Thursday, August 30, 2007

Chapter Nine

Carud eased back on the light speed controls in tandem with Saach, and acknowledged the tusken’s timing with a curt nod. The mysterious nomad returned the gesture, and craned over to flick several switches that would send coolant pumping around the Rancor’s tired engines.

Preela stood next to Calz and gazed out of the view port as the stars assumed their regular configurations, and gasped when she saw the station ahead. Calz cocked an eyebrow and spoke, keeping his eyes on the vista before him. “Problem?”
Preela shook her head and sucked air loudly between her teeth. “That Maltor’s a stubborn little hog. I’ve told him a thousand times to cast off and find a safer place to lurk, but no, he has to sit at the intersection of twelve trade lanes.”
“Sounds like good business savvy to me,” piped in Rece from the rear of the cabin.
“Sure,” spat Preela, “if you don’t mind being moored next to a moon that could collapse at any second.”
Rece moved to the front of the deck, along with Digger and Peko, and all three clones gazed at the crumbling satellite looming just beyond the fueling station. As they watched, several small plumes rose from its surface, catching the light of two rose-hued suns, and shimmering rock particles spun off into the inky gloom.
“I see your point,” replied Rece, and he grimaced as he returned to his chair. Digger stepped to one side until he was directly behind his sergeant and the twi’lek. “How long do we need to be here?”
Calz smiled. “As long as it takes for you and Smoke to find a decent ship, load her up, and get her prepped.”
“We can be pretty quick,” answered Digger, returning the smile ruefully.
Calz turned to Peko. “Trooper, get back to your screen, tell me what you can see.”
“Yes, sir.”

Peko sat down at a bank of yellowing monitors and watched a collection of blue gray images as they flickered on the tiny screens. He punched a row of buttons and the image sizes increased. “I’m patching this through to the forward monitor, take a look, Sarge.”
As Calz and the others turned to look, an image appeared on a flat screen above Carud’s pilot seat. The image was holographic, but not fully three dimensional, reminding Calz of the relief sculptures he had once seen when Supreme Chancellor Palpatine had sent his squad off with a morale-boosting holo-vid. Palpatine; once his leader - now the enemy.
For as long as he pondered his leader’s command, Calz thought he would never fully understand the rationale behind Order 66.

The holo-relief showed Maltor’s Drop rotating slowly, the edges of the image refreshing every second. The fueling station certainly lacked any aesthetic design. Essentially a long rusty cylinder, with a smaller cylinder jutting from the bottom in the same direction, the station carried a compliment of top mounted solar panels and a collection of docking arms spread out around the smaller cylinder’s base like the splayed legs of a squashed spider. Safety lights winked on and off at both ends, and a central band of cabin lights near the docking arms suggested the location of the ‘lounge’. One could only assume that the remaining nine tenths of the shape was full of fuel. Vine-like fueling hoses snaked along the arms, and as the image rotated, several ships could be plainly seen.

“Pretty,” offered Peko.
“Pretty dangerous,” added Calz. He turned to Preela. “Know any of these ships?” The twi’lek captain studied the image closely as it shimmered and turned, then stabbed her finger at two small craft.
“These are Maltor’s shuttles, no good for you, too small, no light speed capabilities.”
The rear door hissed as it slid open, and the Hed’n brothers entered the deck, followed by Virus and Rev. The cabin was starting to feel a lot smaller, especially when Scarp squeezed himself closer to the monitor.
“We have an alternate transport?” he asked.
“Not yet,” answered Calz, barely acknowledging his presence.
Preela gestured to a large ship that was coming into view. “That’s Kal Morr’s tug. Light speed capabilities, big enough for your boys.”
“Armaments?” asked Calz.
“None as far as I know. He’s probably got a couple of cannons hidden on that fat old nose, but that’s about it. Nobody attacks an ice hauler these days.”
“Ice hauler?” said Pel.
“Yeah. He probably picked up the chunks in the Dewback Ring, off Nelmax VI. He’ll be delivering them to Kiffex, to replenish the central reservoir.”
“Back to where we just came from,” mused Scarp.
“It’s too big,” cut in Calz, “we need something with more maneuverability, something like this,” he stabbed his finger at the next ship to appear as the station rotated.

