Star Wars: "Legend Hunters"
DescriptionA tale of the Old Cannon as a young pilot and her crew face danger and betrayal as they uncover relics of galactic history.
|This writing has not yet been rated and therefore this information is not yet available.|
CHAPTER ONE “Yeah,” Vendra Seron breathed in a manner somewhere between a sigh and a chuckle. “I know he’s supposed to be here by now. But you know Vek. He always has to make an entrance.” Beside her, Vendra’s companion huffed quietly, and she could hear the distinct nervous disapproval in the sound. “Well, the Caravan is his tavern after all,” Vendra said. Fixing her attractively accentuated face into a neutral expression, Vendra swept the scene with her sterling eyes. The Caravan was one of the better taverns on this part of Ryloth. Privately, though, Vendra admitted that, for all its sophistication, the place did have a lot in common with a dozen other places she and her Jawa partner had been in. Crowded, loud, and dark, the tavern had that air of seedy intrigue all places frequented by starpilots had. Was the tall human at the bar a smuggler looking for a contact? Maybe the Bith sitting at a corner table directly across the tavern was an agent of the Galactic Alliance, waiting to catch the human in some kind of illegal activity. There were dozens of shady possibilities, dark agendas, and dirty little secrets lingering all over the room. The Caravan was crammed with everything that made every hyperspace hop worth the trip, and served up a great Corellian brandy besides. Her father disapproved of her coming into places like this, so Vendra was surprised when she received a message from him saying that she should get here as soon as possible. The Caravan mirrored the character of its proprietor, and neither were shining examples of honest repute. Still, in a galaxy of worlds that were either dead or dying, it was heartening to know that even the smallest handful of the “Old Galaxy’s” planets continued to thrive amid the legacy of the Yuzzhan Vong invasion. It was twenty-three years ago that the first Vong worldship crossed the galactic barrier, bringing the first wave of an invading army that would conquer or destroy well over half the known galaxy within two years. While most of the planets on the galaxy’s Outer Rim had been spared the worst of the Vong’s fury, or ignored all together, the same was not so for the rest. While a few planets in the Mid Rim had managed varying degrees of recovery, the worlds of the Inner Rim continued to struggle. Yet even the devastation of the Inner Rim did not compare to the magnitude of destruction the Galactic Core had suffered. The Galactic Core was the region of space that was the home system to the planet Coruscant, the world that had been the seat of power to the New Republic, the Empire before it, and the Old Republic before that. It was a prominence that made the Core a prized target to the Yuzzhan Vong. When the Vong finally laid siege to that region, the Core became the field on which one of the most savage battles of the invasion would be fought. So violent was the Vong’s Galactic Core campaign, so magnificent was the destruction, it was amazing anything or anyone was able to live there today. “You didn’t have to come with me, you know,” Vendra chided the little hooded creature. Myrishi chittered a response only vaguely heard over the noise of a dozen voices competing to be heard over that tooth grating music. Although the Caravan was a generally a more pleasant venue than the cantina of Mos Eisley on Tattooine, at least the dive at Mos Eisley had a live band. Which was not to say the entertainment there was any better than the entertainment here. But at least a live band had to take breaks every once in a while. “Well then don’t complain,” Vendra admonished, unable to hold back the grin creasing her full lips. Myrishi had been with her since the day she saved him from murder at the hands of an Aqualish. Vendra had been down in her own docking pit doing some routine maintenance work on her ship’s sublight cooling systems when she heard Myrishi’s frantic squealing. At first Vendra thought nothing of it, on Tatooine the sound of an excited Jawa was not exactly an uncommon thing. But the next sound she heard, the sound prompting her drop her hydrospanner for her blaster, was a neck-prickling shriek. Vendra whipped her head around to look up at the edge of the neighboring docking pit and saw two figures perched there. Another terrified scream found her ears, the small helpless cry of a small helpless creature facing imminent demise. Her reaction was faster than thought. Vendra tossed her hydro-spanner aside and was in a dead run for her rented repulsor-bike before she even realized she was moving. Clearing the distance in just a few heartbeats, Vendra was in the seat with a single leap. The engines howled as the repulsor-bike jumped from the ground. The bike’s exhaust scorched the permacrete as the Vendra’a safety helmet hit the ground with a clatter that might as well have been silent. Clenching her teeth against the hot air slamming into her face and eyes, Vendra finally saw the would-be killer. The Aqualish was holding the Jawa by the throat and dangling the flailing little desert alien over the edge. Then the lanky walrus-faced assailant’s hard dark eyes exploded with shock as he watched the high performance repulsor-bike bear down on him. The acceleration compensators screamed as Vendra brought the bike’s nose up, the engines groaning as she kicked the bike into a sideways glide. Coming around in a half rotation Vendra reached out and snagged the Jawa by the back of his brown robe. The Aqualish gave a throaty grunt of surprise as his prey was snatched from his grasp. A surprise equally present in the high-pitched squawk of his intended victim as the Jawa’s momentum deposited him on the seat behind Vendra. Giving the controls a hard yank, Vendra swung the bike away and pulled upward as the Aqualish bellowed in rage and brought up a blaster. Vendra’s lip curled in concentration and contempt as she completed the spin, she drew her blaster, and brought the bike around to angle for her own shot. The green skinned Aqualish’s outraged ranting instantly became a cry of terror as the ledge supporting his weight suddenly disintegrated. He fired a wild shot as he fell through the open space where the pit’s outer ledge had been. It was only by a wonder of luck and reflexes that he was able to grab a solid handhold and save his life. He looked at Vendra, his gaze one of inexplicable horror and pleading. “Why should the Jawa have all the fun?” Vendra said sweetly with a smile and a wink as she holstered her blaster and pulled away. The Aqualish’s handhold was solid enough to hold him until either the authorities got to him, or Vendra went back for him. All in all, the authorities proved to be his better bet. Since that day Myrishi had remained by Vendra’s side, fulfilling what she could only characterize as a life debt. Vendra was familiar with the concept, of course. Wookiees were well known for such a practice, and the Barabel species had a similar ethic. But in all her experience on Tattooine, and the few dealings she had with the half-sized scavengers, Vendra had never before heard of a Jawa taking such a responsibility on himself. No matter what, Myrishi was always there to help or just to make Vendra feel better. In a galaxy as treacherous as this one, that bond of friendship and loyalty was more extraordinary and valuable then Vendra could have possibly imagined. And the Jawa’s presence was always a pleasant and helpful one. Well, except for the time Myrishi followed her into the shower . . . “I would hope,” a hissing voice said behind her, “that one of those enchanting smiles is reserved for me.” Vendra settled a three count before turning, but before she even got to two the Twi’Lek was already seating himself at her table. Speaking of seedy . . . “Hello, Vek,” Vendra said as Myrishi fidgeted in his seat. “How’s business?” “As it should be,” Vek smiled back, “profitable. But I’d hazzard not near as exciting for me as your business is for you.” It was a conscious effort for Vendra to keep her eyes from rolling sarcastically as Vek took her hands gently into his and started with the usual routine. “Would it be too bold of me to say that your eyes are as sterling as a Rylothan sea?” “Vek, the seas of Ryloth aren’t sterling,” Vendra replied dryly. “And speaking of business,” she prompted, pulling her hands from his caress and putting them around her glass. “My father said you had something for him.” “Indeed,” Vek said in the same smooth tone. “A bit of galactic history no less, and an opportunity every starship salvage hunter lusts for.” Starship salvage hunter that was an interesting way to describe the hobby Vendra shared with her father. Though she made it a general policy to scrutinize every word the reliably deceitful, but delightfully charming, Vek Rautana said, she had to believe her errand was about something big. There was no way her father would purposely send her here otherwise. The next few seconds were filled only with that irritating blend of noise that apparently passed for music around there. Vendra studied Vek’s toothy grin and leering icy blue eyes. “Well,” she finally prompted. Vek smiled luridly as he reached into his grey gold trimmed robe. Palming something, he leaned forward again and slowly beckoned Vendra closer with a long slow motion of his finger. Vendra tilted her head to the side, her response to the invitation painted on her face, the jubilant light of the dance floor accentuating her lightly tanned complexion. “Note the music,” Vek said, the smile disappearing under a suddenly sobered expression. For the first time since Vek greeted her, Vendra turned her mind to that loud . . . That loud music. Typically, when he was running his usual and hopeless seductive routine on her, which was every time Vendra was in the place, Vek would have the sound system turned down to give her a full appreciation of his charm. “Indeed,” Vek spoke into her thoughts, “this offering that I have is of a vintage best kept private between you and me. For if it were overheard by any of those around us, you might not reach the door. To say nothing of leaving the planet.” Again the invitation was made and, this time, the invitation was accepted. Vendra’s tight gray jumpsuit flattened against her toned body as she leaned forward on her forearms. “Have you ever heard of the ship named New Dawn?” Vek whispered, his breath warm on Vendra’s face. “Hasn’t everyone in the starship salvage business?” she replied with the same tone. “Ah,” Vek grinned deviously, “but not everyone has evidence of its whereabouts.” It was Vendra’s turn to grin, her long burgandy hair falling back down her shoulders as she leaned away again. “Don’t con me, Vek. It’s insulting.” “Have I misled you before?” Vek pointed out. “The galaxy is full of first times,” Vendra replied with the same voice. “For you,” Vek said, massaging her hands again as cover for the data chip he slid into her palm. “And this is?” she asked, tightening her fingers on the item. “My proof of sincerity,” Vek replied, his cool eyes glittering with a polish of greed. “Sensor data collected from an excursion I took into Wild Space. Readings near a point on the very edge of Fate’s Bluff.” That glittering polish was contagious. “You think the New Dawn is in the Wraith’s Corridor?” Vendra asked doubtfully, leaning back in. “I suspect the possibility,” Vek replied. “I was on a . . .” the Twi’Lek’s serpentine headtails shifted as he paused, “. . . purchasing trip to Rodia. The negotiations between myself and the other party were short. But the firefight between our ships had been far briefer.” Vek’s lips compressed, “Before I knew it, I was in a dead run back to Ryloth with enough gouges in my hull that have cost me a full month’s profit to repair. If that was not inconvenience enough, the chase had attracted the attention of Ryloth Security. And, while the assistance would have been well appreciated in other occasions . . .” Vek let the sentence hang with a simple shrug. Vendra gave a simple shrug in return, but could not resist attaching a smirk to her gesture. Although Vek was far from the cutthroat ruthlessness that was the hallmark of many who operated the galaxy’s Fringe, one did not own a place like this for the love of the hospitality industry. At a guess, Vek’s end of the Rodian deal would have landed him in a prison cell next to his pursuers had the authorities boarded him. It was nice to see there was still some measure of law and order left within the Old Galaxy. Suddenly faced with an increasingly inhospitable galaxy, the Galactic Alliance had spent the past two decades claiming and settling worlds within the Unknown Regions and even Wild Space. Even so, a mass migration and relocation program of a galactic scale could possibly take a generation or more to complete. The tenuous nature of the process resulted in a separation of that which was new from that which was old. Right now Vendra was in the Old Galaxy, and was on Old Ryloth. But Old Ryloth now had a sisterworld within the New Galaxy called New Ryloth. The labels “old” and “new” were attached to most planets now. Even Vendra’s homeworld of Bakurra, which had been almost completely ignored during the Vong War, had a sisterworld in the TheraKor Expanse of the New Galaxy. Vendra had been there many times on business for her father. It was nice. Although, that was to be expected considering the population was mostly made up of Bakurra’s economic and political elite. Such seemed to be the way of things; the wealthy and powerful were always first in line while everyone else had only hope to sustain them as they waited their turn. The result was as unexpected as the trend. While the New Galaxy was a safe clean realm of order, the Old Galaxy was a dangerous and desperate place that was acknowledged by the New Galaxy, but largely left on its own. The Old Galaxy had become a haven for smugglers, pirates, and others whose enterprises were less than legitimate. No wonder Vek stayed put. “Vek,” Vendra breathed, feigning shock, “did you charge headlong into Wild Space to get away from the Rodian party and the authorities?” “A substantial gamble, to be certain,” Vek continued through another of those smiles. “But a preferable one to the alternatives. And in case merely entering Wild Space didn’t deter the pursuers, I made straight for Fate’s Bluff as a full test of their resolve. As it happened, I needn’t have bothered. The pursuit broke well before I reached the edge of the Bluff. I pressed on toward it until they pulled off into hyperspace. Just in case they weren’t quite convinced I was actually going to cross into the Wraith’s gravity well.” “But of course, you didn’t,” Vendra put in. “Would I be here charming you if I had?” Vek pointed out. The comment brought a mock-sweet grin from Vendra, and a contemptuous huff from the Jawa forgotten in the conversation. Myrishi’s contribution to the discussion inspired a look of disgust from Vek. At least Myrishi hadn’t tried to bite him like last time, Vendra thought wryly. “This is where you get to the good part of the story. Right, Vek?” Vek’s headtails, or lekku as the appendages were formally called, gave one more twitch of dismay as he again focused his hungry gaze on Vendra. “Indeed. It was a wonder, my dear, all those rays of light streaming into the core of the corridor. Then bending like the tails Gamorrean slash lizards as the individual streams were pulled into whichever black hole was nearest. Yet just as my bravery gave way to the impulse of pulling back, a tiny blip flared on my forward sensors. Barely a blip, actually, and at the time I dismissed the spark as a glitch caused by the gravimetric chaos of the Wraith.” “When did you realize it wasn’t?” Vendra asked, taken aback by the passionate expression on Vek’s alien face. “When I returned to Ryloth and had my onboard systems begin a diagnostic. The sensors had not gleaned much from the sensor blip other than a vague location of the anomaly. But based on the position and orientation inside the zero-gee-zone within the center of the Wraith, the computer was able to calculate an estimated size of the anomaly.” His voice again returned to a whisper, “One-point-six kilometers.” “So your ship said,” Vendra pointed out, “but you know how reliable sensors are in gravity disruptions. For all you know they could have picked up the event horizon of one of the larger black holes inside the Wraith.” “True,” Vek conceded. “But if they didn’t . . .” “If they didn’t,” Vendra said, her heart beating a little harder, “then what we’ve got here could be a piece of galactic history. So,” she said finally, slipping the data card into her sleeve, leaning back, and raising an eyebrow. “What do you want from me in exchange?” Vek hissed again, wetting his grinning lips with his tongue as his finger beckoned Vendra closer.
