Saturday, August 10, 2013

Tales of a Former Dark Lord, Chapter 4: A Prize of Questionable Value

Big Fat Disclaimer: I do not own Knights of the Old Republic or Star Wars.  That honor belongs to BioWare and George Lucas.  The only part of this story that’s mine is the character of Brinna Warrim.  All other characters are the creations of the genius developers of BioWare, as is some of the dialogue in this story, which I lifted word from word from the game.  I lay the blame for my obsession squarely at their feet.  :)  

******* 


One of the female Beks was sent to wake Brinna the next morning but since Brinna hadn’t slept a wink the night before, it was a wasted effort.  Someone offered Brinna some breakfast but she was far too nervous to eat and so she contented herself with sipping slowly at an overheated mug of tea while picturing all the different ways the race could go.  Unfortunately, a great many of her pictures involved various parts of her body being splattered all over the track.
             
“Are you all right?” Mission asked, concerned.  Unlike Brinna, she was having no trouble putting away a hearty breakfast and the sight and smell of it was turning Brinna’s stomach.
            
 “Sure.  Why wouldn’t I be?  I mean, after all, I’m just going to get on a swoop bike—which I’ve never done before—and do my best to see to it that I get it to the finish line quickly enough to beat a bunch of riders who’ve done it a million times.  Oh, and did I mention the fact that I need to do all this while doing my best to avoid having an unstable prototype engine blow up on me and splatter me all over the track?” Brinna said, feeling slightly hysterical.
             
“Right,” Mission said, the expression on her face clearly saying she wished she hadn’t asked.  She turned back to her breakfast.
            
 “You’ll do fine,” Carth said, but the tentative note in his voice was anything but reassuring.
             
“Yeah, well, if I don’t I won’t have much time to worry about it, will I?” Brinna muttered.
             
She knew she shouldn’t take her nervousness out on Carth and Mission but she couldn’t help herself.  She’d done many, many risky things during the course of her career as a scout but this had to be the riskiest.
             
You’ve got to pull yourself together or you’ll never be able to do this, she told herself.
             
“I’m sorry,” she told Carth and Mission.  “I’m just a little nervous.”
            
 “Oh really?  We hadn’t noticed,” Mission muttered, addressing her food.
           
 Brinna laughed out loud.  “Stick with me and watch how I deal with other stressful situations.  You’ll be glad to know that I can be even more charming than I’m being right now.”
            
 “Can’t wait to see that,” Carth said, with a grin.
           
 “Listen, Carth’s right, you’ll be fine.  And we’ll be cheering you on,” Mission told her.
             
“That does make me feel better,” Brinna admitted.
             
“And don’t forget that the sooner this is over with and Bastila is freed, the sooner we can try to find a way off this planet,” Carth reminded her.
             
“That makes me feel better yet,” Brinna told him, which was the truth.  “Oh, look.  I think it’s time,” she added, as she noticed a Bek outfitted in racing gear heading her way.
             
“You’re not leaving those here?” Carth asked, indicating her vibroblades.
           
 “Nah.  I don’t feel comfortable when I’m unarmed,” Brinna said, lightly.  The truth was she had a sneaking suspicion that she would need her weapons but she’d decided not to share that particular fear with her companions.  Carth nodded his understanding, which wasn’t surprising to Brinna.  Judging by how jumpy he was Brinna would have been willing to wager that he slept with a blaster beneath his pillow.  When he slept, that was, which she was learning was not all that often.
           
“Good luck,” Mission told her, recalling her to her present predicament.
            
 “Thanks.  I’ll need it,” Brinna said, before turning and following the Bek out to the racetrack.
             
The first thing she noticed was the noise.  The roar of engines and the shouts of racers and their mechanics were nearly deafening.  An Ithorian member of the Beks took her aside and explained the basics of her bike to her.  Brinna listened as attentively as she was able in the cacophony but she had to ask the Ithorian to repeat himself more than once, causing him to cast a dubious glance at her, which did nothing for her flagging confidence.
            