The newer ship was a third of the size of the ice tug, sleek like a smoothed off wedge, and studded with blaster-housing blisters. Black, tapered stripes decorated its entire hull, and the nose cone sported an elaborate grille, which looked like a row of steely fangs.
“Lop off my lekku!” exclaimed Preela, “The Pelt!”
Beside Carud, Saach pushed back her seat and slammed her wrapped fists on the console.
Scarp looked at the tusken, then at his brother. Judging by Pel’s face, he too had felt the force tremor during Saach’s reaction.
Calz peered more closely at the ship as it stuttered across the holo-image, then at Preela.
“Want to tell me about it?”
Preela screwed her face up in disgust as she studied the vessel. “It’s The Matted Pelt, a slaver ship. We’ve run into them before, trandoshan scum, scuppered my last ship, and stripped my cargo. We’ve got a score to settle.”
Saach already had her weapon in her hands, and was turning it over and over, catching the console lights on its prongs.
“Perfect,” grinned Calz, “Smoke, you can fly that thing?”
“Sure, if it’s got engines and a chair, its mine.”
Calz rested his hand on Preela’s arm, noting how she responded by drawing herself imperceptibly closer. “Captain, what’s the crew compliment?”
“Six, I think. Two crew, four hunters.”
Calz turned to face Peko. “Scan that ship.”
Peko ran his hands over the instruments and studied the readouts. “No cold-blooded readings, Sarge, several warm ones though.”
“So,” murmured Calz, “the lizards are in the lounge getting tanked up, and their captives are still on board.” He stepped back from the screen and walked over to Rev, giving the stocky trooper a friendly rap on the chin. “Fighting fit, Rev?”
Rev smiled, and the muscles in his neck popped out like tree bark, “Ready to cause a distraction, Sarge.”
Calz smiled and turned to the rest of the company. “Ok, here’s how it goes down. We dock, Digger and Smoke secure the Pelt, the Jedi and their kids will help with the transfer of supplies. Peko, stay here and monitor the area, I don’t want Jja sneaking up on us, the rest of us will go have a quiet drink.”
“I could use a quiet drink!” whined Peko, glumly.
“You’ll get one later,” replied his sergeant, “all set? Smoke, take us in.”

Delnan Jja sat calmly behind his desk and stared at the half dozen troopers before him.
“Commander Camm, I trust our presence here remains undetected?”
The commander nodded. “The atmospherics from the moon decay are still masking our signature, other than a direct visual, the Rancor would have no way of detecting us.”
“Excellent,” smirked the gray skinned alien, “I have three simple requests. I want a spread of proton torpedoes aimed at the moon’s fault line, I want a seismic charge launched at the same location on my command, and I want a wing of ARC-170s prepped and ready for launch.”
“Yes, sir.”
The commander whirled around and led his group out to carry out their orders as Jja watched them leave, his smile ever widening.

The Sulking Rancor rotated in tandem with each languid turn of the station, its underbelly firmly clamped to one of the docking arms. The teams had already split up, Carud and Digger making their way across the annex connector to The Matted Pelt, the Jedi and their wards using their powers to move crates and barrels with ease under Peko’s guidance, and Preela and Saach leading Calz and his remaining squad into the outer ring of the social quarters. As Preela’s group stepped through a third airlock, an elderly ugnaught scurried up, waving his arms furiously.
“Check your weapons!” he barked in crude basic.
“Keep your apron on, Glak,” retorted Preela, smiling, “we’re just here for a drink.”
Glak peered at the twi’lek, then held a pair of looking glasses to his face. “Captain Preela? Haven’t seen you in a while.”
“I’ve been busy.”
Glak shifted his gaze away from Preela and gave the troopers the once over. “Busy with a bunch of clones?”
“Just buying them a drink.”
The ugnaught snorted and watched them as they tossed their blasters and vibro-blades into a tray on the counter.
“You know Tassk and his boys are in here, don’t you?”
Preela smiled. “Oh, really?”
“There gonna be trouble?”
“I won’t lie to you Glak, yes, I anticipate a great deal of trouble.”
The ugnaught snuffled with glee and rubbed his hands together, “Excellent! Wagers have been a bit thin on the ground lately. Excuse me.”
Glak scurried off to a side door and slipped through, cackling all the way.

As Calz placed his weapons in the tray, he couldn’t help noticing several wicked-looking blades of trandoshan design nestled against the far wall. “Rev, are you fully disarmed?”
“If you don’t count vibro-knuckles, sure, Sarge.”
Calz slapped the stocky trooper on the back and gestured with his other hand to Preela, “Lead on, Captain.”

