Six days. That’s how long Bithia had been a prisoner. She kept track of the passage of time by scratching lines in the wall. One, two, three, four, slash, six.

On the sixth day, the door to her cell opened—really opened, not just the sliding flap at the bottom through which food was delivered to her. In the hallway outside, a frail-looking man stood, his body swathed in black robes that covered all but his face and hands. His skin was the color of bleached bone, and his face, with its gaunt features and sunken eyes, certainly seemed like a death’s head. Long hair as white as his complexion trailed down his back and shoulders, thin and wispy.

For several moments he peered down at her with an unnatural red gaze, his bloodless mouth set in a thin line. “Get up and come with me,” he said finally, breaking the silence.

She obeyed. Not without fear—she had lived in terror for the duration of her imprisonment in this place, for uncertainty and powerlessness breeds such emotions—but with a cool, steady dignity. She was afraid, but she wasn’t going to let them see it, if she could help it.

They hadn’t tortured her yet, unless you counted lousy food and not having access to the luxury of a hairbrush a form of torment. The initial abduction had certainly been traumatic. She had awoken in the middle of the night to find shadowy figures standing over her bed, reaching out with gloved hands to cover her mouth and stop her from screaming, pinning her down and pumping the contents of a syringe into her. She slept in only her underwear and a loose shirt, since it was a warm Alderaanian summer night, so there was plenty of exposed skin to prick with the needle. The drug, some form of sedative, had worked fast, though she fought it. She spent her final moments of consciousness begging them not to hurt her daughter, pleading with them until her muscles went slack and her speech slurred, her mind shutting down as she went limp in their grasp.

When next she awoke, she was alone in the cell. Cramped and windowless, it was lit only by a dim overhead light that was perpetually flickering. She had access to a small bathroom with a toilet, sink, and shower. There was a spartan bed in the corner, coarse white linens neatly folded and tucked in under the mattress. No books, holograms, or access to the Holonet were there to occupy her, so she spent the time thinking and counting the minutes into hours.

No one came to talk to her. She tried to ask the one who brought her food questions, only to realize fairly early on that it was only a server droid programmed to perform basic tasks, not higher functions like verbal communication. Ever since she had been taken captive, she had not seen a single living soul, only machines. Until the sixth day, when the pale man came and ordered her to follow him.

“Will you answer my questions?” she asked as she trailed behind him.

He didn’t respond. They walked down a long hallway lined with cell doors identical to her own, though there was no way of telling whether they were currently occupied or not. She could feel the cold of the stone floor through the thin soles of the slippers they had issued her, and a biting chill in the air that cut through the fabric of the gray prison jumpsuit they had so kindly provided her with.

“Who are you?” she asked, still trying to make conversation. After all, she hadn’t spoken to anyone in nearly a week. Her mind was crying out for stimulation.

“My name is Errol,” he replied.

“Nice to meet you. My name’s Bithia.”

He shrugged. “If you want to know why you’re here, I am not the person to ask. I wasn’t the one who ordered your arrest.”

“I’m under arrest? On what charges?”

“I don’t know. But I’m taking you to the one responsible for your being here.”

“Where is my daughter?” she demanded, stopping in her tracks. “What have you done with her?”

“I don’t know where she is,” he snapped. “For the last time woman, I can’t tell you anything. If you want answers, you’ll have to cooperate.”

So she followed him through the door at the end of the hall, emerging into what looked like a laboratory. Beakers, jars, and strange machinery littered every available surface, stocking shelves and covering tables. There also seemed to be an element of the alchemist to the chamber, an occult bent to the way things were designed and set up, with areas cleared for the purpose of drawing magic circles on the ground with chalk to conduct strange rituals. Or maybe it was just her imagination, and the circular cleared areas were for an entirely different, non-supernatural purpose.

There was someone in the lab waiting for them. She caught her first glimpse of his satyr’s physique from behind. His back was turned as he washed his hands at a shiny metal sink against the wall, then wiped his hands on a towel. When finally he turned around and faced her, she winced.

He was ugly in a visceral way, as if he had vomited his entire being through his gaping mouth, completely turning himself inside out. He’d done that at birth, then proceeded to age about fifty years. His skin had turned leathery and callused after half a lifetime of hard labor, fighting, and bleeding, so that he looked less like a man and more like a gnarled old tree with keen human eyes.

“Hi,” he greeted. His ruined voice set her hair on end. “Good morning, Mrs. Deronda. How are you?”

“I’m fine," she replied, resisting the urge to clench her jaw and hiss her words through grit teeth. "Who are you?”

