Tali let out yet another ringing round of faux laughter, giggling approvingly at another cruel joke the Nautolan had shot her way. Had she not been doing this for her Clan, the man would have been picking up his teeth from a ditch by now and it seemed the drinks were only making him more insufferable.
“… and so I snatched the spoon from him and scooped out his own eyeball and…” he paused to chuckle, clearly enjoying the story of debt-collection far more than her, “…Well, I guess you had to be there, but the point is, he was a total di–”
“Fascinating,” Tali groaned, sipping her drink and hoping Tamashi would get on with it. She was running out of patience and willpower to keep up this facade.
“So, how much do I owe you?” Ru’g asked suddenly, the question startling the Twi’lek by its directness.
“Owe you?” she repeated the question with genuine perplexion. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“For your company,” the Nautolan smirked, drawing out his pocket book. “It’s what you’re here for, isn’t it?”
“Uh, no. Not at all. Like I saidt, I enjoy your comp…” It was at that moment she realized she’d walked into a trap.
“Oh yes, I’m sure you do,” Ru’g smirked, the expression suddenly sober cold, before pulling out a credit chit and placing it on the table. “For your time and company. But now I must return to my – mistress.” The last word was laced with a mix of disdain and begrudging habit. “And tell your master that it will take more than an over-enthusiastic floozy to dist…” He paused to look around and cursed. “Where are they?! Where did they go?”
Tali glanced over her shoulder and realized the same as he had; the table where Tamashi and Tissflorin had sat by was now vacant and there was no sign of the two. “I… don’t know,” she replied truthfully.
“What do you mean you don’t know?! He is your master and…”
“He is NOT my master,” Tali spat back, letting go of her act as it was clear the man had already seen through it. Though to what extent remained unclear.
“Hmph, clearly not, seeing how poorly you’re keeping an eye out for him,” Ru’g sneered. “Nevermind, I’ll find her myself.” He let out an annoyed grunt and tried to shove her aside, but found the Twi’lek not budging an inch. “Out of my way, wench! I’ve just about had enough of you for one lifetime.”
“Vench?!” Tali spat, her amber eyes finally flashing with the bottled-up anger she’d been harboring for the better part of an hour. “Call me that again andt your mistress vill be scraping you off the pavement, you insufferable oaf!”
“Big words for a lousy…” Ru’g En paused as his communicator beeped, the response coming in from their orbiting command barge. He opened the two files and read out the designation Collective Intelligence had given them. The words left his lips in a hush of disbelief. “Jedi…”
Acting faster than him for once, Tali let herself do the one thing she’d been fantasizing about for far too long and slammed her knee up into his groin. The smug Nautolan doubled over with a pained expression, eyes wide in a mixture of agony and surprise.
Before he could reach for a weapon, the Twi’lek had already bolted and was sprinting past tables and slot machines towards the private quarters. Growling, a mix of anger and pain coursing through his entire being, Ru’g tapped open a link to his mistress to warn her about the duplicitous Jedi, but found only static in response. Jammed. He realized the pair had obviously planned ahead and that whatever their angle, he couldn’t let their scheme succeed. Opening a secondary channel to the covert security detail, his lips curled into a sadistic grin; the hunt was on.
“Hurry up, Tamashi, ve’re running out of time!” Tali muttered to herself as she made her way towards the secure room he’d hired for this leg of the plan. The diversionary route she was forced to take was making taking longer than she cared for, but with Ru’g hot on her heels, she had little choice. Brushing past servers and staff, she blurted out hasty apologies before diving past a trolley and arriving at the unmarked door she knew held her impromptu companion and the Sakiyan noble. Rapping her knuckles on her door, she warily glanced over her shoulder to make sure no-one was pursuing her yet.
The door opened momentarily, allowing Tali a look at the dazed Tissflorin and the clearly strained Pau’an who struggled to eke out the information they were after. “Please hurry, he’s on to us,” she managed before tapping the door controls and closing them off once again into their soundproof pod.
Turning back to face the way she came, Tali drew her saber from the leg holster she’d carried it in, the choice far from typical but the only one that would match her dress without tipping the Collective off. Hurried footsteps already filled the corridor and she figured the situation would soon come to violence.
Looking down at her evening gown and considering her options, she sighed and whispered a soft apology to the Goddess of Fashion for the crime she was about to commit, before igniting her saber and trimming the hem to not snag as easily. The next moment a slightly winded Ru’g En and a trio of cybernetic servants rounded the corner no visible weapons drawn but judging by the extent of their enhancements they were probably packing heat all the same. Swerving into view behind the four humanoids came a dark sphere that had only marginally been disguised as anything but an interrogation droid. How that had managed past security was anyone’s guess.
