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Theron Shan walked quickly through the packed streets of Nar Shaddaa’s Promenade. His unassuming featurespale skin, brown hair, brown eyes, average buildallowed him to blend easily into the crowd. The cybernetic implants visible around his left eye and right ear were his most distinguishing features, but he wasn’t the only one sporting them on Nar Shaddaa, and they typically didn’t draw unwanted attention.
The Hutt-controlled moon was a landscape of unfettered urban sprawl, marked by towering skytowers crammed too close together and gaudy, glowing billboards that dominated the horizon as far as the eye could see in every direction. Sometimes called Little Coruscant, it was hard to accept Nar Shaddaa as a true homage to the Republic capital world; in Theron’s eyes it was more akin to a grotesque parody.
Coruscant had been designed with an eye to aesthetics: there was a pleasing flow to the cityscape and a consistent and complementary style to the architecture. The city was carefully divided into various districts, making it easy to navigate. The pedestrian walks were crowded but clean, the endless stream of airspeeders overhead stayed within the designated traffic lanes. On Coruscant, there was an unmistakable sense of order and purpose. At times, Theron found it positively stifling.
Here on the Smugglers’ Moon, however, it was a glorious free-for-all. Run-down residential buildings were scattered haphazardly among seedy-looking commercial structures; factories abutted restaurants and clubs, with no regard for the toxic clouds of filth spilling out over the patrons. With no traffic rules in force, airspeeders and swoop bikes darted and dived in seemingly random directions, sometimes flying so low the pedestrians ducked and covered their heads.
As Theron turned a corner, he realized someone was following him. He hadn’t actually seen anyone on his tail, but he could sense it. He could feel eyes watching him, scoping him out, measuring him as a target.
Master Ngani Zho, the Jedi who’d raised him, would probably have claimed Theron’s awareness came through the Force. But despite coming from a long line of famous Jedi, Theron wasn’t one of the Order. In fact, he had no special connection to the Force at all.
What he did have was a decade’s worth of experience working for Republic Strategic Information Service. He’d been trained to notice minute details; to be hyperaware of his surroundings at all times. And even though his conscious mind was distracted by the details of his coming mission, his subconscious one had instinctively picked up on something that had triggered alarms in his head. He knew better than to ignore them. Careful not to break stride, turn his head, or do anything else that might tip off his pursuer, Theron used his peripheral vision to scan the area.
At street level, everything was a chaotic mishmash of bright, flashing colors. A constant assault from an army of pink, purple, green, and blue signs and billboards provided perfect camouflage for whoever might be following him. Fortunately the intensity of the inescapable neon was muted by the layer of grime that clung to every surfacea reminder of the unchecked pollution in the atmosphere that would eventually transform Nar Shaddaa into an uninhabitable wasteland.
It wasn’t easy to pick someone who looked suspicious out from the crowd. The population of the Smugglers’ Moon was as varied, unpredictable, and seedy as the surroundings. In the years since the signing of the Treaty of Coruscant, the Hutts had remained staunchly neutral in the ongoing cold war between the Republic and the Sith Empire, making Nar Shaddaa a common gathering place for criminal elements from all corners of the galaxy: Black Sun slavers, Rodian pickpockets, Twi’lek hustlers, Chevin stim dealers. Any and all illicit activities were tolerated on Nar Shaddaa, provided the Hutts got their cut.
Still, there were those too greedy or stupid to cut the Hutts in on their action. When that happened there were consequences. Things got messy.
Is that what this is about? Theron wondered. Is Morbo on to me? Did he send someone to take me out?
He passed by the statue of Karragga the Unyielding that dominated the Promenade. Though he’d been to Nar Shaddaa many times, he couldn’t help but pause for a second and shake his head in disbelief: a thirty-meter-tall Hutt made of solid gold was too ostentatious to ignore. Shaking his head also gave him a chance to quickly glance from side to side to catch a glimpse of someone darting into a doorway off to his left. He didn’t get a good look at whoever it was, but the sudden movement was unnatural enough to stand out.
Someone working alone. Could be a mugger. Or a trained assassin.
Theron was on a tight schedule; it was time to force the action. He turned down a narrow side street, leaving the worst of the crowdsand the relative safety they providedbehind. Off the main thoroughfare there were fewer neon lights and more shadowy corners. If his tail was going to try something, this was the perfect place to make a move.
