It was the growl that had alerted them first. Like the kind of growl your stomach makes when you have not eaten all day and all you care about is getting home to supper and devouring it, except this one was menacing. Bloodthirsty. This growl wanted to satisfaction of thrashing the life of its meal before dining. As soon as he heard that growl Dante’s old training had begun to kick back in as he drew his blaster. And for everyone who missed the growl, the screams that followed it brought them up to speed real quick.
Half a minute later the seven sentients were in a tight circle, their weapons leveled and waiting. Dante was tending to the man who had been attacked, human, early twenties. A Gran in the party had grazed the animal that jumped the kid and it bolted, yowling, out of sight. He’d be fine, Dante had told Lanith, but should be brought back to the ship as soon as they could. Unfortunately, that might take a little longer than he’d hoped.
“They’re still out there, hiding in the trees,” announced Bear, the navigator on the Prospector, squinting into a pair of macrobinoculars. “Can’t get a good view of them, but there’s a bunch.”
Bear shrugged. “More than us.”
One of the team members shivered. “I don’t like this.”
“No one likes being hunted,” Dante replied. He hefted his blaster again; there wasn’t anything else he could do for the boy in the field. “We just need to let them know we’re not worth the trouble.”
Bear stiffened and sucked in a quick breath. “Here, they’re coming again!”
There must have been more than a dozen, and they were quick. Lion-sized streaks of striped brown and black that hurtled towards them, teeth bared and hungry. Only half of the crew was armed, but Dante and a Grom in the party were both good shots. Two went down quickly before the others scattered and hid behind cover. Then, as one, they leapt from their shelter in a blur and disappeared just as quickly. A minute later they made their dash again, another falling from blaster fire.
The Grom cursed. “These buggers and smart. Look, they’re creeping closer, keeping out of sight. They know we have blasters and are gonna close the distance before charging.”
“Three of them are down,” someone commented, “and they’re still coming. They seem dedicated.”
“Just shut up and keep your eyes open.”
It wasn’t long before they charged, closing the distance between the crew and their cover in uncomfortably little time. They still went for cover but only waited a second to sprint another dozen meters forward. But as quick as they were the crew’s blaster bolts were quicker, picking off on their numbers.
“Got a good sight on one, the database says they’re called ‘hyenax,’” offered Bear.
“Put down those frelling binoculars and shoot!” snarled Lanith over his shoulder as he snapped off two shots. His aim went wide and the hyenax disappeared behind a boulder.
The animals didn’t stop until half of their pack was dead, but they disappeared as quickly as they had first attacked. When they were sure the hyenax had fled they made for the speeder. They needed to rethink this dig with these hyenax, and at least get everyone a gun. After boarding the creaky craft Bear kept scanning the surrounding through his macrobinoculars.
“What the… hey, hold up!” he burst out, squinting through the devices lenses. “There’s something out there.”
“More of them?”
“No, something mechanical. Looks like from a ship of some kind. Couple hundred meters that way,” he said, pointing, “can’t make out what it is from here.”
The man piloting looked inquisitively at Lanith.
The Twi’Lek sighed. “Junior gonna be alright?” He asked Dante.
“He’s stable, I’ll just need some of the equipment in the infirmary to patch him up, unless he wants scars."
“I got no problems with scars,” the kid said, smiling weakly. Dante rolled his eyes.
“Guess we might as well then.” Lanith nodded to the pilot who veered the skiff towards… whatever it was.
“Uh, boss, what is this?” one of the men asked.
Lanith frowned as he surveyed the wreckage. He was beginning to like this planet less and less. “Looks like a downed TIE.”
Dante shook his head. “Can’t be. The wing shape is all wrong, the cockpit too long. This isn’t any model I know of.”
“Whatever it is, this happened recently. Six months, maybe.”
Again Dante studied the downed craft. It was still in pretty good shape, all things considering. Mostly intact. Well, besides a wing. Someone had landed it, he thought, as well as they could. It was a miracle that a fighter so fragile had touched down so well at all. Circling around, he found the hatch open. “Whoever flew this was one heck of a pilot and still alive when he landed,” he announced, peering into the cockpit.
I've got a bad feeling about this.
