Her head was warm, her skin was soaked. The moon still hung bright and swollen against the stars, the night so black that the darkness hummed. It smelled out here, though it hadn’t always, and it had never gotten as bad as Coruscant’s undercity streets. They had tasted perpetually of heavy spice, factory smog, wet charcoal, feces, piss, fetid oil, and rotting flesh from where rat-gnawed bodies wasted away in a garbage heap half-full of droid parts.
For awhile, last year, Estle had smelled like sick and smoke. Now it just smelled like sweaty summer skin and desperation, which was a flavor all its own. The occasional breeze would’ve been nice if it’d come down off the mountain behind the Citadel, but the wind was hot and rolling off the ocean and then over the city, so it just pushed more of the stench inward.
I could be home right now, Satsi thought tiredly, rolling her shoulders and stretching her legs. A full afternoon and evening of unplanned mingling was taxing, but she felt like she had a good grip on the crowd around her, at least. She’d even made some new “friends” with a couple Selenian housewives and another set of dockworkers antsy for a fight, but had parted from both groups before they got to memorizing her face. One of the dockmen, though, had confirmed the earlier rumblings; they had the right location for this particular get together.
Euphoria seemed to support the movement, or at least the opportunity to sell drinks; apparently pints were half price tonight. It showed in the sway of the press of bodies and looseness of lips, voices raised in rancor that would have been too anxious otherwise. Many remained cognizant though, and she observed the protestors stringently whether they were wasted or sober. The participants all varied in stature and apparent wealth, but leaned heavily more male than female, and seemed to be of an age ranging from young adults to middle-age; there were, thankfully, no children, and only a handful of graying seniors.
Things were pretty unfocused, with multiple speakers standing up just about whereever they pleased and shouting out their thoughts, often times over one another. After about an hour of this, some of the more clear-headed present tried to narrow their efforts, directing everybody’s haphazard attention to the edge of the warehouse lot closest to the neon glow of the club.
A man took his turn up on some stacked crates beside the wall and started shouting passionate rhetoric.
“My people! My friends! You all know why we’re here…it’s up to us to hold this government accountable, to make sure they hold the Citadel accountable. Selen isn’t just part of the Confederacy, it’s its own…and maybe it’s time to leave if the Confederacy has grown so corrupt and lazy!”
Satsi listened with an unconscious piece of her mind as her thoughts turned elsewhere, eyes scanning the street and all its denizens and blemishes. She spotted more potential weapons than she liked, but it was mostly equipment that peaceful builders like the Selenians would have: servodrivers, a hammer in a belt loop, what was probably just a kitchen knife sheathed in a pants pocket like the completely hopeless civilian its owner probably was.
Still, she resisted grimacing and said, “What did we ever do to deserve this?” as a young woman beside her made eye contact while bemoaning the food troubles. Her comment garnered more fuel for the little cluster’s ranting, and she moved on easily after just a minute or two of angry grumbling to fit in.
The crowd shifted again, and Satsi stepped swiftly to change her position, so she could better see.
Movement caught her eye. Specific movement, out of place for its fluidity among the slump-spined and tight-shouldered Selenians.
She changed direction again, slowed her gait, put her back towards the nearest building in case she needed to retreat. Her eyes flickered away from her target only long enough to confirm Timeros was still idling near the edge of the gathering like they’d planned, then fixed them directly back on the man she’d seen.
He was tall, large. Cloaked, so she couldn’t see his features to determine if he was a local or not. But the way he moved, that told her plenty, set off every warning instinct ingrained in her steel spine.
“…the Citadel is at the heart of the corruption that has infected our communities and brought pain and death to our families and they do nothing about it. We must do something about it. We have to protect each other and our freedoms. We can’t let them walk all over us…”
Most people would say one couldn’t tell a Jedi just by looking at him, but most people were wrong. It was the way they carried themselves, the way they moved, recognizable the second one saw them. Confident. A sense of self-satisfaction. An assuredness. The grace about them was unnatural, and as natural as breathing, their power in every motion of their limbs, inherent and unquestionable. It was as if they couldn’t quite hide that they weren’t quite mortal anymore. Only the ones very aware and very dedicated ever got good enough at obfuscating their grace to pass as normal people.
