Star Wars - In Search of the Black Wing

Still Undefeated on Ord Mantell: the Diary of Van Elendis, Pt. 12

Blaster fights in gold lamé tops don't happen often.  For one thing, it's hard to wear body armor under them.  But every now and then life imitates a HoloNet action show and you find yourself trading shots with rent-a-goons while running after your crewmate who is dressed like a Mantellian showgirl.  This just happened to be one of those times.

* * *

As was our deal, the Herglic Ilo Vanden had given us a name – Michael Torval.  Evidently the guy was something of a local celebrity on the sabacc circuit: handsome, mysterious and a sharp card player.  Actually, sounds a lot like someone I know.  But more importantly for our purposes, it appeared Torval was the latest arm candy of our target the Pirate Queen.  Which meant he either knew how to get to her, or that he might be useful to us as bait.  So he was a guy we needed to meet.

Vanden had given us a recording of a conversation between the Queen and one of her henchmen.  And it wasn't favorable to our soon-to-be-best-friend Torval.  In fact, the Queen expressed only a passing interest in the gambler and said she would cut him out of the picture as soon as she got bored.  Loose lips sink pirate ships and all that.  

We all agreed that if we could get Torval to listen to us, the news that his lady friend was just fine with killing him might make him willing to talk.  The problem was, a Pirate Queen's playboy consort is a bit difficult to "just run into."  But being resourceful folks, we weren't going to let that stop us.

Krom had been full of surprises lately.  He was always was a Jedi at keeping the Valencia in top shape and I've seen him work some damage control miracles while I was spinning the ship like a drunken Gamorrean in the middle of a dogfight, but he'd been spending more and more time in the crew mess plugging away at his Versafunction88.  I didn't understand half of it, but he said he was coding some new dataspikes, remote access protocols, and customized search routines "just in case."  

Turns out those geek tools come in pretty handy in tracking down celebrity gamblers, because before long my Mirialan friend had Torval's recent holo, home address, ship registry and the fact that he had purchased a private box to see a fight at the Loaded Savrip tomorrow evening.  From the holos we saw that he never went anywhere without at least one handler/bodyguard.  But a few bodyguards was surmountable. That was enough to get to work.  

We sat around the dejarik table with a cup of steaming caf to come up with the framework of a plan.  Since we knew where Torval lived, Zero suggested it made sense to try and get eyes and ears in his place.  And we knew where he would be tomorrow night, so I thought that gave us the best chance to convince him to have a "private chat" with us so we could make our case.  So we decided to split up and get a few of the tools we would need.

Keena and I were on shopping detail.  We thought our Toydarian Zann Consortium contact would be a good start, but the guy confirmed my suspicion that he wasn't a real player in the underworld scene by demanding crazy credits and all sorts of favors.  I'm sure the screechy alien was just trying to cover up the fact he couldn't deliver on some pretty straightforward goods.  So we walked and found an alternate seller, a silver-eyed Rodian dealer who still stunk of jungle.  But he had what we needed so we made the buy and headed back to the ship.

Part one of the plan was for Krom and Zero to play havoc with the climate system in Torval's flat and then go in as a maintenance crew to fix it.  Only problem was that Krom had to be onsite to slice his way into the environmental controls.  Apparently it didn't go well, since they ran into the building's real maintenance team and got chased off.  That's what happens when you let a flight engineer and a bounty hunter go out unsupervised.  I love those guys, but there's not much subtlety there.

And then, apparently, they decided to double down.  On their way back to our rented van, they saw Torval and his no-neck handler getting into a personal speeder.  On a whim, they followed him to an upscale Alderaanian cafe, the kind that usually makes Trandoshans use the back door.  And our guys were still wearing Enviro-Repair jumpsuits that had their (bogus) given names over the pocket.  They tried to bluff their way past the maitre d', which I wish I could've seen live.  I mean, Zero has all the charm of a thermal detonator and Krom couldn't lie convincingly to an astromech droid wearing a restraining bolt.  

But the way Krom told it they somehow got into the main dining area.  Torval was eating some overpriced food and tapping absorbedly at his datapad while his bodyguard kept a sharp eye out.  So they went with the old Loud/Quiet approach and at least Zero had the sense to be Loud.  He made a big show about being a fan of Torval's and certainly got the bodyguard's attention (Trandoshans can do that) while Krom tried to sidle around and drop a tracker in the gambler's pocket.  

It didn't work.  You don't get a reputation as a successful sabacc player without being observant, and Torval lived up to his reputation.  Krom muttered something about the food looking good (which, for him, was a pretty decent lie) while the bodyguard backed his charge up and got into a combat crouch.  The maitre d' also jumped in at this point, sceaming at Zero and Krom to get out while Torval and his handler made a laser line for the door.  So after two periods, a complete null on the grav ball court.  Time for charm and beauty to have a go (and Keena, too.)

* * *

Since we knew Torval would be at the fight later on, we figured it would be a good chance to get close to him.  Keena would go in as a waitress (I think she even suggested it – go figure) with a nice legit staff ID courtesy of Krom's slicing work.  I just needed to find my own way of getting close.  I headed back to the Loaded Savrip to have a chat with my promoter pal Jyd Renner. 

The place was empty this early in the day, but the cleaning droid let me in once I asked for Jyd.  I found him on the floor and made a big show of wanting to get a seat next to Torval.  No luck – turns out the guy always sat in a private box with his bodyguard.  And the security at the Savrip was evidently a bit better than I had seen from the ring – each box had a personal force field to keep out the riffraff.  But at least I knew which box was likely Torval's, got a good feel for the layout of the place and the exits, and sent a few holos of the waitress uniforms back to the crew.

I headed back to the Val to go over our final plans.  Everyone else had been busy as well – Zero had rented a new nondescript speeder van and a room at an even more nondescript motel we could use as a safe house.  Krom had pulled on an on-site slice at the Savrip to forge me a ticket to Torval's very own box, and even managed to grab a waitress uniform for Keena.  I had to suppress a grin since it was a few sizes too small – Krom's got a 14-year-old's sense of humor, sometimes.

* * * 

As the evening of the fight approached, we loaded up our rental speeder with our heavy weapons and then Keena, Krom and I dug into our disguise kit to ugly up a bit.  I thought we were pretty unrecognizable, but since Torval had gotten a good look at him we thought it best if Krom stayed in the employee areas.  We didn't bother with Zero - he was our designated driver for the evening and as he kept telling us "Trandoshans don't wear wigs."  

Zero dropped us off a few blocks from the Savrip, Keena in her waitress getup, Krom in a forgettable utility jumpsuit and me in my best "upscale boxing fan" vest over my armored clothing.  Since I wasn't sure how far my forged ticket would get me, I decided I'd go straight to the box.  Keena had a few doses of a potent Mickey Finn (courtesy of our shopping trip) and went through the staff entrance with her sliced ID.  And Krom went off to whatever maintenance closet he found earlier.  

The first two bouts were forgettable, although by the second the crowd had started filling in a bit.  Keena had firmly established herself as the waitress for this box, and I was trying my best to go slow on the Green Galaxies.  And then Krom came over the commlink that Torval was on the floor and it was game time.  

It took him a while to make his way up to the box, and when the door opened I saw it was just him and the one minder.  He motioned over to someone outside the door – probably the usher to complain about his private box being a bit crowded  and I knew it was time to go full snob.  I waved my (forged) ticket in his face and told him to get out of my box - until I "suddenly" recognized him as Michael Torval.  And of course, I was such a fan.  The usher spent a little while looking over my ticket, and although I'm pretty sure his datapad wasn't giving him the A-OK, I kept up just enough of an indignant I-have-every-right-to-be-here air that he finally gave up.  Either that or Torval didn't want to miss the main event so he just told the guy to let me stay.  Regardless, I was in the room.  Check.

Just on cue, Keena came in and took our drink orders, making small talk like she knew I was supposed to be there.  I gave her the nod to make sure our new friend would get an extra special ingredient in his Trandoshan ale.  Good to know we didn't have to worry about him tasting anything since that ale could take the paint of a speeder.  Weird choice for a professional gambler.  I tried chatting Torval up a bit, but the bodyguard sitting between us didn't make for a nice, private conversation.  So we were back to Plan A, which was a snatch and grab.  

By the third round, the challenger was on the ropes down in the ring, and Torval was talking up a storm as the Mickey Finn did its work.  Despite the fact he had only finished half his ale, the gambler was swaying unsteadily like he was on his eighth.  Down in the ring, the odds-on-favorite pummeled his opponent with a brutal series of right hooks, dropping him too the mat and then it was all over.  Up in the box, Torval was all smiles and high-fives and talking about how I was just the best friend a guy could have.  Then the minder must've realized the boss was blasted and started leading him towards the door.  Showtime.

I comm'ed the crew to be ready to move quickly and followed Torval and his babysitter out of the box to the top of the stairs down to the lower level.  The bodyguard had his arm around Torval's shoulder to help steady him, and I saw Keena had come up on the other side, a step or two behind him.  I pulled my Imperial Army Scout blaster out of its concealment holster in the small of my back and put the barrel right to the back of the bodyguard's neck before triggering the stun bolt.  He dropped like he'd been roundhoused by the guy we had just seen in the ring.

I hoped that the close proximity might have kept the crowd from noticing the stun bolt, but luck wasn't with us and a few shouts of alarm went up.  Torval's was one of them as Keena deftly looped her arm around him on the right, while I did the same thing on the left, steering our prize towards the exit.  He was pretty well drugged, but not out of it so much he didn't realize he was in trouble, so after the first few cries for help I put a stun bolt into his neck as well.  That ended the struggling, but now the surrounding crowd was fully panicked.

We saw Krom just up ahead, gesturing us into a less-crowded side passage.  I remembered from my earlier reconnaissance that it was a staff corridor that led towards the cargo dock so we maneuvered Torval's limp form through the door and comm'ed Zero to be ready to move with a sense of urgency.  We were making good time when we came around a corner and ran into a squad of security monkeys.  Well, you can't have a game without some opposition.

The rental cops weren't quiet sure what to make of us yet, so I wanted to give them the right idea and yelled at them to get over and help us get our friend to an ambulance.  It was just our tough luck that one of them thought he was Hetwica Turnblast, M.D. and ran over to do CPR on our kidnap victim, while his partner pulled out his commlink.  The other two, obviously being smarter, kept a distance away and a hand on their blaster pistols.  But at least the odds were better.

I gave Krom my most bloodthirsty grin and he dropped the commlink guard with a rabbit punch to the back of the skull while I skinned my holdout blaster.  The skeptical guards might have had a higher IQ than their colleagues, but the filed sight and hair-trigger Krom had installed let me get the drop on them just the same.  A couple quick shots and one was down and the other was trying his best to shake off a glancing stun bolt.  Keena went over and gave him a solid punch to the stomach, knocking him back but not taking him out of the fight.  

The wannabe medical tech decided that discretion was the better part of valor and grabbed the commlink from the ground before making a dash for some storage containers, screaming into the mic for backup.  Krom took my spot carrying Torval's still unconscious form while I stunned the guard who was still next to us and tossed his blaster pistol to Keena.  Off we went towards the loading dock and (hopefully) our getaway driver.  

I heard Zero over the 'link saying that he could hear sirens and that he was starting to attract attention.  We were almost at the loading doors, and Krom told him to get as close to us as possible.  Zero apparently took him literally.  As we got through the last doorway to the dock, a few more guards were waiting for us.  One had the bright idea to close the garage door, while the others took some poorly-aimed shots at us.  And then, BANG, as Zero revved the speeder van through the door and pulled a nifty little bootleg turn that sent two of the cops flying.  I mashed the door stop button while Krom manhandled Torval into the back before he and Keena slid into the passenger compartment.  

I barely managed to jump into the copilot's seat before Zero mashed the accelerator full forward.  The sirens weren't just for show, because within a few seconds we had a police speeder right on our six, green and yellow lights flashing.  Keena and Krom had recovered their blasters and leaned out the side windows to "deter pursuit" while Zero spun the wheel like a maniac.  My crewmates were handling fire control, so I concentrated on trying to navigate the speeder van through alleys it wasn't designed to traverse on the theory that the cops would have an even rougher time.

For as old and big as he is, Zero is a decent driver, and I was thankful the g-belts seemed to be holding as he whipped the speeder back and forth.  The others were blasting anything on the street that might slow down the cops, and managed to sever a light pole with a great shot, dropping it right across the road.  I had a brief glimpse of the police driver trying to avoid the durasteel beam and then heard the crunch of impact.  A few seconds later and the sirens died down.

* * * 

Zero got us to the safe house after a few more twists and turns and then drove off to ditch the rental.  We carried Torval's unconscious body upstairs and made him comfortable in one of the threadbare chairs, binders on his hands and feet and some shipboard tape over his mouth.  A few minutes later, Zero came in and we got to business - a couple of slaps to the face to wake our guest up. 

I'll give the guy credit.  He looked scared, but not overly so, considering he was bound hand and foot and had four armed kidnappers staring at him – one of which was a Dug-ugly Trandoshan.  We went at him hard, but gave him the real story.  Namely that his pirate girlfriend didn't seem to care much if met an unfortunate end in the near future, and that she had another friend who was urging her to make it even nearer.  We played the recording for him to reinforce our point.  He didn't react much until we asked him who the other voice was – the one Keena told us was some lobotomized Twi'lek she had a dream about.  Turns out her name was Real, and she was unsurprisingly a big deal in the Sorority.  And very, very bad news, according to Torval.  The guy literally paled when he heard her voice, which we hadn't been able to do with a few smacks and a lot of intimidating looks.

The hard route wasn't getting much other than making Zero and I angry, so he and Krom and I regrouped in the other room (actually the fresher – this was a crappy dive hotel) to let Keena play good cop for a while.  There seemed to be some sort of spark between her and the gambler early on so we figured we could take advantage of it.  They talked for a little while before the rest of us came back in, and I could see that he was a bit more talkative.

He claimed that all he wanted to do was get offplanet and far away.  He gave us a few details we didn't know about the Pirate Queen – namely that she had some sort of hideout here on Ord Mantell and that she was calling the shots in their relationship.  We got the rundown on the hideout – underground, with an entrance in an industrial park and another one near the shipyards, the possibility of Savrip bodyguard, and the guarantee of a bunch of piratical types – but not much else despite some stern looks from Zero.  

I thought it would be cleaner for us if Mr. Torval "met with an accident" but I could tell that Krom and Keena weren't with me on that line.  So instead I told the high-roller we'd cut him loose if he beat me in a hand of sabacc.  I wanted to see how good he was, and he didn't have much else to gamble with since I'd already cleaned out his wallet.  