It was a TIE all right, but not like any Dante had seen. He paused at the threshold of the hatch, gritting his teeth. I shouldn’t. Remember what happened the last time I went into a crashed pod? I’d be stupid to go poking around in something like this again. Just walk away and get in the speeder. Dante crawled into the TIE.
“Anything in there still work?” called one of his teammates.
The shattered controls gave a quick answer. Ignoring them, Dante searched for the computer core. At least some of it should be intact. “No,” he said, exiting the fighter with a little black cylinder in his hand. “But this might.”
Dante sat in his crude chair, the thick black cylinder held securely in his lap. A bad feeling was creeping over him, starting with wary sensation that tingled at his nerves. He kept glancing over his shoulder, almost expecting to see... something. Something bad. He wasn't even sure what. He wasn't even sure what it was he had clasped in his hands. Yes, a simple memory cache, but he had to way of knowing what it held, or even if it had anything recorded at all. For all he knew the circuits could be fried and the whole thing a worthless scrap of wires and metal. But even so the feeling kept coming. Nagging. Insistent. And it was growing. It made its way to the back of his throat, crawled down his neck and settled in the pit of his stomach, where it seemed to sprout and bloom into a sickening dread. He wanted to not be there. He wanted to fling the computer core as far as he could through and leave this planet forever. But instead he sat there, the building emotions masked behind a stoic face. Besides, who knew? Fortune might be on his side this time.
Not likely, he thought.
The Grom at his side eyed the core warily, all three eyes shifting on their stalks. "You sure it's a good idea to bring that with us?"
"No," Dante replied.
This did not seem to comfort the alien. "I don't like messin' with Imperial crap, especially not their military stuff. I say we just leave it and all forget about it."
Several of the passengers voiced their agreement, Dante among them. It was good to know he was not alone in his misgivings. There hadn't been any sign of the animals that attacked them coming back, if they just turned around it wouldn't take more than...
"That's for captain to decide, not us," barked Lanith. "We've needed a good break for a while, and it won't hurt just seeing what's on that thing."
Dante dropped his eyes and turned the cylinder in his hands.
For your sake, I hope you're right.
Several sharp pops punctuated the otherwise silent ride into town, making Stephen cringe as Zealos twisted to the side, getting the last kinks out of his back. Stephen looked at his younger brother in disgust.
“Could you not do that while I’m . . . Ever?!”
Zealos twisted his head to get one last crack out of his neck.
“Watch the road.”
Zealos reclined in his seat and sighed with relief. Cali poked her head out from the back of the speeder.
“Yes, much better. So wha’d Lucrecia give you?”
Cali produced the data pad.
“Just some stuff she wants picked up in town. Groceries and the like.”
“Graft for letting you go into town,” Stephen mused, “Still, not too hefty a bribe for a day pass in town, heya?”
Zealos glanced sideways at his brother.
“That depends on whether or not Cold Water’s gotten any more exciting since I left.”
“Not so much.” Steve conceded.
“So what is there to do in town?”
“The theaters still running, but McAllister’s closed down.”
Reil tried to wrap his head around that.
“The bar shut down? Why would anyone shut down the bar? Drinking’s all there is to do in this place.”
“Health code violations tend to keep people away. A vrelt the size of a small dog was seen in the kitchen, and the health inspectors swooped down from Panath to close the place. A new pub opened up though, The Morose Seagull.”
“Who the hell names their bar the sad bird?”
“ When you’re the only bar in town, you can call yourself whatever you want. It’s got good music though, sometimes bands pass through on their way to Panath.”
Reil grunted in response, having lost interest.
“We should pick up mom’s stuff first; the matinee’s won’t start for hours, and after the pub, we won’t be in any shape to do it. . .”
What d’ya mean it’s closed?”
“Stores dark, and the door’s locked. They are certifiably not open.”
“It’s 10 am in the middle of the week! How can it be closed?”
Steve pointed behind him.
“They posted a sign.”
Reil looked at the shop window. In big, bold letters it read:
COLD WATER GENERAL STORE
regular hours may vary
Reil felt an aneurism approach, and began massaging his temples.
“Regular hours may vary? Of all the inbred, half assed, rim-kin, brainless ideas. . .”