Preela stepped up to the main door and pressed her hand to the entry pad. The door slid open, and two battle droids stepped out, brandishing stun batons. Instantly the clones fell back, adopting defensive stances and Rev launched himself at the weapon tray.
“Hold it!” yelled Preela, putting herself between the droids and the clones, “they’re just the bouncers!”
One of the droids jerked its curved head to look at Rev, and then spoke in the grating, warbling tone of the machines, “What’s his problem?”
Preela reached out and put her hand on the droid’s outstretched hand, lowering the baton, “Take it easy, Slim, these boys are just a bit edgy is all,” she turned to Calz and his men and her lekku twitched against their restraints as she spoke, “stand down, Sarge. This here is Slim, the ugly one there,” she pointed at Slim’s rustier partner, “is Bolts. Maltor salvaged them a couple of years back, reprogrammed them. Now they answer to him.”
“We don’t answer to no-one, lady,” piped in Bolts, lowering his own baton, “we do this for fun.”
“Hell of a reprogramming job,” murmured Rece, “what vocab-chip did they use, gamorrean?”
“Watch your mouth, wetboy,” replied Slim, “or we’ll be showing you the back door, and there ain’t no airlock connected to that one.”
“Easy lads,” laughed Preela, “I’m sure the trooper didn’t mean it. Say sorry, Rece.”
Rece spluttered and turned red. “Apologize to a droid? Sarge?”
“Just do it,” replied Calz, “we’re pressed for time.”
“Sorry,” Rece spat, his eyes planted on the floor.
“No problem, wetboy, have a nice drink,” laughed Bolts, stepping aside so that the party could pass into the lounge. Calz noted each of his men stiffen as they passed between the battle droids, there was a lot of tension in the air, and there was only one way to release the pressure.

As Calz’s eyes adjusted to the gloom he took in the layout of the lounge. The room was circular, with a central rotunda from which drinks were served, fuel was bartered over and the station’s controls were monitored, all by a team of lethargic ugnaughts. Scattered around this central area were a selection of chairs, cushions and tables, all adaptable for any species, and mostly occupied. Closest to the rotunda, a group of dugs drank noisily from metal bowls, smacking their lips as they plundered the rubbery worms writhing at the bottom of their drinks. A trio of ithorians sat facing each other at another table, hooting softly and snacking on long, violet beans. Other humanoids lurked in the deeper recesses of the chamber, and along one edge of the bar, five trandoshans cradled their drinks, speaking to no one and hissing with each breath. Preela strode past the ithorians, tapping one on the shoulder. “Ice hauling paying for ya, Kal?”
The huge hammer-headed tug captain shrugged and hurumphed.
“I hear you,” Preela smiled, her grin quickly vanishing when she saw the trandoshans, “Tassk.”
At the sound of his name, the central lizard of the slaver group turned his crimson head and stared at her, his eyes narrowing as he recognized her. “The sssulking captain! You bring me more sssuppliesss?”
“Stow it, lizard,” snarled Preela, “you’ll be paying me for that ale soon enough.”
Tassk turned fully in his chair and eyed the clones standing next to her. He cast one wary eye over at Saach, and then back to Preela. As he spoke, the rest of his group slowly rotated on their stools until they all faced her.
“Bringing sssoldiersss to the Drop, wormhead?”
Rece stepped forward, his blood still boiling. “Show the lady some respect, slaver!”
Tassk held out his claws in mock surrender, “Peaccce my friend. We all work for the sssame ssside now.”
“What are you talking about?” growled Calz, stepping closer, and noting that Rev had moved to the side of the bar.
“Why, the Galactic Empire of courssse,” smirked Tassk, rising to his scaly feet and lowering his gaze to meet the sergeant’s, “Corussscant isss paying extremely well for wookieesss thessse daysss.”
“Too bad we cannot ssskin them anymore,” added an orange plated lizard to his left, “but they are worth more to usss in one piece.”

Suddenly a rotund ugnaught scuttled over to the face-off and planted himself squarely in the center. Preela grinned when she saw him. “Hello, Maltor.”
The ugnaught looked at her, angrily, “You wanna tell me why Glak is going around collecting bets?”
“What are the odds?” replied Preela.
“Two to one against.”
“Againssst what?” hissed Tassk, and it was at that moment that Rev decided to charge.

