Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Under the Shadow of the Builders
Chapter 9- The Builders' Garden

“I hate jumping through hoops,” Ev murmured.

“And why should we take you with us, old man?” Bastila demanded, “We don't even know who you are.”

“I told you my name and that I live down here like a hermit,” Jolee replied. He didn't seem bothered by Bastila's brash response. “What more do you need?”

“Why would you want to come along anyway?” Ev asked.

“You can only find kilometer high trees interesting for so long,” Jolee laughed, “I presume you have a ship that could get me off of this planet. And you seem to have a destiny ahead of you that might just be interesting.”

“Destiny? What are you talking about?” Ev asked.

The old man laughed, “Anyway, if you want my help getting past the barrier, you're going to have to pay my toll.”

“You mentioned poachers,” Ev recalled.

“Yes, I did,” Jolee smiled, strolling closer. “In the past, Czerka came down here now and then, but they mostly left me alone. Until now, that is. A group of them set up camp not far from my home. They're stirring up the wildlife and messing with my garden. Regular old poachers, if you ask me, with what they're doing to the tachs.”

“Why haven't you chased them off yourself already, if it bothers you so much?” Bastila asked shortly.

“If I could, I would have by now,” Jolee snapped, “They know who I am, so they get all touchy whenever I come by. The only way I could drive them out would be by force, and that could get the Wookiees into a load of trouble. I suspect you can find another way.”

“We might as well give it a try, Bastila,” Ev advised, “He said he could get us past the barrier.”

“I don't like it,” Bastila replied, “But fine. You win, old man. We'll play by your rules.”

“I knew you would, in the end,” Jolee smiled. “Now, follow me. I'll take you back to their camp.”

Despite his age, Jolee led them off at a lively pace, back down the winding path towards the clearing they had already spent so much time in. Ev did her best to keep pace beside him.

“So, Jolee,” Ev started, “You're friends with the Wookiees then?”

“As much as one can be,” he chuckled in reply, “I respect them, they respect me. I leave them alone and they leave me alone. It's a working relationship.”

“Then, do you know anything about this slaving operation that Czerka has going on?” Ev asked.

“I do, and that's a saga riddled with pain and sadness,” Jolee answered. “I see you have one of them with you. Does he talk about it? Whose side is he on?”

“Zaalbar was exiled some twenty years ago when he tried to expose his brother for making a contract with the slavers,” Ev explained.

“So you're all a little out of the loop, I see. Your friend must have been exiled right about the time I crashed here,” Jolee answered thoughtfully. “That brother wouldn't have happened to be Chuundar, would it? Czerka was smart to put him in power. He's about as good at destroying Wookiee culture as injecting a plague into their water source, but he does make a reliable business partner.”

“If you've been here all this time and don't like it, why haven't you done anything about it?” Ev asked.

“You're one to accuse,” Jolee snapped, “You'll just take one look at the star map and leave this place again, forgetting the Wookiees every had any problems. Listen, it's a bad idea to make people angry with you when you don't have a way off the planet.”

“That sounds like a poor excuse to me,” Ev shot back. “Frankly, if we can find a way to disrupt this slaving operation while we're here, I'd be glad to do it. These Wookiees don't deserve to be treated like animals.”

“Ah, I think I'm beginning to like you, kid,” Jolee said with an amused smile, “But your friend over there might have something else to say about it, hm?” He pointed towards Bastila.

“Yeah, well Bastila has her priorities,” Ev commented. “I'm Ev Pell, by the way,” she said, extending her hand towards him. Jolee grasped it and gave it a firm shake.

“A pleasure,” Jolee responded.

Ev began to introduce the rest of the crew, “This here is Carth Onasi, he's a lieutenant with the Republic fleet. I served under him for a while before the Jedi picked me up. The Twi'lek kid back there is Mission. She was good friends with Zaalbar back on Taris. Gruff looking Mandalorian in the back is Canderous.”

“Strange crew you've got here,” Jolee commented.

“It happens,” Ev shrugged.

Just then, they rounded into the clearing again.

“Ah, here we are,” Jolee said. Before he could get anything else out, a huge katarn with massive yellow tusks rushed out of the shadows at him. “Damnable predators,” Jolee muttered. Suddenly, a green lightsaber lit up in his hands. With one deft movement, Jolee leaped out of it's way and swiped at its tail. A long oozing gash appeared. The katarn roared with pain and Jolee roared right back at it. It turned on its tail and fled.

“You're a Jedi,” Bastila observed, surprised, “Why didn't you say so earlier?”

“Then you would have gone along with me right away, hm?” Jolee asked. He extinguished the saber and clipped it back on his belt. Carth couldn't believe that none of them had noticed it before. “I'm no Jedi.”

“But—” Bastila protested.

“Sure, I use the Force. I fight with a lightsaber. So what?” Jolee said shortly. “I left the Order a long time ago.”

“You're no Sith either,” Batsila observed, “I don't feel the taint of the Dark Side around you.”

