Vitamins, Supplements, Sport Nutrition

CHAPTER SEVEN

In Zannah's opinion, of all the worlds she had been to-including the war-torn fields of Ruusan, the lifeless deserts of Ambria, the desolate gray plains of Tython-Doan was by far the least hospitable.

The entire surface of the planet had been gashed open in the endless quest for new minerals. Flora and fauna were nonexistent; everywhere she looked she saw nothing but dirt and rock. It was an ugly, ravaged world: by all rights it should have been devoid of all life. And yet the mining camps teemed with desperate beings scratching and clawing to carve out a meager existence for themselves.

Watching them, she couldn't help but compare them with her Master, whom she knew had grown up on a place like Doan: Apatros, a world rich in nothing but cortosis mines, owned by Outer Rim Oreworks, a corporation notorious for treating its indentured employees like slaves. But where Bane's brutal childhood and savage upbringing in the mines of Apatros had taught him to fight to survive, had helped forge his indomitable spirit, the miserable curs she had encountered on Doan were weak, deserving nothing better than servitude. Bane had ambition. Bane had strength. He had managed to rise above his surroundings. Through sheer force of will, he had cast off the shackles of his childhood and forged a new destiny for himself. He had risen from nothing to become the Dark Lord of the Sith.

It was time for Zannah to do the same. She would not allow herself to be like these pathetic wretches: weak, afraid, and enslaved.

Through power, I gain victory. Through victory, my chains are broken.

There was still the problem of finding her own apprentice, of course. But for now, she needed to focus on why she was here. Her investigations had revealed that she wasn't the only one interested in the dead Jedi. A man with long, silver hair-some called him a mercenary, others a bounty hunter-had been here not two days earlier, asking the same questions she was. Since then, she had been following his tracks: talking to the people he spoke to, and charming, bribing, or threatening them into giving her the same information they had given him.

She now suspected she knew why Medd Tandar had come here in the first place. It was common knowledge among the miners that a small cache of jewelry had been uncovered during a dig, and that the Jedi had come to Doan in the hope of acquiring the find. Zannah could only think of one reason why a Jedi would be interested in a few trinkets discovered in a long-forgotten tomb on an insignificant Outer Rim world-her Master wasn't alone in his obsessive efforts to locate ancient Sith artifacts scattered across the galaxy.

At first she had assumed the man who had been asking about Medd before her had been another Jedi sent to complete the original mission. However, it quickly became clear from the reports of his use of terror and torture to extract information that he was not a Jedi or even someone working for the Jedi Order. The trail of these reports had ended at a dilapidated cantina in one of the seemingly infinite mining camps. But she found the establishment closed, and Quano, the Rodian proprietor, nowhere to be found. With no more eyewitnesses, Zannah decided to have a look around herself, hoping for further clues.

Night had fallen, casting everything in near blackness. She tried the door and discovered that someone had smashed the lock. Not surprising, given the poverty she had seen. Pushing her way in, she picked up the faint odor of decaying flesh. She cracked a glow stick from her belt, filling the room with its pale green light. She was just able to make out two bodies on the floor.

Crouching by the first one, she made a quick examination. Doan's dry, dusty heat-combined with the general lack of airflow through the cantina-had partially mummified the corpse, slowing the decomposition process. The cause of death was obvious: a blaster bolt to the chest. His own blaster was still clutched in his hand.

It was obvious he wasn't Quano; the body was plainly human. And he didn't fit the descriptions she had been given of the man she was following. Based on his clothes and large muscles, he was probably one of the miners. She found the second body the same: a dead miner, shot in the chest.

Continuing her examination of the scene, she noticed that the shelf behind the bar was empty-but clear circles in the dust showed that until very recently, dozens of bottles had stood there. Whoever had broken in must have stolen all the alcohol:and left the two bodies where they lay on the floor.

A thorough search of the room turned up no trace of either the Rodian or the silver-haired man.

At the sound of someone fumbling at the door, Zannah covered her glow stick with her cloak and crouched low to the ground, a perfect statue hidden-she hoped-by the darkness.

The door creaked open and a shadowy figure slowly picked its way through the tables toward the bar in the back. Zannah waited to make sure the intruder was alone, then stood up and cast her cloak aside, bathing the room in the light of her glow stick.

A Rodian stood frozen, staring at her with wide, fearful eyes.

"Quano, I presume?"

"Who you?" he asked, his barely passable Basic made even harder to understand by the panic in his voice. Then he noticed the empty shelf behind the bar, and his face scrunched up in sullen anger. "You steal all Quano's booze."

