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Fear and Loathing in the Tann Province

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It was like nothing Ran had ever seen before, and he had seen a lot. He had played Darûga on Coruscant’s infamous G17 floor. He had thrown illegal parties in the Scarlet Cave Wildlife Sanctuaries of Glee Anselm. He had turned a gig during an execution on Onderon into a rescue mission. He had ridden a fighting ray in the water pits of the Imperial Gladiators Show and hijacked the broadcast with Rebel propaganda.

But he had never been to a Twi’lek rave party.

“What do you think? I’d say we’re safe,” Numa stated against his ear. Ran just stared, dumbstruck. Normally, he was staring at her, but right now he was overwhelmed by … everything.

First, the sound. The staccato, the rhythm, the animalistic, archaic, anachronistic music of pure, raw intensity. It was as if a deep chasm into the most ancient times of this people had opened and he could see them there, like shadows on painted walls, like hands pressed into colors, like feet leaving their imprints.

It was not his kind of music, but he was swallowed by it instantly.

Second, it was the sight. Twi’lek bodies, moving, stomping, clapping, breathing, shaking, rocking. Half-clad bodies, as colorful as their clothes and ornaments and attire.

Some of them were dancing with one another, some even dancing like they knew what to dance – in groups or pairs, bodies against bodies, Lekku twitching and tangling in a way, that he was almost instantly thinking of arousal, of caressing, of foreplay, and hot, mindless sex. Not that this wasn’t typical for him. There were plenty of reasons to think about sex, and Ran used every opportunity. But this was more than that, this here shoved the idea of a sex orgy right inside his brain stem.

Third, it was the smell. It smelled of sweat, but not displeasing. The fresh sweat of the mindless, happy dancers, mingled with scents of perfume or flowers or both. They smelt like pure ecstatic happiness. Skin was gleaming. He noticed something like Spice, too, or perhaps it was Ryll, and sweet alcoholic drinks.

And fourth, it was the pheromones. As a Nautolan he honed a sense most other sentients didn’t know how to use consciously. His head tentacles were able to detect other beings’ emotions, and, for kriff’s sake, they rose like a tide above him and tried to sweep him away the moment he entered the cave. He gasped.

Numas hand clasped his arm, she drew him forward, her lips forming the most mischievous smile.

“Come on, Darûga rock star – never been to a proper Twi’lek party?” she shouted, as the music tried to silence her. “If you don’t want to be caught by the Empire, you should start to dance!” She pulled him with her and joined the party.

Ran grinned as only a Nautolan could grin, a hopelessly charming teeth-baring white-flashing smile.

“Never been to one, but glad to be your guest,” he said and knew she couldn’t hear him as they dived into the crowd of the dancers like he had once from the Cliffs of Scarlett Cave into the Maelstrom Sea. They flooded around him, stomping and breathing and jumping in the rhythm of a music that formed their common heart now.

***

Ran Webb liked to be with Numa. At their first encounter, his first words to her had been: “Hey, we have the same color!” – like a half-wit. She had been far too professional, one of the famous freedom fighters of Ryloth, second in command, to be interested in the comparison of teal skin. He had already gathered a little fame himself: They called him “the voice of Alderaan” since his narrow escape and his report from the destruction of the planet. The first report, galaxy-wide, of an incident, which the Empire would rather have had time to justify before a Rebel raised his voice.

So, there ought to be reasons for Numa to be interested in him. And, well, the Twi’lek were no stay-at-homes: when he had met her for the second time, in a small Ryloth underground bastion, they had had a few drinks, a nice chat and she had listened to his music with a genuine smile on her lips. As had the other Twi’leks who gathered around, mostly youths from the resistance movement. But he liked her smile best.

Of course he had volunteered to return to Ryloth for an investigation of Imperial experiments that sadly involved Ryll and abducted children. It wasn’t his fault that they hadn’t come far yet: An Imperial patrol had chased them through the cave maze of the Tann Province mountain.

Ran was thinking he might be in love with Numa. (But don’t tell anyone, probably half of Ryloth was in love with her.)

***

They danced. It was mesmerizing. It was insane. It was almost more than he could take – not because of the sheer sexual tension, but because of the impressions that flooded him. The bodies around him. The emotions. The glad, happy, carefree liberty of music and dance.