“Light Side, Dark Side, bah,” Jolee threw up his hands, “There don't need to be such extremes. I see the universe more in of shade of gray.”

“I still don't understand you,” Bastila said.

“You don't have to,” Jolee shot back. “Anyway, the Czerka crew set up their camp down that pathway.” He pointed towards one to their right that they had not yet ventured down. “It's not far. You can't miss it.”

“And how do you propose we convince them to leave,” Carth asked, having been silent up until then.

“Not with a blaster at their backs, I hope,” Jolee advised, “You look like a resourceful lot. I'm sure you're smart enough to come up with something.”

“You're not coming with us?” Mission asked.

“I already told you,” Jolee said impatiently, “They'll be too wary if they see me around. Besides, I need to run back home and pick up a few things if I'm to be going with you. I'll meet you back here once you're finished.”

“And where's your home?” Bastila asked.

“Don't trust me still, do you?” Jolee observed lightly. “I'll let you stay that way for now. No point in trying to change you brash young people. My camp is just over that way, under a log,” he answered and pointed towards a path to their left. “Now, shoo. Come back when you're done.” Without another word, Jolee trotted off into the shadows towards where he had just pointed.

“I guess we're doing this then,” Ev said, watching him go. “We won't be able to fool that old coot into believe that we scared off those poachers if we really didn't.”

“Like it or not, let's go,” Bastila replied, and led the group across the clearing towards the narrow path Jolee had indicated. They didn't get far down it when they heard the whirring of machines and chatting low voices.

“Wait,” Ev urged, and the group stopped at her command. “We can't just barge into their camp without a plan. Mission, can you scurry up there and take a look without them seeing you.”

“Sure thing!” Mission exclaimed proudly. Mission switched on something on her belt and suddenly she disappeared from view. The impressions in the moss where her feet stepped were the only signs that she was still there at all. Mission moved absolutely silently.

“Where did she get one of those?” Carth asked in surprise.

“We found it one day when we were digging around in the Ebon Hawk's cargo hold. I figured she could make good use of it, so I told her to keep it,” Ev explained nonchalantly.

“Shh!” Bastila urged and they fell silent.

A minute or two later, Mission rematerialized. “So here's the deal,” she said quietly, “There's about six men there. They got a bunch of crates and tents and stuff, but around the outside are these four spinning things. There's a guard at each one of them. I heard one of the guards telling the other that they're glad for those things because they keep the animals away.”

“Must be come kind of sonic field generator, if you ask me,” Canderous suggested.

“Maybe if we disabled them, some of the animals they were trying to scare off would come through and run them out,” Ev suggested. “How well-armed did they look, Mission.”

“Not very,” she scoffed. “I think they were counting on the sonic generators to do all the work.”

“This is a big gamble,” Bastila commented, unconvinced.

“But it will be a beast at their backs and not a blaster,” Canderous argued, “And that will keep the old man happy.”

“Fine,” Bastila sighed, “So how are we going to do this?”

Quickly, they devised a plan.

While Carth, Bastila, and Zaalbar found placed they could watch but stay out of sight, Ev and Mission, led by Canderous, strode boldly into the camp.

“Who are you?” the officer there demanded as soon as he saw them.

“We're a couple of mercenaries looking for some thrills,” Canderous said slowly, “And some work.” He fit the part perfectly.

“We heard you might be a little short-handed down here,” Ev put in.

“So you're the new recruits the office promised to send down,” the officer said, sounding pleased but impatient, “It took you long enough. We've been loosing most of our hunting parties to the big predators down here. Our supply of tach glands has been well below expected output.”

“What can we do for you?” Canderous asked, “Guard the camp?”

“Of course,” the Czerka officer said, “You three can replace Jonlen, Azerak, and Prett.” As he spoke, he pointed to three of the four corners of the camp. The man took a moment to size each of them up. Coming to Mission, he said, “Aren't you a little young to be in the business.”

“I can take care of myself,” Mission shot back.

“Well, who am I to argue with a bit of extra help?” the officer shrugged. “Go on and guard those SFGs. We don't want any of those pesky tachs disabling them by accident.”

Mission, Canderous, and Ev exchanged meaningful glances before dispersing across the camp to their new stations. “You three, assemble and get reading for another hunt, we're below our quota for the week,” the officer ordered to the three men they were replacing. They scrambled together, but not before telling their replacements important information about the sensors, including the deactivation codes.

While the rest of the camp was busy with getting ready for a hunt, Ev, Canderous, and Mission subtly set to work. One by one, the scanners stopped spinning and shut down. Only the one still manned by a Czerka guard remained operational. Carth doubted just one would be enough to keep the camp safe. Each standing so that the officer couldn't see that their generators were no longer spinning, the three 'mercenaries' waited. Their friends, crouching just out of sight, waited as well.

