The guards were discrete, I’ll give them that. There were two that I could make out, both dressed up in fashionably smart outfits so as not to draw attention to themselves amongst the rich and influential, and both definitely armed. Apart from them though, the security at the ball was surprisingly lax, especially so given that a high profile political prisoner was in attendance. Our staying in the penthouse suite of the Bellamar may have helped somewhat, but I had been waved through as Valin’s bodyguard with a blaster under my jacket without being searched once. Either Governor Eblark was supremely confident about the skill and professionalism of his guards or he was overconfident and an idiot. I sincerely hoped it was the latter.
I kept one eye on them and our target, Mon Mothma, most of the evening. Valin’s conversations with the rich and powerful of Pencael IV were tedious at best. None of them knew enough about droids to challenge what he’d picked up from Kari on the way here, so most of the talk seemed to gravitate towards money and how great it was to have lots of it. Playing the dutiful bodyguard was boring as hell when you knew full well that the person you were supposed to be protecting wasn’t even likely to be hit by a drinks bill. I spent the time practicing with my force sensitivity, trying to glean information from the other guests about their inner motivations, desires and secrets and compare what I found to how they came across. For the most part the attendees were predictably dishonest, with the biggest surprises coming from finding the few geniunely good people amongst the self serving masses, but I soon got bored of that too. The overwhelming cynicism and hypocrisy of the room was starting to get me down. Our days with the Alliance fleet had clearly spoiled me, it had left me with the impression that maybe the galaxy was worth saving from the oppression of the Empire. These people reminded me of my days back on Akenephin V, everyone out for themselves, desperate, and willing to do whatever it took to hang onto what they had. Except that on Akenephin all they could boast about was a rundown hut and a steady job.
Eventually Mon Mothma excused herself from her current conversation and headed to the restrooms. It was time to move. I glanced at Valin. He had clearly noticed too and was walking past Kari towards the bar. I saw him whisper something to her as he passed and her eyes widened with what I could only assume was fear. I felt a moment of sympathy, this really wasn’t her scene. It wouldn’t be long before this situation would turn to violence, of that I was certain, and I had no idea how she would react. As Kari stood to move to the restrooms Valin pretended to notice her leaving and ordered me to accompany her, before calling two of his droids to join him at the bar.
I nodded to the two bodyguards as I entered the outer area of the restrooms, rolling my eyes in mock indignation at being called on to escort my charge to the bathroom. They ignored me. How rude.
The door behind me swung closed. Well, almost.
I turned to see Kari’s ‘tame’ battle droid pushing the heavy wooden door open behind me. Oh great. I’d be lucky if he didn’t try to kill the guards before everything got started.
“What the hell are you doing here? You can’t serve her drinks while she’s in there, you stupid clanker”
The droid ignored me, standing perfectly still in the center of the room, the silver tray we had acquired earlier that week balancing on one upturned palm. I was still impressed Valin had managed to convince the tailor to make Biter a suit, more so with how good the man had made it look. But I was a little pissed that Valin had requested it match mine, a not-so subtle insult from our noble captain.
I leaned back against the far wall.
“Well, whatever. You just stand there looking creepy then”
It wasn’t long before I noticed something, an odd burning smell, coming from the closed door. This was where things would start getting interesting. I pulled out a pack of death sticks I had borrowed from Quan, under the assurance that he would get most of them back, and lit one. It was a new experience for me, and as i drew the hot smoke down my throat I started choking instantly, my eyes watering as I doubled over. Smooth, Kaz, real smooth. Well, at least it would mask the smell of Kari’s architectural modifications.
Suddenly Biter straightened up, his mechanical joints whirring softly, and turned towards the women’s restroom. Great. What the hell was he doing?
“I am programmed to check on her after four minutes” he exclaimed, walking past me and pushing open the door. I noticed the two guards glance at each other and move for their weapons as I grabbed at the droid’s arm.
“You can’t go in there, that’s the…”
He ignored me, effortlessly shrugging my hand off, and carried on into the bathroom. I paused outside, reluctant to follow. This was already awkward enough, and I was pretty sure that I didn’t want those two guards behind me. I backed off, shaking my head and muttering under my breath. Stupid damn droid.
There was a crackle of static as their radios came to life, barely perceptible but for my force enhanced senses.
“… problem in the Women’s bathroom. Move! Now!”
Drawing their blasters the two guards rushed forwards. This was about to get ugly. How the hell had they just been told that there was a situation in there? I was pretty sure there was no one inside but Kari and Mon Mothma, and now Biter. Surely any alerts raised would have come from these two? Nevertheless, I had to stop them.
“Woah, what the hell is going on? You can’t go in there!” I stepped out in front of them, one hand moving to my gun. The guards barely noticed as they shouldered me aside. Well, they hadn’t gained any manners in the last few minutes. They hadn’t got much smarter either, they barely took stock of me, somehow never even registering me as a threat. Did I really look that harmless?