* * *Chapter Two “I can hardly believe I did it either,” Vendra admitted to Myrishi’s chitter, trying to watch all directions at once as their footsteps echoed loudly around the stone cavern. “But Vek and I have been dancing around each other for a while now. It was going to happen sooner or later.” Myrishi spouted more opinionated chatter. “You’re starting to sound like father,” Vendra replied, twisting for a look behind and resting her hand more firmly at her holstered blaster. Had she heard something . . .? “I’m an adult now. Dad just hasn’t figured that out yet,” Vendra said, her voice darkening with a concern that had nothing to do with the Jawa’s comment. “Looks like you haven’t, either.” If Myrishi had a reply, he did not have the chance to voice it. The pair were only a few feet from a bend in the tunnel when four stocky green-scaled aliens came around it, their long foot-claws scratching the ground as they stepped. Trandoshans. Myrishi squealed at the sight, and Vendra had to agree the situation did not look especially friendly. One of the reptilian aliens gestured with his weapon. The rifle was similar to the old BlasTech E-33 model, but with a longer muzzle and a butt that rested over top of his shoulder that looked like a kind of net-casting gun. The leader hissed some statement that had Vendra’s name in it, watching her with blood-red eyes that were alert and wild. “I don’t underssstand what you are sssaying,” Vendra replied, hissing her words and cursing Vek for not having a better sound system. The leader hissed something else through that perpetual grin all Trandoshans seemed to have. His thick leathery hide glistened under the cavern’s dim light, and Vendra could see the subtle lines of darker green patterns that ran through his otherwise bright emerald skin. “Well that explains it,” Vendra replied, strolling toward the leader as casually as possible. She gave Myrishi’s shoulder a gentle but assertive squeeze to encourage him to keep up with her. “Look, boys, if you want to . . .” Vendra never finished the sentence. The leader tried to beat her to the punch as Vendra’s hand darted for her blaster. She dove for the ground as the Trandoshan fired a net that whisked past over her head, yanking Myrishi with her by one hand and trying to line up her own shot with the other. The shadowy cavern was suddenly ablaze with blinding crimson discharge as Vendra’s shot burned into the leader’s lower jaw and straight through the back of his head. The starpilot fired several shots into the cavern beyond as she rolled to the side and brought herself up to one knee. Clenching her teeth, she grabbed Myrishi by the arm and half pulled, half threw him into the wall on the near side of the tunnel-bend the Trandoshans had appeared from. The stink of ozone burned her eyes and nose as Vendra pressed her back to the stone wall and eased a bit closer to the corner. The dead Trandoshan’s partners, surprised by the blasterfire, had ducked back behind the bend. Throughout the cavern shouts could be heard, along with the distinct sound of running feet coming her way from what sounded like every direction. Slowly, her heart thudding like a heavy blaster, Vendra raised both her XelTac-21 blaster, and the backup miniblaster she had pulled from its boot-sheath, into ready position beside her jaw and flung herself around the corner. Nothing. The rest of the group must have indeed been scared off. The Trandoshans were obviously trying to take her and Myrishi quietly, and the screaming-echo of blasterfire in the cavern made too much noise to do that. “And you thought we weren’t going to have any fun on this trip,” she admonished Myrishi wryly as she lowered her weapons. The cavern instantly filled with a series of indignant jabbers and squawks. Myrishi’s tiny glowing eyes brightened from the depths of the coarse brown hood shrouding the rest of his face as he patted his arm expressively. “Yes,” Vendra said, replacing the backup blaster in its boot-sheath and standing. “I’m sorry I almost ripped your arm out of its socket.” “Yes,” she said absently, moving back down the path toward the scuffling Vendra heard between Myrishi’s complaints. “I’m sorry for throwing you around like a sack of marjor melons.” Vendra had gone five paces back down the corridor before the Jawa noticed she was not listening and gave up to follow. Vendra could not help feeling it was more than just luck that the Trandoshan overshot the mark with that snare. She would have expected a better performance from a member of the race infamous for capturing and enslaving Wookiees. It was also funny the way the group let her get too close like that. Either this was the sloppiest kidnapping attempt in galactic history, or the Trandoshans had reason to believe Vendra was going to cooperate. The situation begged a lot of questions and, if Vendra had bet right, the snare that was meant to hold her now held the answers she sought instead. In the distance, Vendra could hear the shouting voices and stamping feet getting closer. Although she wanted to be out of the area before the authorities showed up to bog her down with questions, her curiosity would not be denied. Vendra continued toward the scuffling until the sound resolved itself into a long slender shadow writhing on the ground like some black fish on the bow of its catcher’s boat. The long-snouted Kubaz buzzed with frustration as it flailed about, uselessly trying to free himself from the line restraining him. He twisted in Vendra’s direction, saw the look on her face and blaster in her hand, and babbled even more urgently in that voice and language that always sounded to her like a malfunctioning comlink. “You hear those voices and feet coming?” Vendra asked with an icy tone as she squatted beside the frantic alien, leveling the barrel of her blaster between the lenses of his shaded goggles. “I want to be gone by the time they get here. So I’m only going to ask this once: who sent you and your friends after me?” The Kubaz’s long muzzle erupted in a series of short High pitched wheezes and chattering exclamations Vendra did not have a hope of following. “Great,” she grimaced.
* * *Chapter Three “Too bad you couldn’t get anything out of the Kubaz,” Lavan Seron said, leaning back in his chair and lacing his fingers behind his balding head. “Would have been handy to know who got the drop on us.” “XelTac blasters don’t come with voice recorders,” Vendra replied as she studied the sector map display on the wall of her father’s office on Old Bakurra. “It could have been Rodians. Vek said it was a group of Rodians who were chasing him when he went into the Wild Space.” “He said they chased him after a meeting on Rodia,” Vendra’s father corrected her. “The other party may have come from Rodia, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were actually native Rodians.” “Vek wasn’t specific on that point,” Vendra conceded with a sigh. “Whoever caught on to our conversation had really good ears, though, I’ll tell you that. Vek had that sound system of his pumping pretty hard.” “That fact leaves only one real possibility in my mind,” Lavan said, his voice that of someone thinking out loud. “That it was someone who already knows as much as we do, or more. And that ‘someone’ might have been from Vek’s own ship.” Lavan’s final words were broken by a spasm of dark humor, and Vendra turned to face her father. He was still sitting like a man lost in a daydream, a distant and unfocused gaze in his brown eyes, but Vendra knew better than that. One did not build the largest deep space shipping corporation on this side of the Old Galaxy’s Corellian Trade Spine by daydreaming. Many wondered why a man of such wealth chose to stay in the "Old Galaxy," and many assigned nefarious motives to that choice. In truth, Lavan saw New Bakurra as Vendra saw it; a luxury coveted by the wealthy as an ego-flattering status symbol. “That’s the most likely possibility in my mind,” she said, folding her arms and stepping before his desk. “But if that’s the case, why take a run at me for the sensor data?” Lavan twitched his head to the side, his mouth twisting in a thoughtful expression, “To sell it back to Vek afterwards. Or to make sure they were sent in your place. Or to take Vek out of the deal entirely and go for the find under his nose.” “A dirty trick,” Vendra chuckled grimly. “But,” her father prompted. “Given his associations, probably,” she nodded, then paused, a small pang of hesitation welling in her throat. “So, where does that leave us?” “If Vek could salvage or even verify that what he picked up in the Wraith’s Corridor was the New Dawn he would have already done it,” Lavan said firmly, leaning forward and looking to the display Vendra had just turned away from. “If someone else with even a hint of genuine ambition or ability had gone after it before you got back here I’d have heard about it by now.” Lavan paused for a thoughtful second, “Which still leaves us with a green light.” Vendra punched at the empty air, her eyes blazing with excitement as Lavan took the data card Vek gave her and stepped around the desk. With what remained of his hair dominated by varying shades of gray, deeply set character lines about his mouth and eyes, and clothes tailored to accommodate the belly everyone pretended was not there, Vendra knew her father had passed his prime years ago. She still suspected, however, that there was more strength left in those arms and hands than he let on. It was not that he had any need to demonstrate it, of course. Lavan had never been much for physically intense activity, but Vendra always suspected there was more beneath that exterior than was ever shown. “You get Myrishi started on prepping the Dagger as we discussed, I’ll run and get you a copy of the data we have on the Wraith. Study hard, Ace,” Lavan said, his voice dropping grimly as he focused on her. “You have to know that area of space like you were born there, or Vek isn’t ever going to flirt with you again.” There was something about the way her father said Vek’s name. “You don’t think Vek set me up himself, do you?” she asked. “Vek didn’t hire them, no,” Lavan replied. His face and voice tensed, as if he were trying to decide something. “What is it?” Vendra asked quietly. “He sent you a gift,” her father replied, giving her a look Vendra had never seen from him before. “It arrived a couple of days ago.” Slowly, his manner as uncertain as his expression, Lavan stepped to the storage closet beside the office door. The closet opened at his approach, revealing several pairs of leather boots and a matching jacket. The subtle lines of darker green patterns running through the jacket seemed familiar somehow, as did the foot-claws on the toes of each boot. “That isn’t . . .?” Vendra began to say, only to stop as her father pulled something from his tunic. “Almost forgot about the goggles,” he said softly, holding the eye-wear of the Kubaz Vendra knew she would never meet again.
