Queen of Kuat: Chapter 3 – Living Death

When you take away the Force, what’s left?

Major Smuggler cameo, because Risha and Vette need a reunion! I dunno if this ever happens ingame so it’s happening here and now!

Chapter 2: Birth of a Storm

 

Chapter 3: Living Death

When he came to, he found himself looking through the cockpit viewport at an angle into a night-dark, tangled jungle. So they’d remained intact in their crash. Hadn’t exploded into smithereens. His ribs were bruised under the crash harness, and he probably had bad whiplash, but he was alive.

Slowly he undid the harness and turned to stand – and froze in horror. A white-haired figure lay sprawled on the floor, motionless. She hadn’t made it to her seat. “Akuliina!” He pushed through the aches of his body urgently, kneeling beside her. Emperor, let her have been spared

She was breathing, shallowly, but there was blood on the side of her head. Please, please, please. He wasn’t one for begging – except when she made him – but he pleaded with the universe now. Don’t let her die now. If only because he was too selfish to forgive himself if she did.

There was a whirring, and 2V-R8 stepped into the cockpit. “Are you unhurt- oh!”

“Go fetch a medical scanner,” Quinn ordered it. He couldn’t move her until he could ascertain the state of her skull and spine.

“Yes, Master Quinn.”

Vette must have crossed paths with the droid, as she was next in the cockpit. “Are you all right- oh gosh. How can I help?”

Quinn glanced at Akuliina’s body, at the black leaf-covered viewport, and frowned, taking stock of the situation. They were downed on a backwater planet he knew nothing about, and the hostiles were probably still out there. They needed to leave precipitously if at all possible. “Download everything we have about this planet. Then begin downloading essential data into datapads, then wipe the ship’s computer.”

“O-okay?” She hadn’t expected that, he could tell, but she grabbed a datapad from the locker in the corner and moved to the computer.

“Are the others unharmed?” Were they able to strap in?

“Yeah, I think so. They’ll be up here in a minute, I’m sure-”

Here was the droid with the med-scanner, and Pierce behind it. “I knew it would be too good to be true that the scanner’d be for you.”

Quinn didn’t even roll his eyes at the jab. “Get out the emergency gear. We’re going to leave the ship before enemies find us.”

Pierce brightened. “Righty-o. By the way, Jaesa appears to be having a major melt-down.”

Quinn glanced up from the scanner and frowned. A major melt-down from the most unstable person on the ship, and he hadn’t heard sound of a tantrum? “I’ll see to her after I’ve helped Lord Akuliina up.” Her skull was sound. She probably had a concussion, but the only short-term damage was largely superficial, thank goodness. He could probably move her, carefully, to her chamber until they were ready to leave, at which point, if she hadn’t awoken…

One thing at a time. He scooped her up. “2V, assist Vette.” They’d have to destroy the droid before they left. It had served them well on the Fury, but it would be slow and clumsy in the forest and it was just a droid.

He carried Akuliina carefully through the sloping ship to her room and paused in the main hold. Jaesa hadn’t undone her crash harness yet, staring blankly at her hands extended in front of her. They were shaking. “Jaesa?”

She didn’t answer, so he continued to Akuliina’s room and laid her down. She could rest while he got everything else organized. He had no idea how much time they had left before someone attacked them here. He was going to operate under the assumption that it was ‘not much’.

She looked so vulnerable, so fragile, nothing like her usual self. If he’d only… No, his reflexes had failed him, and that was the truth of it. There wasn’t anything he could have done short of ‘be inhumanly perfect’ and also ‘be luckier’.

All right. Vette was dealing with the computer. Pierce would be getting out the emergency supplies – portable shelters, camping gear, food and water. Akuliina was resting in a more comfortable place. He had a few moments to try to deal with Jaesa. He re-entered the main hold.

Jaesa hadn’t moved. He stopped in front of her. “Jaesa.” No response. “Jaesa Willsaam!”

She started and looked up, and he didn’t miss the flicker of fear that crossed her face. Why would she be afraid of him? She was always going on about how weak he was, how pathetic, how large a stick was up his ass, and only half the time she bothered to keep it behind his back. “What did- how did- I can’t-”

“We need to leave the Fury before enemies come,” he said. “I need you to gather whatever’s necessary from the medbay.”

“I-I-I c-c-can’t feel-”

He blinked and frowned. Whatever was wrong was important. “Can’t feel what?” If she had been paralyzed in the crash, that could be a severe issue.

Jaesa’s face worked and twitched, a silent struggle against… something. “The Force… has… abandoned me.”

Ah. That was indeed important, but… “I’m afraid we can’t worry about that now. We must prepare to leave.”

“Can’t worry about that now?” Jaesa screeched, lunging for him, restrained by her crash harness. She ripped it off with cries of frustration, considerably less fluid than she normally was, and came at him with her bare hands. “Can’t worry about that now? This is my life, you gutter-crawling worm!”

He stepped back, letting her come, reminding himself to remain collected. If she didn’t have the Force, theoretically he could restrain her as easily as anyone else. Perhaps more easily, if she normally relied on the Force more than her physical reflexes.

She was upon him, fingers reaching for his throat, and somehow he caught her wrist and flipped her over backwards, hand-to-hand exercises drilled into him long ago still sharp. She slammed into the floor – gently, he wasn’t a jerk – and after a brief moment of shock, began scrabbling to get up and attack him again. He wasn’t letting her do that, attempting to pin her down with his knee. “Jaesa. Listen to me. We are all in danger, Lord Akuliina most of all. I need you to remain in control despite this problem and follow orders.”

