The sunlight faded from view as they descended.
Beneath the roofs of Coruscant’s skyscrapers were numerous sublevels which had not seen natural light for centuries, their access to the warmth of their planetary star denied by the sheer height of the massive structures above them. The Sacking of Coruscant had devastated much of the entirely urbanized surface of the world, allowing the rays of the sun to finally illuminate some of these areas, but stripped others of light completely. Damaged power systems left whole blocks in total darkness, and even now, almost a decade later, many levels still experienced frequent outages.
Annria noted that the level their speeder came to a halt on was one such place. It was difficult to ascertain even the position of the landing pad, and the act of landing relied upon the speeder’s headlights and a single rusty droid who waved directions with two glow rods. Hopping out of the speeder, she could see flickering in the area ahead, though as she approached she realized that it was not a broken light, but a fire that had been lit inside a barrel which was formerly a trash can. Three raggedly dressed aliens huddled around it, two she recognized as Gran and the third was a species she was not familiar with.
“This is the BZ,” Zael explained while he led Annria past the vagrants and through the district. “It used to stand for Blasted Zone because the area got it bad during the Imperial attack. Now that some of the infrastructure’s been repaired, they’re calling it the Blackout Zone, and I’m sure you can see why.”
“Why didn’t the people fix the power as well?” asked Annria.
“Not everything was fixed, only the bare essentials to keep the buildings from collapsing,” the Zabrak answered. “This is the undercity. The people here have the short end of the straw.”
“And this is where Jax was killed?”
Zael shook his head, “This is where his body was found. There weren’t any signs of struggle nearby, so he could have been killed by surprise or he could’ve been moved there after death.”
“What about this lead?”
“No idea yet. The BZ is neutral ground- right between Black Sun and Akk Wolves territory where neither group hold any kind of power. That’s probably why our contact wants to meet here. Unfortunately, neutral also means dangerous. The location and frequent blackouts mean it’s an excellent place for gang skirmishes.”
Before they could converse more, two flashlights came into view from around a corner. Quickly shutting off his own, Zael backed to the side of the hallway they were in, grabbing Annria and towing her along. Resisting the urge to complain she mimicked his movement and kept quiet, knowing that doing so was vital. She could not see what the SIS agent was doing, though she suspected that he was drawing and readying the blaster pistol holstered on his hip.
As the figures crept closer the lights along the hall suddenly flickered to life again. The Zabrak had indeed done exactly as she expected and now pointed his pistol at the two, who held similar poses in return; it was difficult to tell whether they already knew that Annria and Zael were there before the lights came on or had very quick reflexes. What she could tell was that they were certainly not gang members.
Upon closer examination she realized that the Twi’lek was the one who had contacted Zael through holocomm; the green skin had thrown her off as the holographic projection was a shade of blue, but the facial features were unmistakable. The two had recognized each other long before Annria figured out who they were and Zael promptly lowered his weapon. At the same time, the Twi’lek holstered her blaster pistol, followed by the rifle of the woman beside her after a short delay.
“I thought we were supposed to meet in the plaza, Cass,” Zael was the first to speak. “That’s where your coordinates pointed.”
“Too exposed,” replied the Twi’lek. “These blackouts are creeping me out. We could be walking into a trap.”
“Agreed,” the Zabrak nodded, then turned his gaze sideways. “Annria, this is Cassri’dalle, my partner in the SIS.”
“You can call me Cass,” she smiled as she extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, though I wish it were under better circumstances.”
“Me too,” Annria reached forward and shook the hand. “You seem more sociable than your partner here; you’re not doing the good cop bad cop thing, are you? I thought that was only in holos.”
Cass gave a small laugh, “I guess we kind of do it naturally. Personally I like to start off nice, never hurts and often gets results. You didn’t spook her too much, did you Zael?”
“I was just searching her ship,” he responded matter-of-factly. “All according to protocol. Anyway, this here is Sir Syra of House Voris. She’s coming along with us to find and secure the crown jewels.”
Zael motioned to the other stranger, a tall, well-built woman with light blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. She appeared tough, but not in the style of the thugs that were usually found here; Syra carried herself with a certain elegance that broadcasted her highborn origins. Though she did not fit perfectly into the criteria of beauty held by much of the galaxy, there was no denying that a certain attractiveness followed her around, something about her nobility that inexplicably made her feel welcoming and reliable.
As she spoke, her words were much less warm, “Why are we bringing the spacer along?”
“Annria might not have been present when all this took place, but she knows the deceased well,” Zael answered her. “She could have valuable insight into the motives of the homicide.”
