Jazala Paldos' initial impression of Belsavis was... less than positive.
She quickened her pace to keep her fellow petty officers in sight. The thick snow slowed their steps, but visibility was low enough that losing track of her squad was a reality. Jazala trudged forward, squinting through the faceplate of her helmet. Lieutenant Sallon had ensured the squad their target, one of the rare temperate zones dotting the ice planet, was less than fifty klicks from the shuttle's landing zone, but Jazala hadn't seen any signs of the weather changing. If anything, it had worsened, the snowfall slowly becoming a snowstorm. If they didn't reach the temperate zone soon, there was a chance they could be forced to turn back to the shuttle and wait for conditions to improve, or worse, find themselves trapped in a blizzard with little cover besides their winter gear.
The winter camouflage-clad figure to her right staggered, tripping over something beneath the snow or the shin-high drifts themselves, and fell to one knee with a grunt. Jazala swung out of formation long enough to put a hand under the officer's arm and help him to his feet, returning to her position as smoothly as the snow allowed. Her comrade hurried to catch up and turned his dark-tinted faceplate toward her, wrapped head-tails swinging as he nodded. His thickly accented Basic was tinny through the microphone in his helmet. "Thanks, Jaz."
She gave him a playful two-fingered salute with the hand not holding a blaster rifle. "Remind me never to take you dancing, Deek. Two left feet so bad you can't even walk straight." Though she was unable to see through his faceplate, Jezala could imagine the Twi'lek's golden face and lopsided smile, an expression he wore often. Dekar Sana was her first and closest friend since being assigned aboard the Harbinger a year ago. Perpetually cheerful, aggressively friendly, and seemingly laconic to a fault off duty, Dekar was also one of the squad's most proficient marksmen and the most talented hand-to-hand combatant among them, likely due to a rough childhood on Ryloth. A kind heart housed in a deadly machine.
Dekar returned the salute, flicking a lekku in her direction to further mock her. "You know you'd never be able to handle these moves." He kicked out at the nearest snowdrift. "It's all this white druk. We don't have it on Ryloth." Jazala had grown up on Coruscant where it did snow and she still had to agree with him. The snow on Belsavis made winter on her home planet look like a mildly chilly afternoon. Dekar continued to grouse at the snow, as if he could clear his path forward with the hot air accompanying his complaints. "This VIP had better be worth it. We could have been in the cantina by now, a pint of juma juice in each hand." He mimed holding a glass in his free hand and raised his arm above his head with a flourish.
Jazala chuckled, but, again, it was hard to disagree with her friend. The Harbinger had been bound for Telos and its orbiting Citadel Station, where the crew had expected to spend a week on leave while the ship was refueled and repaired, but Captain Donshe had announced the diversion to Belsavis two solar days ago, citing orders from on high. There was scuttlebutt among the enlisted crew that the order came from an admiral, but the commissioned officers had been tight-lipped about the details. Sallon had only mentioned the squad was here to pick up an "informant" for the Republic on the shuttle ride down.
As if her thoughts were a summons, Sallon's voice cut in over the communicator, his gruff Alderaanian-accented Basic commanding the squad's attention. "Target's in sight. Tighten up formation and pick up the pace, but no aggressive moves. These are our people here." Dekar turned his head toward Jazala and she could almost see the raised eyebrow through the tinted faceplate. Sallon had mentioned that there was a Republic scientific outpost here, but nothing more than that. She shrugged and squinted ahead, barely making out Sallon's back at the head of the formation. Past him, trees loomed in the distance; dark indistinct shapes against the increasingly heavy snowfall - the first sign of life Jazala had seen since the shuttle landed. She even thought it felt a little warmer now - marginally, but still noticeable. She gestured at Dekar and the two quickened their pace to match the other officers.
Twenty minutes of sluggish sprinting later, the squad arrived at the temperate zone and Jazala realized how any part of Belsavis' frozen surface could be hospitable. Several geothermal vents marred the ground, spewing enough hot air to raise the temperature substantially. Snow continued to fall, but melted on contact with the short scrub covering the ground. Several temporary plast-cast structures were scattered around a small clearing formed by the trees and two vents; a handful of people in light winter gear milled around between the buildings, freezing as they noticed the squad approaching. One of the figures, a human, caught a shorter duros and leaned toward her, then the duros darted into the largest structure. Sallon gestured for the squad to halt and slung his blaster rifle across his shoulders, reaching up to release the clamps of his helmet and remove it. The other officers followed suit. Jazala attached her helmet to her belt and fished a tie out of one of her vest pockets, finger-combing her dark curls into a bun and securing it in place. Next to her, Dekar pulled his helmet free, but left his lekku covered, and turned a circle, taking in their surroundings. His movements were unhurried, but his green eyes analyzed everything. "Well, I guess I can see why someone would want to set up out here." He crouched next to one of the vents and put a hand out toward it, immediately snatching it back with a hiss.