A slight buzzing of the cybernetic implant in his right ear alerted him to an incoming transmission. There was only one person who knew his private frequency. Theron had to take the call.
“Accept incoming,” he whispered. Louder, he said, “Director.”
“Theron.” The head of Strategic Information Service, as he so often did, sounded annoyed. “Where are you?”
“I’m on vacation,” Theron replied. “I put in for some R and R. Remember?”
Theron realized the Director’s call could work to his advantage. Whoever was following him would think he was distracted, vulnerable. All he had to do was pretend to be oblivious while listening for his stalker to creep up close, then suddenly turn the tables.
“Vacation, huh?” the Director grumbled in his ear as Theron continued farther into the deserted alley. “That’s funny, because I have a report that one of our field agents has been spotted snooping around on Nar Shaddaa.”
“Are you keeping tabs on me?”
“What are you doing on Nar Shaddaa?” the Director demanded.
“Maybe I just like the climate.”
“Smog clouds and acid rain? Not likely. You’re up to something.”
Well, right now I’m about to be ambushed in a dark alley, Theron thought.
Out loud, he said, “I’m taking care of some personal business.”
“What’s Teff’ith mixed up in now?” the Director asked with a sigh.
Even though he couldn’t see the man on the other end of the call, Theron could picture his boss rubbing his temples in exasperation.
“Teff’ith’s not a bad kid,” Theron insisted. “She just tends to fall in with the wrong crowd.”
“Guess that explains how she ended up working with you,” the Director grumbled.
Theron had stopped walking, and was standing with one hand up to the cyberlink in his ear, staring straight ahead.
Might as well be wearing a sign that says, come and get me! Time to make your move, whoever you are.
“Ngani Zho saw something special in her,” Theron said to the Director.
“I know Master Zho raised you, but by the time he met Teff’ith he was. . .troubled.”
You almost said crazy, didn’t you?
“She has key underworld contacts,” Theron explained, “and she knows how to handle herself in a tough spot. We might need a favor from her someday. I’m just looking out for a potential asset.”
“What makes you think she’d ever help us? Didn’t Teff’ith say she’d kill you if she ever saw you again?”
“Then I’ll make sure she doesn’t see me.”
“I hate to do this, Theron,” the Director said with another sigh. “But I’m ordering you to pull out of Nar Shaddaa. It’s for your own good.”
Theron felt the unmistakable shape of a vibroblade’s tip pressing up against his back and a deep voice growled, “Move and you’re dead!” in his other ear.
“You worry too much,” Theron told the Director, keeping his voice light. “Everything’s under control.” In a whisper he added, “Disconnect,” and the comlink in his ear shut down.
“Get your hands up!” his unseen assailant snarled.
Theron slowly raised his arms in the air, silently cursing himself for letting his assailant get so close.
Never even heard him coming. Was I really that sloppy, or is he that good?
“Lose the piece.”
The words were in Basic, but the voice was definitely not humantoo deep, too rumbling. The speaker was large, but without turning around there was no way for Theron to pin down what species he was dealing with.
The comlink in his ear buzzed again, but this time Theron ignored the Director’s call. He clicked his teeth together twice, temporarily shutting the cybernetics off so he could focus on getting out of the alley alive.
“I said lose the piece!”
The order was accentuated by a jabbing of the blade against Theron’s back. Reaching down slowly, Theron slid his blaster pistol from the holster on his hip and let it drop to the ground. He briefly considered making a move; there were a dozen ways he could try to surprise and disarm his opponent. But without knowing exactly who or what he was facing, it was too risky.
Patience. Analyze the situation. Wait for your chance.
“Those are some fancy wrist guards you got. Maybe have a poison dart or a pinpoint blaster built in, right? Lose ’em.”
Any hope Theron had of catching his assailant by surprise with the weapons in his customized bracers vanished as he unclipped the metal bands from his forearms and let them fall at his feet.
The fact that his assailant had marked the bracers as potential weapons also meant this wasn’t some run-of-the-mill mugger. An Imperial operative would probably recognize the bracers, but it didn’t make sense for any of them to be targeting Theron on a Hutt-controlled world. . .especially now that Imperial Intelligence had been officially disbanded. That left only one other likelyand unsettlingoption: a bounty hunter or assassin working for Morbo the Hutt.
“Now turn around, real slow.”