Turns out he's pretty good.  I mean, he beat me.  And that doesn't happen much.

We thought our safehouse was pretty off the radar, but no need to tempt fate.  So we grabbed a taxi back to the Valencia to consider our next move against the Queen.  

 

 

 

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Undefeated on Ord Mantell : The Diary of Van Elendis, Pt. 11

I've always preferred to do my fighting from the cockpit or with a heavy blaster in hand.  Less chance of losing my pearly whites that way.  But that doesn't mean I'm helpless in hand fighting.  The Academy was big into the whole "martial arts drives discipline" mentality and there were quite a few of us that needed the discipline.  That part didn't take for me (obviously), but the martial arts part I've retained well enough.  Besides, I had two burly, farm-raised older brothers and a smart mouth.  Necessity breeds familiarity.  

Our contact Venlana told us the Zann Consortium wasn't real happy about us bringing in the imposter Pirate Queen.  And in return, I wasn't real happy about her blasting the only living Sorority member who might've given us some leads.  But she must've realized that was on her, because instead of blasting us the same way or sending us off to scour the galaxy, she had us sit tight for a few days while the Consortium's spies beat the bushes.  I managed to win a few hands of sabacc against Krom during the downtime, which almost never happens.  It's hard to beat a guy who can count cards like he does.  

The spies came through with a place to start – Ord Mantell.  Krom and I had visited a few times, mostly ferrying hopeful moneyed passengers to the casinos and far-less-wealthy ones back out the Rim.  I liked the place.  Just the right combination of sleaze, credits, working girls, and bartenders who knew their way around a Green Galaxy (i.e. just the right amount of Corellian brandy).  And most importantly, not a jungle to be found on the planet.  

  *

Port control got us routed quickly to docking bay 45.  The faux-neon lights from the the casinos lining the Path of Coins were bright enough to cause the Val's viewscreen to auto-dim on final approach.  And I swore I could just make out the columned facade of the Casino Royale before I touched the Valencia down on the ferrocrete.  That place certainly brought back memories.  I hoped that they still didn't have Krom and my holos up on the wallscreen with a "detain on sight" warning.  Probably not, but I still made a mental note to give the Royale a wide berth.

The ramp servos whined sharply and then quieted as we walked through the dense white mist of the decontamination sprayers looking for our Zann contact.  Didn't take long, since he was flapping his mottled, blue-green wings impatiently not far from the ship.  Jander, the Toydarian called himself.  He let it be known that he wasn't much impressed with us, and the feeling was certainly mutual.  Especially after he took us to this "great place for a chat and a drink" that turned out to be a below-average spaceport dive bar. A long way from the VIP room back at the Paradise.  

Jander had a lead for us, but it was thin.  The lead came in the form of a Herglic gambler-turned-casino owner named Ilo Vanden.  The Herglic apparently wanted a favor, and in return he was willing to give us the name of someone close to the Pirate Queen.  Hopefully the real Pirate Queen this go around.  Like I said, it was thin but we didn't have much else to go on so we decided to check it out.  If it turned out to be a bum lead at least the Consortium couldn't blame us for not trying.

We weren't in a huge rush and I'm a fan of knowing as much as we can about the potential marks we run into, so Krom pulled out his slicing gear and poked around a bit.  What he got from local data feeds matched with what the Consortium was telling us so we commed for a taxi.  As we were leaving the ship, a slightly battered old B1 battle droid, operating number JR-12, offered us his services to guard the Valencia.  Zero and Keena waved it off, but something about the droid struck me.  The B1s have a bad (mostly-deserved) reputation for being inept but this one still had what looked like its factory-issued E-5 blaster rifle.  And it was spotless.  I thought any droid with that much attention to detail might be helpful and called JR-12 back over to work out the details.

I love it when I'm right.

  *

Vanden lived in a restricted district of Worlport.  The kind of place that people with credits throughout the galaxy lived in.  Big houses with expansive views of other big houses.  Wide, clean streets.  Perfect landscaping with a mix of local flora and enough off-world stuff to remind you they could afford to waste credits importing plants.  And heavy security.  Always heavy security.  

These particular private lawdogs were ex-military or ex-police of some kind.  You could tell by the fact that their attention rarely wandered and the limited distance their hands moved when they walked.  Clearly they had been trained to keep hands close to the trigger of their blaster rifles.  I did have to stifle a laugh at their uniforms, though.  Standard combat laminate like the bucketheads wear, but in a bright yellow color that reminded me of a Kubindi Lantern Bug.  Either someone must've gotten a discount price or the security company owners had a brutal sense of humor.

HoloNet said that weapons were strictly off-limits in the district but long experience had taught me that unarmed smugglers often go by the nickname "victim," so I pulled a bit of slight of hand.  I made a big show of pulling my C-10 out of its holster and complained amount about how I wanted it back in good working order before I stepped through the scanner frame with my holdout pistol still snug in its BlasTech 58 concealment holster.  The BlasTech marketing line claimed the holster was effective against 80% of detection devices, and for once the ads were true – the Lantern Bugs waved us on through until they asked Zero to take off his shock gloves.  The old lizard was having none of it, so he mumbled something about finding a place to lose some credits (he might actually have said "a casino") and wandered off in the other direction, leaving Keena, Krom and I to meet with Ilo Vanden.

I didn't know what to expect from a filthy rich Herglic's house.  Probably something like what I imagined a Hutt palace to be, but other than a lot of aquariums and ocean motifs and heavy furniture, Vanden's home was fairly tame.  Vanden himself was typical of his species: huge, well over two and a half meters, with deep blue skin except for a pale ring around his blowhole.  He had a well-stocked bar and didn't waste time with pleasantries, which was a promising start in my book.  

After winning his wealth as a system-class gambler, it seemed that Vanden wanted to increase his bank account a quicker way: by cheating.  He had a significant bet placed on a local fight and wanted to make sure that his money produced a good return.  That meant the opposing fighter had to no show – Vanden didn't care if she was killed, kidnapped or just slept off a giant hangover.  And if we made that happen, he'd give us the name we wanted.  Easy peasy.  

We made the deal and headed back to the Val, sending Zero a message over the commlink to meet us back at the ship so we could plan our next move.  Krom went to his stateroom with his Versafunction88 to do a little data search, while Keena and I killed time with a few hands of sabacc.  The Trandoshan was just stomping up the ramp when Krom poked his head out of the bulkhead with that goofy grin on his face.  

Vanden had told us our target's stage name, "Flutterplume."  Not something to strike fear into the hearts of men.  Sort of like "Zero" (which, incidentally, is his win record on Ord Mantell).  Apparently she was a human who liked to dress in outlandish costumes based on a local avian of some kind.  The fight Vanden wanted to make sure she didn't show up for was in three days, so we had a little time.  Luckily, Krom had gotten a whole bunch more off the 'net, such as her real name (Amy Kraf), the district she lived in (Westwall), where she came from (some dump called Redlake), and the fact that she was scheduled to fight a bout tonight.  That last bit looked promising.

* * *

There's no use flying a brawler all over the galaxy, despite the fact that he makes halfway decent caf, unless you get to see him fight.  So I thought it might be worth seeing this "Flutterplume" in action, with Zero as the up-close analyst and the rest of us observing safely from the cheap seats.  The Trandoshan didn't say no, so we headed down to the casino to pick a fight.  It didn't turn out quite like I expected.

Getting Zero in to fight Flutterplume was easy enough.  We put down an entry fee with the promise of a 1,000 credit purse and we were in.  But apparently the promoter didn't like humans or something, because he would only put Zero in the ring if I agreed to fight the undercard against some nerf herder who apparently thought it was intimidating to fight in a lab coat.  I tried to dissuade the promoter, but he was adamant that I fight, so with Krom trying to hide his laughter I agreed.  Anything to get the job done, right?

Our plan was pretty simple – last a few rounds in the ring, get some insight on Amy Kraf a.k.a. Flutterplume, and then decide how best to make her late for her appointment three days hence.  And maybe make a few credits on the night by betting against Zero.  I mean, who wouldn't?  Flutterplume's record was something like 198-2 and Zero was probably already collecting his Trandoshan basic retirement income.

But first I had to beat down this laserbrain in a white coat.   

My brothers might have had some justification in trying to use me as a punching bag growing up, because even then I knew my way around a choice insult.  I figured what worked then might work now, so I spent the first few rounds dodging away from The Professor while I kept up a steady stream of taunts.  He turned a shade of red I didn't think was humanly possible and started throwing wild, rage-filled haymakers that even a protocol droid could have dodged.  And shortly after the start of the third round, I ducked under one of his roundhouse blows and gave him a quick jab to the stomach and a hard uppercut to the jaw.  Bang.  

I certainly didn't knock him out or cause any lasting injury.  But it was enough to get a split decision which is all I needed to collect the purse.  And I kept my pearly whites intact.

And then it was time for the main event.  Zero seemed game enough, and came in with a flurry of body blows that made me concerned for my bet for a few seconds.  But Kraf recovered quickly, gave a smile that seemed all out of place, and gave back a bit more than she got before the bell rang.  Our ex-bounty hunter is a tough hombre, but by the end of the second round he was looking a bit ragged and Krom was working overtime in the corner as Zero's cut man.  The old lizard got in a few blows in the third, but Kraf was just too fast.  She didn't manage to drop Zero, but I had a feeling that it would have been a different story had it gone a few more rounds.

After the fight was over, the crew huddled in the locker room to consider our next move.  The place reeked of sweat, dried blood and cheap muscle liniment.  So not much different than Zero's stateroom on the Val.  Watching Kraf in action, I knew that a nice quiet snatch-and-grab kidnapping was out of the question unless we managed to get our hands on some hospital-grade tranquilizers.  Vanden didn't want her dead, just to no-show, so we were keeping the simple option – a couple of blaster rounds to the head – as a last resort.  I had a couple good stories that might've worked for a con, but I had forgotten the Keena factor.  She and Zero decided to go see her in the locker room next door and bribe her to miss the fight.  

It didn't work.  Which I could have told them to begin with.  A fighter who is 198-2 isn't going to take a dive for anyone.  But they did get Kraf to open up a bit – turns out she had family on Ord Mantell, back up in Redlake, and she was doing her fighting to make money to send back to the old folks.  Apparently the family had gotten on the wrong side of Vanden, who was Not Such A Nice Guy.  Now they were working for no pay – which on Garel we called slaves - which would be sad anywhere but the Outer Rim, where raw deals are the norm.  

So of course, Keena took out her bleeding heart to admire it and polish it for a while.  She asked Kraf if she would no-show at the bout if we could get her family back safely.  My couple of blaster rounds to Flutterplume's head plan still seemed like a cleaner solution, but once Kraf mentioned slavers I could see Zero's claws clench and dig furrows into the bench and then Krom was looking at the lady boxer like a broken device he knew he could fix and I knew we were taking a trip north to free some slaves.

* * *

Mantellians aren't particularly creative.  They called the giant trash pile of mine tailings, broken down starships and salvage that they created over thousands of years in the middle of the desert the "Scraplands."  And that probably meant the rusty red pool of acidic water we were flying towards was "Redlake."  Like I said, not creative.

The locals had some sort of maglev train that crisscrossed the planet, but we decided to take the the ship instead.  We were worried that the train schedule might not fit with our "blast a bunch of slavers and rescue Kraf's family" timeline.  And since me and Krom didn't much care to leave the Val unprotected next to a giant scrapheap full of scroungers and parts cannibals, I asked JR-12 if it might want to increase its retainer a bit.  Turned out that it did, and it brought along a couple other clankers to help make sure our ship stayed in one piece.  Good logic board in it, this droid.  

I eased the Valencia down into the parched red-orange dust and we stepped out into the mid-morning sun.  The breeze carried the sharp smell of rust and leaking hyperdrive coolant through the thin air.  The ship's comp said no rebreather was needed, but I almost grabbed one anyway due to the smell.  We could see a few shapes moving about in the scrap, some human, some alien.  They didn't seem to pay us any mind, but I cut the safety on my C-10 just the same and checked to make sure Krom had remembered to bring his heavy blaster rifle.  

A twenty-minute hike brought us into the village of Redlake.  Village being a charitable word for it.  A few scrap metal huts clustered around a cleared area that sported a community fire pit.  We saw signs of some sort of struggle, but no greeting party, or any sign that anyone lived here now.  I wasn't about to go climbing through scrap piles looking for bodies, so I figured we might get details from some of the locals by making friends.  

I grew up on a pretty prosperous farm – we had food on the table (as long as you liked yot beans) and dad's share in the co-op shuttle meant we could sell our crop for off-world credits.  But a bunch of the kids I knew weren't as well off.  So I knew what hunger looked like.  And the few scavengers we saw poking around – kids, mostly – looked like that.  I hated using food as leverage, but we needed answers so Zero and I went back to grab a few crates of ration bars out of the galley.  It didn't take long before we found a few kids willing to trade information for the crates.  

Turns out that slavers had raided Redlake a few weeks back and took the adults and some of the kids off to a camp somewhere to the north.  That tracked with the timeframe Kraf had told us when she last spoke to her family.  Most of the kids were too young and scared to offer any more help, but one of the older ones – Evun - said he'd lead us to the camp for another couple crates of ratbars.  So off we went through the teetering piles of wrecked Incom snubfighters, speeders and industrial waste.

After about two hours we arrived at what looked like some sort of scrap fortress.  A huge wall of metal with a narrow opening and a few guard towers on the other side.  Through the electrobinoculars we could see a few thugs standing on either side of the opening, and at least a couple more in the towers. I got JR-12 on the commlink and told it to get the ship warmed up just in case we needed a quick dustoff.  Krom gave me a look that told me what he thought of letting a droid pilot our ship, but he didn't argue with me.  

We were pretty sure the slavers weren't expecting us, so we thought the quiet method might be best.  Krom and I weaved our way through the scrap heaps until we got fairly close to the wall, with Zero and Keena keeping overwatch.  We slid along the wall behind the two guards, hoping that none of the slavers in the watchtowers decided to look directly down.  

Luck was with us at first, and we both got into good positions.  Krom had his Navy-issue combat knife held in a combat grip, but I've never been much for blades so I stuck with my Reaper.  We padded up behind the two guards, and then went for the takedown.