Steve looked at the sign again.
“It’s entirely possible they don’t understand what regular means; in the strictest sense of the diction.”
“The diction can lick a decomposing dewback! I’m not concerned with the owners literacy, when I’m being confronted by his clear inability to run a general store! “
Cali jumped off the hood of the speeder.
“Forget it. Let’s just go to another store.”
Steve shook his head.
“I’m afraid there is no other store. I’d call Cold Water a one horse town, but it tripped last week, and we had to put it down. . . Where are you going?”
Reil didn’t bother answering, as he made his way around back. There was silence for a moment, then a large crack as a door gave way, and then the front door opened, with Reil ushering them inside.
It had been the most bafflingly perfect thing Tam had ever heard. Tremayne had given him something, something precious, and something that no matter how much he had searched the galaxy he had been unable to find: an answer. Ever since he had been thrust into the galactic mainstream, Tam now realized, he'd been looking for some kind of idea—some truth—that would explain everything that had happened in his life. He'd even been willing to settle for comforting lies: Master Kenlan may not have been an actual Jedi, and at some level Tam had actually known this, but it had never bothered him.
Now, Tam wanted the truth. He wearied of the gray areas he had lived in up to now, of the lies and trickery others had used to manipulate him, and Tremayne had helped him realize that one day he would have the power to demand the truth from everyone.
"Y'know," said Jason, picking at the dry prisoner rations on his disposable plate, "it only took them one interrogation to realize they wouldn't be getting anything out of me. You and Fi, now, you've been in and out of there more times than I can count; you show promise. It's only a matter of time before they get something out of one or both of you..."
The man's words were the desperate justifications one tells oneself to stave off cabin fever and, if impressions in the Force were any indicator, feelings of inadequacy. More lies. Tam shut his ears to the babbling, as stoic as the guards standing in the corridor between them. He turned his attention instead to Fi's cell, currently empty. When she was present it was easy to forget about his incarceration; it was easy to look beyond the horrors he had experienced in life because she had experienced many of them as well. He could spend forever in his cell if it meant spending it with Fi.
"Dawncaller, to your feet!" The detention officer came to his door and unsealed it. This was the preamble for every session with Tremayne, and Tam complied. This time, however, they didn't lead him to his usual room. It was a smaller room this time, banked with lights and terminals save one wall, which was a pane of dark transparisteel. The guards sat him in a chair facing the viewport then stepped back to ensure he'd stay put. Moments later Tremayne entered the room.
"Tam, I bring you here so you will know this is no trick, and no subterfuge. What you will see is a lie that has been too long in resolving. You need only sit here and watch."
The High Inquisitor left the room and entered the one adjacent. Light washed through the viewport as the room came to life. Fi was laying on a comfortable couch, and sat up as the lights came on. "Disturbing my beauty sleep again... What is it, Tremayne?"
"Your time with us is almost at an end, Miss Shaku."
"Enough already! This has been going on long enough. I brought you Tam, and you promised payment, not this charade."
"I understand that your time in the detention block has been difficult, which is why your payment has been doubled and we've arranged for these ‘catnaps’ of yours." Tremayne moved across the room, brushing his fingers along the back of the couch. "What I don't understand is why you've treated the boy so well. Surely you could have secured him for me without the romantic gestures."
Fi shrugged and leaned back. "He'd been hoping for that kind of thing since I met him, and since I don't plan on seeing him again I figured I'd send him off with something to remember me by."
"You don't have any feelings for him, then?"
The woman's laughter rang in Tam's ears. Fiola Shaku, the woman he loved, had betrayed him to Tremayne for credits. On top of that, her love had been a lie. All of the hardships they'd experienced together, and she handed him over to Tremayne without the slightest compunction. Tam had been angry when the room’s lights had first come on; he feared Tremayne would have him watch his beloved tortured. But there was no hatred for Tremayne any more. The Imperial had only done what he'd promised: uncovered the truth. The last bastion of peace and sanity in Tam’s life had been swept away, and it was by her own deceit.
The tears that ran down Tam's cheeks threatened to boil away at the heat of his rage...
