat blossomed through the blast door; molten durasteel trickled from the breach, disturbingly like seepage from a ruptured cyst.

  Swiftly, smoothly, that point became a line, tracing its way down the surface of the door. Ur’etu could practically envision the brown robed figure on the other side, lightsaber pressed tight to the portal.

  “As he likes it, then,” the Bothan sneered, his worry drowning in a growing tide of anger. “I don’t know why this Jedi’s been interfering with my operations—or what happened to the bounty hunter who’s supposed to get him out of my fur!—but it ends here! The instant that door opens, I want that hallway filled with enough blaster fire to charbroil a Hutt!”

  Guards grunted, fingers flexed on triggers and firing studs—and slowly, methodically, the sizzling outline in the blast door grew…

  When the cut was finally complete, a chunk of durasteel simply slid away and toppled into the chamber. Clearly, the Jedi had canted the cut downward so gravity alone would do the job of moving the heavy slab; had any of Ur’etu’s men been fool enough to stand too close, they’d have been pulped.

  Blasters screamed and bolts flew even as the room shuddered at the impact, so many and so rapidly that the ambient air grew charged, but no target stood revealed for them to hit. After a few volleys that served no purpose other than to score the walls beyond, it finally dawned on the lot of them that they were firing into an empty corridor.

  Empty… until, just as the Trandoshan began to edge forward, a tiny metallic sphere bounced into the room from off to the left of the gaping hole in the door.

  “Detonator!”

  Ur’etu dropped beneath his heavy desk with a horrified yowl; guards dove for cover or turned to run, as though there were any real way to escape.

  The blast, when it came, was almost pure heat and flame without concussion. The Trandoshan and two other thugs were incinerated outright, the others singed to various degrees of pain. Smoke, far more than any traditional thermal detonator should have emitted, billowed upward to cloud not only the doorway but that entire half of the room.

  “Eyes on the door!” the Bothan shrieked from beneath the desk. “He’ll be—!”

  He already was. From the very top of the smoke, carried through the fumes in a leap that no normal human could have duplicated, the dark-clad intruder rolled. A sizzling snap-hiss! and an emerald reflection in the cloud heralded his arrival. The lightsaber flashed, and the first of the surviving guards went down.

  From well behind the Jedi—who, it turned out, was a blackhaired and bearded human of average height, clad in a dark-hued variant of the Order’s traditional garb—the bounty hunter watched through narrowed crimson slits. One finger idly tapped at his chin, while the other kept the same rhythm on the butt of a holstered blaster.

  These were no Jedi tactics he’d ever heard of! Slicing through the blast door, that was one thing, but the Duros had never seen a lightsaber like this one. The shaft alone was over a meter long, as though the weapon had been stuck on the end of a small pike, turning it into more of a spear than a sword. And he’d watched as the Jedi ducked aside, hunkering behind the segment of the door still standing until the inevitable barrage had passed, and then…

  “Since when,” he asked himself softly,” does the Jedi satchel of tricks include thermal detonators?”

  Most curious of all, though, was the leap that carried the intruder into the chamber beyond the wall of smoke. For just a split second, as the Jedi crouched, the bounty hunter swore he spotted tiny flashes of light from the soles of the man’s boots.

  “Well, now. What exactly are we looking at here?”

  Tugging the collar of his coat high and tight to filter the worst of the fumes (Breathing tubes! Best add breathing tubes to my own sack of tricks…), the bounty hunter crept toward the smoke.

  When the boss of the Skar’kla Consortium had ducked beneath his desk, it wasn’t only because he’d hoped the heavy greel wood might shield him from the blast. A hidden switch, a quick turn, and the floor beside the desk hissed open. By the time the last of the guards fell to the lightsaber, Ur’etu was already dashing along a metal-paneled corridor, swearing up a storm in Bothese between ragged gasps. He’d expected he might have to retreat, that the guards upstairs might not be enough—but he thought they’d at least have slowed the blasted Jedi down a little! With every step, he had to
quash the urge to look over his shoulder, convinced he heard pounding footsteps or the sinister hum of the blade close behind him. A dozen times he started at sudden movement, and a dozen times it proved nothing more than his own reflection in the polished walls.

  Finally, after what felt like a sprint of roughly a light year or so, he came to the end of the corridor, and a heavy door not substantially thinner than the blast doors above. Somewhat frantically—for now he really did hear the rapid steps of the oncoming Jedi—he waved a paw over a sensor recessed into the durasteel. Instantly the portal slid up into the frame, revealing Ur’etu’s security center.

  From amidst a ring of standing monitors, the Bothan’s Weequay security chief peered at him.

  “Problem, boss?”

  The clunk of the closing door masked another stream of Bothese obscenities. “What the mradhe muck kind of stupid question is that?!”

  The Weequay shrugged, and if he felt at all contrite, it didn’t show in the crags and wrinkles of his coarse face. “Thought you said you’d call me when you needed—”

  “Wasn’t time! That Jedi tore your men apart!”

  “My—?”

  “He’s coming through that door any second,” Ur’etu continued between wheezes.

  “Good!” The security chief stepped away from his post, a stubby force pike clutched in his left fist. It began to crackle and spit, as though just as anxious as its wielder for the coming chaos. “Been wantin’ to try my hand against a Jedi.”

  “You don’t have to beat the son of a mynock! Just lock him up long enough for…” The Bothan hefted his blaster.

  “Just don’ hit me, boss.”

  “Oh, thank you so much for the—”

  No lightsaber cuts this time; the door simply slid upward once more to reveal the cloaked and cowled figure beyond.

  Instantly Ur’etu stepped back and to one side, raising the small but deadly weapon in hopes of a clean shot. The Weequay strode forward, force pike spinning idly at his side.

