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The Speed of Light

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“Kriff,” cursed Nigel. “Kriff, kriff, kriff.”

He slapped at the altitude indicators, but they kept dropping at nearly the speed of gravity. He was falling, fast.

The drag of the atmosphere scraped at the hull like sandpaper, shaking the cockpit until Nigel’s teeth rattled. He clenched his jaw shut and surrendered to the need to buckle in. The crash webbing creaked when he stretched it across his chest; he didn’t use it all that much. Of course, he wasn’t usually crashing into the middle of the kriffing desert.

The Imperial patrol had caught him in the middle of what should have been a dead zone according to Darko. He should have been able to camp out in Tatooine’s gravity well unmolested and then jump to hyperspace when the predictable patrols had cleared out. Darko was usually more reliable than this. Kriffing Darko.

Nigel glared at the instrument panel. The emergency klaxons were filling the cockpit with an unholy racket, multiple indicators flashing red. The Imps had clipped both his hyperdrive and his fuel cells when he’d ignored their hails and tried to jump away from their approach. Stormtroopers couldn’t hit the broad side of a vaporator on a clear day, but Imperial pilots were a different beast altogether. Kriffing Imps.

Nigel planted his feet in the crash stirrups and pulled on the joystick until the hull of the Canis trembled. But she nosed up, just slightly. Nigel smiled tight and joyless as the altimeter almost leveled out. Maybe he could salvage this crash into something more like an emergency landing.

A glance at the viewports showed him they were well into the atmosphere, plummeting now through blue sky that was cloudless except for the smoke belching thick from the struggling thrusters. Nigel palmed the releases for the drag fins and the landing gear, winced when the hull whined and shuddered in response. The sand was approaching too fast; Nigel stared at the speedometer and watched as the numbers ticked down too slowly.

It was times like this that he missed the weight of a death stick against his lips, the smoke a sweet burn in his throat. Of course, it was his time on this this thrice-damned world that had forcibly broken him of the habit. He blinked hard against the memories and chewed his lip to focus.

Tugging on the joystick for all he was worth, he forced the Canis into a diagonal descent that finally approached horizontal and a little more speed bled away. He eyed the rock formations a few thousand yards ahead. It wasn’t enough space, but it would have to do.

Sand spattered against the hull as he nearly scraped the ground. He eased down until he did scrape the ground, sand hissing and burning against the metal. There was a sickening crunch as the landing gear broke away, but Nigel barely winced. He was staring between the speedometer and the jutting spires of rock ahead.

“Come on, come on…kriff it, come on.”

The ship squealed and bucked against the sand and the occasional protruding rock, but she slowed. There was still a good stretch of empty sand between him and certain death when she stopped altogether. Nigel breathed a sigh of relief; it shifted into a dismal groan when the engine stuttered and died. His ship was scrap — the Jawas would take what was left by morning.

He unbuckled the crash webbing, stuffed his short-range commlink into an inner pocket, and added water, electrobinoculars, and a portable nav computer to his satchel. His only holo was already safe in the pocket over his heart. When he couldn’t find anything else to salvage or save, he glanced mournfully around the cockpit. “Nice knowing you,” he muttered to the corpse of his ship. When he brushed his hand across the bulkhead on his way to the airlock, he told himself it was to keep his balance.

The suns were setting when he emerged, sinking almost to his ankles in the sand. He stared long and hard at the distant horizon where the faint twinkle of a city beckoned him. A glance at the nav computer told him what he’d been hoping: he was just a couple of klicks from Mos Eisley. A slight wind rose up, flinging sand until his forearms and cheeks stung. He exchanged the nav computer for a pair of goggles and slid out of his jacket to wrap it around his neck and head. He sighed heavily and pulled his right foot free of the sand to take his first step forward.

“I kriffing hate Tatooine.”

===

Night had fallen by the time the loose sand of the dunes gave way to the packed dirt streets of Mos Eisley under Nigel’s aching feet. He hated the teeming port city, but for once he was happy to arrive. He’d heard the song of a few too many krayt dragons as the moons rose. Tatooine looked arid and dead, but it was home to a number of creatures big enough to eat humans and happy enough to do so. Nigel shook the excess dust and sand from his jacket and slid into the sleeves, grateful for the warmth as the night turned cold, and glad of the reprieve from the harsh wind. Tatooine’s cities were small, overpopulated, and existed mainly to facilitate the criminal activities of the Hutts, but at least the squat buildings provided wind cover.

