The escape pods were equipped for re-entry. Theoretically.
That didn’t make it their ideal use-case.
Hestera double-checked her straps and mentally called it good; the various safety gear all showed green lights. No tractor beam caught the pod in those first few silent moments. (No one blew them up, either, but that wasn’t entirely a surprise. Bastila had escaped, and the Sith clearly wanted her alive—they wouldn’t know which pod was hers.) She had the briefest window to study the man across from her—a captain from the bars pinned to his jacket, though otherwise not in uniform, his face turned grimly to the outer window—before the pod hit the atmosphere and began to shudder.
It was like they were being hammered at. (No inertial compensators, the analytical part of her observed—too expensive for an escape pod that could survive the descent without them.) The sensation was oddly familiar, after the simulations she’d gone through in basic; there was barely a tingle of fear at the back of her mind. Score one for Republic Navy training.
Outside the small bubble window, the sky caught on fire. Gravity mounted, going from the brief freefall after launch to a hard tug; she felt an upshift of adrenaline, that tingle of fear sharpening back into clarity. Her skull throbbed at her, distant and ignorable. She began running through the rote guidelines for an uncompensated landing: body pulled into the cushioning of her seat, arms tucked against her body, tongue safely behind her teeth.
The wind became audible. The braking thrusters burned.
(She hadn’t dreamed of excitement when she’d enlisted, only duty. She had chosen to serve because she’d had the choice, and not making it would have haunted her. But then she’d nearly died to someone else’s petty, stupid mistake, then she’d spent months in medbay, then she’d stared mortality and memory loss in their monotonous eyes—and after that, the animal terror of the fall almost felt good…)
They were plummeting towards the city. Captain Onasi, in his own padded seat, made a small, disgruntled noise. Privately, Hestera agreed with him—the g-forces were more uncomfortable with every moment as the braking thrusters fought the planet’s pull. Too slow a descent would have turned them into skeet or allowed enemies to converge on their position; a good military escape pod (and this was a good military escape pod) straddled the line between that and turning them into goo. The result was dangerous and uncomfortable and cut with vicious anticipation, but either air defense had been warned about the incoming valuable target—not ideal, but they had better chances against a squad of ground troops than a missile, and any Sith would likely be held back until they could orient—or they weren’t in line of sight to any defense cannons.
But their trajectory would have been logged either way. Braking thrusters were maneuvering thrusters—Hestera reached for the controls, fighting the heaviness of her limbs, suddenly certain they weren’t coming down anywhere good—
Vertigo reared up. It was Onasi who grabbed the stick, wrenching them into a stomach-twisting roll, and—neatly disproving the first theory, not that Hestera had the wherewithal to care—that was when the air defense cannons began firing.
She slipped back into unconsciousness before they landed. It was, she recalled thinking, not like she had anything else to do…
Bastila, rising from an escape pod in a filthy alley, dazed and confused.
Bastila, on the bridge of an unfamiliar ship, brandishing her lightsaber.
Bastila, cross-legged in a cell, trying not to show fear.
(What’s going on here?)
But there was no answer. Just Bastila, Bastila, Bastila…
Hestera woke alone, in an apartment that she had never seen before. It was dim and cramped, mostly a single room, with a door in one wall probably leading to an attached refresher. Her head hurt, but that was nothing new. She sat up—a painful endeavor—and looked more carefully.
There were no weapons in sight, but her boots were beside the door. Onasi’s sleeveless jacket hung on a hook beside it, pockets bulging. There was a locker at the foot of the single bed that seemed large enough to hold an unextended vibrosword and a couple of rifles. Maybe her clothing too, since—she noted belatedly—she appeared to have been stripped to her underclothes. Beside the bed was an unrolled cot, which implied she’d been here for at least one of the captain’s sleep-cycles. Her throat ached with thirst; she updated that estimate to a full day.
She tried the door first anyway, just to assure herself that she wasn’t locked in. She wasn’t, which saved her the trouble of having to break out in her underwear—though her lack of clothing kept her from going exploring. While the sleeveless, mid-thigh-length undersuit wasn’t as indecent as it could have been—or particularly identifiable as Republic make, for that matter—it certainly wasn’t normal streetwear, and drawing attention wasn’t exactly a good opening strategy. (Even if that attention was merely… physically inclined, it would be an inconvenience at best.) She went through the man’s vest instead, and found the pockets full of possibly-stolen first aid supplies. Interesting.
With that settled, she headed for the ‘fresher, intending to get a drink of water. Void, she was thirsty.
