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Saga - PT Dr. Nema and the Assassin in Yellow

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by Mechalich, Feb 14, 2020.

  1. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Feb 2, 2010
    Title: Dr. Nema and the Assassin in Yellow
    Author: Mechalich
    Timeframe: 22 BBY, 35 Days after the Battle of Geonosis
    Characters: Rig Nema, Ven Morne (OC), Takul (OC), Major Kayi (OC)
    Genre: Science Fiction Adventure
    Keywords: Jedi, Doctor, Clone Wars, Coruscant Underworld, Police, Bioweapon, Assassin, Militia
    Summary: As a wave of mysterious killings spreads through the Coruscant Underworld Dr. Nema must struggle to solve the puzzle and secure a solution before chaos explodes.
    Notes: This story is connected to my Dear Diary Challenge 2020, being an extension of Dr. Nema's overall tale. It takes place between entries 7 & 8 of that work. Readers who haven't read that should be able to understand this piece, but some context will be missing.


    Dr. Nema and the Assassin in Yellow

    Cracked raw, furiously red, and stained with dark patches of dried blood, the head tendrils twitched and shuddered as the scanner slowly slid its way along their surface. Each motion, an inevitable somatic reaction despite the patient's best efforts to stay still, caused him to clench in pain. Slender and delicate, elongate ribbons of stiffened cartilaginous tissue, the tendrils responded to tiny motions in the scalp muscles, shifted in feedback to changes in air motion so slight that normal human-standard1 senses could not perceive them. Motion was intrinsic to their sensory function, even as it wracked the body with pain and exacerbated the damage.

    “The root cause is a bacterial infection,” Nema spoke softly, her voice calm, controlled, careful. Talking often served to reassure her patient, but it depended upon a specific tone of voice. People, especially those in trying circumstances, a category that encompassed almost the entirety of the Bucket's resident population, placed immense trust in professional doctors. Such faith carried expectations. Pressure to be infallible, to know everything with absolute certainty and confidence beyond all reasonable medical expectation. It weighed heavily upon each interaction. Doubly so, Nema believed, in her case.

    The wealthy residents of Galactic City might sneer at Jedi and regard them as religious parasites on their glitzy society. Almost four thousand levels down the people lacked the luxury of such prejudice. Whether driven by reverence or fear, they just wanted miracles.

    “Standard antibiotics should have purged the infection, but it looks like the medical droid didn't take into account the unique epithelial structure that comprises Mikkian2 tendrils and treated it with a compound suitable for dermal conditions instead. As a result, it took a long time for the drugs to penetrate across the scalp-tendril barrier and your body metabolized the majority of the active dose before it could have an effect.” Carefully she withdrew the scanner and placed it aside for disinfection. “Consequently, the infection lingered and led to secondary damage that penetrated into the cartilage rods.” Nema circled about the lone examination bed in her tiny clinic space with small steps, no rapid motions. “The good news is that your body has almost completely eliminated the infection.” She reached down and offered the unfortunate Mikkian a gentle tap on the shoulder, hands far away from the long tendrils. “And we can finish it off right now.” Without turning, she shifted her tone of voice subtly, modulation dropped into cold and business-like formality. She directed a command to her sole assistant, a frightful black tripod of too many limbs and gleaming edges that rested on the opposite side of the station, tucked in under the stairs. “Dee-Dee, I need 10 mLs of Actenicsin3 suitable for deep muscle injection, standard physiological base.”

    “Acknowledged.” The black-plated machine's torso spun and its fear-inducing limbs began to extract supplies and process materials with extraordinary speed and rapidity.

    Confident in the droid's abilities, Nema shifted over to look down directly into the dark blue eyes of her patient. Olive-skinned, the Mikkian's broad face struggled with the distortions of constant pain. Streaks of red marked the edges of those eyes. Even the green forehead tattoo, its geometric design unknown to Nema but apparently of incredible importance among the species, seemed wracked and faded.

    The doctor pressed a soft smile she did not truly feel across her features. It would seem genuine, she knew, long practice had insured this. “Now, the tricky part here is healing your tendrils.” Carefully, motion isolated to eyes alone, she let her expression move up and across the damaged tissue before returning to mirror her patient's vision. “The simplest and most effective method would be bacta spray to saturation.” Nema fought hard to keep her expression positive. It was not easy. The circumstances, and the growing nervous feedback pushed up through the Force by the subject pressed up against her resolve. Jedi-trained mental architecture insulated against this, but never completely. “However, that is also the most expensive, and I'm afraid my own supplies of bacta are too limited to expend in a non-critical case. Do you understand?”

    “Yeah,” he did not nod. That would have required him to move his head. The Force confirmed his recognition of the circumstances, along with a virulent red blast of resentment at them.

    Nema was better at filtering that expression. Knowing she was not the target aided immeasurably. It did not, however, prevent bitter contemplation of the context. That current was not so easily escaped.

    “So what can I do?” the Mikkian pleaded. Waves of pain passed through him with each word.

    “We must minimize further damage and promote natural healing,” Nema announced. She tried to express maximum confidence and suppress all hesitancy. “I'm going to prescribe a powerful muscle relaxant, in cream form. It needs to be applied directly to the scalp, twice each day. That should cause the tendrils to relax and droop down. Once that happens, have them gathered together and wrapped up in a bag filled with warm saline solution.” She paused, considering. “Make certain it’s thoroughly cleaned beforehand. Do you have access to the materials?”

    “Yes,” the patient winced but spoke anyway. “I can get them from work.”

    Nema vaguely recalled that his profile stated he worked at some sort of metal-shaping workshop. “Good,” she confirmed. “Then you need to rest.” Knowing he would fight this instruction, for everyone on these levels was far too busy simply surviving, she bent closer to stress the importance. “I mean that. Your tendrils provide essential sensory feedback. With them wrapped up you'll be disoriented. If you try to work or drive you run a serious risk of hurting yourself or someone else. Do you understand?” The sternest physician's stare she could muster appended this remark.

    “Yes.”

    The truth, at least for now. Nema was very good at catching lies in the Force when dealing with a patient on the exam table, but their convictions had a distressing tendency to shift after they walked out the doors. She could only hope he listened. Without protection the damage might take weeks to heal, and the risk of secondary infection across such a wide surface area was extreme. Force send that the Mikkian's supervisor understood the need. Technically Republic law protected his job and his earnings due to medical needs, but Nema knew such rules meant little here.

    It made her furious to think about.

    She exhaled slowly and consciously extruded the anger into the nothingness beyond. Difficult, but necessary. Rage, righteous though it might be, would help neither her nor her patients. “Let me just formulate an appropriate relaxant.” She shuffled back to her scanner and pulled up the results. Such a unique tissue pattern would require a specific combination. Even as she processed commands through her pharmaceutical database she was greatly surprised when loud knocking resounded through the far door.

    Anger rushed back in. “I'm in an examination.” Nema shouted back, imperturbable medical voice lost. “You'll have to wait in line.” She knew it could not be an emergency case, Dee-Dee monitored the camera feed from her overcrowded little waiting room and operated a slightly callous but extremely efficient triage protocol. The droid's failure to speak up meant it wasn't any sort of medical issue.

    “It's Morne, Doctor,” the voice passed through the door deep and loud, accompanied by the distinct tenor of mechanical modulation characteristic of a helmet microphone. “And sorry, but it can't wait. You can come out or let me in, but it needs to be now.”

    Nema paused. For a moment she considered protesting, but swallowed it before the idea progressed anywhere. Office Morne visited every day, usually in time to help her close up, and while she was quite certain the regular attention from her largely unnecessary police liaison was driven by hormones, he had at least learned to recognize her work as important and serious. He would not interrupt her out of hand, so whatever the circumstances behind this demand, they were presumably important to someone with the authority to give him orders.

    Whether that made it significant to her remained to be seen. “I'm terribly sorry,” she apologized to her patient. Regret and aggravation spread through her, and she let them break through Jedi calm and walk across her face. “But Dee-Dee will be able to finish up the prescription.” The Mikkian blanched, but Nema forced out the internal reminder that the droid was highly competent despite being scary. “I'm afraid none of us can keep the CSF waiting.”

    She spun on one heel and shouted through the door, letting loose just a bit against the insulation. “Thirty seconds officer. Your speeder.” He'd be parked out front. He always was.

    That deadline gave her just enough time to briefly wash up, grab her field bag, and offer terse but sincere apologies to the dozen plus beings from almost as many species waiting in the compact back that served as the front of her improvised clinic. This last act transformed more irritation into real smoldering anger. “This had better be worth it,” she groused, voice hard, as she climbed into the passenger seat of the underworld police airspeeder.

    Officer Ven Morne, like every other member of the Underworld Police, wore a combination of mask, helmet, and red mechanical optical covers that completely obscured all facial features. Designed to protect the officers from the very real threat of reprisal by the underworld's seemingly endless array of crime syndicates4, they were quite effective at thwarting conventional identification methods. Even Nema, aided by the Force to recognize variance without vision, sometimes struggled to tell offices apart. They shared a remarkable commonality of surface mindset and emotional response. This particular officer, at least, no longer presented such difficulties. Familiarity had bridged the gap.

    The moment Nema strapped in Morne launched them into traffic. He switched on his flashers and plunged through the packed airspace expanse at a speed the doctor instantly discovered she was decidedly not comfortable with. Especially when the pilot lacked Force-guided reflexes to back up his reckless maneuvers.

    “What's going on?” she questioned in between sharp turns. Extreme haste and several all-too-close encounters with large garbage scows served to mollify her anger and imply the extraordinary importance behind this demand.

    “Priority One Case,” Officer Morne kept his red optics forward as he wove and pitched between speeders and cargo haulers. “And the Level Prefect5 himself sent the order to get you. No official details, but the chatter says someone important wound up dead.”

    “I'm not a Jedi Investigator6,” the response was practically reflex at this point, though the frustration remained. Aside from her patients, whose boundless gratitude formed an essential pillar supporting her resolve, seemingly everyone in the underworld expected her to be something she was not. “Or a medical examiner. The dead are beyond healing.”

    “Maybe,” Morne shrugged through the blatant noncommittal deflection of one who has heard the same thoughts voiced repeatedly and lacks the energy for an argument. “But you're the only Jedi for a thousand levels. That means you get the call.” He paused, silent for a moment while the speeder piloted a tight curve around several transmission towers. “Must be serious though. Management doesn't like to call for help. They think it’s bad press.”