The square buildings with domed rooftops crowded together along the wide dirt boulevards, colorless in the dark. Of course, they’d be just as colorless in the light of the suns. Tatooine produced nothing but bleached sandstone and clay, shades of beige and brown that made looking at the landscape and the cities feel like a very specific sort of color blindness. In the faint glow of the few irregularly placed streetlights, it looked even more depressing than usual.

Nigel smelled the entertainment district before he saw it. Smoke curled from every cantina, carrying the mouth-watering, if slightly burned, scent of bantha steaks. The faint hum of vaporators blended with the raucous laugher and loud conversations of the spacers, moisture farmers, and off-duty Imps who crowded into the cantinas every night for food and liquor. Aside from the occasional podrace or Hutt-sponsored execution, there wasn’t much entertainment on this sand-blasted planet.

Nigel wove through the drunken crowds, skipping past the strip of higher class cantinas — or what passed for higher class on Tatooine. The brilliant signs stained the swirling smoke from the kitchens with reds and blues and yellows, the only slashes of color in the dark. Nigel passed them all by, the lights fading into dingier signs and less appetizing smells. The crowds here were just as loud, but there was a dangerous edge in the noise. This was not the place to start up light conversation or to accidentally knock over a drink. Tiny, black-edged craters surrounded most of the doorways like dark constellations. Burns from blaster bolts.

If it weren’t for the ghostly host of bad memories this planet summoned up, Nigel would feel right at home.

He’d nearly reached the end of the strip of cantinas when he found the sign he was looking for and ducked through the open doorway. The cantina was every bit as dirty and overcrowded as Nigel remembered, full of patrons from every planet this side of the Core, all hazed with the curling smoke of death sticks and the faint smell of spice. There were plenty of other smells Nigel didn’t care to analyze; they all combined to form something sickly and stale. He hustled to the bar to find a drink strong enough to overwhelm his senses.

“Kriff me, is that you, Nigel?”

Darius Darklighter, known to the patrons of his cantina as Darko, was up to his elbows in drink orders behind the bar. His voice just managed to carry over the heads of a Rodian, and Ithorian, and a band of Twi’leks crowded in front of him. Darko was handing out drinks, so it took him a long moment to appear in front of Nigel and clap him on the shoulder. “What are you doing planetside? I thought—“

“Yeah,” Nigel interrupted sharply. “I thought, too. But the Imps forced me down and my ship is scrap in the Wastes.”

Darko blinked. “You waited at the coordinates I gave you?”

Nigel nodded, the blank exhaustion of the day tugging at him in a thousands aches and scrapes that seemed to awaken the moment he stood still.

Darko swore sharply in Huttese. “That mangy kriff. I have a source at the Imperial Embassy, but apparently I need to get a new one. I’m sorry, Nigel.” He looked sincere, kriff it all to hell. Maybe it was dehydration coupled with standing too long in the heat, but for a fleeting moment, Nigel saw Darko as he remembered him, years back. He’d never said a word when Nigel wandered in out of the punishing heat, slipping him drinks and adding them to a tab that never seemed to come due. They’d never talked much, so maybe the past didn’t quite make them friends, but it sure as hell made them something.

Nigel sighed and waved off the apology. “Sometimes the universe just kriffs you over,” he muttered. Darko nodded and put two mostly clean tumblers of Corellian whiskey on the bar.

“I’ll drink to that,” Darko agreed and downed it all in one swallow. Nigel followed suit, savoring the rich burn. Darko refilled his glass. “You got a place to stay?”

Nigel shook his head. “Not yet.”

“There’s an extra room in the back. My brother used to use it when he came by.” Darko paused, sneering. “Kriffing idiot.”

It was one of Mos Eisley's worst kept secrets that Darko's brother Biggs had run off to join the Rebellion. Of course, on the Outer Rim, the news barely even made waves. No one cared much for the distant Rebellion, not even the Sand Troopers. The twin suns cooked the spirit right out of every stratum of society, occupying forces included. The Hutts controlled most of the commerce, legal and illegal, and the Empire kept itself to patrols and perfunctory control that occasionally manifested in minor raids and arrests. Everyone was happy.

Except poor kriffs like Nigel who were just trying to make a dishonest credit or two and got caught in the middle. Nigel knocked back his second whiskey.

Darko watched him. “You're different now,” he said at last. “Sad.” Someone down the bar was gesturing for a refill; Darko ignored it. “Take the room, Nigel. Just till you get a new ship. I owe you for the bad intel.”

Nigel nodded. Maybe it was the whiskey or the aching chorus of bruises all over his body, but he suddenly felt so tired he could have dropped his head on the bar and fallen asleep right there. Darko was still looking at him. Nigel could almost feel the kriffing platitude coming like a lightning bolt.

