Noun The lowest level of a planet’s atmosphere, where conditions are best for lifeforms and turbulence.
Kanan peeked around the corner, blaster at the ready. “It’s clear. Go.”
Hera dashed around him and headed for the doorway. “We’ve got ten minutes, tops, until he figures out that meeting was a ruse and comes back.” She held up a stolen ID badge. The face of a middle-aged man in a dark grey jacket stared blankly from its surface. Hladden Birk, Information Technology Supervisor, BalCorp Industries. “Here we go.”
She held the badge to the door. It slid open with a surprisingly loud swoosh, and they both stepped inside. Kanan waved his hand over the control panel just inside the doorway and it slid closed again.
“And now, the fun begins.” Hera flashed him a quick grin as she sat down in front of Birk’s main computer terminal display.
Kanan stayed near the door, listening. Breaking into these sorts of industrial facilities was often necessary for the sort of information-gathering work they did. It was surprisingly easy to get in. Getting out, however, could be a bit more challenging — and making sure that happened smoothly was his job.
He looked back to see Hera frowning at the screen. “This isn’t making any sense.”
Kanan leaned over her shoulder to squint at the display. “It should be in here somewhere.” He trailed one fingertip across the display screen, then shook his head. “These records are a mess. How do these companies manage to get anything done?”
“It’s a different Empire without Count Vidian around to make things more efficient.”
Kanan shuddered at the memory. “Makes things easier for us.”
“Either that or they’re trying to cover up their tracks more than I realized.” She paused and scrolled backward a bit, then forward again. “Maltho. Ring any bells?”
Kanan thought for a moment. “Maltho. Is it a code name for something?
“I’m not sure. It’s come up three times in connection with large amounts of credits, though. Maybe it’s a project that they’re trying to fund.”
“The first thing that comes to mind is malthochymine.”
“They’re developing chemical weapons?” She turned to look up at him.
“I wouldn’t put it past them.”
“Of course, it could also be a…” There was a flicker just at the edge of his senses, like a black dot appearing in one’s peripheral vision. He blinked.
“Someone’s coming?” There was a touch of awe in her voice, as there always was when he let down his guard against the Force. (She thought he should use that connection more often. He disagreed.)
He nodded and turned, blaster already in his hand. He could hear faint bootfalls now, approaching at a pace that indicated action. Their intrusion had been detected. “I think Birk is coming back, and he’s bringing some friends.”
“I just need to download the financial records.” She tapped furiously at the terminal’s data entry screen.
“Hera, we have to go. Now.”
“Thirty seconds.” Her headtails twitched in a way he’d come to recognize as annoyance.
The sound of troops’ footsteps grew closer. Raised voices could be heard now, reverberating off the walls. Kanan swore softly. They had ten seconds, tops. Hera was good, but even she couldn’t make electrons move faster. He bounced on the balls of his feet. His fingertips began to tingle.
“Got it. Go!”
Kanan leapt toward the door and waved his hand over the panel. It opened and he stepped through, blaster at the ready. To his surprise, the corridor was still empty. The sounds of the approaching feet were close, though, just around a bend some twenty meters away. He gestured the opposite direction and Hera dashed down the corridor, her blaster already in hand.
They rounded a corner and jumped into an open turbolift. Hera pressed the stolen ID badge against the controls. Nothing happened for a moment. She held the badge against the control panel again, and a red light began blinking.
“Druk! We’ve been locked out of the system.” She turned and scanned the corridor. “We’ll have to find another way up. Can we climb through--”
The turbolift doors began to slide closed. Kanan leapt forward and pushed hard against them, bracing them open long enough for Hera to squeeze through.
“Where to?” she asked, but he’d already chosen a direction and started sprinting. The sound of Hera’s boots against durasteel flooring right behind him was reassuring. He could sense her too, could feel the slight ripple in the Force that only existed when she was near. He wasn’t conscious of it most of the time, but in moments like this one, her presence was seared into his mind as clearly as if she were emanating energy.
And her presence wasn’t the only one triggering his senses. There were others ahead, possibly security personnel coming from the opposite direction.
“Not that way.” He stopped and turned in place, looking for an alternate escape route. These new Imperial-funded industrial complexes had more security than those built in the Republic days. The ceiling was solid, with no obvious ductwork they could disappear into. The walls in this section were bare except for what appeared to be an electronics storage closet. It was hardly the best option, but it was the quickest. “Storage room, go!”