The point-blank stun charge caught my guard right in the neck and he dropped like a durasteel brick on a high-G world.  I looked over to see Krom struggling with the other slaver – he must've heard something at the last minute and turned to avoid the knife blade.  Zap from the Reaper and guard two was down.  But then stealth wasn't an option so Krom pulled his blaster out and I thumbed the toggle from stun to regular fire to get my range back.

Keena and Zero saw that the remaining guards were beginning to take notice of our handiwork and opened up on the towers.  The Twi'lek realized that her blaster pistol wasn't going to be much good at range, and bravely ran up behind an outcropping of rocks before laying down some more blaster fire.  She's coming around, for sure.  

After a few more exchanges of fire, we had quieted the towers and put our shoulders hard against the scrap wall to get a peek at the compound.We saw piles of scrap, more thugs with blasters, and a bunch of regular folks who looked beaten down or drugged or something.  They were shuffling about sort of aimlessly despite the fact that the guards were rushing our way.  

Zero must've been trying to regain a little pride after his boxing match because he didn't hesitate before running through the gap in the scrap all.  Brave.  But not particularly bright since we already had a pretty good firing position on either side of the opening.  The guards opened up on him just as he managed to get behind some sturdy crates.  Krom and I blasted a few of the remaining guards before Keena slid up next to us, blaster in hand.  

The goons didn't seem to be crack shots and I was loathe to let Zero get all the glory so I ducked through the gap, sprinting into a tuck and roll to join the bounty hunter behind his crates.  I came to my feet just in time to see Keena blast another guard from cover and then the shooting was pretty much over.  Although I let Zero poke his head out first.  I mean, Keena shot him point blank and he's still walking around so why push my luck?

We didn't know if reinforcements were on the way, so I commed JR-12 to set the Valencia down in the compound while we took stock of the situation.  Keena said the place looked like a spice lab of some sort and I wasn't going to press her on how she knew that.  Zero and I grabbed a few crates that looked to be full – gotta keep the ship in caf, right? – while Krom and Keena got the civilians on board.  

I took over the controls from the droid (have to admit it put the ship down competently) while the rest of the crew worked to shake the civilians out of their stupor. It didn't take long to find Kraf's family since we had holos, but we came up short.  Mom, dad, but no brother.  All we got was a pained look.  Drek.  

So Krom and I have seen some pretty awful things in the last decade.  I've done some of them myself.  And I'll probably do a few again.  But I won't tolerate people who kill kids.  I'll make them pay however I can.  Apparently the Val's main guns can turn a slaver's spice lab into smoldering rubble in 14 seconds.  Who knew?  

* * * 

We dropped most of the slaves off at Redlake, and I left Evun one of our crates of spice to help get the village back on its feet.  I put the Val down back on the landing pad in Worlport while Keena commed Flutterplume with the good news.  The reunion was bittersweet after Kraf learned about her brother's death, but she kept her word about skipping the bout.  A few days of close quarters aboard the ship and we had fulfilled our deal with the Herglic.  

Turns out the name belonged to the Pirate Queen's consort, who was right here on Ord Mantell.  And it also turns out that the Queen was playing him and was willing to see him dead – and we had a recording that proved it.  The Queen didn't seem to value her male friends much - hopefully this one had a little more durasteel in his spine than the last one.  'Cause I was damned sure he was gonna help us get to the Queen.  And maybe after that we could call in a few chips with the Zann Consortium to help us kill the slaver Ilo Vanden.  

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Have I Mentioned I Hate Jungles? The Diary of Van Elendis, Pt. 10

Using a decoy is an ancient smuggler's trick.  It's pretty simple – a group gets together and one of the ships becomes the "bait" while the others agree to share a cut of their profits. The decoy heads groundside as suspiciously as possible, with a flight plan to some out-of-the-way downport and a transponder that is "acting up."  When the customs frigate comes a calling you stall as much as possible while they tear your perfectly legal and legitimate cargo apart.  And while customs is gainfully employed, your partners sneak in on the opposite side of the planet and offload their cargo.  

So like I said, I'm familiar with the tactic.  I just don't care for it when it is used on ME.

Graf Lin had given us the location of a Sorority base of some kind – Blackwing Crater, a few hours outside of Taleucema.  We knew the base was built into the cliff wall with some pretty serious defenses and we expected the pirates wouldn't just surrender if we said boo.  And we also knew that the path in was straight through a Saleucamian jungle.  So we kitted out with one of the heavy blaster rifles we acquired from Jabba's goons, our climbing gear and some choice bits from our survival kits.  

It's always a blasted jungle.  Which meant humidity and bugs and probably some sort of lizard creature that eats smugglers for dinner.  Why can't we ever break into someplace near lakeside forests or rolling hills or something like that?

The road from Taleucema to Lawquane ran near Blackwing Crater, but we knew we had some bushwacking ahead of us.  We pulled our rented speeder off to the side of the smartgrid, pulled on our Imperial Army surplus packs, and triple-checked the charges on our blasters.  We had a bit of luck when Kina found what looked to be an old road, potholed, uneven and overgrown, but definitely better than hacking straight through the flora.  

We made good time at first, Kina in the lead, Krom and I providing overwatch on the corners and Zero bringing up the rear and keeping an eye on our "guide" Graf.  And then, of course, the monkeys came.  Kina and I spotted movement in the undergrowth to our sides — some sort of primate about the size of a Cophrigin monkey.  I described it to Krom and he just sort of nodded like he expected it.  I hate it when he does that.  And I hate it even more when he sounds like a HoloNet nature channel voiceover, telling us that this monkey-thing was called  "Thaelo," that it was an aggressive pack hunter, and that they were known to bring down creatures twice their size.  Which, for the record, would be Zero.  I'm much smaller than twice their size.

We huddled for a second to decide if we should make a show of force – we were strapped and Zero had brought along his archaic slugthrower that certainly made enough noise to scare off any animals.  But we didn't know how many were out there, and we didn't want to alert any Sorority patrols or sensors that might be in the area.  So we pushed on.  We were by my estimates maybe halfway to the crater edge when Graf started whining about needing to take a break.  I was all for giving him a permanent rest, but we found a few crater boulders that were the right size to sit on and broke out the canteens.

We should've been a bit more on our toes, since we knew the Thaelos were out there, but my annoyance with Graf evidently distracted me.  The jungle went unnaturally quiet and a second  later two of the hairy beasts jumped down out of the trees right in the middle of us.  From the crashing and screeching in the jungle, I expected the rest of the horde was rushing our way.  

I may not have seen them coming, but I was certainly expecting something and being an Imperial Navy pilot takes pretty good reflexes.  As soon as the Thaelos hit the ground my C-10 cleared its holster and I took the top of its head off in a spray of bone and monkey brain before it could even realize it was in trouble.  The rest of the crew was amped up for action as well: Kina blasted the remaining Thaelo in its shoulder with her new DL-44, leaving a large burn and a whiff of burnt monkey hair.  Zero primed his shock gloves and stepped in with a hard right cross that seemed to hurt him more than it did the ape.  And then Krom leveled his DLT-19 blaster rifle and put a shot through the Thaelo's ear.  Zap.  No more monkeys jumping on the bed.

The other Thaelos had at least figured out that discretion is the better part of valor and the rest of the pack hightailed it back into the jungle, double time.  I muttered something to Krom about all our Academy training being finally put to good use.  At least we could fight off Outer Rim monkeys.  

Graf miraculously found the energy to get moving again, and we kept moving down the ruined road.  We passed by a rock formation that looked like it might provide a good vantage point, but I spotted a bunch of what looked like cracked Thaelo bones scattered around the base.  Since taking on some sort of Saleucamian alpha predator wasn't in our agreement with the Zann Consortium, we kept moving.  

When we got close to the edge of the crater, Krom and I decided to take point, quiet-like.  We edged up towards the drop, using our electrobinoculars to scan the path ahead.  Unfortunately we should've been looking a little closer to the trail – Kina called us over to see some sort of motion camera we had walked past.  It was a good bet the Sorority knew we were here.  Time to move quickly.

We got to the edge of the crater and I was glad (and somewhat surprised) to see that Graf's information had been correct.  We were about 25 meters up from a small landing platform.  I probably could've put the Valencia down on it, but it would have been tight.  As Graf had told us, there were a couple of anti-air turbolasers in swivel turret hardpoints on the far edge of the platform and a pair of sniping positions cut into the rock facing outwards.  I secured the end of the smartrope to one of the jungle trees as Zero strapped on his rappelling harness.  And then he was over the side, Krom covering the platform with his heavy blaster rifle on its bipod and Kina providing overwatch.  Zero reached the platform without being shot at, which I took as a good sign.  I saw him disappear into the wall of the crater, which meant the landing platform doors were open.  So either they really weren't expecting us or it was a trap.  Regardless, I wasn't going to leave the crusty old Trandoshan on his own, so I double checked my own harness and jumped into the void.

As I was making my way down the wall I realized that our luck had reached its limit.  I heard a yell, then some sort of struggle.  I hit the ferrocrete to see Krom dragging a couple of limp bodies behind a crate in some sort of warehouse/hangar bay, and then heard a klaxon sound and more boots heading our way.  Typical.  I had time to take in a few details – Zann Consortium crates scattered about and some old-model cargo lifter parked between them.  And then a couple of pirates taking cover in hallways on either side of the warehouse started taking shots at Zero, blasting pieces of crate into vapor.  I pulled the quick release on my harness, drew my Reaper and slid behind another stack of cargo containers, calling for Krom over the commlink to get his green self (and his blaster rifle) down into the fight.  And then the security protocols kicked in and the blast doors started closing behind us.  Even more typical.

Krom had done a pretty good customization on my C-10, and on the flight out to Saleucami he had tinkered with the blaster actuating module to focus the beam a bit more tightly.  It showed.  I dropped one of the pirates with a single shot to center mass, and then took out the other one while Zero tried to muscle the cargo lifter in between the closing blast doors (without much luck.)  And then the doors slammed shut and more pirates started running in the room on the far end, taking cover behind their own crates.  I was thinking maybe I should've let the crusty old Trandoshan do his own thing.     

I lost sight of what Krom and Kina were doing, and since we were in the middle of a firefight I wasn't much in the mood for a chat over the commlink, but from what Kina told me later Krom pulled off a slice of beauty.  He had pulled off the blast door control panel with his hydrospanner and linked his slicer-rigged Versafunction88 into the I/O port.  In short order he not only had the doors sliding back open, but he also used an exploit to crash the base's entire security system to give him full control.  He squelched outgoing comms, opened and locked all the doors, and made sure the room lights were on full so we could see who we were aiming at.  That's my flight engineer.

Meanwhile, Zero went charging down one of the hallways to make sure no Sorority pirates tried to take potshots at our crewmates from the sniping positions.  Leaving me to face half a dozen of them on my own, I might add.  I decided that, despite Krom's extraordinary handiwork, I needed a bit more firepower than the C-10 could provide so I lobbed a flash-bang grenade at one of the groups of pirates.  The grenade dropped short, but did manage to blast their cover out of the way as Kina came running up beside me, heavy blaster pistol in hand.  As long as she didn't shoot me in the back of the head, I thought our odds were improving.  

So we decided to even them a little more.  I squeezed off a few shots from behind a cargo crate, hitting one of the pirates in the throat and putting another down with a solid shot to the thigh as he scrambled to find cover.  Kina was evidently enjoying her new DL-44, as I saw her give a bloodthirsty grin as she spun a third around with a bolt straight to his gut.  Come a long way, our Twi'lek waitress has.  And then Zero started shooting at the remaining pirates from the cover of the hallway.  3-on-3 is better than 6-on-1 any day.

This group was still firing from cover and managed to get a couple of lucky shots on Kina and Zero, but we kept up the fire. I dropped another two – one right through one of the crates and the last one bolted down one of the hallways at full sprint.  We huddled briefly behind our cargo containers while Krom showed us a schematic of the base on his datapad – looked like the hallway made some sort of loop so Zero, Kina and I took off after our rabbit while Krom lined up his DLT-19 on the exit doorway in case he tried to double back.  I also reminded him to lock down the lift to make sure any wannabe Sorority heroes on the first level couldn't crash our party.  And to keep an eye on Graf.  I know, it was a lot to keep track of.  But Krom's a smart guy.

We came upon an open doorway leading to a dark room – since I knew Krom had lit the place up full that meant someone had taken the time to shoot the lights out.  I hate vandals.  So I lobbed another flash bang grenade into the room to express my displeasure and then snuck a look around the corner with my electrobinoculars.  Someone was trying very hard not to be seen, but I saw a glimpse of a humanoid, blaster and vibroblade in hand, crouched behind an archaic computer bank.  Kina covered the hallway while Zero and I advanced into the room.  We let our hidden friend know that we had eyes on him and that had better come out or we were opening fire.  

Turns out the he was a her, more specifically Creezo's Sorority contact Mandi.  The description fit, and she was willing to sell out her Pirate Queen in pretty short order, as long as we would let her go.  So I smiled and said sure while Zero threw a pair of binders on her.  Click.  Smuggler's law #8: bargains made when you hold all the cards can be altered at any time.  The Empire taught me that lesson pretty well, too.  

Krom and Graf joined us in the hallway while we questioned Mandi.  She wasn't dumb – she understood that her only chance of leaving this base under her own power was to give us everything.  Mandi  told us the Queen's name – Naomi.  The same Naomi that Graf assured us he was so eager to kill.  She said the Queen was in the next room – the control room – with her bodyguards and likely a "kill squad" as well.  Maybe half a dozen blasters in a confined space, and I was in no mood to get shot again.  But that is what we had come here to do, so we moved up the hallway cautiously.

Krom had locked all the doors open but whoever was in the room had piled up a bunch of crates and electronics in the doorway as a makeshift barrier.  We chucked a few concussion grenades into the room to hopefully get a few of the bodyguards to keep their heads down rather than blasters up, and then Zero charged through the barricade to try and make a breech.  I think the old gent might need to hit the gym a little more.  First he had trouble moving the cargo lifter.  And then he couldn't move the barricade out of the way, and instead sort of stumbled over the wall while managing to push one crate into a semi-defensible position.  He yelled out the lay of the land: a couple of bodyguards behind cover in each of the corners, and someone wearing a rather Pirate Queen-looking mask in a concealed position along the far wall.

And then the blaster shots started coming in hot and heavy.  Game on.  