Jazala laughed, reaching out to inspect his hand. "What did you expect, dummy?" Dekar had the sense to look sheepish, giving one of his lekku a self-conscious scratch. His glove was still warm to the touch, but appeared to be undamaged. Jazala released him and wagged a finger. "No touching." He rolled his eyes and bumped her with his shoulder, an action she copied with just a hint more force. Before Dekar could retaliate, the duros reappeared from the large structure, another human man following her. His eyes widened as he took in the armed soldiers, but he took Sallon's hand with little hesitation when the former held it out.
Sallon, ever the diplomat, kickstarted the exchange. "I apologize for the intrusion, Dr...?"
"Sotaris, Kyne Sotaris." Jazala's ears pricked at the familiar Coruscant accent. He glanced over the rest of the squad again before returning focus to Sallon. "I'm sorry, but we weren't expecting the Republic to send troops for..." He trailed off into a tense silence. Jazala felt for him; having a group of Republic soldiers descend unannounced probably wasn't the way Sotaris had expected his day to go.
Sallon resumed control over the conversation. "We're not here to disrupt your work, Dr. Sotaris. Republic Command is seeking an individual associated with an ongoing investigation, and there have been reports that she has taken shelter here at your project." Sotaris blinked owlishly at him, causing Jazala to chuckle inwardly. Sallon never was good with civilians. The lieutenant cleared his throat, seeming to realize the awkward approach, and started again. "Sorry. I'm Lieutenant Carrus Sallon, of the Harbinger. We've been sent to retrieve a witness for questioning, a woman, and we believe she may be here."
Realization dawned on Sotaris' face, though he quickly suppressed it, and he exchanged a glance with the duros. She muttered something under her breath, too quick for Jazala to catch, and Sotaris turned back to the lieutenant. "Is she... in any kind of trouble?" Jazala tensed, sensing rather than seeing Dekar do the same at her side. An inter-Republic fight would do nothing for either side, but if the scuttlebutt was accurate, there was no backing out of this until the squad had retrieved their target.
None of this was lost on Sallon, and, for once, he went for the more tactful route. "Not to my knowledge. However, the Republic believes she has invaluable, and time-sensitive, information." When Sotaris continued to hesitate, the lieutenant changed tack. "Dr. Sotaris... Kyne. I can't tell you why the Republic wants to question her, but I can promise that she won't be harmed."
The duros chattered at Sotaris, but he cut her off gently by putting a hand on her shoulder. He eyed Sallon for a long moment, then leaned down to the duros and murmured something, squeezing her shoulder gently. The duros protested, but Sotaris shook his head and patted her once before releasing her. "Retrieve our guest, please." She hesitated, but ducked back into the plast-cast building. He glanced back at Sotaris, arms crossed and mouth a tense line. "She showed up a week ago - apparently, she rode in on the last supply ship - and offered to help out with the project. She's a drifter, Lieutenant Sallon. I don't think she'll have the information you're looking for."
"That'll be for Command to decide," Sallon replied, his stiff formality returning. Sotaris' mouth thinned even further at the lieutenant's tone. Jazala fidgeted with a loose coil of hair and glanced sideways at Dekar. The twi'lek's eyes were hard and his stance was fluid, ready to move. She flashed a quick hand signal at him and he nodded, forcing himself to relax a little. The duros reemerged, looking as irritated as her boss, with a slender woman following her. Chin-length brown hair, bangs parted to the right; blue-gray eyes; fair-skinned; indeterminate age anywhere from mid-twenties to late thirties: in appearance, the woman was conventionally pretty, but no more so than many others in the Republic. Though she dressed in the same light outerwear the research crew wore, Jazala immediately noticed the difference between them and their guest. The way she carried herself, the way she moved, was too fluid, too controlled; the woman had been trained to fight, though she was somewhat out of practice. A bit too much weight behind her steps, a slight stiffness in her shoulders. Regardless, Jazala recognized the woman's walk from her childhood.
As Sallon moved forward to greet the woman, Jazala leaned toward Dekar. "I think she's a Jedi."
