Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Under the Shadow of the Builders
Part 16- The Price of Neutrality

From the sky, Ahto City was a wonder to behold. Like one giant silver disk, it floated gently over the waters of the vibrantly blue sea. The Selkath loved circles and the architecture of it clearly gave that way. The city had a hole in the center, rising to a sort of peak around it with tall buildings across the top. It sloped down from there to the level of the sea around the outer edge, with circles scooped out of the great disk in graceful shapes. One of these semicircular gaps around the edge held the spaceport and docking bays.

It was an easy landing and they met no trouble with the local bureaucracy. The lurching and rattling of the landing must have awakened the rest of the crew. By the time Carth and Canderous had the ship securely shut down, the crew had assembled in the hangar bay.

“So we're on Manaan now?” Mission asked, yawning.

Carth nodded, “This is Ahto City.”

Juhani addressed Ev and Bastila, “Has the Force given you any visions into what we must do on this planet?”

Bastila nodded, “Yes, during our descent, very close to the city, we had a vision of yet another star map.”

“It's in the city then?” Mission asked eagerly.

“Below it, more likely,” Ev replied, “It seemed to be underwater.”

“Good luck with that,” Canderous chuckled, “This planet is all water and probably not mapped very well.”

“Well, Revan and Malak seem to have found it somehow,” Bastila said defensively, “Certainly we will be able to.”

“That's the infallibility of youthful confidence, if you ask me,” Jolee muttered.

Zaalbar muttered something.

“Yeah, how about some breakfast?” Mission agreed.

“I think we're talking about more of an early dinner,” Ev corrected her. “I guess the time zone we had for Ahto City was out of date. The city is always floating freely on the ocean, so the time zone changes little by little all the time.”

“So what time is it then?” Bastila asked.

“Late afternoon,” Ev answered. All the while she kept her back to Carth. She hadn't even acknowledged him when he entered the room.

“The space port authorities mentioned that we need to check in with the Manaan Bureau of Tourism and pay our docking fee. I'm sure they will have some recommendations of where to eat,” Carth put in.

“I suppose we should get going then,” Bastila suggested, “HK-47, you will remain here and guard the ship in our absence.”

“Observation: So the meatbag assumes that just because I have no need of organic nourishment I have no curiosity in this world,” HK-47 replied.

“Droids aren't supposed to be curious,” Bastila shot back, “Now stay here and do as you're told.”

Leaving the Ebon Hawk in the care of their war-mongering protocol droid, the entire crew disembarked.

The interior of Ahto City was immaculately clean and engineered without any straight lines or abrupt angles. Cylindrical cleaning droids floated down the long corridors and tiny spherical security droids whizzed lazily through the air. The group passed a few loitering Selkath. The amphibious creatures walked erect and stood about as high as a human, but their skin was pale bluish and their hands and feet were webbed for swimming. Their wide flat heads had small eyes on the side and mustache-like flaps of skin that hung down on either side of their mouths.

A few men jostled past, carrying large canisters of kolto between them.

As the crew rounded into a wide hallway with a long pond in the middle, they caught site of a Republic soldier in his brilliant yellow and orange armor in a heated argument with a Sith soldier in black and gray.

“You Republic scum don't know the meaning of power,” the Sith soldier taunted, “You are weaklings that are doomed to fail.”

“It's you who are on the wrong side of this war,” the Republic soldier retorted.

“There is no way your precious Republic can continue to stand with its dysfunctional senate,” the Sith soldier said, “The Dark Lords will be much more decisive rulers of the galaxy.”

“Not while I'm still living and breathing,” the Republic soldier said boldly.

“Want to fight about it, do you?” the Sith soldier goaded.

“You just shut up and leave this place, Sith,” the Republic soldier fumed, balling his hands into fists.

“Just punch me then,” the Sith soldier invited threateningly, “And you'll have the Selkath authorities all over you in minutes. You Republic types are all bark and no bite. You're not man enough to back up your words.”

“Get out of here,” the Republic soldier said through gritted teeth.