 However, once she calmed herself down a little and thought about what the Ithorian had told her, she realized that the swoop controls weren’t all that different from ship controls.  Having been a scout for almost as long as she could remember and having spent the last ten years of her life freelancing with her own vessel, if there was one thing she knew it was how to fly a ship.  She didn’t have Carth Onasi-style combat experience but she knew a thing or two about maneuvering out of tricky situations.  Though her business had always been entirely legitimate, it didn’t mean that the business of everyone else she’d ever run into out in the far reaches of space had been.
           
 For the first time since she’d spoken with Gadon the previous day, Brinna began to relax and believe that she could handle the race.  Even though it was noisy down at the track, there weren’t all that many people around as only racers and appropriate personnel were allowed down on the track.  Anyone who cared to watch the race had to do so courtesy of the viewscreens in the cantina and the gang bases and this knowledge made Brinna feel much better.  Had she been surrounded by hundreds of cheering fans, she would never have been able to concentrate.
           
 Once she had the bike basics down, she did her best to cast what she hoped was a very nonchalant glance at the captive Bastila.  It looked as though Brejik had her under the influence of a neural restraint collar and the Jedi’s eyes were wide and vacant-looking.  She was an attractive young woman with tousled dark hair and skin that Brinna frankly envied.  She also had a nice figure, which was unfortunate for her as it had apparently inspired Brejik to dress her up in what looked like an outfit that was a reject from the wardrobe of a badly-dressed Twi’lek dancer.

What really caught Brinna’s attention, though, was Bastila’s youth.  She had guessed from the way Carth talked about her that Bastila was not very old but Brinna had not expected someone just barely out of her teens.  It was no wonder everyone made such a big deal out of her; it was pretty amazing indeed that someone as young as Bastila had learned to control the prodigious gift of Battle Meditation that she possessed.  Brinna knew little about the Jedi but enough to know that such a gift was rare in any case and usually took years to master.
             
And yet Brinna didn’t find it that surprising that Bastila had mastered her gift so early.  If anything, she was surprised that Brejik hadn’t yet realized that his prisoner was no ordinary Republic officer.  Power seemed to radiate from Bastila and Brinna could perceive it as clear as day. 
            
 Almost before she knew it, the racer before her had left to complete his heat, meaning that she’d be up any time.  She closed her eyes and took a deep breath in through her nose, breathing out through her mouth.  After several breaths, she felt calm and centered.  It was an old trick she’d learned back in her early days of piloting when she’d still found it incredibly nerve-wracking to be behind a ship’s throttle.
            
 “You’re up,” the Ithorian announced to her.  “Go get ‘em.”
             
Brinna nodded at him and walked over to the coordinator to tell him that she was ready to race one of her heats.  He told her the time to beat and, the next thing she knew, she was on the bike and at the starting line.
             
As she stared intently at the red light glowing before her, Brinna forced all of her distracting thoughts and worries out of her mind.  She was almost there by the time the light turned yellow and, when it turned green, her mind was clear and she was ready to focus.  Almost by instinct, she opened the bike’s throttle and was off.
           
It turned out that operating the swoop bike was not nearly as complicated as Brinna had feared.  She felt herself slipping into a zone of ultimate concentration and she had little trouble avoiding the obstacles on the track and then finessing her way back over to the accelerator pads.  In fact, after hitting the first few and shifting gears to use the advantage of the extra burst of speed they lent her, Brinna found that her adrenaline had begun to pump and that she was actually enjoying herself.  She’d always loved flying her ship and she found that the swoop bike was even more of a rush.  There was nothing like the sensation of being on the edge of danger, of being rather vulnerable and unprotected.  It brought a smile to Brinna’s face and made her just reckless enough to really get the bike moving.
           
Her heart was pounding with the thrill of it all by the time she crossed the finish line and as she pulled her helmet off, there was a broad smile on her face.  She couldn’t resist pumping her fist in the air a couple of times and it seemed that the Beks were just as excited as she was.  She soon learned why as the Ithorian rushed over to her and announced that she had the best time, beating riders who had twenty years of experience over her.
             