Dekar gave her a sideways glance. "There aren't any more Jedi, Jaz. Besides, she doesn't have a lightsaber. Have you ever seen a Jedi without a lightsaber?"
Jazala glanced at the woman's waist reflexively. Dekar was right; the few times her father had taken her on trips past the temple on Coruscant, Jazala had never seen a Jedi without their signature weapon. However, she was sure she was right, too; every Jedi she'd ever seen moved like woman before them. Sallon extended a hand to her as perfunctorily as he had to Sotaris. "Lieutenant Carrus Sallon, ma'am, of the Harbinger."
The woman eyed Sallon's hand for a moment, one side of her mouth curving up in a small smile, before shaking it once. "A pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant." Jazala frowned, unable to peg her accent. Different from hers or Sotaris', so not Coruscant, but somewhere similar. "I hear you're looking for me."
"Ah, yes, ma'am. Your presence has been... requested at Republic Command." The woman raised an eyebrow, small smile still in place, and Sallon, flustered, continued. "You may have information crucial to an on-going investigation."
"May I ask which one?"
"That's, uh, that's classified, ma'am."
"Oh, so they haven't told you." Sallon stared at her, mouth slightly agape. "Well, do I have a choice in this, or is less a request and more an order?"
Sallon cleared his throat, and Jazala struggled to hide her amusement. Dekar elbowed her surreptitiously, but she could see the effort he was making to suppress his own mirth. "Well, uh, ma'am, my - our orders are to resume course to Telos... with you on board, so... I suppose it is less of a request."
The woman chuckled once and Jazala was struck by how mirthless it sounded. "They don't call, they don't write, but I'm expected to drop everything at their whim. I see the Republic hasn't changed." Sallon, apparently having regained his composure, kept his expression carefully blank, but Jazala could see the unease on Dekar and the rest of their squad's faces, an expression she was sure was mirrored on her own. The woman glanced around at them, her lop-sided smile widening. Evidently, she found their concern amusing. "Very well. I suppose I'm still a citizen of the Republic at least." She turned to Sotaris. "Well, I suppose this is where I leave you, Kyne. Thank you for your hospitality, and I hope to see you again."
Sotaris gave her a sad smile. "We were happy to have you with us. I'm sure the Republic will treat you well - " He paused and shot a sharp glare at Sotaris "- and perhaps they will be so kind as to return you when this is over." The two shook hands, and the woman turned back to Sallon. "Well, Lieutenant, I suppose I'm all yours. Lead the way and I'll follow you back to civilized space."
"Great. Command diverted us from leave to pick up a crazy drifter," Dekar murmured, earning himself one of Jazala's elbows in his ribs. However, her heart wasn't entirely in it; there was something... "off" about the woman, whether she was a Jedi or not. Dekar scratched one of his lekku again. "All I'm saying is that my bunk is staying locked until we drop her off on Telos."
"Paldos!" Jazala's head snapped up at Sallon's bark. "You'll be our guest's escort while she's with us. Keep her close on the way back to the shuttle and show her to her quarters on the ship." He raised his arm, encompassing the entire squad with a gesture. "Let's move out!" The squad began replacing helmets and returning to formation, and Dekar gave Jazala a pitying look before sliding his own helmet over his headtails and joining the rest. Jazala watched him go, cursing his luck, and pulled the tie free of her curls, returning it to its pocket and detaching her helmet from her belt.
"Are you on his bad side?" Jazla started and turned quickly to find the strange woman standing in front of her. She took a step back, wry smile twisting up one side of her mouth again. "Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. Just wondering if the lieutenant has it out for you, or if you just have the worst luck." Now that the woman standing in front of her, Jazala was sure her earlier assumption had been correct. The fair face was virtually unlined, but there was depth behind the blue eyes; she had only ever seen such a combination of agelessness and wisdom on the Jedi outside the temple.
Jazala straightened, refusing to be intimidated by a maybe-Jedi. "Or he believes I'm qualified for the job."
The woman laughed, a real one this time. "That's a good answer." She pulled a pair of tinted goggles out of the pocket of her jacket and slipped them over her head, hesitating before she pulled them over her eyes. "By the way, I didn't catch your name, unless you prefer your last one being barked at you by two people rather than one."
Jazala hesitated, unsure why she did so. Then she slid her helmet over her head and held her hand out. "Petty Officer Jazala Paldos, at your service."
The woman grinned, pulled her goggles down, and shook Jazala's hand enthusiastically. "Meetra Surik. It's nice to meet you, Jazala."