“Him, there,” Satsi murmured aloud, just low enough for the Elder to hear her with his enhanced ears, flicking her gaze at the strange, hulking figure. “He’s a Force User.”
“Yes,” Timeros intoned, suddenly right next to her, nearly making her leap from her skin. His nearness, his presence, was an uncomfortable, frigid intrusion that made her shoulders lock, but she fought past it with years of ingrained training alone and relaxed her muscles to lean towards him. She thought, for a moment, she saw a flicker of surprise in those winter pale eyes. But when she looked again his expression was still as unmoving as a monolith. Right. Of course. Sparkies. He had probably sensed the other man long before they’d even gotten to the bloody square.
The supposed-Jedi moved again, and Satsi moved after him, her lurch easy and discreet, equally ready to take him down with a tackle or tail him leisurely.
“Do not follow.”
The scarred woman stopped in place as her target disappeared behind some more bodies, even his tall frame lost in the crowd and the dark. The directive had not just been a whisper, but laced with just enough of the Force to bend her will slightly. She hissed through her teeth, wanting to spit and scream and dig the Arconae’s presence out of her skull with her bare hands then wrap her fingers around his pale throat.
But she had a job to finish and a kid with a fever to get home to, to make soup for, and this kark was dangerous, clearly dangerous, so all she could do was snap, “What, why?” under her breath and wait for an answer. Better an Elder in her corner than in her way.
“I am going. Stay here. Watch,” was the Adept’s stunted command, and then he was brushing off and away on soundless steps, too fast for the eye to really follow. It was a strange thing, trying to stare after him, like her eyes couldn’t quite focus even though he wasn’t going all invisible with the Force like some of them could. She realized belatedly that her chest was constricted, that other people moved out of his way automatically, even as they listened to the current speaker.
Fear was an excellent device to keep people from noticing too much. She hated him for it, but marveled all the same.
Resigned as she lost sight of Timeros too, the mercenary shook herself and tried to relax, to meld back into the crowd so she could slip out. If the Elder wasn’t on the outside of this mess, then she needed to be.
The speakers changed again as Satsi nudged through the press of bodies, and this one, whoever he was, was much angrier. He made spirited, vicious calls to action that really got the crowd’s attention, and soon she was being jostled and shoved just because of how many present were shaking their fists in the air, shouting hoarsely back for violence. Oh, for Shadow’s sakes… she thought, gritting her teeth. She had hoped they’d have a calmer evening and not a lynch mob.
Bruised, the scarred woman finally disengaged from the congregation, earning herself more than a few glares from those at the back. She knew what those looks meant — traitor, weakling, pet. The citizens were getting so desperate and so bitterly enraged lately that anyone who wasn’t as angry as they were became an enemy. Why don’t you stay? those glares asked. Are you on their side?
Satsi glared right back at them, this time dropping a hand to her belt knife to make it obvious. This keyed up for blood, they’d only understand a threat in reply.
The faces grew angrier, but they also turned away with a few curses and some spitting in her direction. They went back to cheering on their red-faced orator.
Shaking her head, the gangster took a moment to breathe in the sudden spaciousness, glad to be free of the press of bodies. She wondered where Timeros and the mystery man had gone, and if the Arconae had noticed any of the patterns he was looking for, and if maybe they’d caught the guy before any more corpses dropped by some rare stroke of dumb luck…
An awful noise filled the air, a woman’s scream, down the street somewhere.
Her mind went blank, thoughts washed away in white noise as the shriek she focused on came with echoes of flailing hands, a sense of panic and pain. She saw in her mind’s eye a round face, a young face, her daughter’s face — the face that she pictured any time she was near some source of distress these days. Her pulse kicked into overdrive, and her blood went pounding, screaming through her veins.
