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“I think it’s safe to assume,” the droid said, “that we’ve been set up.”
A fusillade of laser and particle beams erupted from across the room, aimed at the five of them, as if to punctuate the statement. Den looked at Jax. “Aren’t you glad your father gave him that neural upgrade?”
Another series of beams struck the huge hyper- condensor unit behind which they were hiding. They were protected for the moment, Jax knew, but eventually, if the stormtroopers’ lasers and charged- particle bursts kept hitting the unit, the duralumin housing would overheat, quite possibly upsetting the stability of the ultracold Tibanna condensate within. Should that happen, I-Five estimated the explosive factor as at least a 7.5, which would certainly vaporize the building they were in, as well as a sizable chunk of the surrounding urban landscape.
“That’s only a rough estimate,” the droid explained. “There are too many variables to factor for me to refine my—”
“Seven-point-five is more than enough for me,” Jax assured him. “Den?”
“I’m good,” Den agreed. The little Sullustan was crouched beside I-Five. “You definitely know how to motivate people,” he added to the droid.
“Less talk. More shooting,” Laranth said. The Twi’lek Paladin had a blaster in either hand and was crouched near the far end of the unit. “I say we go—now.”
Jax couldn’t argue with her logic. The longer they remained pinned down, the less chance of survival they and their client had, not to mention however many hundreds of thousands of beings would die if I-Five’s 7.5 scenario really was in the immediate future. Not that Jax had any doubt of it. The droid had an annoying habit of being right just about all the time.
“Okay,” he said. “Laranth, take the right; I-Five, the left. On my signal—”
“Hey, what about me?” Den asked.
“Stay here with the undersecretary.” Jax spared a glance at the corpulent, trembling form crouched beside Den. Before the Empire had superseded the Republic, Varesk Bura’lya had been a midlevel government official assigned to the Bothan embassy on Coruscant. Immediately after the Republic’s fall, he had become a fugitive, along with thousands of other representatives of various species on the city-planet. True, no particular effort was being made to hunt them down, and in a global metropolis that was home to literally trillions of sentient beings, one stood a very good chance of living a lifetime (thousands of lifetimes, in fact) without ever coming into contact with an enemy. But one overall characteristic of the Bothan species was paranoia, and Bura’lya had no shortage of that. So he had contacted the Coruscant resistance movement known as the Whiplash, and arranged for safe passage offworld through the Underground Mag-Lev, a dangerous and circuitous secret route that delivered enemies of the state to spaceports and sympathetic starships via safe houses, private conapts, and other clandestine means.
Jax Pavan, one of the last surviving Jedi and a partisan of the Whiplash resistance, had been assigned to help ferry the Bothan dignitary to freedom. All had gone well until they’d reached the final checkpoint, in the dimly lit interior of a carbonite-processing plant. Here they’d been greeted, not by the resistance members they’d expected, but instead by a brace of Imperial stormtroopers.
They were smart, he had to give them that. Knowing that a droid was part of the party, they’d staged the attack in the depths of the carbonite-cracking plant, taking advantage of the low-level background radiation that would confuse I-Five’s bio- and energy sensors for the moment needed. They hadn’ t known that there would also be two Jedi to contend with, however. The Force had warned Jax and Laranth of the trap, which is why four troopers now lay dead on the floor. If the Bothan hadn’t, in his panic, gotten in the way, Jax was certain that the rest of the troopers would also be dead by now, and Varesk Bura’lya would be about to board the spice freighter Big Score and become a fading unpleasant memory instead of hiding behind the hypercondensor unit, caterwauling about his imminent demise.
Now he looked up at Jax, the fleshy tendrils that protruded from his upper cheeks quivering in fear. “You were hired to protect me!” he squealed, his voice scraping unpleasantly along the Jedi’s nerves. “Your job was to help me escape from this overbuilt rock! Is this what you call escape?”
“Well,” Den observed, “that depends on how metaphysical a definition of escape you want to go with . . .”
Another volley of beams struck their shelter, scorching the air and leaving the unpleasant tang of ozone in Jax’s nostrils. There was no more time, he knew; they had to make their move. He opened himself to the Force, letting it expand his awareness, feeling its strands groping outward, beyond the bulk of the condensor unit, giving him an accurate “picture” of the chamber they were in and highlighting the locations of the eight concealed stormtroopers who had them pinned down.
“On my mark,” he said again. “. . . Go!”
Laranth hurled herself from behind the right side of the condensor’ s bulk, blasters in both hands firing, her eyes as cold and hard as chips of comet ice. I-Five burst from concealment on the left side, the lasers in his index fingers zapping beams of coherent light at their adversaries. Jax let the Force lift him, let it carry him up and over the huge, shielding slab, his vibro- sword parrying the blasts as he landed, batting them back toward the astonished troopers. This was much harder than it looked. The durasteel blade had been woven with cortosis, a mineral strong enough to resist energy blasts, but its similarity to a lightsaber ended there. A scarlet ray struck low on the blade, more by luck than by aim, and the vibrogenerator in the hilt shorted out. Even through the insulation the jolt was painful. Jax knew immediately what had happened, as did the troopers; they could see the blade’s edge lose its high-speed blur. Jax dropped the weapon and extended both hands, palms-out, in a Force strike that hurled three of the troopers back against a wall. Even as he did so, however, he could sense another trooper lining up on him—
Laranth stepped into the edge of his peripheral vision, firing her blaster. The beam struck the blast meant for Jax. The air sizzled with multicolored ionized energies, flickering corposant danced along his arms and momentarily wreathed his brow, and the sound was like a thousand fire wasp nests being broken open at once.
Jax’s vision was momentarily dazzled by the pyro- technics. I-Five’s photoreceptors, fortunately, were not. The droid fired rapidly, his laser blasts unerringly accurate. In a matter of moments it was finished. The eight stormtroopers lay sprawled in various ungainly positions, on the floor or across slurry pipes, con- trol consoles, and other large pieces of industrial apparatus. The three hesitated a moment, wary of another possible attack. Then Jax said, “It’s over. Stand down.”
Laranth nodded and holstered her blasters. The hard-bitten Gray Paladin’s connection to the Force had no doubt told her, just as his had told Jax, that the immediate danger was past. Simultaneously the droid lowered his arms. Jax knew that I-Five had swept the room for life signs and booby traps with his sensors, and that the readings were null.
“That was exhilarating,” I-Five said. “Have I mentioned lately how much I enjoy the organic predilection for violence and carnage? No? That might be because—I don’t.”
Jax grinned. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s get our reluctant client to the spaceport and on that spice freighter before anyone else shows up wanting to play.” He raised his voice. “Den! Secretary Bura’lya! Let’s go!”
There was a moment of silence, and then Den’s voice came from around the corner of the hypercondenser: “I’m afraid that might be a problem.”
Jax felt himself go cold. Had they come this far, only to have the being to whom they’ d promised safe passage die at the last minute? Had a stray energy bolt ricocheted from a reflective surface somewhere in the room at just the right angle to kill the undersecretary? Jax reached out with the Force, just as Den continued, “Bura’lya’ s fainted. And—” The Sullustan peered around from behind the unit, his nose wrinkled. “I think he’s had an . . . accident.”
I-Five said, “My olfactory sensor confirms that Den is correct—assuming that had an accident in this case is a euphemism for—”
“It is,” Jax said. He sheathed his useless vibrosword and sighed. “Come on. Let’ s get him cleaned up before we put him on board.”