Half an hour passed and Carth began to wonder whether their plan would work at all. But, just when he was growing unbearably restless, a low roar sounded through the trees accompanied by the thumping of heavy feet. Carth stiffened, it sounded unlike any creature they had encountered in the Shadowlands so far.

The roar came again, louder this time, and the pace of the thudding feet quickened.

By their wary stances, Carth could see that his friends in the camp heard it as well. The Czerka employees still were too occupied in their own doings.

It roared again and something huge loomed up out of the shadows.

“What's that?” the officer asked in a sudden panic, but it was too late.

A huge brown scaly beast, walking on it's back legs, lumbered into the camp. It had a massive flat head with huge teeth and claws on its hands to match. All down it's armored back and tail were threatening looking spikes long enough to skewer a katarn.

“What is that thing?” Carth whispered.

“Look out sir!” Ev cried for effect.

“Run!” Mission yelled then took her own advice. The Czerka staff didn't need to be told twice. They took up whatever weapons were at hand and tore off in the other direction. They didn't even see Bastila, Carth, and Zaalbar as they bolted by where they crouched.

Canderous turned and took one shot at it, just to make it angrier, and started running himself. The blaster bolt bounced off harmlessly.

The monstrous beast tore through the camp, ripping tents to shreds with single swipes of its claws, then destroying equipment beneath its feet. Mission, Canderous, and finally Ev tore around the corner and ducked under the shelter of the low log that Bastila had hidden under.

The beast thundered past, chasing after the Czerka team. It roared and waved its arms in the air. Then it stopped suddenly. It sniffed the air, listening. The beast thrashed its spiny tail and turned its head back towards them, followed by its whole body. Yellow eyes eagerly glared straight for the fallen log.

“Ah, Force!” Ev cursed with sudden realization, and rolled out from under the log. In moments she was on her feet with her lightsaber ready. Bastila emerged almost as quickly.

“Looks like we get our fight after all,” Canderous said eagerly, staking out his place behind the two Jedi.

Carth remained under the cover of his bush and leveled his blasters towards the creature. Up above him on the crest of the log, he heard Zaalbar's war cry, followed by a rain of blaster bolts from his bowcaster.

The beast charged, taking long swipes at Bastila and Ev. They both dodged out of the way, but missed in their own attacks. Canderous and Mission both dove out of the range of it's claws. As the beast whipped around for another charge, it's thrashing tail caught Mission unexpectedly across the gut. She screamed as it propelled her through the air and smashed her into the log.

“Mission!” Carth yelled out. Up above, Zaalbar howled angrily.

To Carth's surprise, Canderous moved over to stand protectively over where Mission fell.

The monster ignored both of them. In fact, it ignored all of the blaster bolts that struck it. It didn't seem to be bothered by them at all. Instead, it focused all of its attention on the two Jedi.

Without warning, it launched at Bastila and Ev again. Bastila made an impressive leap away, swinging down at it as she fled. She only succeeded in clipping off the end of one of the spikes on its back. Ev, however, stared it down. She waited until the last minute then dove flat underneath it, lightsaber raking through it's chest plating.

It roared with pain, reeling about. Still trying to get herself out from underneath it, Ev was not able to avoid the thrashing of its tail. Barely rising into a crouch, the tail caught her squarely across the back. Yelling and cursing in pain, she collapsed again. She lost her grip on the hilt of her lightsaber and it extinguished itself, harmlessly rolling away.

“Ev!” Carth exclaimed, “Bastila, do something! Blasters aren't working!”

“Go for the eyes!” Bastila ordered. She too appeared to be in pain, though the creature had not yet touched her.

Ev, however, was not yet down for the count. As Bastila prepared to attack, Ev grasped a hold of the beast's flailing tail and used its momentum to fling herself up onto the creatures back. With a yelp and a grimace, she landed among the spikes. Carth could see that she was bleeding from several places on her arms, back and legs. As she landed, the creature's spiny back punctured her robes and skin in several places across her chest and stomach. Somehow, she managed to climb up its back without getting further skewered. Carth was no longer shooting, only watching.

“Bastila, now!” she cried hoarsely and extended her arm out to the side, towards Carth.

Suddenly, Carth's left blaster tugged free of his hand and soared right into Ev's.

As Bastila leaped towards the beast, Ev reached over it's head and pointed the blaster straight into it's eyes. With two quick shots, she blinded it. It howled with rage. Bastila took her chance as it flailed sightlessly, and drove one end of her saber straight into its chest. That was enough.

It bucked and flailed, throwing Ev off it's back. She impacted the ground hard, not far away. Bastila withdrew her saber, and with one final gargled roar, the beast collapsed to the ground. It twitched for a moment and then was still.

Breathing hard, Bastila extinguished her saber. “Ev!” she immediately turned her attention to the fallen woman. On the other end of the beast's corpse, Zaalbar scrambled down the root and hurried to Mission's side. He scooped her up and brought her over to the others, whimpering.

Carth finally broke out of his cover and rushed over to Ev as well.

