Knights of the Old Republic: Outcasts
Chapter Five: Respite

The world of Bhardesh lay within a cluster of stars so dense that there was literally only one way in.

This route, called the Bottleneck, was barely wide enough to accommodate hyperspace travel in and out safely. While this made for an ideal defensive position for the Republic base stationed on Bhardesh, it also meant that trade with the world was choked, to say the least.

Complicating this was the high sulfur content of the planet's lithosphere. While little enough of the toxic compound existed in the atmosphere, almost no vegetation could grow there except scrub-like toxic weeds. Foodstuffs of all sorts were avidly imported by the planetary population, most of which didn't care if it was legal importation or not. Smuggling might be illegal on Bhardesh, but it was no crime.

The Wanderer came out of hyperspace over the planet and was assigned a hangar by a bored-sounding control officer. Liana guided the ship to rest. Gaman had apparently come through with a follow-up message containing the buyer's contact info, because Renn was busy on the comm the minute they touched down. "He'll meet us at a warehouse not far from here in about an hour," he told Liana. "We'll need transport for the crates. Sounds like he's pretty desperate for this stuff, too. Should pay well."

She nodded and rose, stretching. "I would like the droids to stay here and keep the ship ready to leave quickly, just in case there's trouble."

"Agreed. Let's get a swoop or a speeder and get it loaded. It'll be nice to finally get rid of this stuff," Renn muttered as they left the cockpit.

Kara and Aeron stood by the hatch, waiting to disembark. Kara still kept a bit of distance between her and the Jedi, but some of the raw anger had left her.

The ramp lowered onto a bright day on the planet below. Liana strode down the ramp, her blaster ready, and paused at the base to look around. "It seems all right," she called back up.

Renn started toward the ramp, then stopped. "I almost forgot," he said, reaching into his pouch and withdrawing the cylinder of Aeron's lightsaber. "The Captain asked me to give this back to you. I hope you don't mind, but I've never handled one before, so I took a look at how it was assembled. Don't worry, I put it back together."

Aeron's eyebrow raised, but he didn't say anything besides "Thank you." He took the lightsaber and clipped it to his belt, out of sight.

Renn drew a few more miscellaneous parts from his pouch. "Well, I guess I should give you these too. There were a couple of pieces left over when I reassembled it."

Aeron sighed. "Of course there were..." He took the parts as well. Pocketing them, he followed Liana down the ramp.

"I wonder what he'll do with B4's spare actuators?" Renn whispered to Kara, who erupted in laughter.

This spaceport was quite a bit different from Othani back on Derra IV, Kara thought as their hired speeder whisked them through the city towards the warehouse. Far more species of people milling about, none of the urgency and a lot more variety.

They passed a street vendor hawking his wares, but the vendor himself was far more interesting to Kara. He looked like he'd been sculpted by some drunk god. His legs were long, muscular and attached to his shoulders. His arms were stunted and dangled from his waist.

"What the heck is that?" she asked.

Renn craned his neck. "A Dug. Mean little biters. Don't try to bargain with one."

They passed a few more interesting shops, one filled with women's clothing, some of which looked so light and airy it might be a hologram. Kara looked at them in wonder, then sniffed her own sleeve, wrinkling her nose. "Ugh," she said simply.

"You should buy more clothing after you change your money," Liana suggested. "I'm sure Renn won't mind a few extra stops." Her gaze shifted to Aeron. "If you intend to continue with us, you may want some nondescript clothing as well."

Kara waited for the startled objection, the banal protests that his robes were a symbol of his austere order, blah, blah, blah. She almost fell over when he nodded and said it was a most sensible precaution.

"I wish to accompany you as long as you will have me," Aeron added, turning to her. "I know I have been... heavy-handed... in my insistence that you be trained. I am sorry for that, but I would like to be of service, if I may. My knowledge of the Force may assist you in choosing your own path."

The sincerity of the offer stunned Kara. "I, uh... Thank you. I think I have enough crystals to pay for your passage." She looked thoughtful. "But it isn't me you have to ask." She indicated Liana and Renn.

"An apology?" Renn snorted. "Who is this and what has he done with our pet Jedi?"

Liana shook her head at her partner, though she didn't look up from the speeder's controls. "As long as you are willing to abide by our rules, Jedi, you may stay. You do not have to pay us for passage."

"Oh, no," Kara pouted. "I was gonna threaten to cut him off if he got too annoying... You're no fun, Liana."

"That's what pushing him out the airlock is for," Renn noted darkly.