The dread never went away. He had pushed it to the back of his mind, but it still rotted in his gut. It lay dormant for most of the the nearly silent ride back to the Prospector as he went over and over the crash scene in his mind, trying to make sense of what it was. Then it came to him, a terrifying revelation. Once onboard a quick search on the holonet confirmed it and the fear returned. Not the kind of fear he had felt in his first life, the fear of utter failure, fear of losing a patient, even fear for his own life. This fear had been taught to him as he watched his world fall apart piece by piece a few short months ago. It was the fear of understanding the enormous ramifications of what they had found in that TIE. But it wasn’t going to happen this time.
Dante’s head snapped up as a door opened, admitting several beings into the hallway. There he was, the man Dante needed to see now. He rose without delay.
“We need to speak. Now.”
Lanith seemed taken aback at the blunt demand. “And what is so important that it can’t wait-”
His words were cut off as Dante seized him by the collar of his garment and pulled him into a vacant room. His quarry growled indignantly and struggled against the human’s grip. “You let go now, Atiles, or I’m gonna-”
“Shut up and listen!” Dante barked with equal ferocity. “The core, where is it?” he demanded.
The alien scoffed. “Don’t tell me that you’ve gone spooked too.”
Fear began to smolder into anger. “Do you even know what that thing is?”
“I don’t have time for this,” said Lanith, his eyes rolling theatrically as he made to exit.
Something snapped. Some dam which had been strained past breaking finally gave way and raw emotion ran through Dante’s veins like hot fire. With violence that astonished him, Dante leapt in front of his foreman, forcing him back. “You have no idea what you’re dealing with!” he snarled in the alien’s face. “So sit down and let me explain it to you,” he added, generously aiding his boss’s descent into a nearby chair. “You think you can just take that data and put it for sale?”
“Dante, it’s a frelling TIE. NO ONE CARES about TIE’s. I think we’ll be fine.”
The human sucked in a deep breath. “If that was just some TIE, you’d be right.”
In an instant the Twi’Lek’s eyes were fixed on Dante, his expression suddenly quiet. “What are you saying?” he asked slowly.
“It’s like I said when we saw it,” Dante replied, his voice subdued, “the shape’s all wrong. The interior’s changed. I ran it on the holonet and didn’t find a thing that looked like it, even in the Rebel propaganda. She was custom made.”
Lanith blinked. “Which means… what?”
“Lanith, even the best pilots in the navy get standard issue TIE’s. Maybe one of the fancier models, but no one gets one built just for them.”
“I think you’re jumping to conclusions," Lanith retorted, eying his companion, "And how’ya know so much about TIE’s, anyway?”
Dante turned around, his back to the alien. “Because I’ve flown one.” Something between a cough and a hiccup sounded from behind him. He looked over his shoulder at an incredulous Lanith. “I was in the Academy, remember? What, you think it was like scout camp? Everyone is trained to perform all basic functions, across the board.”
Lanith considered that, an epiphany slowly dawning on him. The look on the alien’s face turned into shock. “That way, if someone dies…”
“There is someone to replace him. Everyone is expendable.”
This new information turned over in Lanith's brain and he sat still for a moment. Slowly he reached a black hand into his jacket and produced a bulky object. The memory core. He studied it, twisting it in his hands. “But this one wasn’t,” he muttered, meeting Dante’s eyes, who nodded gravely. “What does that mean for us?”
“Could mean anything," Dante said with a sigh. "It could all be worthless gibberish, or military secrets or just something the Empire doesn’t want people to know about. It’s a gamble, and one not worth losing. You ask me, we put it right back where we found it and blast it for good measure.”
“Can’t be done,” Lanith replied, shaking his head. “Captain already knows and called our boss. He wants it sold to the highest bidder and good old Soto won’t disobey. He’ll have my head if this goes ‘missing.’”
Dante smiled wryly. “Someone else might have all our heads if this goes bad.” He leaned in close, his voice lowered to a whisper. “The less people who know about this the better. We need to explain this to Soto. I still say we get rid of it; we have to hope we can persuade him.”
“And if we don’t, we’ll need a very quiet buyer. Some way it can’t be traced to us.”
Dante scratched at his beard. “I think I just might know who.”
This man is dangerous.