It was half-instinct that spun her on her heel, sprinting in the direction of the noise with empty hands. She ran down into darkness, the lights dead from one outage or another for whole blocks, making the night pervasive where Euphoria’s neon didn’t reach.
Her post-traumatic stress episodes had turned into some sort of crime-fighting stint ever since they returned to Estle. It was why she helped Uji with the community, why she organized her gang and kept down others. It seemed she couldn’t stand to ignore anyone’s pitiful, quiet sobs or pained screams anymore as they were raped or stabbed in an cantina alley. She just had to stop it.
Still, though, she had presence of mind, and it was only half instinct. As the former Fade neared where she thought the shout had originated, still listening to the rally boiling over a street or two behind her, she drew her dagger from her belt and a tiny emergency glowrod too. Her pace slowed, and she made an effort to make her approach quiet, gritting her teeth every time her boots crunched on dirt or litter. There was no telling what she was about to find.
Creeping along, she passed by a burnt-out speeder and another warehouse, knowing she was near the edge of Capac Ring. A few people passed by and she tensed at each one, but they all kept going without noticing her, just more idealistic or irascible youths escaping curfew to head for the meeting. She watched them go safely then kept moving, coming up on a thoroughfare that was more of an alley between two buildings.
Just there. Shapes caught her eye, familiar ones: bodies. Of what kind or state she couldn’t say, but all the angles were right. Her brown eyes narrowed, skin tight and hackles raised, peering closer at them and knowing something was very wrong.
“What the fra…” Satsi whispered, raising her glowrod higher as she drew near.
The small pool of light illuminated a sickly scene, a pair of kids, couldn’t be more than their late teens, lying at unnatural angles in splashes of red that looked shiny and black in the lamp’s glow. She knelt quick to check the boy’s pulse and found he…didn’t have a throat left to check. Her fingertips touched chin and then went right to vertebrae.
Definitely dead, then.
The girl, though, she twitched and rattled at Satsi’s approach, and the Arconan went quickly to her with a curse.
“Hey, hey,” she whispered to the Selenian, moving closer and squinting to examine her, for what little good she might do — she should’ve commed someone at the Citadel for help already, commed Timeros, anyone. Reaching for her communicator became a distant concern though as she got a good look at the damage.
What sort of thing left wounds like that? A virboknuckler? A blade? No, no…they were large teeth marks. They littered her body and her blood pooled in the deeper bites. Her leg was lame, the pink-tinged milky white of a twitching tendon visible where it was bared over bone. She wheezed and shook, vacant eyes glassed with fear and pain.
Satsi felt a curl of rage flare in her gut, even as she sighed and relaxed in resignation. No way would this kid make it to any kind of treatment, if they could even spare any of their limited bacta supply for some civvie. Shaking her head, she raised her knife to end the pain.
A chill crawled over her spine, sharp in the heat. She looked up. Saw new eyes watching her.
I’m not alone out here.
The figure was hulking, tall but obviously hefty beneath his cloak, body warped and twisted unnaturally in some places as if there were extra bones or muscles where there shouldn’t have been. The glimpse she caught of his too-pale visage was narrow, with high cheekbones and incandescent blue eyes much too large for his face.
The creature lunged.
She turned and ran.
The cobbles disappeared under her feet. Her stomach surged up her throat, and then she was crashing back to the ground, sharp white noise splitting her vision. Her flesh dragged on bits of gravel and detritus, leaving behind small flaps of bloody skin, and she felt a tooth swimming in her spit-flooded mouth as she pushed up onto her feet with legs and arms that she couldn’t feel. The numbness of impact still rang down her bones but she had to move.
Shadows, but she really, really, really was tired of getting thrown around by sparkies.
Her thoughts spun, fast but sluggish, caught between adrenaline and trauma. Fight here or make a break for the crowd?