    Nema registered nothing but confusion at this remark. “I don't understand,” she admitted after a long pause of trying and failing to solve the problem internally.

    “The higher-ups think that if we need Jedi help it means people will think we can't do our jobs,” Morne explained. Cynicism practically dripped out of the central notch in his mask. “Or at least that the Senate will think so and they'll cut the budget again. That means they not only think this one can't be solved without help, but that it’s more important to solve it that to take the hit for letting it go.”

    “That's awful,” Nema recognized the naivete of those words the moment they emerged from her mouth, but at the same time she felt no desire to recall them. No matter that this thing was true, a necessary reality of life here, it should not be so. She had no desire to accept it.

    Morne shrugged again. “That's just how it goes.”

    They fell into silence for the few remaining minutes of the journey. Somewhere during all the maneuvering Nema had completely lost track of where she was. They might have gone up a level, possibly two or three, and she suspected they'd traveled some distance northwest, but beyond this she had no idea. Everything in the Bucket tended to converge toward yellow industrial sameness, and landmarks were essentially non-existent. Machine built by droids working off identical pattern slates, the entire region did not resemble any city designed and built by sapients. Rather it appeared to have been extruded by some sort of gigantic city-molding industrial press. Disorientation was common even to natives. A recent visitor was helpless to maintain her spatial awareness.

    She wished, not for the first time, that she possessed a Knight's sense of place in the Force, and of the whole of the universe. Then she silently uttered a rebuke for entertaining such pointless daydreams. A Jedi must not be distracted by what they wish might be, but must focus instead on what is. The teaching carried her only a little ways, for it reminded her that if she was a better Jedi she'd not struggle so much with distractions. It left her in a circle without escape.

    Morne put the speeder down on a docking pad clamped to the outside of one of the peculiar multiple-column towers that the underworld generated, one whose central spire stretched from the base of the level all the way to its ceiling. A glance at the construction work was enough to mark it out as among the finer class of housing structures available, one deliberately constructed for habitation rather than re-purposed. Such places held the domiciles of the underworld's native rich, the private fortresses for use by those whose businesses, family ties, or general criminality prevented ascension to greater heights. Stout duracrete walls and narrow, slit-like windows masked the wealth behind a secure industrial veneer, but the high-end environmental systems, well-maintained docking mechanisms, and modern electronic network linkages gave the truth away even to Nema's inexperienced eyes.

    “Busy,” Morne noted upon arrival. Half-a-dozen other police speeders clustered on the pad, sufficient crowding that he had to squeeze his way in carefully. As he powered down the repulsors he tapped the unit's centrally-mounted comlink panel. “This is Officer KX-62347, arriving at scene with Jedi Rig Nema.”

    “Copy that,” another distinctly police voice replied. “Head in, we'll meet you at the hatch.”

    Nema anticipated a turbolift ride, but the masked officer merely led them two doors down the hall from the exterior hatch. Apparently whoever was involved in the case possessed enough money and influence to afford a suite with direct launch access.

    Two officers, faceless like all the others, stood outside the stout suite doorway. One of them held up a datapad and without a word snapped a quick picture directly in front of Nema's face. He tapped the screen several times, ignoring the furious look the Jedi shot him. “You're cleared to access the scene,” he announced. Unexpectedly he added a warning. “Crime scene analysis has swept the place, but it's been ordered left undisturbed for you. Watch out, it's not pretty.”

    When the door whisked open in the next moment the two new arrivals instantly discovered that this was a severe understatement.

    “Hell,” Morne muttered, an entire world of reaction compressed down to one stark syllable.

    Nema managed to hold on to silence, but her teeth clenched tight. It was considerably worse than she'd imagined.

    The suite itself was spacious and sumptuous, at least by underworld standards. Three bedrooms, a private office, two refreshers, full kitchen, and a wide common room waited just beyond the door. The visible furnishings appeared to be genuine nerf-hide, imported and expensive. On the open market the suite was probably valued above multi-story buildings with dozens of apartments, and doubtless exceeded the worth of Nema's tiny Jedi safehouse by at least an order of magnitude. It would have been a very nice residence, normally.

    Except gore liberally coated the common room. Blood spatter managed to touch every surface, floor to ceiling. Furniture stood darkened and blanketed by it. Puddled stains soaked through the plush carpeting. Some reached far enough that they dripped off the refresher door. Body parts, stained crimson above their natural coloration, lay scattered about the floor, mangled in a horrifyingly extensive number of ways.

    Three people, some part of Nema's mind calculated. Everything else had gone numb, but the trauma course training remained and asserted itself as her consciousness struggled to blot out the horrors. Bare assessment, devoid of caring, alien to the Force, took over. Pattern-matching gathered pieces together, assembled them, cleaned them up, and correlated them against other reports, images held deep in memory. Each body had been ripped apart, torn to pieces, limbs shredded from their sockets by a combination of immense power and wild savagery. The remnants were structured similarly beneath the skin, only the remaining epidermal fragments, some pinkish, others lime green, and the largest fraction coal black, differentiated them now.

    They were not alone in their terrible abattoir with the dead, and some semblance of order returned when the room's other living occupant spoke. “You're looking at the remains of Sector Administrator Ran Mikuris, along with his mistress and his bodyguard.” The speaker wore the same mask, helmet, and optics as Morne, complete with the armored coat, but he bore rank armbands on both forearms, and they were gold rather than yellow. He, for the speaker was clearly male by his timbre despite the helmet modulation, spoke with authority and strode across the blood soaked murder scene as if nothing could be allowed to impede him.

    This man, Nema suddenly realized, must be the Prefect, the highest ranking police official on the whole level, and, if the administrator was really dead, the senior remaining authority in the sector.

    “And this was not an isolated attack,” the prefect continued. “In the last twelve hours there have been eight brutal homicides, all directed against high-ranking officials on level 1316, including Level Governor Lwamanad. There were no survivors.”

    The political situation being what it was, Nema could fill in the rest herself. Not a murder, but an assassination, a series of coordinated attacks against the most senior officials of the Republic within reach. It could only be Seperatists, or at least their sympathizers, and it represented a strike stratospherically more substantial than the random bombings they'd been conducting too date.

    Nema had little experience with crime scenes, but the deductions behind this event were obvious. A plastic patch over a shattered window revealed that the attacked had simply slammed in through the transparisteel. The wounds on the bodies were clear, quite literally torn limb from limb by main force; no cutting or piercing injuries. Shocking in brutality, but utterly simple in mechanism.

    “A terrible crime, Prefect,” Nema looked directly at the obscuring optics to avoid contemplating the destroyed lives she stood among. “But why have you called for me? This seems very straightforward.” It hurt her to speak that sentence, true though it was. Monstrous as the crime might be, it was entirely the opposite of a complex mystery.

    “It does, doesn't it,” the Prefect turned about, head bent down towards the largest remaining section of the administrator's remains. “But Ran Mikuris was a pit fighter in his youth, kept himself in shape despite his age, and I know for a fact he always kept a vibroshiv in his boot.” The masked head turned toward a clump of large coal-shaded remains. “Then there's the bodyguard, over two meters and three hundred kilos of Herglic. That's a one on one match for a Wookiee, and Mikuris would have only hired a real fighter. But somehow our assassin blasts in through the wall and takes down both of them and the unlucky mistress before they can even call for help.” His whole body pivoted seamlessly until the red optics bored down on Nema.

    A tall man, he loomed furiously beneath his armor. “But I could almost believe that, seen plenty of deadly things crawl out from the lower levels in my day. No, the part I can't explain is that while I have a buffet of every possible piece of forensics you could imagine for the victims spread out on demand my best forensics team has been through this crime scene and all the others and they haven't found a single thing, not one tiny fragment, tied to the assassin.” He raised his arms, hands spread wide in a sweeping motion to encompass the devastation. “Can you tell me, Jedi, how in the hell a massacre like this could happen and there be no forensic evidence?”

    Nema could not. The statement was unbelievable. Even to her inexperienced eyes the signs of struggle were clear. The Herglic's body, in particular, had been grasped and torn with incredible force. Such a maneuver would inevitably leave evidence of contact, even if only plastoid scrapings from armor surfaces. She stood stock still, searching her memory for some exotic possibility that might achieve the result the prefect claimed only to find nothing.

    Morne, silent until now, stepped in to fill the emptiness before the dead could loom. “Sir, are we sure it wasn't a droid?”

    Nema shifted her feet. The Prefect boiled white-hot in the Force, impossible to miss, filled with the particular rage of one common to power reduced to impotence. It pulsated in time with his heartbeat, a red fury as if his gray metal plating had been submerged in a forge for hours. Rather than allow it to pour out over Morne, she injected herself into the breach first. “Droids leave signs of their own, just like living things. Oil, paint, plastoid scrapings, and the various degradation compounds of their motor and combustion processes8. Also,” she spared a glance for the blood-soaked floor. “A droid strong enough to do this and still fit through the window,” the gap was barely wide enough to permit a standard humanoid frame turned sideways, the Herglic would not have fit. “Would be extremely dense. There would be track marks on the carpet.” Droids could not be traced in the Force, but Nema's work meant she spent her days surrounded by them. She'd learned to read the signs in order to avoid accidents. “This was not done by a droid.” Her confidence in this response surprised her, especially since a killer droid seemed an obvious Separatist assassin, but she did not retreat from the conclusion.

    “My techs said the same thing,” the Prefect growled. “But that still leaves me with no evidence, no leads, no witnesses, and no ideas.” His shifted from Nema to Morne and ended up somehow glaring at both at once. “Whatever did this was smart enough to smash the exterior security cameras, and it was fast enough to get them before they cached. Right now even if I knew exactly who did this I'd have nothing to support an arrest. This isn't going to stop, they'll be more deaths to come until we find this assassin. Work me a miracle Jedi.”

    A miracle. The way he said the word, if was if he believed that was something perfectly reasonable to ask of a Jedi. Weight settled atop thin shoulders, heavy and oppressive, enough to make her desperately desire to run from the room. She belonged in a clinic with patients, or a research lab surrounded by chemicals. This was beyond her.

    Perhaps a Jedi Knight could find the residue of the attacker in the Force and track them somehow. Whether or not that was possible she suspected it was the sort of thing the Prefect imagined. She did know it was completely impossible for her. This room offered up only blackness. One hand dropped down to finger the hilt of her lightsaber. Briefly the old longing shot through the skin, the desire to be the person these officers wanted her to be, that other person she'd once wanted to be more than anything.

