Somewhere in the Slums
Lower Levels, Estle City, Selen
The lower levels of Estle were places that most people with a choice would do their best to avoid for the sake of preserving their wallets, vehicles, and internal organs. For the less fortunate, having just one of any of those was considered a very extravagant luxury. Here, ramshackle structures passed for buildings, comprised of sheets of rusted tin and tarpaulins serving as a poor man’s best attempt at crafting a wall. The air had the humidity of a rainforest, since most of the washout from rain that hit the upper rings of the city ended up here. The sun had difficulty shining through the small spaces allowed by the dense concentration of structures, leaving much of the ground slick and the occasional scents of various alien molds and fungi.
Incidentally, the inhospitable conditions and the bizarre fruits they provided suited many of the inhabitants quite well, since such repulsive crops were their lifeblood. While the actual range of the groups that harvested numbered anywhere between the dozens and hundreds, depending on who one asked, it was no secret that criminals were the ones writing the laws in the forgotten levels of the city.
Two of these inhabitants were much newer than the others, and were searching for something. One was notably taller than the other, and wrapped in a tattered cloth. Two points of yellow light emanated from its head, which appeared to watch anything they gazed upon with both curiosity and menace. The shorter figure dressed about as well as anyone else down in the bowels of Estle, most of his torso covered by a thin and tattered shirt that showed the number of tattoos haphazardly etched into his flesh. A length of chain wrapped around his wrist occasionally reflected the sunlight as he passed through the rays, and his footsteps sent ripples through the neon-lit puddles. If you asked him what his name was, he’d tell you that friends called him Joran Salis, but that you could call him your worst nightmare. The taller figure was apparently his protocol droid and partner in crime, referred to as “Beeps”, given that it appeared to communicate similarly to an astromech.
Of course, neither of the two was using their real identity as they moved through the seedy underbelly of Estle. “Joran Salis” was a cover invented the night before by Adam Bolera, after he was instructed to be an agent of Arcona and flush out gang activity in the streets. His partner was an old and heavily modified IG-100 Magnaguard, Beeps being the assumed name of Adam’s droid partner Echo, who seemed to be displeased by its surroundings.
“I am grateful,” it began as it stopped to survey its surroundings, “that I can only collect olfactory data, instead of experiencing scents. Your organic senses must be miserable down here.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Adam replied, “so you’d better be grateful. How close are we to the target’s main turf?”
“We’re in it. The Fazion street gang primarily peddles their drugs out of the surrounding alleys.” Echo said as it looked over the mission description again. “I hope they keep shipping manifests lying around, I don’t want tracking this junk back to its source to cause unplanned violence.”
“Being junkies themselves, I wouldn’t be surprised, but we should be ready for anything.” Adam mused, placing his arms behind his head, then surveying his altered appearance. “How do I look? Fit the part?”
“The tattoos are less than optimal, but if you keep up a good act, we will not be compromised for some time.” Echo said, crossing its arms and looking “Joran” over.
“That’s your own fault!” Adam snapped back, looking at a low quality rendition of a flame spitting Nexu wrapped around his chest muscle. Echo needed to work on its understanding of both the anatomy of alien fauna and its tattooing skills. “At least it’ll wash out in a week, otherwise I’d cut it right out.”
“Don’t look now,” Echo said as it swiveled its head to look at an alleyway and the man that had emerged to lean on the wall there, “but I think we may have found a Fazion member.”
“Let’s wait him out a second,” Adam said, watching the man patiently, “and see if a buyer comes along. I’m going to use that to get his attention, see who I can talk to about initiation.”
“I could also use this opportunity to examine a sample of the drug, if possible.”
“Plenty of that where we’re going,” Adam assured the droid, then saw his opportunity as he watched a particularly jittery Twi’lek girl approach the human leaning against the dilapidated wall. Adam was amazed it didn’t crumple under the member’s weight, considering how muscled he was. He was also covered in tattoos, of about the same quality Echo had managed as well. No mark was distinctive, indicating that the Fazion was still too young to necessitate a logo to mark their presence. The Twi’lek girl fumbled through her tattered clothing for what credits she had recently scrounged through illicit means, and eagerly flashed them at the human as Adam drew closer.
Since the Yuuzhan Vong War, the spice trade was a shambles, but some criminal ingenuity managed to produce spice variants that were only slightly less valuable than the original glitterstims and the like. The Fazion were becoming increasingly well known for their production of a variant called “nectar”, which evidently produced highs that lasted for several hours in fairly small doses. Some rumors persisted on the spice providing temporary psychic abilities, like the fabled glitterstim telepathy, but the junkies were often poor sources of information. The effects of addiction were rumored to be similar to that of tempest, which the Twi’lek girl demonstrated in the form of her slightly darkened blood vessels and her nervousness.