The decision was made for her when another telekinetic blow hammered into her gut and left her flat on her back, gasping up at the black, black sky. Satsi choked on nothing, unable to draw a breath, and gagged as footsteps approached and a slow, reedy chuckle rumbled from her opponent.
Craning her neck around, the mercenary spat her mouthful of blood and mucus, pulled her gun out of the holster at her boot, and fired off three rounds that crack, crack, cracked in quick succession. The strain made her joints whimper but she swallowed the ache and rolled over, climbing back upright and aiming again.
All her blind shots had missed, but this time she could see. The muzzle flashed and the air shattered with noise again, while her assailant jerked unnaturally to the right then left, faster than her eye could follow. The clip of eight was empty in just a moment, and Satsi hissed.
The man caught her pause and leapt forward with sudden speed. She backpedalled, reaching for her second pistol instead of trying to reload the first. She didn’t even yank it out of its holster, just threw herself backwards in a roll and fired right off her hip when the gun pointed his way. He jerked again, but this time it was with the momentum of a slug round, and he yowled in pain.
Satsi was about to fire again when a blinding eruption of amethyst fire flooded her field of vision and made her cry out. Heartbeats later, another agonized warble came from somewhere in front of her, then retreating steps and a whisper of cloth in pursuit. She rubbed fiercely at her abused eyes, watching through spots of phantom color as none other than Timeros chased the cloaked man like some monster out of a holobook, his lightsaber a glowing scythe in his hand.
They both went vaulting onto rooftops and she lost sight of them. Again. Without any warning.
“Ugh,” groaned the woman, slumping down and holding her abdomen tight. Her ribs were cracked, she could feel, and her cuts stung. “Bastards.”
After a second to regain her breath, she forced herself up to search for her dropped blade and glowrod. Once shed collected them, reloaded her guns, and checked on the bodies — the girl was dead now too — she finally headed back towards Euphoria. The glow of neon lights would at least be more to her advantage.
However, as she grew nearer, she realized the rally had surpassed an uproar and moved on to full blown anarchy. Maybe it was because of the speakers, or her gunshots, but the crowd had obviously been spooked. They were all busy pushing each other along and marching towards the inner city, various weapons or tools raised and screams calling for blood. There was fighting happening right there in the lot. Someone threw a bottle through one of the club’s windows, and then it was a race to see who could break the most glass first.
Maybe not the best place to be, then.
Satsi stopped in her tracks and let herself sag against a flickering lamppost. She needed to wrap her ribs. She needed to get back to the Citadel where it was fortified for kark like this. She needed to call Uji and tell him to take Samantha and the ship and get the hell off planet just in case. She needed—
“He has escaped.”
“HOLY FRAKKING HUTTSLIME—” the mercenary shrieked, and this time she did jump. She rounded on the Arconae with a grunt of pain for her poor ribcage. “Stop doing that.”
“Sneaking up on me!”
“It would behoove you to be more alert.”
Satsi’s inarticulate noises of rage didn’t seem to count as as a reply.
“He is gone,” Timeros repeated. “The situation has degraded. We ought to return to the Citadel to recoup and organize a battalion.”
"How did you lose him twice?!" snapped the woman. “Are you frakking kidding me?!”
“No. He is disguising his Force Signature. I cannot detect him.”
“What about before?”
“I sensed nothing of him then. Your observation revealed him to me.”
“Oh, great,” Satsi groaned. Bad enough when it was people on her side that could do sithspit like this, but an enemy? One good enough to completely evade not only the other sparkies all over this city, but Timeros too? They were so kriffed.
“Not particularly. The glimpse I detected, however, was familiar. I will search the archives and speak to my brethren.”
“I got a look at him, but not a good one. Definitely a User. And he killed two more.”
“Hm. Come. We need to move.” His expression was a blank page, his words as flat as a page. “Will your injuries allow you to keep pace?”
There wasn’t concern there, just pure, clinical pragmatism. Satsi nodded.
“I’m fine. Let’s go.”