    But you are not that person. She felt it rather than heard the words. The path of the Force shifted, sands ran backward. The Jedi Order had sent a doctor, not a knight, so it fell to a doctor to provide the police what they desperately needed.

    “There has to be some evidence,” the words escaped her mouth suddenly, so unexpected that Nema could barely identify herself as the speaker. Nevertheless, they spooled out almost unconsciously. “Everything leaves traces, even in full bio-hazard gear it is almost impossible to pure all signatures.” This was not conjecture. She had experience working in ultra-sterile laboratories. “And even then the protective measures themselves leave traces. This,” she spun sightly to take in the slowly cooling carnage. “Was not done cleanly. There must be evidence.”

    “Are you saying my crime scene teams are incompetent?” the Prefect’s fury lashed out. His voice rose many decibels behind his mask.

    “No.” Even limited exposure had impressed upon Nema the violent nature of the Coruscant underworld. She was certain the police technicians were quite experienced. “I am suggesting that the evidence may be in a form their equipment is not able to detect. Perhaps we need to re-calibrate our expectations.” She tried to sound certain, but in truth this hypothesis was barely formed and wildly speculative. “I want to see a solid sample, magnification only, no software analysis.” The techs surely relied on sniffers and analysis droids to process the samples, but everything in Nema's career told her droids could be remarkably oblivious to anything that existed outside their preset expectations.

    “On the left hand,” Morne's suggestion was immediate. He gestured at the ruined corpse of the Herglic bodyguard. “There's a strike mark there for sure.”

    He was correct, it seemed the Herglic had managed to slam at least one fist into his killer before he succumbed. A few moments later Nema found herself in the kitchen peeling nanometer-thin slices of skin off the scuffed knuckles with her laser scalpel. Embracing the Force to steady her hands she placed them on thin plastoid slides and coated each with a spray-film of inert sealant. Once ready, she slotted a series of five into the intake slot on the side of her bioscanner.

    The automated analysis program pinged only Herglic tissue. Carefully and thoroughly she proceeded through a series of menus, a step by step progression to disable all the automatic enhancements, analytics, and labeling aides until only the raw image remained. With this finally accomplished, she dialed in the zoom.

    “What in the Force...” Nema blinked repeatedly. She shifted the display back and forth in a battle for focus.

    “What is it?” Morne leaned over her shoulder. In truth, he stood unreasonably close, but in her excited state she failed to notice.

    “Nothing I've ever seen before,” no other answer could be true in that moment. The debris fragment on screen displayed a clear structural pattern, a thin layer of tissue scrapped off when the knuckles contacted the integument, but it resembled nothing she'd ever seen through a scope before, not even in university. “There's no cells,” her voice fell to a near-whisper. An instinctive impulse to hush such wild speculation. “No familiar structures at all.” She increased the magnification as far as it would go and then, tentatively, allowed the scanner to run a very basic chemical analysis. “No proteins, and the elemental balance is wrong. Arsenic and silicon represent major components of the system, and there's an abundance of super-heavy trace elements. The whole structure resembles variable-sized ball bearings suspended in a matrix of gelatinous fibers.”

    “What's any of that mean?” Morne interjected. “Just looks like moldy gunk to me.”

    Slowly, for her limbs felt strangely numb, Nema put the scanner down. Her mind raced. A thousand thoughts warred for attention. It took deliberate effort coupled to a Jedi breathing technique to coral them sufficiently to offer even the most basic of answers. “It means a completely different biological system, one foreign to almost all known life. That's incredibly rare, practically unknown.” Memories of early classes, studies even before her reassignment to the medical corps, played back before her eyes. “Almost all life in the galaxy, even incredibly exotic forms such as crystalline beings, shares a common molecular and mechanical structure9. The only examples we have that lie outside this are simple organisms, usually tiny, native to extreme environments. This thing, this assassin, represents an unprecedented existence.” Endless research possibilities danced through her mind. The avenues were boundless.

    “Unprecedented or not,” the Prefect growled from behind. “There's an assassin cadre out there and they will kill again if we can't identify them and stop them. Can you supply my men with a tracking method Jedi Nema?”

    “Doctor,” Nema corrected, feeling suddenly deflated. The objection was reasonable, some part of her acknowledged, but that did not make it welcome. “And I believe I should be able to develop a program that would allow scanners to identify the unique polymers the support matrix must possess.” That was a fairly simple task, really, she could do it without any understanding about how the fibers actually functioned. “But I'll need to isolate it first and develop a chemical compound that can tag it.” Her mind rushed ahead of her lips, contemplated, planned, and charted steps at lightning speed. “There is a problem,” the amendment slipped loose before the Prefect could speak again. “The equipment at my clinic is not sufficient. This requires a fully equipped research lab. I will need to return to the Jedi Temple.” The Medical Corps facility there was among the best in the galaxy, and familiar to her.

    This did not seem to please the Prefect. “In order for any crime scene evidence to pass beyond the boundary of my direct jurisdiction requires an official chain of custody, and a lodged legal agreement with the receiving agency, which would be the Jedi Order.” He sounded somehow sour. His optics flashed, indicative of some significant switch on their projected internal HUD. “And the property officials have clocked out for today. That means I’ll have to get a legal droid to do it. The paperwork will take hours we don’t have. Can you use one of the local hospitals instead?”

    Nema blinked. It took her a moment to catch up and translate this bizarre bureaucratic barricade suddenly imposed before her. She desired nothing more than to settle into a lab and get to work, and if she was honest with herself not simply because lives were at stake. She needed to examine this material, this utterly new system of life. Every part of her intellect demanded it, required understanding. Until she could fashion a frame for it within her mind it would override all other pursuits.

    This made her inevitable refusal doubly difficult. “I’m sorry Prefect Xeril,” she vaguely recalled this man’s name from Morne’s initial briefing, and was grateful for it. “But this sort of work requires state of the art equipment and a workplace with advanced cleanliness and containment protocols. None of the medical centers in the Bucket meet such standards even on official listings.” She left unsaid that hardly anything down this far even came close to matching its on-paper capabilities.

    The Prefect stewed in silence. Head tilted back, his optics sought in vain to find some way to bore a hole in the bloodstained ceiling. Even without embracing the Force Nema could feel his frustration. She wanted to offer some alternative, wished she could, but the equipment requirements were a necessity. If the task could be done at all, it absolutely mandated the proper tools. They did not have it here, and no amount of regret could change that reality. She wondered if the police prefect would be willing to bend the rules to save lives, if that was what he sought to read amid the spatter.

    She also wondered if he offered whether she could reasonably accept.

    To her great surprise it was Morne who broke the silence. “Sir, I’ve checked the homicide case logs,” he began, surprisingly jovial despite the seniority of the stressed man he addressed. “One of them was in Sector Two-One-Eight. We could use the samples there, if we…” He dropped the sentence in the middle, pointedly.

    Nema turned back and forth between the two officers. In vain she struggled to discern the unspoken element of the exchange. Its significance was laid bare in the Force, a storm of emotions roiling out from the Prefect. She failed to learn anything more, stymied by masks and the limits of her perception.

    “That is a very dangerous suggestion Officer Ven Morne,” the Prefect’s voice dropped to a whisper. “One that might be considered treacherous by some.”

    “I am aware sir,” Morne stood his ground, back straight. “But how many people die if we wait? And what will the administration do if they think we can’t protect them? You can give the approval sir, in person, and it never needs to leave this room.”

    The gray-armored form walked a slow circle about the chamber, carefully stepped over the slowly-congealing disaster. When he stopped there was a single nod of the concealed skull. “Fine, but no one else is brought in. Go to two-one-eight in person and get the samples from Captain Mikirn. Whatever Jedi Nema needs stays in your personal custody and you keep eyes on it at all times. Officially you conducted the analysis at her clinic. As far as the reports are concerned that’s what happened. Am I clear?”

    “Perfectly sir,” Morne answered without hesitation.

    “May I ask what is going on?” Nema completely failed to parse the details of this exchange, but it sounded highly dubious.

    “I’ll explain on the way,” Morne tugged her arm once. “There’s no time to waste.”

    Footnotes

    1. In a galaxy of perhaps millions of sapient species, there will be many, highly-varied baselines in terms of capabilities such as sensory perception, metabolism, physical size, and so forth. ‘Human-standard,’ represents a baseline based on humans, the most abundant species in the galaxy. Nema uses it as a technical term of medicine.

    2. Mikkians are a canonical species introduced in TCW in the forms of the Jedi sisters Tiplar and Tiplee.

    3. Actenicsin is an entirely fictional antibiotic created by the author. There do not appear to be any named antibiotics in either canon.

    4. There are other reasons for the hood-mask-optics combination, but fear of reprisal is significant. The Underworld Police lack the public authority to patrol openly in the fashion of surface police in Galactic City.

    5. Prefect is a Coruscant Security Force rank with responsibility for administering an entire level. This rank is canonical and was established in the new canon novel Tarkin.

    6. Jedi Investigators were Jedi with specialized training in crime prevention and joint operations with law enforcement. Dr. Nema’s predecessor in her current post was a Jedi Investigator.

    7. The CSF is a massive organization, so each officer is assigned an official callsign for procedural purposes.

    8. There is powerful canonical evidence that this is true, specifically “Look sir, droids.”

    9. There is very strong evidence that essentially all living things commonly known in the Star Wars galaxy share a common evolutionary origin through some combination of panspermia, meddling by ancient nearly divine beings, and the direct influence of the Force itself (midichlorians among other things). However, there is no particular reason why other variations on life cannot exist. This story represents Nema’s first encounter with one.
     
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  2. Mechalich

    Mechalich Jedi Master star 4

    Registered:
    Feb 2, 2010
    Nema found no further opportunity to object before being bundled back into the police speeder and taken on another wildly careening ride through crowded airspace. She exited onto solid plating struck with the curious recognition that she was not actually standing on anything that could even remotely be declared ground. A great surge of uncertainty welled up in her in that moment, it wrapped about her, entwined with the vast technological absurdity that was Corsucant. With stark clarity it framed the peculiarity of seeking to uncover new varieties of life in this most artificial of environments. Everything stood frozen; wavering in between the moments. Unknown potential rested just out of reach, around some unseen bend lost in the refraction of the Force, beyond her grasp. A higher mystery blocked by the violent haze of subduction.

    Then the hatch of Morne’s speeder clicked closed and Nema accelerated back into the mundane flow of the present.

    “I don’t understand,” Nema looked at the busy structure next to their landing platform, the place he’d brought her after acquiring samples at a police station. It was industrial and squat, and sprouted a mixture of piping, domes, and apertures across the roof in a familiar pattern. “This is clearly a pharmaceutical lab. Why the secrecy?”