“I think those spikes might have been poisonous,” Mission said weakly as Zaalbar put her down next to Ev.

“Medpacks!” Bastila said urgently as she dug through her own satchel, “Does anyone have any medpacks?”

“Can't you Jedi do some healing?” Carth asked, handing over the only medpack he had.

“Yes, but I'm exhausted,” Bastila said, “And healing was never my strong point.” With only one medpack in hand, Bastila glanced between Mission and Ev. Mission was still conscious but fading fast. Ev, on the other hand, lay face down on the ground, bleeding profusely. Although she was breathing, she made no sign that she was aware of the people around her. Bastila's choice seemed obvious, and yet she hesitated.

“What was all that racket?” Jolee came tramping around the corner with a rucksack over his shoulder, “I saw those poachers running off with their tails between their legs and—” He caught sight of Ev and Mission then the beast behind them. “Damned terentatek,” he cursed, then shooed the cluster of people away from Ev and Mission with broad gestures, “Move aside, move aside.”

“You can...?” Bastila started to ask, but Jolee was already kneeling by Mission's side, both hands lightly above her chest. His eyes were closed and brow furrowed. He mumbled wordlessly to himself. The others watched him silently. An agonizing minute later, he drew his hands away and Mission was breathing easier.

She propped herself up with her arms and smiled at Jolee, “Thanks.”

Jolee didn't respond. He had already moved over to Ev. This time, it took much longer. As he knelt with his hands suspended over her back, sweat trickled over his face. Slowly, her wounds closed up and her ragged breathing smoothed out. She moaned and tried to roll over, but Jolee's firm hand on her shoulder convinced her otherwise. Though weak, Ev seemed to understand what was happening to her. She submitted to his healing. Finally, Jolee relaxed back onto his haunches. “That's the best I can do,” he panted, “But you're still going to have a messy set of clothes. I can't do anything about the blood stains.”

Ev rolled over and stiffly propped herself up. “Thanks Jolee, I owe you one,” she said.

“You're going to owe me two by the time the day is over,” He said with a laugh and helped her up.

“Hey now,” Ev argued, “we chased off your poachers fair and square. Once you open that barrier for us, we'll be even on that account.”

“Alright, fair enough,” Jolee laughed, “Fresh out of a healing and you've still got spunk.”

Seeing Ev standing before them in on piece, Carth found himself breathing easier as well.

Without a word, Ev sauntered over to where her lightsaber had fallen and picked it up. She rolled it over in her hands once before clipping it back to her belt.

“What was that thing anyway?” Mission asked, staring at the beast's corpse.

“Terentatek,” Jolee answered, “That thing has tried to chase me down a couple times too. Foul tempered thing.”

“A terentatek,” Bastila marveled, “I thought they were all wiped out by the Great Hunt.”

“Kashyyyk can hide a lot of things that don't want to be found,” Jolee said simply, “This one made it through alive.”

“Excuse me for asking, but what is a terentatek anyway?” Carth asked.

“Heh,” Jolee chuckled dryly, “There a nasty beast, bred by the Dark Side long, long ago. They feed on the Force and make their prey of people who the Force flows most strongly through.”

“Well, that explains why it didn't care a whiff about us,” Canderous observed.

“Hey, what's this?” Ev asked suddenly. She still stood beside the terentatek's body. Reaching in, she tugged at one of the spikes. Or at least, it appeared to be a spike. When Ev pulled it clean of the body, it revealed itself to be a long steel blade, marked all up the shaft with a writing system Carth didn't recognize. It appeared to be a vibroblade without a hilt.

Zaalbar rumbled something in amazement and lumbered over to Ev. He stared intently at the blade in Ev's hands as she tried to clean it off with her own filthy clothes. She looked up at the Wookiee and asked, “What is it, Zaalbar?”

The Wookiee made a short reply.

“Bacca's Blade?” Ev echoed. “Well, if you want to hold onto it, be my guest,” she offered and handed the hilt-less weapon to Zaalbar. He reverently secured it with his bowcaster across his back.

“So, if everyone is feeling healthy and fine, we should get a move on,” Jolee urged, “It's not wise to be in the lower Shadowlands after dark. Granted it's always dark here...”

“Lead on, Jolee,” Bastila said respectfully.

“Don't get on reverent on me just because I'm old,” Jolee muttered and started off. They traveled back the direction they had come and turned down the path towards the barrier once they reached the clearing again. As they went, they met neither katarn nor kinrath and only a handful of tachs. Their presence in the area, or more likely the terentatek, seemed to have scared everything else away. Soon, after tramping through the moss and shrubby grasses, they came to the barrier once again.

“You better make good on your end of the deal,” Canderous threatened.

“Hold your hyperdrives, will you,” Jolee snapped, but good naturedly. He approached the durasteel support and felt around for something. Soon, he pried open a small hatch with his fingernails. “I can only manipulate it for a moment,” he murmured as he began to fiddle with the wiring. The violet barrier flickered and faded away. “Hurry on through!” Jolee ordered. The crew dashed through the giant archway, Jolee following after. He barely made it through before the field leaped up again.