As she moved around more, her body let her know how stiff and sore it was. Some part of her almost wished for a fresh crisis, to recapture the adrenaline-fueled resilience she had felt before her impromptu nap. The rest came down hard on that urge—she was a soldier, Void alive, not a kriffing thrillseeker—and she returned to the bed, a cup of tepid tap water in one hand. Only a great deal of discipline kept her from gulping it down. It was a shame there wasn’t a ration bar around too—but she would make do. Unless there was one in the locker?
The locker, like the door, was blessedly unlocked. The weapons were inside, remaining grenade and all, and her clothing beneath them. Unfortunately, ‘her clothing’ was a Republic uniform, and the Endar Spire had been here in the first place to break the Sith’s control; since that engagement had very clearly failed, her uniform was useless for the time being. There was a ration bar, though, tucked into a pouch on her uniform belt. She withdrew it, unwrapped it, and chewed on it thoughtfully.
(In the back of her mind, she was considering the situation. Captain Onasi might not return—his vest would be better than nothing, and she could get her hands on some pants with a bit of work, and then… then she would just have to find Bastila on her own, somehow. And that was the extent to which she could plan, with so little information.)
Eventually, though, Onasi did come back—if not before Hestera was beginning to worry. He slipped into the room with a box tucked under one arm, saw her pacing, and paused with a start. (In much the same way Trask had, seeing her trying to slice the lock, and that thought brought a twinge of survivor’s guilt with it.) Surprise made him look younger than he’d seemed, maybe even within a decade of her; she took in his actual appearance, rather than just his body language, for the first time. Russet-brown hair and stubble, sharp brown eyes, a frame that ran towards stocky and spoke to time in the Endar Spire’s weight room—he was probably handsome, if one cared about such things. “I see you’re up and about,” he said, after a few awkward moments. “Good. I was getting worried. It seemed like you’d hit your head during the landing, and… well, I’m not a doctor. I did what I could.”
She bared her teeth in a sparkling grin. “Don’t worry, Captain,” she said. “I’ve built up an immunity.”
“To head wounds?”
“Certainly not to doctors. Or gravity.” Hestera laughed and let the grin drop into something more sincere, rubbing evocatively at one bruised shoulder. “I take it I was out for a while.”
“It’s been a day and a half, at least, since I dragged you away from the crashed pod. I wasn’t sure you would ever wake up, to be honest. Then you mostly did a couple times, but I could barely get a few sips of water into you.” The captain shook his head. “I don’t understand this bounce-back, but for once, I’m not going to complain. Ah—I’m Carth Onasi, by the way. Captain, for my sins, but you already know that.”
“Hestera Soral. Crewman.”
“Crewman,” he muttered, giving her a strange look. “Right. What department?”
Void, had she even gotten an assignment after her release? She squinted vaguely, rifling through her memories. “Auxiliary sensors, I think, but don’t quote me on that. I just got over my last concussion.”
“That’s correct. What was your room assignment?”
“Deck two, bunkroom 46, with Lieutenant Trask Ulgo.” She should have been able to save him—but there was no point in dwelling on it.
“Who’s the Supreme Chancellor?”
“Tol Cressa. Am I fit for duty, doc?”
Carth’s grimace returned. “Look,” he said, “I’m not going to tell you to call me ‘sir’—whatever the brass thinks, I’m just an overgrown grunt—but I’m pretty sure that’s not an appropriate way to address your CO. You got that?” Without waiting for a response, he added, “We’re stuck together on a hostile planet. Our only advantage is that the Sith aren’t looking for us—yet. Which means that we need to be careful, and we need to work well with each other.”
“Yes, sir,” said Hestera, and then paused to consider what he’d said. She cleared her throat. “I mean—what should I call you?”
He shrugged, looking exasperated. “My name?”
She grinned at him. “That works,” she said, and rolled her shoulders as she took a few steps closer. “I assume the only thing we—by which I mean the Spire—did damage to was the blockade?”
“That would be right.” Carth sighed quietly. “Our intel was bad, I guess. We were expecting a token force, and what we got was… not that. Sith installations on the planet are still up and running, as far as I know, and they’ve upped the restrictions under martial law recently. Stricter curfews, full weapon bans, the like.” He snorted. “Apparently a lot of the population liked to go armed, and now they can’t even carry stunners with a permit. Unless they join up, that is.”
Hestera nodded thoughtfully. “Are the Sith recruiting a lot of locals, then?” she asked. If they were—there could be something to work with, in that. This wasn’t Coruscant, with a cutting-edge central ID database; enlisting civilians would introduce sapien error, and sapien error might lead to opportunities.
“Some. They’re always shorthanded; no one knows where they get all their ships, but it apparently doesn’t have a matching population. So they recruit, sometimes.” Carth’s expression twisted, turning into something sour and dangerous. “Sweep in, take the planet’s airspace, bomb it until it surrenders—and somehow they keep finding volunteers anyway.”