    “Because, while they claim to research medicines here, that’s not what they actually do,” the officer’s typical casual assurance had vanished. He moved with nervous steps now, and one hand rested near the holster of her service pistol. “And the name on the letterhead’s a shell. Nobody’s managed to actually trace the money, but this place is owned by the Pyke Syndicate.”

    “I…see.” She did not, but held her tongue. Further inquiries seemed unwise. Nema knew who the Pykes were, and for all that associating with criminals sent alarms ringing through her stomach, the Prefect had accepted this idea for some reason. She recognized that she stood within undercurrents invisible to her outsider’s eyes. Somehow, without agreeing to anything on her own, she had come to a place where the only option was to trust Morne’s plan and this strange thought-twisting association he invoked.

    Morne avoided the main door and led them around to a small side access, one seemingly disconnected from everything else. He tapped a small security pad located beside the stout durasteel portal. “Open up. Coruscant Security Force.”

    There was a brief pause. Morne paced back and forth in front of the aperture. Agitation leaked visibly through the creases in his armor. “These scum are polite,” he half-mumbled, hands clenched. “But that doesn’t make them less dangerous. We’ve had an arrangement for years, but don’t ever trust them.” He briefly looked down to Nema’s lightsaber. “Not sure what they’ll think of Jedi. Watch out.”

    It seemed rather late for this warning. “What sort of arrangement?” Nema could not help asking.

    “We test seized product on their behalf,” a soft voice interjected as the door opened beside them. “The police are very concerned about the dangerous additives and impurities so often mixed in by the unscrupulous. It is a shared concern, assuredly.” The speaker’s Basic was excellent and highly cultured, but his cadence was oddly choppy. The reason revealed itself the moment vision resolved on his face; a mouth filled with fanged incisors and elongated tusked canines extending well past the edge of the lips enforced diligence in forming proper sounds. The visage was otherwise mostly human, with sharp aquiline features. He had skin the color of aging pine needles, broken apart by irregularly spaced vertical crease lines. Soft red eyes devoid of whites stared out from within slightly recessed sockets.

    The alien wore a white laboratory coat above a dark violet medical smock. Tightly fitted gloves formed a shiny black covering over the hands, and similar implements coated the feet. By far the most striking feature was a pair of bone white horns, emergent from beneath thick black hair. They extended a hand-span forward from the forehead, twisting slightly throughout their growth.

    “Welcome to the Coruscant Mutaratak Pharmaceutical Cooperative,” the Mutaratak, for Nema guessed this must be the name of the species, bowed gently, left hand claps in front of his waist. “Officer and…” he paused attentively.

    “Doctor Rig Nema,” it seemed unlikely that he would fail to notice the lightsaber attached to her belt, but she was not here as a Jedi this day.

    “Doctor,” the Mutaratak accepted this without hesitation. “Please, come in. How may we be of service today?”

    “We need access to an advanced wet lab space, one that is isolated.” Nema took the chance to make the appeal herself. Something told her that if she let Morne speak for her these people would forever treat her as a subordinate. “I have samples that require delicate analysis.” She glanced back briefly at the officer’s stony helm. “It is rather urgent.”

    “Of course,” the operator raised no objections at all. “That is surely an accommodation we can arrange. Please, follow us.”

    From the inside, the facility had the familiar feel common to medical facilities everywhere; pale white lighting, polished tile floors that squeaked slightly at each footfall, and the steady low rumble of tightly controlled air flow. All inevitable no matter which species produced the design. They passed numerous doors to various laboratories as they strode together down a single long hallway. Unable to resist a glance through the windows, Nema discovered cadres of Mutarataks working diligently with a wide range of samples of what could only be death sticks and other synthetic narcotics.

    Her inspection did not go unnoticed. “Do you object to our work doctor?” Their guide questioned. He did not appear offended, rather his angular visage twisted into something suggestive of amusement.

    Uncertain as to the safety of anything she might say, she took her cue from the officer at her side and held her tongue. This did not induce silence.

    “Of course you do. It seems this is the nature of the Republic, of human governance,” the technician actually laughed. It was a deeply predatory noise, sharp and canine in resonance. “Static control, a refusal to allow mental variance. Well, suffice that this is not our way. However, our way also does not include unnecessary damage. That desire is one we share with the police. We seek to produce pure products, clean and without side effects physiological or psychological. That is the basis of our arrangement with the security force, you see. We help them to uncover impure and dangerous products.”

    “I’m not here to engage in debate,” Nema discovered she had no desire at all to continue this conversation. “My goal is to find a way to prevent murders.”

    “Then our interests align,” the Mutaratak smiled around his pointed fangs. “Unnecessary deaths are disruptive, antithetical to business. Here,” he tapped a sealed door. It opened at his touch. “You may use this laboratory.”

    The room on the opposite of that portal was small and compact, but the equipment within would not have been out of place in one of Coruscant's best research hospitals. Narcotics, it seemed, was a matter taken extremely seriously by the Mutarataks, and one that apparently provided compensation to match. Precision chemical analyzers, polished sampling arrays, and an advanced microscopy suite all awaited ready use. The only obstacle remaining was the decontamination barrier. “Let's scrub up then,” Nema decided. Trepidation faded rapidly with such proximity to actual work. “I want to get these samples prepped for processing right away.”

    “Of course,” their guide nodded. “I will remain throughout, to assist as needed. You may call me Takul.” Not a name, doubtless, but the appellation made the drug designer seem somehow more real. Less a visitor from some dark portion of the galaxy unknown to the Jedi.

    Nema wasted no time. “I'm going to need molecular-level structural analysis, composition folding framework modeling, and elemental composition sequencing to start. Also access to a synthesizer that can produce tagged hydrocarbons in all possible isomeric configurations.” The idea was actually inspired by the Mutaratak himself. She needed to lodge a visual spike in the foreign bio-mechanical substrate, just like one of those white horns.

    Takul responded with a toothy smile. “Of course. This shall be much more fun than working for the police.”

    Hours later Nema had to admit that when the context slipped from her mind in the effusive rush of research it was indeed quite fun. One day, though not soon, she might even forgive herself that feeling. She doubted she would ever forgive Takul his extraordinary competence. That a drug-manufacturing criminal from a culture that treated psychological struggle via systemic chemical alteration should be nearly the ideal lab assistant offended her at a level too deep to dare name.

    They worked straight through the limited remainder of the afternoon and well into the evening. Bland ration bars, the only foodstuff sufficiently sterilized to join them inside decontamination, made up their evening meal. The problem was fascinating, but also frustrating. Nema relentlessly lobbed her complaints at the otherwise idle Morne. The policeman served well when temporarily impressed into the job of sounding board. “I still can't believe it, a wholly new living structural system. No commonality at all, not even evidence of deliberate manipulation using known mechanisms. It's a totally new biochemistry, no compatibility. We have to go back to the most basic principles and work from there, and none of the machines are properly calibrated for this system. Even at the level of theory it makes no sense, nothing here looks like it was produced by evolutionary processes, it's far too efficient, too many streamlined mechanisms. There must have been extensive bio-engineering on top of the base system, it might even be entirely synthetic. To even begin to properly understand it would take decades.”

    Her tirade, and an endless series of snide jibes from Takul, had little effect on the officer. “Just find a way to identify it. We don't need anything else.” He countered as he stared into unseen vistas behind his mechanical optics.

    Standing in place as a living embodiment of urgency, Morne's presence provided a vital restraint on Nema's desire to indulge in pure research. He also kept a sliver of attention devoted to her current time and place. They were not in the Jedi Temple and the problem before her was anything but theoretical. Every hour could be measured in lives.

    Step by step they worked to isolate a compound that appeared ubiquitous to the surface layers. “It doesn't have skin,” Takul noted, face distorted into a glowering frown below his horns. “But I've never seen any hard carapace like this.”

    That was true, but a key turned in her mind as she considered the remark. Hardened defensive integuments, such as those found in arthropods and mollusks, tended towards simplicity, they required repeated, interlocking links to provide strength. This was different, but it lacked the chemical complexity of more mobile structures. There was only one out of place element. “It's the arsenic.” Ideas raced ahead of her words, the pattern ratcheted into form. “It must be. That's the bridge that makes this mixed silicon-carbon function and allows the beads-on-a-string configurations to form into fibrous structures. If we bond a methylation site to the tag structure we should be able to attach it to the arsenic base, the creature's own metabolism will knock out a bead and replace it with our marker.” She pulled up her datapad and keyed in a search for a compound of appropriate size with the correct contact point.

    Takul forestalled her. “We have such a compound already,” he rasped. “We use it to filter exudation from certain mold cultures.” His mouth widened into a toothy smile. “It would not do to allow arsenic contamination in our products.”

    This otherwise innocuous remark shattered the illusion. Nema scowled at the technician, suddenly full of fury. Every pore filled with a hideous foul sensation, taint borne of association with this being. Minute by minute it diffused deeper down. With a glance at Morne she wondered how the officer could stand it, how he could accept the existence of this place and the endless dark tendrils coiled within.

    But she could not leave. The task must be finished. The fearsome necessity of it set her skin on edge, taunt to nearly the point of pain. She swallowed hard, digested the gorge of her disgust. Somehow, through the gathering shadowy fog she managed to exchange the necessary words to design and then synthesize a few critical milliliters worth of tag compound. She even shook Takul’s hand when they were done.

    “A pleasure, Doctor Nema,” the drug maker mused. “I look forward to further collaboration.”

    She found no words, not even the possibility of vocalization, in answer. Her tongue stuck fast to the bottom of her mouth, heavy as the world.

    Morne spared her the futile fight to lift it. “Come on, this stuff needs to get back to headquarters. The techs need it to tag our target.”

    When they reached the speeder at last, Nema slumped down into her seat. Exhaustion, weariness deeper than any physical feeling, beat upon her core. “How do you countenance allowing such a place to exist?” She could not restrain the words. It was not her place to judge, but an answer was necessary. If she could not understand, she could not forgive, could not accept. This hideous compromise by the police was too heavy to accept unchallenged.

    “Resources,” Morne infused an entire mountain’s worth of feeling into this single word. The potency of his conviction beamed through the Force, but offered no direction. Silence scratched the mind as they looped through the false sky between the levels before he found a way to elaborate. “We don’t have the numbers to challenge the syndicates, the major narcotics producers. By law there’s total prohibition on a huge list of things, but we couldn’t enforce that with a hundred times as many officers as we’ve got.”