Jaesa glared balefully at him, dark hair spilling over her face, but stopped struggling. But he could tell she was even more upset than before, that she hadn’t been able to assault him – that he, a non-Sith, had taken her down easily. After a few moments, she closed her eyes and finally mastered her hissing breathing – though her gaze was still a pinched glare. “Fine. What did you want me to do?”

He tried not to breath a sigh of relief as he released her. “Pack up the medbay. We’re leaving the Fury.”

“Fine. Commodore.”

“And get me a kolto patch; Lord Akuliina’s been injured.”

She sullenly vanished into the medbay, and a kolto patch came flying out of it towards him. He caught it and returned to Akuliina. They’d have to destroy what was left of the ship, perhaps try to make it look like she had exploded on impact and killed all aboard. And suddenly that idea was painful. The Fury was a beautiful ship; she had been his home for several years, the place he’d fallen in love with Akuliina, the place he’d first made love to Akuliina – or she’d made love to him, to be more accurate – a swift shelter against the dangers of the galaxy.

But the Fury was broken now, crippled, smashed – it would cost as much to repair as buying a whole new ship. Cold-blooded numbers suggested destroying her to deny her and her knowledge to the enemy would be the best course of action.

Still, he mused as he dragged the desk chair to Akuliina’s bedside and applied the bandage, that didn’t mean it would be easy emotionally. Akuliina might reject this decision entirely. And if she did, he wouldn’t be displeased, even though mission security was at stake. But this was the last time he’d be in this room either way.

Her eyelids fluttered without opening, and she frowned and groaned. He leaned forward. “Akuliina?”

She groaned again without opening her eyes, one hand reaching up to her forehead. “Nnng… Quinn… what’s happened?”

“We’re safe for the moment, my lady. We’ve crashed on this planet. But we need to leave before enemies come to investigate.”

“Understood.” Her eyes fluttered open and she began trying to sit up, rather woozily. He reached forward to help her up, she caught sight of him – and froze in… shock? Terror? She backed away from him with that look on her face, eyes wide, and he felt it stab him in the heart. How could she be afraid of him?

“My lady?”

“Q-Quinn… are you… really there?”

He held out his arms. “I’m really here.” He didn’t know what else to say.

She slowly crept towards him, hand outstretched, as if she doubted her eyes. She made fumbling contact with his hand like a blind person and froze again, staring into his eyes. He wanted to cry at the look in hers. “Akuliina.” He reached for her, to hold her in his arms.

“Don’t touch me,” she snapped, harshly, backing away again, all her shields slamming into place, shutting him out completely.

She loved to be touched – correction, she loved for him to touch her. That she would deny him now… “Is it… Is it the Force?”

She gave a startled gasp. “How-”

“Jaesa can’t feel it either.” So it probably wasn’t because she’d hit her head. Jaesa had been uninjured as far as he could tell. But they had to talk about this later. “My lady, we need to go.”

She hesitated, taking deep breaths, regaining control of herself. When her head came up again, she was once again Lord Akuliina. He was almost astounded at how good her mask was, but he could see she wasn’t done having a panic attack inside. And he wanted to give her time to work through it, but right now he had no idea how much time they had.

“Right,” she said coldly. “Let’s leave.” And almost stumbled into him as she stood.

He caught her. “You may have sustained a concussion as we crashed.” Or before. “The kolto patch should help but if you have any difficulties I am happy to assist.”

“I don’t want assistance,” she snapped, pushing him away and staggering to the door. The floor being sloped probably didn’t help. She clung to the doorframe with her head down, breathing hard. “…But I might require it,” she admitted softly.

He was only thankful she still trusted him enough to admit that. He gestured that she should sit on the bed. “Wait here. I will make everything ready.”

 

It was another twenty minutes before they were ready to leave, and the sky was getting light, which was good and bad. Good, because now they could see where they were going, and any nocturnal predators would be retiring, and bad, because it made them easier to spot. Most of the gear was loaded onto Akuliina’s golden Amzab and the other speeder that had survived the crash, the black Praxon. The third was too badly damaged, its steering vanes bent almost to the point of breaking. Akuliina claimed she was feeling better, and she did seem like it, but he insisted that she ride the Amzab as well. It was overburdened, but that didn’t matter – they were only going to travel as fast as the rest could walk.

Akuliina agreed fully on destroying the Fury, on the hope that their attackers would think they died in the crash, though the fire and the smoke would be a beacon to anyone searching for survivors. They’d have to move quickly once he and Vette rigged the remnants of the engines to explode. The droid couldn’t know what was happening; it would be destroyed in the explosion as well.

His hand lingered on the back of the pilot’s chair before he left for the last time.

The planet was named Myrkr, according to the remnants of the databanks, a lightly inhabited forest world with a cautionary on criminal elements. All Quinn wanted to do was reach civilization; they could deal with criminal elements just fine once they got there, even with two of their strongest fighters lacking the Force. The planetary chart was somewhat lacking in detail, but if it was remotely accurate it was going to take them several weeks to reach the closest city. And that was if their enemies didn’t pick up their trail. If they could call for help without bringing down their pursuers, they could be off the planet more quickly, but he didn’t want to call from their crash site and give anyone a red flag to their survival and location.

It was rough going, the first few days, even after Akuliina’s concussion diminished and she could march alongside them. His own injuries built in intensity and then slowly began to fade, but turning his head still caused him discomfort. The forest was dense, tangled, untrod by humans before now. Whenever they heard the whine of patrolling fighters overhead, they flinched deeper under the trees. But all that was nothing compared to the nights, when beasts howled in the distance or padded, growling, around their camp. It wasn’t just that Quinn feared for their safety, but more that it was difficult to sleep – and shooting the things might just bring more.