I was under no illusion that I could get over the barricade without being blasted to pieces, but luckily Zero had knocked enough out of the way that we were able to shoot back.  Krom hefted his rifle while Kina lined up the Pirate Queen in her sights.  I yelled to the crew to set for stun since I figured our Zann employers might like prisoners to interrogate and punctuated my point by blasting one of the bodyguards with a stun bolt to the head that left him unconscious before he hit the deck.  Zero, Krom and Kina all got a few shots off before the tide turned against us.  The remaining bodyguards had managed a few glancing shots on Zero and had him pinned down behind what must've felt like an entirely inadequate piece of machinery.  I saw him slam a stimpack home in his arm and shake his head to clear the numb.  

Kina had been exchanging fire with the Pirate Queen and had gotten in at least one solid hit when I heard her grunt and fall awkwardly.  Considering that we knew the Sorority had gotten their hands on a shipment of DX-2 disruptor pistols, I guess we shouldn't have been surprised the Queen was using one.  And now I saw why they were outlawed in Imperial space – Kina's knee had basically been disintegrated.  Krom rushed to her side with a stimpack in hand but I wasn't sure it would do much good. 

And that's when Graf decided to try and skewer me.  

I'm not sure what the boozed-up ex-pirate was thinking.  I mean, I had just splashed what – like six, seven of his former colleagues?  But try he did.  I had been expecting a move like that since the Warrens so I danced out of the range of his vibrosword and took no small pleasure in lighting the turncoat up with my Reaper.  He hit the floor hard, and I kicked his artificial leg over towards Kina and Krom.  No use letting the thing go to waste, right?

Being the only one of us in the control room, Zero was taking the majority of the incoming fire and was doing his best to keep his head down.  Krom got Kina stable and back on her feet…er, foot…and grabbed his blaster rifle from the floor.  Kina and I put a few shots into the room and I think I managed to take out another bodyguard, but it was Krom who got the Queen dead in his optics and blasted her against the wall, leaving a red streak against the white plasticrete.  Zero poked his head over the blaster-scarred machine he was hiding behind and squeezed off a few accurate shots at the last remaining bodyguard.  Scratch 14.  And then it was quiet.

Krom was pretty certain he had cut off all external communications but with Kina missing half her leg and as banged up as Krom and Zero were, we didn't want to risk facing reinforcements.  Plus Mandi's warning of a "kill squad" somewhere nearby was still top of mind, so we grabbed the Queen's body (after Krom had a good hard look at the mask), scooped up a few choice pieces of loot close to hand and headed back to the cargo lifter.  The trip out was certainly a lot easier than the trip in.  Plus I didn't have to listen to Graf's complaining.  

After we gathered our rented speeder, we called Venlana and let her know we were on our way back to Taleucama with our bounty and a special bonus prize, a.k.a. Mandi.  Even over the commlink I could hear her smiling as we made plans to meet at a Zann Consortium warehouse to deliver our end of the deal.  

Venlana didn't disappoint, meeting us with a bottle of 30-year-old Corellian brandy and five glasses.  She eagerly grabbed the Pirate Queen's mask and looked over her corpse, although she didn't seem to care much for the live Sorority member we had brought back.  Venlana remedied that in short order.  Like I said, bargains made when you hold all the cards.  

The few days after that were a bit of a blur.  I spent most of my time at the Paradise, switching between Green Galaxies and Corellian brandy as my mood shifted.  Venlana had set Kina up at a local hospital to get a bionic replacement for her leg – worked as good as the original although I never think the skin tones look exactly right.  And Venlana had Krom and Zero patched up by real doctors for a change.  The Consortium had even finished the hull repairs on the Valencia, although Krom was of mixed emotions about that.  It was nice to see our bird without obvious turbolaser scarring for a change.  But it meant that someone else had messed with his baby.  

The ship was patched up, my crew was patched up, and I still had half a bottle of the good stuff left in my berth.  All was right with the galaxy.  I had even put out a few feelers for a paying cargo that would get us off of this rock.  And then Venlana called my commlink and told me that the Pirate Queen that we had paid so dearly to bring in (well, at least Kina did) wasn't the real Queen at all and our current patrons had further need of our services.  Typical.  

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Things to Do on Saleucami: The Diary of Van Elendis, Pt. 9

I love a good brawl.  Not being in one, mind you.  My hands (and to a lesser extent, my rugged good looks) are what keeps me in credits so I prefer to do my fighting from the cockpit or holding a blaster.  But there is something invigorating about watching a well-thrown punch land squarely on a jaw.  I guess I'm getting ahead of myself a bit.

We had made a deal with the weasely Rodian fence Creezo Wasanti to purchase some super-illegal (and likely stolen from the Zann Consortium) disruptor pistols but we had some time to kill before the buy was to take place.  I figured the tracker I put on Creezo would make sure we didn't have too many surprises coming our way without having to tail him for the next 24 hours.  Zero growled something about wanting a drink so we decided to kill two Neimodian kreehawks with one blaster shot and chase down another of Venlana's leads: a former Sorority pirate who went by the name of Graf Lin.  

The ex-pirate supposedly lived in a part of Taleucema crater called the "Warren." The district was aptly named, for a slum.  It was a bunch of squats built into the side of the crater that some Taleucemani forefather decided to put this city in.  It wasn't too different from a lot of other Outer Rim slums - a bunch of rusted doors, empty rotgut bottles, equally empty deathstick packs, a few sad plants cared for by the plebes who still hadn't had the hope mugged out of them.  And a constant churn of predators.

A bunch of wannabe spice dealers were hanging around on what passed for a corner here selling deathsticks and the Force knows what else.  They tried giving us a hard look but it lasted a milisecond before they decided we weren't easy prey and looked away.  Well, they looked away from Zero and me.  More than a few kept eyeing Kina and welcomed her with (somewhat muted) catcalls.  They were obviously smarter than they looked since they didn't try anything; the only thing Zero wanted more than a shot of that electro-ceramic paint remover he considers booze was to punch someone.  But I'm getting ahead of myself again.

I tried to make friends with the dealers courtesy of a shiny 50 credit piece, but they weren't much help other than pointing out what they thought was Graf's hole – second level, third rusted-out door from the left.  We weren't in a rush and I wasn't about to kick open the door of some paranoid former pirate without a little more info on the guy.  Besides, Zero was thirsty.  

Our new "friends" helpfully suggested a local watering hole down the street.  Hole being the operative word.  Evidently they don't see many outsiders here since the whole place gave us sideeye as we pushed aside the dented speeder panel that passed as a door.  If the dive had had enough credits to afford a music generator, I'm sure it would have skipped a track.  Long way from Paradise.

I swear, I tried to do it the easy way.  I put some credits on a bar that hadn't been cleaned since the Clone Wars, ordered a round for the crew, and we put back our drinks.  Turned out it was yot bean whiskey, which is a bit of an "acquired taste."  My dad distilled the stuff back on Garel and used to send me the occasional bottle of moonshine when I was at the Academy, but apparently I never shared any with Krom.  He was doing all he could not to vomit, which was hilarious since he was also trying to look tough at the same time.  Zero, on the other hand, looked vaguely disappointed that it wasn't his usual brand of varnish.  Like I said, it's an acquired taste. 

I tried chatting up the local sitting next to me with an offer of a round.  Turns out he had a case of selective laryngytis when we were just looking for a few easy answers.  And then he had to go grab Kina or insult Zero or something stupid like that.  Cue our friendly ex-bounty hunter Trandoshan taking on half a bar in a brawl.  

I saw Zero tap the charging pad on his shock gloves so I knew he was making some sort of play.  He strode right over to a table of locals and basically smashed the thing back into the recycled plastic it came from.  Drinks went flying, most of the locals started backpedaling, and then a handful of hardcore degenerates decided that it was their lucky day (or more likely they'd been overserved on yot whiskey) and came running at Zero.  

Four-on-one odds in a bar fight is tough.  Zero held his own at first, fending off a few wild swings, but then he took a punch to the side and slipped on some spilled whiskey.  A couple of the locals jumped on him, fists flying.  

I figured this was Zero's show since the guy likes to dance up close with folks. My job was simple: I kept my best hard look on and my hand close to my Reaper in case anyone decided to up the ante and pull a blaster.  I don't know if it was concern for Zero or if the shot of yot whiskey had damaged his brain, but all of the sudden I see Krom grab one of the locals by his shoulder, spin him around and deliver the most solid right hook I've ever seen.  Crack.  Guy dropped like he'd been sucker punched by a Wookie.  

And then the bartender decided he'd had enough and pulled an ancient scattergun from under the bar and yelled at everyone to cut it out.  He put a round into the ceiling for emphasis, but the paint was so filthy I couldn't even see the holes from the buckshot.  He was careful not to point the gun at anyone in particular, which kept me from lighting him up with my C-10, but the room quieted down just the same. 

Now, it seemed, they were willing to talk a bit more.  We got some info on where Graf Lin bought his rotgut and a few other details that made me think he was just another dead ender rather than a paranoid ex-pirate on the run.  So a short time later we were at his door, with Kina doing her best to convince Lin to open the door and him having none of it.

****

We had this old grav tractor back on Garel that my brother had lost our only key to.  We didn't use it often, since dad had bought a new Hyrotii model about five years earlier.  But every now and then it came in handy so I had gotten pretty good at picking the ignition lock.  Kina wasn't getting anywhere with ol' Graf and I didn't want Zero kicking the poor guy's door down before we even had a chance to meet properly, so I pulled a few tension wrenches out of my vest pocket and popped the lock.

Needless to say, Graf was pretty surprised (and more than a little upset) when we just strolled in.  He was waving a vibroblade around like he was going to actually do something about it but Zero walked over and casually knocked the thing out of his hand.  And then we got to talking.

What Graf was telling us sounded good: he was a former Imperial Navy pilot gone pirate – that part rang true enough.  He was kicked out of the Sorority because he fell in love with the wrong pirate lady – someone named Noira.  That part seemed plausible.  Let's just say that she didn't return his affection and made sure he was exiled from the band, leading to his current sad state.  From what Graf was telling us all that love turned to vinegar, because he said he'd take us to the Sorority's base if we'd let him kill Noira.  It wasn't just that he wanted her taken out; he wanted to do the deed himself.  That's a tough breakup.

Everyone on the Rim has a story, and I've been around long enough to hear a bunch of them and to recognize that most of the time you don't want to know all the details.  I mean, other than Krom I don't even know all that much about my own crew's past.  So normally I'd let a few "selective gaps" in someone's story go.  But Graf was setting off all my internal alarms.  His hatred of Noira was palpable, but the way he talked about the Sorority I could see he'd do anything to get back on the inside.  Up to and including turning us over to them to be turned into hydroponic fertilizer.  So I made a mental note to make sure he didn't get the chance.

We told Graf to meet us back at Paradise (I had brief but amusing mental image of him trying to get past the bouncers) and then turned our attention to the last of Venlana's leads: some sort of online travel agency called Sororonet.  Well, more like Krom turned his attention to the last of Venlana's leads.  

I appreciate the benefits of technology as much as the next guy – heck, more than the next guy since I spend my days flying through hard vacuum protected by a duralloy hull and deflector shields.  And I know my way around the HoloNet well enough.  But I've never really taken to computers like Krom has.  I remember when he he broke all the regs to reprogram the Tydirium's flight computer and remove the g-limiters.  And on Lothal he once sliced the duty roster to give us an extra day of liberty.  So when he pulled out the Versafunction88 datapad he'd bought on Correllia and turned into a slicer toolkit, I figured we were in good hands.  

Apparently the Imperial Navy isn't as concerned about securing its duty roster as a group of pirates is with securing their list of booty.  Krom's foot was tapping some sort of random beat like it does when he's really stressed and I could hear him muttering under his breath about needing a dataspike as his fingers flew across the datapad.  He stopped rather suddenly, and then pulled the hardline from the pad with a jerk.  Turns out that the Sorority was using the virtual travel agency as a front and to track shipments of stolen goods to various destinations.  One of those was right here on Saleucami in a place called Blackwind Crater.  

Krom said he might be able to get more information, but it could risk drawing attention to us and tip off the Sorority.  With what we had learned already – the fact that the pirates were brazen enough to smuggle goods to a Zann Consortium-controlled world, and that it likely had something to do with Blackwind Crater, my vote was to keep us off their scanners for now.  Se we headed back to the Val and called it a night.  

I slept like a baby and stumbled out of my stateroom just after seven in search of a mug of hot caf.  Zero was in the galley already charging his shock gloves and I heard Krom tapping away on his datapad from his bunk, probably running some sort of simulation of the Valencia's new ion thrusters or some such engineering thing.   It was a scene of domestic (or at least shipboard) bliss.  Except for one problem: no Kina.  

She wasn't one for pre-dawn walks and the ship's computer hadn't reported any unauthorized activity so Zero called up the storage on the landing cameras.  Sure enough she had left in the middle of the night, with some sort of package under her arm.  Great.  Our over-trusting waitress/broker/astrogator somehow thought it was smart to wander around a Consortium-run planet alone.  At night.  With a blaster that generally only shot at Zero. 

The fact that she snuck out without taking her stuff and without leaving a note told me that she planned on being back before we were up and about.  And that fact that she wasn't meant that nothing good had happened.  From what we had seen so far, Saleucami was a Zann Consortium planet.  And we were working for them.  So I reached out to Porel for a little help tracking her down.  Bad news got worse: Kina had a bounty on her and some nerf herder had evidently decided it was worth cashing in.  We didn't want to sit around with our thumb (or three thumbs, in Zero's case) in our ion engines so we hopped in a speeder and started back to at  one place we knew that we didn't have many friends, a.k.a. the Warren.  We got about halfway there when Porel called with even worse news: Kina had been spottend on a vid being hustled aboard a ship by a couple of serious-looking Ganks.  The same armored-up bloodthirsty muscle-for-hire that did a lot of dirty work for the Hutts.  Porel said he could stall their departure for a few minutes, but he wasn't going to risk an open war with the Hutts for the hired help (i.e. us).  This day was not starting off well.  

*

The three of us huddled at the edge of the landing bay and considered our options.  The ship was newer, a model I hadn't run into before so I couldn't tell if she had any hidden armaments.  But we knew that Porel's flight clearance delay wouldn't last much longer so we had to move quickly.  First things first: we wanted them stuck in place and unable to call for help.  I had brought along our Miradyne 1 x-Hail comm jammer and fired it up with a narrowcast program that kept even ship-powered comms from breaking through.  Krom pulled a panel off the docking console and moved jumpers on a circuit board and suddenly the docking clamps engaged.  Stuck like a womp rat in mud and surrounded by static.  A good start.