    He slowed the speeder until it appeared to hang nearly motionless in midair. “And it’s not like the socialites up in Galactic City actually want the flow to stop anyway. Their appetite for party favors is endless. Most syndicates, regardless of who’s in charge, will do anything for an extra credit.” Morne turned his red eyes upon the doctor. “But not the Mutaratak. To them its religion and medicine all mixed together. Shifting mindset is some kind of sacred journey, and side effects and overdoses are corruption. That’s why they’re willing to work with us and run tests on stuff we seize, they consider bad batches some kind of spiritual poison.”

    He looked forward again, out into the pale yellow glow. “Is it clean? No. But look around. There’s no amount of scouring that gets the stains out of the bottom of the Bucket. We’re lucky if we can keep it from being poisonous.”

    There was sense to these words. Nema could accept that much. Logically she could understand the choices the police made, the inevitable compromises they faced when deploying their limited resources. How they attempted to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. Knowing this, no matter the reasonable nature of the numeric calculations, removed none of the wrongness. Her brain might accept it, but in the Force the darkness remained. It was as if she plunged her hand into greasy oil. Most of it washed off, but a strand remained in place, connected to the reservoir; impossible to snap no matter how far she stretched.

    She did not think it would go away soon, perhaps not ever. The little packet full of tag formula did not feel equal to that blight, even though the arithmetic proclaimed that it did. This haunted her.

    After they dropped the precious bit of applied biochemistry at Sector Headquarters Morne offered to take her home. Technically this was inappropriate. Both the private use of a police speeder and acquiescence to an action that she knew would lead on the officer’s overly personal attentions made it questionable, but the doctor found herself too tired to care. The complex tram-and-turbolift labyrinth she’d be forced to navigate otherwise defeated her virtues in her present state.


    _ _ _

    Perhaps the Force influenced this decision, mysteriously, for they had not even reached the halfway point when the speeder’s comlink squawked. “Reports of a break in at Chromix Compounds. Shots fired inside the premises. All available units in sector to respond.”

    Morne began turning around before the message finished. One finger spiked into the console and lights and sirens blared out in all directions. The airspeeder jolted forward as he pushed it to maximum acceleration. “Chromix is a converted factory complex,” he explained as he recklessly bisected traffic. “Luxury suites now. The governor of Level 1315 lives there.”

    A second night of assassinations had begun.

    They were not the first to arrive, of course. The underworld police were well-distributed despite their staffing limits. Morne’s was the tenth speeder to hit the skywalk landing pad outside a vast building complex constructed out of overlapping hexagonal columns. However, the swarm of gray-armored forms Nema expected was absent. Instead, she discovered only a single officer waiting by the access door.

    The policeman had his service blaster out. He shifted back and forth from one foot to the next in a clear sign of nervousness. Even to Nema’s limited perceptions he radiated fear through the Force; a steady anima of rising dread.

    Morne vaulted out of the speeder with sidearm in hand, powered by a rush of vigor Nema could only wish she shared. “Officer Morne and Jedi Nema reporting. Are you the incident coordinator?”

    “No sir,” despite the voice modulation the deference inflected into these words betrayed the officer’s inexperience. “That’s Captain Lontand. He went in two minutes ago with twelve officers.”

    “Went in?” Morne’s body language tightened beneath his thick protective coat. “What’s going on?” He was not shouting, not yet, but his voice had grown in volume.

    “Something attacked the governor’s suite,” the junior officer’s words tumbled out rapidly; slurred together as they accelerated. “But he’d hired extra guards. I guess they held it off. One called in, said they were descending, trying to escape into the tunnels in the level partition, but the thermal monitors say nothing’s passed through and spotter remotes show no one’s come out. The captain thought they’d been cut off and went in to try and catch the assassin.”

    Hearing this, Nema felt a cold knot of trepidation form in her stomach. The officers were brave, but the images of strange tissues flitted through the back of her mind, ominous in their mystery. They had no idea what they were up against. With a shock, she realized in that instant that for all her analysis neither did she.

    “How many exits?” Morne began to launch into a second round of questions, only to be interrupted by an explosion several stories below.

    The cold spot turned to ice within as Nema bent her head over the rail. A great gout of flame burst through windows and wall. Whirlwind blasts of debris flew free and began to arc slowly down to the streets below. A trio of humanoid forms in armored coats, bent and distorted in the ragdoll postures of the dead, were among them.

    “Kriff!” Morne hissed. His blaster ranged back and forth, gripped tight in both hands as he desperately sought a target.

    Nothing emerged. A brief flurry of blaster bolts resounded below, then all fell silent. The ice spread out through Nema’s core, but other signs beat in counterpoint.

    “Some of them are alive.” She managed to form the words within the storm of emotions lashing the platform. One hand fell to her medical bag. “We need to get down there.”

    “It’s not safe,” Morne’s counter was grim. “No one commed anything. The captain’s whole team could be down and the assassin on the loose.” He looked up and out. His skull turned to track additional speeders on approach. “Need to assemble another squad and get clearance to go in.”

    Nema closed her eyes. She stretched out, let her feelings roam down towards the little sparks of life. Weak, fading fast each one, she still found them. It could not be ignored. “They can’t wait,” she protested. ‘The assassin isn’t after your officers. We need to go help now or they’ll die.”

    The officer stood stock still. “I don’t have clearance.” He tapped his helmet where the transmitter resided. “Command wants us to wait for an armed response unit. We’re to setup a cordon.”

    The members of the Jedi Service Corps live a subordinate existence. Though often granted great autonomy in their duties, it is always understood that they are to follow and obey the directions of Jedi Knights. This ingrained tendency towards self-restraint froze Nema in place for one endless instant, fixated to inaction.

    Then a solitary spark winked out behind her eyes. Her will slammed forward into place, the oaths of a doctor asserted. “Respectfully, Liaison Officer Ven Morne,” she barely heard the words, feet were already in motion. “I am not part of your command chain. As a member of the Jedi Order’s Medical Corps I am entering this building to act on an imminent threat to sapient life.” Before her regrets could catch her she charged ahead.

    Nema!” Morne called out behind her in desperation. “Dredge it!” he cursed a moment later.

    She did not need the Force to know he had followed, the noise of his footfalls was obvious, but it offered comfort all the same.

    They reached the turbolift together. It took only seconds to descend to the level of the blast. “You probably want to have that ready.” Morne, blaster held in guard posture, pointed to her lightsaber.

    “I’m not much use with it,” Nema protested. Terrible, would be her completely truthful assessment.

    “Better any weapon than no weapon.” The off-hand returned to the blaster as the door sluiced open.

    Reluctantly the doctor heeded this advice. The hilt rested comfortably in her hands, cool and sleek, but her shoulders shivered with each motion. Always the creeping sensation hooked into the back of her consciousness, the belief that she had no right to the weapon, a niggling sensation that holding it represented it a betrayal.

    To a Jedi Knight the lightsaber is an extension of the self, but holding it in her hands Nema felt lessened, shrunken.

    They moved quickly down the long hallway beneath the unsteady glow of emergency lighting. The explosion, surely sourced to a power generator or fuel line, had sent the building’s limited automated oversight into lockdown. Morne, supported by his optics, moved without impediment. Nema accepted the darkness as an excuse to activate her weapon. With a snap-hiss the emergent green blade cast a gentle glow down the enclosed corridor.

    They turned the corner, doctor one step behind policeman. “Police!” Morne shouted as they entered a shattered luxury apartment. Blood and bodies filled the minimalist design scheme, but there was no time to take in any of the horrors. The enemy, smarter than either anticipated, had guessed at the likely response.

    It waited in ambush.

    The assassin crouched behind the corner of the smashed entry foyer.

    Officer Morne’s reaction did credit both to him and his trainers. He snapped off a shot, point-blank, that impacted directly in the assassin’s center of mass.

    True horror struck home when this achieved nothing. The killer’s motion did not even slow. One arm shot out, propelled to terrible speed, grabbed the officer by the shoulder, and hurled his whole body into the wall. He struck with a thunderous crack and slid down to the floor.

    As she stumbled backward, her saber ineffectually waving back and forth before her, Nema watched as the thing unfolded to its full height. She blanched in shock.

    It was like nothing she’d ever seen, nothing even imagined. Bipedal, the assassin stood atop digitigrade legs terminating in razor sharp hooves that curled into wickedly hooked recurve claws on their rear face. Those legs inserted not into a humanoid pelvis, but rather socket-linked to a bulbous segment resembling an ant’s abdomen covered in rear-facing black spikes. A narrow torso emerged above this and rose slick and smooth toward an oil-black skull laminated in overlapping armor plate and sporting a single bent central horn. The front torso and neck were completely masked by a broad, vaguely heart-shaped projected shield of armor plating. This protective growth bore black spots from the blaster strikes of Morne and others, but appeared no more damaged than a starship hull would be.

    Elongate arms, extending reach down just past the knees, descended from the shoulders. The elbow joint formed from pleated folds, not a hinge. Worst of all were the hands, or rather, the bizarre thing in their place. The arms ended in a sharp-edged cupped structure reminiscent of a hollowed out hoof, but within sprouted a tight field of elongate tube-footed tentacles, black and writhing as if some giant sea star rooted in the wrist.

    Propelled by incomparable confusion and terror Nema swung her lightsaber across in a wild horizontal sweep.

    The assassin’s knees bent backward. Limbs twisted with frightful speed. Somehow the torso flexed far enough to dive below the attack entirely.

    Snake-strike swift it snapped back upright. The left arm darted out, easily evaded Nema’s hasty attempt to block, and slammed her back-handed across the chest.

    It appeared from afar to be a casual blow, almost lazy, but the impact matched the charge of a full-grown blurgh for power. Thrown from her feet, Nema flew back all the way to the far wall of the hallway. Pain exploded through her chest as she felt something give way within. Blackness wrapped a halo around the edge of her vision.

    Broken ribs; it was not a guess. She knew the damage for certain even as pain lashed all thought. In the same moment, gasping for breath that would not deepen, inexplicable clarity struck her. The image of the assassin in the Force. Shrouded, hazy, it was unlike any presence she had ever known.

    The list of lifeforms, sapient and otherwise, encountered by Doctor Rig Nema in her service to the Jedi Order extended long indeed. Though she struggled to recall the presence of individuals, the nature of broader categories, of the galaxy’s species and clades were indelibly stamped within her. This thing, bright yellow as it strode through the light, stood apart from them all. Its unknown biology expressed its foreignness into the Force itself. Not light or dark, but other, isolated from her in a way she could not define, should not be possible. It drew her in even as it repelled.