* * *Chapter Four Sitting alone in the Black Dagger’s cockpit, Vendra watched the purple-black energy billow outside the viewport as her starrunner-class starship plunged through hyperspace. Vendra’s forward scope pinged, registering a mass gravity shadow that was lying directly in the ship’s trajectory. Vendra gave the controls a slight tap, adjusting her course heading safely around the obstacle. She glanced at the ship’s counter, rapidly winding down as they approached the first stop on their two day voyage to Fate’s Bluff and the chaotic region of Wild Space known as the Wraith’s Corridor. There were those who did not like space travel, and such beings had Vendra’s eternal sympathy. How could one look into the stars in the night sky and not want to go among them? Vendra still remembered the first time her father let her take the helm of a cargo freighter. It was big, slow, and ugly to look at, but for the half hour she guided it under her father’s instruction, Vendra felt as though she were at the helm of a Galactic Alliance destroyer. Even now, nine years after that first flight, driving hard through hyperspace remained just as thrilling as that jaunt she took in the bulk freighter when she was fourteen. Every hyperspace hop was a jewel to be savored. Especially when the ship Vendra piloted was her own. Sleek, jet-black, and fashioned like a knife with wing-fins, the series I starrunner starship was the pride of the GalTech manufacturing line. The Black Dagger was a roomy medium-sized personal cruiser. The cockpit and main cabin were upholstered completely in lightly-tanned cloned leather. The mid-section of the ship was a cabin that was cozy yet adequately spacious, complete with a full sensor and communications station, a X4-Visitron holoprojector, and a reenforced compartment built under the cabin’s steel-gray floor panels where Vendra stowed her “specialized equipment.” The third, and final, main compartment housed the ship’s power and propulsion systems. Built into the rear of the main cabin, just offside of the engine compartment’s door, was a small but functional ‘fresher cubicle. Set above the cabin’s blast shielded viewports were storage compartments where a one week supply of stores could be stowed. With a Mark VI Stratecom navigation array, sublight engines that pushed fifteen sublight units per standard time part, and a hyperdrive engine that could pull point-two past lightspeed, there were few ships faster than this one. Outfitted with rapid fire blaster cannons mounted under the Dagger’s wings, and a multidirectional proton torpedo launcher under the ship’s arrowhead nose, the Black Dagger had a bite that matched her leap. She was a fine ship all right. Now her crew was going to find out just how tough the pride of the GalTech manufacturing line truly was. Vendra and her father had been theorizing on and off for years about possible ways of breaching the maw of the Wraith and getting out successfully. Vendra always suspected their hours of speculation were cleverly disguised lessons in fundamental starship mechanics and advanced galactic navigation. If that was the case Lavan did not need to bother, as neither of those subjects required disguising for a novice starpilot as driven as Vendra had been. But her father always believed the best way to teach a lesson was to keep it interesting. A grin tugged at Vendra’s lips as she reached across the helm console for the hyperspace control levers. She would have never guessed that her father had, in fact, saved every scrap of paper he and his daughter had scribbled notes, coordinates, or formulas on in the course of their head games. That he had saved, and carefully organized, every computer model they had ever worked on. The gamble Vendra and her father were about to take was a plan inspired by just such a model. It was model Vendra had come up with on her own and taken to her father when she was twelve-years-old. They talked about it at length for a while b ut, eventually, Vendra moved on to something else. Her father, obviously, saw more promise in that particular theory than she did. These galactic treasure hunts began when Vendra won the Dagger, in fact. It had been just over eleven years since the last Yuzzhan Vong assault, yet still her father felt the need to keep Vendra away from any starfleet, under any banner. That was the purpose behind these galactic treasure hunts, to keep Vendra distracted with quests of far smaller risk than many of the alternatives. The hunts, and her official duties at Ordon, were fine for now. There was no reason to jump into anything. Besides, Vendra loved the time with her father, especially during hunts as audacious as this one. It was not just Vendra and her father taking the gamble this time, though. And the third crew member did not have the same measure of confidence in the plan, particularly under the circumstances in which he learned of it. It was a fairly nasty trick to pull on a creature already as flighty as Myrishi’s nature was. The fact was, however, that since the Jawa had sworn himself to Vendra’s side after the incident with the Aqualish, Myrishi had become the authority on everything from the Black Dagger’s main computer to her sublight drive nozzles. In short, Myrishi’s help would simply make the job easier, once he calmed down, of course. Vendra grinned widely at the pun she had coined as she thought back to the talk the three of them had a while ago. They were already in hyperspace, well on the way to the first of their two ports of call, before Vendra and her father sat the Jawa down and explained what they were going to do. Myrishi tore around the Dagger’s main cabin like a miniature Tattooine tornado, spouting Jawa curses on humans at a rate Vendra could not begin to translate for her father’s benefit. His emotional state deteriorated to the point that Vendra had offered to take him back to Bakurra, or even Tattooine. Finally, Myrishi just stopped, falling into the nearest chair with an exhausted grunt. He sat there like that, shoulders slumped, head hanging toward the deck, for a long while. Until, with a huff that was part resignation and part exasperation, he raised his twinkling eyes and pledged himself to the job as well. It was an astounding show of bravery from one whose species was known for everything but heroism. Vendra’s swell of admiration was cut short, however, by what he said next. When her father asked for a translation of the series of jabbers that had been sent his way, Vendra lied and said she did not know. But the little rat was ready for that, using a datapad to write her father a detailed report on just how Vendra rewarded Vek for his information. That revelation touched off a verbal war between the two Serons that turned Vendra’s ship into a patriarchal hell and satisfied Myrishi’s thirst for vengeance. Vendra had been mad enough to fire Myrishi from the ship via the torpedo launcher. She might have done it to, save that there was no one in the galaxy with either Myrishi’s mechanical skill, or his tragically insane sense of loyalty, nuts enough to replace him. So the devious Jawa just sat back, smug as a pint-sized Sith Lord, and watched his revenge play out with unconcealed delight. Another ping rang from the navcomputer: thirty seconds to hyperspace dropout. Once they were down and the ship was on standby, Vendra would catch a fast change of clothes and head out to find some quiet civil place where she, her father, and even the treacherous little rat could make peace over a good meal. Yeah, Vendra thought as she gently pushed the hyperdrive levers toward her. It’ll be nice to go somewhere where the air is clear, the drinks aren’t watered down, and there’s no Devorian drunk slobbering over my shoulder. Vendra’s brow furrowed with concentration as she gazed at the shifting storm of purple-black energy. For an instant it looked as though hyperspace itself was collapsing in on the Dagger. Then, the energy parted like some massive curtain as the cockpit canopy was flooded with countless white starlines. The starlines shrank back into the gleaming points of distant stars as the Black Dagger exited hyperspace. A warm orange glow blossomed outside the ship’s viewport as the Dagger began cutting through the thick clouds surrounding the floating city named after them. The cockpit’s comlink pinged, and Vendra flipped a switch on the helm control board. “Unidentified ship,” the voice of a flight control officer came from the speaker. “Transmit your ship’s ID, landing permit number, and crew manifest.” Vendra complied and waited, slowing her speed and studying the graceful abstract forms of the clouds she was passing through. “Starship Black Dagger,” the voice came back with a pleasant tone, “you are cleared for landing pad two-ten. Fix on frequency five-seven-three-point-two and follow the beacon in. Welcome to Cloud City.” “Yep,” Vendra said to herself, clicking off the comlink as the pulse of her assigned beacon flashed on her display. “A nice quiet meal. Just what the medic droid ordered.”
* * *Chapter Five The breeze whipped through her hair. The buildings and vehicles she raced by shone brilliantly under the cloudless blue sky. The repulsorbike purred like a tamed vorsker as Vendra wended and dodged her way through the streets of Cloud City. Though the day was gorgeous and the machine she rode was top of the line, Vendra’s mood was almost vicious. Why was it every time she relaxed and had a little fun, someone just had to get in her face? Vendra did not see the big deal, really. The early afternoon traffic was backed up runner to runner on all the city’s main routes, so she simply opted for an alternate one. The patrol officer should have thanked her, if anything. By doing what she did Vendra made the traffic congestion that much better by removing her contribution to the clutter. Besides, as far as she knew, there was no bylaw or ordinance prohibiting flash jumping over the city’s outer wall to travel through the open space under the superstructure. Apparently she was wrong. In an act born surely to teach the cocky hotshot a lesson, the officer managed to drag out the citation’s data transfer a full twenty-six minutes. Vendra huffed a breath as the bike jostled slightly. It did not matter how many flight hours you logged, how many competitions you won, or how clean your safety record was. If your name was not Solo or Skywalker, as a pilot you were tauntaun spit as far as the galaxy was concerned. She had hoped to go back to her father with a dinner invitation to smooth things over. Instead, she would return more than two hours late and with a seventy-five-credit traffic citation they would have to clear before . . . Leaving? Vendra frowned, pulling the handle-grips to nudge the bike back onto the proper course. That bump back there must have knocked the bike’s directional-alignment out of whack. “Come on,” she growled as the swoop immediately started drifting off course again. With a disgusted snarl Vendra reluctantly throttled down and cooperated with the swoop’s stubborn arc. Once off the busy street she could at least stop to investigate. The delay also gave her time to rehearse how she was going to call her father. Hi, dad, Vendra thought sourly, on your way to settle that traffic fine could you swing down Calrissian Boulevard and give me a tow? Vendra grimaced hard at the mental picture of her father’s likely reaction as she began cycling the engines down for landing. It was a grimace that quickly turned into a frown. The familiar whine her ear expected never came. While the swoop had allowed Vendra to slow her speed for the turn onto Calrissian Boulevard, the machine was now gaining speed again despite her efforts to stop. “What in Vader’s mask is going on?!” she growled, fighting a losing war with controls that refused even the simplest of commands. Or, rather, the bike was refusing the simplest of Vendra’s commands, and she suddenly had a bad feeling about who was and was not driving at the moment. The buildings and townhouses of the upper class neighborhood raced by faster and faster, and as the cool breeze blowing into her face grew rapidly into an icy wind, Vendra knew the choice had to be made. A few more seconds and the bike would be speeding too fast for her to make a jump she would have even a hope of surviving. Ahead, five heartbeats away at most, Vendra saw her chance. It was a parked inner-city cruiser with a roof not much lower than the height her swoop was traveling at. Biting her lip, Vendra gathered her feet onto the seat below her. Crouched precariously on the seat like that, Vendra could not help but be reminded of all the sky-surfing she did as a teen as she steadied herself and carefully stood. Then the moment came and there was no more time to think. With a breath meant to inspire courage as much as to fuel the effort, Vendra gritted her teeth and jumped. The sound of the swoop’s repulsorlift engines fell silent to her ears as she sailed through the air. But the silence was Short-lived as, not even a second after her jump began, it ended with an impact that hit her chest like a charging bantha. Though her timing was ideal given the circumstances, Vendra still had to fight hard to draw a breath against the shock. It was an act of will that gave her the strength to shift her body sideways on the cruiser’s bubble-arched canopy. Swinging her legs around Vendra rolled onto her side and let herself fall from the side of the cruiser opposite the street. Although she had angled her turn to land feet first, Vendra’s throbbing muscles did not rise easily to the challenge. “Vader’s name!” she hissed as her legs collapsed under her. Falling to her knees Vendra planted her hands firmly on the ground to keep from going down completely. Her body craved rest from the physical strain. But if she indulged in that respite, Vendra knew they would seize up completely. If she went down now, she became an easy target for whatever or whoever was going to come after her when they found the captured speederbike without a rider. With a furious growl of determination she settled her legs under her again and pushed off like a professional foot racer exploding from the blocks. Her first plan, during those leisurely seconds before jumping from the bike, was to run back the way she came. The bend the bike had taken her around turned off Risant Avenue, and although Vendra did not think herself lucky enough to chance upon a patrol officer, Risant Avenue was more public than Calrissian Boulevard. Suddenly being faced with a street full of witnesses might deter whoever was coming after her. Even as Vendra shifted in that direction to roll off the canopy, she recognized the unlikelihood of her being able to cover that distance before the full pursuit began. If the would-be trappers were caught off-guard by the appearance of the empty bike, however . . . Vendra came upon the corner her bike turned, clenching her teeth and fists she charged around the corner and found herself right on both counts. Two green-skinned Duros were sprinting in her direction as she came around. One of them gave a throaty grunt of surprise. Vendra took the sound as an invitation and threw herself into him. That the alien outweighed her was a certain fact, but Vendra had surprise and momentum on her side. The Duro gave a winded grunt as Vendra sent her shoulder crashing into his chest. She leaned into him as he toppled over onto his back, falling with him as he went. They stopped falling and she let herself go limp, again allowing momentum to carry her as she rolled away and onto her stomach. Vendra had just enough time to realize she could not get to her blaster fast enough before the shot from that second Duro took her.