“Biggs is an idiot sleemo with a lot of big ideas, most of them stupid…but he used to say that sadness is what happens to anger when it dies. It fossilizes, gets hard and cold. Just don’t—” Darko sighed, an exasperated sound. “Don’t let that be you. Okay?”

Nigel was barely listening. The holo in his breast pocket felt heavy enough to crack his chest. In place of the haze of smoke around him, he saw the bleached bantha bones that haunted the Jundland Wastes, monuments to death and the merciless march of time.

More than what was left of Gabi.

Nigel clenched his fists until they trembled; the scar on his side tingled with phantom pain. But Nigel only shrugged at Darko, pointedly dismissing his concern until the increasingly insistent waving down the bar pulled him away. He refilled Nigel’s tumbler one last time before he went.

Nigel knocked it back, stared into the empty glass as his eyes grew heavy and the ache of his body drew farther away. Maybe kriffing Biggs had a point.

Because if anger turned to sadness, like bones buried in the endless Wastes, then Nigel was a kriffing graveyard.

===

Nigel woke up angry, hungover, and cursing under his breath. The only windows were nearly skylights, crescent-shaped openings spaced at wide intervals along the ceiling to admit the glare of the twin suns. Nigel’s glare was almost as punishing, but he sighed and pushed his foul mood away. The guest room Darko had offered was really more of a closet with a pallet on the floor, but it was still a far sight better than any of the inns that were in his kriffing price range.

It wasn’t in his nature to be grateful — the universe and everyone in it usually kriffed him over without remorse — but he decided to make the attempt. Nigel hauled himself up and headed for the refresher. He emerged in a fair mood considering he was a man with no ship who was stranded on the burning hellhole planet he hated most in the universe.

Darko was standing in the hall.

“Look at you. Back to your usual gorgeous self.” Darko’s stupid voice and idiot smile tanked Nigel’s mood again.

“Caf,” he grunted, halfway between a request and a demand. Darko pointed down the passageway that led back into the cantina.

“Tell the droid I sent you,” Darko said, and clapped him on the shoulder.

The cantina was all but full when Nigel deactivated the barrier guarding the living quarters and pushed aside the curtain beyond it. A glance at his wrist chrono confirmed that it was mid-morning. Always happy hour in Mos Eisley.

He gave the other patrons a wide berth, dropping himself onto the stool at the farthest corner of the bar. The droid bartender whirred to intercept him immediately. “Good morning,” it said, too much cheer in its programmed tone. “What can I—“

“Caf,” Nigel growled, grinding his palm into his eye in the vain hope of stifling the pain behind it.

“That will be—“

“I’m with Darko, so skip the kriffing bill.”

The droid took the interruption in stride, its processor humming faintly. “Right away.” It trundled over to the aged caf machine, leaving Nigel to stare at the stained wall and wonder whether the local junk dealers had any ships worth a kriff. He eventually realized a mug of steaming caf had materialized in front of him, and took a scalding mouthful, grimacing at the burn. The buzz of the stimulants hitting his system made it kriffing worth it. He slid his nav computer out of his pocket and began the tedious search for nearby junk dealers.

“Excuse me?” One voice raised above the rest of the crowd, tight with tension and slightly too loud for the enclosed space. The droid answered and Nigel steadfastly filtered out every surrounding sound as he alternated his focus between the screen in front of him and the caf in his hand.

“Excuse me?” came the voice again, beside him this time. Nigel ground his teeth and took a long sip of his caf. “I’m looking for a man called Darko,” the voice continued anyway. “I was told to find him. The droid said he’s not available, but that you’re with him. Can you direct me to him? Please.”

Please, he said. Kriffing please. Nigel set his mug down and wondered how someone on the Outer Rim, on this planet, in this town could manage to sound so politely earnest. He turned toward the stranger.

And blinked.

Standing just beside him, in the middle of a seedy cantina with stains on the walls and a packed dirt floor, was a young human male who could only have been from the Core. He almost gleamed in this crowd, dressed in a fitted white tunic, a dusky blue cloak draped across his chest and shoulders. He was a handsome kid to top it all off, thick dark curls and a damn pretty face. The sight of someone so obviously well off in this quarter of the city would have made Nigel laugh if it hadn’t been for the young man’s expression. He was staring somewhere between Nigel’s shoulder and his chin, his mouth set unhappily. When his eyes darted up to touch Nigel’s just briefly, Nigel noted two things: he was worried; his eyes were a startling shade of blue.

“Can you help?” the man asked again, and this time, looking him in the face, Nigel could see how deep his distress ran, leaking out in the nervous clench of his fists and the slight tremble of his lips.