    Pushed past agony, she struggled to rise, to confront this interloper from its dissonant realm. To her surprise she managed to stand, lightsaber held before her. The strange assassin twitched, a wave-like pulse along the surface. Its eyeless head turned within the shelter of its raised collar. For a moment the Jedi dared to believe the glowing blade confused whatever bizarre senses it possessed.

    Instead it crouched, ready to spring.

    Unable to steady her shaking knees or grip her saber with any strength, Nema could only stare as the end approached.

    Then her eye caught a flicker of movement below.

    In a single sudden surge Morne scramble-crawled across the floor. He threw his body prone to avoid a kick that pushed a skull-sized dent fist deep into the solid wall behind and slithered on his belly the last few crucial centimeters. His right arm shot out and by the slimmest of margins a forearm-length black rod made contact with the back end of one hoof-claw.

    For a single critical second the creature writhed in place, locked down as the stun baton poured thousands of volts in furious arcs across its surfaces.

    Some instinct, beaten into Nema by endless hours of childhood training, asserted itself absent command. With all the strength she could grasp the Force blasted energy through her starving muscles and she charged across the hall.

    The green blade of her lightsaber plunged cleanly through the central armor plate to core the assassin in the torso. She slumped forward, all her weight behind the blow, until the glowing point emerged on the opposite side.

    The creature shivered. Pulsations ran up and down its limbs, bubbles rippled across yellow carapace and black armor. It gave a low squeal, a dissonant static hideous to hear. Its motions slowed, but it did not fall. Wriggling tendrils reached forward, cupped grasp in motion to form a crushing embrace.

    Nema screamed, voice hollow and ragged. She let her legs fall away and body collapse to the floor. Arms locked, hands formed vise about the base hilt of her lightsaber at its base as she dropped. No strength remained, but gravity is eternal. Leverage took care of the rest.

    The green blade rotated through the beast. It carved its path upward through the back, cleaved the skull capsule in twain, and ripped out through shattered armor plate. Then it dropped down again, a second course charted through pale gray innards to split the body clean in half.

    The remains slid slowly to the floor in two pieces. There was no blood. Pale yellowish ooze, a much softer shade than the brilliant bee-stripe surface coloration, splashed across the carapace and slowly soaked free of the shattered wreckage.

    “Stars…” Nema heard Morne whisper. His voice sounded shockingly distant.

    Oxygen deprivation, the realization formed only sluggishly, as if her thoughts were shrouded in fog. Fluid in the lungs probably, or a puncture, either possibility could be fatal. “Morne,” her words barely managed to gasp free of her mouth. “Need bacta spray.”

    The officer, though his crawling betrayed no small amount of pain on his part, managed to find and extract the little device from the emergency medpack in the top of her bag. When he placed it in her hands Nema found some last reservoir of strength to lift it to her mouth, press the activation stud, and breathe deeply.

    It tasted terrible, and the consistency induced a hideous sensation that she was being force-fed room temperature nutrient paste, but almost at once the pain eased and her airflow deepened. Within a handful of heartbeats her intake steadied and returned to a range that, while still depressed, moved above the hypoxia zone.

    She stopped the spray and passed the device to Morne.

    The officer briefly pulled opened his coat and applied the spray to both collar bones. Dark bruising there suggests serious fractures to both.

    “That thing,” he groused, though a touch of humor emerged. “Was too fast, too flexible, and too kriffing strong, and it shrugged off blaster bolts like nothing. That's just unfair. What does that?”

    “Highly advanced and very expensive droids, possibly,” Nema thought about some of the training models commissioned especially for use by the masters. “But nothing naturally evolved.” Blasters did not occur in nature, armor specifically tuned to them could not be selected for. “This creature,” her words slowly returned to their normal pattern as she stared at the remains of the yellow assassin. “It must have been engineered, heavily.” The skill required to produce such a thing was completely beyond any manipulations she knew of, just thinking of it made her shiver.

    There would be no time for further speculation. A squad of underworld officers bearing long blaster rifles in their arms poured out of the turbolift moments later.
    _ _ _

    “Congratulations Jedi Nema,” Prefect Xeril remarked as he leaned over the tactical display projected in the center of his command speeder. “Your tag works. Not only can we prove that these things were responsible for the murders, but having identified the one you took down we can track them on the camera network. It's patchy, but they're conspicuous, and we've tracked them to their base.” He sounded satisfied, but only for a moment.

    “Unfortunately,” the Prefect tapped a button on the display as he continued, and the focus shifted to a single building. Nondescript, it appeared to possess some automated industrial function and lacked any exterior windows. “This was the Sector 215 Pump Control Station. It was decommissioned three years ago when they finally got the money to build one that wasn't five hundred years old, and the government hasn't managed to find someone willing to offer a big enough bribe to get a redevelopment permit approved yet.” This remark was delivered without the slightest bit of hesitancy, a brutally cynical piece of commentary on the rampant corruption of the current era Nema struggled to absorb as it flashed past. “It was considered critical infrastructure when operational, so it has access to the industrial tram network, which is how these Yellows were getting around. Unfortunately, aside from the one you and Officer Morne took down, all the others hit their second set of targets successfully and made it back. That means at least ten inside, maybe a couple more if some are just minding the base, and whatever support crew these things have.”

    Nema had managed a partial night's rest and received treatment from Dee-Dee prior to this summons. She was functional, mostly, but even trying to walk fast left her breathless and in severe pain. She was far from combat ready, weeks of convalescence stood between her and such without a dip in a bacta tank. She'd expected this meeting would involve no more than a thorough debriefing after the last night's chaos. Sitting in the police command speeder and staring at the tactical feed lay completely outside her expectations.

    “Prefect, I'm sorry,” she did her best to remain polite to this man, despite the damage her injury inflicted on her patience and her growing misgivings regarding his arrangement with the Mutaratak. He did seem to genuinely care about his duties, despite the strangeness. “But I don't quite understand what the problem is, or how I can possibly assist.”

    “The problem is that just one of these monsters tore Captain Lontand and twelve veteran officers to pieces without even slowing down last night, and in two other engagements my men were equally overwhelmed. I've lost twenty good police in the line of duty in one night, the worst bit of butchery since the Pyke Purges twenty years ago. Our armed response teams have rifles, but those are barely any better than service pistols against these things. If I order an assault on the pumping station it'll be an absolute bloodbath. We could lose hundreds of officers.”

    It did not take much effort to recall the assassin's devastating power. She knew how fortunate her survival had been. She did not question the prefect's assessment as unreasonable in the slightest. “The armor must have limits,” her lightsaber had pierced it cleanly, and surely a lesser weapon could still punch through. “If rifles serve better than pistols, surely a higher powered bolt could break through.”

    “I know,” agreement came swiftly, but the Prefect's voice only hardened further. “But we don't have them. CSF isn't issued military-grade weaponry, rifles and scatterblasters are the best we have.10 I've sent a request up official channels for a clone assault unit, but who knows how long a response will take, and if we don't conduct an attack by the time the level hits the next night cycle I'm sure these things will break out, all their movements have been triggered by nightfall so far. If they break out in force I don't know if we can hold them at all, and I'll still lose officers.”

    As he was speaking, Nema figured it out. “Prefect, I can make a call to the Jedi Temple, but you must know there are very few Jedi on planet at the moment.” Everyone had been dispatched to far-flung worlds in desperate attempts to hold back the Separatist attempt to seize the major hyperlanes, and it was not going well. Even most of the High Council was off-planet. “And I'm not certain I can convey urgency via holocall. I will go in person to make an appeal, but that will take time.” Master Windu would probably believe her, she knew him a little, but whether that would allow a strike force to be assembled in haste she did not know. Once again she wished a Jedi Knight held this posting. They could have just rushed up to the nearest clone unit and started shouting orders.

    “Right,” the Prefect's shoulders slumped beneath his coat. “Well, I appreciate your willingness to try. Make the call, and I'll have Officer Morne escort you on an emergency path to the Jedi Temple.”

    Several minutes later, struggling to suppress her suddenly miserable mood, Nema climbed into Morne's speeder.

    He picked up her body language immediately. “What's the plan?”

    “Make for the Jedi Temple,” there was at least a chance, so she would do her part. “Master Rancisis will provide orders to a clone assault unit to follow my leadership for the next twenty-four hours, but apparently it has to be done in person or the clones won't acknowledge it. I guess we'll see how fast the clones can move.”

    She expected Morne to punch the acceleration, they only had a handful of hours to work with, ever minute counted. Instead, he turned and met her eyes, red to gold. “Wait, so if a Jedi Master authorizes it, anyone can command an army unit? At least temporarily?”

    “I suppose,” Nema had never thought about it. The finer legal points of the military authorization act and a general's authority were of no interest to her.11

    “Does that apply to militia units?” the officer leaned in close, suddenly eager.

    “Why would that-” the doctor stopped as a piece shifted in her mind and understanding emerged from the completed picture. “This is like the lab,” she recognized, the course plotted in her mind step by step. “There's someone down here with the firepower needed for this attack, but officially the guns are illegal.” The laws were unknown to her, but if the police weren't permitted such guns, surely civilians would be equally prohibited. “But, if they can be sanctioned as an official militia unit and brought into the army then there's enough time.”

    “Right,” Morne confirmed. “And they won't bother insisting on any personal appearances by Jedi Masters. Holo will do fine. It'll stretch the rules for sure, but if we keep it all in the Bucket the Senate will never even notice, much less care. Drop some clones down thousands of levels though, and they will for sure.” Morne stopped. Enthusiastic vigor drained away from his frame and he leaned back slowly. “At least, that's if nothing goes wrong. If this goes bad, it's all going to land on you. You don't have to take that kind of risk. We can play it out either way. Your decision.”

    It did not take much to imagine the possible consequences. More than whatever might happen to her, Nema realized that if she made the wrong choice many other people, perhaps hundreds, would die. The risks were immense and obvious. Further, Morne's plan demanded that she trust his unseen contacts to deliver the firepower the Prefect needed. Her read on the officer told her nothing. Her eyes closed to feel the Force but brought only mist. War, it seemed, offered no certainty, and membership in the service corps provided no protection from the terrible responsibilities passed onto the Jedi.

    It was too much at once, and for a moment, frozen by indecision, she deflected. “How do you know these people?” A barely relevant question, but it felt better to ask something, anything. Somehow it offered a measure of control, however illusory she knew it to be.