Laughing proudly, the Sith solder sauntered off. Seeing the crew of the Ebon Hawk staring at him, the Republic soldier snapped, “Now what do you want?”

“What is a Sith soldier doing walking freely on this planet?” Juhani asked.

“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't realize that you were Jedi,” he said quickly upon seeing Juhani's lightsaber, and the weapons of those standing around her. He sighed, “Manaan is determined to stay neutral in this war so they can make money off of selling kolto to both sides. It means that we have to share this city with the Sith and they can spit all sorts of insults at us, but we can't do a thing. If we were to start a fight, the Republic would face severe trade restrictions on kolto, and that could loose us the war.”

“And the Sith know it, don't they?” Jolee observed.

“I bet their generals tell them to insult us into breaking the law,” the soldier said ruefully.

“Anything else we should watch for?” Carth asked. It pained him to see fellow soldiers harassed this way.

“Just keep away from any Sith,” he replied, “Once they see that some of you are Jedi, they'll probably try even harder. The Selkath seem to respect your kind more than they do Dark Jedi.”

“Where can we find a Republic representative on this planet?” Bastila asked.

“Oh, the Republic Embassy is easy to find,” he replied, “Just go on through the security checkpoint through the west central courtyard, head through the corridor on the left side to the east central courtyard then take another left and a quick right. You got that?”

“Hey, don't look at me,” Ev said dismissively. “You got that Bastila, right?”

“Of course,” Bastila said calmly, “Thank you, soldier, for your time.”

“Any time, master Jedi,” he replied much more cheerfully than had been only a minute before, “I wish you luck in your business here.”

As they moved on, he saw Bastila make a sour face. She muttered, “Master? I'm not even a Jedi Knight yet...”

They paid their docking fee and picked up a visitor's guide. Carth was astounded that he understood every word the Selkath agent said. He could thank Ev for that. Ev...

The group passed into the west central courtyard that the soldier mentioned before. The gently sloping floor and overhanging ceiling overhead gave way to a stunning view of the ocean and sky. In the middle of the courtyard was another pond that seemed to actually be part of the ocean itself. A gently spraying fountain leaped up from the middle of the pond. People, Sith, Republic, Selkath, and tourists alike mingled all over the courtyard or hung on the railing taking in the sea breeze. According to the visitor's guide, which Mission had taken charge of, there was a first class cantina in the courtyard just to their west.

The western courtyard looked much the same as the last. At the front of it, overlooking the sea, was the cantina they were looking for. As they walked eagerly towards it, a gruff and well muscled looking man swaggered out. Seeing them, he stopped and ranted, “What is one of your kind doing on this world? It's bad enough that I have to deal with all of these other idiots, but now there's a stinking Cathar on Manaan too.”

“Excuse me,” Juhani said coldly, “I have as much right to be here as you, sir.”

“Come to think of it, have I seen you somewhere before?” he asked thoughtfully, “He's dead... and she probably is too... Still, she would make a lovely addition to my collection. So, Jedi, how much would it take for you to hand your pet over to me.”

“Juhani is her own person,” Ev snapped.

“Oh, come on, you Jedi all pretend to be all high and mighty, but I know you all feel the same way I do about the lesser non-human species,” he said slickly, “The females make amusing pets and servants once they are trained and broken, but the males should be put down like the animals they are. I remember this one time on Taris...”

“What did you say?” Juhani shouted, hand going to her lightsaber hilt. Carth could almost feel the anger radiating out from her.

“And then I saw one of their little females up on the auction block,” he continued unabashed, “She was going to be mine, but then those kriffing Jedi had to come and ruin everything.”

“It was you,” Juhani gasped angrily.

“Oh, now I remember,” he said with a sickening grin, “You were that little Cathar I bought. Come now, Jedi, be reasonable. She was mine in the first place.”

“You should know better than to ask a Jedi to deal in slaves,” Ev spat. “I won't let you hurt Juhani.”

“You fool,” Juhani hissed, “I am a Jedi now, not some helpless child.”

“So you say. I did develop a taste for you kind back when we bombarded your planet in the Mandalorian Wars,” he said, “But we should have wiped you all out when we had the chance. Then your stench wouldn't still be left on the galaxy today.”