Part two should've been just as easy – breach the hull and take out a few mouth breathing bounty hunters.  Krom's SoroSuub fusion cutter melted the duralloy around the landing ramp like butter, and I lobbed a concussion grenade through the hole before the ramp even hit the tarmac.  Unfortunately the bastards must've seen us on external cameras because they laid into us with heavy blaster fire as soon as we made the hole.  

I don't remember much of what happened for a few seconds.  I heard the va-boom of the grenade going off and felt the concussion wave, and the next thing I know Zero is crouching over me and I'm feeling that numb-all-over warmth that comes from a stimpack.  I still had a ringing in my ears and got back to my feet just in time to see Zero drop one of the bounty hunters – one Gank down.  Another was lying on the deck so either my grenade had taken him out or Krom had blasted him.  

We heard a voice calling out over the ship's comm, telling us to back off or Kina would suffer.  And then to make their point they pushed her out into the corridor, with one of the Ganks holding on to her.  We could see that they had put a slave collar around her neck – a nasty piece of work that usually contains a small shaped charge that could be triggered by a radio signal.  I was sure the Miradyne was throwing up enough static to jam the trigger, but I was even more sure Kina would be happier with the thing removed.  I dropped to a knee and took a long aim at the Gank arm holding on to Kina, and told Krom and Zero to get ready to make a move.  

The blast from my C-10 didn't quite sever the Gank's arm like it would've in a trid, but I'm sure he wasn't going to be using it anytime soon.  Kina understood the plan and came charging down the ramp, just as her crewmates went charging up, blaster ready and shock gloves buzzing.  Krom dropped the one Gank that was holding Kina, and Zero went charging up the passageway.  

I heard a few more blaster shots and then some screaming, but I was busy concentrating on trying to get the explosive collar off Kina doubletime.  It took a couple of tries, but I finally found the right pin and pulled her free, kicking the collar away just in case.  It wasn't long before Krom and Zero came back down the ramp, Zero holding what looked like a few binders and a few more explosive collars, and Krom cradling a couple of heavy blaster rifles he "wanted to take a closer look at."  Which means they will end up in pieces all over the floor of his stateroom.

With Kina safe from Hutt clutches (at least for the time being) rushed to make it to our scheduled "buy" with Creezo.  We took some precautions – Krom covered the back entrance with the help of one of our newly-acquired heavy blaster rifles, while Kina and Zero played the heavies inside the shop.  Sure enough, the slimy little Rodian was dumb enough to try and sell us one of the Consortium's stolen disruptor pistols.  With that, combined with the fact that I braced him with his exact movements over the last standard, and the fence knew he was caught tight.  

He made a half-hearted attempt to scare us off with his loader droid but the muzzle of my holdout blaster pressed tightly underneath his snout made him fold like Krom with a bad sabbac hand. Begging for his life, the Rodian gave us what he knew, which unfortunately was damned little.  Apparently the Sorority used his shop to fence some of their booty, but all he could give us was a description of his contact Mandy and that he thought the pirates were based out of Blackwind Crater.  That tracked with what we had already learned and I figured having a fence on Saleucami (one terrified of us, to boot) was probably A Good Thing, so we decided to let Creezo's double dealing go for the time being.

We headed over to Paradise to collect our drunken ex-pirate Graf Lin, who apparently had not made friends with Porel.  Graf maintained his story that he'd help us in return for a chance to kill his ex lady love, and I maintained to put a shot from my Reaper into the back of his neck if he tried anything suspicious.  But he did give us some details on the pirate hideout: it was supposedly built into the cliff wall and had at least two levels – a ground level entrance with a blast door and a kill zone clearing that meant a difficult approach, and an upper entrance with a small landing pad but guarded by anti-ship defenses. He thought there might be over a dozen pirates present, so we thought it might be wise to take a stealthy approach – and since we had a couple sets of climbing gear on the Valencia I suggested rappelling in from the top of the cliff might give us the edge I was sure we would need…

 

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Tales from the Rim: The Diary of Van Elendis, Pt 8

I was always fine with being a "lowly" cargo pilot.  

I know that the TIE jockeys get all the glory, and the bridge crew on an ISD unsurprisingly make the promotion lists in short order (all those standards with lips firmly pressed to bridge officer backsides must help), but to me being at the controls of a Lambda was the right mix of being able to put a ship through its paces while not having to worry about some fleet lieutenant looking over your shoulder all the time.  Plus Lambdas have shield generators, unlike the TIEs.  But that doesn't mean I don't appreciate being a cargo pilot on a ship that has a little something extra under the cowling.  

After some of the problems we had run into out in the black it was pretty much a unanimous decision that we should use some of our Zann Consortium pay to give our dear Valencia a few upgrades. It wasn't hard to find a few choice parts - YT-1300s were built on Correllia and it took Krom all of two minutes to put his hands on a Sienar Fleet Systems SFS-220 High Output Ion Drive that he thought he could fit into our engine compartment.  The same ship broker gave us a good deal on a military surplus SFS S/ig-30 Upgraded Hyperdrive Generator and an old PK Aegis Reinforced Shield Generator that must've come off a good-sized customs enforcement cruiser.  

Krom and Zero were pretty much in techie heaven, and I didn't see much of either of them for a couple of days while they ripped out half the Val's guts and started wiring up the new toys.  Kina and I hit the markets to pick up a few other things we wanted for the ship, although even with Kina's haggling we weren't able to get the price we wanted on a knockoff Aratech 74-Z speeder bike that caught my eye.  Ah, well…there's always the next market.  

Normally a refit like the one we were doing would take three weeks, but after only a couple of days Krom had the SFS-220 fully installed and had the shield generators recalibrating with the targeting computer and getting only a few errors.  I was standing at the bottom of the boarding ramp offering Zero and Krom some helpful advice on the hyperdrive retrofit when a group of Ughnaught-looking aliens came up to us with a pair of scraggly-looking humans in tow.  We don't have a protocol droid and I couldn't make any sense of what the aliens were squeaking, but they handed Zero a textsheet and looked at us expectantly.  

Evidently the Consortium was claiming the humans were their end of our bargain.  These nerf herders were apparently the ones looking to put the Twi'lek and her two kids on a slave ship to Hutt space.  And that meant they were behind the attack on the Valencia that left us with Kina gut shot, a giant hole cut in our ship, and ISB on us like white on a stormtrooper's armor.  I certainly wasn't opposed to them being a blaster smear on a wall somewhere, but now that they were in front of us I remembered an old saying of my mother's about never striking deals in a moment of anger.  I mean, what were we going to do with two slavers in the middle of the Core?  She has a lot of good sayings, my mom.  

It didn't take long for us to figure out that one of them – Bevo – was the brain, mouth and rear orifice of the bunch.  The other guy seemed more like someone's low functioning cousin so Zero cut him loose.  Bevo, on the other hand – well, I cut him loose too, eventually.  Just probably not in the way he wanted.  

Bevo claimed that he was a bounty hunter and slaver for a Hutt.  And not just any Hutt, but Jabba himself.  I figured at first that he was trying to scare us.  But then he said that Jabba had put a bounty on Zero – when I looked over at the Trandoshan expecting him to laugh it off (or smack the slaver upside his head for the fourth or fifth time) he just grunted like he wasn't surprised.  

Turns out Zero didn't quite "retire" from bounty hunting like he had said.  More like he helped a group of Jabba's two-legged property get away rather than tracking them down.  He had spent nearly three decades since then on the run.  I wasn't entirely thrilled to hear this news – I mean, Krom and I are technically deserters, but as far as the Empire is concerned we are KIA.  No one is out there looking for Tinis Arkit, since only my brother knows that I'm still breathing.  And that news meant that two of our rather small crew have a price on their heads form a race of aliens not known to just "let things lie."  I'm going to draw a big fat "X" on Tattooine on our navigation chart.

Bevo swore that he could help make things right with Jabba if we just cut him loose, and I think both Zero and I were about ready to do it until Krom spoke up.  My friend may not be street smart, but the guy thinks five moves ahead.  And he didn't see this playing out so well.  So we decided to keep our dirtbag slaver around for a bit longer, Krom and Zero finished the Valencia's retrofit, and we said our goodbyes to the Core. 

*

Saleucami is in the Outer Rim and definitely off the beaten path, so we had a long trip ahead of us. We settled into our usual watch schedule, with me taking midwatch just after Krom.  There isn't anything to actually see when we are in hyperspace, and the Val would warn us if any problems arose, but Navy traditions die hard.  So we stand a watch.

My third watch I was sitting in the cockpit, watching the blue tunnel of hyperspace streak by out the transparisteel.  I'd been having bad nightmares the last few rest cycles – dreams about Westhills and the flame troopers just burning up civilians.  The TX-225s smashing through the farmhouses while the TIEs strafed the few farmers that managed to get to their speeders.  Krom and I watched that happen and just left.  We knew we couldn't get justice for those farmers on Lothal and wanted no part of it anymore.  

But I wasn't in the Navy anymore, and I wasn't on Lothal. And yet I was still angry.  Seething.  And here on my own ship we had an animal who admitted he kidnapped people and sold them into slavery.  He ordered an attack on me and my crew that nearly killed Kina.  He  worked for the most ruthless criminal in the galaxy and made no apologies for it.  

So I decided to find a little justice in our corner of space.  I decided Bevo shouldn't be able to hurt another innocent.  

Ever again.

*

I've known Krom forever.  I know all his stories, and he knows all of mine, plus some my more frequent lies as well.  But I guess I need to take a bit more interest in our newer crew members, considering that after two months being in close quarters I hadn't heard Zero's "on the run from Jabba the Hutt" story.  And I still didn't know where Kina had learned astrogation.  I mean, it's not something you pick up waiting tables or haggling with portside merchants.  But she was pretty sharp with the calculations and with our new S/ig 30 humming away we were nearing Saleucami in just over two weeks.  

Luckily I was at the controls when we made our last realspace course correction drop.  The stars closed to points and we came out of hyperspace with minimal residual thrust.  And instead of the expected view of deep black space, I was treated to the sight of a light cruiser, with its shields up and no transponder squawking.  Which told me it wasn't friendly.  I barely had time to slap the shield generators to full and turn us in a tight circle before we were hailed by the cruiser, telling us to prepare to be boarded.  Not this ship, sister.  

I yelled out for Krom and Zero to head for the guns and jammed the throttles to the indents.  The SF-220 screamed to life and a faint whiff of burning electronics reached the cockpit but I knew we needed to put some hard vacuum between us and the cruiser.  The lights dimmed a bit as Krom broke all regs by routing some of the life support power to the shield generators, but he knew that our shields basically were our life support when faced with that kind of firepower.   

Zero pinged the cruiser with a hard active scan, and called out a long list of its active weapons over the comm in an annoyingly calm voice.  That did nothing to change my plan to get us the heck out of here in a hurry.  He also helpfully noted two snub fighters closing in on us at a good clip.  Luckily Kina hadn't missed a beat and had her head down at the navicomputer to start plotting a hyperspace jump.

The Valencia lurched as we took a couple direct hits from heavy lasers and I smelled ozone from at least one ion cannon blast.  The new shield generator nearly redlined and started dumping heat like mad but it held.  I was putting distance between us and the pirates and spinning the ship like a top trying to make us as hard a target as possible but the cruiser had a good-sized battery and only little old us to shoot at.  I could almost see Krom's face as he thought about the hull plating being vaporized by the few shots that got through the shields.  It wasn't his happy face.  And that was about the time we got hit with a shot that took out the hyperdrive motivator.  

I seriously need to check Kina's cup to make sure she isn't spiking her caf.  Here we are, hyperdrive out, running flat out, trying to avoid getting vaporized by corsairs, and she decides to have a little chat with them.  And not just that – although the ship's captain somehow already knew we were working for the Zann Consortium, Kina starts telling her that we were hired to investigate the Pirate Queen and the size of our crew and who knows what else.  I couldn't figure out if she was trying to surrender or if it was some sort of double-triple-double blind to tell a pirate that we were sent by your rival to hunt you down.  

Whatever she was doing, it wasn't stopping the pirates for taking shots at us, so I cut the transmitter and yelled at Kina to stop messing around and help Krom shoot straight.  The lizard is a great brawler, but those three thumbs don't seem to help him much in a space battle.  Between jukes and rolls that were straining the artificial grav system, I was doing my best to let him get a few decent shots at the snub fighters and he finally got through with a solid hit.  I could see the ventral gun was quiet and figured Krom was frantically working to keep us in one piece.  

The ion cannons had stopped firing and I knew we were outpacing the cruiser so we just had to get those fighters off our back and we had a chance.  I locked the ventral gun into strafing position and between me and Zero we managed to squeeze off a few shots that left one of the fighters a rapidly expanding cloud of hot gas and metal fragments.  The other cockpit jockey must not have liked his odds and peeled off back towards the cruiser, giving Krom a chance to get the hyperdrive back online.  As soon as the readouts turned green, ran a plot and we made ourselves scarce.

*

After a short misjump diversion we had Saleucami in the viewscreen and approach control had given us landing clearance.  I put the Valencia down on her landing skids in a nicer part of town than we normally frequent, evidently a bit of courtesy from our current employers.  It didn't take long for me to catch on this was a Zann "company town" since some Consortium lackeys were waiting to meet us at the docking bay as soon as the ramp hit ferrocrete.  

A few minutes later we had been escorted to one of the nicer cantinas I've been in that close to a spaceport.  The errand boys took us to a back room where we were expecting to find Porel.  Turned out Venlana was there as well.  She said something about just being in the neighborhood, but there isn't much else habitable in this part of the Rim.  I say she couldn't stay away from my rugged good looks and magnetic charm.  

We told Venlana about our little pirate trouble on the way in and she actually seemed almost apologetic.  Turns out that the Consortium and the Pirate Queen's gang – called "the Sorority" of all things – were basically in open warfare with each other.  That part didn't surprise me.  And it turns out that Venlana suspected her organization had a traitor in it.  That part didn't surprise me either, since pirates don't normally know who their prey is working for the second they come out of hyperspace.  So we were set up, and nearly got our ship shot out from under us because of it.  And we all know what happened to the last slag who thought it was a good idea to cut a hole in my ship. 

Never let it be said that the Zann Consortium is stingy with intelligence when it suits their interests.  Venlana had gotten a few leads on the Pirate Queen that she thought might point us in the right direction: a computerized travel agency called SororoNet, an alcoholic (and supposedly exiled) former member of the Sorority named Graf Lin, and the most interesting to me – a Rodian named Creezo Wasanti that Venlana thought was likely the traitor in her organization.  