Marev, formally CT – 03471, barreled into the two closest trandoshans with his head tucked down and his considerable shoulders thrust forward. Before they knew what hit them, the two slavers were thrown from their stools and hit the floor hard. Tassk turned, his claws raised to fend off the rampaging clone, but Calz was upon him, knocking both of the trandoshan’s arms back down with his left arm before swinging his right fist to land squarely in Tassk’s face. At the same time, Preela had dropped to the floor, sweeping her legs around in a low slice to knock the slaver leader off his feet while Rece targeted the orange lizard, hitting him hard and fast in the gut to force him to double over, then connecting with the lizard’s snout with his own forehead. The sickening crunch and sudden limpness of ‘orange’ drew a cheer from the humans in the shadows, and Galk grumbled as he began to make his payments.
The fifth trandoshan had thus far managed to avoid contact, and wrenched his bar stool from its moorings to brandish as a club.
“No weapons!” yelled Slim and Bolts in unison as they began to edge towards the melee with their stun batons raised.
The lizard looked at them for a split second, and that was enough time for Saach to leap at him, an impossibly high leap Calz would recall later, bouncing off his shoulder to land on the bar behind him. The lizard swung the stool wildly, shattering bottles and bowls, but missing the tusken by a mile. Saach spun around, one leg out-stretched, and connected with his face, then followed up with a flurry of punches that left the lizard unconscious before he hit the floor.

Virus watched, ready to assist should anyone need it, but his expertise was not required, at least not by his own party. Tassk was down and dazed, and kept that way by Preela’s boot, and Rev was sitting atop the two slavers he had subdued by introducing them to each other, headfirst.
Calz grinned as he pulled Rev up by the forearm. “Looks like you’re feeling better!”
“Top of the world, Sarge,” smiled Rev.

Maltor emerged from behind the bar. He had flung himself over it with an agility that defied his girth.
“That’s it! Clear out, the lot of you!”
“C’mon Maltor,” Preela began.
“Don’t bat those eyelashes at me, greenie,” moaned the ugnaught, “Tassk is going to give me hell when he wakes up.”
“I don’t think so,” replied the twi’lek, “trandoshan pride will send them crawling home without any fuss.”
Calz held his comlink to his mouth and spoke quickly, “Smoke?”
“Prepped and ready, Sarge, the pilot's laying here next to me. Digger found some wookiees in the back, he’s trying to free them as we speak.”
Calz frowned, “Peko, status.”
“Almost there, Sarge. You should see how much these kids can lift!”
“Everything of value on the Pelt is now on the Rancor?”
“You got it, Sarge.”
“Ok, finish it up. We’re leaving,” he turned to the twi’lek, “This is where we say goodbye, Preela.”
Preela reached up and hooked her hand around the back of his neck, drawing him down and kissing him firmly on the lips. “I’ll find you later, Sergeant Calz.”
She gestured to Saach, who gracefully leaped down from the bar, respectfully nodding at Calz as she joined her captain.
Calz returned the gesture, and then turned to Maltor. “I’m going to be leaving some wookiees with you, make sure they are well looked after, and kept away from this scum.”
“Wookiees aren’t cheap to feed, clone.”
Calz drew closer to the ugnaught, “I’m sure you’ll manage,” he said calmly.
The ugnaught swallowed and nodded, and then busied himself with tidying the bar top.

As Calz and his men walked back towards the airlock, the two battle droids parted, their batons holstered.
“Slick moves, wetboy,” rasped Bolts.
Rece looked at it with disdain, “Slicker than you, rusty.”
Preela sat on a stool and watched them go, a twinge of regret tugging at her. Saach seemed to notice this, and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“I’ll find him, Saach,” Preela whispered.

Suddenly a blaring siren rocked the chamber and Maltor scrambled over to a comm panel.”Report!”
Static filled the air, then an ugnaught voice yelled out, dripping with panic. “The moon! Look at the moon!”
Calz and the Ashes stood in the doorway as Maltor activated a huge observation screen above the bar. It flickered into life, showing first the dorsal tip of the Sulking Rancor, then beyond it a sight that chilled his blood.