* * *Chapter Six “I bet you’re Corellian,” Vendra said in as seductive a voice as she could manage given how lousy she felt. “I can spot a Corellian a light year away.” “Oh, come on,” she grinned into the sarcastic look her guard gave her. “Where could I go with these binders on, huh? Come on,” she said softly, wetting her lips and letting her hips sway slightly as she walked toward him. “Bet there’s lots of stuff about Corellia you could teach me. I’m a fast learner.” Vendra arched her eyebrows, “Promise.” The guard’s expression hardened against the glint in his eye as he backed away in steps equal to hers, and raised his blaster across his chest. “Hard to get, huh?” Vendra said dryly. “Great.” She saw the motion out of the corner of her eye. “Uh-uh,” Vendra said flatly to the drooling three eyed cow-faced Gran who obviously found her offer a bit more tempting. Wonderful, she thought sourly, nothing to do but wait here for the red eyed Warlord to walk in. Vendra reconsidered her thought then. Considering the individual and events the joke referred to, it was not all that funny, not even now. A member of the reclusive Chiss species, Grand Admiral Thrawn–the last Imperial Warlord–had come out of nowhere, rallied the Empire, and came within a finger’s-length of conquering the galaxy again. The galaxy went crazy again when reports came in claiming Thrawn had returned a decade after his death. That those reports were proven fraudulent had not stopped decades of rumor that Thrawn was indeed still alive, or that his clone was plotting a military campaign in a hidden fortress on some isolated world. While being shot at and kidnapped was annoying, Vendra conceded that an encounter with Thrawn would have made the experience worth it. No, Vendra decided, leaning against the wall as post-stun dizziness began returning. I don’t rank that high. Maybe Jabba the Hutt might come back from the dead and want to see me, but not an Imperial Warlord. The image of a bloated slug-like Hutt trying to impersonate Grand Admiral Thrawn flashed to her mind. Even in this situation, the picture demanded a smirk. “You give up far more quickly than expected for one with your reputation,” a female voice echoed from the shadows of the warehouse Vendra had awakened in. Vendra straightened up as the voice’s tall slender form stepped into the warehouse’s dim lighting. The two watchdogs took up flanking positions on either side of their black-robed mistress as a long-haired Weequay with a nasty looking vibro-staff stood watch behind the robed newcomer. “Isn’t the black cowl look a bit out of style?” Vendra asked sarcastically, hands working hard at the binders now that they had the chance. “Given your response to the invitation I sent you on Ryloth,” the voice replied in a totally neutral tone, “a more cautious but direct approach seemed appropriate.” “Yeah, well that trap on the Boulevard was certainly direct,” Vendra agreed. She almost . . . “So, you wanted to see me,” Vendra shrugged casually, “you’re seeing me. What do you want?” “The access code for the data chip your friend Vek Rautana gave you,” the hooded woman replied, moving just out of Vendra’s reach. A distance that offered her a first really good look at the face of her hostess--blonde human with a face that was young, intelligent, almost innocent in its nature. Just the sort to knife someone in the back if they so much as . . . Data chip . . .?! “If you hurt . . .” Vendra began. “Your father and Jawa friend are fine,” that gentle face said mildly. “As is Rautana.” “Then how . . .” Vendra began. “His head code-slicer is a human,” the woman interrupted again. “There is not a more innately corruptible species in the galaxy; excluding the Hutts, of course.” “Of course,” Vendra agreed, feeling a small ripple tingling down her spine. Something about this woman just was not right. Her face was animated enough, but it seemed far too rigid. Her violet eyes were vacant though she was most certainly aware. It was almost as if she were a . . . “You are welcome to the ship itself,” the woman said. “My interest is in an item I believe to be somewhere inside.” Vendra held back a grimace as the fingers of her right hand grappled with a particularly difficult . . . “There’s no guarantee that much of the story is true,” she said. Just about got it . . . “Yet you and your father have put Ordon Corporation business on standby to investigate,” the blonde pointed out. “An investigation you have pursued despite the dubious nature of information which originates from a less than credible source.” “A source, credible or not, that we have an existing arrangement with,” Vendra said, feeling the tension around her left wrist vanish. “I’m afraid I have to say . . .” The motion was so fast Vendra’s last word was mangled by shock and an impossibly sudden lack of air. The loosed bonds hung from her left wrist as she tried desperately to pull herself free from the grasp of a woman who did not look strong enough to fire a heavy blaster. “But you haven’t heard my offer yet,” the other woman said, lifting Vendra above her head without a hint of strain. “What?” Vendra wheezed as spots of blaring color flashed before her eyes. “You think you are a Jedi, or something?” “Or something,” the woman agreed, gazing up at Vendra with those still glassy eyes. “I was defeated in combat by a Jedi once. In the end, after losing my weapon, I actually advised him to terminate me. He refused, saying there had already been too much death with the fall of my former master and released me.” The woman tilted her head to the side with an unnatural twitch. “His mercy allowed me to eventually find the means of creating a destiny other than the one my Maker intended for me. Allowed me to evolve into the person I am. I honor his charity now by sparring you.” “I see our conversation is ending,” the woman said mildly, her face rapidly being consumed by darkness as Vendra slipped into unconsciousness. “When you awaken and return to your father, show him this data card,” the woman’s voice echoed, and Vendra had the impression of something being placed into her shoulder-pocket. “And remember as you consider my offer that I could have chosen to extract the information by much less civil means and left you all dead. Goodbye, Vendra Seron.” “Never trust a smiling Twi’lek,” Vendra groaned as she awoke to find herself alone and wondering where she was. Her boots scraped along the permacrete floor as she got her feet under her and carefully stood up. Vendra rubbed her badly aching head as she squeezed her eyes shut and immediately opened them to clear her vision. A procedure that had to be repeated several times before those wickedly formless blots cleared to a manageable degree. When she was finally able to see straight, Vendra looked around. It appeared to be the same warehouse that she had been . . . Instantly, her hand darted to her left sleeve. A gentle pat confirmed her sketchy recollection and inspired haste despite her condition. Padding her slightly clumsy way across the floor Vendra tapped the door release, squinting as the blazing sunset stung her eyes. Turning her face out of the light, she looked to the side and found her rented speederbike parked to the warehouse’s side. It could still be rigged, she knew, in a manner similar to the trick that got her into this in the first place. But there was the matter of what the blonde said just before Vendra passed out, something about her being able to take what she wanted after killing them all. If the blonde was who Vendra suspected, avoiding the bike was the smarter move. On the other hand, paying a penalty on a speederbike returned late was usually far easier than paying for a bike not returned at all. With a deep breath, Vendra got on the bike and started away, mentally trying on several versions of the explanation she was going to have to offer her potentially surly crew. An explanation to cover everything from her traffic citation, to her abduction. Thanks, Vek.
* * *Chapter Seven “There you are,” her father rumbled from the top of the Dagger’s landing ramp as Vendra entered their docking bay. “Where in the blasted . . .?!” “We ready to fly?” Vendra cut him off, taking another look behind her as she marched up the ramp. “Sure,” Lavan answered, his frustration drowned by a wave of concern as he studied her face. “We can blast out anytime.” “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Vendra murmured as she moved for the cockpit. Lavan sealed the hatch, resting his palm on the grip of the blaster holstered at his hip. The last time he saw his daughter like this was just before that fire-fight they had with a Brubb mercenary group at the Aberegado-Rae spaceport. “Everything all right?” he asked. “I want to pass up Sluis Van and go to Sulust instead,” she said suddenly, turning to face him. “It’s about a day’s difference to our flight schedule,” Lavan pointed out. “But we can manage. What’s going on?” “As soon as we’ve jumped to lightspeed,” Vendra said, already making for the cockpit again. There was a huff of air at Lavan’s elbow, a huff of air so quiet it was hardly a sound. “Just be thankful it’s not us,” he said to Myrishi. The Jawa nodded in sober agreement as they followed the pilot.
* * *Chapter Eight “Considering the shipping contracts guaranteed by this agreement alone, Mister Seron,” the blonde woman said as the recording came to an end a second time, “you should find my proposal more than lucrative. If you agree go to the Stellar Diamond Lounge of the Sluis Van shipyards. It is located on the fifth level of staging habitat complex thirty-seven. Our representative will meet you there and assist you in insuring your journey to Fate’s Bluff will be as safe as possible. Farewell.” “Well,” Lavan said as the monitor blanked out, “it’s lucrative all right. If her offer is anywhere near genuine it would give us unrestricted access to the Trade Spine, Rimma, and the Run for a flat rate annual fee. Losing the brokerage and transit fees Ordon pays now,” Lavan shook his head. “Thinking maybe we should go to Sluis Van after all?” Vendra asked grimly. “Kind of leaning that way,” Lavan admitted, matching her tone. “There’s no concrete proof that she was who or what you think she was. But her means of communication so far have been a bit more than direct. Wouldn’t you say?” “I don’t like it,” Vendra said, folding her arms and sitting back on the couch with a foot resting against the corner of the low holotable. Lavan favored Vendra with an expression of understanding. “No one likes blackmail, or bowing to it. If it were just me, I’d be a bit more resistant. But her means of communication is a message all its own, isn’t it?” “Step up to the sabacc table and play the hand she deals you or she’ll kill your daughter,” Vendra growled. “That’s only the half of the message, you know,” her father quietly pointed out. “The other half is that something can happen to Myrishi and you to, I know,” Vendra conceded miserably. “Among others,” Lavan murmured in spite of himself. Vendra chuckled bitterly. “What, Vek? Got news for you, Dad, Vek’s in this thing up to his lekku. He better hope we do pass on the offer,” she said, her voice becoming acid. “Because if we do get out alive, whatever happens, he’s dead.” “I still don’t think he set you up,” Lavan offered, bewildered that he was actually defending Vek Rauntana. “Maybe not willingly or even directly,” Vendra conceded through her tone was still venomous, “but he’s got a bigger part of this than only a potential death mark. The little proposal, brought to us by every man’s automated fantasy-crimeboss by the way, listed twelve corporations and business alliances, six of which Vek has interests in.” “Yet you still want to pass up Sluis Van?” Lavan asked. “Even with those suspicions?” “Do you really want to take a deal with a face like this?” Vendra countered. “Even with those suspicions?” “Really, Vendra,” Lavan replied patiently, “I think you might be chasing Wraiths here.” “Good pun,” Vendra grinned. “The Black Sun crime syndicate has been defunct for at least thirty years,” her father said firmly. “There’s been no . . .” “You own one of the galaxy’s biggest corporations, Dad,” Vendra said, turning a wry look on her father. “And you know better than that. Let’s say I inherit Ordon . . .” “Getting ahead of yourself, aren’t you?” Lavan asked blandly. “There’s nothing stopping me from changing the corporation’s name whenever I do, is there?” Vendra asked. “Just a mountain of red tape topped by my will,” Lavan replied. “But you’re probably right,” he conceded grimly. “You didn’t see the kind of muscle she had watching me either,” Vendra went on. “It was classic Fringe. Trust me, whatever the organization’s name, it’s big, it’s Fringe, it’s not something someone as close to the Alliance as you are wants to have anything to do with,” she said with a shake of her head. “You remember the Fey’lya Administration,” Vendra offered with a small wave. “Do you really want a circus like that for yourself?” For a couple of heartbeats the silence of the cabin was filled only by the purring of the Dagger’s engines as it cruised on autopilot. Lavan said nothing, but Vendra saw concession in her father’s face. True, former Chief of State Borsk Fey’lya was a Bothan, and any government with a Bothan at its head was about as treacherous as a Hutt at a buffet table. But, even so, the potential for scandal under any administration made Lavan feel sicker than being shoved inside a gutted tauntaun carcass for warmth. “So,” Lavan said finally, pressing his palms together, “I guess I know why we’re heading for Sluis instead.” Vendra’s burgundy hair rose and fell with the shrug. “Like I said, play our hand with her dealer and deck and we’ll have it easy. Now that we’re saying no . . .” “Release the rancors,” her father said with a breath. “Treek Sev?” “Yup,” Vendra replied. “He still owes me for all that namana wine I had shipped by emergency courier after he got caught trying to slip it by Bakurra Customs. He’s been on my back for a while now to hurry up and collect the debt. Now is as good a time as any.” “We don’t have the time for a lot of serious upgrades, you know.” Lavan reminded her. “I know,” Vendra agreed. “But he’s been doing shields and weapons upgrading for the Alliance nonstop for quite a while. He’s got to have a few goodies I can get pretty easily.” She looked her father in the eye, “Because whatever trouble we have on the way in . . .” “It’s going to be worse on the way out,” Lavan said. “Right. You get some rest, Ace,” he said, starting for the cockpit. “I’ll do the course-correction.” Vendra was just drawing a breath to thank him when her father turned back her way. “How did you know about Vek?” “What do you mean?” she asked. “You were sure of Vek’s interests in at least half the names listed in that offer,” Lavan reminded her. “I’m a little surprised he would be that forthcoming, even with you.” “Are you kidding?” Vendra replied wryly. “Vek loves bragging to me about his wealth an influence. Thinks if he impresses me enough maybe things'll get, you know,” her voice softened, "romantic." “Be in the cockpit,” Lavan exclaimed, already off at a stiff walk.