“Thank you Jolee,” Bastila commended him, “You certainly have done your part.”

“Not yet, I haven't,” Jolee disagreed. “You don't know where you're going from here.”

“We have the Force to lead us,” Bastila argued confidently.

“Sure sure, but your little Dark Side sensor will lead you down lots of dead ends and into plenty of kinrath nests before it gets you to the star map. If you want less of a hassle, I can take you right there myself.”

“Well,” Ev started huffily.

“He's got a point, Bastila,” Ev agreed, “He said himself that we don't want to be down here after dark.

“Alright,” Bastila gave in, “Lead on.”

The path slowly descended downward. The mist that hung around their ankles gradually thickened the deeper they went. From the sky, one would never guess that Kashyyyk was hilly, thanks to the woshyr trees. From the forest floor, it was just as topographically diverse as any other planet.

The cries down below were different, harsher. It kept the crew alert even as their legs began to ache for a rest. They did take a short stop to munch down some dried rations for lunch, but their pause was brief. None of them felt comfortable standing still for too long.

“You know, Jolee,” Carth started. Something had been bothering him ever since Jolee first talked about Chuundar with Ev. “How do the Wookiees stand for it when they know their chieftain is selling them off to slavers?”

Jolee laughed darkly. “They don't,” he answered. “Chuundar and a couple of others have this deal with Czerka where they lead them to hunting parties or tip them off where, when, and how many Wookiees to expect for the taking. The rest of them are in the dark. I've seen it happen far too often. To the Wookiees, it seems like coincidence and accidents. They hate Czerka, but love Chuundar, after all he promises for security and strength. Some have started to suspect, but none would risk his honor to call out their mighty chieftain.”

“That's terrible,” Carth shook his head, “What could lead someone to sell out his own people?”

Jolee shrugged, “Money and power seem to be at the bottom of anything like this. Though, you have to remember, that this is the Wookiee that happily had both his younger brother and his father outcast.”

That caught Zaalbar's attention. He roared something angrily in question.

“Sorry to be the one bearing all the bad news today,” Jolee said, “Your father found out about Chuundar's deal about a year or two after you left, I think. Chuundar threw him out, saying he had gone mad.”

Zaalbar growled something else, but Jolee didn't respond to it.

“The Wookiees really don't have it easy around here,” Jolee commented, “Their own chieftain is selling them out when the terrors of the Shadowlands don't get them first. I've heard rumors that there's a rouge group of Mandalorians deeper in that has been picking off hunting parties just for sport.”

“It's a nice dangerous place, a good challenge with plenty of honorable game,” Canderous commented.

“You'd say that, wouldn't you?” Mission said accusingly.

“During the war, we thought long and hard about attacking Kashyyyk,” Canderous explained, “Wookiees are great warriors and would have been worthy opponents for our army. We can use our war droids and our fleet in the sky, but in these trees, that is the Wookiee's domain. To take this planet, we would have had to burn this place to the ground. In the end, it wasn't worth it.”

Zaalbar's grumbled comment seemed perplexed.

“You can talk about honor all you want,” Jolee said, “But a war is a war. And, frankly, I'm glad you didn't burn my home to the ground. Where else in the galaxy would you find trees like this?”

“Such are the casualties of battle,” Canderous replied noncommittally.

Jolee shot him a glare out of the corner of his eyes. “In any case, these Mandalorians here are no good. I hear they only sneak up on the Wookiees when they are unarmed, using stealth field generators,” Jolee continued, “The poor Wookiees never know what hit them. Between the Czerka slavers and those damned bucket-heads, there have been a lot of hunting parties going missing lately. It seems only to add to the honor of a warrior that can go down here and come back alive.”

“Bah,” Canderous said disapprovingly, “Those are exactly the sort of cowards that fled before the war was over. They can hardly call themselves Mandalorian Warriors.”

“Canderous, have you met any of your people since the war that you approve of?” Carth ventured. He remembered how Canderous reacted to the other Mandalorians on Dantooine.

“Those that still keep their armor and claim to be following the old ways are all cowards,” Canderous spat. “They only have their armor still because they ran away when it started to look like we were losing to Revan and Malak. They didn't face defeat with honor. Those of us that survived Malachor V, we were forced to watch as our armor, our weapons, and our basilisk war droids were destroyed before our eyes. The clans are broken, scattered. Some tried to continue raids on the outer rim, reliving the good old days, but those days are gone. They're nothing more than pathetic pirates without a purpose in life. Some turned into criminals and assassins. Some turned into mercenaries.” He leveled Carth with an even stare. “You asked if there are any Mandalorian's I'm proud of?” he chuckled and looked away. “I can't even be proud of myself. I was a mercenary doing dirty work for the Exchange on Taris. It wasn't challenging, stimulating, or anything worthy of honor. The glory of Mandalore is gone. I can hope that, with you all, with her,” he nodded in Ev's direction, “That I can regain my honor, at least in my own eyes.”

