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Descending the levels of Coruscant, it took longer than Jacqueline anticipated to identify landmarks. Twenty years did not pass kindly. Where a derelict shop once stood was now a burned hole, its insides spilled like entrails and lower-level denizens stooped over it, picking over scrap. The forgotten levels of Coruscant were filled to the brim with people but they hardly could be described as living. Shuffling and eyes glazed over, most lurched from one day to the next, solving one hunger crisis at a time or simply lingering till the next day brought new hunger to bear.

Jacqueline sped quickly through the alleys on her speeder. Though the smells were far from pleasant, the mere sensation of piloting again stirred a spark within her. It lay dormant for too long and despite her dour surroundings, she couldn�t help but kick her speeder into a loop or another flourish now and then. Decades older than she last was here, time added a cockiness she never dared felt as a child darting between piles of refuse.

She spotted other such children as she decelerated. They flitted between pillars or piles much like feral creatures would on approach, sometimes pausing long enough to eye her before sprinting off again. The sight was familiar but not from the other side. The captain momentarily felt like an intrusion. The ignorant would perhaps call out to them, give words of assurance and comfort, but Jacqueline stayed silent. It was the worst lesson to teach them. Slavers or worse used the same lulling tactics. If the children learned blind trust now, they�d be sold off or dead before the end of the year.

The thought made her grimace. Turning up her heel, she halted the speeder and disembarked. The last of the child-sized shadows disappeared as each settled into chosen hiding places. How many times had Jacqueline herself ran from a �good guy� as a kid? How many missed opportunities did she have? 

How many close calls?

Tapping a few codes into the speeder, it acknowledged her locking order and shut down. With a smirk, she eyed a group of distant teenagers who took clear interest in her vehicle. Nonchalantly sauntering away, she decided to let them discover its security measures on their own. At their age, they should know a feint when they see one.

As cocky as she was, the familiar sights and smells of the slum district coaxed Jacqueline to touch her blasters in quiet reassurance. So quickly she slipped into this habit, she was already counting exits and sizing up potential opponents before she caught her paranoia. With a smirk, she shook her head and let it continue. Till now, she thought she hadn�t lost her edge, but the upper levels nearly made her complacent. Motherhood wasn�t enough. The old Sith�s unsettling compliance wasn�t enough. The board meetings and company rivalries fell short. The distant fear of the Eternal Empire reforming was too weak. It needed to be close. It needed to be real.

Yes, this was a good reminder. Yes, this was a good idea. Steeped in the knife�s edge thrill of her hometown, Jacqueline came alive.

The hissing whistle of the oncoming rocket was her only warning.

Striking the ramparts a few meters above her, metal and fire rained down. The captain instinctively rolled, aiming towards the vague shape of cover she caught in her peripheral. Hot shrapnel pelted her back but she otherwise felt intact. Tucked behind a pile of discarded metal, the cover turned out sufficient. Lucky. Blasters drawn, she sucked in her breath and waited, listening. The second whoosh of an oncoming rocket gave her a location. Its detonation against the pile gave her a window. Rising from cover, she cracked of one, two, five shots in a horizontal spray in the presumed direction of the launch. One hit. She heard a mechanical grunt, caught sight of a hovering shadow, the acrid smell of propulsion fuel.

Bounty hunter. Sonuvabitch.

Her opponent descended sharply, Jacqueline�s bolt having caught them in the side. Of bulkier stature, the bounty hunter was covered head-to-toe in durasteel plating. Taking quick inventory, Jacqueline counted at least two more rockets, a possible wrist-mounted flamethrower, and a blaster rifle.

�Impressive. But that was just a guess,� their voice whirred through the mechanics of their helmet as they landed. Their first boot barely touched the ground before Jacqueline opened fire again, swiping the side of her blaster to let loose a boosted salvo. Digging their heels against the onslaught, the bounty hunter raised their forearms and projected a shield barrier.

Okay, Jacqueline noted. Yet another thing to deal with.

Ducking behind cover again, the captain counted two seconds then loosened a spherical grenade from her belt and tossed it upward. She shielded her eyes just as it detonated in a blinding strobe of white light. Jacqueline rolled, crouched, craned one arm to shade her face, and fired toward her opponent. Her bolts sliced through empty air. Eyes widening, she pivoted sharply with her blaster sights to locate her foe. Nothing, nothing, not there, nothing, gone, — no, there!

She caught movement from her former place of cover. Multiple things happened at once. Her wrist rolled something metal from her belt. It tumbled away from her, towards the scrap pile. Then an odd sensation came over her. It slowed her limbs, dulled her senses, something lifted her from the ground…

Shit, the captain realized.

The bounty hunter came into view, their hand outstretched. They walked towards Jacqueline almost languidly, confident of their victory. Their fingers twitched, Jacqueline felt something clench her chest from the inside. She coughed, tried to move her arms. An unseen Force held them prone at her sides, blasters useless.

�Weak after all,� the hunter snarled through their mask, only inches away now. Their hand replaced the Force�s over Jacqueline�s strained neck. �It all was just luck.�

�Yeah,� the captain tried to grin, her voice raspy. �Sheer, dumb luck.� Dimly, she felt something press against her abdomen, something metal. A blaster? A —

BOOM.

The scrap heap exploded, set loose from the timed explosive Jacqueline dropped moments earlier. The shockwave hit them both. They tumbled. Jacqueline was let loose from the Force�s thrall. She cried out as something hot seared her left side. Giving herself no time to pause, she kicked at the ground, spun, oriented herself towards the blast, and fired. Five, ten, fifteen shots. More She didn�t stop. When she heard the telltale groans of impact, she honed in and fired more, till its power pack was spent.

Smoke hovered and all fell silent. Jacqueline panted heavily. Why was it still hard to breathe? The smoke? The choking? Was she hit? 

Where was her enemy?

A rustle caught her attention. She attempted to fire but her blaster was unresponsive. Fingering her belt for a new pack, she cried out as her hand brushed her side. Shit. That�s why it was hard to breathe. A horizontal burn seared deep into her left side.

Where the hell did that come from?

No, not important. Find them. Find —

A mechanical cough reached her ears. The smoke and pain made it difficult to pinpoint its location. Still, Jacqueline tried to pivot, set her sights on the enemy. Surrounded by thick smoke, she saw nothing.

�Excellent,� the voice coughed. �Now, round two. Survive.�

Before Jacqueline could reply, her heard the sound of propulsion rockets. She cringed at first, anticipating a blast, then realized the sound drifted further and further away. Left to herself, she lay momentarily dumbfounded before pain found her again.

�Shit,� she said aloud, and fumbled till she reloaded her blaster. Figures in the smoke appeared. The scavengers, child and adult alike, had come.

Author Ari
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