The second night away from the ship, the nearby howling broke into snarls and snapping undergrowth. Quinn was not on watch – Vette and Pierce were – but he hadn’t slept since he lay down, and was already jumping up to fight when they yelled a warning. Akuliina and Jaesa burst out of their tent, Jaesa already brandishing her lightsaber, which gave an adequate if eerie yellow light to the clearing they were in. Briefly he wondered if it would bring an enemy flight patrol on them, then decided that staying alive now was more important. Akuliina had not light either of her sabers, and had left one on her belt, the other loose in her hand. It had been a long time since she went with one saber. He hoped she was all right.

Eyes glittered in the darkness, reflecting Jaesa’s blades, and Pierce fired at them. One creature fell with a thump into the dark bushes, but the snarls increased in volume. “What are they!?” Vette exclaimed nervously.

“I don’t know,” Quinn admitted. He’d caught a glimpse of sharp fangs before Pierce had shot it and blinded them all with the emission of his rifle. “Best not to let them get close.”

“We may not have a – choice!” Vette squeaked as two or three more quadrupeds burst out of the bushes, charging at Jaesa and Akuliina. Pierce, Vette, and Quinn all fired near simultaneously, and the creatures fell face-first into the ground. Jaesa had lunged forward, but flinched back from the blaster shots – they had almost hit her, and no doubt without the Force she couldn’t anticipate them.

Akuliina had jumped, her lightsaber ignited, but when the quadrupeds fell, she lowered it again. Until Vette screamed and pointed. “Behind you!”

Akuliina spun, slashing downwards out of practiced reflex, and yet another creature gave a hideous cry and collapsed at her feet. Jaesa jumped forward, swinging, and almost hit her; Akuliina dodged away.

When the hum of lightsabers had quieted to background noise, Quinn looked around. “That seems to have driven off the beasts for the time being.”

“Oh my gosh, this is the worst planet I’ve been on,” Vette said. “Worse than Voss for creepy bloodthirsty monsters.”

“Stow it,” Pierce admonished her. “We’ve still got another two hours of watch.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Vette gave a shaky sigh and holstered her pistol. “Sorry about that, Lina! Try and get some sleep if you can.”

Akuliina nodded in the light of her saber, and then both women deactivated them and groped their way back into their tent. Quinn returned to his own tent. After she’d killed the creature, her hand had been shaking. Just slightly. If only he could hold her, or at least protect her better. Those beasts had gone straight for her.

Now to wait and see if their little light show had been spotted by the enemy ship in orbit.

 

By the fourth day, the aerial patrols seemed to have died down, and by the fifth day, they were gone altogether. They had been attacked several times more by beasts, but no one had been hurt so far, despite nerves and lack of sleep. But he couldn’t explain why the creatures all went straight for Akuliina and sometimes Jaesa, ignoring the rest of them. If she didn’t have the Force, she was no more extraordinary than the rest of them, was she not? How could they tell? Were they the ones blocking her ability to feel the Force? Surely that was a ridiculous notion.

On the fourth day, he also discovered that the field comm unit either didn’t have enough power to transmit off-planet, or was being blocked by elements in the foilage or atmosphere. There would be no short-cuts, no early rescue.

Now all they had to focus on was staying alive long enough to reach that city. To their good fortune, they came across a tiny settlement in the forest on the sixth day out, and they could rest properly. The people there, largely humans, rough and hardy, were suspicious of them, but gave them shelter in a boarding house anyway. It was fortunate they accepted Imperial credits.

He settled into the room he was sharing with Akuliina. They hadn’t talked at all on the trek from the Fury’s wreckage, marching in silence through the forest. He hoped she would speak to him now. He missed her.

And when they were alone in the room together, he had no idea how to start. “How are you?” It was a pathetic beginning, but it was better than nothing.

Her perpetual scowl eased a little. “I’m well. You?”

“I am well… I believe everything is under control. As much as it can be.”

There was a tightness to her gaze, just briefly. “At least on your end. Always so capable.” Her words could be taken as sarcastic, but there was no trace of that in her tone, only a heavy resignation.

He looked at her anxiously. “My lady?”

“It’s nothing,” she said, and he didn’t believe her for a second.

“Talk to me,” he begged her. “I… wish I could help.”

“Why?” she shot back, eyes suddenly blazing and yet full of pain and incomprehension. “Why would you do that? I- I am nothing!”

He blinked and stared, mouth falling open. “W-what do you mean?”

Her fists clenched. “Without the Force, I am nothing! Less than nothing! I can’t- I can’t protect you! I can’t defeat my enemies! I’m not fit to rule!” With every statement her voice rose until the word ‘rule’ came out as a despairing shout. Her voice fell again, almost to a whisper. “Why would you help me when I am worthless?”

He’d always assumed that Sith took power because they could, according to their own creed. He wouldn’t have thought she would willingly abdicate if she lost it. No one else did. He also hadn’t been expecting her to react this way emotionally to the loss of the Force. Anger, he would have expected, not despair. Never despair. “You are not worthless-”

“I am,” she said, tragically. “The Force made me – makes me what I am. I haven’t felt it since I woke from the crash. I-It is probably gone… forever!” She shuddered on the word ‘forever’, squeezing her eyes shut, clenching her fists, baring her teeth, and practically vibrating with fury. He waited. After a few moments, she stopped, breathing a little harder.

“It can’t be mended?” he asked.

“I doubt it. Such things can rarely be reversed.”

“Surely you don’t have to give up your political power just because you’ve lost your Force power.”

She snarled at him. “Haven’t you been listening? I’m not fit to rule not because I’ve forgotten how, but because I don’t have the strength to hold on to what is mine. If I were in the military like you, that might matter less, but I am not, and one of the reasons the military’s discipline succeeds is because some Sith or another is capable of enforcing it. If other Sith found out how weak I am right now, they’d kill me as soon as they could. And they’d be right to do so. I’d kill me, were I in their position.”