“Interesting,” was all Carth could say in reply.

Despite Jolee's promise to lead them safely to the star map, they managed to trip into a nest of viper kinrath. Though chaotic, the battled ended with kinrath corpses scattered in all directions and only Zaalbar needing any healing. He was scratched only slightly by one of their spindly legs, but the poison that seeped in was potent. Jolee, after all his years in the Shadowlands, was an expert at removing poison by Force healing.

They continued on. Carth knew when they drew close to the star map even before he could see it. He felt the same bone chilling cold wash over him as he had in the ruins at Dantooine even though the forest floor was warm and humid. Ahead of him, Ev and Bastila appeared tense as well.

Passing under a fallen log, it was suddenly before them. Where Carth had expected a simple star map covered in moss and hiding among the thees, there was a massive metal structure lit with fluorescent lights around the base. Claws of dark metal reached up four or five stories into the dimness above from a rounded base. A holoprojection of a full sized humanoid surveyed them all from a platform that jutted out from the base. It was unlike any species Carth had ever seen. It stood at least as tall as a human with more muscular shoulders and arms. It's head was tall and oblong with a wide mouth and a considerable forehead. Protruding from either side of the head were pivoting eyes. The star map itself sat tucked away in a corner of the clearing, understated by comparison to the huge structure that overshadowed it.

“Well, here it is,” Jolee said proudly. He sounded somewhat amused. “Your star map.”

The group reverently gathered around the holoprojection.

“What is all this?” Bastila asked, awed.

“Greetings,” the holoprojection spoke in a pleasant but mechanical male voice, “Initializing interface. Commencing neural scan.” It stared straight at Ev. “Initial match found.”

“Match found?” Jolee sputtered, “This is the part where it always tells me 'access denied'!”

Everyone stared at Ev in disbelief. She shrugged then turned her attention back to the holoprojection.

“How can I be of service?” it asked.

“We are seeking a star map,” Ev addressed it, “What is the purpose of this interface?”

“Error. Subject displays unfamiliarity with surroundings. Further behavioral reconfiguration will be necessary,” it spouted. Then, more pleasantly, it answered, “Error. Data corrupted. It can be inferred that this facility was original meant to monitor and facility growth on this planet. Facility has since malfunctioned. It can be inferred that has led to the super growth and accelerated evolution of species on this planet.”

Carth could see that Ev was enthralled. He couldn't blame her.

“When did this facility malfunction?” she asked.

“Ev, the map,” Bastila reminded her quietly.

“This facility malfunctioned 241 years after last known Builder contact,” it replied, “Last know Builder contact, 29,642 Galactic Standard years ago.”

“Thirty thousand years ago!” Bastila exclaimed. Even she was caught up in the interface now. “That predates the Republic as well.”

“But why was this facility needed to facilitate growth in the first place?” Ev asked.

“Error. Data corrupted. It can be inferred that this planet was unable to maintain a sustainable level of agriculture. It can be inferred that produce was exported to supply a larger demand after reform,” it answered.

“The Infinite Empire,” Ev whispered in realization. Again she addressed the interface, “What is the current function of this facility now?”

“Current function: defense,” it replied simply.

“Who else has tried to access this recently?” she asked.

“Recent accesses, grouped by identity: three attempts by Wookiee Freyyr, all denied. 152 attempts by human Jolee Bindo, all denied,” it replied.

“Heh... what can I say? I was bored,” Jolee laughed, embarrassed, “There isn't much else to do down here.”

“Error. Data regarding earlier accesses corrupted. Likelihood of removal by user: 100%,” it continued.

“Revan must have been here,” Bastila commented. It ignored here.

“Yeah, what about Revan?” Ev asked.

“Data concerning individual Revan unavailable,” it pronounced, “Likelihood of removal by user: 100%.”

“Well, that's not helpful,” Mission complained.

“Wait, you speak Galactic Basic,” Ev observed, “Has this interface been here all along?”

“Error. Data corrupted. Based in programming logs, it can be inferred that this retro-adaptive holocron-interface was installed no earlier than five years ago in order to better access the information stored in the original system memory,” it answered.

“That's about the time Revan and Malak would have come through,” Bastila observed.

“Speaking of information,” Ev returned to the point, “We're here seeking a star map.”

“Star map found in original system memory. Restricted,” the holoprojection pronounced, “Additional security access through identity profiling will be required.”

“Identity profiling?” Ev asked.

“Through a behavioral reconfiguration scan, you must meet certain personality characteristics stored in my memory, or be made to meet them,” it explained.

“And how am I supposed to meet them if I don't know what they are?” Ev demanded.

“Just behave as you should,” it replied.

“Okay, fine, let's start this scan,” Ev said. Carth could see her tensing up. Unlike Bastila, Ev's body language still remained fairly clear, even despite Jedi training.