* * *Chapter Nine “Myrishi,” Vendra’s voice called over the comlink static, “we’re ready to lift as soon as you are.” Flicking the switch on the wall beside him, Myrishi jabbered into his speaker. “Are you sure you don’t want to run a diagnostic on the sublight cooling systems first?” Vendra asked. “This trip is the worst possible time for a glitch anywhere.” Myrishi chattered a reply. “Well, if you’re sure,” the pilot’s voice returned. “Take another inventory of any spare parts or equipment we’re carrying though, just in case. Okay?” Myrishi squawked an answer and Vendra clicked out of the frequency, jabbering a sarcastic addition to his last response when he knew she would not hear. Myrishi was the last crew member who needed a reminder of what this trip was the worst possible time for. The sublight flux stabilizer was still a little unbalanced. Myrishi tapped two switches on the control board, giving the dialer the slightest adjustment. Abruptly, the purple lines spiking across his display straightened into a perfect green line. With a satisfied grunt Myrishi patched the ship’s sublight engine control systems back into the main in-flight systems, strapped in for liftoff, and prepared for the last minute diagnostic on the Dagger’s hyperdrive. Come what may, if this errand was destined to be the final gambit Myrishi was to follow his unlikely mistress into, it would not be because of faulty maintenance on his part. Vendra Seron was an unlikely mistress at that, Myrishi decided yet again, shaking his head as the remarkable image of the dark-haired human female storming to his rescue hovered before his mind once more. Of all the beings and species who might have come to his aid that day at the Tatooine spaceport, he never expected his savior would be a human. Few species knew of the human disdain for other races better than Jawas. It was a characteristic Myrishi had seen borne out time and again in varying degrees throughout his career as a desert trader. Humans dealt with Jawas out of convenience or necessity, but never out of genuine desire. They were rude, treacherous, sometimes dangerous in their treatment of a people who wanted nothing more than to conduct fair and mutually beneficial business. Decades of galactic domination by a human Empire had left a considerable degree of wealth and economic sway in the hands of that species, however. With the result that maintaining profitable business almost always meant dealing with humans. So Myrishi, like all Jawas he had known, endured and indulged the human temperament as the cost of doing business. He merely accepted ignorance as basic to the nature of humans and left it at that. Myrishi ran his sparkling eyes down their list of the ship’s supplies, reflecting that he probably would have still felt that way about humans today, if it were not for his human savior. Most creatures shared at least one fundamental characteristic: the instinct to avoid and escape danger. Jawas did it, Krayt dragons did it, even the mindless Sand People did it. Most humans, Myrishi had found, did the exact opposite. They seemed to gravitate toward risk as if that were their instinct. They seemed easily seduced by danger; not because they welcomed harm or death, but because they thrived on the gamble. And few humans fit that stereotype better than the one to whom Myrishi had pledged his service and life. Vendra Seron was impulsive, unpredictable, and, at times, volatile. Characteristics which all too often led her to make choices which, as much as Myrishi admired her, he could not approve of. The greater the stakes, the more enjoyment she seemed to take from the gamble. Though her father had been much slower to accept Myrishi’s presence then Vendra, the Jawa had always seen him as the more rational of the pair. It was a perception proven false by his active, and willing, participation in the most insane of gambles Myrishi had ever followed Vendra into. Still, despite that insanity, Myrishi was also going along, was he not? The Jawa sat a moment, considering the implications of that fact. After all, Vendra and her father could be forgiven for their ignorance. They were humans. Myrishi, on the other hand, was a Jawa. Taking risks like this went against every instinct of his own species’ nature. So what did the fact that he had agreed to share this terrible danger despite being excused from it say for his sanity? The Elders of his brood certainly had their own opinions as to Myrishi’s state of mind. More than that, they saw Myrishi’s self-imposed “life-debt,” and the relationship between him and Vendra that would eventually come of it, as a humiliation of Jawa culture. While they had agreed the favor done by the human demanded reparation, they did not expect Myrishi to go to such extremes in his effort. And when Myrishi began traveling off world with Vendra . . . “She will betray you!” his father shouted. “All humans are greedy brutal savages! You should know that by now!” His father’s view of humans may have applied to most members of the species, but it was not so with either Vendra, or Lavan Seron. All her human qualities aside, there was one characteristic that made Vendra Seron unique among most other humans Myrishi had encountered. She lacked the prejudice and contempt most humans held for beings of other races. A ping from his console stirred the Jawa from his reflections. The ship’s diagnostic was complete: all systems were nominal and the redundant backup systems were primed. He flicked a switch on his board and the monitor blinked as a schematic of the main sublight drive instantly filled the monitor’s borders. The reinforced casing he’d stalled around the power transfer circuits and transfer lines should hold the multiphased charge that was going to be fed through them to the ship’s hyperdrive system. The hyperdrive . . . A cold chill ran through his robe as he called up the schematic for a visual of the thread of bantha wool by which all their lives would soon be hanging. Vendra and Lavan Seron were both competent and capable as far as human beings went, but this business of riding hyperspace through the event horizons of over a dozen black holes . . . All it would take is the rupture of one fuel line, or the failure of one subsystem, and the Black Dagger would be torn apart like the wrapper of a ration bar. Coloring images of disaster had become an obsession for Myrishi’s mind since he volunteered to follow the Serons on their foolish crusade, and each new disaster Myrishi imagined was more terrible than the one before. Whatever their distinctions, though, all the fantasies ended in a spectacular destruction for the Black Dagger, and an agonizingly gory death for her crew. Speculations about what it would feel like as his lungs were burst by the massive gee forces of a hull breach were why Myrishi’s bedroll remained cold. But, in the end, despite disapproval of his family and the innate terror that he constantly fought against at times like these, it all came back to one undeniable fact. Vendra Seron saved Myrishi’s life. A life the majority of her species would not have spent a single blastershot to spare. If the Elder’s were wise to acknowledge that there was indeed a debt to be repaid, it was clear to Myrishi they didn’t acknowledge or accept the gravity of the debt he owed. No one, not the Elder’s, not Myrishi’s father, not even Vendra herself fully understood just what this debt meant to him. The hood and shoulders of his robe rose and fell with a heavy regretful sigh as Myrishi sat back in his seat and contemplated his endlessly frustrating situation. When he had first found his savior, at a docking pit not far from where that Aqualish tried to murder him, Myrishi began with anonymous offerings of food and trinkets he scavenged. He knew as he went about his enigmatic service that such small platitudes were hardly appropriate for the measure of Vendra’s favor. So, when finally his courage allowed him, Myrishi approached her on the street and openly pledged his service to her. Vendra’s first reaction Myrishi easily interpreted as puzzlement. When he revealed himself as the Jawa she had rescued a month earlier by way of a data pad, her reaction became one of surprised understanding. She made clear that his thanks and past service were appreciated but unnecessary, and attempted vehemently to distance herself from the Jawa. Myrishi had no illusions that the human businesswoman did not want to be seen around the spaceport with a Jawa in tow, but the debt was owed and he was determined to honor it. His tenacity became clear during an altercation she had with a man in a Mos Eisely cantina. Myrishi had been at a respectfully distant but nearby table when the incident occurred. The man, a bulky human named Georek Arkane, was a client of Ordon Shipping Corporation and had contracted for some refined ore to be transported from his processor on the frontier world Nkklon, to a storage facility on Corellia. Myrishi was not close enough to overhear most of the conversation save its abrupt end as Arkane hammered a fist on the table and bellowed an accusation of fraud straight into Vendra’s face. It was an accusation she answered with a blurted laugh as she stood to walk away. Not willing to let the argument go, the thick enraged man jumped to his feet and grabbed Vendra by the arm. Even as her assailant spun her back with a vicious yank, Myrishi leaped to his mistress’ defense. With a shriek of primal fury the Jawa launched himself at the man, putting his full weight behind the attack. Myrishi would have bounced off Arkane’s hip completely had the Jawa not gotten the sleeve of his robe caught in the man’s belt somehow. Arkane, who was much bigger than Myrishi thought, had just enough time to grunt and glance down at the Jawa suddenly hanging from his waist before Vendra drilled her right fist straight into the center of his chest. Arkane’s eyes bulged like a choking Hutt as he crashed to the floor with a desperate gasp, pulling Myrishi with him. “Come on!” Vendra snapped, grabbing Myrishi by the back of his collar as he disentangled himself and hauling him away from the scene. They were a good half a block from the cantina, Vendra dragging him along with one hand and holding her blaster with the other, before she stopped, pulled him more or less on his feet, and shifted the blaster to her other hand. Myrishi was dead, of that the Jawa was certain. Vendra’s burgundy hair flung over her shoulder as she raised the weapon into ready position beside her ear and looked back the way they had come. “No, you stay here,” she said brusquely, snagging the Jawa by the usual handhold as he tried to make a run for it. An eternity of terrifying silence passed as she pushed him against the wall of the closest building, standing by the corner and peering around it. Finally, satisfied that there was no pursuit from the cantina, Vendra dropped her blaster back into its holster. “Okay, time for a talk,” she sighed casually, her tone was pleasantly calm as she steered Myrishi around the back of the building. The substance of the conversation consisted of the pair mutually acknowledging that a situation existed, though the communication was very one-sided given that Vendra did not understand the Jawa tongue. Myrishi, however, was content to pace his mistress and listen closely as she gave him a detailed list of reasons why his action in the cantina was the most foolish thing he could have done. "Bantha-headed," was the term she used to describe it. It was a list which, by Myrishi’s count, took almost forty paces to complete before the topic of discussion changed, and the pair reached another mutual agreement about the probability of the Jawa’s continued presence. That agreement led Vendra into another even longer list as she addressed all the reasons that Myrishi’s debt had already been settled. “Well, it just makes sense, doesn’t it?” she finally asked. Myrishi nodded in agreement and kept walking. “I mean, you can see where I’m coming from, can’t you?” she prompted. The Jawa nodded again, adding an emphatic grunt to the gesture. “You’re going to keep following me, aren’t you?” she groaned through an exasperated sigh. To that Myrishi just shrugged and clucked matter-of-factly. “Dad’s gonna kill me,” Vendra moaned as she stepped up to the familiar door that had suddenly appeared. Caught up in the conversation, Myrishi had not even noticed where they were headed. “Welcome aboard, Myrishi,” she announced as though he had just won the betting-pool of a pod race and unlocking her docking pit’s security door. “Come on in.” That day Myrishi would see the status of his presence rise from one of dreaded annoyance, to one of budding acceptance. An acceptance that gradually increased over time as Myrishi demonstrated his full worth and abilities to his uncertain mistress. Vendra started Myrishi’s employment conservatively, of course. Which was not surprising considering the Jawa stereotypes and misconceptions she was obviously fighting to put aside. Eventually, she began entrusting Myrishi with basic maintenance chores concerning her ship, and learning an understanding of the Jawa dialect in the process. Over time, in fact, his skills and experience earned Myrishi maintenance duties of increasing complexity. Vendra Seron’s confidence reached the point that she