He'd done nothing threatening, but his poise and measured movements bespoke a person who commanded tremendous power. He'd joined Fiola here, in this cell she'd since been brought to, and now stood before her as she sat on the hard metal bench, fixed in place by his piercing gaze.
"I'm going to keep you here for the next day or so," the man told her. "Strictly routine, you understand. And then you'll be on your way."
"Thank you," Fi replied weakly, afraid to say the wrong thing.
"I wonder, Miss Shaku, if you know why you're here."
Fi thought carefully. There would be no joking around with this individual. "I guess... my name has popped up on your list of known Rebels?"
The man chuckled. "Rebels? My dear, do I look like a common Moff to you?"
Fi shuffled nervously on the metal slab. She wasn't sure what the man looked like, but he definitely hadn't come up through ordinary military channels.
"My time is precious, so I shall answer for you," the man smiled patiently. "It is regarding your 'friend', young master Tamander Dawncaller. I have him as well, you see."
Fi swallowed. So Tam is here.
"What are you going to do with him?" she asked, fearing the answer.
The man smiled again. "Oh, do not concern yourself with that. I can simply say that your part in the boy's tale is now... over."
There was something in the man's tone that told Fi he wasn't bluffing. She felt her will draining away. "How..." she began, "how did you find him?"
The man's eyes lit up. "Well, it was no easy task, to be sure. In all honesty, I'm not sure we could ever have gotten him without... your help."
Fi looked up at the man, confused.
"You are, no doubt, aware of master Dawncaller's extraordinary abilities? Oh, come now," he chided, "do not insult me with that baffled expression. You've seen young Tam come to your rescue time and again, over great distances, even when worlds apart. You would call this 'luck'?"
Fi looked down at the cold metal floor, not wanting to hear any more... knowing she was going to.
"There is," the man went on, "despite what the cynics might tell you, a science to such superstitions. A measurable science, in the case of your darling Tam. And where you're concerned, the boy creates... detectable phenomena.
"Now, this was not easily tracked, when both of you were on the run over the last few months. But eventually, Miss Shaku, you had the good graces to take up permanent, ongoing employment at Mull Station, where one of our informants was able to identify and report you. With that done, we had only to wait for your young, valiant 'knight' to arrive. And so, I really must thank you."
Fi felt her shoulders begin to shake.
"Without your gracious assistance, I might never have caught and contained the boy. Now he is mine... and your work is done."
The man folded his arms before him, smiling amiably.
"But I just want you to know - it is important to me that you understand - that everything that is going to happen to young Tam Dawncaller is your fault. You are entirely to blame."
Fi felt a lump burning in her throat, but the anticipated tears didn't come. She just felt dry. Dry, and done. She stared through red-rimmed eyes at the man's back as he turned to go.
"I hate you," she wheezed.
High Inquisitor Tremayne paused in the cell's open doorway, turning around to face the girl. He met her stare with his own, and smiled sympathetically.
Being dead had several advantages. Debts, taxes, awkward relationships, they all tended to go away post mortem. Undesirable people stopped looking for you and even began to forget why they wanted with you in the first place. All in all it had seemed a pretty good deal, considering the circumstances the man now called Dante had found himself in.
On the other hand, death had some less-attractive consequences, like the loss of any properties or assets tried to your name, or a loss of any employment benefits, not that any of those had been much of an issue anyway. What did matter a little more was the fact that when you are dead, it requires some efforts to remain dead. Any contact with something or someone which remembers you not only is a little awkward to explain but quickly reveals that you are not, in face, deceased. And once someone finds out that you aren’t quite as dead as they had been lead to believe word can spread very quickly. This, of course, severely limits the number contacts in your social network, usually down to a nice round ‘zero.’
Fortunately for Dante, that number was slightly higher.
He sat in a small room lined with flashing consoles, inputting a secured line through the ship’s comm system. This was the only room on the ship where calls would not be recorded, Lanith had said. His outgoing line set, Dante licked his lips and waited for a response.
He only had to wait a few minutes. The screen flickered to life, projecting the image of a familiar face.
“Ahh, me boy! Thought I wa’ goin’ haf mad when I see'd yer call. What can I be a-doin’ fer ya?”
“Hello Captain,” Dante began, a broad smile creeping over his face.