  The Jedi’s left hand rose, fingers pointing at the Bothan.

  Ur’etu gasped as the blaster abruptly tore itself from his grip and sailed across the chamber to slap into a dark-gloved palm.

  The Weequay had crossed roughly half the distance between them in a sudden lunge before the Jedi flipped the blaster around and shot him in the face.

  “Now… now wait a minute…” the Bothan protested, backing away with both paws raised. “Look, I don’t know what grudge you have against my organization, but I’m sure there’s some arrangement that we can glrk…”

  The Jedi stepped to one side, left hand pointing once more, and Ur’etu began to choke.

  “Right. Think I’ve seen about enough, then.”

  Two faces, one hooded and one furred, twitched around as the bounty hunter stepped calmly into the security chamber. Ur’etu made a peculiar gurgling in his throat, gesturing madly toward the Jedi with one paw while the other continued to grab futilely at his own neck.

  The Duros watched the Jedi’s arm shift beneath his robes, saw the indecision on the man’s face, and offered a broad, sharp-toothed grin. “Don’t mind me. I got no intention of interfering. By all means, finish up.”

  One wouldn’t have thought the suffocating Bothan’s eyes could bulge any wider. One would have been wrong. Ur’etu, boss of the Skar’kla Consortium, died staring in horrified rage at the blue-skinned bounty hunter.

  “Now,” the bounty hunter began as the body slumped to the floor, “let’s you and me talk a minute.”

  “What about?” Even had the Jedi’s words not swum in a soup of suspicion, the hand he rested on the hilt of his lightsaber would have been indicator enough.

  “Mostly about how you faked all…” Long blue fingers waved idly at the room in general. “All this.”

  The hand on the lightsaber shaft tightened.

  “I don’t recommend it, son. Not even a Jedi’d be fast enough—and we both know you’re no Jedi.”

  The man’s answering hiss of astonished anger led into the louder hiss of plasma, the lightsaber blade once more snapping on to bathe him in a faint green glow…

  And just as swiftly shut down as a blaster bolt tore through the shaft, sending metal shrapnel, burnt wiring, and crystalline shards tearing through cloth and, in a few painful instances, skin.

  “Stolen lightsaber, right?” the bounty hunter continued, as casually as if discussing the latest slingball match. “Extra haft makes it easier to wield without leaving a few of your own limbs behind, that one’s obvious. What else you got?”

  The “Jedi” leapt, clearing the control panels and half the chamber in a bound, heading toward the fallen Weequay and—presumably—his weapons.

  “The boots, right. Impressive.” A second blaster bolt flew, piercing miniature engine, leather, and flesh alike. Smoke, so thick it was almost a fluid, gushed from the human’s right heel. Propelled only by the other, now, his leap veered off course, slamming him into the wall with a bone-bruising crunch. He slid to the floor, groaning. “Smallest personal jet I’ve seen was 30-kilo pack,” the Duros told him, gesturing idly with the pistol. “You’re lucky I made that shot, by the way. I don’t typically practice shooting to wound.”

  Fingers shaking, the supposed Jedi raised a hand once more. The blaster quivered in the hunter’s hand, then began to pull away.

  “Mono-filament cable with a magnetic grapple?” The bounty hunter yanked, and the wounded man slid across the floor, dragged by his own wrist. “Probably looked just like the Force to that scared Bothan idiot when you snagged his blaster.” The human fetched up against the hunter’s feet with a pained gasp.

  “And the suffocation. Let me see…” He bent low, studying the other’s wrist gauntlets. “Gas emitter. Wouldn’t recommend trying that, not with you and me so close. Might choke the both of us, hmm?

  “Real clever scheme, I’ll give you that.” The Duros holstered his weapon, then again started to idly tap a finger against his chin. “Leave behind a few bodies killed with a lightsaber or choked without any bruising, make sure witnesses see you performing a few tricks, and everyone’s thinking your target riled up the Jedi something fierce. So nobody—not the authorities, not Ur’etu’s allies—are looking at any of his business rivals. Smart.

  “So which Hutt are you working for?”

  “What did—? I never said… How—?”

  “Not hard to figure. Not like anyone but the Hutts have been trying to move on Skar’kla territory.”

  The “Jedi” nodded once, his teeth clenched.

  “All right. Then here’s the deal, son. I took Ur’etu’s job—that’s killing you, in case you still weren’t sure—because I figured taking down a Jedi would garner some attention. But everyone would’ve figured it out, once I brought you in. So here’s what I figure: The Hutt’s bounty on the Bothan must be pretty sizable, so I’m going to collect it.

  “And you… You’re gonna convince me I made the right call letting you live by teaching me how to construct this kind of miniaturized equipment.” Already the hunter’s mind was reeling with the possibilities; energy fields, ship controls, hidden weapons, code breakers…

  The false Jedi was clearly wise enough not to bother asking what would happen should he refuse. Instead, he nodded a second time, even more stiffly. “I didn’t catch your name, bounty hunter.”

  “Bane. The name’s Cad Bane.”

  “Never heard of you.”

  “No.” Bane couldn’t keep a broad and vicious smile from spreading across his face. War was looming—and the hunter with access to this kind of gear, and the right attitude to use it, would have more than enough of a reputation to cash in when the time came. “No, you wouldn’t have.

  “Not yet.”

  EXPANDED UNIVERSE

  Star Wars: The Essential Reader’s Companion is out from October 3

  More on Ari Manned can be found at http://mouseferatu.com/

  Visit Tom Hodges’ website at www.tomhodges.com
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  From Star Wars Insider 136 (10-2012)

  11.6.18.15.14.5-1

 


 

  Ari Marmell, Star Wars - Reputation

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