“You call yourself a Mandalorian?” Canderous demanded.

“You!” Juhani whispered dangerously then screamed, “I will see you dead for what you did to my people!” Her hand closed around her lightsaber hilt.

“There is no emotion...” Ev recited quietly.

“There is peace,” Juhani echoed, and drew in a long breath. “Now get out of my sight before I change my mind,” she hissed coldly.

“Fine, fine,” he said quickly, “But I'll have you yet. You are rightfully mine, little pet.” With that, he slunk off.

“That...that monster!” Juhani seethed. “My Cathar blood boils at the mere thought that such a man is allowed to walk free.

“So, um,” Mission suggested hesitantly, “Let's go get a table.”

As they filed into the cantina, Carth noticed that not only Juhani, but Canderous was seething. Finding an empty booth, Ev quickly slipped in before anyone else, followed by Juhani. Carth hung back and soon realized that the booth was too small to fit all eight of them. He and Jolee were relegated to bar stools just across the aisle.

A waitress came by and quickly took their orders. Watching Ev reluctantly from a distance, he wanted to order something strong off of the drinks menu and lose himself in it, but he knew better. He had to be on his toes at all times.

“Juhani, what was that about? You knew that man?” Ev asked as soon as their orders had been placed.

“His name is Xor,” she spat, “He's the man who killed my father by goading him into a fight while he was on stims. My father's warrior nature got the better of him, and Xor shot him dead.”

“But how did you wind up getting sold to him as a slave?” Mission asked.

“When he died, some of my mother died with him,” Juhani said sadly, “She worked and worked, but she couldn't earn enough to feed us both. She borrowed from the Exchange to make up the difference, but she worked herself to death.”

“So the Exchange took you for her debts,” Canderous observed.

“The Exchange is cruel and cares nothing for any sentient's life. I was bound, beaten, and treated like livestock,” Juhani explained bitterly, “It was the worst time in my life, and I was only a child. They had sold me to Xor and were waiting on him to pay up when the Jedi came to defend Taris from the Mandalorians. They drove the Exchange from the face of the planet but soon departed when the Mandalorians had been defeated. I was left with only a dream that I too would one day become a Jedi.”

“And the Order accepted you even at that age?” Bastila asked.

“They welcomed me with open arms,” Juhani said, “It was a dream after the nightmare of my life on Taris.”

“Come to think of it, I didn't see any Cathar on Taris,” Ev observed, “Where was your community?”

“There wasn't one,” she replied, “It was only my parents and me. They fled Cathar, with me just a baby in their arms, during the Mandalorian bombardment. They were among the few that escaped, and eventually fled to Taris. My people were slaughtered.” She leveled a wordless yellow glare at Canderous.

“Canderous, you attacked their world?” Mission demanded.

“We attacked a lot of worlds,” Canderous said neutrally, “The Cathar are renowned warriors. Their presence in the outer rim was an invitation for the Mandalorians, worthy opponents to test our strength.”

“And you slaughtered them,” Ev said accusingly.

“Not like that scum made it sound,” Canderous spat, “He shouldn't be allowed to call himself a Mandalorian. We don't crush innocents for the sake of killing them. We fight for the thrill and honor of battle. It was war, not massacre.”

“I fail to see the difference,” Carth added from across the aisle, “You knew your technology was superior to theirs. You knew how it would end.”

“You have already proven that you can't understand the ways of the Mandalore,” Canderous retorted. A tense silence fell over the space between the table and the bar.

“But you're alright, Juhani?” Ev asked, concerned.

“Yes, I'm fine. He didn't touch me, although he brought up painful memories,” she said bitterly, “But I'm sure he will try to follow us again. We must be on our guard.”

“On this mission, we always are,” Ev nodded gravely.