Aeron sniffed in imitation of his former stiffness. "One does not simply stuff a Jedi out an airlock. We tend to make too great a mess against one's hull."

"The ship can be cleaned," Kara pointed out.

"I'm in trouble then, aren't I?" Aeron appealed to Liana.

"Doomed," she agreed.

They reached the warehouse in question about fifteen minutes before the meeting time their buyer had requested. They left the speeder running and the cargo still loaded in it. After their last deal gone sour, Liana was taking no chances with this one.

The man came alone, without even bodyguards. He was a short, thin humanoid with pinkish-purple skin and golden eyes, dressed in fine clothes. He bowed when he got close enough. "Gaman said you were punctual, Captain. I'm glad to see it." He didn't seem fazed by the four pairs of eyes fixed on him. He opened the large door set into the side of the warehouse, which was easily big enough for them to drive the speeder into.

Once they were all inside and the warehouse door closed -and all four of them with hands on weapons, if only by reflex- the alien spoke again. "Thank you for bringing it so quickly. I have four thousand credits, the amount I agreed upon with Gaman."

Renn seemed happy about that figure, so Liana nodded and opened a crate so the buyer could inspect the bottles. "Excellent, thank you, Captain."

"My partner will accept the money, as we unload the crates." She signalled Renn forward to deal with the financial side of things. "No powers, please," she said quietly to the Force users, lifting one of the crates down.

Kara blinked innocently at her, then whispered to Aeron, "You gotta show me how to do that sometime."

"Later," he hushed her.

It took them only moments to set the crates down on the warehouse floor, by which time Renn had worked out the details of the money transfer with their strange alien buyer. "A pleasure, Captain," he said, bowing again. "I'll be sure to inform Gaman I am most pleased."

"Thank you," she replied, returning his bow this time. It seemed he thought they were working for Gaman, but it didn't really matter. As long as they were paid and free to attend to other business now. The man let the speeder out of the warehouse, then closed it again behind them.

"That was too easy," Renn remarked.

Liana bared her teeth. "Jedi, did you sense any treachery from him?"

Aeron shrugged. "It was hard to tell. He was very intent on something, but I suspect it was not getting caught."

"No way," Kara said. "When he talked to you, Liana, his song was much brighter. I agree he was nervous, but not about us."

"When we have time," Aeron said, "you must show me how you listen to the Force as music. I think it could help immensely."

Kara smiled, but didn't comment. "So, now what, Boss?"

Liana's ears flicked, and Renn smirked at the new title. "Now we resupply and refuel. I believe we may rest here safely, at least for a short time."

Aeron suddenly looked thoughtful. "Perhaps we could put my stuffy old robes to a good use," he began. "It is not uncommon for a Jedi to exchange valuable trinkets for local currency. Maybe I should exchange Kara's gems instead? It would be less remarked upon."

"If you think you can get a good price for them," Renn shrugged. "And assuming the locals don't mistrust Jedi."

"Better if they do. A single Jedi with a gem like that would still draw less notice than two spacers who frankly look like they've never seen that much money, eh?" Aeron responded. "No offense," he added quickly.

Renn snorted, then took a look around at their surroundings. "Maybe, in this backwater," he said reluctantly.

"With the Bottleneck, they probably don't get many visitors of either persuasion," Liana put in.

"In any event," Aeron said, "I believe I see a likely money changer. Kara, may I have one of your gems?"

The girl handed one over. "Just don't get mugged."

"I'll try not to," he returned dryly as Liana pulled to a stop.

Aeron returned a few minutes later and handed her a decidedly large pouch of coins. "These are all fairly low value," he explained. "I took the original large cash notes around and had it broken up. It should help avoid notice."

"So, where to now?" Kara asked.

"I need to attend to refueling the ship and restocking supplies," Liana answered. "You both could use some new clothing. Renn?"

"I'll keep them out of trouble," he replied.

"Do not worry, Liana," Aeron said. "I'll keep Renn out of trouble too."

Liana laughed and turned to Kara. "Keep them both out of trouble, and don't let them bully you."

"Don't worry," the girl laughed back, "I'm very good to my beasts of burden."

"That doesn't sound good," Renn noted.

An hour later, Renn found out how 'not good' it sounded.

Kara had dragged them to three separate vendors, each hawking odd bits of clothing. Kara selected various items with a critical eye, always sturdy garb, albeit in a veritable rainbow of colors. Aeron had excused himself early and returned to them a bit later to find that Renn was now burdened with packages and Kara stood comparing different shawls.