He was a musician. The hammering beats weren’t exactly his kind of tune, but all those people getting so high just on sounds and movements? That was heaven.

Although … maybe it wasn’t just sound and movement. It was also drinks and Ryll. He didn’t know why he suddenly held a bottle of something but he drank, and Numa shook her head and hissed: “They are still behind us! Keep a clear head!”

“You have no idea of how unclear my head already is,” he answered, too low for her to hear, and drank again. It was sweet and intense and so saturated with alcohol that it rose into his sinuses and exploded behind his forehead. Perhaps it cleared some of the mess there.

She spinned around, dancing, her Lekku made the most gracious movements, then she pulled him closer. “Ran!” she said. “I need you focused. I can’t see if you’re focused!”

“Because I have no pupils,” he grinned. “I look always high to you.”

She took his vest and shook him gently. “You are high!”

“From your emotions.”

“My?”

“All emotions from all around!” he laughed. A woman took his hand and danced towards an irregular circle with him, leaving Numa behind. “Hey, take my girl with you, too!” he shouted, and she just smiled at him. Her pupils were deluded alright. One swift movement and she took the bottle away and gave him a small shot instead, smoke rose from the surface and coated the glass like salt or powder.

“Try it, handsome”, she told him. He looked back at Numa. She shook her head, but a broad-shouldered man had just bustled between them, jumping and stomping and celebrating.

“Is it illegal?” Ran asked gleefully.

“It sure as hell is, darling. Like the whole party. Tann’s most illegal place to be. Sniff first, then drink.”

Ran Webb didn’t usually follow orders, but this time he tried to and took a deep breath. His senses nearly overloaded, a deep, roaring throb pulsed through his nostrils, down his throat and into his lungs. He gulped down the icy liquid in the glass to ease the pain, but it got worse. Tears started to well – he had drunk and inhaled a lot of wicked stuff back in the times when he mostly rebelled against his parents. This was like Spice, but more in tune with the dance and the music, and it turned on every light in his head. He smiled, and the woman who had handed him the glass smiled back.

Numa’s cool hands touched his arm, the coldness exploded to colorful sensation and lingered there.

“So, you served yourself again, hm?” she shouted through the noise, and the drink made her voice sound like she should sing in his band. He smiled.

“Glitteryll?” he asked. Something felt odd about his own face, perhaps he was smiling too much.

“You bet!”

“We’ll dance now. You and me. We’re undercover!” He shot her a conspiratorial glance. He was already dancing, he noticed. Feet and legs and hips.

As he started to dance up on her, the unmistakable sound of a firing blaster cut through the music, asynchronous to the beats and the stomping feet. Even the most stoned dancers reacted to it. The music died within seconds. Numa pulled at Ran’s hand and forced him to duck, so that he wouldn’t be seen; the only Nautolan among Twi’leks.

“In the name of the Empire! This party is over!”

“Did you know that Jedi Master Mace Windu used exactly these words on Geonosis at the beginning of the Clone Wars?” Ran asked Numa, and she just shook her head fervently. Obviously, she didn’t know. A classic. The clip could still be seen on the holodarknet, where Ran mostly searched for old records of his childhood hero Kit Fisto.

“We are looking for criminals,” the modulated voice of a female stormtrooper continued. “This party is a crime against the curfew declared by the Empire, but we will let you return to your homes without consequences if you cooperate. Stay where you are. No one is to leave this … cave.”

“Damn Twi’leks,” a second, male trooper said to his superior. “We’re lucky they are of different colors or we couldn’t even tell them apart for our lives. They look all the same. Savages.”

A men on Ran’s left bared his teeth; sharp, savage teeth in a sinewy face, the half-naked body gleaming with sweat, his pupils dilated by Glitteryll. Ran knew they weren’t civilized in the way the Empire thought of civilization. But if the troopers hoped to find a people of obedient slaves here, they would be very disappointed.

“We should move,” Numa whispered and gestured with her head towards the back of the cave. The caves formed a confusing web inside the mountain of the Tann Province, perhaps they could reach the next entrance before the troopers noticed them.

“How many?” whispered Ran.

“Two are in sight. But reinforcements’ll move in sooner or later.”

“I don’t want to run. I’m tired.”

“You’re stoned,” she hissed.