“The name’s Messala.” He let go of the towel, but rather than falling to the floor, it folded itself neatly in midair, then came to rest on the counter beside the sink. Bithia watched this skilled display of Force telekinesis with a mixture of curiosity and dread. “I can see you’re impatient, so I’ll cut straight to the chase. Would you like to sit down?”

He gestured toward an empty chair. She shook her head. “I’d rather stand.”

“Suit yourself.” Messala sank into his seat with a grunt of satisfaction, reclining as far back in it as he could, and watched her through half-lidded eyes. “First thing’s first. This isn’t about you, so don’t take it personally.”

“Then why am I being held captive?” she asked, glancing toward Errol, who was leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. “Are we still on Alderaan?”

“We’re not on Alderaan, no,” Messala replied with a grin. “I can’t tell you where exactly we are, but we’re not in what you would call ‘safe’ space. Since you’re not a citizen of these stars, the laws and protections out here don’t apply to you.”

“So you can hold me against my will indefinitely, without explanation?” she concluded, clenching her fists at her sides. “You can do whatever you want with me or to me, and you’ll never have to face any consequences.”

“Consequences are relative. I’d hate for a pissed off friend or relative of yours to come knocking at my door. With that kind of cleanup, better not to leave messes behind at all.” He put his arms behind his head. “I’m not going to hurt you, don’t worry. But I just thought you should know, in case you had any stupid ideas involving trying to escape.”

Figuring he was just trying to scare her, she ignored the vague threat. “What about my daughter?”

Messala’s expression soured. “As far as I know, she’s perfectly fine. On the other hand, she’s no longer in my care.”

Bithia’s eyes widened. “Where is she?!”

“She’s with her father.”

Her father is dead! You—you—”

“No no, I’m afraid not. He’s not dead.” Messala leaned forward, scrutinizing her. “But you didn’t know that, did you?”

She blinked, her mouth opening and closing as she struggled to think of what to say. “My husband… he’s been dead for three years. He was killed in a transport accident. There was a problem with the engine that went undetected, and it exploded in midair over Istabith Falls…” The reality of what he was implying hit her like a ton of bricks. She was left overwhelmed, wishing she had taken that chair now, for she’d gone weak in the knees. “Are you saying that my husband is still alive? How is that possible? Everyone on the transport was killed instantly, or so they said. How could he have survived that?”

“That's what we're trying to find out, Mrs. Deronda,” Messala said. “You’d think that if a man came back from the dead after three years, the first thing he’d do is reunite with his family.”

She stared at him, her thoughts running far ahead. “Are you a cop? Are you looking for him? Did… did something happen?”

“You could say that.” With a wave of his hand, he summoned a datapad from the other side of the lab. Flicking through digital pages, he summarized what he was reading, taken from some kind of investigative report. “... Nimdok Deronda seems to have miraculously re-appeared on Tatooine. After reclaiming his identity, he was able to find work as an archaeologist.”

“An archaeologist?” she echoed. “That was his dream. But he could never fully realize it, because he—” She nearly said because he was too much of a scaredy cat for all that swashbuckling adventurer chit, but she stopped herself. “He just wasn’t cut out for it. He still loved history, so he became a professor instead.”

“I wouldn’t call what he’s been doing ‘archaeology’,” Messala said, eyeing the datapad. “More like tomb robbing and treasure hunting. And the things he’s been stealing…” He clucked his tongue and shook his head. “‘Sith holocrons, lightsabers, and other ancient objects of questionable origin and indeterminate power.’ Did your husband ever strike you as the sort of man who would ever decide to go on a quest to collect Sith artifacts?”

Roughly a thousand different images came to Bithia’s mind at his question. The sight of his closed office door at the end of the upstairs hallway, the cold emptiness on the other side of her bed every morning and every night, the half-dozen photographs of him in frames scattered around the house to prevent her from ever forgetting what he looked like. Realizing she still hadn’t answered Messala’s question, she said, “He was a very quiet, timid, reserved man. He couldn’t play Indiana Jones because he simply didn’t have the mental or physical fortitude for it. He was just…”

“A civilian,” Messala finished for her. “An ordinary man whose only significant trait was his intelligence and education.”

“There was more to him than that,” she said softly. “But… you said Miri is with him now?”

“What species was he?” Messala asked, ignoring her question.

“Near-Human. He didn’t know what exactly he was. His parents were immigrants from a small fishing village on Monastery. Aside from the ears, he didn’t look all that alien to me.”

“Hm. Did you ever see him shapeshift?”

She blinked. “No.”

“You’re absolutely certain?”