Aeron, Renn noted, was now almost as nondescript as he was. The Jedi now wore simple trousers and tunic unadorned by any display of ornamentation. His lightsaber was nowhere in view but a large pouch with a datapad sticking out of it was. All in all, Renn would have taken the man for a poor scholar traveling the galaxy.

"Not bad," Renn said. "Here." He dumped what he'd been forced to carry into Aeron's surprised grasp. "It's your turn for a while."

He came up beside the girl. He wasn't a good judge of women's clothing. Liana was the only female of any species he'd had a lot of contact with, and, well, her people didn't really wear clothes. "You know, you can probably afford something nicer than this stuff," he said quietly, fingering one of the garments she was looking at.

She looked over at a display mannequin bedecked with some light, frilly fabric, then she turned her head sharply away. "It's not me," she said quickly. "I'd feel like a prize bovine trussed up for show."

Renn followed her gaze and snorted. "You'd be surprised how easily people are impressed by nice clothes. Might not hurt to have some around, at least."

Kara was about to reply when Renn's comlink beeped. He fished it out. "Yeah?"

"The ship's ready to go," came Liana's voice. "Are you still shopping?"

He glanced at Kara, and then at Aeron who was fumbling not to drop the top-most of Kara's bundles. "Yeah. Hey, did you return that speeder yet?"

"Not yet. Do you need me to come meet you?"

"Would be nice."

His comlink clicked off with an 'on my way' from his partner. "Liana's bringing the speeder. Are you almost done?"

She was looking at a set of carved combs in a display case. "What? Oh, yeah, we're done." She paid for everything and went to relieve Aeron of the tottering parcel.

"You two go on ahead and meet Liana," Renn said. "I have to look for some extra parts for the ship. It shouldn't take me long."

Kara and Aeron stood outside the shops by the main street, waiting for Liana. "So, pardon my rudeness," Kara said, "but you seem a bit different today..."

Aeron actually laughed. "Renn made a comment that made me think about something. It led to a chain of realizations."

"Renn said something thought-provoking?"

"Well, I once meditated over a pebble for three days. It didn't mean the pebble itself was intelligent," he replied with a wink. "Basically, Renn made me realize that the way I view people and events is not always the only correct way. Believe it or not, Kara, you actually guessed correctly. The Jedi Academy DIDN'T let me out much. I was brought up almost from birth by masters who taught me that the only truth of the universe lies in Jedi lore. Now I see the narrowness of that idea."

He looked around a bit guiltily as Liana's speeder approached, "But don't tell Renn that all right? I may never live it down if he finds out."

Liana's pulled the speeder to a halt nearby and hopped out to help them load the packages. "I see you bought quite a bit," she remarked. "Where is Renn?"

"Getting ship parts, he says," Kara responded. "Don't know where he got off to."

Liana bared her teeth. "You don't sound as if you believe that."

"No, I believe it, I just don't know where the scoundrel is. Maybe he's buying more droid actuators."

"Why would he need more droid actuators?" Liana blinked.

"To replace the ones he gave me as a joke," Aeron responded. "As if I didn't know what my own lightsaber parts looked like."

"You knew?" Kara asked.

Aeron gave her a level gaze and made her laugh.

Liana shook her head. "That sounds like him."

"What sounds like me?" Renn asked, coming up on the other side of the speeder.

"We were just wondering where you were," Liana said, flicking her ears forward.

"I just saw a broadband multi-phasic transponder at one of the junk shops and I thought it could be useful." All three of them blinked back at him. "Trust me, it's good."

"I should have warned you not to let him loose around ship parts," Liana murmured, though her voice sounded amused.

The Wanderer climbed through the upper atmosphere and into space. It cruised at full sub-light until reaching a safe distance from Bhardesh. "Where to, Boss?" Renn asked, smirking, from the co-pilot's seat. He seemed to like that particular nickname, much to Liana's chargin.

"Out of the Bottleneck, at least," she said with a dark look in her partner's direction. "Has Gaman come through with any more information?"

"No, and that makes me nervous." He started calculations for one of the planets just on the other side of the narrow hyperspace route. "Ready," he said after a moment.

The stars blurred to thin lines as Liana sent her ship into hyperspace. She settled back into her chair, feeling aimless for the first time in a long time. Where are we supposed to go from here? she asked herself. All we really know is that this Sith Lord wants Kara for some purpose, and that strange crystal, the holocron, knows something of it. Maybe we'll need information from Aeron's Jedi Academy after all.