The pressure of the blade eased as the ambusher took a step back. Theron turned to see a violet-skinned Houk towering over him, his heavyset torso and thick, muscular limbs seeming to fill the entire width of the narrow alley. His froglike features were set in a grim scowl, his eyes fixed intently on his victim.
He was pretty sure the Houk didn’t have any backuphe would have noticed if there was more than one person following him. But even if he was acting alone, Theron was no match for the massive brute’s raw muscle. Under normal conditions he could make up what he lacked in strength with speed, but in the tight confines of the narrow alley avoiding the deadly vibroblade might be difficult. . .especially if the Houk was trained in close-quarters fighting. Given his choice of weapon, Theron had to assume he was facing a capable and deadly opponent.
“What’s your interest in Morbo?” the Houk demanded.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Theron said, his earlier hypothesis about his ambusher working for the Hutt seemingly confirmed.
“I’ve seen you scoping out Morbo’s place for the past three days,” the Houk snarled. “Lie to me again, and I won’t ask nicely next time,” he added, waving the vibroblade back and forth for emphasis.
The threat didn’t bother Theron nearly as much as the realization that he’d been made during his recon trips to Morbo’s club.
“Never saw you at Morbo’s,” Theron admitted. “Didn’t think anybody saw me, either.”
“I’ve been trained to know what to look for,” the Houk answered.
Trained? Theron wondered. By whom? Imperial Intelligence?
As if echoing his own thoughts, the Houk asked, “Who are you working for?”
Theron wasn’t about to reveal his connection to SIS, and he suspected another evasive answer would be met with violence.
“Take the shot!” Theron shouted, as if calling out to an unseen accomplice.
The Houk’s head turned just a fraction as he reacted to Theron’s bluff.
Seizing on the distraction, Theron lashed out with a quick kick to the Houk’s midsection. The impact caused no real damage, but it momentarily knocked the big alien off balance, giving Theron more room to operate.
He was already backpedaling in anticipation of the counterattack; even so he barely avoided the expected lunge of his opponent. As he feared, the Houk wasn’t just some clumsy brawlerhe was quicker than he seemed.
As the Houk moved in, Theron tried to disarm him with a wrist lock, reaching out for the hand that held the blade. The Houk countered by twisting his body and throwing his opposite shoulder into Theron, sending him stumbling back.
Unable to set his feet, Theron was forced on the defensive. The alley was too narrow to dodge from side to side, so his only option was full-scale retreat, backpedaling rapidly as the Houk charged forward, the blade slicing and stabbing the empty air centimeters from Theron’s chest. Theron suddenly stopped short and dropped to the ground, rolling into the thick legs of his advancing foe. The move caught the Houk by surprise; he tripped over Theron and tumbled to the ground, the fall knocking the vibroblade from his grasp.
One of the Houk’s knobby knees caught Theron in the chin as he fell over him, splitting his lip and making him see stars. Woozy, Theron ignored the pain and leapt to his feet, and with his first step he staggered sideways into the side of the alley before crashing back down to the ground.
A massive hand closed around his ankle as the still-prone Houk tried to drag Theron close enough to finish him off. Theron lashed out with his free leg, smashing his foot twice into the Houk’s corpulent face. The viselike grip slipped just enough for Theron to free himself with a twisting roll, and he scrambled on hands and knees toward where his blaster and bracers lay on the ground.
The Houk struggled back to his feet, but by the time he was upright Theron had seized one of the bracers, slapped it onto his right forearm, and taken aim.
“Toxicity seven,” he muttered, squeezing his hand into a tight fist.
A small dart launched from a thin barrel built into the bracer and buried itself in the Houk’s chest. The mighty alien went rigid as a powerful electrical charge surged through him. He convulsed for several seconds, and then dropped to the ground, twitching slightly from the aftereffects.
Theron considered what to do with the immobilized but still-conscious Houk as he quickly gathered his gear. It wouldn’t take long for the effects of the electrical blast to wear off, but for the next few minutes the Houk was basically helpless. Theron wasn’t about to execute a helpless opponent. . .but he wasn’t above interrogating him. “Toxicity two,” he whispered, firing another dart into the Houk’s thigh from point-blank range.
He waited thirty seconds for the mind-clouding drug to take effect before he started asking questions.
“How did you spot me?” he asked. “You said you were trained. By whom?”