Kriff me, Nigel thought. “He’s usually here in the afternoon,” he said instead. “And all night. What do you want?”

“I can’t be here in the evening,” the man answered, his shoulders drawing taut under the cloak. “I need some help getting offworld,” he continued anyway, still not meeting Nigel’s eyes. “A Rodian called Greedo said Darko was the one to talk to.”

The scoff escaped before Nigel could think better of it. Greedo was a lying kriff who was going to end up as a smear on somebody’s boot one of these days. If he’d sent the kid here, it was because he was bad news. Looking at him, though, all but trembling like a leaf in the wind, Nigel suspected that whatever trouble was following the kid wasn’t his fault.

But he’d been played for a sucker before.

The kid was worrying the edge of his cloak between his fingertips with impressive force. Sleek, elegant lines and unpatterned cloth — if Nigel had to bet, he’d say the style was Alderaanian. Not that he’d ever seen an Alderaanian on Tatooine. They were a smart bunch on that planet, and knew better than to abandon paradise for hell. All except this kid, apparently.

“I don’t know whether Darko can help,” Nigel admitted slowly, frowning when the kid wilted in front of him. He could feel the kid’s building wave of distress like the tremor in the air before a vicious sandstorm. His lips twisted in irritation, but he couldn’t commit to it. Never let yourself get involved in other people’s problems, he reminded himself. But the kid looked close to tears and Nigel’s next words were dragged out of him against his will. “But tell me what you need.”

“I need a pilot,” the kid answered, plain and straightforward except for the fact that he wouldn’t meet Nigel’s eyes. But that seemed to be his way. It gave Nigel a chance to study him carefully; he didn’t see any signs of deception. Alderaanians were generally considered a trustworthy bunch, for whatever useless stereotypes were worth. Nigel cursed himself for a kriffing fool, but he couldn’t quite make himself walk away.

“A pilot,” Nigel muttered. “If I had a kriffing ship, I’d volunteer. I’m not sure—“

“I have a ship,” the kid interrupted, his nervous hands going still at last. “I just need a pilot. Would you like the job? I can pay.”

The screen of the nav computer powered off automatically after too much idle time; Nigel shoved it back into his pocket. This might actually be a viable deal. “I don’t — kriff. Where are you headed?”

“Alderaan,” said the kid, sounding eager to the point of pain. Nigel could sympathize entirely. “I’m ready to leave this place.”

“I’ll kriffin’ bet you are. You the only passenger?” The kid nodded, his curls bouncing against his forehead. He couldn’t have been here long, Nigel noted. His skin was still smooth and pale. “What’s the catch?” he asked, pulling his focus back to the kid’s eyes, though eye contact still wasn’t forthcoming.

“Catch?” the kid asked, his brow twitching tight before it smoothed again. “Oh, you mean the difficulty. I need to avoid any Imperial encounters. They’ve been targeting Alderaanian vessels recently. Political problems that stem from the suspected sympathies of the Viceroy and the Princess. I could explain it all in depth, but not in public.”

His voice was unusual, Nigel thought. Not inexpressive, but a little flat, like he was reciting information instead of conversing. Not that it kriffing mattered. He couldn’t ferry this strange kid to Alderaan, he needed to get a ship of his own and get out of here. Alderaan was great for artists and politicians and wealthy vacationers, but they weren’t exactly the affordable used ships capitol of the galaxy. He couldn’t afford anything there, not even if the kid paid twice what his services were worth. He sighed.

“I’d love to, kid, but…”

“You need a ship, right? If you take me safely to Alderaan, you can have mine.”

Well, Nigel thought, never look a gift eopie in the mouth. “You’ve got a kriffing deal,” he said quickly. He wasn’t sure how Alderaanians sealed business deals, but the kid stuck out his hand so Nigel shook it. His skin was soft, but the grip was firm, if brief. His hand disappeared under the cloak again.

“What’s your name, kid?” Nigel prodded, not quite able to contain his tone of wonder. The kid had appeared just in time to get him out of this sun-baked hellhole. Nigel had been given to flights of fancy once upon a time, back before any images that weren’t hard reality had been purged from him under the blistering heat of the Tatooinian suns. But now, in this kriffing cantina in the middle of kriffing Mos Eisley, he thought the kid looked almost angelic, white tunic refracting the sun spilling through the windows. The flash of piercing blue when his eyes finally met Nigel’s only supported the ridiculous vision.

The kid smiled faintly, but it was gone again in an instant, his eyes falling back to Nigel’s shoulder as he answered in his peculiar tone. “I’m Adam Raki.”