A ring of debris ebbed away from the moon’s surface as the remnants of several explosions died down. Suddenly he saw a flash, then a thin, white tail, and a yellow green plasma cloud, indicative of a large seismic charge. A piece of the moon the size of the fueling station took the brunt of the explosion, and steadily grew in size as it plummeted towards them. As one, every face in the lounge turned away from the screen and looked at each other, before Glak’s gravelly voice cut through the silence with the word that was on everyone’s mind.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Chapter Eight

Been Urfalla ran down the gleaming white corridor as fast as his little legs could manage, wrapped as they were in his permanently worn, thermal suit. A staggered row of tiny windows, dispersed at twenty-meter intervals above his head height, did nothing to illuminate his path. Instead, his route was highlighted by a string of hastily welded luma-cables, which threw a green glow into the corridor, giving it the appearance of a sickly artery. He paused as he passed a tiny escape hatch, peering through three layers of plexi-glass at the miserable landscape outside. The planet was dead. The barren ground was studded with tiny humps like the protruding seeds of a klef root, and he could just make out the blue glow of the major’s excavation team, flickering from behind one of the larger mounds. Been wished he could be out there, joining the group in their discoveries, but he had more pressing tasks.

Been skidded to a stop at the end of the hallway and jumped slightly to reach the door mechanism, hanging onto it as it slowly lowered, and the door slid open with a shudder. He stepped into the sparse quarters and the door closed behind him.
Been waited for his mother’s reply, but when it was not forthcoming he made his way to the back of the room and passed through a foil curtain. Rudimentary bunks were bolted to three of the small room’s walls, all deserted bar one, and it was here that Been’s mother slumbered, deeply.
“Mum!” he repeated, a little more loudly.
Jula Urfalla stirred, then coughed, and then threw back her thick blanket to reveal her own thermal suit. She stared at the bulkhead ceiling for a moment, and then spoke quietly, without averting her eyes from the white metal and rivets two meters from her face.
“Been, I’m tired, this had better be…”
“It’s waking up!”
Jula turned her head to look at her agitated child.
“What do you mean, ‘It’s waking up’?”
Been hopped back and forth on each foot, his movements equal measures of excitement and cold.
“The thing Major Braxan found,” Been spluttered, “it’s moving! Dr. Solamonn said I should fetch you.”

Dr. Jula Urfalla swung around and dropped from the bunk. She reached onto the lower bed and pulled out her data pad, switching it on, and nearly dropping it when an alarm signal blasted out from its tiny speakers. She stroked a gloved finger over the screen and an endless stream of words written in the graceful, circular text of the Naboo, chattered horizontally across its face, supported by graphs and life-sign readings. She frowned and pocketed the pad, swigged from a cup of dusty liquid that had been sitting on one of the two storage lockers, and then stood open-mouthed in front of her wall mounted travel refresher as it sprayed a cleansing mist over her face and into her mouth, before blasting her dry with a shot of air.
“Come on,” she said to Been, pushing aside the curtain and grabbing her kit belt as they made their way to the cabin door, “tell me the rest of the news on the way. Have you heard from your father yet?”
“Nope, nothing,” murmured Been as he jogged to keep up with his mother who was striding to the other end of The Good Intention at a rate far faster than any eight-year-old boy could maintain.

Several hours had passed and The Sulking Rancor continued to shudder and hum under the strain of sustained hyperspeed. Lig squeezed her eyes tightly, trying to block out the grating rattle of bulkhead plates and ill-fitting bolts all around her, but it was useless, and she opened her eyes as she stretched her arms above her head, yawning away the last remnants of an unsatisfactory meditation.
“Stay seated, padawan,” said a soft voice behind her, “we need to talk.”
Lig craned her neck around to see Pel kneeling, eyes closed, his chest rising and falling slowly.
To her left, Master Scarp was in the same position, and before her Soolad and Janst’orr were attempting to meditate, with the same degree of success as she. The room that their group had chosen for their meditation chamber was the engineer’s office, deep in the belly of the ship, and right next door to the engine housing. Lig suspected the brothers had chosen this location for its remoteness from the front cabins, and the sound from the machinery all around them that would mask their discussions. Lig felt uneasy about this subterfuge. Sergeant Calz and his men were with them now, even the Twi’lek captain and her Tusken first mate seemed to have accepted them, and yet there was still a thin veil of tension onboard.