He nodded gleefully and turned to the woman who gave him the drink. He noticed her lack of clothing just now, as he tried to pull at something to gain her attention. She wore less than a Nautolan at the beach!

“The drink,” he simply said.

“Not now,” she whispered. Her lips trembled – she was frightened and the Glitteryll amplified the feeling. Ran touched her arm. “Don’t be afraid. I’m Ran Webb.”

“The musician?”

“The Rebel!” he grinned. “Did you add the Ryll to the drink or was it in there already?”

“No, it has to be sprinkled on shortly before you drink it.”

“So, you still have some?”

“Dogoy here has.” She pulled at Dogoy’s arm, he was a slender and sleek youth who looked neither stoned nor worried. “Dogoy, you’ve got customers!”

“Now?” Dogoy looked at the cowering Nautolan with something like the tired, smug amusement of someone who is frequently caught by stormtroopers on illegal parties.

“Their helmets filter smoke but no toxins,” Ran explained and Dogoy nodded slowly.

“That could be fun. But I want to get paid!”

Ran looked at Numa. “You in?”

“I’m always in for fun.” Her sweet little face swam in the Ryll mist of his head, but it was very austere and grave and there was not the smallest funny sparkle in her eyes. Ran decided he would see her smiling tonight. They would have quite a time.

“Darûga’roll, baby!” he muttered as the stormtroopers pushed their way through the crowd, a holo image of Numa and Ran hovering over their palms. Ran stood up straight.

They looked at him, flustered to find him here, so smiling and relaxed. It had to be a trap, right? One of them wore a red shoulder pad, the second one only plain stormtrooper armor.

“That’s him!” the male trooper said and pointed the blaster at him. “You are arr…”

He ended with a cough as a cloud of fine-grit, glittering powder was blown towards his helmet by several throats. The Glitteryll was irritating, adhesive, statically charged, so that it immediately stuck to the helmets’ plastoid. Within a second, both troopers panted for air. Ran grabbed the troopers’ rifles and pointed them upwards. He didn’t meet much resistance, but he was not a second too late, as two blaster bolts shrieked past his ears and scorched the cave ceiling.

“Lady, gentleman,” Ran said as he jerked the rifles out of their hands. “I suppose if you need one thing in your life, it’s less weapons and more Glitteryll. Someone help them with their helmets, the poor guys are choking.”

***

Sharp teethed grins surrounded CV-103079 as his eyes tried to focus. The Twi’lek faces blurred and hovered and changed places, while he followed them cross-eyed. He had been drugged! And now they had removed his helmet, grinned at him with bloodlust, as if they wanted to devour him alive! He tried to stumble backwards, but there were bodies everywhere, surrounding him. He had to call reinforcements! He tried to comm his squad, but he didn’t remember how.

He was relieved to hear a melodic voice, obviously talking to a superior. “Yes, Sir. The two criminal subjects are seized. No, we don’t need help. Situation under control, we meet you back at the garrison in 0100.” A short pause. “Now, we need music! This party is not over!”

The incomparable smiling face of a Nautolan came into the stormtrooper’s field of vision. Flashing teeth, big black eyes, teal skin, high cheekbones. Tentacles like braids, some adorned with bracelets, some tattooed with patterns, streamed down his shoulders. A savage. An alien.

A rock star.

The music started again.

“We cannot simply dance the night away with the Imperials,” a female voice shouted, thick with Twi’lek accent. The Nautolan handed her the second rifle, she was already holding a second helmet.

Oh, yes. He almost forgot about CV-10307. Was she alive? He turned his head – oh, everything was spinning in the rhythm of the music. The ground stomped against his feet. Two savages were holding his superior upright, she was looking confused and sneezed.

“The lady and the gentleman need a drink,” the Nautolan said, and yes, CV-103079 was very thirsty. He drank what he was served, knocked it back and felt it settle immediately in the back of his head. The situation was under control. He was undercover with criminal subjects. He would simply let them think he didn’t know what he was doing and would turn them in … when? Ah, yes, in 0100 at the garrison. Very well. CV-103079 smiled at the teal Twi’lek who had gotten rid of the helmet but still carried the rifle. “Hey, you two have the same color!”

She made an annoyed face and the Nautolan grinned: “He’s a smart one. Believe me, buddy, it’s gonna be one hell of a night.”