“Never,” he exclaimed fervently. “I won’t permit that.”

She gave a crumpled half-smile. “I am not planning on rolling over and dying.” No. She was a fighter born; she’d never give up while there was a heartbeat in her body. “But you don’t have the power to stand against Sith lords by yourself. It’s my duty to protect you as much as it’s your duty to protect me. The best thing I can do, if this can’t be fixed, is to disappear while you return to the Empire. It needs your skills still. Perhaps Murlesson will take you on. Perhaps even Lord Aristheron… I’m sure you would get along, despite his Light-leaning tendencies.”

“No.” She hated being told ‘no’, he knew, but now she was just being depressing. “Akuliina. I’m not returning without you.”

“Your loyalty to this worthless corpse is touching but misguided.”

“Akuliina!” He’d never raised his voice to her while dropping formality, and backpedaled hastily as she jumped. But to see her collapse so completely… by the Emperor, he disagreed with her feelings. And she’d been thinking these thoughts for the last six days. It might take some doing to convince her otherwise. “I apologize. But do you truly think I married you for your command of throwing things without touching them?” That was a gross oversimplification, and it sparked some proper anger in her eyes, but he wasn’t done and overrode her objections, just this once. “I love you for the strength of your will, for your grace and dignity and passion.” He closed his eyes, his heart aching. “I love you for the way you tease me, the way you effortlessly drive me mad in so many ways. I love you for your eyes and your smile and the things you attempt even when you’re not expert in them. I love you for our shared love of the Empire we live in, and the way you fight to defend her. I love you for your anger, magnificent and terrible. I love you for the fire in your heart and the tenderness you show only to me.” And the amazing sex, but that didn’t really fit the tone of his declarations.

He opened his eyes and looked sadly at her. “None of which has much to do with the Force. If you had appeared to me years ago as you are without being Sith, I would have fallen for you anyway.”

Her mouth was hanging open as she stared at him like she’d never seen him before. He’d never said half of that out loud before, and she was properly shocked. “Malavai…”

“That’s why I’m not leaving you,” he said, kneeling before her on one knee, as he’d done long ago when he first asked permission to join her. “While I have breath in me, I will be loyal to you.” He meant it more than anything else he’d ever said to her, except maybe his wedding vows.

She fell forward into his arms, burying her face in his shoulder, and he held her tightly, mouthing kisses at the side of her head. “You are strong, my dearest. You are stronger than anyone else I know. You are strong.” She lifted her head enough that he could kiss her, and he seized upon it, covering her lips with his conviction.

She liked for him to touch her. Would she be comforted if he made love to her? He stood, backing her towards the bed, lowering her to sit there and felt her tense, just slightly, hardly noticeable – but he noticed. He stopped. That she would flinch from him, that she didn’t trust him after all they’d been through together, after they’d married, after all he’d said and done for her… just because she felt powerless… hurt him. He’d proven himself time and time again, and it counted for nothing. “Akuliina?”

“…I’m sorry.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes for a moment, hiding behind veils of heavy eyeshadow, and she’d apologized. For flinching. “I just remembered… you’re stronger than I am now.”

Ridiculous. And probably untrue, even if he was nearly twenty centimetres taller than her. He tried to lighten the mood a little. “You can’t possibly be afraid of me. Remember also, you are a trained warrior in hand-to-hand combat and I’m just a naval officer with good aim.”

She cracked a slight smile at that and relaxed a little in his arms. “Then by all means continue, Commodore.”

“You’re sure?”

“Don’t make me hurt you.”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

 

She felt half-blind without the Force. The world without extrasensory touch was cold and grey. People didn’t feel like themselves if she couldn’t feel their minds, their feelings. She was completely and utterly alone and uncertain in a way she’d never been before. It was a dream… a living nightmare. She was a small piece of useless meat with a ridiculous painted face, who had to use her own two hands to manipulate anything, had to guess what people were thinking using only her eyes and ears. She’d hardly slept on the trek through the jungle, even though Quinn had never put her on watch, her stomach churning in terror of the beast attacks that she couldn’t predict. Terrified, too, that when she did fight, with her lightsabers, her limited situational awareness would fail her and she’d hurt herself or her allies. And she wasn’t picking up a blaster. Without training or practice, she’d just hurt herself or someone else even more surely than with her lightsabers.

She’d tried to feel it, tried so hard. She’d filled herself with her frustration and anger, letting it rise up in her belly and ignite her, and she felt nothing. She’d even, out of desperation, tried the absurd Jedi approach of calm meditation, though she was so bad at being calm she was certain that wouldn’t work in the first place. Perhaps that made it a self-fulfilling prophecy but she had to try. Would she rather imprison herself as a Jedi, or live without the Force forever? Tough call. One was like being dead, and the other was only half-alive.

It was impossible that Quinn should still admire her as he did. Trust him, her conscience begged her. Trust in him, who hasn’t let you down since he came out of kolto nearly two years ago. But it was so hard to believe that voice, to make the conscious decision to trust, when her situation was changed so drastically. He’d said some beautiful words, but surely he was only biding his time. Or he didn’t yet actually realize how utterly useless she was. He would, soon. She was completely consumed by her paranoia, she knew, her own defence mechanisms overwhelming her habitual control and trapping her in a pit of her own construction, and there was no way to redeem herself that she could see. And she feared to let it go when it might be the only thing keeping her alive.