Carth couldn't bear it any more. He swiveled around on the stool and propped his elbows up on the bar, resting his head in his hands. It's like she doesn't even see me. What happened? What did I say? I can't even remember now. If she were to send me away now, I really wouldn't have anything left. For a while, I thought that maybe there was more to life than revenge against Saul and stopping the Sith from doing what they did to Telos, and now Taris, again. But all this time, she made me laugh. She made me smile. She smiled at me. She reminded me of Morgan and what it was like to really live. I guess I've not lost anything, really. I'll just continue as I was before Taris. As an empty man bent on revenge.

“Something's eating you, huh?” Jolee observed.

“It's nothing,” Carth said unconvincingly and took a quick swig of the lemon fizz that the bartender had just placed in front of him.

“You can't fool an wrinkled old hermit like me,” Jolee pressed.

“Really, it's none of your business,” Cart said hostilely.

“Ah, I've seen the way you look at that lass, and the way she looks at you,” Jolee observed wistfully, “Or doesn't.”

“Drop it, Jolee,” Carth snapped.

“Anyone could—” Jolee started.

“I said drop it!” Carth snapped even more forcefully. He slammed his tumbler on the bar, sloshing sticky liquid over his hand.

“Fine, wallow in your pity party then,” Jolee retorted, but he didn't seem angry. The waitress returned with plates of steaming fish and vegetables.

Carth vehemently dug in. Not because he was all that hungry, but because he needed to take out his frustration somehow. Sharing his space and all of his time with the same seven people, three nosy droids, and countless benign yet annoying gizka was too much. No one had any privacy and, aboard the Ebon Hawk there was no escaping it. Admittedly, Carth was glad to be planet-side again. Especially after...

A Selkath sauntered over to the bar and took the stool next to Carth. As the Selkath ordered a drink, he seemed to be examining Carth with its left eye, set far back on his head.

Carth tried to ignore it.

“You seem to be no friend of the Sith,” the Selkath observed at last.

“I'm a Republic soldier, what of it?” Carth asked warily.

“Then perhaps you would be willing to help me,” the Selkath sloshed.

“I'm not about to break any neutrality laws while I'm here,” Carth warned, but continued to listen.

“My name is Shaelas,” the Selkath introduced himself then continued in a low voice, “Not long ago, my daughter Shasa went missing. She is not the only one, however. Many other young Selkath have disappeared lately. The Sith seem to be paying much attention to our young, and it worries me. I miss my daughter as much as any others miss their children. If you can find out anything, I would be forever grateful.”

“You think that the Sith might have taken her?” Carth asked quietly.

The Selkath nodded very slightly. “I don't have much, but I would give you five hundred credits if you could find out anything about my daughter and the other youth,” Shaelas offered.

“I'm here on other work, so I can't make any promises,” Carth replied, “But if I do learn anything, I'll be sure to let you know. The Sith are always up to no good.”

“That is more than anyone else has done,” Shaelas said in relief. “I thank you, soldier.” He took his drink and slipped away.

Carth was once again left to his meal. The Selkath certainly knew how to prepare fish. He hadn't had sea food in a long time, much less anything this good. It briefly took his mind off of the things that weighed him down.

“Jolee?” the voice of an old woman called across the cantina, “Jolee Bindo? It is you.” A gray haired woman hurried over to them as fast as her stiff legs would take her.

“Elora! How did you know I was here?” he asked warmly, “Where's Sunry?”

“Oh, Jolee, it's terrible,” she moaned, “They've had him arrested and tried for murder of a Sith woman. They even suggested that he was having an affair with her!”

“Sunry? Impossible!” Jolee exclaimed, “He could never do something like that. The man's a war hero, not to mention a cripple. He saved my wrinkled butt more than a few times too.”

“Jolee, can't you do anything?” Elora begged. “They've sentenced him to prison for life.”

“I doubt we can,” Jolee shook his head, “We're no Republic representatives.”

“But won't you at least go and see him?” she asked.

“Of course,” Jolee agreed, “I'd be a terrible friend not to. I promise, when we get off this planet and get a chance, I'll see if there is anyone who can do anything for him. I just can't believe that he'd do something like that.”

“Thank you, Jolee,” Elora said sadly, and shuffled out of the cantina.

“That's not the same Sunry who flew against Mandalore the Ultimate in the Third Battle of Empress Teta?” Carth asked, amazed.