“How the hell could I have known for certain?” she snapped. She could hear her pulse pounding from heightened stress. “You’ve told me he’s alive and that he has my daughter, and now you’re saying he’s a shapeshifter?…”

“Wait a minute, now,” Messala said. “You’ve misunderstood me. Listen, I don’t think this guy is really Nimdok. I think someone, a shapeshifter, is pretending to be your husband.”

“But why?”

“Academic credentials. A good reputation. Respect within the business.” Messala waved his hand. “That is, unless he had hidden fortunes in bank accounts registered to his name, or something along those lines.”

“None that I know of,” she muttered, her heart still thudding.

“But now we have actual proof—when he was reunited with your daughter, they did a paternity test. The results came back negative, but he apparently was able to trick them into thinking they were positive.”


“The impostor is a Shi’ido. They have a natural telepathic ability that allows them to distort the perspectives of others. In this case, he was able to make them see different results on the—”

“No, I mean—how was he reunited with Miri in the first place? Where are they now?”

“Oh, sorry, I forgot to mention that part. We used her as bait to draw him out.” He smirked at the murderous look she shot his way. “We couldn’t let some changeling run around stealing powerful artifacts. That’s not how the rules of the game work, boss. This guy has done some serious damage and angered some very powerful people. Sith Lords want him dead or worse. We thought we were dealing with the real Nimdok here, so obviously we had to find his family, bring them in for questioning… and use them to find him.”

“You used a six year old to draw a criminal out of hiding?” she spat. “And in the meantime, you kept me a prisoner here for almost a week?”

“Putting a child in peril does funny things to people,” Messala agreed. “Even though she wasn’t really his kid, he had to at least keep up appearances, right? But you’d never agree to let us do it, so we just went ahead and did it without asking for permission.”

“You bet your ass I never agreed! I could bring charges against you for this!”

“Out here, where the laws don’t apply to you?” He smiled. “We’re tracking her whereabouts as we speak. Hopefully, it won’t take long for him to leave GA space, and then we can stop him for good. With or without your approval.”

“Who are you working for?” she demanded. “Who hired you to do this?”

“That’s none of your concern, Mrs. Deronda,” Messala replied. “We’ll take care of this matter, don’t you worry. All you need to do is cooperate with us. Errol, take her back to her cell.”

“Wait!” she cried. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Errol walking toward her, no doubt ready to drag her out of the room if necessary, so she had to act fast. “How can you guarantee Miri’s safety if she’s with the impostor? Wouldn’t he realize this is an obvious trap? How do you know he won’t hurt her, or abandon her?”

“That’s easy,” Messala replied. “We don’t know. If it’s any consolation, as far as we can tell she hasn’t left Galactic Alliance space yet. Although from the looks of it, he’s taking her to the Azure system, which is currently the site of a horrifying supernatural warzone…”

So that was it, then. Not only was there an impostor carelessly exploiting her late husband’s identity, but these people were going to use her and Miri to get what they wanted, and they didn’t care if they got hurt in the process. As Messala had said, Bithia and Miri had no rights under the laws of their government. They could do whatever they wanted, and there was nothing Bithia could do about it.

“You have to get her out of there!” she screamed, feeling Errol’s hand clamp down on her arms. “Please, I’ll do anything you want! But you have to make sure Miri is safe!”

She shook off Errol’s grasp, and he retaliated by grabbing the back of her neck. A brief struggle ensued, with Errol manhandling her while she yelled and tried to escape, until she felt an invisible force tightening around her throat…

“Errol!” Messala roared, all traces of cruel humor gone from his expression and voice. He glared at the pale man, his own hand stretched out to block Errol’s use of the Force. Bithia felt the invisible chokehold loosen, and she fell to her hands and knees, gasping for breath.

“I see that you still have much to learn about control,” Messala growled.

“You told me to take her back to her cell,” Errol shot back. “She resisted.”

“Your reaction was greater than her actions deserved. You could have killed her.” Messala glanced down at Bithia, who was still lying on the floor before him. “I believe Mrs. Deronda has learned her lesson.”

Bithia didn’t try to stop Errol as he lifted her up off the floor and carried her away, depositing her on the bed and sealing the door of her cell. She knew it was no use.


Forty days and forty nights passed before they brought her out again. By then she had become sickly; stress and sedentary prison life had caused her to gain weight, her eyes were bruised and bloodshot from insomnia, and she had bitten her nails down to the nub.

They brought her to the lab, where she trembled like a leaf under their scrutinizing gazes. Still, she mustered up her courage and spoke first. “I look awful, I know. Too bad you don’t allow your prisoners to wear makeup, or I would’ve at least been able to cover the dark circles under my eyes.”

Messala chuckled. “I’ve brought you out because we have good news. The impostor and your daughter were spotted together on Coruscant. They were living in an apartment there.”