Really, it makes sense, Hestera didn’t say, because she was familiar with the concept of tact. It’s cowardice, but most people aren’t very brave, are they? They’d much rather point a gun at their fellow citizens than have the gun pointed at them… Frowning slightly, she changed the subject: “Do we have any leads on Bastila’s location?”
“While you were out, I’ve been scouting around. Talking to some of the other trapped off-worlders, especially the aliens—apparently they’re second-class citizens at best here.” Carth grimaced at this. “Anyway, a few people saw an escape pod or two go down in the Undercity. Ah—we managed to end up in the worst part of the good part of town, basically. The Undercity is… less the bad part of town, from what I’ve heard, and more the kind of thing that gets government officials put on trial for crimes against sapiens.” He shook his head, slowly, and his eyes lingered somewhere far away for a moment. “Bet those officials are doing just fine right now.”
A curl of hot anger rose in Hestera’s chest, inexplicably energizing. “I’m sure they are,” she muttered. “The Sith get a cooperative local government, the mucky-mucks don’t get lined up against a wall and shot. Perfect symbiosis.” And damn the people, apparently, if they weren’t human and up here. (Good thing you lot collaborated, she thought, in some parallel track of her mind. Gives us an excuse to shoot you… But that wasn’t going to happen now.) She rubbed her hands together absently, considering—“We should probably get moving. Where exactly are we?”
“Old residential sector. This whole building’s supposed to be abandoned, technically, but nobody ever shut off the electricity or water, so I guess the squatters have a friend in planetary maintenance.”
“Good to know,” said Hestera. “Everyone should have a friend.” She let a teasing note creep into her voice. “Especially one who will come to check on them when they’re injured and, oh, remember that they don’t have any clothing…”
Carth sighed and handed her the box. “I didn’t have that many credits on me,” he said, “but I found a pawn shop and something that looked like it’d fit. And a belt.”
“Thank you. As plans go, I don’t think I’m cut out for seduction.” She took the box, which was long and flattish and made of repeatedly-recycled pulpboard, and gingerly opened it. Inside were a shirt and pants, the former dark gray and the latter a worn black-and-brown. Both were a bit too big, which Hestera found inexplicably cheering; there was, she decided, a distinct appeal to clothes that refrained from showing anything off. It made you harder to size up.
Carth made the particular face of a man who did not want to consider his subordinate in the same sentence as seduction. “I, um, wouldn’t… wouldn’t say I’d thought about that. In either direction.” He put a hand over his face. “Ugh,” he said, emphatically. “What I mean is—without in any way commenting on your appearance—please put on some pants, crewman.”
Did you undress me? she almost asked, but that… wasn’t something to ask an officer, particularly in that tone of voice, even—especially—if you had found in yourself a sudden urge to see him blush. It wasn’t an implication any decent sort of person would appreciate. Hestera probably should have been ashamed for thinking it. “Yes, sir,” she said, with a truly obnoxious salute, and headed for the tiny ‘fresher before she could get any more bright ideas. They were, she thought, not welcome.
Carth explained things, on the way out. Travel to the Lower City was restricted now, with only Sith patrols and specially authorized people allowed to cross through; this was new, and had apparently resulted in a vagrancy problem among the stranded off-worlders, because a lot of them hadn’t had the money to rent rooms in the Upper City. Tensions between the Tarisians and the occupying force had not, to put it lightly, been improved by this. There hadn’t been skirmishes topside yet, but a lot of people seemed to think it was just a matter of time…
“Nice day for a riot,” said Hestera dryly. “I hope that’s not our Plan A?”
“No. Void, no. The last thing we need is that kind of mess.” Carth made a face at the thought. “What we need is a way to sneak in,” he said, “hopefully without anyone having to pull a big, loud distraction. I’ve got a couple thoughts, but—well.”
Hestera nodded, mostly to herself, as she strolled along beside him. “No plan yet?” she murmured. “Alright. What kind of ID is an off-worlder expected to have?”
“I don’t know. I’m not sure there’s…” He gave her an odd look. “Some of them know my face, you know.”
“Yes, sir,” she said, low as a whisper, the honorific turning into something pointy between her teeth. “But they don’t know mine.”
He glanced over his shoulder. When he looked back at her, his mouth was a hard line. “You’re not just talking about getting through ID checks.”
“No,” admitted Hestera, dipping her head. “I have a PlanSec background. Basic was half a formality, and the rest just learning new procedures. And they’re desperate for anyone they can get, it sounds like. If they’re still playing at normal training, putting people through their boot camp and all the rest—then we’ll find another way.” She leaned forwards to whisper into his ear, just two residents having an argument no one else needed to hear about. “But if we need to find Bastila, wouldn’t the best way be to get assigned to look?”
