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In the lowest levels, in the abyssal urban depths, of the ecumenopolis that was Coruscant, it was a rare thing indeed to see sunlight. For the inhabitants of the baroque and gleaming cloudcutters, skytowers and superskytowers—the latter reaching as much as two kilometers high—the sun was something taken for granted, just as were the other comforts of life. Since WeatherNet guaranteed that it never rained until dusk or later, the rich golden sunlight was simply expected, in the same way that one expected air to fill one’s lungs with every breath.
But hundreds of stories below the first inhabited floors of the great towers, ziggurats, and minarets, in some places actually on or under the city-planet’s surface, it was another story. Here hundreds of thousands of humans and other species lived and died, sometimes without ever catching as much as a glimpse of the fabled sky. Here the light that filtered through the omnipresent gray inversion layer was wan and pallid. The rain that reached the surface was nearly always acidic, enough so at times to etch tiny channels and grooves into ferrocarbon foundations. It was hard to believe that anything at all could survive in these dismal trenches. Yet even here life, both intelligent and otherwise, had adjusted long ago to the perpetual twilight and strictured environment.
At the very bottom of the chasms, in the variegated pulsing of phosphor lights and signs, stone mites, conduit worms, and other scavengers flourished on technological detritus. Duracrete slugs blindly masticated their way through rubble. Hawk-bats built nests near power converters to keep their eggs warm. Armored rats and spider-roaches scuttled and hunted through piles of trash two stories high. And millions of other species of opportunistic and parasitic organisms, from single-celled animalcules all the way up to those self-aware enough to wish they weren’t, doggedly pursued their common quest for survival, little different from the struggles on a thousand different jungle worlds. Down here was where the jetsam of the galaxy, a motley collection of sentients dismissed by those above simply as “the underdwellers,” eked out lives of brutality and despair. It was merely a different kind of jungle, after all. And where there’s a jungle, there are always those who hunt.
Even Piell had been one of the lucky ones. Born on the violence-plagued planet Lannik to an impoverished family, he had been taken by the Jedi in his infancy because of his affinity for the Force. He had been raised in the Temple, high above the poverty and misery that had once seemed the inevitable birthright of his homeworld. True, his life had been somewhat ascetic, but it had also been clean, ordered, and—most important of all—it had been purposeful. It had been about something. He had been part of a cause greater than himself, one of a noble and revered Order stretching back hundreds of generations.
He had been a Jedi Knight.
Now he was a pariah.
Those who knew him respected the diminutive humanoid for his fierce courage and fighting skills, as well they should. Had he not defeated the Red Iaro terrorist Myk’chur Zug, at the cost of an eye? Had he not survived the Battle of Geonosis, and fought many a battle for the Republic in the Clone Wars? It was truthfully said that Even Piell had never backed away from a fight in his life. Give him a lightsaber and a cause in which to ignite it, and there was no braver warrior on two legs, or four, or six. But now . . .
Now it was different.
Now, for the first time in his life, he knew fear.
Even walked hurriedly through the colorful crowds that thronged the Zi-Zhinn Marketplace. This was a euphemistic name for an ongoing rowdy street fair on the 17th Level of an area in Sector 4805, also known as the Zi-Kree Sector, along the equatorial strip. That was the name given to the upper levels, anyway; down here, below the layer of smoke and fog, it was simply called the Crimson Corridor. While much of Coruscant’s lower levels comprised less-than-desirable real estate, some areas were loci of particular and concentrated trouble. The Southern Underground, the Factory District, The Works, the Blackpit Slums—these and other colorful names did little justice to the harsh realities of life under the perpetual smog layer that hid them from the rarefied upper levels. Yet ironically, it was only in ghettos like these, amid despair and desperation, that a measure of anonymity and security could be found.