Bithia closed her eyes and sighed in relief. So Miri was alive… but wait. Messala was speaking in the past tense. “What about now? Where are they now?”

Messala tensed. “We unfortunately ran into some problems. It seems there is someone else who is also looking for ‘Nimdok’... they sent troops after him before we had a chance to act, though it seems our competition is amateur indeed, as they failed to capture him. We know the impostor and your daughter left the planet with someone named Inanna Hoole, we just don’t know where exactly they are now.”

She held her head in her hands. “While they were on Coruscant… do you know if she was doing okay? Was she going to school? Has this impostor been taking proper care of her?” Playing father to a boisterous little girl like Miri was a tall order for somebody who was supposedly just doing it to keep up appearances.

“She was being tutored by a droid, though it was destroyed by the troops.” Messala waved his hand. “I’m sure she’s fine.”

"But you don't know that for certain."

"What's another month or two of being stuck with him? Your daughter will survive it."

“I don’t believe you.” Bithia raised her head and stared him down. “I think you’re lying to me. I think you know more about this than you’re letting on, and you're withholding that information because you know it will upset me. But let me tell you this—I already hate you. There isn't much you can do to make me loathe you even more.”

Messala looked down at the arm of the chair, tracing its edges with a long clawlike fingernail. “Well, let’s just say that there was a lot of blood in that apartment after they left.”

Her heart leaped into her throat. “Whose blood?”

“Not the impostor’s, and not your daughter’s.” Messala looked up. “I admit that this is starting to get out of hand. So let me ask you this. If you were given the opportunity to put a stop to all this, would you take it?"

"There's not much that I can do," she admitted miserably. "Even if I wasn't stuck here, I'm no soldier or trained assassin. I'm just an ordinary person."

"Have you ever given any thought to eternal life?”

She shook her head, not sure where he was going with this. “No. I have my one short life, and I intend to live it.”

“But if you could live forever, would you?”

Frowning, she replied, “That would depend on the circumstances. Is there a price for living forever?”

“You would no longer be human—or rather, you would be something more than human. You would never feel pain again, and you could heal from any injury you sustained, so long as you were kept fed. Even then, starvation would not be the end.” He smiled. “You would have superhuman strength, speed, and reflexes, as well as access to expertise knowledge in a variety of different fields. You would be the most sophisticated and advanced being ever created… but you would not be a machine at all, no. You would be an organic being capable of living life to the fullest as whoever you wanted to be.”

“... So what’s the catch?” she asked with a snort. “You make it sound perfect.”

“Only that you would lose your current body in favor of this new one.” Messala gestured from her head to her toes. “A small price to pay if it meant you could save your daughter, no?”

She stared at him, her gaze hard as stone. “Is this a real offer? Would you really turn me into… this thing you’re describing, and let me go?”

“How could I let you leave this place in this sad, pathetic mortal form, when I could make you into a goddess?”

“Okay, don’t go that far.” She sighed. “But there’s got to be something wrong with it. Everything has a weakness.”

“You wouldn’t be able to go for a swim in the ocean or a pool ever again,” he replied. “And you’d have a phobia of salt, which would burn you. Otherwise, the rest can be dealt with using armor and other protections.”

“Strange weaknesses,” she muttered. But it was a very tempting offer. Extremely tempting, especially after all that she'd been through. Being Messala's prisoner had made her see just how helpless and weak she was before the might of just a few angry Sith Lords. People she had done nothing to, and yet they were ready to use her and her child to exact revenge on somebody else. Someone she didn't even know. An impostor wearing her husband's face like a mask. “That’s all I would have to do, is bring the impostor to you?”

Messala nodded. “That’s all. Then you would be free to go. Oh, and the change would be permanent, of course.”

“Being permanently stuck in a body like that doesn’t sound so bad.” Steeling herself, she said, “I’ll do it.”

“Excellent choice.” Standing up, he walked over to one of the tables and opened a box. “Errol, would you mind holding her down?”

“What? You’re doing it right now?” she blurted.

“Not now, no. The new body isn’t ready yet.” While Errol pinned her in place, she watched Messala take out a dull gray crystal roughly the size of a fist. He held it up to the light, watching the rays refract across the pockmarked surface of the rock. “Man, I love these things.” Turning to Errol, he asked, “What do you say, son? How should we do it this time?”

Errol placed his hands on either side of Bithia’s head, causing her eyes to dart frantically in confusion and terror. “Just tell me when,” he said. “I’ll make it quick and easy.”

Messala adjusted his stance, stretching out his arms and holding the crystal in both claws. “And… now!”

Errol broke Bithia’s neck.