“We know why he was killed, agent, and this is more than a homicide investigation,” she argued. “We can’t just focus on Neon, we need to locate vital symbols of Alderaanian power before they fall into the wrong hands.”
“Some jewels are worth more than a man’s life, huh?” Annria crossed her arms as she listened to the debate.
“I seem to remember that your father risked his life to save these jewels,” Syra countered.
“Wasn’t the only thing he bothered to save.”
“We still got work to do,” Cass broke them up. “Come on.”
Zael took her wrist as she began to walk off, “Syra and I will handle this contact. You take Annria to the crime scene, see if she spots anything we missed.”
“What?” she paused mid-step. “I’m coming with you.”
“You said it was too exposed, Cass. If it’s a trap or set-up, we don’t all want to go together, and since we’re down here we might as well achieve both our objectives. The one who accompanies Annria needs to have been to the crime scene, and I want to meet this asset.”
“First sign of trouble, you let us know immediately, okay?” the Twi’lek agreed reluctantly.
“That’s why you’re staying away,” the Zabrak gave a faint smile. “You’re the backup.”
Cass did not appear reassured by the gesture as they parted ways. Zael followed Syra in the direction she had come while the Twi’lek agent motioned for Annria to turn back along the path towards the landing pad. They did not return to the speeder, though, instead branching off from the route she and Zael used. Annria was not sure exactly which halls and plazas were ones they had not been in and when they had split off into them, as the environment was almost unrecognizable with functional lighting. All she knew was that they ended up in an old and musty elevator.
Annria broke the silence as the lift doors slid shut, “Sorry if my tagging along forced you to split up.”
“Oh no, no it wasn't your fault,” Cass replied. “Zael’s a good man and a great agent, it's just that he has a habit of wanting to do things his way. He usually has an explanation for it, but he likes to go ahead without telling anyone. It can get frustrating, you know?”
“Yeah,” Annria chuckled. “I guess you pick up on things like that when you've been around a person long enough. Hence the old married couple saying.”
“Funny you mention that, we're actually hoping to…”
“Really?” Annria looked to the Twi’lek in surprise as the doors opened. While they exited the elevator, she continued the line of inquiry, “I thought that kinda thing was forbidden.”
“We're not the military. Some of us avoid things like that, having family and all. For others, when you work in this environment, with a team and the trust that's required for it, you...can't help but form bonds.”
“It's the same with us spacers. Get stuck on the same ship for long enough and stuff happen.”
“I can see why. So, you got anyone?”
Annria shook her head, “Nope. Jax drives away anyone that’s even close. We did get a nice crew going though, of course people came and went for other jobs but some of the old faces have stuck around for a while and we were like a family. Speaking of- most of them left before he died, right?”
“All of them did,” Cass confirmed.
“Can’t believe he even let Lennie go. Two years back and he wouldn’t even let me out of his sight. Could it have something to do with what he was planning before he died?”
“I’d think so. We suspect the people he was working with- Zael probably showed you the vid- they were some kind of new crew he put together to steal the crown jewels. No real evidence for it, so it’s also possible they blackmailed or threatened him to lend them his ship and expertise.”
The Twi’lek turned into a small road that Annria did not even notice was there. She followed in and realized that it was a one-way alley with several doors along it, one of which appears to have been welded shut. The entire area was a mess, with the old rusty walls covered in multiple layers of graffiti. Several crates made the narrow passage even narrower, and where the ground was not blocked off by such large objects, it was filled with litter consisting of everything from busted datapads and scrap components to empty alcohol bottles and used stim injectors. Annria had to step past a rather large puddle to enter the alley, and judging from the tipped over fuel can beside it, the liquid was likely the substance contained within the barrel.
Cass pointed at the one irregularly clean section amidst the dirtiness, “That’s the spot. The body’s been moved, but that’s where we found it.”
Annria simply stared at the void, as if it was a black hole slowly drawing more and more of her consciousness towards it. She zoned out on all the clutter around her, ignoring the glass shards dangerously close to her boots as the emptiness took the entirety of her focus. Cass knew better than to interrupt her, and so stood behind the young woman silently, head hung low as she observed the gloomy scene.
When Annria finally spoke, her gaze still did not leave the spot, “You cleaned up this bit, took the things around him as evidence?”
“Mhmm,” the Twi’lek nodded, “We didn’t find anything useful for the investigation but I can arrange for you to see that and the body if you like.”
“Yeah, I don’t think I’ll catch anything forensics has missed. This...this isn’t the kinda place Jax would normally be, but he definitely hasn’t been normal of late. I’m not sure why that is, I’ll do my best to see what I can-”
“Hey,” Cass slowly moved up to her, “I might an official looking into Jax’s death, but I’m not here just for your insight into the case. I know he was your father, so take all the time you need; we don’t have to get right down to business.”