Even wasn’t sure how many of the Jedi were left, but he knew the number wasn’t high. The slaughter begun on Geonosis had been pursued with a vengeance here on Coruscant, and on other worlds such as Felucia and Kashyyyk as well. Barriss Offee was dead, as were Luminara Unduli, Mace Windu, and Kit Fisto. Plo Koon’s starfighter had been shot down over Cato Neimoidia. To the best of his knowledge, Even was the only senior member of the Council to escape the massacre at the Temple.
It was still almost impossible to comprehend. It had all happened so fast. In only a few short days he had been forced to give up everything. No more would he look upon the five spires of the Jedi Temple, or walk the fragrant-flowered paths and tessellated floors of its private gardens and chambers. No more would he spend rewarding hours in discussion with his fellow scholars in the Council of First Knowledge, or research interstellar esoterica in the Archives, or practice the seven forms of lightsaber combat with his fellow Jedi.
But he could not give up using the Force to aid others. To deny the Force was to deny himself. Fear of discovery had caused him to hold back from using it in public for as long as he could stand. He had been a helpless witness to the everyday atrocities during the interregnum, to the chaos and anarchy that had accompanied the overthrow of the Galactic Senate and the ascension of the new Emperor. Sick at heart, he had reined in his dismay and revulsion, his desperate need to do something to stop this unending nightmare. He had seen his fellow Jedi assassinated by clone commanders under the thrall of Order Sixty-six; he had seen employees and instructors mowed down by blasterfire; and, worst of all, he had heard the screams of the children and the young Padawans as they had been cut down.
And he had fled. That fateful night, while destruction dropped from the skies and stormtroopers patrolled the streets, Even Piell and the others—the very few others—still alive had escaped the massacre.
Even moved cautiously and stealthily through puddles of stuttering neon light. Used subtly, the Force allowed him to slip through crowds of various species—Bothans, Niktos, Twi’leks, and humans—with few noticing him. And even those few forgot him almost immediately. For the moment, he was safe—but not even the Force could protect him forever.
His pursuers were closing in.
He did not know their ID numbers, nor would it matter if he did. They were stormtroopers, cloned soldiers created in the vats of Tipoca City on the water world Kamino and elsewhere, warriors bred to fight fearlessly for the glory of the Republic, and to obey without question the commands of the Jedi.
That, however, was before Order Sixty-six.
He could sense them through the Force, their malignant auras like ice water along his nerves. They were getting closer; he estimated the distance at little more than a kilometer now.
He ducked into a recessed doorway. The entrance was locked, but a gesture of his hand, and an answering ripple in the Force, caused the door panel to slide back reluctantly, with a rasping screech. It jammed partway, but there was enough room for him to squeeze past.
The Lannik hurried through what had once been a spice den, by the looks of it; formcast cribs and niches in the wall showed where various body shapes had lain long ago, their minds disengaged and floating in soporific bliss. Though it may have been as much as five centuries since it had last been used, it seemed to Even that he could still smell the ghostly scent of glitterstim that had once clouded both the air and the occupants’ minds.
At first Even had wondered how the stormtroopers tracking him had found him so quickly. He had been circumspect in his use of the Force, had kept as low a profile as possible for the past two standard months. He’d stayed off the grid, dealing for sustenance and shelter strictly with credit chips and bills. While it was true that Lannik were not all that common, even on Coruscant, how the troopers had come across him was still baffling. It didn’t really matter, though. Perhaps someone had recognized his image as one of the Council, and reported him. All that mattered was that they were closing in, with but one purpose in mind—to kill Jedi.
To kill him.
He still carried his lightsaber, concealed in his jacket’s inside pocket. He resisted the urge to seize the weapon. Its cool grip would feel most comforting in his hand right now.
But this wasn’t yet the time, although from all indications that time would be upon him very shortly. The final battle—he had little doubt it would be anything less than that—could not take place where innocents might be caught in the crossfire. The agents of the Emperor didn’t care about collateral damage, but Jedi could not be so cavalier.