"I didn't steal anything. I just came here to ask you some questions," she assured him.

The Rodian's shoulders slumped. Sighing, he sat down cross-legged on the ground, his head hanging despondently.

"More questions. You Jedi, too? Like other one?" He spoke with a tone of utter hopelessness, as if he realized he was doomed and had given up any hope of escaping his fate.

"A Jedi? You mean Medd Tandar? The Cerean?"

"No. The other one. Human. Long, white hair."

"I'm looking for him," Zannah admitted. "But what makes you think he was a Jedi?"

"Him got lightsaber. Use it to give Quano this."

The Rodian turned his head and pointed to his cheek. Moving slowly so as not to startle the obviously distraught fellow, Zannah approached until she was able to make out his scar. In the dim light of the glow stick she couldn't be sure, but the burn did appear to be consistent with that made by a lightsaber's blade.

She knew how to read people. The Rodian was like an abused pup, cowering as he waited for the next blow. Show him a little compassion, however, and he would react as if she had saved his life.

"He tortured you. You poor thing," she cooed, feigning sympathy even as her mind churned on the identity of the mysterious white-haired man.

A Jedi would never harm someone without just cause. Whoever had done this wasn't one of the Order, but he did have a lightsaber. And he was skilled enough to wound Quano without accidentally slicing off half his head. She had heard tales of Dark Jedi-Jedi Knights who had fallen away from the teachings of their Masters to embrace the power of the dark side. Was it possible the man she sought was one of these?

More importantly, did Bane already know this? Her Master often kept secrets from her, and she had learned to always assume he knew more than he said. But if he knew there was a Dark Jedi on Doan, why had he sent Zannah to investigate? Was it some type of final test? Was she supposed to prove herself by finding and killing this potential rival? Or was Bane testing the white-haired man? If he proved strong enough to defeat Zannah, would he become her Master's new apprentice?

"Him wanted information," Quano whimpered.

"I'm sorry, Quano," she said, speaking softly as she gently placed a hand on his shoulder, "but I need information, too. I need to know what you told him."

As she did so, she reached out with a gentle push of the Force, nudging the bartender's will ever so slightly so he would be more inclined to tell her what she wanted.

"Him you friend?"

"No," Zannah assured him, using words to reinforce her subtle mind manipulation. "He's not my friend."

Maybe Bane was trying to force her hand, she thought; pushing her to act. Was he providing her with a suitable apprentice in the hope it would compel her to challenge him for leadership of the Sith?

"You want kill him?" Quano asked, his voice rising excitedly.

"That is a possibility," she answered, giving him a warm smile. That, or make him my apprentice:assuming he doesn't kill me. "But I've got to find him first."

"Him no here no more. Him go two days ago. Leave Doan."

"He came here looking for something, didn't he?"

Quano nodded. "Stuff miner dig up. Him take it. Kill miners. That when Quano escape."

"And you've been hiding ever since," Zannah guessed. "So why did you come back to the cantina?"

The Rodian hesitated, his bug eyes darting nervously between Zannah's face and the small wrist-mounted blaster peeking out from beneath the sleeve of her cloak.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Quano," she promised. "I'm not like him," He enjoys hurting people. I only hurt people if I see some way to profit from their suffering. "I don't think he's coming back." Not if he's got the talismans. "But I need to know something else, Quano. When that man left Doan, where did he go?"

She saw the Rodian flinch before answering. "Quano not know. For trueness."

"I believe you," she said, reaching out to gently pat his hand. "But I bet you know people who could help me find out, don't you?"

The bartender shifted uncomfortably, but another gentle push with the Force overcame his reluctance. "Quano has friend at spaceport. Him maybe find out."

"Can we go see him?"

"You want go now?"

Zannah smiled again, knowing it would help sustain the rapport she had established. "You can grab your credits from the safe first, if you want."

It was a two-kilometer walk from Quano's cantina to the nearest ground-shuttle station, a fifteen-minute wait for the shuttle to arrive, and then a forty-minute ride before they reached the spaceport. By the time they arrived it was well past midnight, and the Doan spaceport-never busy even during peak hours-was empty except for a few individuals assigned to work the graveyard shift.

Unlike the highly regulated ports on Ciutric, the authorities at the Doan docks didn't bother doing any registration checks on incoming vessels. In fact, their only job seemed to be collecting the landing fee.

"Your friend," Zannah asked as she and Quano walked into the unstaffed gate, "what does he do here?"