“Step aside, miss Sroka, and I promise I’ll kill you myself before letting the bio-engineers hack away at you,” the Nautolan called out, drawing his rapier and uncoiling a crackling electro-whip from his belt. The three henchmen spread out as wide as the narrow corridor would allow, aiming their cybernetic forearms at her as plates clicked and whirred out of place to expose the barrels of concealed blasters.
“Sounds like you’re scaredt,” Tali spat back, doing her best to look confident even as she became increasingly self-aware of her leggy attire by the slightly distracted gazes of her foes. “If it’s lady Tissflorin you’re concernedt about, don’t be. Killing is not the Jedi vay.”
“Concerned? Me? Oh my dear, her health is of only momentary concern to me. As soon as she’s served her purpose, I will gladly see her perish and take her place, and perhaps that time is already upon us.” His voice trembled minutely with forbidden excitement. “Of course, bringing in two Jedi scum would seal off any inquiry into her ladyship’s demise…”
“Hmph, I don’t do collars.”
“That’s fine, I’ll just put you on a leash!” Ru’g spat as he lashed out with his whip.
Side-stepping the attack, Tali ignited her saber with a snap-hiss, spinning the weapon down and slicing off the tip of his whip in a hiss of sparks. Eyes now nailed to the Nautolan, she lowered into a crouch and brought her saber around in a reversed grip by her side. “Oh I don’t think so…” she hissed, amber orbs flashing with defiance.
Ru’g’s lips pursed into a tight line, his reddish eyes narrowing ever so slightly. “Very well then, miss Sroka. Have it your way.” He gave a dismissive gesture that his cronies could not possibly have seen, but the electronic signal was spoke to their minds as loudly and clearly as any commanding shout.
As one, they opened up with their blasters, filling the air with a flurry of bolts that lit up the corridor with emerald light. Acting beyond the precipice of the present, Tali willed a shimmering field before her, the bolts slamming into the almost imperceptible barrier and dispersing with nary an impact.
“Keep firing! She cannot keep that up forever!” Ru’g growled, pulling back his whip for another attack once the barrier fell. He could already see the Twi’lek straining to maintain her fancy shield and within moments it would collapse before the might of Collective arms.
A shower of sparks spewed from the forearm of one of the lackeys, his cybernetic blaster overheating from the repeated firing and cooking off something vital and energetic. The man, still in possession of some higher brain functions, screamed in sudden panic as his sleeve caught fire, panicking as a secondary capacitor overload snapped his mechanical ulna. His nerve failing, the man flailed around while on fire, distracting his cyborg compatriots, before suddenly letting out a sharp gasp and coming to a dead halt with Ru’g’s rapier stabbed through his heart.
“It’s so hard to find competent henchmen nowadays,” he complained without any real emotion as he pulled the weapon free of his slumping carcass, drying the blade on the man’s overcoat while more steam rose from the two remaining cyborgs’ weapons. Neither had flinched and continued to fire, the weight of shot making the Twi’lek’s mind weary and finally the barrier shattered.
Her blade danced forth in a heartbeat, spinning left and right in a figure-of-eight as she deflected the stream of emerald bolts with unerring form. Ru’g suppressed a growl at the cyborgs’ inefficiency and stepped up to lash with his whip once again.
The crackling tip of the damaged whip lashed out at her like a vicious viper, hissing and spitting electrical venom. Panting, but far from exhausted, the Twi’lek threw herself to the side in a tight roll to evade the whip lash, emerald bolts trailing her every motion. Feet finding purchase at the edge of the wall, she let her legs flow with the cooling power of the Force and bounded off in the opposite way she’d rolled.
The machine-like staccato of bolts continued tracing her path through the air, a saber slash deflecting one that would have struck her thigh, before the second cyborg’s weapon overheated, followed almost immediately by the third. Tali landed against the wall opposite, bounding off it and sending herself hurtling towards the distracted Collective agents with lekku flowing in her wake.
His both henchmen out of action, their weapons hissing and spitting sparks while they frantically tried to smother the flames, Ru’g dashed forward with a lunge. His weapon skewered thin air as the Twi’lek twisted her body in mid-air, narrowly dodging the pointed tip of his sword and landing with a roll beside him.
The Nautolan whirled around, lashing the whip at her while a minute twitch crossed his cheek. The weapon crackled with agonizing power as it arced towards her, forcing the Twi’lek to raised her blade in a two-handed parry, but it wasn’t enough. The weapon coiled around her plasma blade, the damaged tip lashing across her back and jolting her for the short moment it was still connected to the base of the cruel weapon. The next instant the lightsaber had severed another piece of the electro-whip, but the scent of burned hide was all too pungent in Tali’s nose. Not to mention the stinging, cold pain running down her spine.
She realized the peril at the last moment, dropping down and lunging her saber up high. It struck the hovering form of a dark orb, slicing clean through Ru’g’s interrogation droid before it could deliver its dose of lethal sedative. Letting out a stream of pained beeps and whirrs, the droid fried as its repulsorlift burned out and dropped to the ground like a metallic beach ball. Pulling her saber free, Tali took a moment to collect and recenter herself, leaving only herself and the narcissistic Nautolan standing.