would leave the Black Dagger to the Jawa’s unsupervised efforts as she went about her business at the spaceport. Soon, the off world hops in the blade-shaped starship began and, although his first foray into space was harrowing, little by little Myrishi began understanding the fire that burned in Vendra’s eyes when she talked of “spacing.” For all his life the yellow/white sands of the Tattooine deserts had been Myrishi’s entire universe. The day of the Jawa’s first flight would show him just how small the world of his birth really was. Myrishi shook his head and huffed with quiet but tangible amazement. Two years . . . it had already been two years since that first flight. Two years since his consciousness had been awakened to the terrible wonder of the universe beyond the twin suns that blazed in the Tattooine sky day after day. Two years . . . and still Myrishi had not been able to pay the debt he owed. Myrishi chuckled humorlessly. It certainly could never be said that his failure was due to the lack of opportunity. There seemed to be no planet or port where they could go without constantly having to look over their shoulders for a band of pirates, mercenaries, or slavers who saw the beautiful human female, whose sole companion was a Jawa, as easy targets for the taking. Perceptions Vendra shattered quickly, often viciously, and always without Myrishi’s assistance. From the Brubb mercenaries at Abregado Rae, to the Weequay slavers of Sriluur, Myrishi’s repeated attempts to repay his debt in the appropriate fashion had been one futile embarrassment after another. Myrishi looked down at his small gloved hands. Hands that could hot-wire any locking mechanism, or optimize any computer system, or overhaul any hyperdrive or sublight engine, but could not wring the life from a half-dead womprat. It would be a dishonor on Vendra to even think she had not come to genuinely value Myrishi’s service over the years. She had been under no obligation to allow the Jawa access to her ship, to say nothing of advocating on his behalf before her father’s thunderous objections to having a Jawa on the payroll as a full-time employee of Ordon Corporation. The truly maddening part of it all was that Myrishi was fully aware of his value to Vendra. He was good at the jobs he had earned. Vendra liked a clean and tidy ship, so her ship was flawless inside and out. Whenever a malfunction arose in one of the Dagger’s systems, it would typically be fixed the same day it registered. Often, in fact, such glitches were corrected before the ship’s captain knew they were there. Myrishi was rather fanatic with the Dagger’s diagnostic systems and schedules, after all. Although the Black Dagger was far from the fastest ship in the galaxy–that distinction was still held by the now mostly retired but still famous Millennium Falcon, Vendra Seron was able to boast that her ship possessed a top rating in the speed and power categories. No, the contributions of Myrishi toward his mistress were not to be dismissed, and yet . . . The Jawa looked back to his tiny weak hands. It didn’t matter how good he was at what he did, how faithful he was in his service, or how brave he tried to be while performing it. Because the only act worthy of the one who had saved his life was an act a Jawa simply was not suited to perform. And the help Myrishi so passionately tried to provide, was the kind of help Vendra Seron would simply never need. And all the Jawa could do was bear his shame in silence.
* * *Chapter Ten “He gave you two I-44 rated ion cannons,” Lavan exclaimed, giddy with disbelief. “Double barreled and rapid recharged to,” Vendra replied, her own spirits soaring like a Bimm on ryell spice. “Mounted them under the port and starboard fins.” “Startech multi-amplitude delector shields,” Lavan went on, supporting his head in his hand as Vendra kept her eyes steady on her displays. “Anti-plasmic hull surfacing . . . Vendra,” he finally prompted, “all this in two days?” “The hull was resurfaced right after he installed that last little item on the list,” Vendra prompted, feigning total disinterest though she felt as if the ship could make it all the way to Wild Space by the power of her heartbeat alone. In the corner of her eye she saw her father’s mystified stare as he slowly turned his dark eyes back the data pad in his hand. A data pad that gave up muted blurts as he scrolled to the bottom of the list. “Witches of Dathomir,” Lavan muttered. “Yep,” Vendra sighed, releasing a chuckle that refused to be held. “A Series V Star Track navcomputer.” She tilted her head to the side and favored her father with a smile, “Nice, huh?” “Way too nice for this ship,” Lavan said flatly, turning a sober look on his daughter. “Vendra, the Series V is strictly military issue.” “Like I said,” Vendra replied with a simple shrug, “Treek’s been working for the Alliance.” “Yes, I know, Lavan said, keying the copilot displays for the navcomputer’s specs. “But Star Track Vs aren’t even common in the rank and file of the Alliance fleet. You’ve got to be pretty high on the . . .” he turned back to Vendra with a stern expression. “Do you know what will happen if the wrong people find out about this?!” “Well, the Star Track is just on loan,” Vendra admitted regretfully. “But I get to keep everything else.” “The ion cannons to?” her father asked doubtfully. “Especially the ion cannons,” Vendra replied emphatically. “The Alliance might clamp down on those as well,” Lavan cautioned. “I didn’t ask for them,” Vendra pointed out. “Myrishi was already having a wompa over the instillation before I found out about it.” “What about that talk we had?” Lavan asked wryly. “You know, the one where you talked me out of a deal that would have made Ordon Corporation the richest enterprise since the Corporate Sector for the sake of appearances.” “Treek Sev isn’t Fringe, Dad,” Vendra chuckled. “He works for the Alliance, remember?” “I hope the Alliance remembers that when it catches up with you,” Lavan mumbled. “Assuming we’re not all reduced to subatomic particles inside the Wraith’s Corridor,” Vendra pointed out. Lavan grinned sarcastically. “Thanks. I feel better now.” Vendra shrugged back, her face and tone betraying no hint of a joke. “You should. Death kind of takes away your liability risk, doesn’t it?” “Kind of, yeah,” Lavan agreed absently, studying his daughter’s profile as she focused on her flying. There was no tension in her face, no trace of apprehension or stress about what she was about to face. Other pilots, some even more reckless than Vendra, would be biting their lips and chewing the insides of their cheeks in nervousness. Running sweep after sweep of their systems before entering what was considered to be one of the most dangerous areas to fly in the galaxy. This was where she belonged. At the helm of a ship traveling through lightspeed on a course to chance odds most would not dare to bait. That drive for adventure, that unquenchable thirst for excitement and achievement, was the endless passion that underscored Vendra’s every action. A thirst Vendra had undoubtedly inherited from her mother. Ranelie . . . Lavan casually swiveled to the console opposite the pilot’s chair as a familiar burn stung his eyes. It had been twenty years since his wife’s death, and still the loss remained an open wound. If great marriages were founded upon contrasts between spouses, the union of Lavan and Ranelie Seron had to have been one of histories’ greatest. Lavan was most comfortable in a boardroom or office with a big desk and chair surrounded by banks of computers constantly tabulating and reporting the accounting numbers and hard market data. Ranelie, on the other hand, had little patience for reviewing budget reports, shipping schedules, or profit figures, and even less patience for boardroom meetings that ran longer than twenty minutes. There was an entire galaxy out there, and Ranelie seemed determined to see, hear, and taste it all. Public relations, that was always her department, and she was very good at it. So, when a conflict arose in an agreement with one of Ordon’s bigger clients, Ranelie would not be denied the job of seeing to the matter, boardroom meeting, or not. Vendra had been three-and-a-half years old then, and her father hadn’t nicknamed his daughter “turbolaser” for nothing. Every cabinet, crawlspace, computer terminal, and power outlet had to be locked down and guarded against Vendra’s frequently destructive curiosity. A fact which only added to Lavan’s motivation to make a family affair of Ranelie’s departure. Lavan stood at the transparasteel window, holding Vendra at his hip with one arm as he and his daughter waved and cheered exuberantly. The day was bright. The sky without a single cloud to dim the rays of shimmering white sunlight that shone against Ranelie’s short but flowing raven hair as she flashed a sparkling goodbye to her family before boarding for her trip . . . To Dubrillion. It would be the last goodbye they would ever share. Lavan closed his eyes and swallowed hard as he remembered what it felt like to stand at that comm-terminal and receive the news. News that his wife had been killed in what had been one of the first open assaults of the Yuzzhan Vong invasion. The instant he read that his wife was dead was an instant of agony worse than any man should have to endure. He just stood there, replaying the message over and over but not quite hearing or seeing the words. Not even when the Bakurran ambassador to Coruscant verified the news did it seem real. It could not be real, it just could not. Lavan had witnessed Ranelie’s departure just two weeks prior. Had received a message from her only a day before saying everything was fine, the client was happy, and that she would coming home soon . . . It was just Vendra and him from then on. She moved on, of course. It had been hard at first, but Vendra had been young enough that time retained mercy for her loss, and for that Lavan was grateful. Her innocence was what numbed her pain and mended the wound of the loss. There would be no such shield for her father. Grief would follow him everywhere, permeate every aspect of his life. The nightmares would haunt him for months. The nightmare of that day at the spaceport was the most terrible. In that nightmare Lavan would see himself standing at the window of the departure terminal, holding his daughter close and waving goodbye as Ranalie boarded her ship. In the nightmare Ranalie looked just as she had that day–her hair shining under the sun and flowing in the breeze. Her eyes and smile beaming with an irrepressible passion as she turned with a final goodbye to the family she was leaving only briefly . . . and vanishing in a blinding flash of plasma-energy that incinerated every trace of the face Lavan held so dear. That horrifying nightmare had been one of dozens that would have Lavan lunge from his bed or chair in a rage of helpless anguish. Outbursts that, even now, he was not completely free of. Theirs had been a far better goodbye among the millions of tragedies that would come in the Vong War. Yet Lavan Seron resented even the notion of gratitude. By what right did the universe presume to take from Lavan the only woman he ever loved? The woman whose fire and spirit had helped him create one of the biggest corporations in the galaxy? How dare the galaxy deprive Vendra of her mother? Vendra would never know, could never know, of her profound importance in her father’s life after Ranalie’s death. For the only times more tormenting than those nightmares were the moments of painful reflection that would pounce on him so suddenly. He could be in his office, pouring over shipping orders and expense reports, when he would hear a noise or smell a scent and turn, expecting to see his wife. Only to be reminded that Ranalie would never be there again. And the grief would rage inside him. The anger, guilt, and pain consuming all that he was. Though he had to swipe his face quickly to keep the tear running down his face from spilling onto his console, Lavan could not help but to smile as he again regarded the pilot sitting beside him. It would have been so easy, so tantalizingly simple, to just give up and surrender to the pain he wore like a tunic. Yet, if there was one mercy afforded by so cruel a circumstance, it was the wide-eyed nexus of chaos that was his daughter. She was his family, all the family he had. Sure, there had been friends and business associates over the years, but only a handful ever got close. And the tide of war made certain that even those closest to Lavan and Vendra stayed only so long before they were swept away by the dark tide swallowing the galaxy. Somehow though, through all the devastation and loss, Lavan managed to hold the line against fate and keep what he had left. His corporation, his home and, most importantly, his daughter. The blood raced to Lavan’s face as he felt his expression fix itself into a scowl as hard as Tatooine rock, his gut wrenching with the renewal of a familiar vow. The universe got his wife, it would not get his daughter. The entire galaxy would burn first . . . A sudden lurch broke the dreadful spell he had grown so accustomed to, and Lavan twitched as the proximity alarm exploded in his head. “I don’t even want to ask, do I?” Lavan said, his restraints digging into