As the second guard pushed past I drew my pistol from the streamlined holster at my side and flipped it around to hold it by the barrel. I considered just shooting the man, but decided against it at the last second. There was no need to risk killing him when I could just put him out cold. I had a feeling the psychotic droid would be doing enough murder for the both of us the moment he was given an excuse, so i wanted to delay the bloodshed as long as possible. I swung backhanded with the butt of my pistol, catching the guard behind the ear and sending him stumbling forward, momentarily caught off balance, but still conscious. Dammit. There was nothing else for it. I couldn’t hope to get close enough for a second swing without risking getting shot. Spinning the pistol around again I fired a round into his shoulder as he turned. At the very least it would disable his arm, prevent him from shooting at anyone. The searing blast of energy burned through him, leaving black scorch marks around the wound, which cauterised instantly. The guard collapsed to the floor, the shock of the damage overriding his system and knocking him out cold, or so I hoped. It wasn’t till I was certain he wasn’t getting back up that I looked past his prone form to see Biter pummeling the other guard with his silver tray. The man was lying on the floor, unmoving, with the droid’s foot on his chest as the tray rose and fell in a sinister rhythm. With each stroke the soft metal warped more and more, until eventually a crude imprint of the guards face was moulded into the metal. It was a sickening sight, and the cold, emotionless construct seemed to take some perverse pleasure in the ritual, holding the blood soaked tray out at arms length to inspect his trophy.
I felt ill. I’d met, even associated with some unpleasant people, but there was something disturbing about seeing the droid kill in such an elaborate fashion. Surely this wasn’t part of his programming? Who would encode an imagination into a killing machine? Had Kari given him the ability to take pride in murder, and if so, what kind of a person really was she? Something wasn’t right with the crew of the Ghost, but now really wasn’t the time to think about it.
I stepped into the room over the guard I had shot, his fallen form holding the door open for me. Finally, some manners, I thought to myself.
Where had that come from? There was a good chance the man was dead, and I was joking about it?
I took a quick glance around the room. Kari had successfully cut a hole in the wall large enough to climb through, but the situation had since become a lot more complicated. A guard was climbing through the smoking hole in the wall, eyes fixed on the murderous droid, his weapon raised. That must have been how the alert had been sounded. He hadn’t noticed me yet, so I took my time with the shot. A single blast, just below his shoulder, sent him spinning to the ground, weapon forgotten in the pain. As he fell a second guard appeared behind him, firing hurriedly at me as he, too, tried to clamber through the hole. In spite of the close range the shot went just wide, sizzling past my head so close I could almost feel the heat. Biter, having finished admiring his grisly handy work, tucked the tray under one arm, bent down to pick up his victims pistol and fired three shots in quick succession. The first straight into the back of the guard I had already disabled, perhaps making sure he would stay down, or perhaps just for the joy of inflicting pain on a living creature. The second two shots burned home in the chest of the man trying to climb through the hole in the wall. He fell forwards past Kari, cowering in the corner, and lay motionless on the tiled bathroom floor. Sensing her opportunity Kari leapt to her feet, motioning for Mon Mothma to follow, and clambered through the hole.
The faintest creak and a rush of air behind me. The bathroom door being pushed open. I span, pistol in hand, to face this new threat, terrified that reinforcements had been summoned quicker than we had anticipated. But there stood Valin, and him alone, a look of concern on his face as he surveyed the scene of destruction around us. Noticing Kari retreating through the charred hole in the wall he nodded to me.
“Very nice. Clean up.”
Short, precise commands as he turned and headed back to the ballroom. Valin had grown in our year with the rebel fleet. While he still loved his drinking and gambling he had taken to command with a natural ease. His casual manner with the troops under his command made him popular, but he never forgot that he was responsible for their lives and kept strict discipline where it mattered.
Although I was the butt of most of the jokes amongst the crew of the Ghost they had become almost like family to me. Everyone had their roles to fill, and we had come to work well as a team. Thanks to Quan’s relentless training regime I was finally learning to control my abilities and function on an almost normal level amongst other people. I still got caught in strong outbursts of emotion though, particularly when they were directed at me. It had got me in trouble once or twice: I had taken to military discipline badly at first, and nearly ended up in the brig once for striking an officer, but I was learning to recognise when my thoughts weren’t my own. Quan had seemingly infinite patience for my slow learning and drilled me in the fundamental control disciplines every day. My grasp of the lightsaber was still poor, and I was doing well not to have injured myself in practice. I still had a long way to go before I would feel comfortable using the ancient Jedi weapon in combat, but I had my trusty blaster to rely on when the situation called for it.
“Stop right there! Put your hands up!”
Mon Mothma stood on the other side of the hole, arms raised
In surrender. Biter had moved around to take up position behind her, using the politician as cover from the unseen guard or, more likely, guards beyond. Right now she was the only thing keeping them from opening fire. I prayed Kari was avoiding notice on the other side, Valin and Quan were sure to find a way to blame me if she got hurt.