"Cleaning crew," the Rodian answered.

Zannah wasn't quite sure how a janitor was going to be able to help her track down a ship that had left nearly two days ago, but she held her tongue as he led her into the arrival/departure area then out to the landing pad at the back.

The pad was small, barely large enough to accommodate a dozen midsized passenger shuttles. The vast majority of Doan's interstellar traffic was made up of either the personal vessels of the wealthy nobles, who all docked at private landing pads on their estates, or cargo vessels affiliated with the mining operations, which were handled at a different location. Individuals landing here at the communal spaceport were few and far between.

The landing pad was poorly lit by a handful of floodlights set on tall lamp posts, but even so Zannah could clearly see there were only three ships on site, one of which was her own shuttle. Half hidden in the shadows near the edge of the landing pad was a young man slumped backward in a chair. He wore a crumpled custodian's uniform and an ID badge, his arms hung limp at his sides, and he was snoring loudly.

Quano walked over and kicked the leg of his chair, startling him out of his sleep.

"Pommat. Get up."

Looking around with the bemused expression of one only half awake, the young man shifted his position and sat up straighter in his chair. When his gaze settled on Zannah, his eyebrows arched suggestively.

"Hey, Quano. Who's your pretty friend?"

"My name is not important," Zannah said, speaking before the Rodian could reply. "I was told you could help me track down a ship that passed through here two days ago."

When the man looked at Quano, the Rodian said, "Is okay. She nice. She friend."

The young man turned back to Zannah, crossing his arms and giving a derisive snort. "Yeah, right. A friend who won't tell you her name." She could sense that his will was stronger than the bartender's, but still malleable. The fact that Pommat obviously found her attractive would help, too, if she was willing to flirt with him a little.

"I'm a friend who has credits," she replied coyly. "If you have what I need."

The man bobbed his head back and forth a few times before uncrossing his arms and running his fingers through his shaggy, sleep-ruffled hair.

Zannah arched one eyebrow playfully and reached out with the Force. "Come on, Pommat. I'm not looking for the strong, silent type."

"Yeah, all right," he relented. "Maybe I can help. What do you need?"

"A few days ago a man with long white hair arrived on Doan. Did he come through this port?"

She already knew the answer: unless the man had some connection to one of the noble families, this was the only port for a thousand kilometers. But a basic tactic in negotiations was to get the other person to start giving you affirmative answers to simple questions. It made them more likely to agree with you on more important matters later on.

"Oh, yeah. I remember him. Nice ride. State-of-the-art shuttle. Custom interior. Top of the line. Even nicer than yours."

"How would you know what the interior of my shuttle is like?" Zannah asked suspiciously.

There was a brief pause, then both Quano and Pommat burst out laughing.

"Him smuggler," the Rodian explained when he caught his breath.

"Not exactly," Pommat clarified. "It's just a little side racket I've set up. Something to help pay the bills, you know?"

"No," Zannah said darkly. "I don't know. Why don't you tell me."

"Whoa, you got a little fire in you, doll," Pommat said appreciatively. "Let me break it down for you. At night, I'm the only one working here. I can pretty much do anything I want. Including breaking into somebody's shuttle."

"You're not worried about security systems?"

"Never ran across one I couldn't slice," he said, puffing out his chest. "It's one of my many talents. Maybe if you're lucky, I'll show some of the others later on."

"So you break into people's shuttles and steal from them?" Zannah clarified, ignoring his clumsy come-on.

"Nah. That'd be stupid. People would notice if stuff was missing. They'd report it to my boss. Wouldn't take long to figure out who was behind it."

"So what do you do, exactly?"

"You're going to love this," Pommat said with a sly wink. "Once I'm inside, I slice into their nav computer and download all the info onto a datapad. It gives me everything: the owner, any planets the ship is registered with, commonly plotted hyperspace routes. I know who owns it, where they've been, and which world they use as a home port."

"Clever," Zannah admitted. "But what use is that?"

"This is where it gets good," he promised, obviously pleased with himself. "I've got an arrangement with a guy on Kessel. Every month he sends me a shipment of glitterstim."

Glitterstim, or spice, was a powerfully addictive drug banned on most worlds. Doan, however, had no laws against importing it. And nobody at the spaceports to enforce the laws, even if they did exist, Zannah silently noted.

"I don't sell the spice here," Pommat continued. "Nobody has any money except the nobles. And they won't deal with the lower classes. But I've got contacts at the spaceports on a bunch of other worlds here on the Outer Rim.