“And what do I do if you don’t come back, afterwards?” He was staying quiet, too, but there was a hiss of real anger in his voice. Urgency, too. “I know you signed up and took the oath,” he said, “same as me—but so did a lot of them, crewman. How do I know you care what uniform you’re wearing?”
Hestera paused, and her eyes automatically flicked away to check the street around her. (Almost nobody there. Certainly nobody watching, and no one in Sith armor patrolling yet. Good.) She wanted to be angry, but… he did have a point. It was just that he was pointing it at her. Wheels spun in her mind, searching for a way to fix that, the words to prove she was at least loyal enough for now—and snapped into place. “You don’t,” she allowed, holding his gaze. “I’m new, I’m green, nobody knows me. I can’t prove a negative. I’m not what you want. But I’m what you have.” Her voice dropped further, barely a breath. “If we’re not in this together, we’re in this alone. Right?”
“Sure,” said Carth, dry and unimpressed. “That’s why I want to stay together. I don’t need you running off alone.” He made a sharp gesture, beckoning for her to fall in beside him, and started walking again. “No solo missions. No heroic lone infiltrations. I don’t know who you are when nobody’s looking, and I don’t trust anyone until I know that.”
Hestera’s lips twisted into a smile. “I think there’s a small flaw in that logic, Carth.”
“Really? I don’t.”
“Ah,” said Hestera, enlightened. She relaxed slightly. Being personally distrusted was one thing; someone who distrusted everyone either ended up on the news or got real good at working with people anyway, and Carth had clearly been functioning as an officer. “Okay, fair enough, then. But I still think it’s a good plan. Or the best one we’ve got, at least.” She laughed under her breath. “There are a lot of people who look a bit like you—I’m sure we can get you looking only a bit like you…”
There was a brief pause. “Yeah, maybe,” Carth eventually said, though he didn’t sound like he liked saying it. “But first I’m going to take you to the cantina the off-worlders like to drink at. There’s still a bit of fellow-feeling left to go around, and maybe somebody there’ll know about ID. Just—try to be subtle.”
They were getting towards a better part of town, closer to the locked-down spaceport. There were people on the streets now, some looking like locals with somewhere to be, some looking stranded and disgruntled. And, oh yes, up the street a bit, someone in shiny black armor was patrolling… “I can be subtle,” murmured Hestera, practicing the fine art of watching the world around her without looking like she was watching anything at all. “That fellow getting up on a box, though—”
“People of Taris!”
“Oh, no,” said Carth.
Which was entirely correct. The would-be rabble-rouser —an older human man, pale and balding and plainly dressed—cleared his throat and surveyed the people around him. It wasn’t even a crowd, quite, because it was too thin and sparse for that, but it was focused on him, and that seemed to be the important part. “People of Taris!” he repeated, louder. “Listen to me! Heed my warning, before it’s too late!”
“What does that damn fool think he’s doing?” Carth hissed, apparently largely to himself. “There’s Sith right down the street!”
“There is a scourge sweeping this planet, my friends! A pox as bad as the rakghoul plague!” The rabble-rouser, emboldened by the attention—and, yes, more people were approaching, drawn by the very sapien fear of Something Happening Without Them—swept his arm through the air and beckoned them all closer. “An enemy that walks among us, on these very streets! Come, all of you, and listen!”
Hestera watched, grimly transfixed. She had been PlanSec, once, in the fuzzy pre-head-injury portion of her life, and she knew how these things started. It wasn’t when someone climbed on a box and started shouting. It was when someone in uniform showed up to stop them, and suddenly the crowd didn’t have to wonder who would make the first move anymore. This crowd, she hoped, was too small for a riot, but did the Sith soldiers know that? (You can’t find Bastila if you’re dead, she thought, which makes this the time to walk away…) But a massacre would make everything a whole lot worse, and it was easier to sneak into the enemy ranks before the enemy ranks decided they were at war with the general public.
She made the only decision she could make. Slowly, casually, she started to walk towards the man on the box.
He looked at her with a smugness that was, in her opinion, entirely unwarranted. And it was the wrong kind of smugness for what he seemed to be doing. It wasn’t a righteous expression at all—just petty and mean. “You!” he said. “Yes, come forwards, listen to me—my name is Gorton Colu. Will you join my cause? Will you help defend Taris?”
Hestera discarded what she was going to say; he wasn’t the right sort of person for it. “I don’t know,” she drawled instead; cut the momentum, she thought, make this easy, hope the occupiers are smart enough not to light the keg of engine fuel they’re sitting down on. “Which side are we defending it from this week?”