***

“And if I’d like to have a tattoo in a really sensitive area, would you recommend more of this stuff?” Ran gestured towards the home-made pills that looked more like a dessert than like something against pain. Small balls of dough coated with the purple seeds of the Taa-poppy.

The tattooist looked him up and down. “Doesn’t look like your first tattoo. I think you can handle it. What sensitive areas are we talking about?”

Two stormtroopers who were apparently off-duty but still in their white armor, albeit without their helmets, shrunk into two seats. Ran produced a bottle of steaming liquor and they drank deliberately.

“I feel so hot,” the male one complained. The female one just scolded him with a look, took the bottle and drank a second time.

“Take off the armor, guys,” Ran said. “We’re all friends now.” He leaned the rifle against the wall of the small shop, which was set in one of the deeper caverns, where the part of the population lived who couldn’t afford windows and daylight in their homes.

“Okay, I’ll tell you. Look, here. I want to have the hilt of a lightsaber right here.”

“Here? Oh, that’s really a sensitive area. And a bit hard to reach for me.”

“No one can see it if I don’t want them to see it. The hilt close to my head, so that the rest of the tentacle is the lightsaber’s blade. Can you do it or not?”

“I can. But it’ll cost you.” The Twi’lek tattooist was a squad woman, covered over and over in motley tattoos so that Ran couldn’t quite tell the color of her skin. Her Lekku were ornamented in an almost dazzling way, the Ryll in his veins made them bend and twist and change.

“And tattoos for my two friends.” He turned around and shouted: “At least the armor on your arms, guys! I have a nice surprise for you! You’re getting a tattoo!”

“We don’t want a tattoo,” the female trooper said slurry.

“I guess they need more of this painkiller dessert.” The Nautolan took two of the pills, weighed them in his hand, ate them himself and got another two. “Hm, so sweet! I need the recipe. Hey, guys. You hungry? You should really try these. I have an idea. This honest artist over there will tattoo you with the Rebel phoenix, but crossed out. To show you won’t take shit from this damn Rebellion. That you will show ‘em! That you’re loyal to the Empire! Alright! Are you with me? Are we going to do this?” He gave them the poppy pills. “Try those. Crazy. They taste like the best thing on this rock.”

“Aren’t you a Rebel?” the superior wondered.

“Yes, and you are arresting me. You are arresting the Voice of Alderaan and Cham Syndulla’s Liberation Hero, and both have the same color! This is the greatest day of your career. You should honor it with a tattoo. The phoenix. In teal. Crossed-out, of course. What an amazing symbol.”

The two of them chewed. “Why not?” the male one said, chuckled, and winked to his superior. “We shouldn’t blow our cover,” he whispered far too loud.

Ran shot a glance at Numa. She had smiled, he was almost sure. Now, her look became more skeptical again. “Get it over with,” she said. “Mister Lightsaber-lekku.”

“It’s not a lekku. It’s a tentacle,” he grinned. The poppy pills made him feel passion, yet serenity. He sat down and freed his most hidden tentacle at the back of his head. “Let’s do this.”

***

“We have to go, wrap it up, woman!” CV-103079 woke from the haze into which the pain of the tattooing and the delight of the pills had thrown him. The Rebel phoenix on his arm was already glowing teal like an ominous tag on a wall.

“But it has to dry a little before I can cross it out,” the tattooist said and blinked lazily. The Nautolan stood in front of the two troopers and waved his arms. “They are coming!”

“Who?”

“The Free Ryloth movement! They want to free us!”

A tiny voice inside the stormtrooper’s head screamed at him to be reasonable, but his blood was so pumped with different toxins that he could form no other thought than to take his two prisoners and run. CV-10307 already rolled down her sleeve, tried to put on her armor pads, and failed. She looked dazzled, but managed to ask: “And you don’t want to be freed?”

“Oh no. I’m fair – you caught me, you get me. Even bad PR is PR after all, he?” He flicked a poppy pill in the air and caught it between his teeth.

“But my tattoo isn’t finished …” CV-103079 moaned and managed to stand up again. The rebellious bird close to his wrist shone metallic and he started to realize that he would regret this.