The Fazion dealer grinned, his smile missing a number of teeth as he produced a small handful of tablets that had a glittering, crystalline structure to them, which the Twi’lek regarded with an almost religious admiration. Just as she snatched them from the dealer’s grasp, an arm wrapped around the front of her neck, and she was bent backwards. Echo also moved to restrain the dealer. “Joran” had made his move to get the Fazion’s attention.
“Karking hell!” he exclaimed, nearly dropping the nectar tablets he still carried. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’ve got questions,” Adam declared loudly as he summoned up whatever he recalled of the accents of rural Corellians, “and I’m thinkin’ you’ll be answering them, lest you and your favorite customer OD a little ahead of schedule!”
“You’re a maniac! Karking lunatic!”
“Exactly,” Adam said as he grinned savagely, “and this karking lunatic wants a cut of your action. Where do I sign up for the Fazion?”
“You a merc?” the dealer asked, confused. “We’ve got room for legbreakers, just let me go and I’ll point you in the right direction!”
“Attaboy!” Adam said as he released the frantic girl, who skittered away into another alleyway. The dealer dusted himself off as Echo released him, then looked at Adam.
“Who are you supposed to be anyway?”
“Joran Salis, and all you need to know is my name, and that I have aggression issues.”
“Of course, of course, pleased to meetcha! Right this way.”
After several minutes of walking and ducking through twisted alleyways that crissed and crossed like a tangled net of snakes, the sunlight had all but disappeared from this part of the city. Adam guessed from their orientation that they were headed towards the mountain that Estle was built into, which struck him as odd. Much further, and the poor residents would have to start building upward into the higher levels of the city, or digging into the rock. The light that had replaced the sun was a rainbow of flickering neon, reflected in the puddles on the narrow street and bathing the walls in their glow. The dealer tapped at a tarpaulin, on the other side of which Adam could feel the pulsing beat of club music playing. The lower right corner snapped up, revealing a gaunt and haggard human face, the eyes of which squinted to recognize a fellow Fazion, then beckoned the two men and the droid inside.
Something resembling a party was going on inside, though only one woman was present, (a particularly bored-looking one at that) and just over half a dozen men. A dilapidated toilet had been converted into a throne, adorned by several old neon signs pulled from outside, which lit the room with a pink and orange glow, despite occasional fluctuation. Adam looked around to see several of the partygoers biting into the very tablets he had seen the dealer selling, and even saw the dealer himself begin to partake in the festivities. Echo beeped several times in order to match its cover, which Adam interpreted as the droid voicing its disgust for its surroundings once again. The man on the “throne” was roused for a moment from his stupor as he noticed the new arrivals, and the woman slid off of his thigh, no doubt to see if there was something more interesting to do. Adam recognized the king of the party almost immediately from the holos the dossier gave him; Zant Fringar, leader of the Fazion. His sandy blonde hair had been shaven into a mohawk, cut close to his scalp, with a number of tribal tattoos etched into the side and back of his head. His brown eyes were set far back into his skull with the influence of the drugs, and it looked as though he hadn’t slept for at least three days. His brother Grant was notably absent from the party. Being the only relatively clean cut looking individual of the group aside from the woman, his lack of attendance was very apparent. The woman herself remained an enigma, though Adam guessed from her looks that she was the item that sparked conflict between the brothers. Her catlike green eyes watched from the darkness as she moved up a floor and watched from a makeshift balcony above as Adam and company were received. Zant got to his feet with apparent effort to address them.
“Well,” he said with in a mostly intelligible slur, “a little bird tells me that we have a prospective recruit!”
“Make it two!” Adam answered in a similar slur, to match the atmosphere of the room. “My droid here is the best deathbot you’re going to find out here.” Something of a half truth.
“How’s that?” Zant asked, intrigued. Adam could already sense that Zant was too inhibited to make a rational decision; he was going to let him join in almost any scenario.
“Well, in each one of his fingers he’s got artillery cannons that would make those old Imperial walkers look like wind up toys.” Adam exaggerated heavily, “I’d show you, but then I’d level this nice place you got.” Echo glared at him, beeping that Adam was full of wampa excrement. Adam just kept on grinning, grateful that only he could understand the droid’s language.
“What about you?” Zant asked, taking another bite at a nectar tablet, “What do you bring to the table, Mr…”
“Joran Salis can fight any man in this room and win.” That was very likely a truth, given the gang’s relatively harmless reputation and unanimous inebriation.