“The very same one,” Jolee nodded, “A strapping young man at the time, not so different from yourself. And he earned a Hero's Cross for it.”

Carth pushed aside his empty plate and dug out credits enough to pay for it. “I'll go with you to see him, Jolee,” he offered.

“So you want to meet the old war hero himself?” Jolee asked.

“Sure,” he replied. And get away from Ev.

Jolee flagged down the bar tender and settled their tab. The two of them rose and made for the exit.

“Where are you going now?” Bastila asked.

“It turns out an old friend of mine and hero of Carth's is in prison here,” Jolee explained, “We're off to pay him a visit.”

“We will be visiting the Republic Embassy as soon as we are finished here,” Bastila explained, “Meet us back at the ship.”

Ev stared intensely down at her nearly empty plate.

Carth saluted numbly, “Of course.”

They left the cantina and headed across the courtyard. The prison itself was only just on the other side of the fountain. Gangs of Sith soldiers lolled around the entire courtyard while Republic soldiers watched them warily.

As they walked, Carth asked, “Jolee, what do you know of the Sith?”

“Bad, bad men. Women too, to be fair,” Jolee replied with a chuckle.

“Anything else?” Carth pressed, “You used to be a Jedi. You must know more.”

“That, and they make a fine sandwich,” Jolee answered, chuckling all the more. “But don't tell Bastila I said that.”

“Seriously, Jolee,” Carth said dryly.

“Why do you want to know about the Sith all of a sudden?” Jolee asked him.

“It's just hard to understand how there can be a whole army of them out there that are so evil,” Carth replied slowly, “The war crimes they have committed... It's hard to believe that even one person could do the things that they have done, and yet there's so many of them that follow the cause.”

“The Dark Side of the Force is a very real and dangerous thing,” Jolee said lowly, “It's power lures them in with dark promises, and then it consumes them.”

Carth shivered. “I used to think that the Dark Side was another name for things I would see every day. People can do terrible things,” Carth admitted, “But to you Jedi, it's something completely different. It's like it's waiting and watching for its moment to jump out and take you. I have a hard time imagining that any of you, even Juhani, could turn to that kind of evil, and yet... that's what we all thought of Revan and Malak.”

“The Dark Side isn't something you want to mess with,” Jolee replied darkly, then added with a bit of humor, “But you have about as much of a risk of me falling to the Dark Side as me falling to the Light Side. I'm too old and set in my ways.”

Carth didn't feel any more reassured.

They reached the prison and Jolee announced to the guard, “We're here to see Sunry.”

“Do you have a pass from the court?” the Selkath guard asked.

“No, we don't have a pass, but he's an old friend that I haven't seen in some twenty-odd years,” Jolee snapped, “And you'll let us in if you know what's good for you.”

“Just don't make any trouble,” the guard warned, but opened the door and led them to Sunry's cell. Looking in through wide bars, a crippled old man sat bitterly on the floor.

“Sunry?” Jolee started.

“Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle!” Sunry exclaimed, his face brightening, “What are you doing here Jolee? It's been a long time. Who's your friend?”

“A fan of yours, Lieutenant Carth Onasi,” Jolee introduced him, “We just ran into Elora. She said you've been accused of murder.”

“And given a life sentence for it!” Sunry exclaimed indignantly. “The case was a complete frame-up. All the evidence was circumstantial and there were no witnesses. My lawyer—arbiter was completely incompetent. Enthusiastic young kid, but she did a miserable job defending me.”

“They let a young Selkath defend you?” Jolee asked in surprise.

“No, some young freighter pilot that was taking a vacation in the area,” Sunry shook his head, “I guess the girl heard my story and felt bad for me, then volunteered to defend me in court. She had the same name as that one fruit company. What was it? Rand? Rhine? No...”

“Rinnh?” Carth suggested.

“Yes! Rinnh, that was it!” he agreed, “I could tell that kid a thing or two. First off, don't ask a Sith their opinion in a murder case about one of their own.”