    “I've been assigned as a liaison before,” the officer replied. A clear mystery lay behind this remark, but there was no time to probe it now.

    “And they have the weapons required for this? These yellow creatures seem to have no vulnerable points.12 It will take an overwhelming energy output to take them down.” Though no soldier, the knowledge to preserve is easily turned toward its antithesis. Nema could postulate how to destroy a great many forms of living being with disturbing ease.

    Morne's response was surprisingly upbeat. “Oh yeah, maybe even better than the clones.”

    For some utterly inexplicable reason it was this spike of highly questionable enthusiasm that tilted the scale. “Let's go and contact your friends then and hope the Prefect is inclined to forgive.”

    The officer drove his airspeeder out to a series of unusual habitats, massive disc-like structures that lay plastered onto the ceiling of the level. While buildings hanging from the division between levels were not uncommon, they were rarely produced so deliberately, or in such numbers. This set of structures extended for kilometers, a veritable city tucked in beneath the roof. They were distinctly colored, painted bright primary shades in spectral sequence.

    “They're called the Ayae13,” Morne explained as he piloted. “And they're lived down here a long time. They've never trusted the Republic, so they have their own militia. We do this right and they can be on station in an hour.”

    “And if not?” Trepidation grew in Nema’s breast with every moment.

    “Well, worst case they might kill us.”

    The Jedi desperately searched the Force for some indication of jest, but found nothing. The subsequent arrival, moments later, of a pair of airspeeders in escort posture, offered no encouragement. The vehicles were strange. Flattened circular frames crafted out of multiple layers, they resembled nothing typical of Republic standards. Highly maneuverable but sluggish, they lumbered through the traffic lanes as if someone had attached engines to a stack of brightly colored plates.

    These escorts brought them to a hangar hidden within the strange inverted disc-city. It was secured, Nema recognized the distinctive shimmer as they passed through an exterior shield. When they disembarked, she acquired her first glimpse of the Ayae. They, at least, were more familiar than their technologies.

    Slender, almost spindly, humanoids, they had long, narrow limbs and compact torsos. The sole exception was a comparatively over-sized pelvic girdle, which presented an image of massive hips and thighs. Nema guessed this a necessary adaptation for child-bearing, for their skulls were by no means reduced. Their skin ranged from vibrant violet to nearly midnight shades, but was mostly hidden beneath tight synthetic jumpsuits displayed in a panoply of bright colors. Their jaws were bent downward, so the mouth rested hidden beneath the chin, and the nares were obscured beneath skin flaps. The resulting visual was of a nearly featureless face containing nothing but pure red eyes. Their outfits augmented this impression, for all wore transparent plastoid helmets that attached to complex banded headdresses which projected white and black ribbons down past the waist in a facsimile of hair, a trait that they appeared to lack entirely.

    Finally, as Nema discovered when first approached by one of the officials in a clearly prepared welcoming committee, they were short. By human standards the doctor did not qualify as at all tall, but she seemed to have half a head on the average Ayae. Their motions, however, hinted at potent elongated musculature. She doubted they were weaker than humans in any substantial fashion.

    “Officer Ven Morne,” the Ayae who approached them first was male, and seemed to be older, skin wrinkled about the face, than most others, though Nema could not identify any differences in dress. “And the illustrious Doctor Rig Nema, how unexpected. What can the Ayae Autonomous Contingent do for you this day?”

    Morne had suggested Nema take the lead, to which she had reluctantly agreed. Despite knowing this, she had to fight hard to reach across the deeply pregnant silence to find her voice. “On behalf of the Jedi Order and under the authority of the Military Authorization Act, I wish to deputize an assault unit of Ayae militia in order to eliminate a force of Separatist-affiliated assassins.”

    “Aha!” The Ayae did not sound surprised. “You have found out the mysterious killers of the past two nights.” His voice was sharp and high-pitched, but he spoke perfectly understandable Basic. “Of course we share your desire to remove them.” With only eyes to watch, the expression on the indigo face was nigh impossible to measure, but something suggested to the doctor that this reply was not entirely forthright. “But why would you need an assault unit to suppress a handful of assassins? Are the Separatists fielding Jedi of their own now?”

    This remark was surely some form of veiled insult, but Nema found it made no impact on her, merely presented a puzzle. The thrust of it felt off-angle, as if she was standing outside the target zone. She suspected a cross-cultural variance of some kind. Therefore she offered no retort.

    Morne was not so restrained. “Captain Lontand and twelve underworld police officers encountered just one of these things last night. They were good men, well trained and armored, and the blasted Yellow wasn’t even hurt. Nobody came back.”

    All playfulness vanished from the slender alien’s posture. “How dangerous do you assess them to be?”

    “At least as bad as the nastiest close combat droid you’ve ever seen,” Morne did not hesitate. “Like those new IG units Holowan’s got, only worse. There’s at least a dozen of the things, in a confined space.”

    The Ayae’s neck swiveled back and forth, a disturbing and strangely avian motion given his oddly vacant facial structure. “Wise of you to come to us. Our forces might consider such targets a specialty. We are willing to assist, but,” his red eyes fixated directly upon Nema. Lacking visible whites or pupils they were more slits in a flat face that orbs. She struggled to match the empty stare. “Our people will not risk themselves without compensation.”

    “I don’t have money.” It felt best to admit that at once, even though her intuition suggested this was an entirely different sort of bargain.

    “We would not need it if you did,” the counter was immediate. “There are three-point-two million Ayae on Coruscant Doctor Nema. Over ninety-nine percent of them live here. We are a plurality of the sector’s ten million residents, but it has been over four hundred years since any among us have served as Sector Administrator. As of last night that particular posting is vacant. We desire this trend to change.”

    “I cannot rig an election!” The idea existed so far beyond the boundaries of reasonable that Nema could not even be angry, merely stunned.

    “Nema,” Morne interjected carefully. “Sector Administrators and Level Governors aren’t elected. They’re appointed by the City Municipal Authority, which reports to the Senate.”

    “Exactly,” the Ayae leader picked up this thread. “And a single Senator can shift control of a single underworld sector with a word. Surely a Jedi can find a friendly Senator to engage in conversation.”

    “I could,” Nema admitted. “But as a Jedi I will not be having any political conversations on anyone’s behalf, up to and including the Supreme Chancellor himself.” There was real anger now. “But if you desire praise, then as a doctor I can impress upon Prefect Xeril and his colleagues of your contribution in solving this emergency. Is that enough to convince you to help me save lives, or have I wasted my time coming here and sent hundreds to their deaths as a consequence?” She knew full well that if these aliens did not agree there would be no summoning the clones before nightfall.

    The Ayae laughed, a strange sound reminiscent of a hissing feline. “Apologies doctor, I felt it necessary to test the commitment of the Jedi. It has been some time since our people encountered one. In truth, we would assist you simply in order to allow our militia a chance to display their capabilities. It is useful to give the neighbors an occasional reminder. Major Kayi has already begun mustering a full company, including an assault platoon. They will be ready in ten minutes.”

    “I see.” An odd sense of detachment, similar to the cool emptiness that embraced her when submerged deep within the precision processes of surgery, settled over the doctor. She felt the Force nearby, but it did not touch her, isolated beyond a wall of cold reason. “I will remember your choices.” It was not a judgment, she knew better than to judge other species by her own standards, but this action would not escape her recollection. Future actions would carry appropriate consequences. “I need to connect you to Jedi Master Oppo Rancisis in order to officially authorize this action. Otherwise Officer Morne and I will lead your contingent as soon as they are ready. Do we need to arrange transport?”

    “No Doctor, we have that well in hand,” a new voice cheerful and clearly female though it was pitched to sprite-like levels by human standards, interjected. “Major Kayi, at your command.”

    The Ayae officer wore a dark-shaded version of the seemingly standard jumpsuit, one with a cross-hatched fiber pattern and metallic rings at the joints that implied an internal armor weave. Far more eye-catching was the contraption strapped onto her. It resembled a gigantic washer, slightly angled so the back rode up behind her head while the front stood level with her knees. Not a complete ring, the front opened before the soldier. This strange device attached by straps to the helmet band atop her skull. Further contact utilized a pair of apertures through which both hands fitted. All together the ostentatious and eye-catching plated-ring device must have occupied triple the volume of the Ayae’s body and massed ten times that of her slender frame. Repulsor units surely worked to hold it upright.

    Bizarre as this appeared, it was not some sort of strange fashion statement. Surrounding each hand was a tight circular insert composed of dark holes. Though a series of swirling bands of artistic inlay across the dorsal surface concealed them, at this range they were clearly recognizable as blaster barrels.

    “Thank you, Major,” Nema could think of nothing more to say. The Ayae woman did not look like any sort of soldier, but she refused to think her visual impressions of that profession were at all accurate. “I won’t try to give you orders.” It was too late for regret or hesitation. She had committed herself to this course and now must trust in these slender creatures to defeat the brutish monsters awaiting them. She could only hope that Morne’s assessment and their confidence were not misplaced. It gnawed at her belly that it might be all bravado. “Let me set up the call, then we can depart whenever you’re ready.”

    “Excellent,” the child-like enthusiasm implied by the pitch of her speech struck some innate vulnerability inside the Jedi. She fought to suppress this deceptive instinct. Closing her eyes helped, slightly. In the Force no illusions could conceal a mind’s maturity. The impression was muddled by her limited exposure to this physiology, but Nema thought the Major might be relatively older than she was.

    Kayi completed the holo-exchange with Master Rancisis in a few short phrases. She displayed no awe, only professionalism, when faced with the dourly serious expression of the Jedi Master. “If possible, I will ride to the site with you,” she turned back to Nema when it was finished. “I’d like to go over the capabilities of this enemy with someone who faced them in combat.”

    “Major, you cannot fit in the speeder like that,” Nema countered. The slightly ridiculous comment actually served to settle her nerves.

    “I’ll ride on top, it’s not an impediment.” Her red eyes briefly flashed and an image rapidly flicked across the inner surface of her transparent helmet; doubtless a message from some subordinate. “That’s the clear call. We can follow you out at any point.”

    “I suppose there’s no reason to waste time then,” Nema assented. Considering the circumstances, she turned back to Morne. “I think we need to com the Prefect and tell him there’s a militia unit on the way.” Briefly she wondered what he would say, and then pushed it aside. It no longer mattered, the choice had been made.