"Hey," Renn said quietly, "you look worried."

"I am. I'm not certain where to go next."

"If Gaman doesn't come through, there are other places. Neera owes me a favor too."

She sighed. "Why does half the galaxy seem to owe you favors, Renn?"

It was a question she'd asked before, and they both knew she wasn't expecting any real answer. He just gave her a familiar half-smirking smile in return. She shook her head at him. "Let's see if we can't figure out where we're going."

They found Kara and Aeron talking in the main hold. "I hope we're not interrupting something," Renn muttered, dropping into a solitary seat across from them.

"Nothing Galaxy-shaking," Kara said. She made room on the bench for Liana who sank down next to her.

"I must admit," Liana said, "that I'm not sure what our next step should be. We don't have much more information about our pursuer now than we did when we set out."

Aeron cleared his throat. "May I contact... Solara?" he asked. Renn smirked at the pause. "I will try to secure access to our archives. Maybe the Jedi have the information we need."

"If your Masters will not object, that may be the best lead we have." Liana nodded.

"Gaman's usually better than this," Renn mused. "He should have gotten us something by now."

Liana looked grim. "It may be that his inquiries were noticed by the Sith."

"I was trying not to think about that," muttered her partner, looking down at his hands.

Kara opened her mouth to speak when the ship violently lurched and suddenly she was flung across the hold to tackle Renn.

"What the blazes?!" Aeron exclaimed, picking himself up from the floor.

A series of beeps came over the intercom. The astromech droid was screaming about something.

Renn had caught hold of Kara's shoulders before she knocked him out of his seat, and muttered a few choice words, trying to get them both upright so he could get to the cockpit.

Liana's Trianii sense of balance kept her more-or-less upright through the ship's sudden rocking. She was out of her seat and moving of her own accord before any of the others had recovered. She stopped at the hold's security panel. "It's a Sith battleship," she growled. "They pulled us out of hyperspace."

"How the hell did they find us so fast?" Renn demanded as he ran past her for the cockpit.

"With our luck?" Kara asked, hot on his heels.

"There's no such thing as luck," Aeron added darkly.

Liana arrived in the cockpit to find Renn already pouring over his console. "Sithspit!" he swore. "They've got an Interdictor too! That's what pulled us back to normal space. There are fighters all over the place."

"Can you do that trick again?" Kara asked.

"No good, these are the older manned models. I think this battleship is the one we snuck past at Derra IV. They've obviously learned."

The ship jolted again, and Liana half-fell the final inches into her seat. She strapped herself in quickly. The Wanderer's engines whined a little as they tried to fight the sudden pull toward the Sith flagship. "They've locked a tractor beam onto us," she announced.

"I'm firing up the turbolasers," Renn said.

The comm crackled to life, and a new voice flooded the cockpit. "Attention, Wanderer, this is the Sith Naval vessel Dragon. You will stand down and prepare to be taken aboard or you will be destroyed. Our arsenal has targeted you. Any sign of resistence and we will open fire. We are aware of your crew complement; if a single escape pod leaves your vessel it will be destroyed as well. This is your ONLY warning."

"Like hell-" Renn began, but Liana cut him off.

"Do it, Renn," she said, her ears back and her teeth bared.

He stared at her. "We're just going to go quietly?!"

"We have to. Alive, we can still do something."

Renn deactivated the weapons systems, though it was obvious he didn't like this. Neither did she, but they had no other choice.

A new voice came over the cockpit speaker, this one filled with anger. "Wanderer, this is Kirennan Venaar. You will release Lady Vanden at once. If you harm her in any way, you will wish we HAD opened fire, is that clear?"

"He makes it sound as if we kidnapped you," Liana growled.

Renn reached over and closed the comm channel. "Yeah, I've heard about enough of this." He stood up.

Liana grabbed his arm. "Where are you going?"

"I can't sit here and watch this, Liana. You do realize they're gonna kill us as soon as they get us onboard? We're not what they want. We're disposable."

Kara stood straight up. "That's it! Let me talk to Venaar."

Aeron broke his stonily silence. "Do not listen to him. He can twist you around his will like a sculptor's clay."

"Oh, I won't listen. He will."

"Dragon," Liana said to the re-activated comm unit, "this is the Captain of the Wanderer. Please connect me to Venaar."

"Yes, Captain," the Sith Lord's voice came back.

"Kara wishes to address you," she said simply and motioned for Kara to proceed.

Renn seemed to figure out what she was intending then. "Kid, don't."