“I’ve never seen anyone have a first ride like that!” he told her, his voice filled with awe.
             
Brinna grinned at him.  “I’m only sorry I didn’t try this sooner,” she told him.
             
The victory was short-lived, however, as the next rider up, a Vulkar by the name of Redros, managed to complete the track in one less second than she had.  Brinna was going to have to ride another heat and though she was actually pretty eager to get back on the track, she knew that if the engine became overtaxed the consequences would be lethal for her.
             
Well, I’ll just have to shave a lot off my time.  That way no one will have any chance of beating me, she told herself.
             
This time around, Brinna was more than ready before the light had even turned yellow.  She was off the instant the light turned green, her concentration so focused that she seemed to have lightning reflexes.  This time the thrill of the ride captivated her from start to finish and it was almost as if she became one with the bike, as if all she had to do was think about which way she wanted it to turn and it turned.  She’d never felt a sensation quite like it before and she could see how it could become quite addictive.
             
Sure enough, when she crossed the finish line the second time, she had managed to shave ten seconds off her time.  She was positive there was no way anyone could beat her now, a sentiment that was confirmed by the Bek Ithorian.
             
The Beks were going absolutely wild, hooting, hollering, and cheering and thumping her on the back as if she was their hero.  She could not stop smiling as she approached the race coordinator, who announced her as the winner.  She raised a fist in the air in a sign of victory and then turned to look at Brejik.
            
She could practically feel her mouth drop open as Brejik accused her of cheating and announced that he did not intend to give up his prize after all.  The race coordinator exclaimed in consternation that this could not be done but Brejik was not to be swayed.  Brinna didn’t know why she was surprised.  After all, Brejik had betrayed his close friend and stolen the swoop engine from the Beks.  Had she really expected him to be honorable when it came time to give up his “prize”?  Well, whether Brejik wanted to release Bastila or not was irrelevant; Brinna was not leaving without her.  It looked like her premonition had been correct and she was glad that she had brought her weapons with her.
            
 Just as her hands closed around the hilts of her vibroblades, Bastila stunned everyone by breaking free of her cage and attacking the Vulkar who had stood guard just outside of it.  Brinna’s eyes widened but she quickly sprang to action, making use of the element of surprise that Bastila had provided.  Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the Jedi going for Brejik so she turned and made for Redros.  He was unarmed and quickly dispatched and Brinna quickly turned from him and made short work of the other three Vulkars who were rushing toward Brejik and Bastila.  When she was finished, Brinna turned and saw that Bastila was still fighting with Brejik.
             
Brejik was a good fighter and had an advantage over Bastila in that she was without her lightsaber.  Brinna ran over to them and jumped into the fight, leaping in the air and tucking into a roll, coming down on Brejik with all her strength and dealing him a solid blow.  Stunned, he didn’t even see Bastila coming and she finished him off with a swipe of the vibro double-blade she had taken from her fallen Vulkar guard.
             
Brinna hadn’t exactly expected the Jedi to throw a parade in her honor but she was completely caught off guard when Bastila rounded on her and announced that she hoped Brinna wasn’t intending to imprison her.  An acid response was on the tip of Brinna’s tongue when Bastila suddenly recognized her as having been part of the Endar Spire’s crew.  However, this didn’t improve Bastila’s attitude much and Brinna quickly came to understand why Carth had chosen to call her particular.  Brinna stared in consternation as Bastila proceeded to announce that she hadn’t needed Brinna’s help in escaping the Vulkars.  As if that wasn’t bad enough, Bastila seemed to have the insane idea that she’d actually saved Brinna from the Vulkars.  Brinna was truly annoyed but didn’t want to stand around arguing with Bastila and so she told her that Carth was waiting for them.  Bastila was pleased with this news and Brinna ground her teeth as Bastila announced that it was “finally” some good news.
             
In spite of her anger against Bastila, Brinna was listening closely enough to her to hear Bastila’s praise of Carth.  Carth had told Brinna that he was in the Mandalorian Wars but he had not told her that he was a decorated war hero.  Brinna remembered Trask having said something on the Endar Spire and she found that she was further impressed by Bastila’s praise of Carth.  It seemed he had really downplayed his skills and his importance to the Republic, and Brinna couldn’t help but approve of and admire his modesty.
             