But in the meantime, Quinn’s embrace was so tender, his kisses so gentle and open, that she couldn’t resist staying with him a while longer. Even though without the Force, only feeling him through touch and sight and sound and taste and scent, he felt different. Not completely, but enough that she doubted it was him. But she knew it was him, and he was a comfort. And he always lowered her guard far too easily, even when she was fighting to keep it around her.

“I love you,” he murmured to her as he embraced her on his lap. His hands and lips were never still, touching her in all her most sensitive places; the small of her back, the curve of her waist, her collarbone and throat. “I love you, Akuliina, my love, my dearest-”

“D-don’t,” she stammered, every endearment stabbing farther into her vulnerable spots, laying her more bare than her current lack of clothes did. “Don’t say such… No… p-please…” She didn’t understand it. Usually endearments from her were what made her feel weak and defenceless, not ones from him. And tonight he was using more than usual.

“Akuliina…” His blue eyes were so earnest, so sad, and he kissed her so very gently. She couldn’t leave him.

 

Three weeks later, they arrived at their destination, the closest city with a spaceport on the planet. Possibly the only city with a spaceport on this entire continent. The forest gave way briefly to droid-run farmland before building up into something resembling a low-income urban environment. None of the buildings in the entire ‘city’ looked to be taller than three, maybe four stories.

Quinn surveyed it with field binoculars from the edge of the forest. “I can’t see any hostile elements from here. We can hardly assume that this place is safe, however, especially to Imperials. Vette, would you scout ahead to the spaceport?”

“Got it,” Vette said, and jogged off wearily.

They’d found a road leading to the city two weeks ago, and while prudence and paranoia had cautioned against using it, tramping through the forest was certain to take far longer, especially with the animal attacks, and they only had supplies for so long. However, the overburdened speeders had run out of power rapidly and they’d had to walk again after only a day of rapid travel. They were fortunate just to have enough power in the speeders to keep the repulsors going. They were all exhausted and footsore, and their spirits were low, even Vette’s. Once they arrived at the spaceport, they’d find passage to a civilized system using Akuliina’s hidden accounts, rest on the ship, and from there… Akuliina couldn’t go to Kuat in her current state. He still didn’t know what the plan was past the immediate future.

And the galaxy at large must surely have changed in her prolonged absence. He had to wonder if anyone knew what had happened to them, or if they were presumed dead. Perhaps other Sith had already begun fighting over her holdings. Surely search parties had been sent out, but even those she had informed of her destination had not known her exact itinerary, had not known of the refueling stop on Myrkr – though there weren’t that many places to refuel on a direct line between Dromund Kaas and Kuat. Had the searchers considered Myrkr too small and unlikely a place to find her? Had they searched for her in the wrong place on Myrkr? Had they themselves unwittingly hidden from rescue, thinking it to be an enemy?

An irrelevant thought occurred to him – Akuliina’s apartment was certainly rebuilt by now.

Vette kept her commlink on, and mumbled to herself frequently, noting things about the environment. “Hmm, lots of run-down abandoned buildings out here. Guess people don’t live on the edge of town anymore. Wonder why not? …Stray animals, they’re not running away though… Coupla boozers down that road, I think. Even if they aren’t, there’s only like three of them. Not seeing much danger so far, it’s pretty quiet around here. …You don’t even really need a map to this place, do you? The streets are all crooked, but I’m catching enough glimpses of the spaceport to know where to go. …These buildings are starting to look a bit less shabby, more people and traffic on the roads, looks a lot like small-towners you’d see anywhere in the galaxy, Tatooine, Dantooine, Agamar… Ooh, a market, and across the market is the spaceport. Surprising number of spacers here, actually! A lot of them look pretty rough, but no worse than Nar Shaddaa…” Quinn could hardly hear her quiet reports now over the hum of commercial conversation in the background.

He breathed an uncharacteristic sigh of relief. “Let us meet halfway.” He turned to Akuliina. “We’re almost off this planet, my lady.”

She made a brief noise without looking at him. She wasn’t grouchy the way Jaesa and Pierce were, but she seemed to be drifting through the days without really paying attention to them. She still applied her make-up every day in a vain attempt to pretend everything was normal, but she was getting sloppy with it. Would she, in fact, leave the Empire, wandering alone through the galaxy until she was killed or she killed herself? Could he do nothing to help?

Risha!?” Vette exclaimed suddenly, sounding more happy than she’d been since they crashed, and more shocked than he’d heard her in months. “Risha, is that really you?”

 

“I could ask the same of you, Vette!” said Risha, grinning at her, having snuck up on her in the market. “What are you doing on this little dirtball? You look exhausted, poor baby. I thought you were dead! You’ve grown so tall!”

“I always knew you’d be all right!” Vette exclaimed, all her tiredness forgotten. Risha, alive, here! “Oh my goshhhh, it’s soooo good to see you! Hang on, I gotta tell my friends it’s definitely okay here.”

“With friends, huh?” Risha said, giving her a brief noogie, making her lekku twitch ticklishly. “You always did land on your feet. I’ve got friends too, here’s the spacer captain I boss around.”

The red-skinned Twi’lek woman behind her snorted very inelegantly, turning it into a belly laugh. “Yeah, yeah, and Risha fixes my engine so technically we work for each other. Ha! I’m Tu’sienni, captain of the Twosong, and you’re the famous Vette, huh? Nice to meet you. Looking for work? Risha says you’re real clever, good at sneaking and stuff.”

“Hey, Quinn, I met an old friend here, so it’s going to be fine,” Vette chirped into her commlink. “Tell Lina it’s Risha!” She turned to Tu’sienni. “Nice to meet you too! I’m afraid I’m not really looking for work, I’m still gonna hang out with my friend Lina, at least until she gets better. She’s like another other other sister to me!”

“Ha, how many sisters do you have now?” Risha teased.