“Annoyingly impressive,” Ru’g began, considering his options. There was one card he hadn’t yet played, but there was no telling if it would even obey his command protocol. Still, he wasn’t beyond tapping into her mistress’ resources, if need be. “I’m sure I will enjoy probing your mind for… ACK!”
Ru’g dodged to the side as the droid’s metallic corpse suddenly flung at him, propelled by a burst of invisible energy. Tali glared at him with a weary, but satisfied smirk. “You talk too much…”
The slight seemed to hit some yet-unseen nerve and the Nautolan let out a roar which Tali had not known his race was capable of before launching himself into a savage charge. His rapier flashed faster than the sabers she was used to, darting forward in a vicious lunge which she barely dodged as the tip of his blade glanced off one of her lek-rings. Before she had time to recover, the severely cut-down remains of his shock whip came down overhead, the power core giving out just before the weapon raked across her shoulder.
Even without the added perks of an electric jolt, the whip scored a nasty welt on her purple skin, drawing a weeping wound that bled into the fabric of her dark blue dress. In a moment’s flashback, the sensation of a whip on her back sent the Twi’lek through a state of horrified shock and into a blind panic-fueled rage.
Heedless of the risk, Tali dived at him, headbutting Ru’g in his smug face though taking it almost as badly as she dealt it as her lekku throbbed with pain. Too close for him to use his weapons properly, the Ru’g sent a sweeping elbow at her face, but the Jedi pulled back and leaned beyond the scything blow.
Curling her hands to her sides, she poured all the panic and anguish of her memories into a swirling vortex of raging power before unleashing it in a tidal wave at the Nautolan at point-blank range. The concussive blast knocked the wind out of his lungs, sending the man flying across the corridor and into the opposite wall with a hard thump. His head cracking against the solid duracrete slab, the sand-pale Nautolan slumped down in a heap like a ragdoll with its strings cut off.
Tali stood stock still, frozen in the moment as she still heard the echoes of leathery wings flapping in the air behind her, every nerve tense and on edge as beads of cold dread ran down her spine. Her eyes were wild with panic and there was nothing but a barrier of will keeping her from bolting and abandoning the mission.
She did not wish to be here. She just had to get out, away, flee. To be somewhere else, to be alone, or held by someone she… No. She let out a lungful of air and steadied her racing mind. No, she repeated the order to herself. That skittish girl was no more, she was the master of her own destiny and a free Twi’lek did not run from her demons.
The crunch of something organic beneath a metal foot sent her spinning around with saber in hand, stopping mere inches from decapitating a protocol droid that had somehow snuck up on her. The machine stared at her with its unblinking photoreceptors and gestured at the door.
“Inquiry: Is this the location of her ladyship, Tissflorin?”
Tali blinked, twice, before managing to wrap her head around the droid’s words. “Uh, yes? But she is occupiedt.”
“Statement: This unit was summoned. Imperative: This unit must gain access to her ladyship, Tissflorin. Urgency code Alpha.”
“Like I saidt, she’s… Vait, vho summonedt you?” Tali furrowed her brow just as the HK-unit slammed the back end of a riot-control baton into her gut. She let out a pained grunt as she doubled over, gasping for air as tears streaked from her eyes.
“The duplicitous meatbag you just pulped,” the droid replied coldly as it brought the crackling weapon around for the coup de grâce. “Time to die, Jedi-scuuuuuuuuuu…” The droid shook violently as its servos overloaded, a probe sticking to the back of its cranium where an industrious analysis droid finished its slicing.
“My master wishes to inform that he is finished with the interrogation of miss Tissflorin,” JJ-8BRAMS informed her in a cool, slightly upbeat manner that defied the life-saving act it had just pulled off.
Teary-eyed, Tali could only offer her winded thanks as light flared from its lenses and the droid turned away to return to its master, leaving a frozen HK-droid standing in the middle of the blasted corridor, riot-baton still held over its head.
Her dress in tatters and still bleeding from her shoulder, Tali limped inside the room where a trio of Tamashi’s associates were finishing their dealings with her ladyship. “So, how didt it go?” she sighed.
“She was more resistant than I would have preferred, but she came around eventually,” Tamashi replied, not wishing to recall too much of the unsavory work he’d been a part of. Expediency was one thing, but he was still a Jedi at heart.
“But you got the intel?”
“Yes, or at least I hope so. Here,” he pulled out a data chit and levitating it to her. “Inform your strike team of these co-ordinates and bring your man home.”
She plucked the chit from mid-air and nodded. “Ve didt goodt today, I think.”
Tamashi gave a mellow look which she couldn’t quite decypher. “Yes, let us think so.”