Authors: John Ostrander
Hawk Ryo drifted in and out the shadows, a shadow himself. The moon world Zerist was located far from the sun, and most of the available light was reflected off the gas giant, Obri, around which the moon orbited. Kainnan was typically bustling with activity, but the workers’ town was now deserted. Like all the surface towns on Zerist, Kainnan was located near an active volcano for its much needed warmth, despite the risk of occasional eruptions. The authorities usually predicted the eruptions in time and evacuated the threatened areas, just as they had recently done with Kainnan. No one was left in the town except Hawk.
In reality, the Je’daii Ranger spotted two figures atop the flat-roofed building less than a kilometer away. Only five stories high, it was still the tallest building in the area. They were Twi’leks, like himself. And armed. Hawk opened his comm and called his partner.
Her surroundings, Lanoree Brock decided, were beautiful.
Underground seas flowed through large caverns smoothed with high vaulted ceilings, and natural minerals gave off enough light to create a twilight effect. It was no wonder the rich of Zerist chose to live in the warm caverns rather than the cold surface of the moon. It was calm on this island, lending itself to meditation.
The negotiations were not. The management of Dessain Mining and the manual laborers were now simply shouting at one another; ill will was building. Lanoree was finding it difficult to maintain balance between the light and the dark sides of the Force as she was taught.
Management consisted entirely of the extended Dessain family, which was headed by Eomin Dessain, the tall, pale, patrician head of the clan. The workers, both human and alien, were led by short, weather-beaten Arko Santis, and demanded a voice in how the company was run. They left Zerist to labor at the gas mining operations floating above Obri. The pay was steady, if not generous, but it was a hard life.
For their part, the Dessains were loath to cede control to anyone who was not family. The solution, it was decided, would be a marriage between Brom Santis, Arko’s oldest son, and Oma Dessain, Eomin’s youngest daughter. Brom would become part of the Dessain family and a voice for the workers. Lanoree had gotten stuck with the role of negotiator, and though it wasn’t the solution she would have suggested, if it satisfied all parties concerned, then it satisfied her.
That was before Oma Dessain vanished.
Each side blamed the other for her disappearance. Work at Dessain Mining had ground to a halt. Tempers flared and open class warfare looked not only possible, but likely. Lanoree and Hawk had been sent by the Je’daii Council on Tython to prevent violence and find the girl.
Lanoree’s comm buzzed. The Ranger swung her long legs out of the chair, turning away from all the shouting. “Please tell me you found the girl.”
have found her,” Hawk replied. “I went to the spaceport to check who arrived or left around the time of the kidnapping. I discovered a Shikaakwan ship registered to Baron Volnos Ryo.”
“My brother the crime lord.” Lanoree could picture Hawk’s lips twisting in distaste. “He owns interests in the mining operations on Obri’s two other moons, but he’s never been able to get a foothold with the Dessains. One of the ways to increase the value of his own holdings is to decrease the value of his rival’s holdings. Are you growling?”
“Maybe. Will Oma still be alive?”
“Her body hasn’t been found, so it’s likely. If they intend to kill her, it’ll be when the two sides are at each others’ throats.”
“Which will be soon.”
“You have to keep them from reaching the boiling point. I think I’ve spotted where Oma is being held, but you can’t say anything until I know for sure. I’ll let you know what I find. Keep the workers and management from killing each other.”
“Right. You get the easy job.”
“The Force be with you.”
Lanoree turned back to the round wooden table and narrowed her gray eyes. Both sides were already at the breaking point. Violence was ready to erupt. But Lanoree had a theory: Sometimes the best way to cut off violence was to use it first.
Her right hand dropped to the slugthrower at her hip. She didn’t often carry one — didn’t need it most times — but something told her to wear one today. If there’s one thing Lanoree learned through her experience, it was to listen to her instincts.
With one fluid move, she aimed the slugthrower straight up over her head, and fired three bursts into the ceiling. The arguing stopped dead and all eyes went to the auburn-haired Ranger. Je’daii were mysterious beings to most of the sentients of the Settled Worlds. They went where they willed and intervened where they chose or, they claimed, as the Force directed. They had strange powers and were both respected and feared. Right now, Lanoree was feared.
Good. That meant she had their attention.
The slugthrower still in her hand, the Je’daii Ranger sat back in her chair, placing the weapon on the table before her, the barrel pointed at the now silent delegation. She spoke quietly. “The last time I was a negotiator was on Ska Gora. Before I was done, forests were ablaze and one of the parties was dead.”