his armpits as he instantly swung back to the main viewport. “Unidentified starship,” a heavily accented voice hissed over the comlink before Vendra could speak, “on the authority of the Ryloth planetary security force, you are ordered to power-down your engines and prepare for boarding.” “Answer your question?” Vendra asked dryly. “Fills in a few blanks,” Lavan replied casually, his eyes surveying the five Raptor-class assault shuttles coming in hard on the Black Dagger’s vector. “Got a fix on their silent partner yet?” “Point five off our left flank,” Vendra answered. Lavan glanced at Vendra’s scopes, adjusted his own instruments accordingly, and all-too-soon found the Interdictor-cruiser that had yanked the Dagger from hyperspace. “They’ve got us,” Lavan said grimly. “Somebody was really on the tauntaun. The interdiction field was set up to pull us out of hyperspace at a point where we drifted right into the center of the gravity well before we knew what was happening.” “So it’s a safe bet that we’re not going anywhere?” Vendra asked tightly. “About right,” Lavan replied. “Then why are those Raptors out there getting ready to swarm us like rabid mynocks?” Vendra asked, locking in the Dagger’s auxiliary power and opening the communications channel. Lavan looked up at the viewport in time to see the midsized arrow-shaped starfighters shifting formation. The Raptors had begun to break up their head-to-head approach, with the lead ship pulling ahead of the pack and dropping to a slightly lower pitch. The other ships had paired off into what appeared to be a dual-flanking maneuver. It was an admirable display of precision, but it was also strange. The maneuver seemed intended to be more than a show, with all the appearances of an attack. Yet none of the heavily armed combat ships had even targeted the Dagger so far. And what was the “low-flyer” doing? “Ryloth security force,” Vendra called into the comlink, “this is the starship Black Dagger. Galactic Alliance registry number RR-2876-Delta. What are you ‘Huttspawns’ doing just hauling me out of hyperspace like this?!” Releasing the comm-switch, Vendra ignored the look of reproach from her father and watched the four raptors sweep into pursuit formation behind her as she waited for a response. She did not have to wait long. “I repeat,” the hissing voice returned, sounding even more alien that the first time, “on the authority of the Ryloth planetary security force, you are ordered to power-down your engines and prepare for boarding.” “Ryloth security,” Lavan put in before Vendra could release whatever comment was obviously burning to get out, “if this is about our ship’s modifications, I’m sure we can . . .” “This is about the ship’s owner, pilot,” the voice came back. “We have identified ‘RR-2876-Delta’ as the registered starship of a Bakurran female named Vendra Seron.” “Yes,” Lavan said carefully, raising his eyebrows to Vendra as he spoke. “Vendra Seron has been implicated in a quadruple murder on Ryloth,” the voice said. “She is to be detained without delay.” “The Trandoshan group that attacked you,” Lavan muttered, his face pale with rigid disbelief. “It was self-defense,” Vendra replied. “I had no choice!” “I believe you, Vendra,” Lavan said heavily, reaching to give his daughter’s shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “We’ll get this straightened out. But we better do as we’re told.” A flicker almost too fast to see caught the corner of Lavan’s eye, and he glanced down at his console before he could stop himself. Keeping his hand on Vendra’s shoulder, the gesture now one meant to steady himself against the sudden wave of surprise, he punched two keys on his board. That low-flyer . . . He gave his daughter’s arm a slightly firmer squeeze and she gave him a flustered grimace. “What . . .” she began to say, only to stop as her father put his index finger to his lips. One silent gesture followed instantly by another, and Vendra turned her eyes as Lavan directed. She saw what was on the copilot’s display console, and leaned back into the comlink even as her father cleared the screen and went to work. “Black Dagger to Ryloth security force,” she called, trying to put the right mixture of shock, disbelief, and conciliation into her voice as she cut speed and began dropping power from weapons and shields. “I don’t know what family of spice inspired all this, but we are standing down and preparing for boarding. I repeat,” she added quickly in response to her father’s silent prompt for more time. “We are standing down and preparing to receive boarders. Do you copy?” “I can’t get much more than that,” Vendra said quickly, talking over whatever reply was coming through. “Tell me it’s enough.” It’s enough,” Lavan said, his display highlighting the farthest edge of the interdiction field. “But I don’t know if we’ll make it.” “We’ll make it,” Vendra replied sourly as her ship vibrated slightly with the tractor-lock began establishing itself. “Tried to pull Vek’s data file right out of the Dagger’s computer, huh?” “Used the initial surrender order as the distraction and the Raptors as cement for our attention while they sliced into our computer,” Lavan said dryly. “Unfortunately for our friends, that only works if you know exactly where the file is and don’t have to try searching for it. Uh, Vendra,” he added casually as their course began curving, “please tell me you’ve . . .” Lavan’s sentence was cut as short as his breath as his brain and stomach tried to trade places. His entire galaxy flipped upside down and spun around as, in a single sickening instant of perfect terror, the Black Dagger spun fore to aft. There was no time for nausea, however, for he was soon much too busy hyperventilating to vomit. Suddenly, the Dagger was screaming back the way she had come, racing to get away from the tractor-beam before its full capture field could be stabilized. The Raptors that were behind her were now in front and sheering off for all they were worth to avoid collision with the Black Dagger as she slashed straight down the middle of their formation. “Shields!” Lavan gasped, his back pressing into his seat, his fingers drilling into his armrests as he watched the bulk of the interdictor cruiser flooding the forward viewport like a tidal wave of white water rushing ashore. “SHIELDS!” “Don’t need them,” Vendra replied coolly. “What kind of spice are you on?!” Lavan bellowed. “Blast it, Vendra! Shields now! NOW!” “Here we go,” Vendra said, her tone distant with concentration. “You’re telling me!” Lavan yelled as the cruiser flooded the viewport save for the tiny sliver of galactic darkness just visible at the bottom. “Get ready,” Vendra called, biting her lip and nudging the controls, a subtle adjustment that instantly became a hard yank. Vendra’s warning was clearly a rhetorical platitude as, not even a second after she gave it, Lavan’s head was again where his feet used to be as the Dagger flipped ventral side up. “Dial . . .! Dial up . . .! Dial up the . . .!” Lavan was stammering hysterically. Vendra heard his haggard voice, knew he was right there beside her, and yet it sounded as though he were calling to her from a thousand lightyears away as she sent her ship streaking belly to belly with the cruiser. Lavan’s body tightened as he grabbed the final threads of his composure to form a single sentence. “Dial up the acceleration compensator!” But they were close. Open space was right there in front of them. Open space . . . with a million courses they could hit. The cruiser’s underbelly raced just below Vendra’s line of sight, but for now all that concerned her were the enormous sublight engine thrusters she knew they would be upon in seconds. The Dagger’s entire powergrid was devoted to her engines. Vendra could not raise the shields now even if she needed to. She squared her shoulders, clenched her teeth, tightened her grip on the controls and, just as the Dagger cut between the cruiser’s main ventral reactors, shoved the controls away from her chest. The Black Dagger peeled away from the larger ship. Space became an open field all around her, with a million courses she could hit . . . But only one that she wanted. Vendra pulled the Dagger into a wide arc, loaded her proton torpedoes, and set her original course. Ahead, her could see the silhouettes of at least two Raptors and fired one salvo at each in a blind strike. Then, not waiting to see what happened, Vendra grabbed the hyperdrive levers and pulled. The cockpit was filled with the white light of starlines, starlines which were replaced almost immediately be the purple/black torrent of hyperspace as, with a roar from her hyperdrive engines, the Black Dagger plunged into lightspeed. “OH, YES!” Vendra yelled through a war-whoop. “Let’s see one of Rogue Squadron do that! Huh, Dad?!” “Dad,” Vendra repeated, looking to her left. Lavan was slumped back in his seat, arms hanging at his sides, his unconscious face as gray as Vendra’s eyes. Reaching out, Vendra pressed her fingers gently to her father’s neck. “Just checking,” she giggled to herself. On the bridge of the interdictor cruiser Void, the ship’s Twi’Lek captain watched as his quarry vanished from his tactical displays. “The target has gone into hyperspace,” he said, his voice soft and respectful as he turned and looked up to the slender figure seated at the bridge’s command station. “Excellent,” a female voice answered, her violet eyes and gentle face a mirror of dispassion. “Signal the scout-ships that the Black Dagger is on her way. I will tolerate no mistakes.” “Yes, Mistress,” the captain answered, bowing his head and turning back to his console. The Serons did not know the importance of the trophy they sought. To them the item was merely the rarest of galactic antiquities. The currency with which the Serons intended to buy a place in history. But to the captain's mistress . . . To the captain's mistress that antiquity was a symbol. A very personal memento of the day her service to another ended, and her ongoing journey toward true sentience began thanks to a Jedi’s foolish compassion. Not that the Serons could know any of that history, of course. The details of those events were lost amidst the decades between the height of the Imperial Era and the end of the Yuzzhan Vong invasion. But the ignorance of Lavan and Vendra Seron did not matter. Ancient customs and laws regarding salvage-rights and proprietary claims were of no consequence. The crew of the Black Dagger may retrieve the trophy they sought. But the captain's mistress would be the one to claim the memento that was her's.
* * *Chapter Eleven “I was real impressed with that trick you pulled back there,” Vendra said, speaking casually to her father’s back as he hunched over a damaged power terminal in the Dagger’s main cabin. “I mean it,” she responded to Lavan’s grunted acknowledgment. “It was really impressive how you rerouted the Dagger’s navcom for a calculation of the interdiction field without letting them know you were wise. But then,” Vendra added through a beaming smile, “that’s my Dad. Really impressive!” To that Lavan grunted again. It would have been the same exact noise as before were the rumbling sound not punctuated with a quiet snort as he tossed a scorched power cell aside and palmed a replacement. “Still mad, huh?” Vendra grimaced. She only half-heard her father’s mumbled retort. It was something about a . . . Shaved bantha? “Okay,” Vendra nodded, “yeah, it was a little extreme. But I had to do something, didn’t I?” “A little extreme,” Lavan chuckled, finally shifting to face her. “A little extreme?! Vendra, you could have killed all of us!” “Well what would you have done?” Vendra challenged. Lavan motioned to himself, his mouth starting to move. “You don’t do that to people,” he said adamantly the instant his eyes started to cloud. Vendra held back her smirk that time, but it was a close one. “I knew what I was doing,” she amplified confidently. “I didn’t,” Lavan replied, “and neither did Myrishi.” “Oh, he always acts that way after we do something like that,” Vendra shrugged. “He was fine.” “What do you mean ‘. . . He always acts that way . . .’?” Lavan demanded. “You’ve done that before?” “That exact thing?” Vendra said, folding her arms as she puckered her lips and twitched her head in conciliation. “No. But we’ve done ‘Dagger Rolls’ before.” For a few seconds Vendra just looked into her father’s startled expression. “I don’t believe it!” she suddenly blurted, raising her hand to her mouth to cover her surprised laugh. “You mean I’ve had the Black Dagger all this time, and you never knew?!” She saw the puzzled look her father wore become even more lost and laughed even louder. “That’s why she’s named the Black Dagger, Daddy. Because she pinwheels like a thrown dagger when we pull the zero-g-flip.” For a moment her father just looked at her with that priceless speechless look of his. “You don’t do that to people,” he said finally, abruptly turning back to the power terminal. “I’ll try and give you more warning next time,” Vendra promised as she headed for the Dagger’s rear compartment to check in with Myrishi. “No, you won’t,” Lavan answered, his voice raising with every word. “Because you’re not doin’ it!” And Vendra silently mimicked those last four famous words as she stepped into the engine compartment.