“A bunch,” Vette responded, laughing. “Like, four? But thanks for the offer! I appreciate it.” She dithered for a moment. She had no idea what Risha’s allegiances were, or the other Twi’lek. Would they hate Lina? Lina was hard to like under the best circumstances… but she wasn’t well right now, so she probably wouldn’t be rude to Vette’s friends, would she? Or just generally racist, or classist, or… maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. Normal people didn’t like the Emperor’s Wrath at all. And she didn’t blame them.

“So what are you even doing here?” Risha asked again. “Myrkr isn’t exactly the crossroads of galactic travel. Do you live here?”

Vette laughed nervously. “No, no, I lived on Nar Shaddaa for a bunch after we got split up, but actually my friend’s ship crashed here a while back, because her ex-boyfriend was trying to kill her, and we’ve been trying to get off-planet again since. We’ve been walking for weeks!

“That explains the tired look,” Tu’sienni said. “Exes can be a pain, no kidding. …Ooh, we’ve got a ship!”

“Tu’sienni…” Risha said in a warning voice.

“Yeah, I’ve got a ship! What’s wrong with offering bunks to your old friend and her friends, Rish?”

“For one thing, we don’t know how many of them there are,” Risha said tartly.

“There’s five of us, including me,” Vette said. “But I’d have to discuss it with Lina and Quinn. I don’t know where Lina wants to go, for one thing, and I don’t know if… well, it may or may not be complicated. But!” Vette held up a finger. “If she does decide to go, we can afford it.”

“Ooh, rich friends?” Tu’sienni asked with a smirk. “I haven’t even named my rates. I think we can squeeze five more people on board. Set up bunks in the main cabin, more fold-up chairs in the mess – it’ll work out!”

“So impulsive,” Risha muttered, rolling her eyes with a smile.

“That’s-” great, Vette began to say, when suddenly Quinn shouted something and her commlink began to spew sounds of blaster fire. “Aahhh! Are you all right!?”

“Ambush!” Quinn said shortly. “Could use you!”

“I’ll be right there!” Vette cried, running off, fumbling for her gun.

“We’ll help!” Oh gosh, Risha and Tu’sienni were coming too! They’d see Lina, and her lightsabers, and the Imperials in their uniforms… She prayed that they didn’t immediately run away from her and never talk to her again.

Even more, she prayed that Lina could drive off whoever was attacking her.

 

The first warning they had was a small, dangerous sound, like the hum of a wasp.

Then Akuliina jerked beside him, staring at the tranquilizer dart sticking out of her chest. She reached for it, but before she got even close, her eyes rolled up in her head and she collapsed in the street. “My lady!”

He was slow and stupid, throwing himself down beside her, plucking the dart from her body – it must have had a strong dose to put her down so quickly, and he was terrified it might be a lethal dose. Pierce growled and swore violently, raising his gun, and Quinn turned to see a dozen heavily armoured men charging them with heavy blaster rifles, firing as they came. Pierce and Jaesa dove for cover, but he wasn’t leaving Akuliina lying in the middle of the road. Vette screamed over the commlink and he responded, staggering to his feet to drag Akuliina to cover. Pierce was firing back, making more noise and light than damage to the enemy armour.

A blaster bolt caught him in the left shoulder, spinning him around and knocking him to the ground. No, he couldn’t help Akuliina like this. Get to cover! He crawled into the shadow of a building, his face and body covered in cold sweat, drawing and cocking his pistol with his good hand when he got there.

They’d reached Akuliina. No! They were taking her away! He gritted his teeth and fired, making a headshot on the nearest man. Two more turned and fired back at him and he ducked back behind his wall, feeling their shots knock small craters in the cheap plasticrete. He heard Jaesa shriek in anger and fear, heard her lightsaber hum viciously, then heard several more shots and no more lightsaber.

And now he could hear Vette, not through the commlink, but through the streets. “No! What are you doing with Lina!?” And more blaster fire, small-arms fire, from multiple guns, and only one of them was Vette’s… her old friend must have come with her.

Whoever they were, they had just saved his life, and Pierce’s, as the enemy was distracted from finishing them off. He pushed himself to his feet and glanced out of cover; the unknown enemy was retreating with their prize – his wife. He felt a hot shudder of anger and fear and shame run through his heart. But he couldn’t go running after them with an injured shoulder and no plan. He stepped out from behind the building, clutching his shoulder. There were three bodies on the ground, all of them enemies, none of them Jaesa.

Vette appeared, holding her pistol in both hands, on the verge of tears and with head-tentacles trembling. “Where are they taking her?”

“That’s right, Imp scum!” cried the human woman just behind her, pointing her pistol at him. He raised his uninjured hand slowly. Just what they needed, Republics sticking their noses in. And Akuliina’s abductors were getting away. “Don’t resist, I won’t hesitate to shoot.”

Pierce stomped up behind him, pointing his rifle at the human woman and the unfamiliar Twi’lek with her. “And who the hells do you think you are!?”

“Free citizens of the Republic, and we’re going to free Vette’s friend from your buddies over there. Right, Tu?”

“And you call me the impulsive one,” the red Twi’lek said, smirking in a very irritating way. She was aiming one blaster pistol at them, and spinning the other idly round her finger.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Vette exclaimed. “Okay, this is super awkward, but… this is Quinn, the guy I mentioned before. And that’s Pierce, and… where’s Jaesa?”

“Here,” rasped Jaesa, limping out of another alley. Good, he had feared the worst. “Banged my hip getting out of line-of-sight of those bastards. Who were those bastards? Who are you bastards?”

“Vette!?” exclaimed the human woman. “You’re… Imperial now!?”