The crowd didn’t exactly laugh, but they chuckled nervously. (It was a cynical crowd, yes, made up of people who probably didn’t care who won so long as they were okay at the end—she’d judged that correctly.) Gorton, for his part, looked faintly baffled. “Side?” he said. “What do you mean, side?”
Bafflement was catching. “Er,” said Hestera, her own momentum faltering. “In case you haven’t noticed, there’s rather a lot of people in uniform who like to shoot at each other…”
“You think this is about the war?” Gorton drew himself up, somehow projecting the sincere belief that nothing could be less important than a war. “About the new government of Taris, perhaps? No! This is about the alien menace! Do our lawmakers truly think the permit system is enough? Especially now, when our planetary security has all been sent off to search for Republic spies?” He made a short, sharp gesture. “It’s obscene, the laxity. We must demand better!”
Confusion warred with a distinct urge to drag the man down by his shirt collar. Confusion won, mostly because there wasn’t anything Hestera could do to him that the nice shiny-armored soldier heading towards them wouldn’t take offense to. “Right,” she said, for once fumbling for her words. And then, worried he’d take that as agreement, “You have fun with that. Sorry, officer, I’ll get out of the way—”
“Go,” snapped the Sith soldier, waving a hand vaguely. “You, street preacher, let me check your permits. Now.”
“I have one!” said Gorton, proffering it indignantly. “I filled out all your paperwork. I am entitled to spread my message!”
“Oh, look,” said the soldier, “the filing fee just went up. You have fifty credits?”
Hestera caught up with Carth at the edges of the rapidly-dispersing crowd. “I think,” she murmured, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “the Sith just accidentally committed a public service. Let’s go.”
Carth snorted in irritation, shaking his head. “And this is why we don’t play with the locals,” he muttered back. “What were you trying to pull, anyway? We don’t want attention, in case you forgot.”
“De-escalation. Keep him from getting himself shot and maybe kicking off that riot we don’t want. Or from just getting himself shot, for that matter.”
“Looked to me like you were insulting him.”
“He didn’t want to be de-escalated,” she said grimly.
“Right. Well…” Carth sighed. “I guess ‘subtle’ was a little much to ask. So here’s some nice, clear orders—don’t start a cantina brawl, alright?”
She chuckled softly and slid her hands into her pockets. “I promise to do my level best.”
The cantina sprawled out across several rooms, with a sign on one door declaring there to be sleeping quarters upstairs—none of which were currently available for rent. Even with so much space, it was packed. Pazaak players and their bored spectators crowded one area, and through an archway, a large circular bar was the centerpiece of another. The noise was incredible. (But all in Basic, as far as Hestera could hear, and the only aliens visible were a trio of twi’lek dancers on a stage in the central room.) The problem of the stranded spacers, laid out so very concretely, tugged at the buzzingly-analytical edges of her mind; she ran her tongue along her teeth and tried to remember that it wasn’t her problem.
Carth led the way, moving like someone who knew where he was going but wasn’t quite happy about it—the general din seemed to be putting him on edge, on top of all his other frustrations. There were a couple people he nodded to, and who nodded back. Mostly, though, he kept walking, gaze occasionally skimming over the crowd.
It paused for a moment in the same place Hestera’s did: a couple of tables in the back of the central bar. There were only a few people sitting there, and they were wearing the same sort of civvies as everyone else, but the crowd was giving them enough of a berth to make it very clear who they were. You really aren’t very popular, are you? she thought, looking away before the glance started to seem like anything more than survival instinct. If you’d come in on the aliens’ side, you might have been seen as their liberators. But they didn’t have the power. It would have consumed too many resources. So now you have a government of cowards under your thumb, disgruntled civilians, angry spacers, and an underclass you certainly haven’t done anything to help. She felt a flash of professional vindication at that—that’s how it ends when you run PlanSec wrong, you bastards.
Carth led her over to the bar, ordered two extremely cheap drinks from a droid, and beckoned her over towards one of the tables. “Come on,” he said, “looks like she’s here—I’ll introduce you to Darny. She’s a free trader, owns a decent-sized ship. She knows about the ID laws, I’ll bet.”
Hestera took a careful sip of her drink, well aware that if she spilled it, she would be spilling it on somebody’s boots. It tasted exactly like you’d expect from the beer you got in and around starports, reputedly the same anywhere in the galaxy. “Coming around?” she asked.