“Come on, we’ve gotta go!” the Twi’lek urged them forward, and out. On the ornamented and dimly lit cave street of the Tann province, she asked: “What will you do next?”

“This is your home,” the Nautolan said nonchalantly. “What does one do here, in the middle of the night?”

The pretty Twi’lek girl smiled a devilish smile.

***

It was a nice mixture of smoldering ruins and a peaceful pond. They had ascended the slopes of the Tann Province Mountain to one of its topmost buildings, which had, obviously, exploded. During that process, the natural water reservoir inside had broken up and filled the cellars. The cold fresh water springs and the warm geothermal reservoir had mingled to a nice warm temperature.

The stormtroopers held on for dear life in the middle of the debris.

Numa had led them here, they had started to cross the ominous ruin-pond on stones and the remnants of walls, but Ran had been up for mischief and had pushed the troopers into the water. Their armor was quite heavy, and they were too drowsed with Glitteryll and poppy pills to be able to climb out of the water. They were balancing on something that looked like a broken windowframe in the middle of the pond.

“Take off your armor, guys,” Ran said lazily and hung in the water – above him the sparkled ceiling of the cave mouth, and beyond the opening of that mouth, Ryloth’s sky, endless and cloudless and beautiful.

“Out there is far more than Ryloth,” he murmured. “You know that, right?”

Numa leaned in closer than before, her eyes fixed on the vastness of something so empty and so oblivious to rebellion and war and suffering: stars, transformed to sparkling colors by the dust in the atmosphere. Fire. Oblivion.

“I know. But Ryloth is all that matters to me. At the moment. We have to start somewhere.”

“You should have drank more.”

She smiled, again. He was being lucky. “The Syndullas were said to have some fine wines in their cellars.”

“What the hell happened to their house?”

“Cham’s daughter.”

He whistled softly. “Now, I’d call that quite some daddy issues.” He let himself sink into the water. “I’ll have a look at these cellars, you have a look at the troopers. Don’t let them drown.” He shot them a last glance – they were hopelessly unable to cope with the task of not drowning and yet removing their armor.

Ran entered the submarine caves of the Syndulla home.

His eyes caught even the last glimpses of light. His skin and his tentacles led him, where his eyes could not, sensed the flow of the water, the barricades of broken walls and glass panes and floor mosaics. He dived past Imperial tech, past wreckage of normal life and occupation. The water and the pain of the fresh tattoo made his head clearer again. A condition he very much wanted to change. The worst thing about nights was that they were going to end eventually.

***

The wine gave CV-103079 strength and confidence. He drank his bottle happily, and the Nautolan, now somehow on their side, although he didn’t really remember why, smiled his broad smile at him. “Feeling better without the armor?” He lay in the water, limbs paddling lazily, tentacles teetering on the surface. The creature had something fascinating about him, especially in the water. He was beautiful in a very strange and frightening and un-human way. But his friend. Luckily he was his friend.

“Feeling much better,” the stormtrooper admitted and splashed back and forth through the pond. He spilled wine, it trailed in dark streaks behind him.

“We should return now to the garrison,” his superior slurred. “I guess they wait for us there.”

The Nautolan laughed. “Yeah, I guess. I want to see their faces if you show up without armor. And with a new tattoo.”

“Kriff,” she said. “Where’s the armor?”

“It sank.”

“Can you get it for us?” She sounded a little afraid, and the ominous feeling that something dreadful was yet to come sank into the trooper’s stomach.

“I already tried, don’t you remember?” asked the Nautolan. “I could not find it for all the stars in the galaxy! So sorry!”

CV-10307 emptied her bottle and threw it away. “I’m kriffed.” She burst out laughing. “But they didn’t find me yet.”

“And, remember, you caught two heroes of the Rebellion. That has to be worth something!”

She swam up to the Nautolan, nearly went under and was kindly held up by him. He put her onto the broken window frame again.

“Sorry, lady. No cuddling tonight. Holy Nauly, what’s that thing?” He pointed into the darkness of the estate’s courtyard.

“A Y-wing from the Clone Wars,” the Twi’lek explained, sipping at her own bottle. “It crashed here and now it reminds us of … ah, well … the same things we have today. War. Our struggle for liberty. Nothing ever changes on Ryloth.” She mock-toasted at the Y-wing.