“Well, lucky us!” Zant exclaimed. “We don’t put much of a hurting on people outside, on account of the fact that we’re still growing, but in here we have an initiation tradition. The newest member and someone being initiated both beat the slop out of each other, while on a nectar high. Sound copasheshy?”
“Yeah, tons of fun.” Adam swallowed. He hadn’t expected to be forced to ingest the drug himself, but Echo would be able to run its tests on him, at the very least. Zant beckoned to the small crowd, where a man of roughly Adam’s size was pushed out into the open. A shock of messy hair was dyed orange, just above nervous looking hazel eyes. His skin was pale, no doubt a product of staying down in the Fazion’s stomping grounds for several months. A series of numbers with unclear meaning were tattooed in the inside of his left wrist, with what appeared to be an attempted rendition of a Krayt Dragon on his right arm. Zant smiled and held his arms in the air as the group cleared a space in the center of the room, preparing to amuse their addled brains with good old-fashioned violence. Adam felt something preparing to reach around from behind, but he did not react for the sake of concealing himself. Roughly a quarter of a nectar tablet was stuffed into his mouth, the hand forcibly working his jaw to consume the drug, which tasted like a candy made from gravel and chalk. The man opposite him was also forced to do the same, with a curiously similar expression of disgust on his face, something Adam considered for a moment before the narcotic took hold.
“Joran, meet Ridu Nevran.” Zant said, before his voice distorted into virtual incoherence. The first thing to shift was Adam’s vision, which took every light in the room and intensely bloomed it outwards. The glow of the toilet throne almost completely drowned out the figure of his opponent in a glowing pink tide. Ridu appeared to be a shadowy mass of blackness in the light, with the cheers and jibes of the others washing right over Adam’s ears without ever being given notice. His body moved of its own accord, in what likely appeared to be an amusing display of stumbling and attempts to regain balance.
Focus, this stuff won’t affect you as much as someone else.
Adam’s mind was a fugue of voices as limbs flew sloppily between both men. Impacts were felt, the pain sometimes absent and other times quite apparent as fists connected with noses and teeth. He kept trying to pick out which ones were trying to be heard, versus which ones the nectar was trying to force him to get lost in.
By the Force, you’re a Jedi! Act like it!
Adam’s sliver of consciousness groped for something instinctive, a reflexive approach. Movements drilled constantly to the point of being second nature…
The black mass swung a left arm from above, sloppy and haphazard. A coherent version of this fight would have been over in a handful of seconds. Adam’s mind finally directed his arms to reach and intercept it.
Adam’s hand placed itself over what appeared to be the back of an elbow. The other hand grasping the wrist, it only took one strong push to painfully hyperextend the joint. A pained grunt spoke loudly over the dissonant chorus of the Fazion.
Jakelian took over as Adam finished the fight. Powerful hooks connected with either side of Ridu’s face, before a vicious kick in the chest sent him reeling backwards into the crowd. His brain swam with shock before finally succumbing to unconsciousness upon colliding with the floor. Adam smiled; Joran Salis was officially a Fazion member.
Some hours later, Adam tried to consider what he understood thus far. At the cost of an effort, the nectar’s effects had been pushed aside through the use of his extensive physical and mental training, though Adam’s senses were still distorted through the remainder of the evening. He trusted that it was Echo that had drawn his blood in a moment of alone time after the Fazion had given him some accommodations to settle in. Its droid voice remarked on something that sounded like it was ruminating on toxicology reports to itself.
An hour long nap gave Adam’s body the chance to scrub the nectar from its system completely, and he woke to a renewed mind and clear senses. Upon guessing that most of the gang had finally succumbed to their substances and passed out completely, Adam took the opportunity to begin snooping about. Curious about the physical state of his opponent, Ridu, Adam searched for where he recalled Zant mentioning an infirmary of some kind being. The quiet beeping and whirring of stolen medical equipment betrayed its location down the hall. As he reached the door, he sensed a presence around the corner, along with another inside the room. He cast his thoughts to his doorframe, where he quickly conjured an image of himself passing back through into his room, while his true self entered the infirmary. The night guard stopped around the corner for a moment, grunted, then moved back to his post. Adam caught his breath; evidently not all were totally unconscious. His panic was renewed upon sensing a stirring coming from the medical bed.
“Who…” a man mumbled from within the sheets, before grunting with pain.
Kark! He’s definitely waking up after feeling what I did to him.
Adam guessed from the slight familiarity of the man’s presence that it was Ridu. While Adam’s body had already healed from the relatively minor injuries the fight inflicted, Ridu was not as fortunate. Adam grit his teeth as he prepared to be interrogated as to why he was walking around at this time of night, only to be greeted differently than he expected.