The standoff held for a few seconds. We couldn’t afford to waste any more time, the longer we waited the more guards would be arriving. I had no doubt that the whole city guard was on alert by now, and if we didn’t get to the ship soon we would be facing off against the entire local garrison. Biter, apparently, had the same thought. One hand still aiming his gun past her shoulder he grabbed Mon Mothma and dragged her unceremoniously backwards through the hole and round the corner. I knew the guards would be following behind, so I drew back behind the corner and dropped to one knee, blaster aimed at the only entry point and prayed they wouldn’t wait us out.
My prayers were answered seconds later as two more guards took up positions and opened fire through the hole. The first fell instantly, riddled with frantic blaster fire from the droid and myself , but the second shot true. Mon Mothma had ducked to safety at the other side of the room leaving the droid nothing to hide behind, and the blaster round seared into his breastplate, staggering him momentarily. The guard’s attention was focused on the droid so I took my time: at this range I couldn’t miss, so I made it count. A pinpoint shot, right between his collar bone and shoulder. It would take him out of action, disabling the arm carrying his blaster and likely knocking him out from the shock, but not hitting any major arteries or organs. The force of the shot was enough to spin him backwards away from the hole, clearing our escape. I paused, sending my senses probing out into the next room. Another guard waited for us beyond and Kari was stood by the elevator doors, frantically pressing the ‘call’ button. He was ignoring her, clearly supposing she was an innocent guest caught up in the trouble, just as we had hoped, but it meant his entire attention was fixed on waiting for me or Biter to show ourselves. I had no illusions as to what would happen if either of us poked our heads around that corner, and I didn’t want to be the one to do it, but my force enhanced senses gave me the best chance of surviving. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes and once again sent my senses ahead of me.
I felt the force flow through me. The familiar sensation that I had once feared was sickness, or even madness, was now a welcome ally. I embraced it, became one with it and let it show me things unseen by normal people. I focused on the guard on the other side of the wall, heard his heartbeat pounding against his ribs, smelled the sweat on his brow. In my mind I could see him as well as if the wall wasn’t there. I could move faster than he could react, take my shot and be back in cover before his finger could twitch.
But just to be sure I needed a distraction. In a few moments the lift would reach the ground floor. I could hear it rushing down the shaft, sense it growing ever closer. The opening doors would distract the guard for a split second, draw his attention just long enough for me to make my move. I counted the seconds down in my head, took a deep breath and prepared to step forward.
A shot beyond the hole, the hiss of laser hitting flesh. Kari. Oh please no. The cheerful chime of the lift was a cruel counterpoint to the sudden sinking feeling in my stomach. I stepped forward, gun raised, fearing the worst.
As I rounded the blackened corner the guard slumped forward towards me, falling to the ground with a dull thud. I had put aside my enhances senses, focusing my mind on speed and reactions, so I hadn’t noticed Valin entering the room beyond. The guard apparently hadn’t either, the look of surprise on his face as he fell towards me told me that.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I still wasn’t entirely comfortable around Kari, but she was still part of the closest thing I had to a family, and if my hesitation had resulted in her being wounded I would have been spending the next week in an airlock, or maybe even outside of it.
Valin looked over his shoulder.
“Two more incoming. Get in the lift, hurry.”
He turned, raised his blaster and fired two quick shots, retreating towards the lift. There was no time to close the heavy outer doors, so I too moved to the lift, placing one foot inside to hold the doors and shielding Mon Mothma as she moved past me.
The droid followed, still a little unsteady after the shot he had taken. He paused as he noticed the guard laying where he had fallen after Valin’s shot. Out of the corner of my eye I watched as the psychotic droid raised his stolen blaster and fired several times into the still breathing form of the unconscious guard. Biter was out of control, there was no way around it. I desperately needed to talk to Kari as soon as we were safely away from Pencael IV. I knew how close she had grown to the construct, and it was obvious that she had come to see it as more than just an artificial intelligence, but she seemed completely oblivious to the fact that Biter was a killing machine. A weapon. A brutally effective, dangerously cunning one, but a weapon nonetheless. And this weapon was acting far beyond its orders, taking pleasure in causing pain and suffering. It was acting on its own initiative, taking trophies from its kills and writing its own orders. How long before it saw Quan, Valin, or myself as a threat to Kari, and ended up wearing a necklace of our ears?
Valin moved up beside me, holding the other side of the lift door as Biter looked up from his latest victim and turned to join us, just as two more guards rounded the corner, pistols drawn. We had no time to react, before either of us could get off a shot they fired, sending a flash of laser fire into Biter’s back. He staggered forward a step, righted himself and spun, firing twice. Two precise, deadly blasts dropped the guards in a heartbeat, and the lobby fell quiet. I looked at the droid in awe. His reactions, speed and precision were terrifying. I would have to be incredibly careful how I handled the conversation with Kari, if she decided I was a threat to Biter and accidently let the droid know I wouldn’t stand a chance. But for now, I was glad it was on our side.