And there was no time to puzzle out how to keep selling him on a plan that couldn’t be put into words—without talking around it so obviously that it looked suspicious—because they were there. Darny, presumably Captain Darny to her crew and customers, was a tall, heavyset, middle-aged woman. Human, like all the customers, with tan skin and a bob of curly blonde hair. Good clothing, but not ostentatious. She oozed ‘legitimate free trader.’ (Helpful—potentially—for a thousand different things, none of which were applicable to the current situation.) Darny glanced up from a datapad as the pair approached, lifting one hand in an almost-wave. “Carth,” she said, an odd approving note in her voice. “So this is your co-pilot. Not really what I expected.”
Carth looked like someone who wanted to flinch at the sound of his own name. For an instant, he seemed a little too still, his jaw a little too set—and then, sighing, he forced himself to relax. “Yeah,” he said, “wait til you talk to her. Captain Darny, this is Hestera, probably not as bad as she seems. Hestera, this is Captain Darny, a business acquaintance from before all this. She ships a lot of plasteel, power cells, things like that.”
Someone who knew, then. Maybe a Republic agent, maybe just a vaguely sympathetic face. Carth was probably driving himself up a wall wondering exactly how deep the woman’s loyalties ran. “Call me Hes,” said Hestera, extending her free hand. “It’s less of a mouthful.”
Darny took the proffered hand with a businesswoman’s grip, shaking it firmly. “Shall do,” she said. “Now, have a seat, you two—tell me what you’re about.” She gestured at the empty chairs around her table. There was a hint of persona in the way she talked and moved, deliberate in ways most people weren’t. Practiced salesmanship. “My crew’s off doing useful things at the spaceport, and the fellow I’m trying to offload my cargo on won’t be here for half an hour, so I’ve got the space and the time—ha, nothing but the time. It’s not like we’ll be taking on anything new any time soon…”
If that was a covert jab at them, there was no rancor in it. Carth frowned anyway, somewhere between apologetic and rampantly uncomfortable; it was easy to see why. He was a self-admitted functional paranoid, but not the kind who was paid to be. “Information,” he muttered, sitting down. “If we’re going to be stranded here, there’s things we need to know.”
Hestera stepped around a chair and sat as well, flashing a sharp-but-friendly grin at the trader captain. “Like how to make money around here,” she added, “since we happen to be flat broke. Or, well”—she held up her drink—“I am, at least. My captain may or may not have spent his last credit.”
“Damn near,” said Carth. He shot her a warning look. It probably meant something like tone it down or let me lead, crewman, which was—a very reasonable objection, actually. He was the commanding officer here; it was his responsibility to get them through this. Her responsibility was to shut up and follow his orders. (Surely she had been better about this in basic, or she wouldn’t have gotten this far in the first place—surely her old PlanSec chief wouldn’t have stood for insubordination… well, maybe it was the chief’s fault, then. Subconscious revenge against the damn fool hypocrite.)
Hestera raised a hand to her head, suppressing a faint grimace. “Anyway,” she said. “I’ll shut my mouth and let you two captains work out the details.”
“Thanks,” said Carth icily. He leaned forwards, lowering his voice even more, until even Hestera could barely hear. “Look. You know my squad saved your ship, in the old war,” he whispered, the words spilling out in a rush. “I don’t like calling in debts for doing my duty—but I am. Not money, not anything that should put you in danger, just a question or two.” His fingers tightened around the base of his glass. “What IDs are the Sith looking for? And who are they giving authorization to? To get into the Lower City, I mean.”
“I suppose I deserve that,” said Darny, “considering I did say that I owe you one.” She sighed and took a sip of her drink. “You’re certainly desperate now… no, don’t give me that look, I’m not about to ask for money. You don’t have any. Or more favors than you’ve done, because you can’t give me those either.” Her glass spun in her hands, the small quantity of liquid that remained sloshing around inside. “They’re taking any civilian ID when they check, and don’t check much, ‘cause if they started mass-arresting the spacers there would be trouble. But they’re giving authorization papers just to Tarisians, ones who are useful or rich enough. And also some of the aliens who had permits to work up here, I think, like the dancers. That’s all I know, and I think I’m glad about that, hm?” She grinned. “Now either let’s talk about better things, or take your broke selves over to that bartender droid and ask about the legal bloodsports, because—look, I did not get where I am by giving money to random down-on-their-luck pilots.”
Back into the cover story. It was immediately evident why; one of the Sith soldiers had wandered away from her table to buy another drink. “How about when they recruit?” murmured Hestera. She thumbed the pouch on her new belt, into which she had transferred the non-incriminating contents of her uniform’s pockets. “I have Coruscanti ID…” Her original homeworld, though her family had left when she was only two, and the source of her Republic citizenship. Half the spacers in the galaxy were from Coruscant, just by sheer numbers—it was only a suspicious place to come from if you thought all anonymity was suspect.