* * *Chapter Twelve It was a part of space as ordinary and unremarkable as the sun bleached rocks that littered the floor of Tattooine’s Beggar’s Canyon. It was a point of space without a single star shining within fifteen thousand kilometers in any direction. Yet this most ordinary patch of universal shadow was one of the most eerily famous parts of space within the known galaxy. This was Fate’s Bluff. It was the last step to disaster. The last chance for a pilot to decide that there was too much to live for–too many better ways to die–then to shake the hand of chance by venturing any further beyond this threshold of safety. A threshold at whose very edge the Black Dagger drifted on now. “This is not going to work,” Lavan muttered glumly as the sensor-data collected by the galaxy’s most advanced navicomputer spun to an endless scroll of digits. Filling his screen with a foreboding glare of angry scarlet before blinking out completely for the fifth time. “I said so before you started,” Vendra pointed out, adjusting the chin-strap of her silver helmet for what had to have been the fiftieth time. “You’re losing the sensory carrier-wave about a second after you send it out. You need the echo from that wave to come back to get the information you want. Problem is, nothing escapes.” “It’s like sending a speeder down the wrong side of a one-way street,” Lavan sighed, and then grimaced. “Sorry. Bad choice of words.” “What do you suppose were Gavin Darklighter’s first words when he found this place?” Vendra murmured, gazing intently out the forward viewport at the great streams of light flowing into the white nexus of oblivion that was the Wraith’s Corridor. “You mean what did Darklighter say when he fell into this place,” Lavan replied. “And his first words were probably ‘Emperor’s black bones!’ followed by a resounding ‘Force be with me!’” Vendra chuckled as she continued play with her chin-strap. She wasn’t particularly nervous about any of this, the chin-strap activity was merely a distraction as she waited for Myrishi’s final status report. Vendra was, in fact, chewing like a rabid katarn to punch the hyperdrive and get in there to put the universe in its place. What was there to be nervous about? Either they would get in and out of the Corridor with what was probably going to be massive damage to the Dagger, or they would all die. It was as simple as that. Besides, at the velocity the ship would be traveling at, a collision with a hyperspace gravity-mass would mean instant disintegration. No one would have any time to see or realize it was happening. Let alone to feel the hit when it came. No problem. No problem for Vendra, anyway. But her father wasn’t even close to her level as an adventurer. In fact, when you came right down to it, her father wasn’t cut out for these kinds of risks at all. Yes, Lavan Seron was a risk-taker. But he was a corporate risk-taker. And there was a big difference between risking one’s money and risking his life. There was usually no profit in these excursions they took, and very little profit when there was. Yet still, her father, the consummate and appropriately frugal businessman, never hesitated to leave his comfortable office and finance these costly ventures at his own expense. Vendra felt her lips tighten as a giant wave of helpless sympathy overshadowed her excitement. The situation with her father would be far sweeter if his motivations were bourne out of emotions other than grief and fear. Even after all this time, even as close as they were, Vendra’s father still tried to hide his feelings from her. There was no way he could hide it, though. The loss was there every time she looked at him, as plain as the flare of an imploding star. Though Vendra remembered virtually nothing of her mother, she believed she knew pretty well what traits they had in common. Every once in a while Vendra would do or say something, and her father would immediately look away or leave the room. Growing up, Vendra often mistook the behavior as disapproval, and was quite angered by it. After all, Vendra always seemed to be getting into trouble somewhere. She had been expelled from three academies before her father finally opted for a private home-schooling program. So, she merely lumped him in with everyone else who made her childhood and adolescence miserable. The mind-set of persecution was hardly an uncommon state for a fifteen-year-old girl struggling to figure out where she fit in the galaxy. Yet even today, Vendra couldn’t help being a bit embarrassed and ashamed of the false perception she had of her father. He didn’t leave the room because he was angry. He left because he was in pain and didn’t want his daughter to see him cry. There were times when Vendra regretted having no memory of her mother, there was no denying the void present in her life to. Twenty-one years ago an important piece of Vendra’s life had been taken. But she moved on. She became the first Bakurran pilot every to qualify for the Starburn Finals. An annual event held in the New Corellian Territories, the Starburn competition was the premier pilots’ challenge of the New Galaxy. Vendra had been within a gaffi stick’s throw of taking last year’s championship. Before a late entry swooped in and took the pot. Yes, Vendra had been beaten. But it took the commander of Rogue Squadron to beat her. Though she would be lying if she said losing the Starburn competition, and losing it to that particular competitor, didn’t fry her gut more than a little, Vendra had to admit that the Black Dagger was one Rancor of a consolation prize. So, all in all, Vendra had managed to do very well by herself, and her family. Her father, however, remained trapped in a miserable time-warp that always took him back to the day her mother died. She wished her father would find someone, remarry, and start a new life. That wish could only happen when he was ready, though. And his readiness was something no one could realize but himself. Until then, her father would always be welcome to travel with her. The [i]Black Dagger’s[/i] crew may have been an unlikely one, but the ship’s captain was going to keep her crew safe. Whether her crew knew it or not. The cockpit’s intership-comlink pinged, and Lavan flipped the switch that opened the frequency. “Go ahead, Myrishi,” Vendra called into the mike. Lavan frowned silently as the comlink blurted with the squaks, squeaks, and jabbers of the Jawa language. Vendra understood it all fine, Lavan couldn’t follow the alien’s gibberish at all. A pang of guilt nibbled at Lavan for that. Though he liked to think he had put aside his initial mistrust and dislike of the desert scavenger Vendra brought home one day, Lavan didn’t spend as much time with Myrishi as he should. “Oh, cheer up,” Vendra admonished the Jawa playfully. “What could go wrong with you back there watching things? Just concentrate on what you’re doing and it will all be over before you know it.” Vendra flinched and looked quickly at her father. “Sorry,” she said to everyone at once, ”bad choice of words.” “Let’s just hope they are not prophetic,” Lavan sighed, adjusting his restraints and squaring his shoulders as he set the Star Track V navicomputer to the task of setting the coordinates for their jump into insanity. “Ready?” Vendra asked as he cut out the comlink. “No,” Lavan answered flatly. “But since we’re here and the Star Track’s confirmed the coordinates anyway . . .” Then those distant stars flared into starlines, the hyperdrive engines roared to life, and the ship leapt into lightspeed. It was the last step to disaster. The last chance for a pilot to decide that there was too much to live for–too many better ways to die–then to shake the hand of chance by venturing any further beyond this threshold of safety. It was Fate’s Bluff. And the crew of the Black Dagger just called it.
* * *Chapter Thirteen “We’re coming up on another mass gravity shadow, Vendra!” Lavan called. “Point two nine!” “Confirmed!” the pilot replied, her body quaking helplessly with her trembling chair. Lights blinked before her eyes. But were they flashes from the ship’s navigation displays? Or were they aftereffects of the rattling her brain was getting? Vendra couldn’t tell which. “Throttling down and adjusting pitch to point three two!” she called back. Yet even as she cut the Dagger hard on her port side to avoid one collision, the Star Track V was screaming again. “Got another!” Lavan hollered as the cockpit rumbled like the stomach of a hungry Kimagola. “Make that two more!” Her father corrected, his voice ragged with urgency. “Point four twelve and four fifteen. Vendra! Those masses are practically side by side! Sheer off to coordinates . . .” But Vendra wasn’t listening. Her teeth were clenched so hard her head felt like a boulder rolling down a hill. And the squealing of the navicomputer along with the violence of the ride wasn’t helping. Not being a pilot, there was no way for her father to fully appreciate the situation. The reality was that by the time the Star Track sounded the collision alarm, the mass gravity shadow had already shown up on the Dagger’s conventional heads-up displays. Stamping her foot on the left rudder, Vendra wrenched on the controls and sent the Dagger on a hard right angle, cutting a path through the minuscule space between the two masses. The ship groaned and the skin on the back of Vendra’ neck grew deathly cold as she realized how close they had come to being ripped from hyperspace by one of the two black holes they had just left behind. “Myrishi! What’s our hyperdrive status?!” Vendra yelled into her headset. “We’re coming up fast on our next light-stream, Vendra!” she heard her father call. “Set course six-two-nine-point-one and decelerate!” “Acknowledged!” Vendra replied, wishing she could see something out the viewport other than the hyperspace energy currents. As it was, the only way they would know when the Dagger had entered the zero-g-zone at the center of the Wraith was when the shaking stopped and the ship’s main computer automatically cut out the hyperdrive engines. It was definitely not the recommended means of navigation. But that was a gripe for another time as she set course and strained to hear Myrishi’s reply. “I think we’re almost through,” Vendra called to the Jawa. “Just hold things together and prepare for hyperspace dropout!” “Okay,” Lavan said, his face almost contacting with his viewscreen as he tried desperately to follow the data-stream pouring across it. “We’re in light-stream gamma. We make it through this and we should reach the center . . . VENDRA! GRAVITY MASS AT ZERO-POINT-ZERO-FIVE!” Which meant the Dagger was already about nose to nose with oblivion, and Vendra hadn’t known until just now. Without even two seconds to think, Vendra yanked ruthlessly at the helm, flipping the Dagger's ventral-side-up and angling her course to drop below the gravity mass of the black hole. Dropping the ship into a gut wrenching barrel-roll, Vendra righted her ship once more. No sooner had she performed that miracle than the navicomputer began wailing again. Vendra veered to starboard, and then to port. Her head was throbbing now, and if there was any blood going to her brain anymore it sure wasn’t doing her sight any good. Her vision was swimming. There was so much light against so much contrast. She had no sense of direction other than the guidance of instrumentation that had little more foresight than the ship’s human pilot. Vendra was flying almost totally on instinct. Yes, the magnificent navicomputer had proven useful for mapping the Dagger’s course as the ship skipped and surfed from point to point along its crazy flight. But the will and physics of the universe would find ways of besting even the most advanced technology the Galactic Alliance had to throw at it. The computer screamed again. Without waiting for even a word from her father, Vendra juked the Dagger up over the gravity mass and threw her ship into a full ninety-degree rotation. Backtracking wasn’t an option. Even in hyperspace the massive gravitational pull of a black hole was a force nothing could escape. The Dagger’s incredible velocity had virtually nothing to do with her wonderful hyperdrive engines that could propel the ship across the New Galaxy in under two days. The hyperdrive was giving the Dagger breathing room, nothing more. If they had been in realspace, the ship would have been reduced to subatomic particles long before now. It occurred to Vendra that she had cracked a joke about subatomic particles to her father a while back. The joke wasn’t quite so cute anymore. Under ordinary circumstances, a ship in hyperspace would more or less fly herself. Though it was certainly a good idea for the pilot or crew to monitor the progress of their course, hyperspace transit-time was normally the most idle part of any trip. It was time that could be spent doing in flight repairs or even engaging in a leisurely game of Dejarik. Hyperspace travel was so sure, in fact, that Jedi were known for setting their ships on-course and then slipping into meditation trances for the duration. There was simply nothing to do but wait until your ship indicated that something was wrong, in your way, or that you were coming up on your destination. There was never any need for barrel-rolls, dives, or jukes, and so there were no real tried and true techniques for pulling the types of hyperspace maneuvers the Dagger had been doing for the past . . . How long had it been? And Vendra’s heart jumped in alarm at her inability to answer that question. If her sense of time had become that confused, who was to say her flight skills had not become similarly flawed? Was she still on course? How would she know if she weren’t? What if . . . “Mass gravity shadow at point three-oh-five!” her father called. “Right!” Vendra yelled back, swallowing an exhausted grunt as the cockpit was flipped onto its right side. The weight of her helmet felt like a space station as she strained to keep her head straight. That harsh contrast of light and pitch continued swirling, the afterimages burning behind her eyes as her ears buzzed with the squealing of alarms. Her father yelled again, but Vendra couldn’t hear the words over the angry rumble of the cockpit. A spark flared in the corner of her left eye and suddenly Vendra was breathing ozone as something above her head blew out and died. The Black Dagger was being shaken to pieces. And if the interior of the ship was beginning to give, it meant the hull was already much further gone. More sparks flared. More afterimages erupted behind Vendra’s eyes. Then one final jolt slammed Vendra’s head against her headrest like the fist of an enraged Gamorrean . . . And the universe became silent and still as Vendra lost consciousness. The crew of the starship Black Dagger had called fate’s bluff. Now fate had made the ship and her crew fold.
* * *