Rubbing his eyes, Bear made his way through the small vessel’s hallways, a steaming cup of caf in one hand and a datapad in the other. Captain Soto had called him up an hour early to put in some calls for him for some reason or another. “Just hope I get off an hour early too,” he muttered.
Rounding the last corner to the communications room, he frowned as the door did not slide open. He blinked the last of his sleep from his eyes and looked at the immobile door. The panel displayed that the room was occupied. And locked. His frown deepened. Who would bother locking this room?
Unless he was up to no good.
He paged the room twice and listened intently. There seemed to be some scrambling on the other side of the door, and a conversation which hastily ended. He paged once more, the door opened, and out stepped…
“Oh… hi Bear. I’m, uh, I gotta go now,” Dante fumbled. He pushed Bear and retreated into the hallway. “I’ll see you at lunch!”
On the bridge of the Dawncaller, Beetee-Seven winked to life and buzzed a general greeting to his immediate surroundings. At Fi's urging, the droid had shut down to recharge as their ship was being brought aboard the Interrogator. Now reinvigorated, he was anxious to be off home to Mull Station, where sentients would dance to his many rhythms, and coloured lights would reflect handsomely off his chrome casing.
The bridge was vacant. No Fi. The thirty-centimeter globe raised himself up off the dashboard, retracting his short tripod legs as he did so, and floated toward the aft sections of the ship.
Lounge section, equally empty, and mostly dark. Cargo bay? Beat flew quietly inside.
Mostly dark also, but light enough to see that there was nobody here, either. Beat studied his reflection in the floor-to-ceiling mirror that ran the length of one of the bay's walls, and was dissatisfied. Pushing his repulsors, he raised himself up another couple of inches. Better.
Down the boarding ramp, then, and into the hangar bay. Some technicians. A couple troops. A TIE with a missing wing. No Fi.
Beat selected a corridor at random, and floated up it. A sprinkling of troopers, technicians, officers, a hemispherical demolition droid complaining of boredom. Beat beeped a binary condolence, and floated on.
Corners, turbolifts, grey, grey walls. Another corner.
Up ahead, with a couple stormtroopers politely escorting her. Beat flew up to her and buzzed a happy greeting.
Fi glared at him distrustfully, then looked sideways at one of her trooper escorts. "Something wrong with your droid?"
Beat buzzed another greeting, floated up and down a little, and emitted the first few bars of accompaniment to 'Sugar Heat', one of his master's old songs.
"Out of my way, droid," Fi growled, dodging to get past. Beat silenced himself and followed, flying a couple rings around the girl.
"I said OFF!" Fi shouted, her face turning into a nightmare alien mask. Beat backed up in horror, but not quickly enough to avoid being hit squarely by one of the creature's swinging fists. He hit the floor clumsily, momentarily disengaging his repulsor and staring up in confusion as the alien face above him turned quickly back into that of his master. The woman walked on.
"Take yourself down to maintenance, little clanker," one of the troopers snorted rudely, he and his fellow trotting up the hall to rejoin their charge.
Beat floated up into the air once more, beeped in confusion, and continued on up the corridor.
Cali grinned mischievously as she entered the store’s darkened interior.
“You know, you like to rag on me for being the criminal, but when trouble comes up, you’re the first one to break the rules and steal what’s needed.”
“This ain’t stealing. It’s barely even criminal. Trespassing is a misdemeanour offence at worst.” Reil scoffed.
“This is breaking and entering, actually” Steve remarked as he closed the front door behind him, “And soon after, when we take the goods, it will upgrade to full scale burglary. Cali’s got the right of it, this is stealing. Though I suspect she doesn’t actually have a problem with that.”
“You do though, doncha?”
“You may be fond of arrests and incarceration, that’s your business. I, on the other hand, actually have a job, and enjoy being a productive member of society. Also, I’m too pretty for jail.”
“Well you can stop worrying your pretty self about it, ‘cause we’re paying for our goods.”
Cali reacted as though she’d been stung.
“ ‘Cause I don’t actually like being arrested either. We’re the subject of one major investigation already, and I have no desire to be part of another. ‘Sides, this stuff is for my mom, I don’t honestly think I could look her in the eye and hand her stolen goods. It’d be weird.”