That would be the same likely traitor that put me and my crew crossways with a pirate cruiser.  So we decided to pay the little green rodent a visit at his establishment.  Zero was all for playing a game of smash and grab.  Namely that he grab the Rodian by his snout and smash him until he confessed.  But just in case Creezo turned out to have more stamina than expected when faced with a Trandoshan beat down I thought we might try another tactic and appeal to his greed.  

Venlana mentioned that a Consortium shipment of disruptor pistols had gone missing, and that she suspected Creezo had taken them.  So we went to the Rodian's shop with a couple of objectives – confirm that Creezo was the traitor, identify his contact with the Pirate Queen's network, and if we were lucky, get our hands on a bunch of highly illegal (and highly profitable) disruptor pistols that might earn us a little finder's fee from our current employers.   

We made the offer, appealed to the Rodian's greed, and I managed to slip a Rhinsome SureSnoop tracker into his pocket so we could follow his movements.  So if the weasel really is bent we should know in short order if he brings us a bunch of disruptors he isn't supposed to have.  Proof of his guilt might make him ready to trade what he knows about the Pirate Queen for whatever the Zann Consortium considers mercy.  

And if that fails, we can always watch Zero wail on the guy for a while to make him talk. 

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Tales From the Core: The Diary of Van Elendis pt. 7

I couldn't wait to get off Rodia, and I don't think I was the only one.  After our run-in with the witch doctor, we were all nursing a few electrical burns and bruises and our supposed payday had turned out to be anything but.  Plus the planet was stifling hot and smelled like sweaty Trandoshan feet even when Zero wasn't in the room.  So I was ready to dust off and put some hard vacuum between me and this planet.  

But first things first.  We needed a cargo, preferably one that paid.  And maybe a little something of more questionable legality on the side.  We put feelers out to a few brokers  and it didn't take long before we had a few leads.  I know I give Kina a lot of grief because of where we met and…well, because she's such a bleeding heart for sob stories I'm amazed she managed to live as long as she has.  Which admittedly might not be very long.  I'm not too good at guessing Twi'lek ages — she might only be 13 years old for all I know.  And Zero and I definitely meet the cynic quota for the crew so maybe one eternal optimist balances the Force or some such nonsense.  

While Kina might buy every sad story she comes across, she does drive a hard bargain once actual credits are on the line.  She didn't disappoint this time and found a few crates of atlantium that were looking to make their way to Corellia. They were on spec rather than freight, but we had the funds and Kina swore she could get us a good price once we got coreward.  She hasn't let us down yet, so Krom advanced the credits to her comlink, Kina closed the deal, and we had a legit cargo.  

Now for the extra profit.  I definitely hate Rodia, but Krom and I hadn't survived the last few years out on the Rim without knowing how planets like this worked.  That means an underworld.  And that means spice.  I nosed around in a few seedy cantinas before I ran into a ratty-looking Wookie who was willing to part with a cube of glitterstim for a decent price.  I thanked whatever deity Rodians worshipped that Zero wasn't along for the ride, since I vaguely remembered Wookies and Trandoshans weren't the closest of friends.  

I'd known a few Corellian pod racer wannabes when I was at the Academy.  I was sure some core world spice junkie would give me a good price to get wired up on the 'stim so I made the deal and tucked the cube into my swoop vest.  I got back to the Val, stowed the glitterstim away in a nifty little smuggling space that Krom had built under the dejarik table, and a few standards later we were breaking atmo and heading for a hyperspace jump point.  We had a moderately-full cargo hold, a decent credit balance, and Zero brewed the caf extra strong.  Life was good.  For now.

****

Ahh, the Core.  What can I say about the Core?   I've never been a fan of Core systems.  The HoloNet feeds are all first run, the droids all still factory shiny and the weather control systems actually work.  But it's just too clean; too many rules.  And way, way too many people.  

There are a few good things about the Core, though.  I love my dear Valencia  (although maybe not as much as Krom), but I tried not to drool at all the late model ships buzzing around the Corellian Systems highport.  And even though the first customs agent sniffed his nose at us "backward" Outer Rim types, Corellia didn't seem as bad as Coruscant with its miles of vertical buildings, ISB everywhere and even regular citizens ready to inform on you if you didn't toe the line.  

We first dusted down at a mineral refinery on the edge of Coronet City, where Kina said she thought we could exchange our spec ore for a profit.  It didn't take her long and we were 2000 credits to the good, even factoring in our fuel and overhead.  After one small detour at a docking bay that screamed "sucker" (with the aforementioned snobby customs agent) we had the Val settled at our kind of landing bay – quiet, out of the way, and most of all, cheap.

Krom and I were in the Imperial Navy, not the army, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate having the right kit.  Having taken a heavy sabbac pot with the first part of our payout from the Zann Consortium, I had credits to spend and a pretty good idea of how to spend them.  We didn't see much in the way of port security around our landing bay so Krom and Kina kept an eye on the ship while Zero and I went to examine what the Core had to offer in the way of "objects d'boom" as they say on Naboo.  Namely the nearest gun store.  

For being squeezed between an all-night Neimoidian diner and a payday loan kiosk, the place had a decent inventory.  I have to admit that Zero seemed to know what he was about while he checked out a few blaster rifles.  I saw him work the actions pretty smoothly for a guy that only has three wide thumbs for hands.  I considered trading my DL-44 for a T-6 "Thunderer" but luckily saw what I had been really looking for on a shelf behind the counter – a slightly used Czerka Arms C-10.  The same model used by the bounty hunter Dragoneye himself.  Turned out the reason it was on the shelf and not on display was because it belonged to the owner, but after I pointed out all the purchases I would be making in his fine establishment he was willing to let go of his "dear" personal weapon to such a great customer (and for another thousand credits.)  He even helped fit the custom grip so it fit my hand like a charm.

With the C-10 heavy on my leg and a nasty little Imperial Army Scout blaster tucked into a concealment holster on my opposite hip, I felt ready to take on a Hutt army by myself.  And it didn't very long before I got to try out my new purchase in "realistic" combat conditions.

Leaving Kina and Krom alone was not our brightest move.  I mean, don't get me wrong – I love Krom more than my own brother.  He kept me from flunking out of the Academy, stopped me from trying to fight a platoon of stormtroopers on Lothal after I'd had too many Green Galaxies, and has kept every ship I've flown from disintegrating in flight despite my best efforts.  I'd bury a body for the guy.  Actually, I've done just that.  But he's a techie – he likes spanners and droids and bi-axial plasma splitters and just isn't the wisest in the ways of the world.  And Kina – she actually trusts people, which is like asking to end up being escorted out an airlock without a vacc suit.  

So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when we came up on the two of them in the middle of a firefight with a couple of nasty pieces of work.

Kina and Krom might not be streetwise, but they aren't helpless.  They had put a few cargo containers between them and the business end of the two scumbags' blasters and had managed to put one of them on the ground with a couple of blaster burns to the chest.  But Kina was nursing a nasty gut shot that had her nearly falling over, and if we hadn't have shown up she might not have made it.  The other goon – a Weequay from the looks of it – was moving right up on her with something sharp in his hand.  Me and Zero aren't ever gonna be besties, but the old lizard didn't hesitate for a nanosecond – he bum rushed the Weequay and put him in a pretty vicious armlock.  

That was probably when I noticed the Twi'leks – a lady and her two kids – huddled against the ferrocrete wall trying to stay out of the line of fire.  Their arms were held awkwardly behind their bodies, not the usual posture for hiding during a battle.  More like the posture when you have binders on.  So we had two pieces of bantha fodder shooting at my closest friend, some Twi'lek captives of some sort, and we were on a Core world where this kind of pfassk isn't supposed to happen.  

Zero had a pretty solid grip on the Weequay but Captain Belami drilled into our heads that the best prisoner was one that had no chance of escape.  So I flicked the C-10 to stun, pressed the barrel into the Weequay's neck and dropped him like a sack of yot beans.  Kina looked at me like I was crazy, but I had no interest in having a discussion in the middle of docking bay 93 when we had a nice, private YT-1300 we could use for that purpose right nearby. 

Considering what happened to our ship, that might not have been the best plan.  

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Tales From the Rim: The Diary of Van Elendis pt. 6

Like I said, we aren't detectives.  But the Valencia's crew isn't full of mouth-breathing nerf herders, either.  So it didn't take long for us to figure out that something was a bit off with this whole situation at the archeologist's camp.  Rodian primitives generally don't attack Imperial scientists without a reason.  And I had a bad feeling about what we saw with the researchers' wounds – arrows and spear wounds made sense.  But a few of them looked like they had been hit by lightning or some kind of ion weapon.  Not something Rodian primitives generally carry around.

We needed a bit more to go on, and Dr. Aphra wasn't exactly the most forthcoming so we decided to poke around a bit on our own.  Krom and Kina took the turbolift down a level while Zero put on his best "don't slag with me" look and glared at the jungle.  It must've worked, because the jungle didn't try anything.  I decided to keep an eye on our current employer; more specifically I decided to see what she was so focused on at her terminal.  Spying is such an ugly term – let's just say I was gathering intelligence in the very focused range of her computer screen.  Turns out I was right to be a bit worried – she was putting together some sort of report to her Imperial bosses on the attack and asking for "reinforcements." 

Krom and my IDs are pretty solid.  Some of the best slicer work in the Outer Rim, or at least that's what Ashleyn humbly told me when she made them for us.  I don't have much reason to doubt her – we've gotten past Imp customs agents, stormtroopers and even an overzealous ISB officer (are there any other type?) once without ending up dead or on a prisoner barge to Kessel.  But we don't like to press our luck unnecessarily.  So the idea of a platoon of bucket heads getting in our business didn't sound too good.  Plus I figured the good doctor might back out of our agreement and the rest of the 8,000 she owed us if she could get the Imperial Army to do it for free.

0T-5N, the doc's protocol droid, apparently took offense to my keen eyesight and stood in my way. I've learned not to waste time talking to the help when the boss is available, so I "diplomatically" reminded Aphra that we had an agreement and that calling the army down before we knew what was what might violate that agreement.  I might have also insinuated that we'd leave her stranded with a bunch of hostile primitives nearby if she didn't listen up quickly.  She didn't like it, but she saw the light and said she'd delay her report for a day.  She also gave me a bunch of video files showing her team's final minutes.  And I saw that her droid knew as much about protocol as Krom does – which is pretty much nothing.  0T moved like a disguised protection model to me and it looked to be armed to take down a rancor.  Good news if it and its master was on our side, but I wasn't quite sure of that yet.

Kina and Krom hadn't wasted time checking out the rest of the facility.  Krom found a terminal with some serious admin access and pulled some maps and logs that referenced a nearby dig site.  He also learned that the archeology crew was interested in finding Clone War era weapons.  More Clone War era weapons.  Must be the theme in this sector.  Kina found a journal that backed up this story and that the dig was well-supported by Palpatine's treasury.  The four of us huddled and looked over the holotapes again – and that's when someone noticed a boss Rodian on the vid directing some of the others to take two of Aphra's colleagues prisoner.  So we knew at least two were alive when they left – time to earn that 8,000.  

Zero was getting antsy to punch something anyway, so we gave our gear one more check and headed out towards the dig site.  Dr. Aphra had decided to come with us, with her astromech and "protocol" droid in tow.  Kina surprised me yet again, for a change not by shooting Zero in the head, but by being a pretty decent tracker.  She said something about Ryloth being a pretty dangerous place to grow up but I got the feeling it was something else. 

We made it to the dig site without any trouble, although there wasn't much left.  A bunch of plastiform storage buildings, excavation tools and a few scattered pieces of electronics, all set on fire and thrown into the hole the archeologists had been digging.  From the holos it had been a few days since the attack but the pit was still smoldering.  But no researchers, dead or alive; and no Rodians.  So we pressed on.

This time it was me who found the trail – mostly by figuring that the Rodians would want to keep moving away from the base camp and looking hard on that side of the clearing.  We found a few primitive decorative spears and signs of a trail, so we rechecked the charge on our blasters and kept on moving.  After a few minutes we heard something that gave us pause – singing.  I hadn't heard Rodian native singing before.  Now that I have, it is just one more thing I hate about this planet.  

Krom and I left Zero and Kina to guard the doctor and crept up to see about this choir practice in the middle of the sweltering jungle.  We followed an old game trail to a small clearing with about ten Rodians clustered around a hole in the ground, singing their green snouts off.  The boss Rodian was there as well, leaning on a staff and and directing the singers.  They had posted a few guards but with all the excitement of the jungle concert they had their backs to us, which was just fine to me.  

We quietly called the rest of the crew up the trail and had just gotten into some good ambush positions when Krom noticed that our two missing scientists were the center of attention in the pit.    Not good, since I figured we were watching some sort of sacrifice ritual to pre-industrial Rodian gods.  Krom and I were both Imperial Navy but the Academy had a lot of ex-Army types as teachers and we had some decent tactical classes so we put that to work setting up what we thought would be a pretty good ambush.  It would've worked, too, if we didn't have to deal with magic.  

The attack (like most, I expect) started off just as planned.  We dropped two of the guards in short order, and Zero and Krom ran up to lob stun grenades at the singers.  Zero might be a tough brawler but it's obvious he was never a real soldier – his grenade slid past the target and ended up only taking one of them out, while Krom's throw wasn't much better.  Still, we had four Rodians down and had the advantage.  Or so I thought.  We recognized the boss Rodian from the holovid – an older female with a wooden staff decorated with primitive fetishes and the like.  But she didn't move like a senior citizen – in fact she jumped about 20 meters straight at us, spinning her staff around like the martial arts instructor back at Corulag.  I'm sure some Rodians are decent with a bo staff.  But none should be able to jump 20 meters.  None.

And that wasn't the worst of it.  She and Zero faced off, which I figured wouldn't be much of a contest.  And it might not have been if it was staff vs. shock glove.  But then the Rodian reached out her hand and…shot lightning.  Not from an overcharged shock glove, not from a holdout blaster.  She just shot a bolt of purple lightning out of her hand.  Like black magic or the stories my nan used to tell about the boogeyman Sith that would come get us if we didn't do our farm chores.  

I put this bit of information down as being Not Good kept blasting away at the Rodians, some of us taking shots at the guards while others focused on the witch doctor.  She got in a few more blasts of lightning, one of which scorched me pretty good, before she did her super leap back towards the hole in the ground.  Probably half the singers were still standing at that point, trying to shoot at us with arrows.  I yelled out for Kina to go with me and ran up the the hole to see if I could even the odds a bit more since I had no interest in seeing what an arrow wound felt like.  The blasted lightning hurt enough.