“Gang members don’t fight like that,” Ridu groaned, “you’re not like them, I can tell. Jakelian’s hard to miss.” Shocked, Adam tried to play dumb.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Relax,” Ridu assured, “I’m not who I appear to be myself. Jakelian’s taught in a lot of places, but gang members would have a hard time learning it, since the best source around here is the DIA. I’m trained myself, but those damn drugs…” Adam finally breathed. He and Echo weren’t entirely alone.
“I did a real number on you, huh?” he asked in an apologetic manner.
“Dislocated elbow and two cracked ribs.” Ridu laughed. A tough fellow. “Think I feel a couple loose teeth, too. Some kind of training you got, resisting a dose of nectar that size. DIA send you to support me?”
“Sort of. You never came up in anything I read.”
“Great, that means one of two things.” Ridu sighed. “By the way, the real name’s Agent Baldor. Friends call me Arnis. Sister calls me Arnie.”
“Nice to meet you, back to one of two things?”
“Right, right, best to get that done so we both get out of this alive. You being here means that either the DIA has forgotten I exist, or that they’re cautiously ready for me to follow up on what I’ve been sending them so far and put this operation to bed.” Arnis winced a little as he spoke; cracked ribs made breathing a less than pleasurable activity.
“Sounds like it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.” Adam sighed, before realizing what Arnis had said. “What have you learned so far? Any idea where the stuff is coming from, how it’s made?” At that, Arnis chuckled a little.
“Friend, they’ve got me making the damn stuff! Initiates into the gang work as cutters, on account of it being dangerous work!” Adam was stunned; this was going to be easier than he thought. “Grant’s in charge of the drug production, on account of being the smarter of the brothers. I’ll fill you in on everything as we go once they get you started working tomorrow; keep your head down.”
Some hours later, the highs passed and the Fazion were conscious again at a time they had decided was likely to be morning. Adam and Echo were shuffled around their ramshackle base of operations, being given a grand tour. Adam paid as little attention as Echo did, the latter busy reviewing results from testing Adam’s blood, and the former wondering about the operation as a whole. Nectar was one of the only types of viable, potent spice available in years, and would logically have been highly profitable for any group selling it.
So where’s the money going? These guys still live like rats, when all the money this drug should net them could afford the lifestyles of nobility…
The tour guide stopped at one door, giving several knocks in a form of code. It cracked open slightly to reveal a pair of heterochromatic eyes, brown and green with a crazed glow to them. Their owner made a slight motion with two fingers to beckon them inside. Adam’s eyes worked to adjust to the low light of the room, recognizing the conditions necessary to prepare the photosensitive ingredients. Near another door, he saw Arnis waiting, maintaining his Ridu act however much longer he needed to. Adam also guessed at the identity of the man who had allowed them inside, who wore a lab coat and examined the number of opaque containers full of spice with an apparent reverence. Likely Grant, given his apparent understanding of the production of the drug, versus his brother’s money acumen. His hair was brown, and noticeably unkempt in comparison to the original holos Adam had seen of him. As Adam heard Grant quietly sing to himself as he oversaw the production of the drug and occasionally added touches to a batch of his own, it became apparent that while all the members dipped into their own supply of nectar, Grant had made an almost religious habit out of it.
Adam was hurried into the cutting process, with Arnis as his guide. The preparation was not unlike that of glitterstim, keeping a sheet of webbing harvested from energy spiders safe from the light and hardening it into a consumable form. A small cocktail was added to the mixture as they set it to prepare in the opaque containers. Adam would occasionally look back at Grant when no one was watching; his process was far more elaborate, and one batch of his concoction took as long as twenty of theirs. Arnis explained a number of things as they moved along through the process, albeit in a roundabout gang member way that did not betray his intelligence, and managed to be stretched over several hours. In that time, Adam learned that the Fazion first began selling spice nearly a year earlier out of the same location, when they had discovered a large network of abandoned tunnels cut into the mountain, left over from when the tunnel system to the Giletta spaceport was being built. The darkness there was perfect for housing energy spiders, bred from a handful of sets of clones. Arnis arrived around three months into the operation, when the Fringar brothers were inseparable partners looking forward to blowing their ill-gotten fortunes they planned to win.
However, the arrival of the woman changed things when she appeared weeks later. All that Arnis knew of her was that she was called Valaila, and had both of the brothers firmly in her grasp. It didn’t take long for her to convince Zant to start funneling the drug money to an outside source in exchange for her companionship. She had evidently affected Grant as well, as he began taking the nectar far more regularly and working on unique formulas ordered by Valaila and of his own design, having started to buy in on the idea that glitterstim variants could provide superhuman powers. Having offered herself to Grant as well, Valaila had created an increasingly volatile schism between the brothers, effectively leading the Fazion at her own whims.