“Selfie-time!” the Nautolan exclaimed and literally jumped out of the water. He put on his pants again and threw his long vest over his still dripping shoulders. The troopers followed, moaning and sputtering lukewarm water.

The Twi’lek girl got out more slowly. As the Nautolan had thrown her in together with the two troopers, her clothes were as dripping wet as their black overalls.

Webb took out a small holo recorder. “Alright, that’s going to be an awesome picture. Ran Webb captured! Perhaps that should be the title of my new album.” He looked at them, the short wet strands of hair hanging into their brows. “Too bad you lost your helmets, guys. Numa, would you give her back the blaster? I left the second one somewhere …”

“Oh, yeah, bright idea. Because we’ll not be dead enough in the morning,” the girl reasoned.

“Hey, we’re all friends here! Aren’t we? They just have to look as if they want to kill us. And right now … they look like nothing, really.”

CV-103079 watched the girl taking out the charges and checking the blaster, before his superior got it handed over again.

“Okay, point it at my head. And bare your teeth. Good. You have it inside of you, sweetheart!”

CV-103079’s teeth mostly clattered. The wine brought no more solace. Ran put an arm around him and leant back against the old battered hull of the Y-wing. The trooper shuddered – did someone die inside? What were his or her last thoughts as the mountain rushed nearer, as he (perhaps a clone in very similar armor?) met the wall of the cave-courtyard?

“Okay, now, everyone freeze!” Ran threw the small holorecorder into the air, the ball-shaped little thing flashed brightly and fell to the ground. Ran picked it up and put it into the pocket of his vest. “I’m sure it’s awesome. What do we do next?”

***

“Are you sure these things aren’t dangerous?” the male trooper asked as they entered the musty stable.

“Oh no,” Numa said. “Not at night. At night they are the most adorable vegetarian creatures. You have nothing to fear at night.”

“And … at daytime?” the man asked. She shrugged.

“Well, they can be a little tricky, to be honest. Or … tricky is not the right word. Blood-thirsty, perhaps? But I’m a native. I’m close to these beasts. I know when it’s time to bring them back. Let’s just go for a little ride.”

Ran returned with a bag of seemingly innocent food from one of the illegal past-curfew night shops and popped a cookie into his mouth. He munched it with apparent delight.

“You learn fast, young Padawan,” he grinned at Numa, and she rolled her eyes. The wine had eased her inner alarm system, and she was quite enjoying herself. She took one of the cookies.

“Hant-weed cookies?”

He nodded. “Well, the two of them shouldn’t go outside without a little more confusion.” He waggled his fingers. “To their heads.”

She watched him up and down. “And your confusion? You ate, drank and sniffed at least as much as they did.”

“Hey, I’m a Nautolan. Let me tell you the wisdom of aquatic people: This. Is no. Trap.”

“But afterwards we’ll take you to the garrison”, the female trooper insisted, while he fed her cookies.

“You are so much fun! You’re exceptional Imperial … beings,” he grinned at her, and she smiled as if he had just complimented her. Which he had, in a way.

“So, and now we’ll go for a Blurrg ride? I can’t wait.”

Numa took his chin between two fingers and smiled wickedly. “I bet you’ll reconsider.”

***

Ran Webb nearly threw up while the damn beasts stomped off into the rock maze outside.

The main gate in the ancient fortification was guarded by Stormtroopers, the main lane patrolled by Scouts on speeder bikes. Numa had led them from the hill flank to the mural crown instead, they had galloped on the narrow crumbling battlements – and then she had jerked the beast to the left – and it had jumped.

Ran had heard stories about the Blurrgs’ toughness. Their skin could take blaster bolts without a scratch, their teeth could rip metal apart. Just prevent them from tripping over, his blurry thoughts screamed as his Blurrg joined its mate in its way downwards, they have those kriffin tiny arms!

Even their joints and bones seemed to be indestructible, and so they met the sand fifty feet below, stumbled a nauseating moment, uttered their indignant blurrging noises, and continued their run. Numa shrieked with delight, the stormtroopers screamed in agony (one of them very close to his ears as she clutched to his waist), and he just closed eyes and mouth and suffered under the feeling of discerning all the different substances in his stomachs – the Ryll, the alcohol, the weed, the poppy. They danced an awful dance to decide which one had to go first.