“Fine”, she sighed and took out the datapad that contained Lucrecia’s grocery list. “I’ll pick these up I guess, you two keep a look out.”
When she got back, Steve was keeping watch, but Reil was nowhere to be seen.
“Said he needed to pick a few things up for himself, and went up stairs. Should be along shortly.” Steve said, anticipating Cali’s question.
There was silence as they both waited around for Zealos. This lasted for barely a minute, before Cali got bored.
“Sooo. . .”
Steve looked at her.
“How come Zealos talks with a bigger accent than you, and why don’t your folks have one at all?”
“You noticed that, did you? Well my accent is actually local to region, which is more than can be said for Zealos or our parents. Zealos left home pretty early, and spent a couple of years with the river folk. I guess he picked it up there. Sounds just like one of them though, if I didn’t know he was my brother, I’d assume he was just another river driver.”
“As for our parents, Virgil wasn’t advancing with his career the way he thought he should, and he blamed it on our folksy accent; didn’t think people could take him seriously with it. So we all had to take elocution lessons, and learn to speak like we fled the core. Virgil and Lucrecia were the only ones to take it really seriously though, so me and Zealos always sounded like a couple of country bumpkins whenever guests came over.”
“Embarrassed the hell outta’em at some of mom’s gallery things too.” Zealos added as he brought over two heavy coats, and pairs of gloves.
Cali looked at Reil’s haul with bewilderment.
“What the hell is this?”
“Coats.” Reil replied as he tossed her the smaller one. “Try it on, I wanna make sure it fits before we go.”
“Are you mental? It’s a thousand degree’s out there!”
“Look, just trust me, okay? Taanab ain’t like Tatooine, where the climate is pretty static. The weather is gonna change real quick in a couple of days, and we won’t be traveling in luxury. You’re gonna need that.”
Steve nodded in agreement.
“He’s right, this place is much more. . . variable than any world you’ve ever been on, I garuntee it.”
Cali raised an eyebrow.
“Is this some kind of joke? You’re an agricultural planet, you can’t have variable temperatures or your crops would fail. . .”
“Just try the damn thing on so we can leave!”
“Fine. . . It fits. Can I assume that since the coats are for us, we can at least steal them?”
Steve looked to Reil for help.
“What is it with this child and petty larceny?”
Reil shook his head.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you. . .” He turn to Cali. “No, we are not stealing it.”
Cali remained adamant.
“Why the frell not?”
“I’ve got no notion to argue this with you, we’ve got the money, we can afford to pay for what we take.”
“For how long? We’ve been burning through the cash like crazy since we struck out, if this keeps up, we won’t have enough to get off this stupid mudball!”
“I’ll worry about transport, you just do as your told for now.”
“Bantha poodo! I stole that money in the first place, you’ve got no right to boss me around and tell me how to spend my coin!”
“And pray tell me, where would you and your coin be without me? Dead, in some damn sewer on Ryloth, being snacked on by that the lizard thing. Or back on Tatooine, being kicked around by your master! Normally I wouldn’t care how you spent your money, but the fact is that you don’t want to spend any of it, and instead just want steal everything in arms reach!”
“Frak you! You talk all big, but you’re an outlaw too. If it wasn’t for me, the imperials would have picked you off the street! How exactly does being a wanted criminal give you the moral upper hand?”
“I’m not taking the moral high ground, I’m being practical! People don’t actually liked to be robed, so paying for all of this makes us a helluva lot less conspicuous as we attend to business here.”
“Fine, I’m sick of arguing about it anyhow. If we pay for this though, you’ve gotta figure a way to actually bring some money into the fold though. I don’t care how you do it, but it’s gotta be soon.”
“Deal. We’ll have work and be off this rock by the end of the wee-”
The rest of Reil’s sentence was cut off by the sound of flechette rifle cocking. The shopkeeper had been alerted to the break in by the arguing, and now held the three intruders under the barrel of his weapon.
Stephen grew very pale but tried to keep himself composed.
“Ummm. . . Hello.”
The store owner, a hulking mountain of a man with a very small head pointed the gun at Stephen.
“What the frell is this?”