“Hypothetical situation,” the holoprojection began, “You are traveling with the Wookiee Zaalbar. You are both arrested for a minor crime and sentenced to one year in prison. However, if you accuse Zaalbar and call him a traitor, you are set free and he receives a five year sentence. He is offered the same deal. If you both accuse each other, both of you receive two years in prison. What do you do?”

Ev glanced back at Zaalbar. He was watching her carefully.

“I wouldn't say anything and I trust Zaalbar to do the same. I couldn't call him a traitor,” Ev replied after a moment's thought.

“Incorrect,” the holoprojection replied.

“What?” Ev spat, “I thought this was a personality profiling test, not a quiz.”

“If you remain silent, you could receive one or five years in prison. If you accuse Zaalbar, you risk none or two years. Zaalbar's family is mired in treachery. He cannot be trusted,” it explained decisively.

Zaalbar yowled angrily.

“I know, I know,” Ev agreed with him, then turned back to the interface, “How do you know about Zaalbar and his family?”

“I hear a great many things that go on on Kashyyyk,” it replied, “My sensor range extends well beyond the atmosphere of this planet.” It paused then continued, “Previous error will be discounted. Further errors will result in rejection.”

Ev set her jaw and stared determinedly up at it.

“Hypothetical situation: you are at war,” it began again, “You received sliced information that a single point in your enemy's defenses will be at its weakest in ten days and that they will attack one of your cities in five days. What do you do?”

Ev responded much more quickly than the last time, “Subtly reinforce the city's defenses while preparing for an attack.”

“That is not an acceptable answer,” it replied, “Do you attack and sacrifice the city or do you protect the city?”

“I fortify the city and evacuate the citizens,” Ev said through gritted teeth, as if she knew what was coming next.

“Incorrect. And in doing so alert your enemy to their compromised code,” it said, “Your enemy will reinforce their own defenses and the war will continue although you have saved a city.”

“You really blew that one,” Canderous laughed in disbelief, “It's basic strategy that you have to make sacrifices in order to win greater victories. I would have thought you knew that.”

Carth glared back at him, but Canderous didn't notice. He was too busy watching Ev for what she would do next.

“Additional security access denied,” the holoprojection pronounced, “Initiate purging.”

Suddenly, there came a rattling noise from behind the massive structure. Two battled droids unlike Carth had ever seen before scurried out into the clearing and opened fire at the group. They were low but sizable, walking on four swinging legs. Both were cloaked in thick energy shields.

“Watch out!” Bastila cried. It took everyone a moment to scatter out of the way and find their weapons.

The three Jedi were hardly a match for the two battle droids and the energy shields rendered blasters useless. The droids were unable to get blaster shots beyond the whirling lightsabers, however. The battle was going nowhere.

Finally, Ev swept in and damaged whatever it was that sustained the shield on the droid in front of her. As soon as the bubble-like shield around it faded, the rest of the group pounded it with blaster bolts. Ev leaped over to the second droid, and Jolee took her place at the first, slicing off its front legs.

Ev clearly remembered where she had struck the first. In moments, the second droid's shields were down as well. She and Bastila made quick work of it while Jolee and the ranged fighters took down the first.

“What was that?” Ev demanded angrily of the interface as she stalked back towards it. She stowed her weapon as she went.

“Behavioral reconfiguration complete. Access granted,” it said, “It seems that during battle your emotions were much easier to read. My programming commands that I give you what you wish.”

“Okay,” Ev said, taking a deep breath to cast off her anger. “I want to see the star map.”

“Star map found in original system memory. Access granted,” it said. To the right of the interface, the three prongs of the star map lowered and a sphere hovered up into their center, projecting a spherical diagram of the galaxy.

“There it is again,” Bastila said quietly.

“Operation complete. Parameters reset. Interface shutting down,” the holoprojection said and suddenly disappeared.

“Well, we got what we wanted,” Ev said, shrugging as she stared at where it had been. She joined Bastila in front of the star map. Not forbidden to this time, Carth approached it as well.

“This one is corrupted too,” Bastila observed frustratedly, “It's missing bits of data.”

“But maybe if we combine this data with the other one, we'll be able to make more sense of it,” Ev suggested.

“You may be right,” Bastila agreed. “Let's see, the last one had some sort of data port...”

“There it is, on the left side,” Mission said eagerly, pointing to a thin slot near the base. “You might be able to fit a datapad into that.”

Ev already had a datapad in her hands. She squatted down next to the map and fished her datapad into the slot. The machinery made a few click and whirring noises before spitting the datapad back out. The moment Ev retrieved it, the arms of the star map closed up and the projection disappeared.

Ev stood and examined the datapad. “It's all here,” she said with relief.

Bastila took it gingerly out of Ev's hands and said, “We need to get this back to the Ebon Hawk and combine it with the other data we already have.”

“But don't you want to stay and enjoy the trees a little longer?” Jolee teased her.