He held on for dear life as the Blurrgs sped through dust, sand, and darkness.

“Are we still alive?” the trooper behind him wailed.

Ran burped. “Piece of cake,” he said despite himself and tried to chime in with Numa’s story. “As long as the morning doesn’t come and the beasts don’t turn on us, we’re safe.”

They rode out into the desert plain. It was so vast, filled with strange rock formations. Whirling dust and wind screamed “Freedom!” into Ran’s right ear, while the trooper was still maltreating his left ear, now with noises of delight, and held onto him. He could swear she pressed a little more tight against his back and her hands wandered a little too deliberately over his shoulders and his chest.

He wished himself onto the back of the leading Blurrg, cozy against Numa’s warm body. The sickening feeling in his stomachs receded. Later, perhaps.

Again he had the feeling that the sky breathed above them. Obliterating their tiny existences as time moved on, stars changed and suns burnt out. He breathed back, a silent shout-out of a speck of life against nothingness.

Miles and miles rushed past. And then, the sky started to fade. Numa rode into a small gap between two weathered mesas. Darkness lay thick, and the brightening of the sky was hidden above rocky walls. They rushed through the valley, Numa’s beast went slower now, and Ran’s Blurrg followed. She turned to him and nodded. They were far enough.

“We should turn around now,” he said, and the troopers chimed in deliberately: “Yes, let’s go back to the garrison.” “Before it’s too late.”

Numa turned her steed around. As if she knew how to orchestrate dawn, Ryloth’s sun rose brilliantly, blazingly, blatantly on the other side of the valley, and poured the first rays of its light into the gorge. The stormtroopers screamed in agony.

“Oh no!” Numa cried. “We’re all gonna die!” And with that she elbowed the trooper from her steed.

Ran let his companion down with a little more grace. “Run, sweetheart!”, he groaned, as their fingers parted with a last, longing touch. “They’ll be right behind you!” And with that the Blurrg jumped off in wild fits and even wilder roars. Numa screamed as if her beast already tore her apart. Ran was shaken through on the Blurrg’s back and he did his best to add some spectacle to it.

“Don’t go back to the Tann Province!” he screamed as a last deed. “They will be headed for their homestead and eat you alive!” And with that, he was gone.

***

CV-103079 woke from a very disturbing dream. He was sickeningly thirsty, his tongue was swollen, and he had dreamed that he staggered through a desert, followed by giant murder beasts.

As he opened his eyes, everything was worse. He wore no armor, no helmet. He had no possibility to contact his squad. His headache culminated in a deafening soaring pain as the merciless sun cut right into it. He moaned. His arm was in pain.

What is wrong with me? Where am I?

He heard someone vomiting with such painful sounds that he instantly considered joining her. He tried to get onto his knees but rolled back, whimpering. Through half-closed lids he could see his superior officer CV-10307 on her knees, retching for dear life.

He moaned, and she wiped her mouth with her torn sleeve – he could see the same tattoo on the skin below that had pained him in his dream.

“Oh dear stars …” he whispered.

“Get up,” she said and her eyes shot feverishly to every side. “This is Blurrg country!”

***

The Blurrgs were grazing happily on the plain above the plateau mountains. Numa looked into a sky that had taken on the water stained hue of an aquarelle. Her head throbbed from wine, cookies and fatigue. She turned around and smiled at Ran.

“I admit, that was more fun than I thought it would be.”

“I’m not happy,” he admitted. “It would have been way more fun if they woke up in these slave bikinis.”

She laughed. “And you have debts with a tattooist and a Glitteryll dealer in Tann. What a night.”

“Yeah, I might have to pay some people.” He sighed. “You think I can ask someone in the Rebellion for compensation of the … travel and entertainment expenses?”

She shook her head. “They don’t pay for rock’n’roll.”

He smiled. “As long as you enjoyed it.”

She inched closer, put one hand onto an older tattoo on his bare chest. “I’m still enjoying.”

His smile wasn’t victorious or ignorant. She couldn’t read his pitch-black eyes, but he radiated more happiness than his words had revealed.

“I’m still enjoying as well,” he admitted. Slowly she leaned in, her fingers tracing the ink lines. Their lips met with the faintest of touches. She still smiled.

“I love when you’re smiling, Numa,” he said and kissed her.