“Little asteroid gods,” muttered Darny. And then, hastily, “What a rubbish job. You might as well sell your ship and fund yourselves that way, for all the chance you’d have at getting off this rock again.
“Not everyone owns their ship,” said Carth, who was clearly not faking the grudging note in his voice—just the reason behind it. But he was going along with Hestera’s plan anyway, just that tiny bit, and she allowed herself to hope…
Darny quirked an eyebrow. “Them, though?” she asked, raising her glass to her lips.
As if you have a better plan, civvie-trader. You aren’t running this blockade. “I’m willing to fall on that sword,” said Hestera, “for my captain’s sake.”
Her captain was trying to eviscerate her with his eyes. “We’re still discussing it.”
“Mm.” Darny drained the last of the cup. “Somewhere else, please.” She raised the empty glass in an ironic toast, smirking rakishly at them. “Work out your little who’s-the-captain-here problem on your own time. If you would?”
Over to the side, the Sith soldier who had been ordering a drink was saying something to her fellows, gesturing with her free hand. They were all standing up now; as Hestera watched, the other soldiers waved, split off, and headed towards the door, while the drink-buyer began making her way over to the pazaak tables. Something about the woman’s posture grabbed at her mind…
“I think we will,” Hestera murmured, pushing herself up. “Thank you.”
Carth grabbed his glass and stood, expression now skeptical as well as unimpressed. “What now?” he asked. “I don’t think we have somewhere to be—ah, and thank you, Darny, we’ll work this out—anyway.” His hand came down on Hestera’s upper arm, ready to steer her through the crowd. “Please tell me you’re not going to try and cheat at pazaak.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I barely even know how to play.” Hestera shot him a sharp grin, feeling something fizzing in her head; not a real plan yet, but almost the shape of it. “I’m just going to buy somebody a drink,” she said, then paused with her hand halfway towards her belt pouch. “No—scratch that. I’m going to get somebody to buy me a drink.”
“Oh, really? Just like that?” He snorted, but allowed her to tow him towards the card tables. “I thought you said you weren’t that smooth.”
“I said that I’m not cut out to seduce our way out of this,” she said, chuckling, “not that I can’t appreciate my fellow sapiens—” She stopped. “Is there someone else you can talk to? Not to contribute to any captaincy confusion, but I think a third wheel might make this awkward.”
“Is there—?” Carth stared in speechless frustration for a moment, then gave a single sharp shake of his head. “We’re going to talk about this,” he said, taking a step towards the bar. “Later. Go.”
Thus released, Hestera bobbed her head at him, still grinning, and started moving again. The crowd wasn’t thick enough to make it hard to get around, but it was thick enough that you couldn’t do it in a straight line. She stepped around a man who looked like he avoided the sun as a hobby, and strolled off towards the pazaak tables, her half-empty glass dangling from her fingers. The urge to hum was entirely inappropriate—and her singing voice certainly wouldn’t win her any friends—but she felt energized. She’d spent too much time cooped up in medbays with no one to talk to.
The first thing she noticed was that the Sith soldier didn’t seem to be popular at the gambling tables. That wasn’t a surprise, but it felt like an opportunity. The woman was leaning against an empty chair, trying to talk a thin, dark-skinned man into another game; it sounded like they were both regulars.
“I’m waiting for someone,” the man said, shrugging. “Sorry.”
“Void and its Maw,” said the soldier. She was plainly disgusted. “Who?”
“Someone I can play for money. Without worrying about being arrested if I win.”
“Ugh.” She made a face. “Like I want to risk my paycheck anyway.”
The man began shuffling his cards. “Right. Some of us have a spacedock berth to pay for.”
“I’ll play you,” said Hestera, stepping sidelong into the invisible boundary of the conversation. She was still grinning. “It’s not like I have a paycheck to risk.”
The soldier’s eyes barely passed over her. “I can’t get you off-planet,” she snapped, moving to step around her.
“Little asteroid gods,” said Hestera, borrowing Darny’s curse, “have people been asking you to?”
Lips twisting into a grimace, the soldier stopped and turned back. She was tall and square and angular—though not quite as tall or angular as Hestera—and she moved with all the barely-contained aggression of a rancor. “Obviously,” she growled. “Why else would you try and make friends with the big bad Sith officer? Everyone thinks I can get them off-planet, or pretend like they aren’t running spice, or—get them out of a parking ticket or something. It’s just another perk of the job.” Even her laugh was sharp and graceless; there was something almost attractive about it. “So let’s skip to the part where you find out I can’t get you what you want, and I’ll go back to our tiny shitty break room at our big shitty base and laugh at the stupid pushy spacers. Deal?”