Vette waved her arms in an attempt to get everyone to calm down. “N-no! But- Well- It’s complicated! I wanted to explain more delicately, but there wasn’t time…”

She was going to cry, and that would probably just make the situation worse. And technically she was an Imperial citizen under Akuliina’s patronage. “I beg your pardon, but this is not a good place to discuss anything. You can be on your way. Vette will talk to you later.” They needed to go after Akuliina and get her back asap.

“No! We’re not going anywhere, and you’re not taking Vette anywhere,” the human said. “What have you done to her?”

“Risha! Please! Just put your gun down, just for now. I promise no one will attack,” Vette said.

“Yes,” Quinn said. Another fight was the last thing they needed. And a distracting waste of time. “Pierce, stand down. Better yet, follow those soldiers discretely and discover their destination.”

Pierce frowned, pleased to be given a useful job. “Yessir.”

There were too many things to consider, and not enough time. They needed a safe-ish location to re-organize. He and Pierce were going to need to change into their civilian clothing; they should have done it before but he hadn’t been thinking right. And everyone was going to need something to eat. He was going to need intel on the unknown enemy and to know if there was time for a rest before they went to rescue Akuliina… He himself wouldn’t be able to rest, but it would do Vette and Pierce much good before taking on a numerically and technologically superior force. “I’m going to find a location to regroup. Vette, join me when you are done. Jaesa-”

“Hold on just a minute, honey,” said the red Twi’lek. “I’m assuming the woman who was carried off was the Lina you were talking about, Vette?”

“Yeah…” Vette hung her head, and Quinn could tell she didn’t want to explain that ‘Lina’ was Lord Akuliina Volkova, the Emperor’s Wrath. It was going to have to happen.

“It’s quite all right,” Quinn said stiffly. He really didn’t want to be standing about longer than necessary. “We do not require your assistance. Go about your business.”

The Twi’lek shot him a sassy, skeptical look. “You really think you don’t need help? You all look like you’ve been run over by a Dune Sea crawler, and you’re going to need more than a band-aid for that shoulder, handsome. And we did save your lives.” She did have a point, but what did she want from them?

“Why are we getting involved?” the human demanded, though she’d lowered her pistol. “I just want to know if Vette is here of her own free will.”

“The short answer is yes,” Vette said, glancing at Quinn, probably sensing his impatience. “The why is complicated, though.”

“We don’t have time to discuss it,” Quinn said. “I’m going to look for a place to regroup. Jaesa, we’re going to need supplies and a map of the city. Could I trouble you?” Their enemies had what they wanted, they wouldn’t bother with her. He was going to have to tow the speeders, though, and he only had one good hand.

Jaesa grunted and stalked off. She was still limping, but he needed Vette to talk to the Republicans if they weren’t leaving.

The red Twi’lek stepped forward, holding out a peaceful hand. “Okay, look. I feel kind of bad we distracted Vette while she was supposed to be helping you guys. She said you needed passage off-planet, I’ll give you a fair rate. Interested?”

Quinn paused. They did need passage, and Vette’s connection might gain them a more trust-worthy flight than otherwise. “I am listening.”

The Twi’lek shrugged. “That’s my deal. I mean, if you want to tell me what’s going on, we might even come rescue Lina with you. I know you guys are Imperial, most of you, anyway, but just leaving you here in trouble doesn’t sit well with me.”

“Very well,” Quinn said, relenting; he didn’t have the energy to argue. Not while Akuliina was in such danger. If the woman wanted to work the ‘spacer with a heart of gold’ angle for all it was worth just to satisfy her curiosity, that wasn’t his business. Of course, once she discovered she was aiding one of the Empire’s strongest Sith… how long would it be before she turned on them?

Vette hotwired the lock on a small abandoned house on the edge of town, and the four of them entered. The human woman had towed the speeder bikes to the shed at the back of the house. There was hardly any furniture in the front room, but there was a large table left behind, and several crates that might do for chairs. Quinn dragged one to the table and sat, resisting the urge to slump into a puddle and bury his face in his hand. This planet was one disaster after another. Instead, he forced himself into good posture and began to undo the collar of his uniform jacket to expose his shoulder for treatment. Vette had brought in a first-aid kit from one of the speeders and busied herself getting out appropriate tools to help him.

The Twi’lek took the seat opposite him. “So. My name is Tu’sienni, and I’m a spacer captain here on business. Risha is my second. And you guys are…?”

He looked at Vette. Vette looked back at him helplessly. Let alone her conflicted feelings, he didn’t want to reveal that Akuliina was so weak right now, but there wasn’t any help for it. “Commodore Malavai Quinn of the Imperial Navy, serving under Lord Akuliina Volkova.”

Risha half-rose. “Akuliina Volkova? Vette, your ‘Lina’ is the Emperor’s Wrath? The most feared Sith lord in recent years? She’s your new adopted sister!?”

Vette squirmed, avoiding their eyes by smearing kolto paste on Quinn’s shoulder. There was a singed, bloody hole in his deltoid the size of a trugut coin and he was lucky that was all it was. He hissed at the healing salve and clamped his jaw shut. “Y-yes? It’s a long story…” She trailed off reluctantly.

“I think perhaps it’s a story that should be told,” Quinn said to her. If they were going to work together, they’d have to do it right.

Vette took a deep breath and began bandaging his shoulder. “Well, after we got split up, Risha… I knocked around the galaxy a bit, and then I ended up on Nar Shaddaa with a gang – eventually we got the idea to do something worthwhile with our lives, so we started liberating stolen Twi’lek relics and returning them to Ryloth and stuff.”