    At a signal from the major, a force of Ayae rushed into the hangar and charged onto a waiting cadre of their strange flattened speeders. Nema, engaged in strapping herself in, barely had time to note that the majority did not wear the massive rings like their commander, but instead had smaller halos that wrapped about their shoulders and carried far more typical blaster rifles. Unimpeded by the great mass of metal tied to her skull, Kayi jumped on top of the speeder as Morne took off. Due to the clear transparisteel canopy of her seat, the doctor was left in the oddly perverse position of staring up the soldier’s legs.

    Not that she had any time to think about it, for the Ayae commander bombarded them with questions throughout the short flight. It was an education, mostly in how little they knew about the strange yellow assassins, including whether or not they were even properly sapient. Nema also became reacquainted with her complete lack of knowledge regarding military procedure. Kayi utilized a storm of acronyms and technical jargon she could not even begin to follow, though Morne mostly managed to keep up. The soldier offered no commentary of her own, but it seemed the lack of intelligence disturbed her.

    The old pumping building, a squat, broadly rectangular structure that perched atop a quartet of pipes themselves wide enough to swallow buildings, was easy to spot. The cordon of police speeders and hazard barriers, lights flashing, could not be missed. Dozens of vehicles hovered above, and on the ground hundreds of grey-cloaked officers waited behind their pop-up barricades. Weariness swirled with charged tension in the air, forming a tempestuous mixture ready to explode. All nearby buildings were dark. The Bucket’s populace, even the droids, had a well-schooled understanding of when to become scarce.

    As they descended, Major Kayi launched into a rapid-fire series of commands. Not in Basic, these announcements came in what Nema assumed must be the Ayae’s own language. High-pitched nearly to the point of shrieking, they resembled the desperate alarm calls of some small furry animal.

    The results banished any amusement one might have attached to such audio.

    With professional efficiency the Ayae dropped into position along the cordon. Squads fanned out to blanket all approaches and establish clear firing lanes from cover while the assault platoon, obvious due to their massive rings, took up position in front of the main entrance. They moved seamlessly, the police were completely displaced without ever being forced aside.

    Nema’s own landing lacked such tightly choreographed elegance. “Morne!” the voice of Prefect Xeril roared at them from the moment they exited the speeder. “This was your idea, wasn’t it? You let the crazy saucer-people out with all their blasters. What were you thinking? I’ll have you badge for this!”

    Before that storm, Nema flinched. The faceless nature of the source made it all the worse, as did the legitimate nature of the rage. She desired no part of this. Nothing would please her more than to run back to her clinic and nurse her hurts. Her sides ached terribly, and by now every word came with its own little hurt. Prefect Xeril was in front of her, Major Kayi stood behind her, and Morne waited on her left. There was a lightsaber clipped to her belt.

    It had never felt heavier.

    “Prefect Xeril,” Nema muttered. When this seemed to pass unheard she forced the words out again, infused with the burgeoning misery of her diaphragm. “Prefect Xeril, this company represents an officially sanctioned militia unit as recognized by the authority of the Jedi Order in accordance with section Thirty-eight-point-two Besh of the Military Authorization Act.” The legalese, though barely meaningful to her ears, offered a shield to preserve her wavering confidence. “As such I have authorized their deployment as the on-site proxy of General Jedi Master Oppo Rancisis for this emergency peace-keeping action. This is now a military operation.”

    She expected a furious protest, but to her surprise the police official’s body language relaxed instantly. “That so?” He cocked his helmeted head to one side. “Guess you’re in charge then, Jedi Nema. Hope those saucer-people can match all their bragging.”

    I hate this, Nema thought as she recognized the terrible responsibility she’d suddenly inherited. All at once she understood why the Prefect had so casually relinquished it; it was so obvious. Hundreds of policemen, a full company of soldiers, and thousands of civilians in the nearby blocks, it all belonged to her now. She struggled to suppress the urge to vomit. Desperately she cycled through her desire for a Jedi Knight to take her place yet again. They would know what to do, how to take command. All she could do was turn around to face the alien officer she’d met less than an hour before, meet those fearsome floating flame eyes, and unleash everything. “Major, you may begin.” She paused. “May the Force be with you.”

    Major Kayi screeched out a sharp series of orders. Squads of troopers formed tight arcs in front of the main entrance. The sealed door, wide enough to accommodate loading crates, loomed stout and sturdy before them.

    Without further prelude, hundreds of blasters spoke as one. A barrage of ruby bolts detonated against the center of the aperture.

    In the face of such immense energy inputs at once, the durasteel did not melt, it boiled. A wash of heat blasted out over the access corridor, enough to make Nema close her eyes.

    Outgoing fire broke the steaming silence before her gaze snapped back up.

    A single assassin waited behind the portal. Heat did not impede it. Sighting the enemy in front, it charged.

    Barrels whirred around each gloved Ayae hand in rapid sequence, firing as they spun. A paired rotary progression at hundreds of rpm. No modest handheld rifles these paired weapons, they launched a continuous storm of high-powered bolts. Each blast carved devastating streak-holes through the backdrop of the building when they missed.

    Such errors were rare. Balanced on precision repulsors and with fire control linked directly to the hand motions of their slender operators, the deadly repeating rings adjusted their targeting with furious speed and accuracy. A deluge of fire rained onto their target.

    To the surprise of nearly everyone, the armored chest plate survived fully ten initial impacts from those heavy repeaters before it broke. That took less than a second, and dozens of continuing strikes slashed through the more vulnerable arms and legs at the same time. Systematic concentrated fire reduced the creature to a smoldering pile of torn flesh before it could advance ten meters.

    Three more of these creatures, utterly without fear, dropped from some perch above and charged through the steaming doorframe in unison. They made it no further than their fallen ally before the withering cross-fire of the Ayae assault platoon leveled them. Rings swirled and shifted behind the soldiers. Metal split apart to reveal a fanned interior of many-colored layers, all now glowing bright. Understanding finally reached the Jedi at this point as to the true nature of their weapons. The ring-structure contained an integrated power, bracing, and cooling system for the paired heavy repeaters. They converted each Ayae in the platoon into a mobile turret.

    Four targets down and Major Kayi issued new commands. One squad moved into position to blanket the entrance while a second crouched down, rings lowering as their skulls descended, and began to advance on hands and knees through the bottleneck. Periodic bursts, targeted at some distant inner movement Nema could not see, covered their advance.

    When the squad passed the door a tremendous screaming whine split the air as rotary repeaters engaged in sustained fire for the better part of a minute.

    Then an explosion erupted above.

    Nema turned to watch a yellow form, slightly smoking, shatter its way through a wall near the roof and roll out onto a service catwalk. The first shot from the supporting infantry hit it on its second step. Others followed, but the creature’s incredible speed meant most blasts landed behind it, and while the proportion that did impact still measured in the dozens, the traditional carbine blasts failed to halt its motions or do much more than paint black spots across its hide.

    Unfortunately for the assassin, the limited scope of the catwalk made its evasive maneuvers predictable. When it jumped down into the corridor it landed directly in front of Major Kayi.

    No further steps were taken.

    “All clear!” the Ayae officer called out across the shared com frequency in Basic. “We detect no further enemy response. Squads sweep by the numbers and fall in for extraction.” She turned about and walked over to the waiting Jedi, blaster barrels still smoking as they slowly spun down around her hands. “Congratulations Jedi Nema. We have cleared this facility with no casualties suffered. I think it best if we depart immediately. I shall have an after-action report ready for you by tomorrow morning.”

    “Of course,” Nema had no idea what else to say. Events proceeded through their course wholly outside her control, whatever the law said.

    “If the operation is concluded,” Prefect Xeril was suddenly present and speaking once more. “Then the CSF will retake control of this location.”

    Nema nodded mutely.

    “Once I have the all clear doctor, you’re welcome to come inside and take a look,” he continued. “Maybe they’ll be some clue as to where these monsters came from.”

    With those words the entire process came to an abrupt conclusion. Only minutes later all the Ayae were gone, and only a handful of underworld police remained. Morne guided Nema through the wreckage of the old station building, now heavily impacted by blaster gouges. There was little to see inside. The assassin creatures swiftly disintegrated upon death, reduced to puddles of white-gray goo. Highly toxic due to their considerable arsenic percentage, they would require hazardous materials disposal. Little clue as to the nature of the beasts would be gleaned from such remnants.

    The building itself contained nutrient tanks full of a mixture compatible with the bizarre biochemistry of the Yellows, but hardly anything else. The creatures appeared to have no possessions at all and it seemed that they had slept, or at least rested, in debris piles formed from used office furniture and shredded insulation. It made for a short, fruitless investigation.

    “At least we stopped them,” Morne offered as they strapped back into his speeder for the return trip to the clinic. “And now that we have your tag we’ll be able to tell if they show up again.”

    “I guess that’s true.” Nema did not feel victorious. The Ayae could be proud of themselves, their firepower had won the day, but she did not think her own actions amounted to much. Nor could she feel proud of her conduct. “But those assassins, they were like clones or droids, not born but manufactured, and we have no clue as to their maker. Someone is down here, in the Bucket, working against the Republic with weapons far greater than a few improvised bombs.” The words sounded callous on her tongue, but she refused to hide from the truth now, after all they had gone through. The level of biochemical engineering, beyond anything she’d ever seen or heard of, compelled such brutal reflection. “And against them the Jedi have only me.” Already Master Rancisis had refused her request to dispatch a full-fledged Jedi Knight to this mission.

    “Hey,” Morne objected. “You did fine.” He reached out with one hand and gently tapped Nema’s headdress. In the moment, she did not pull away from the motion. “Besides, for this mess we need brains. Plenty of spare muscle wandering around down here, don’t be afraid to borrow it.”

    She said nothing. It would be wrong for a Jedi to admit how desperately she hoped Morne’s assessment was correct; or how much she feared it was not.

    Footnotes

    10. Militarization of police forces varies from place to place, but it is comparatively rare for such units to have actual military grade heavy weapons. Considering that the Republic, prior to Geonosis, barely had a military at all, it would seem reasonable that the police would be comparatively under-gunned.

    11. In all honesty the finer points of Jedi military authority during the clone wars are unclear. I’m making so assumptions here based on what I think would make sense, but there’s probably some real rule-bending involved.

    12. The idea of a bioengineered organism being created in such a way that it has no obvious points of failure is not new to Star Wars. The Wolvkils, nasty little creatures used by the Vagaari, displayed this trait in Survivor’s Quest.

    13. This is most assuredly not a canonical species. I’ve totally made them up.
     
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2020
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