She turned to lead Bastila back to the apartment to see Carth and, just then, something very strange happened.  Suddenly, Brinna was no longer on the racetrack.  It seemed she was on the helm of a ship observing a Jedi and a Dark Jedi.  Focusing on the Jedi, Brinna realized that it was Bastila and that she was engaged in a heated battle with the Dark Jedi and then, just as suddenly as it came, the vision was gone.  Disoriented, Brinna’s step faltered and she shook her head in an attempt to clear the strange fog that suddenly filled it.
             
“What is the matter?” Bastila asked, studying Brinna critically.
             
“Nothing,” Brinna said, giving her head a final shake.  “It’s nothing.  Come on; let’s get back to the apartment.  Carth’s waiting for us.”
             
When they arrived at the apartment, Carth greeted Bastila with the enthusiastic declaration that things were finally starting to look up.  Brinna regarded the two of them with some exasperation.  What was she, bantha fodder?  Even though she felt it was petty and really beneath her, Brinna could not help but feel resentful of the seeming lack of gratitude for all she’d done.
             
To her increasing annoyance, it seemed that Bastila had appointed herself Queen of the Galaxy as she promptly began to issue orders.  Bastila demanded to know what they had been doing while they had been on Taris and had then proceeded to berate them for accomplishing so little.  Brinna couldn’t help but goggle at her incredulously.  Battle Meditation or no, Brinna was beginning to wish she’d left Bastila at the mercy of the Vulkars.
             
Fortunately, Carth decided to stand up to Bastila and he scolded her for berating them.  Bastila wasn’t too pleased to be corrected but it seemed Carth had a way with her and in short order her attitude had changed to something as close to contrition as she seemed able to muster.  It was decided that first thing in the morning they would begin searching for a way to get off the planet.
            
 “Wow.  She’s…er…interesting, isn’t she?” Mission said under her breath to Brinna as the two of them stashed the gear Brinna had picked off the dead Vulkars.
             
“That’s one way of putting it,” Brinna said, feeling annoyed all over again.
             
“Listen, I thought you were amazing in the swoop race, no matter what she said.  Big Z and I usually watch the races and I’m being honest when I say I’ve never seen anyone ride quite like that before.”
             
Brinna felt herself relaxing and she grinned at Mission.  “Thanks.  I was so nervous but once I was on the bike…I don’t know, it just seemed easy.”
             
“Feh!  I wish I could just hop on a swoop and ride like you did!  Then maybe I would have been able to save up enough credits to get off this planet,” Mission told her.
             
“Well, hopefully you’ll be getting off it soon enough,” Brinna told her.
           
Mission’s attention was claimed by Zaalbar and, out of the corner of her eye, Brinna saw Bastila approaching.  She closed the footlocker and turned to face Bastila warily.
           
“I was wondering if you might be kind enough to tell me what happened back at the track.  I know you said it was nothing but I don’t believe that,” Bastila said, in an infuriatingly demanding manner.
             
To her surprise, Brinna found herself telling Bastila about the vision she’d had.  Bastila frowned and looked thoughtful for a moment before suggesting that Brinna might have some Force abilities, a claim that Brinna found hard to believe.
             
“Force abilities?  Wouldn’t I have known about that long ago?” Brinna asked.
             
“Not necessarily,” Bastila replied.  Brinna could see that she had bristled at the doubt in Brinna’s voice.  “In fact, I believe that there’s a strong possibility that you have untapped Force abilities.  It would explain your success in the swoop bike race and your finding me as you did.  But I shouldn’t speak of this with you.  I will need to consult the Jedi Council once we get to Dantooine.”
            
“Frankly, I think you’re just underestimating us non-Jedi,” Brinna said.  “And don’t forget that I had Carth, Mission, and Zaalbar helping me to find you.  I couldn’t have done it on my own.”
             