She leaned forward. “I was hoping these negotiations would go smoother.”
In truth, the deaths and the burning forests on Ska Gora haunted Lanoree. The negotiators here on Zerist, however, didn’t need to know that.
“Perhaps we should begin again,” she suggested in a low murmur. They did, quietly, and with nervous glances in her direction.
Certain he hadn’t been seen by anyone, Hawk reached the side of the five-story building and glanced upwards. One guard was directly above him and the other would be across the roof. It was vital that he silence both before they could give alarm — assuming the girl was alive.
The Ranger brought his sword out of its sheath without a whisper, holding it in his right hand as he let the balance within him slip into the dark side. Hawk knew the dark side well; he dwelled too deeply in it once and it got him sent to Bogan, a moon of Tython where those who drifted too far to the dark side were sent by the Je’daii Council for solitary reflection and meditation until they returned to the balance. Right now he needed to use aggression, however, which meant channeling the dark side. He eased into it with a comfortable familiarity while he crouched and then Leaped straight upward, letting the Force carry him. Hawk cleared the edge of the roof, right in front of the very surprised Twi’lek guard, and without hesitation slashed his sword across the guard’s neck. He died silently.
The other guard sensed something amiss and started to turn. Hawk gestured with the Force and pulled him across the roof. The guard gasped for a moment before being impaled on the Ranger’s sword. Their eyes met and Hawk recognized him. Deon Aarlaa — one of his brother’s personal guards. Aarlaa’s eyes registered recognition as well, and then life faded from them. Hawk felt his death in the Force and part of him, the part that fed on the dark side, felt a deep satisfaction.
The Ranger let the body slide off his sword and took a deep breath, centering himself again in the balance. It was tempting for Hawk to just stay in the dark side as had once before. It was seductive but dangerous.
Hawk found a stairway in the middle of the roof leading down into the building and descended cautiously. Two floors down were two large rooms on either side of the stairwell, the doors left wide open in the haste of the evacuation. At first blush, they appeared to have been used as dormitories for workers that were unmarried; cots were overthrown and debris littered the floor.
Hugging the stairway wall, Hawk glanced through the doorway and found Oma. The girl was bound and gagged on a cot next to the wall opposite the door. A large and surly looking Twi’lek stood guard, a slug thrower at the ready, but he was looking at the far end of the room.
Focusing his senses through the Force, the Je’daii heard two more Twi’leks at the other end of the dormitory. Neither sounded happy.
“…thought this would be over by now!”
“You got other things to do?”
“Other than sit next to a sokar volcano? Yes!”
“The problem is that Je’daii sitting at the table. Not for long, though. Our contact will take care of her. Then we off the girl, leave the corpse where it can be found, and get gone.”
Hawk couldn’t risk comming a warning to Lanoree. His best bet was to settle things here and hope his fellow Ranger was still alive. However, the moment he made a move, the two guards at the end of the room would see him and the guard closest to Oma would certainly kill her. He needed a diversion.
The volcano provided a spectacular one. Ahead of schedule, the eruption started with a clap of thunder as plumes of pumice, flaming ash, and molten lava were belched into the air. Everyone was stunned for a moment, but then Hawk Ryo moved. His sword in his right hand and a long knife in his left, he swept into the room. Hurling the knife towards the guard standing next to Oma, he guided it with the Force into the Twi’lek’s neck. The guard’s finger tightened on the trigger of his slug thrower as he dropped; the shot went wild but was audible even over the roaring volcano.
Hawk pivoted towards the two other guards and sped towards them as they turned to the source of the slug fire and spotted him. A moment for their reaction. A few steps for Hawk.
A moment as they brought their slug throwers around. Another few steps. They aimed their weapons. Hawk threw himself into a forward roll beneath their shots and pushed off of one leg as he came forward and up. Flipping in mid-air over the guards, the Je’daii shoved his boot down hard into the upturned face of the one to his right. Nose bone and cartilage cracked as the Twi’lek fell backwards. The Je’daii landed, spun, and thrust his sword into the fallen Twi’lek’s chest — a quick and clean kill. His partner kept firing, but always where the Je’daii had been. Hawk landed in a crouch and, with a gesture of his hand, delivered a Force blow that sent his target backwards through the window. The Twi’lek’s scream was covered by the volcano’s roar.
Hawk preferred not to kill when he had the option, but there was no time and no other choice. Still, the dark part in him exulted and he struggled to bring himself back to the balance.