“Shopping.” Zealos offered.
The owner switched targets once again.
“Looks a lot more like stealing to me.” He grunted.
“It does? Well that’s discouraging. I can assure you, we were planning on paying for everything. We just didn’t have the time to wait for you to figure out how to run a proper business.”
Stephen glared at his younger brother, but didn’t actually speak, for fear of the gun being pointed at him again. The store owner grinned dimly, and nodded to indicate the back door behind him, which was only hanging on to the frame by one hinge.
“And the door, you were gonna pay fer that too?”
Zealos paused, and thought about how to answer that.
“Nooo, actually, I was gonna let you twist for that one.”
The owners grin widened.
“Yer an honest fellar’ for a thief and a liar. Hey, weren’t there three of yous?”
Zealous didn’t say anything in response. There was a tense moment of silence as, and then Stephen noticed that Cali had slipped away down one of the aisles, and was looping around behind the shopkeeper with her weapon drawn. She knocked over a can of something though, and when it hit the ground, the owner turned to face the sound with grace and reflexes not normally found in a man so large. He caught Cali in his sights, and then Stephen’s view was obscured by a bright blue flash and the whine of a blaster pistol.
Zealos stood over the unconscious body of the store owner, with his pistol still smoking from the shot.
“You know, it wouldn’ta come to this if you’d just done as I’d told you without any lip.”
“Wouldn’ta happened either, if you’d just taken the goods like I said. Anyhow, it all worked out just fine.” Cali started collecting the goods, to take outside to Steve’s speeder.
“Yeah, I guess.” Reil took a step back, aimed, and stunned the shop keeper again for good measure.
Steve managed to collect himself enough to blurt out what was on his mind.
“YOU SHOT HIM!”
Reil tilted his head and looked at his brother with concern.
“And. . ?”
“You shot him twice!”
“ I stunned him. And he’s a big guy, so I’m just being prudent. ‘Sides, it didn’t seem to me like you enjoyed looking at the end of his gun, so what are you complaining about?”
Stephen tried to put into words what was wrong and worth complaining about, but he really couldn’t. Instead he hurried towards the door.
“Fine just leave the money and let’s get out of here.”
“Ehhh. . .” Reil hesitated.
“Well the whole point of not stealing the groceries was so we didn’t attract any attention. Now that it came to this, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of reason to pay now. . .”
"Where are you taking me?" Fi asked flatly.
"I told you," replied High Inquisitor Tremayne, returned after having left Fi in her cell for a time, "you may go now. But first, a small detour. I'm sure you don't mind."
Fi barely heard him, barely noticed the pair of white-armoured stormtroopers who marched along behind her. Her thoughts stayed only with Tam. Tam, the young man she loved. Tam, who she'd unknowingly doomed to a lifetime of Imperial incarceration and interrogation. Tam, whose life she'd ruined.
"Here we are."
A door hissed open, and Fi numbly followed Tremayne inside. It was a medical bay, large and well-equipped, its staff absent.
"Why am I here," Fi muttered.
Tremayne smiled patiently. "Just a little further, if you please."
The Inquisitor strode further into the large chamber, coming to rest beside another door. "It pains me," he explained, "to think of you troubling your little heart over your imprisoned friend's future. In the interest of decency, I thought a little closure was in order."
The door slid open, revealing another chamber beyond, lit with dim blue light. Fi slowly entered the room, her flesh breaking out in goosebumps as the temperature dropped dramatically. Her breath floating in wispy clouds of vapour around her, she studied the room. It was largely empty, with a bank of large drawers covering the entire far wall. One of these drawers was open, the metal slab within pulled outward.
A body rested upon it. A body she knew.
"Tam..." Fi croaked, stepping forward in horror. She took the boy's hand, felt its coldness. Its lack of any reaction. "Tam..."
"The boy's resistance to my interrogation techniques was not as strong as I had hoped," the Inquisitor explained. "Unfortunate, really. I had so looked forward to exploring his secrets. Alas," he sighed, "I suppose that will be up to the surgeons, now."
Fi released Tam's hand, slid to the cold metal floor. "Tam..."
Tremayne cleared his throat. "Guards," he commanded, "escort our guest to her ship. She is free to leave."