"So let's say I slice into a ship's nav computer and I find out it's from Aralia. I reach out to my contact on that world, and I see if he wants me to send him a shipment. After we work out a price, I sneak onto the vessel while the owner's not around and I hide a stash of spice somewhere on board.

"I tell my contact where I hid it, give him the ship's registration, and he tells one of his buddies at the spaceport to let him know when it returns to Aralia. Then he waits until the coast is clear, sneaks on board, takes the stash, and transfers the credits into my account back here on Doan. The owner never has a clue!"

"Spice smuggling is a capital offense on Aralia," Zannah remarked.

"That's the best part. If the customs officials ever decide to search one of these ships, the owner goes down for the crime, not us. It's foolproof!"

The whole operation seemed rather petty and ill thought out to Zannah. She wasn't bothered by the fact that Pommat was willing to have innocent people suffer horrible fates just so he could make a handful of credits from time to time. What bothered her were the technical details. The operation had obviously been thrown together out of simple opportunity, but it struck her as inefficient and unreliable. But she wasn't about to ruin the rapport she had established by saying so out loud. "I didn't realize I was dealing with a criminal mastermind," she teased, bringing a cocky grin to Pommat's face. "So when the white-haired man left, you snuck onto his ship and copied everything from his nav computer?"

"Got it all right here on my datapad," Pommat replied, patting his hip pocket.

"So you know his name? You know where he's from?"

"I do:but it's going to cost you."

Zannah smiled, and tilted her head in acknowledgment. "Of course. Name your price."

"Go big," the Rodian chimed in. "Remember, Quano get half."

Pommat shot his friend a disapproving look before stammering out his opening offer. "Uh:four hundred credits?"

She was in no mood to negotiate. "Deal." From the crestfallen expression on the smuggler's face, she knew he was suddenly wishing he had asked for a lot more.

Reaching into her cloak, she produced four hundred-credit chips and handed them over to the young man. "Start talking."

"Ship's registered to someone named Zun Haake," Pommat answered glumly as he flipped two of the chips to Quano and slipped the remaining pair into his pocket.

"Haake's a Neimoidian name," Zannah pointed out. "The man I'm looking for is human."

Pommat shrugged. "Maybe the shuttle's stolen."

"I'm starting to think this information isn't worth what I paid for it."

"The registered owner might be fake, but the nav data's real," the young man assured her. "That ship came from Nal Hutta."

"You're certain?"

"No doubt about it."

"Just out of curiosity," Zannah asked, "is he carrying a shipment for you?"

"No," he replied, almost regretfully. "I don't do any business there. The Hutts don't like small-timers cutting in on their action, you know?"

"Probably a wise decision." Quano barked out a laugh.

"What about my ship?" she asked, keeping her tone light. "Any hidden surprises on board?"

"Nah. You're the first ship that ever came here from Ciutric," Pommat replied. "I don't have any contacts back on your world.

"Unless you're interested in establishing a more long-term relationship?" he added, leering at her.

Zannah answered by whipping out her lightsaber handle and igniting the red three-quarter-length blades protruding from each end. She moved with the blinding speed of the Force, her first vicious slash severing Pommat's outstretched arm at the elbow and carving a lethal furrow across his chest while the second cleanly removed Quano's head from his body. Both were dead before they even had a chance to register an expression of surprise.

The deed done, she shut off her weapon, the twin blades disappearing with a low-pitched hum. She didn't kill without reason, but once Pommat revealed that he knew she was from Ciutric she had no choice but to eliminate both him and Quano. The Jedi might still come to investigate Medd's death, and she couldn't risk having them trace the shuttle back to her and Bane's estate. She didn't like loose ends.

Crouching down, she removed the datapad from Pommat's pocket, along with the credit chips she had given him. Then she did the same with Quano before loading the bodies, along with the dismembered bits, onto a nearby hoversled used to move heavy baggage around the spaceport. If any Jedi did come snooping around she didn't want to leave any signs that someone with a lightsaber had killed the two men.

Loading the corpses onto her shuttle, she took a last look around to make sure she hadn't left any witnesses behind. Satisfied, she made her way to the cockpit to prepare for liftoff.

The remains of her victims could be jettisoned into Doan's sun just before she made the jump to hyperspace, leaving behind no physical evidence that could connect her to the world. After that, it was off to Nal Hutta, though whether she was going to eliminate a rival or recruit an apprentice, Zannah couldn't say for sure.