“The best thing I can do for him now is find out who did this and have them face proper justice,” Annria responded.
“That’s what we all want to do. Find the killers, find out why they did it. Give meaning to the madness.”
“What else are we supposed to do, let them get away with it?”
“No, of course not,” Cass shook her head. “That’s what Zael and I are here for.”
“So you don’t want my help on it?” Annria asked.
“We’re here to help you,” the Twi’lek corrected her as she took another step to stand beside the spacer. “Zael might think this case belongs to him; I’m doing this for you. Catching the bad guys won’t change our lives, but we do it so people like you can have closure, and so there’s one less killer out there for people who haven’t lost their fathers yet to avoid such a tragedy.”
After a short silence in which Annria did not reply, she continued, “My old man was killed down here too. Not on this level, another part of lower Coruscant. He was CSF, and I knew his murder had to be more than some random mugging, but the other cops couldn’t find anything. So I went searching on my own. Said frag it to my father’s plans for me joining the force, started digging around the underworld.”
“Did you get ‘em?”
“Yeah. Payback isn’t as satisfying as you’d think. By the time I was done I was in the pockets of some pretty bad people. Owed them favours, credits, you name it. So I spent the next two years doing work for crime lords.”
“You worked for crime lords?” Annria turned away from the spot for the first time to cast a curious glance at Cass. “How’d you end up in the SIS?”
“I was caught, and the SIS was understaffed after the war. They needed people who knew the underworld inside out so they asked me to help out at first, and eventually I became one of them. I finally got my life turned around, realized how much I liked actually working for a cause and that this was what my father planned for me all along. By the time I wanted to learn more about him, it was too late. The Sacking had already happened, and our apartment, everything we used to own, it was all gone. There’s nothing left to remember him by now.”
The Twi’lek let out a sigh as she recollected her past, “My old man would’ve liked his killers brought to justice as much as I did, but he wouldn’t have wanted me to waste years of my life like I had. I know your father’s important to you, and I’m going to do everything I can to find the people that murdered him. You...remember him and everything he did for you, okay? Don’t obsess over what happened in those last few moments- he’s more than that, more to you than that.”
“I...I’ll remember that. Thanks,” Annria smiled solemnly.
“Like I said,” Cass gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder, “take all the time you need.”
Annria watched Cass walk off; she did not wander too far, keeping the same distance they had between them before the conversation. Turning away, she noticed out of the corner of her eye that the SIS agent had retrieved her holocommunicator. Annria did not bother to observe who she was contacting, though she did not return her gaze to the blank spot on the ground either. Instead, she began to visualize Jax, not lying on the floor here amidst all the junk, but as he was the last time they had met.
She closed her eyes, first intending to improve her mental image she soon found herself fighting back tears. She rubbed them away, trying her best not to break down in front of the agent. When she tried to open her eyes she was met with a blurry view before it all went dark. She rubbed her eyes again, and the darkness was still there.
“Get down!” she heard Cass shout, but before she could react she was tackled to the ground just as the sound of a blaster discharging was heard. A single bolt zoomed past her, the light emanating from it briefly illuminating the painted walls around them in an ominous red glow before that too was gone. Almost instinctively, Annria shook off the assailant that had tackled her, leading Cass to speak again.
“It’s me, it’s me! We have to move!”
“Behind the crates, here!” Annria whispered as she creeped back, ignoring the pain from the shards of glass that cut and scrapped her hands. She kept herself on the ground, crawling until her head bumped into the metal exterior of one of the boxes. She could hear shuffling when she had settled down, the noise presumably being that of the Twi’lek as she also made for safety. She was not quick enough, however, and a second red bolt streaked through the alley, followed by a yelp from the agent before she slammed heavily against the crates.
Annria reached beside herself, confirming that Cass was behind cover as her hand felt the Twi’lek’s arm, “You alright?”
“I’m hit!” came the response. “It’s the leg, nothing too bad. Go on, get out of here!”
“Not happening. Not until I figure out what’s going on.”
“I can’t keep you safe like this,” Cass set her hand on Annria’s, passing her a flashlight. “No point in both of us dying here. There should be a door a few steps in front of us, I’ll give covering fire, you-”
“Who says we’re dying?” Annria interrupted her. “Give me your blaster.”
“I’m almost done boot camp, I know how to handle one and you won’t do much good being hurt. Trust me, we’re in this together.”