Bastila glared at him but didn't say anything. Instead, she stowed the datapad in her satchel and started back the way they had come.

“Fine, fine,” Jolee sounded jokingly offended, “Don't listen to the crazy old man. Young people are always in such a hurry these days, never stopping to smell the kshyy blossoms.”

Carth couldn't help but chuckle. Maybe Jolee had the right approach to Bastila.

They group hadn't gotten far from the star map when a huge graying Wookiee leaped out in front of them with a roar. He waved a vibroblade over his head and charged.

“Freyyr! Wait!” Jolee protested, waving his hands in the air, “We're friends!”

The Wookiee roared back angrily, not slowing his long strides.

“We're not evil outsiders!” Mission cried, “We're on your side!”

Ev and Canderous were the only ones that didn't seem afraid to take action. Ev's lightsaber was up in an instant. She leaped in front of Bastila and Jolee, catching the Wookiee's powerful downswing. Canderous fired several warning shots to the side of his head. Meanwhile, Ev struggled under Freyyr's strength.

Suddenly, Zaalbar surged to the front of the group, throwing both Jolee and Bastila aside in his wake. He roared at their attacker and stared him straight in the eyes. Freyyr dropped his vibroblade and backed up a step in surprise. Ev immediately retracted her weapon and moved aside for Zaalbar.

The graying Wookiee murmured something and Zaalbar replied firmly.

“That's your dad?” Mission observed, surprised.

The two Wookiees continued to talk, Zaalbar encouraging his father.

Carth nudged Ev, who was listening attentively. “A little help here?” Carth whispered, “What's going on?”

“Freyyr is apologizing to Zaalbar for not believing him about the slavers and telling him about how Chuundar overthrew him as chieftain. He's been living down here as an exile ever since. He wishes that he could do something to stop Chuundar and retake his place, but he knows that he has been shamed and called a mad-claw as well,” Ev explained as best as she could.

Zaalbar drew the ancient blade they found from where he had slung it across his back and presented it to his father. Even Carth could read Freyyr's amazement in his face and movements.

“The Blade of Bacca,” Ev translated, “Zaalbar is repeating the legend about it. It marks the first contact with outsiders for the Wookiees. A ship crashed into the forest and Bacca, a mighty warrior, constructed a vibroblade out of the wreckage. It is a symbol of unquestionable leadership for the Wookiees. Generations back, one of the chieftains went on a ritual hunt for the great beast, but the blade broke off in its hide. Since then, they only hold the hilt. I guess Chuundar has it now.”

Freyyr reverently took the blade from Zaalbar and proudly held it above his head, yelling excitedly.

“He wants to take back Rwookrrorro and expose Chuundar for his slave dealings. Zaalbar wants to join him too,” Ev said in amazement. Just then, Zaalbar seemed to remember their presence. He turned to Ev and asked her something.

“No, of course, you should,” Ev replied, “This is your chance to really change things.”

The father and son conferred again for a few moments and made for the closest woshyr trunk.

“Wait!” Ev called, “We're coming with you. We can help.”

“Yeah,” Mission agreed, “Where Big Z goes, I go.”

“Ev,” Bastila reminded her, “We need to get this data back to the Ebon Hawk.”

The pair of Wookiees turned back to them and measured them up. Zaalbar again addressed Ev.

She turned to the others and explained, “They are going to climb back up. It would be faster than returning to the lift. They're both very strong and could carry a few of us with them, but we'd have to trust in their strength.”

“I'm not afraid of heights,” Mission said boldly.

“Well, clearly, they can't carry us all,” Bastila replied. “I'll go back to the Ebon Hawk with the rest of the group, and you two can assist in this Wookiee revolution.”

Carth looked between Ev and Mission, where they stood apart from the group, and Bastila. Before he had even made up his own mind, the words slipped out of his mouth. “I'll go with you to,” he said and stepped towards the Wookiees. “I'm pretty good in a fight. That is, if you can carry me.”

“Carth,” Bastila sounded somewhat surprised.

Freyyr chortled something.

Ev laughed. “He says that someone so puny as you can hardly weigh enough to be troublesome,” she translated.

Carth tried not to feel offended

“Well, unless anyone else wants to volunteer to climb with the Wookiees, we should be off,” Bastila urged the rest of the group.

“Good luck,” Jolee said to them, “Give us a call on your comlink if you think you need a bit of backup. I assume you have a comlink, don't you? Anyway, I'm not crazy enough to ride a Wookiee all the way up one of those trees. Besides, they'll need me to get back through that barrier. I'll take the lift and see you at the other end.” With that, he trotted off after Bastila and Canderous.

The bottom of Carth's stomach felt like it dropped out when it occurred to him exactly what he had just volunteered for. He tilted his head back and looked up. The woshyr trunks loomed high above into the haze. He couldn't even see the canopy from where he stood, feet firmly planted on the forest floor.

Well, here goes nothing.

- Next Part -

 

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