Running towards the hole, my heart began beating faster.  It wasn't just the adrenaline going – that was already in play.  This was something different.  I felt cold, despite the fact that we were in a sweltering jungle.  And part of me wanted to run away, even though I had a heavy blaster and the Rodians were shooting arrows.  Kina and I chucked our stun grenades in the hole but I could tell she was feeling the same sense of strange as I was – and it must've affected our aim because we only dropped a couple more Rodians with the two grenades.  I could hear Krom behind us still firing away with his DL-12.  Krom'd be a pretty good shot if he actually spent some time practicing.  Unfortunately if he spends more than five minutes with a blaster he ends up taking it apart to see how it works rather than improving his aim. 

The witch doctor was standing on top of some sort of pod or sarcophagus in the bottom of the pit.  I could see that there was some sort of hatch on it but couldn't quite see inside.  The two hostages were also on top of the pod – not tied up mind you, but just sitting there while a pretty decent firefight was going on around them.  They looked terrified but despite us yelling at them to run they just stood still.  Just about then the doc's astromech came zooming forward to the pod and started trying to push the hostages towards the rim of the pit without much luck.  

The Rodian witch was having none of that and unloaded a surge of lightning on the droid, which screeched like the Val's navicomputer when it shorted out a few months back.  I was just happy she wasn't blasting me, since I was already feeling pretty woozy and I could tell Kina was having trouble staying on her feet as well.  Kina got off a few good shots and dropped another pair of Rodians and I played ring around the gas giant with another before I managed to blast him.  I could hear shots from behind me so I figured Krom was still banging away as well.

In the meantime, Zero and the witch doctor had gotten into it again.  The Rodian — without her staff I saw — jumped down into the pod through the hatch and Zero didn't hesitate before diving in after her.  I heard a lot of thumping and what sounded like Zero grunting (maybe from another blast of electricity) and then the witch doctor appeared at the hatch opening.  Well, half of her at least – the other half being held onto by a rather hefty Trandoshan.

Kina and I decided that half a witch doctor made a pretty good target and took a careful bead on her green snout.  We got in a few good shots but I saw she was still struggling with Zero to get free.    Krom joined the party as well, blasting away from the edge of the clearing.  I've seen our ex-bounty hunter deadlift a 100 kilo plasma cannister without a problem, but somehow this scrawny Rodian managed to break Zero's grip and then she pulled her super tauntaun jump again and started moving towards the jungle at a good clip.  I decided to try a different tack and switched the DL-44 to stun and Kina, Krom and I blasted away at her until I could see my blaster's barrel steaming.  But something must've connected because I saw the Rodian slump down to the ground.

After what we'd seen I had no interest in sticking around.  We had our two missing researchers, alive.  We had the client, alive.  All of the crew were still on our feet (more or less).  And I wasn't sure that the witch doctor was going to stay down for long, so we beat feet down the path and back to the Valencia.  I thought it might be practical to put some deflector shields between us and any potential lightning hands.

There are a couple more smuggler rules that I'll need to pass along to Kina.  Always get a percentage up front.  Never play sabbacc with a Toydarian.  And the client always lies.  Always.  This job was no exception.  We had just gotten the Val's landing hatch buttoned up and Dr. Aphra tells me that her message to her Imperial patrons "accidentally" got sent during the firefight.  And to top it off, she might have "overestimated" her credit situation to the tune of…all of it.  Great.  So now we probably had a platoon of stormtroopers heading our way and we were out 8,000.  

I was ready to drop the good doctor and her two droids out the cargo hatch from 20,000 meters, but Kina had taken a shine to her and worked out a deal.  We traded the credits we were owed for a full bacta tank in the medical bay, I smooth-talked the bucket heads when they eventually showed up and we got a solid "I owe you" from the doc that might come in handy if we ever need help from a Core-world researcher with a history of bad luck and an over-armed interpreter droid.  Not likely.  But in this business, I guess you never know.  

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Tales From the Rim: The Diary of Van Elendis pt. 5

After Christophsis, even Krom would have to admit that bringing Keena on as part of the crew was one of my more brilliant ideas.  The fringer might have just been a waitress in a dead-end cantina when we first ran into her, but that Twi'lek has a head (tails?) for deals.  And a knack for blasting Zero in sensitive places on a fairly frequent basis.  But I'm convinced she could squeeze a few credits out of a Tattooine sandstone if she needed to.  Plus as I mentioned – she's easy on the eyes.  And for a change we didn't even have to pull out our blasters.

After leaving the hulk of the Black Wing with some sort of shadowy deep space creature hot on our six, we came out of hyperspace a few hours later right where we'd planned, close in-system at Christophsis.  What we hadn't planned was to come out next to a whole squadron of TIEs blaring ion after a couple of what our scanners said were a couple of up-armored freighters.  The TIEs plus a few Imperial cruisers in orbit around the crystal planet seemed a bit of overkill for a customs inspection gone wrong so I quickly went into "fly casual" mode and put the Val on the most boring planetary approach I could mange.  I even remembered to call out on the emergency channel in a panicky voice for protection from whatever the Imps were chasing.

The freighters didn't stick around long, and they all jumped off in different directions after taking a few hits from the fighters.  Didn't seem like pirates to me, so I figured the ships might've been part of this anti-Imperial group we'd heard about a few times.  Now the Force knows I have no love for Palpatine or his Empire after what I saw on Lothal, and I'm pretty sure Krom agrees with me on this point.  But I was in the Imperial Navy for a good long while.  I've seen what AT-ATs and stormtroopers can do to even well-equipped planetary defense forces.  I've been on an Imperial Star Destroyer and and know that up-armored freighters are no match for real military ships.  I wasn't sure what these pirates or rebels or whatever they were hoped to accomplish, but it wasn't gonna be much once real soldiers got to the fight.

The TIEs peeled off without ever even returning my hail. Typical for the arrogant nerf herders most of those engine jockeys are.  So I continued on my "nothing to see here" approach and got in the queue for flight control.  There was some sort of customs enforcement going on and the wait was lengthy, but Keena sweet-talked the poor paper-pusher on the other end of the commlink and before you could say "Rodia is hot and nasty" we had ourselves a sweet landing pad, comp'ed for 48 standards.  

After what we had been through, we had a couple orders of business.  Zero and Keena were still pretty banged up (Zero because of Keena, now that I think about it) and they wanted to visit a hospital.  Zero said something about being thirsty, too, which I thought was a good idea, so we agreed to meet a bit later at a cantina Krom found on the HoloNet.  I decided to check out the shop stalls near the 'port for a bit and then thought I might ask around to see if I could get a lead on anyone who might be interested in paying good credits for the location of a century-old dreadnaught with a defective invisibility screen and a psychotic AI onboard.  Krom did what he always does when we dust down – poke around on the outside of the Valencia looking for problems.  He didn't have to look far, unfortunately.

The shops were pretty well stocked for an Outer Rim planet and it didn't take me long to make a note of who had what and for how much. Surprisingly, finding a potential buyer also didn't take too long.  I bought a few Supernovas for a scruffy Rodian whose name I couldn't pronounce who introduced me to a wheezy Dug whose name I couldn't wait to forget who sent me to a Devaronian named Dax that had a buyer for me: Orsk (a Bothan, this time), who normally held court in the cantina "Laredo" off Rose Crystal square.  The Devaronian was nice enough to clue me in that Orsk worked for the Zann Consortium, which meant that he had the credits to make this happen.  He also told me he wouldn't mention anything about our meeting, which of course meant he would tell Orsk everything he could about me.  Luckily this wasn't my first bantha rodeo so I had been using a fake name and had done my best not to look like me with Krom's old coveralls and smeared with tau reaction dust in a few strategic places.  

We had a name so I headed back to the spaceport cantina Krom had found to meet up with the rest of the crew.  Zero and Keena said they hadn't had much luck with the sawbones, although Zero had some weird stitches on the back of his head and he smelled even worse than normal – like a bouquet of lizard and wet dog.  Krom had been busy as well, and had replaced some of the hull plating that had been, well…eaten, so the Valencia looked shipshape again.  I briefed them on our potential buyer and we made plans to make contact with Orsk.  

I have to admit, I was pretty impressed on how the crew all handled themselves - maybe the thought of all those credits helped keep us all focused.  Keena was the seller, with Zero playing the role of obvious muscle.  That wasn't much of a stretch.  Krom made a neat job of slicing the Christophsis Zoning Comission's records to get us the cantina's floor plans so everyone could see the ways in and out.  I cleaned off the tau dust, put on an old Commerce Guild flight suit and a bored expression and went to sit at the Laredo's bar to be the less-obvious muscle and backup.  Krom was Johnny-on-the-spot outside, with all of us on commlinks.  I made a mental note that a commlink jammer and few stun grenades would come in handy in the future for meets like this.  And maybe a 74-Z speeder bike or two for us to move around more quickly.  But first we had to get the credits.

Like I said before, Keena took the whole sabbac pot.  Our new friend Orsk wasn't happy with the final price, which was almost double what he wanted to pay.  But the Consortium did its due diligence and we played it cool (it helped that we knew we really had what we said we did) and before long we had a decent pile of credits coming our way.  I do need to familiarize Keena with a few smuggler terms, like "up-front percentage, "goodwill money," and "future jobs," but we had enough to get us off this crystal ball of a planet in good shape.  

Having a few credits to clink together is a good thing, but even better is another paying cargo to throw off any suspicious Imperial customs officers.  With the problems we saw coming on-planet, I thought I might reach out to a few respectable brokers to get something in the Valencia's hold – even better if it might be something the Imps wanted to have shipped offworld quickly – like raw materials for the core planets or something like that.  I found a paying cargo quickly enough – a few hundred credits profit at most, but the low profile was the most important part.  

And then I had to go and complicate things.  It wasn't like I was trying to.  It's just that keeping the Val in the black, constantly moving the last few years to make sure we didn't have any ISB goons on us, has meant that Krom and I have pretty much constantly been on the lookout for a paying cargo – and that includes passengers.  So when I see this lady in some low-rent cantina, dressed for the a three-day dig on Ordo but screaming Core in her mannerisms and accent…well, I couldn't just pass it up.  I mean, of course she is looking to get off planet, and of course she is willing to pay 10,000.  With 2,000 of that up front (see, Keena? That's how it's done!)  All we have to do is get our new passenger Dr. Aphra, her two droids and her cargo to Rodia and we are even more ahead for a change.  So I thought why not? (Although I did at least think to check with Krom first.)

It looked like we'd be in the black none too soon, either.  A couple friendly ladies at the cantina said there was some sort of research facility on Christophsis.  I thought that the excitement we saw when we first hit system might have something to do with that.  We'd been seeing some kind of smoke off and on on that side of the city, and the bucketheads were out in force, with Lambdas and Imperial troop carriers to back them up.  HoloNet and INN had been running a pretty steady stream of reports about the "heroic efforts of our brave Imperial troops" and "unplanned power grid maintenance" and "terrorist cells" —  the same sort of junk we saw after Westhills.  That's usually more than Krom and I need to remember its a big galaxy and we might want to sample a different brand of alcohol a few parsecs away for a change.

We had a busy last night on planet, between collecting our first payment from the Consortium and turning over the coordinates and our magic AI box, finishing our shopping now that we finally had some credits to our name, collecting our distinguished passenger and her cargo and avoiding any Imperial entanglements.  We got departure clearance without any particular trouble (the Christophsan pencil-pusher still seemed worried about what Keena might say) and I fired the landing jets hard to get us off ferrocrete and clawing for the blue as soon as the Valencia's ramp signaled hard seal.  

We had a little bit of a scare on the outbound when one of the Imps took an interest in us.  It started like a normal sweep, asking about lifeforms and cargo and destination and such.  I was glad that we had a good story to tell with our hold full of repulsorlift parts but I wasn't sure how good of a scan they could get from that range.  Krom and I flew Lambdas and we had to be pretty close to get anything more than a basic weapons and biologicals read.  We didn't get any TIEs sent our way, but they asked about the number of crew and passengers in a way that made me want to check our six just in case.  And then Keena finished the last tweaks to her hyperspace plot, I pushed the power throttle forward, and the stars became lines.

So…Rodia.  Yeah, I hate that planet.  It's hot and sweaty and full of…well, Rodians.  And those blasted wall-crawling crocodile things that Keena tends to see with disturbing frequency.  But it was along the Correllian Run and we were another 8,000 credits to the good once we dropped the good doctor off at the first spaceport.  And then the doc starts trying to alter the bargain on us, saying she is some sort of researcher (on an Imperial grant no less) and that she lost contact with her group and won't we look for them, please?  To which certainly the answer is "no way" since we are a smuggler crew and not a detective firm.  But she waved another 5,000 credits at us and looks all panicked and Keena goes to sympathizing with her and Krom is giving me "that look" again.  I hate it when the only person who agrees with me is Zero.  So I guess we are detectives now.

Doc Aphra gives us the camp coordinates so I skim the jungletop at a pretty good pace before the sensors tell me we are in the right spot.  No signs of life out the cockpit nor on the sensors, and they don't answer our hails on any of the channels Aphra gives us.  So I bring the Val in with a hot-zone combat landing - mostly because it's fun and I need to keep my skills up but maybe just a little because all the maneuvering dropped the good Dr. on her rear end and reminded her she wasn't calling all the shots.  

No welcome party except for the cacophony of jungle noises all around.  We tooled up and I made sure that Krom actually remembered to bring his blaster this time and that Keena knew that Zero was in front of her so she should avoid shooting him in the head.  And as soon as the ramp was down it hit me – the heat, the humidity, the stink of jungle.  And the flies.  Force help me, the flies don't end on that planet.    

We kept a close eye out but it became apparent pretty quickly what had happened to Aphra's colleagues.  Some sort of primitive attack – we found bodies with arrows and cuts and no one left alive.  The doc just walked around in shock; you could see her ticking off names in her mind.  And then she did it again and something clicked – one body she was looking for wasn't there.  Someone might be alive.  And then I started regretting that we said we'd give her five days of looking for the low-low price of 5,000 credits.  I should've had Keena do the negotations.

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Tales From the Rim: The Diary of Van Elendis pt. 4

Treasure means different things to different folks.  For my dad, it was a good harvest of yot beans.  For a Hutt, I'm sure it's a load of spice or slaves or something equally distasteful.  For me it means freedom – the ability to fill the autochef with some better-than-average fillers, keep the Val's hull plating from looking like a Dejarik table, a bribe or two to some Imp customs agent, and a few credits left over for a halfway-decent bottle of Ergish rum for me and Krom to find the bottom of.  