As the agent contemplated the situation, a rhythmic tapping of metal on the floor could be heard, the steady beat signalling only one thing: approaching footsteps.
“C’mon, we don’t have forever!”
Cass slowly set her pistol beside herself, the reluctance in her movement clear. Annria, on the other hand, grabbed it immediately though she did not use the weapon. Instead, she activated the flashlight and tossed it as far as she could. The red bolt slashed right through it as their unseen enemy fired again and the charred casing of the device dropped with an audible clink. The distraction did not last long, but she knew that a shot this precise meant the weapon was set for accuracy and not burstfire, and it would likely be longer before another shot could be unleashed.
On that assumption, Annria emerged briefly from cover and discharged Cass’ blaster pistol. She did not attempt to aim for the assailant who was still shrouded in darkness; rather she fired deliberately at the ground. It was only when the shot struck its mark that the SIS agent realized this was tactical thinking and not poor skill. The bolt of concentrated energy impacted the puddle of fuel by the entrance of the alleyway, the heat of the blast setting it ablaze in a spectacular combustion.
For a moment it seemed as if the maneuver had forced the enemy back, and then a shadow eclipsed a portion of the flickering light. Annria braved a look to see a metallic form stepping through the flames, a partly molten sniper rifle in its grasp which it tossed aside once it made its way past the fire.
“It’s a droid,” Annria whispered.
“I’ve got an EMP in my kit somewhere,” stated Cass. “If we use it here it’ll fry the blaster too, and if there’s more hostiles out there…”
“One thing at a time. I’ll distract it, you find the EMP and throw it.”
“Are you sure that’s a-”
Annria didn’t give her time to finish, already having emerged from cover to open fire on the approaching assassin. An energy shield buzzed around the droid, absorbing the shots as it raised its left arm. The fingers began to fold back, followed by the entirety of the hand, revealing a hidden blaster built into the appendage. Annria ducked down as the droid positioned itself right beside the crates. Before he could fire, a small round device rolled out and detonated, releasing the electromagnetic pulse across the alley.
The blaster pistol grew uncomfortably hot as it overheated, forcing Annria to drop the weapon. The droid, being entirely mechanical in nature, was much more affected by the energy as its shields shorted out and it fell to its knees in an erratic spasm. Despite this, it still tried its utmost to aim its built-in weapon at the two organics.
Knowing Cass’ leg injury would prevent her from getting to their attacker in time, Annria darted forward and grabbed its blaster arm, pushing it aside. Having closed the distance between them, this allowed the droid to reach with its other hand and grasp the woman’s neck, pulling her down with it. The move caught Annria by surprise but she did not remain shocked for long, reacting instantly and seizing a metal pipe among the junk around her. She slammed the pipe hard on the droid’s head, the force knocking it to the side and making a small dent on its cheek area. It seemed to have done little real damage to her enemy as its grip tightened.
She attacked again, to little avail. The pressure on her neck became almost unbearable before it suddenly loosened. Having crawled up to Annria with a vibroknife, Cass stabbed the blade into the droid’s arm and then sliced through, severing the lower part of the limb. While Annria unfurled its fingers and yanked the hand off herself, the assassin turned its attention to Cass, swinging its other arm and knocking her back. Its left hand reassembled and reached for the Twi’lek, only to be intercepted and swatted aside by Annria’s pipe.
Having mostly recovered from the EMP, the droid reacted with surprising speed and seized of the arm holding the pipe. Annria quickly picked up the knife Cass had dropped and slashed at the enemy’s remaining hand. It was not cut off with a single strike, but the ultrasonic vibrations of the blade severed vital connections and the grip loosened, allowing her to break free. Without anything to grab on to, the next blow from the pipe smacked the droid to the ground and Annria jumped on top of it, both weapons at the ready. It tried to throw her off with its damaged but still existent arm, a futile gesture as Annria sliced a deep gash across the metal and wires connecting the mechanical head to the rest of its body.
The droid slumped back, jolts of energy coursing through its chassis. Annria spotted this, though she did not have time to get away, and would not have done so without Cass’ helping hand. Using all her strength, the SIS agent pulled Annria off the droid and she landed hard on loose shards of glass which could not pierce her nerf-hide jacket but did manage to further bloody her hand. This was certainly much better than the alternative as she watched the electricity fry the droid from the inside out until smoke rose from it.
It was not the only source of smoke, however. Once the adrenaline had faded, Annria noticed that her method of providing emergency lighting to the area made it increasingly harder to breathe. Cass was already passed out, and she too began to feel more and more lightheaded as tears began to fill her eyes once more. She thought she could make out more figures approaching them as her consciousness slipped away.