“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
“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.
* * *
“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.
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.
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.
* * *
“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.
“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.
* * *
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.
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
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.”
* * *
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 . . .
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.
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.
* * *
“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.
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.
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.
* * *