“Sunry, I'm sorry we didn't get here any sooner,” Jolee apologized, “But we'll bring this to Republic attention as soon as we can. I'm sure there's a politician, a general, or a bureaucrat that likes you enough to intervene and get you out.”

“You're a pal, Jolee,” Sunry said warmly. “And you, Lieutenant, watch yourself so you don't wind up like me. Be careful around those dark and mysterious women. You never know when they might turn on you.”

“Sir,” Carth saluted. Inside, he was in turmoil again.

Jolee seemed to sense the change in him. “We should get back to our ship,” Jolee said, “But I'll drop by again before we leave this planet.”

“I'm not going anywhere,” Sunry said dryly, “It was good seeing you, Jolee.”


“So the embassy has agreed to lend us a submarine once we do them a small favor,” Ev announced to the crew all gathered in the main chamber in the Ebon Hawk.

“We're doing a lot of favors on this run,” Canderous observed dryly.

“It can't be helped,” Bastila said.

“An underwater reconnaissance droid of theirs malfunctioned and was captured by the Sith,” Ev explained, “The data in it, they insist, is top secret and must be recovered at all costs. Basically, they want us to break into the Sith Embassy and get it back.”

“Great,” Carth murmured. Ev ignored him.

“They gave us some state of the art supplies, and the local shops had what they didn't,” Ev continued. “Going in through the front door, or even the back as the Ambassador suggested, would be stupid. Not only would it put a whole base full of Sith on our tail, it would probably get us kicked off the planet for violating neutrality. Fortunately, all buildings here are equipped with a predictable air circulation system. We can go in through the vents.”

“And by 'we' she means Juhani and Mission,” Bastila clarified. “Mission is the most skilled slicer we have, which will be necessary for what we are about to do. She is also experienced using a stealth unit. Juhani's ability of Force Camouflage also makes her ideal. Moreover, there are likely to be Dark Jedi within the compound, so a Jedi should be present with Mission. Lastly, they are both small enough to fit through the air ducts.”

Both Juhani and Mission looked flattered and excited.

“And what about the rest of us?” Canderous asked.

“In case something goes awry, we want people stationed at both entrances. They will act as scouts as well, to watch for trouble,” Ev continued for Bastila. “I think we decided that we wanted a Jedi on each side. Jolee will go with Zaalbar and keep an eye on the back entrance. That will involve some climbing, but Zaalbar can do the climbing for the both of you. And you understand Shiriiwook. Bastila will go with HK-47 and keep watch on the main entrance in the city. I'll stay on the roof by wherever Juhani and Mission get in just in case they need a quick exit cut or something.”

“And us?” Canderous asked.

“You and Carth will remain with the Ebon Hawk,” Bastila answered, “Should we require quick evacuation, the ship needs to be ready to fly. You will also be in charge of monitoring the mission as whole. The lieutenant among us is best served for this job, I think.”

“Peh,” Canderous scoffed quietly, “As if I knew nothing of strategy.”

“We have arranged to have a radio channel on the highest military encryption for our use,” Ev continued, “We have also acquired hands-free comlink headsets for Juhani, Mission, and myself, as well as a fun little device that once plugged into the Sith's security system, after being thoroughly sliced, of course, will send all of their security information here, cameras included. Through satellite imaging, we should also be able to maintain a fairly good view of the premises, and both Juhani and Mission will be outfitted with short-range trackers.”

Zaalbar roared something eagerly.

“Yeah, when do we do this?” Mission asked.

“Since we all just had a hearty breakfast,” Ev said humorously, “and have a full night ahead of ourselves, we can use the cover of darkness to enter the base.”

“As soon as we are sure all of the equipment is functioning properly, we will begin moving into place,” Bastila said decisively. “Any other questions.”

“So, when did I get a raise?” Mission asked playfully, “And if do good tonight, can I have another?”

Zaalbar rumbled a Wookiee chuckle.

Bastila stiffly ignored them both. “If there is nothing else,” she said, “Let us begin.”

 

- Next Part -

 

Star Wars is (c) Lucasfilm Ltd. All original characters, stories, and art belong to SoA and may not be re-posted without permission.