“Perhaps,” Bastila replied, pursing her lips and turning from Brinna.
             
Brinna couldn’t resist the urge to make a foul face at Bastila’s retreating back, noticing a split second too late that Carth was watching the two of them and had seen Brinna’s childish gesture.  Brinna flushed slightly but Carth actually smiled at her.
             
“We’re running a little low on food.  Brinna and I will go and replenish our supply,” Carth said.
             
Surprised but relieved, Brinna nodded her assent.  She was grateful to Carth for realizing that she needed a little break from her new Jedi buddy.  Mission looked a bit terrified at the thought of being left with Bastila but Brinna decided that since she had Zaalbar with her, she could handle it and left the apartment without the slightest twinge of guilt.
             
“I thought you might want to get out for a while,” Carth commented kindly.
           
“Thanks, I appreciate it,” Brinna said, blowing out a breath.  “Now I know why you weren’t honest with me about her.”
             
Carth looked rather apologetic.  “She can be hard to take, I know, but she’s also very gifted.  Without her, the Republic is in serious trouble.”
           
Strangely, Brinna felt a twinge of what seemed to be jealousy.  Why in the galaxy would she be jealous of Bastila, she wondered.
             
Hmmm, maybe because Carth speaks of her with such obvious admiration, an insidious little voice inside her head suggested.
             
Don’t be ridiculous, Brinna told herself, with a scowl.
             
“What’s the problem now?” Carth asked, once again catching an expression Brinna would have rather he not seen.
             
“The problem now is that you seem to think you’re off the hook.  Well, you’re not.  You owe me an explanation,” Brinna said, deciding that she might as well incur Carth’s wrath while she was at it.
             
His expression darkened and he informed her that she could not badger him just because they were working together.  This naturally led to some bickering back and forth but Brinna could sense that she was wearing him down.  By this time, they had left the apartments and had reached the upper city walkways.  Carth stopped and stared out at the decaying skyscrapers of Taris, Brinna waiting patiently beside him.
            
She had no further desire to provoke him.  His eyes clearly expressed the anger, guilt, and sorrow that he struggled with as he began to speak and Brinna knew instantly that he was confiding in her and that it was something he did not do every day.  His voice was tortured as he spoke and Brinna felt her heart going out to him.
             
Finally, Brinna learned of the true source of Carth’s anger: Saul Karath.  He had been Carth’s commanding officer and mentor during the Mandalorian Wars and Brinna could clearly see that Carth had truly admired the man.  His face twisted into an expression of anger and pain as he told her of Saul’s defection to the Sith and his attempt to recruit Carth.  When Carth told her that Saul was responsible for the bombing of Telos, her eyes went wide.  He had chosen that moment to glance at her and the smile he gave her was grim.  Brinna couldn’t help but shudder at the expression.  It didn’t extend to his eyes, which looked dead and cold at the painful recollection.  It was no wonder the man didn’t trust easily.
             
After a moment, Brinna ventured to ask him if he blamed himself for trusting his friend.  Carth told her that he blamed Saul, not himself, and that Saul would regret it if Carth ever caught up with him.  The vehemence in his voice and the conviction in his eyes chilled Brinna to her very core.  From what she had seen and learned of him, it was obvious that Carth was a good man.  Even though he gave her a hard time about her rash actions, he was right with her when it came to defending and freeing the less fortunate and the oppressed.  To hear him speak of his determination to get revenge on Saul was almost devastating.  Brinna was nearly overwhelmed by the compassion she felt for him and the anger she felt toward Saul.  The admiral had ruined a good man and had probably not lost a single wink of sleep over it.
             
When she was finally able to speak, Brinna told him that she felt awful for him and he reluctantly confessed that there was more to the story but refused to discuss it any further.  He then set off toward the shops and Brinna trailed along in his wake.  She truly ached for Carth and wished she could think of something to say that might offer some sort of consolation to him but she knew that nothing she could say would make any difference.
             