“Neat,” said the spacer captain. “Put me in touch with ’em, I’ll help out when I come across stuff. Gratis. I swear.” The two Twi’leks shared a look, and Vette nodded gratefully before continuing. Finished with his shoulder, she took her own seat at the table, wringing her hands together. He adjusted his uniform, impassive, and went to get a datapad so he could work while they talked.

“It’s actually sort of thanks to Taunt that I met Lina in the first place. We got a rumour of a really valuable treasure on Korriban, and I stupidly went after it – alone, too, despite all the rumours about the place. I got caught, stupidly, but they noticed I was good at breaking into things, so they gave me to Lina, who was a student at the time, so that I could break into a tomb for her. And it turned out she liked me, because I was helpful and my dumb jokes made her smile, so she kept me afterwards. After she got her own apartment and her own ship, I asked her about my slave collar and it turned out she kind of just forgot about it. She never zapped me like the other Sith did.”

“So she doesn’t believe in slaves?” Risha asked skeptically.

Vette squirmed some more. “She does, but she apparently didn’t think I was one. I don’t know why not… Like, she was and is the boss, but I was like some kind of unpaid non-slave minion… sidekick…? Anyway!” She rushed on past the can of racism-and-slavery worms that Republics so liked to obsess over. “She’s actually been super nice to me personally. She helped me find Tivva! And my mom, but my mom died before I could be with her again. But Lina helped. It’s not her fault she doesn’t understand normal people…”

“Sounds like Stockholm Syndrome,” Risha said, glaring at Quinn again, the nearest Imperial object to fix her ire on, no doubt. The alternative was the laughable idea that Vette stayed for his sake.

“It probably is,” Vette said. “But… I’m no political analyst, but I really think that the galaxy is a better place because she’s doing what she does.”

“Oh really,” Risha said. “Do tell.”

“Um… Well…” Now she was shooting nervous glances at Quinn. “Let’s see. I don’t know how many Sith you’ve met… but I’ve met a lot now. And Lina’s one of the most sane people in this entire government.”

“That’s terrifying,” Tu’sienni said. “Ixta, honey, surely you’ve heard what’s been going on at Trandosha. There’ve been massacres!”

“I know,” Vette said. “I’ve seen her first-hand. She does horrible things sometimes. And she’s proud of it. And she doesn’t have a great opinion of the Republic. But she doesn’t mindlessly hate it, either, and she’s doing her best to keep the Empire a relatively stable place, a safe place for the people living here…”

“Under their definition of ‘people’,” Risha snapped.

“I’m not gonna argue with you,” Vette said. “But without her it would be worse. Honest. She protects whatever she considers ‘hers’, like me and the rest of her crew. And she might love fighting and killing like a psycho, not just because the other Sith would laugh at her if she didn’t, but she’s not above using diplomacy. And if she promises something, she keeps her word no matter what. That’s why I haven’t left yet. If she was a crazy person, you bet I’d be back with Taunt on Nar Shaddaa. Except if she was a crazy person I’d be dead already. So, anyway, that’s why I’m going to rescue her. You don’t have to come, but I want to do this.”

It was an interesting take on Akuliina, he thought. He didn’t dislike Vette anymore, but he still didn’t talk to her that much, and never about politics or philosophy. Now that she was forced to bring her thoughts into the open, to try to convince potential enemies to be potential allies, without insulting him or portraying Akuliina as someone she was not, he realized it was surprising that someone so pure and – for lack of a better term – Light would associate so closely with someone so Dark. Certainly, she had a materially well-off life in her current situation, but he doubted that truly mattered to someone as idealistic as she was. But as for her analysis, he found himself mostly agreeing with her. They could differ as to whether Akuliina’s specific actions and motives were justifiable, but she was a stablizing force for the Empire and therefore the galaxy, that was true and right.

Risha and Tu’sienni exchanged glances. “So what’s the plan, boss?”

“Dunno,” Tu’sienni said.

“You’re not still thinking of helping, are you? You got your curiosity satisfied, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, but…” Tu’sienni drummed her fingers on the table. “You know, she has a point. Maybe we’d be better off in the Republic if the Empire was more of a confused mess. But if there were more people in the upper ranks that the Republic could talk to, people who, you know, keep their word, maybe the whole galaxy could settle down for once? Co-exist, grow better societies together, compromise a little?”

“Ha, keep dreaming,” Risha said. Quinn had to agree. Not in his lifetime.

“Thanks, I will,” Tu’sienni said with a big, innocent grin.

“Besides, she’s not well right now,” Vette said. “I guess I’m not really supposed to tell you that in case you tell the Republic and they decide to hurt her, but if she never gets better you really won’t do anyone any harm by helping us rescue her.”

Tu’sienni smiled at her. “Then what the hell, it’s Vette’s friend, apparently she’s rich, we can give her a ride afterwards, it’s all good!”

Quinn let out a sigh that he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “I dared not hope for assistance, but you have my gratitude. You will certainly be rewarded. As soon as Pierce reports and Jaesa returns, I shall begin planning the operation.”

“Ooh, operation, sounds official,” Tu’sienni said. “I dunno who among my crew would be up for this fight. Corso, probably, we’re rescuing a lady, he likes that sort of thing. Gus, this is definitely not his scene.”

“What about the boy-toy?” Risha asked.

Tu’sienni giggled. “You know he’s useless where we don’t need some smooth words and charm, Rish. Anyway, Akaavi, she’s always down for a good fight, might even like working with Imps for a change. And Bowdaar… I’ll ask him. He might take a dim view of the whole thing and all you people. I’ll let you know, all-righty, Commodore Hot-pants?”

Akuliina had inured him to such teasing. “…Understood. Vette, get some rest.”

“Okaydoke,” Vette said, sagging wearily in her seat, but smiling. “Just hold on, Lina…”

 

Chapter 4: Focus

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