So I wasn't really expecting to find piles of Old Republic credits or dilirium crystals on this supposed "treasure ship" but the reality was less than I had imagined.  I hate jobs where we come out worse off than when we started.  But I guess I'm getting ahead of myself here.

With the help of the schematics Krom and Keena had found I managed to skirt along the invisible hull of the Black Wing and got us where I calculated the midships airlock should be.  As soon as we locked down, suddenly what had been a big, black hole in space became a big, black military airlock door in space.  It looked to be in good shape, although it was admittedly a bit dated.  The Valencia's environmental safeties showed a hard seal and a breathable atmo on the other side so  Zero put the puzzle box of a computer in Krom's Navy rucksack, we gave each other one look of encouragement, checked our blaster charges and hit the door release.

I'm not really sure what I expected after a hundred years.  Artificial-g was still operating, and the fact that we were breathing without a vacc suit meant power and life support computers were still functioning but the only lights were from our handheld torches.  Zero started complaining almost immediately about some sort of buzzing in his ears (which for the record, he doesn't even have).

We didn't get far before we saw our first body.  It looked like I'd expect a century-old corpse to look except for the fact that it was wearing an Old Republic uniform like you see in the holovids.  We kept moving up and forward, with the intent on getting to the bridge to see what might have gone wrong.  Pretty soon, Keena started getting the same headache/buzzing as Zero and I might have gotten even more vocal about what a bad idea this whole expedition was.  But Krom had that blasted "stay calm and carry on" look in his eye so we kept moving forward.  I kept my DL-44 in hand just in case.  

We went past a series of berths and what looked like labs or engineering spaces.  A few more bodies, and a couple that looked like they might have died violently.  Zero was up front, as usual.  I give the Trandoshan grief because he's old and cranky and dour and generally no fun to be around, but he doesn't lack for courage.  Or it might just be stupidity.  I don't really care as long as he draws the first shots.  So he hears something with his non-ears and motions for us to stop.  Didn't take long for me to hear it as well, some sort of squeaking and wheels on the deck.  Droid, I thought.  

Zero might be brave but he's not exactly stealthy.  Ditto with Keena because she's usually blathering about Hutts or Zero's lack of table manners or some Twi'lek band I've never heard of.  And while Krom and I didn't get a lot of hours of special forces training at the Academy,  we picked up a few tricks so we decided to check it out.  Turned out to be some sort of ancient MSE-6 repair droid with its programming stuck, bouncing off the corners of a berthing space.  I thought we should leave it alone since it wasn't bothering us, but I've yet to see Krom leave a piece of tech alone when he could pick it up and mess with it.  Which is exactly what he did.  Then he tries to plug the blasted thing into his datapad and it starts screeching like he shot it with the DL-44.  

Zero and Keena had come up the hall at that point wondering what was going on when Krom gives me that "told you so" grin like when he sliced Captain Xeron's commlink back on Lothal and got us weekend liberty passes.  He said that the Black Wing had some sort of communication breakdown between the bridge and engineering shortly before whatever happened went down.  That didn't improve my mood any.  We talked a bit about whether we should continue on or maybe check out engineering but since we had already made progress towards the bridge that idea won out.  That and the fact that Krom and I were starting to feel the buzzing that you really couldn't hear but that wouldn't go away.

We had a rather bizarre run in with some droids in anthromorphic programming mode, passed even more bodies and found a security room full of battle droids that I locked down hard just to make sure they wouldn't come looking for us.  The whole ship was creepy as a Geonosian brain worm and I was ready to get this thing over and done with.  We made it up to the last ladder before the bridge and hit a brick wall.  Well, not exactly a brick wall – it was actually a magnetic field that looked suspiciously like an emergency atmo seal.  Since none of us had a vacc suit we thought it was time to head back and check out engineering when all of the sudden we heard a voice over the 1MC. 

You can always tell an AI by the voice.  Sounds like a droid, only more smug and flat and a lot creepier.  One of the reasons I've always been glad the Lambdas and the YT-1300s don't have anything onboard more powerful than the navicomputer.  I'd hate to hear that creepy voice every time I asked the ship for a plot or if the caf dispenser was on the fritz again.  

The Black Wing's AI had the added creepy factor of having been lost in space for a century and us having walked past a literal mortuary of its previous crew.  Krom got the bright idea of pretending to be an Old Republic repair crew which seemed a bit goofy to me considering we were dressed in civvies and not Old Republic uniforms but maybe the AI hadn't kept up with military fashions out here in the black.  It seemed to work – the ship answered a few routine status queries from us but clammed up pretty quickly when Krom asked about the experimental invisibility device. 

Then Zero – again, he's brave, but not particularly bright – decides to pull his magic box out of Krom's ruck and ask the ship about it.  The good news was, he got the lights turned on.  The bad news was the AI went off comms and the buzzing seemed to get worse and Keena started turning a shade that even Twi'leks aren't supposed to turn.  A lot of dead crewmembers, an AI that seemed creepier than normal and us without vacc suits was not what my academy instructors called a "advantageous tactical situation."   So I mentioned it might be good time to get the pfassk back to the Val, full speed.  For once, everyone agreed.

The Force is my witness, this really happened.  We were jogging back to the Valencia, Zero on point, me watching our six and Krom and Keena in the middle.  All of the sudden Keena pulls her blaster out and shoots Zero in the back of the head point blank while screaming something about sewer alligators.  She almost killed the guy.  For the second time in as many weeks.  

Both Krom and I swung our blasters around to cover our fratricide-happy waitress, figuring we might be next.  But you could see in her expression that she was as confused as either of us to see a blasted and bleeding Zero in front of her.  Keena said the buzzing in her mind was overwhelming – it wasn't bothering me as much but it definitely wasn't comfortable.  And then one of the techies (probably Krom, since Zero was spending a lot of mental energy trying not to bleed out on the deck) suggested that the ship or the invisibility device might be messing with our heads to make us hallucinate.  Stellar.  A crazed AI mortuary ship that could make us see things that weren't there.  

Full speed became flank speed and we made it back to the Val without further incident.  I was all for cutting the seal and leaving the mystery of the Black Wing for the next set of idiots, but Krom and Zero started talking about the mystery box and why the AI might be worried about it and next thing I knew they had decided it was some sort of rogue AI override device and that they needed to bring it to engineering to hardwire it in and make it work.  

Needless to say, this sounded like a horrible idea to me.  I hadn't seen a single thing that we could make a profit on aboard this ancient tomb and a steady flow of credits are what keeps the Val in the black.  But Krom had suffered through the same ground tactics classes as I did and agreed with me about the value of a decoy operation.  He put together a pretty amazing mockup of the magic box, with a glowing light and everything.  I figured we'd let the slicers take the real deal and if we ran into any ship security droids Keena and would do our best to draw their attention.  I did take the added precaution of setting the Twi'lek's blaster to stun in case she saw any more sewer lizards.  My head isn't as blaster-resistant as Zero's.

I had moved the ship to a new airlock closer to engineering and we readied ourselves for a tough go.  Keena was still looking queasy and the buzzing in my head hadn't stopped.  We all headed out together but hadn't gone far when a group of battle droids came up on us.  Unfortunately I followed the plan, which called for me drawing their fire while Zero and Krom tried to get to engineering.  Old Republic droids must've had better targeting software than current models because these things shot the decoy box out of my hands and winged me pretty good to boot.  I managed to duck back down a ladder after getting off a few shots of my own.  Keena took one of them down, finally blasting something that wasn't Zero.  She isn't a bad shot – we might just need to project a holo of Zero on all our enemies for her to hit the right target.  

I didn't really see much of what happened next, being that I was bleeding from a nasty blaster shot, but Krom filled me in afterwards. He and Zero sprinted to the engineering spaces and plugged in the mystery box to the nearest hardline port.  The Black Wing tried to talk them out of it, but Krom can be pretty stubborn about things and I'd bet that is another thing he and Zero have in common.  The ship hit all the resets – lights, artificial-g, life support.  But the two engineers managed to get us back on the floor and held off a few more battle droids until the box – which I understand was some sort of failsafe device – had done its work.  A few minutes later and we had ourselves a century-old experimental dreadnought (sans creepy and possibly psychotic AI) and had visions of fame and fortune.  Except those visions were competing with the buzzing still in our heads.

The engineers figured out how to turn off the invisibility cloak and, as I suspected, the buzzing in our heads stopped.  But a few minutes later the space whales we had seen in the area decided they were hungry for Old Republic Dreadnought and we realized we had a few choices – keep the invisibility screen off and become space whale food, turn it on and go insane from bees in our heads, or take what we could salvage from the ship and head for the nearest spaceport (hopefully one with a paying cargo). 

I thought we had had a full enough day, but the galaxy wasn't done with us quite yet.  I've seen a lot of stuff flying for the Empire but I still don't have a clue what chased us once we undocked from the Black Wing.  Krom looked over the hull damage afterwards and swears it looks like bite marks.  I think he's just messing with me,  but I'm in no hurry to head back.  Like I said, I hate jobs when we come out worse than when we started. 

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Tales From the Rim: The Diary of Van Elendis pt. 3
Colliding with Space

Benduday 
2/6/0 ABY

I love being in the black.  Sitting at the Valencia's controls is where I belong, even when we are in hyperspace and the navicomputer is doing most of the work.  The Val isn't as responsive as a Lambda-class, or even some of the trainers at the academy.  But the YT-1300s can maneuver well enough and I've figured out how to run the Val through her paces when I need to.  Plus she's mine (at least partially) and that matters.

But sometimes space can be a pretty unforgiving place.  

We had decided to use the data we had gathered and follow the Black Wing's intended flight path. It made the astrogation plots easier and I thought about my mother sitting at the farmhouse table lecturing my brothers to retrace their steps when they lost something.  I figured it still applied to 100-year-old invisible dreadnoughts.  So Keena sat down in the copilot's seat and began calculating our jump (I'm still not sure how a waitress learned astrogation) while I pushed the sublights to cruise and negotiated with orbit control to get us into the departure pattern.

Our first jump was – well, a bit of a mess.  Yeah, I admit I lost my temper.  The scientists on that station must've been fresh from Imperial Center or the Corporate Zone to try and profit off a ship in distress (well, at least claiming to be).  First law of space is to render aid.  That's really the only one people follow these days.  I was thinking about Westhills, and the damned Imps treating the Lothalians like cattle.  So they deserved a real broadside, and I was disappointed we didn't have a couple of proton torpedoes to send their way.  See how they like being in distress for a change.  But at least I didn't get a Hutt angry at us.  I used a fake name and made sure the transponder was off; there are hundreds of YT-1300s working the Outer Rim these days.  

When we came out of hyperspace at the second jump point the view out the screen was the dusty-light of a nebula, which I was expecting.  I didn't expect the warning lights on the bridge to light up like the Festival of Light on Naboo and the ship's sensors to cut out.  Krom had been trying to get the sensor package upgrade working and had run into a few software compatibility issues so basically we were flying blind.  No big deal, I thought.  As long as no one else was flying blind out there.

It was even worse than that.  I got the warning klaxons turned off and was getting ready to head back and see if I could help Krom with the repairs when we got hailed over the short range comms.   That worried me since I figured anyone hailing us knew we were here.  Which means they could see us, and we still couldn't see them. I checked to make sure the shield generators were at full power before I clicked the comms to active and got a lovely earful of some scumbag pirate-type telling us to power down and prepare to be boarded.  Not my ship, sister.  But I played along and made sure the shipwide comms was still open when I said we would stand fast and lower our shields. 

I yelled at Krom to get the sensors fixed, flank speed and diverted enough power to the gun bays to get them warm without showing up on any sensors.  Krom must've found the right engineering deity to pray to, because it only took him a minute to hack together some new code and get our eyes back.  Just in time for us to see there wasn't just one scumbag pirate, but three.  Now I consider myself a hell of a good pilot, and Krom is a fair hand with the guns, but three-on-one is never good odds.  Luckily we've been in some tight spots before.  And like I said, I'm a hell of a good pilot.

I gave Krom a heads up about what I was planning and he and Zero ran for the gunwells.  Keena slid in to the copilot seat — I have to give the girl credit, because she managed to ignore the three ships out the screen just waiting to rape and pillage the Valencia (and her crew, most likely) and began working on the hyperspace jump plot right away.  Maybe ignorance really is bliss.

At the academy we used a pretty slick gravball play where you draw the opponent in close, then shoulder him hard into the wall before lobbing the ball at a teammate running flat out for the goal.   I thought we could try the same thing here – I idled the sublight engines and cut the shields back so they were barely registering.  One of the greedy bastards closed almost to docking range with the other two in a covering pattern and then we let them have it.  Krom lit off with a point blank blast from the dorsal turret, Zero followed up with a glancing shot from the ventral and then I pushed the throttle to the indents straight at one of the covering ships while Keena maxed our deflector shields.   

The move caught them by surprise, but only barely.  The ship we'd blasted was still in the fight, although I could see on the screens where we'd blown through her shields.  The backups gave us some solid shots, scarring the Val's hull and we briefly lost the deflectors before Krom managed to get them back online.  The sublights were flaring and I threw even more power to them, which overloaded a few subsystems but I wanted to get us past the picket ships in a hurry. Krom and Zero pounded away on the closest pirate, and one of them got off a perfect shot that must've hit the sublight coolant lines since the ship pitched forward violently.  We took a few more glancing blows before Keena gave me a grin and the navicomputer display went solid green – I didn't waste any time before firing up the hyperdrive.  

When the lines dropped to stars I suddenly remembered another of my mother's favorite lines – something about frying pans and fires.  We came out of hyperspace right in the middle of an asteroid field and ship graveyard.  The shields kept us from joining the ranks of the deceased, but the sensors were barely capable of keeping up with all of the tracks.  Keena and I both nearly choked on our caf (well, more than normal considering the swill Zero brews) since in addition to the debris, asteroids and other assorted dangers we also saw some sort of space whales gliding from asteroid to asteroid off in the distance.  And then we saw something out of the screen even more scary – a hole in space.  Not a black hole.  A hole – like a big nothing where stars (and debris and asteroids) should be.  Like a hole maybe the size of an invisible century-old dreadnaught. 

Every atom in my body was screaming "get out of here, like now" but that tiny little voice in my head (or maybe it was Krom in my commlink) was reminding me that we were low on credits, had a banged up 40-year-old freighter and no paying cargo.  So instead I asked Keena to plot us a good course to…well, to nothing…and slowly moved the Valencia towards what we all hoped was a decent salvage. 

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