She was seeing Carth through new eyes.  His hostility, his paranoia, it all made sense to her now.  She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have a trusted friend turn as Saul had.  He hadn’t simply betrayed Carth; he had bombed Carth’s homeworld into oblivion and, in the process, had likely killed more than a few of Carth’s friends.  Brinna couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be the victim of such a betrayal.
             
Carth’s vehemence had also worried her.  She now understood that he was a man obsessed with his need for revenge and it was clear to her that he didn’t really care what happened to him in his pursuit of that revenge.  Brinna had not yet known Carth to be truly reckless but she feared that if Saul came into the picture, there wouldn’t be anything to stop Carth.  His single-minded focus on his need for vengeance could compromise the mission and could be Carth’s undoing.  She did not want to see either scenario come into being.  Brinna wanted so badly to be Carth’s friend but she had no idea how to go about it.  He had already made it clear to her that he did not intend to trust anyone and she didn’t know how she could overcome that obstacle.  It was clear to her, though, that he was truly in need of a friend and she decided that she would do all she could to figure out a way to see to it that she became that friend.
             
They were quiet as they sold off some of their extra supplies in exchange for food.  The sun was setting as they walked back to the apartment complex and Brinna heard Carth take a deep breath.  She peeked at him out of the corner of her eye and saw that he was studying the sunset with a morose expression.  Then, suddenly, he turned and caught her looking at him and regarded her with a raised eyebrow.
             
“I was just wondering how those old bones of yours are doing,” Brinna said, lightly. 
             
To her relief, he cracked a smile.  “Enough already,” he told her.
             
“Well, like you said, I am very immature.”
             
“Yes, but you could at least try to act your age.”
             
“But then I wouldn’t have any excuse for provoking you.”
             
She smiled as Carth laughed and shook his head.  “I can’t even imagine the peace I’d have if you didn’t have an excuse for provoking me,” he sighed.
             
“You’d be bored, admit it,” she told him.
             
“I think I could handle being bored,” he responded.  “Seriously, though, you did really well today.  Your performance in the race was impressive.  And even if she won’t acknowledge it, Bastila is grateful for your help.”
             
“Oh yeah, I know.  I was nearly overwhelmed by her gratitude,” Brinna said, sarcastically. 
             
“Maybe she’s just jealous,” Carth said.
             
“Jealous?” Brinna asked, confused.
             
“Jealous of your swoop bike skill,” he said, smiling.
             
“Who isn’t?”
             
Carth laughed and Brinna felt quite gratified.  The sound of his laughter even made up for Bastila and her rude behavior.  If the Jedi refused to have a sense of humor, at least Carth did, in spite of all his inner turmoil.
           
Brinna found herself once again studying Carth out of the corner of her eye.  From the moment she had first laid eyes on him, she hadn’t been able to help but notice what an attractive man he was, but when he smiled he was really something to look at, which was one of the many reasons why she enjoyed making him laugh.
             
“Well, beautiful, you ready to face Bastila once again?” he asked her, in a jesting tone.
            
She liked being called “beautiful” by him.  She liked it a lot.  That was why she decided she had better try her best to dissuade him from calling her that.
             
“Don’t make me call you ‘sexist worm’ again, flyboy,” she said, giving him a stern glance.
           
“Right, because ‘flyboy’ is so much better,” he said, sarcastically.  “Why do you call me that anyway when you keep insisting that I’m old?”
            
 “Because Gamorrean pig-man takes too long to say,” she answered, breezily.
             
“You’re a real sweetheart, you know that?” he asked her, sending her a look of mock-anger.
             
“So I’ve been told,” she said, opening the door to the apartment.
             
The evening passed pleasantly enough, as long as she stayed away from Bastila.  Just when Brinna had thought no one could be more uptight than Carth, the Jedi had come along and proved her wrong.  Between Carth, Bastila, and Zaalbar the melancholy Wookie, Brinna was convinced she might have lost her sanity were it not for Mission.  The more time she spent with the young Twi’lek, the more Brinna liked her.  Mission was like the smart-mouthed little sister Brinna had never had.
             
The smart-mouthed little sister I maybe could have had, once upon a time, she thought, sadly.