Hera pushed the button to open the small door and dashed inside. Kanan glanced down the corridor once more before following. The door slid shut behind him, plunging them into total darkness. He tried to turn to face the door and his elbow made contact with something soft and warm and… round.
He heard Hera hiss in pain.
“Sorry! I’ve barely got room to stand.”
“I think you picked a one-person hiding spot.”
That he had, and one from which there was no escape route if they were discovered. The footsteps grew closer outside. Kanan reached behind him and triggered what he hoped was the door’s locking mechanism. It produced a satisfying click.
“That’ll hold ‘em off,” Hera quipped.
“They’ll shoot me first, you know.”
“Comforting thought.” Her tone was light and teasing, but he could hear the tension beneath it.
In the darkness, Kanan’s other senses shifted into hyper-awareness. The sound of his own heartbeat filled his ears, along with Hera’s slightly shallow breathing. He felt small bursts of damp warmth against his throat as she exhaled, but that paled in comparison to the heat rolling off her body. They were separated by mere centimeters from head to toe, physically closer than they’d ever been.
Kanan looked up to where the ceiling would be if it were visible, and exhaled. He’d never been more tempted to reach out to the Force for strength than he was right now.
“Listen,” Hera whispered, and leaned against him, apparently trying to position her ear closer to the door. One hand pressed against his chest, her long fingers splayed over the fabric of his jacket. Her fingers moved just slightly, and Kanan bit his lip to keep himself from making a sound in response.
It was a Force-damned life-or-death situation, and half of his brain was going offline from hormonal overload. He inhaled smoothly, deeply, and forced his mind to focus. The boots of the security force were moving away now, though there were voices nearby, just a few meters down the corridor. He could only make out a few words through the thick door: “intruders” and “false alarm” and “drill.”
“Are they leaving?” Hera’s fingers clenched the fabric of his jacket.
“I don’t think they know we’re here. We just have to wait.” He patted her on what he hoped was her arm, and she relaxed slightly. She pressed her forehead against his shoulder and sighed. He slid his hand around to her back and held it there, palm pressed against the rough surface of the leathery armor she wore. She wouldn’t even feel the touch, but he could imagine he was holding her, comforting her.
And with hostiles just outside the door, prepared to blast them on sight. Very romantic.
They remained there, neither of them moving for several long minutes. He could hear Hera’s heart beating now, faster than usual. Her fingers traced small circles against his chest, almost a caress. He felt her breathing, warm and rhythmic against his cheek, closer now than she’d been before. Sweat trickled down Kanan’s back. It itched, but the moment he moved, the spell would be broken. She’d move away, as she always did, with longing in her eyes, but resolute in her determination to keep him at arm’s length.
You know I’m fond of you, love, but this is my life right now. There isn’t time for anything else.
He closed his eyes and willed the itch away. The bit of dust that had settled in his nose, however, was another matter entirely. He felt the tickle of a sneeze begin to grow, and then there was nothing else for it. He reached up to squeeze his nose shut, his fingers trailing across usually warm skin as he did. There was a small intake of breath from below. He winced.
It wasn’t fine, he knew. Headtails were off-limits, and the way he’d just stroked his fingers up the length of one of hers was a very intimate touch indeed. His cheeks flamed in the darkness. Could he frak this up any more spectacularly than he had already?
“They’re leaving,” she whispered, and stepped away from him.
The air between them was still hot and damp, and he ached at the loss of contact. He ached in one place in particular, actually. He’d have to make sure she didn’t notice that when they finally got out of here.
He pressed one ear against the door and listened. The footsteps were very faint now. Perhaps it would be all right if he just reached out a bit, just enough to sense how far away they’d gone. He closed his eyes and let go of his careful control, just for a moment. He sensed nothing in the corridor — nothing close enough to be an immediate threat, at any rate. Hera’s presence was a warm beacon in the Force, distracting him from nearly everything else. He let himself wallow in it for a long second, eyes tightly closed. It felt good, but when he pushed it all back down again, there would be nothing but emptiness left. It was an ache he’d grown used to. He swallowed hard and opened his eyes.
“Let’s go.” Blaster at the ready, he opened the door. He winced at the brightness of the corridor, but all was quiet.
“This way,” Hera said, stepping past him. He allowed himself a single moment to watch her retreating figure, then followed.