"I have to," she replied softly. "Lord Venaar. You want me, you can have me. On my terms. You will let the others go. I will board an escape pod and launch it. You will then allow the Wanderer to leave. Interfere with it, or capture the pod before they go, and I will eat my own lightsaber. Do you understand?"

A moment of silence passed. "Agreed. After we scan the pod and determine you are aboard, the Wanderer is free to go. We will, however, hold them in our tractor beam until your pod is clear. Further, you will bring with you all artifacts you recovered from Derra IV. I will know if you attempt to conceal it. Are we agreed?"

"He erred," Aeron whispered. "He wants one thing in particular. My guess, it is the Holocron."

Kara nodded. "Very well. Stand by, Dragon."

Renn stalked out of the cockpit before she'd even finished speaking. Liana closed the comm channel again. Her clawed hand was shaking as she did so. "We cannot allow you to sacrifice yourself for us, Kara."

"You were right. You can do more alive. I can't let you all die for me."

"You cannot let him have the knowledge he wants, not if it is as dire as your grandmother claimed." Liana looked toward the Jedi, hoping he would back her on this.

Aeron nodded firmly. "If a Sith Lord wants it that badly, it must not fall into his hands."

"I won't allow it to," she spat back. "I'll destroy the Holocron as soon as you're away. I assume it's vulnerable to a lightsaber?"

"It is," he said simply. "Kara...." his voice choked off. There was nothing he could do, she knew he was aware of it. "May the Force be with you."

Liana stood and laid her hand on the girl's shoulder. "We won't leave you there. We'll find a way to come back for you."

Kara nodded. If she'd tried to say anything, she would have broken down and cried. Covering Liana's hand with her own for a bare moment, Kara left the cockpit.

Kara retrieved the Holocron from the dormitory and was making her way to the escape pods when she found Renn literally blocking the narrow hallway.

"Here," he said, without preamble, holding out a small capsule. "Swallow this."

"I beg your pardon? We don't have time for this, Renn," She tried to push past him but he held firm.

"It's a tracking beacon, one the Sith won't find and destroy if they scan for devices. It'll only activate if we're actively looking for you."

"Renn," she protested, eyes getting misty, "you and I both know this is one-way..."

Renn's hand swooped in and pinched her nose. Her mouth opened in startled protest, and he popped the transmitter in and covered her mouth.

Unable to breath, Kara instinctively swallowed and Renn let go. "That was really, really low, Renn," she gasped.

"You can thank me later," he said.

'No, dammit, not here in front of him!' she thought furiously, feeling the well-chasm of tears wanting to rip open.

This time when she pushed past him, he let her go.

"Captain," the sensor tech reported. "Escape pod jettisoned from the Wanderer. Scans show a single human female aboard."

Captain Hyridan nodded. He hated this, to be dictated to by a foolish farm girl. The shame of it was too much. He was tempted, oh so tempted, to order gunnery to reduce the Wanderer to sub-atomic particles. Only a cool hand on his shoulder prevented him.

Lord Venaar said in a smooth whisper, "Do not mistake me, Captain. Kara Tao Vanden is vital to our plans. We must have her willing cooperation and for that, I will endure her attitude. Soon enough, she will not resist."

"Yes, My Lord," Hyridan responded. "When the pod is clear, release our tractor of the Wanderer. Has the Interdictor powered down?"

"Yes, Captain, the freighter will be able to leave," the tech answered.

The freighter soon jumped away in a flicker of pseudo-motion. "Lock onto the pod and bring it aboard," Hyridan ordered.

"I will be in the Hangar bay. Have all personnel not required for the recovery evacuate the area. I will greet our visitor alone." Venaar spoke from behind him.

Why not? It made as much sense as the rest of this madness. "Yes, My Lord."

Out the tiny viewport, Kara saw the Wanderer leave. Oddly, she felt her eyes go dry - whether out of fear or relief, it was hard to know.

In the zero gravity of the pod, she let the Holocron float free. She aimed the end of her lightsaber at it and fingered the activation stud.

Nothing happened.

She tried again. Still nothing.

Now the fear came on in earnest. Through the music she could hear a single note, a swelling more elemental than the universe itself. It came on through a rising, singular scale.

No, it sang.

The note passed, leaving Kara feeling small as a grain of sand.

Then the pod lurched. Venaar had her. He had the Holocron, he had everything he wanted, and it was her fault.

Leaving the lightsaber to float with the Holocron, she wrapped her arms around herself and curled into a ball.

-End, Chapter Five