“I can’t imagine why no one wants to play cards with you,” said Hestera, with a twitch of her lips to show she wasn’t too serious. “Is it really as bad as all that? They’re trying to sell it pretty hard, I hear.”
“Spare me the sympathy,” said the soldier. Her eyes drifted off towards the bar.
“Play a hand with me,” said Hestera, “and I will.”
The soldier laughed again, with a little bit less contempt and a little bit more interest. She took a few steps towards an empty table, and Hestera followed her. “You’re that sure you’d win?”
“No. I’ve never played pazaak in my life.” Hestera raised her glass, smiling mischievously over the rim of it. “But I’m the most annoying, overconfident bastard in this entire cantina, and you should definitely fleece me for all my imaginary credits.”
“Well, some of that is obviously true.” The soldier ran a hand along the base of her undercut. “Annoying. Overconfident. I hope you have a lot of imaginary credits.”
“I’m imagining them right now,” said Hestera, sweeping a hand to indicate this. She grabbed a chair and pulled it out, gesturing for the soldier to sit, then slid into the one across. “Mind giving me your name?” she asked. “Unless that’s classified Sith business, of course.”
“Sarna,” said the soldier, sparing herself any further jokes about Sith intelligence (and, most likely, the difficulty in finding any). She sat down and pulled a couple of decks from her shirt pocket. “Corporal Sarna, when I’m not here.” She bared her teeth in something like a grin. “They don’t really like it when we mingle.”
Fucking officers wasn’t something a fake free trader could say, but it sat behind Hestera’s very most sympathetic smile. “Of course not. This is obviously a hotbed of rebellion,” she half-drawled (though oh, it could have been), and held out her free hand. Sarna’s fingers brushed hers as the deck was transferred over. It felt like a very tiny victory. “I’m Hestera. Most people call me Hes, though you can call me that asshole if you’d like. I think it’s my captain’s—oh, let’s be real, former captain’s—favorite name for me.”
Sarna didn’t look up from shuffling. “You’re trying too hard.”
“Always,” acknowledged Hestera, attempting to maneuver her cards like she knew what she was doing. She hadn’t been lying when she said she’d never played pazaak before.
That got another sharp laugh, more of the bitterness leaching out each time. Sarna seemed, in some undefinable way, like she desperately wanted that—like she needed someone to take all of it and not falter, in the way someone might need water on a wasted city-world. (Far away, the headache was coming back.) Then she reached out a hand, actually almost smiling, and said, “I can shuffle that. If you want.”
Which was better? Lean into the sudden decency, or keep all that sharpness from thinking this had become too easy? Her instincts told her to do one thing, pain hovering at the edges of her awareness, but Hestera chose the other and pushed the pile of cards towards Sarna. “Here,” she said, trying to shake the feeling that there was something stupid and petty and needless about what she was doing. “Or we’ll be here all day, I think.”
“Yeah, I can tell.” Sarna scooped the cards towards her side of the table, then paused and grinned wickedly. “Say ‘please.’”
Hestera leaned forwards. “Please,” she said, in a voice that—while not a purr—did not live very far away from it. She had possibly been shading the truth when she said she wasn’t cut out for seduction; Sarna’s face was suddenly a little too fixed, a little too blank, and there was a hint of a flush to her cheeks. Good. That’s right. Come on…
“Right,” Sarna said, quickly, with just a tiny hitch in her voice. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” Her hands moved quickly, cards almost dancing under her calloused, practiced fingers, but her focus seemed—caught, wavering like a fish on a hook. Then she cleared her throat, very obviously trying to get a hold of herself. “So, anyway,” she added, “if you’re too broke to play for credits, and you’re not trying to sweet-talk the all-powerful Sith occupiers into letting you out of a traffic fine—”
“All-powerful?” asked Hestera, lips quirking upward.
“Sure. Who doesn’t like a woman who could clap them in binders?” Sarna’s expression was toothy and mirthless.
Hestera laughed. “I’ve worked PlanSec, you know.” That little truth was harmless, and her only selling point anyway—she just wouldn’t say why she’d left. “If you’re all-powerful, I’ll march back to Deralia just to eat my old badge.”
“Really?” asked Sarna sweetly. “How are you going to get there?”
Hestera considered this. “Ah,” she said. “Hm.” And then, after a moment: “You may have me there.”
Sarna neatly passed her back the deck. “And don’t you forget it,” she said, with more than vague satisfaction. “Now, let’s go over the rules, shall we? Since you claim you don’t know how to play.”
“If I was going to lie about that, I’d be playing for credits.” Hestera’s smile went lopsided and a little sharp. “Now come on,” she said. “Teach me something new.”