Lig waited patiently as, one by one, the others drew themselves from their meditative slumbers and stretched themselves awake. Scarp passed around a canteen of a sweet, fresh liquid, and they each drank from it, welcoming the refreshing blast in their mouths, dispelling what Master Pel jokingly referred to as ‘meditation breath’. Janst’orr unclipped her training saber and swung it around her head, limbering up with some basic training moves, the blade still housed in its casing. Soolad wandered the office, pushing small boxes and tools around the floor with a flick from his outstretched fingers. Lig watched them both for a moment, and then settled back on her haunches as the brothers rose to gather some crates and lockers to use for seating. Pel pulled a bag of dried fruit from his belt and placed it on a central crate, then looked at the younglings.
“Padawans, come join us.”
The young force users needed no second encouragement, and soon all five were seated in a tight ring with the bag of food between them. Soolad tore into a strip of Kashyyyki melon as Scarp began to speak.

“Younglings, these are dire times. You recall how Master Pel brought news from the miner’s city of something called Order 66? Since then I have spoken at length with Sergeant Calz and Captain Preela, and they have shed more light on this terrible event. According to the holonet, the Jedi Council attempted a coup of the Republic, and subsequently an order was given for our execution…”
“Why would the council want to take over the Republic?!” blurted out Soolad, showering Pel’s knees with melon seed.
“It didn’t,” replied Scarp gently, “the story is a fabrication, to justify the murder of the Jedi Order by Chancellor Palpatine.”
“But-” began Soolad.
“I know, padawan, there are so many questions, suffice to say the Republic has since been dissolved and reformed into a Galactic Empire, with Palpatine at its head.”
“No longer Supreme Chancellor,” Pel shook his head sadly, “now he is Emperor, another way to say dictator.”
“Why do they want to kill us?” Janst’orr looked at Scarp with her large, amphibious eyes, terror in her tiny voice.
“The Empire fears us, fears what we represent; everyone that we once fought alongside is now our enemy,” Scarp sighed as the younglings leaned in to listen, “our clone brothers who trained with us in the temple grounds, who fought next to my brother and I on Sullust, Rangtor IV and the Bith fields, are merely following the orders of their superiors. That is what they were bred to do, they are soldiers, and obey their commands. Sergeant Calz and his men thought a little differently. They could see what was wrong with the order, and deliberately disobeyed their commanders. Now they are fugitives, along with us. We are brothers once again.”
“I don’t think they all like us, Master Scarp,” said Lig, quietly.
“True, young one, it will take some time for them all to trust us, but for now, we are one group, and we will help these men find the man they seek.”
“Dr. Solamonn?”
“Yes, Lig. These brave soldiers have every right to a normal life, and if this mysterious doctor can grant them this chance, then I have vowed to help them achieve it.”
“As have I,” added Pel.
“But what about the green lady?” spluttered Soolad, swallowing the last of the dried melon flesh.
“Captain Preela has agreed to take us all as far as Maltor’s Drop, a fueling station on the outer rim, and then the Sergeant and his men will find a new vessel to, um, charter.”
“You mean steal,” smirked Janst’orr.
“A matter of semantics, Janst’orr,” replied Scarp, “they are our brothers now, and we will aid them in any way we can, although let me stress, we will not be abandoning the code. Continue with your training younglings, use Master Pel and myself to further your understanding of the Jedi way, the order must be rebuilt, and you are its future.”
Scarp gazed at the faces of his wards, and stopped when he saw a far away look in Lig’s eyes.
“You are troubled, Lig.”
“Yes, Master Scarp. It is the other one, the Tusken female, I think she is-“
“A force user,” interrupted Pel, “yes, Lig, that was very perceptive of you. You are honing your senses quite nicely.”
“A force user?” blathered Soolad, his eyes wide, “you know her?”
“No,” replied Scarp, “Master Pel and I both detected her when we first boarded, since then she has been careful to block her thoughts.”
“I sense none of the dark side in her though,” added Pel, “she has her own reasons for her anonymity. When she is ready, she will reveal herself to us, until that time, treat her with respect, and no probing.”
“Yes, Master.” chorused the three younglings, and the group settled down for the rest of the flight, comforted by the proximity of each other’s auras, and Pel’s dried fruit.

There once was a time, many moons ago, when Maltor’s Drop had been called GH-1571, a shining jewel in Incom Corp.’s crown; the first in a line of refueling stations commissioned by the Republic to sustain their ships on the ever-expanding trade routes between the core worlds and the outer rim. After many years of faithful service, the station, along with other obsolete machinations, had been unceremoniously tugged out towards the edge of known space, and abandoned to its fate, and there it floated in loose orbit around a slowly disintegrating moon, its rusting hull and stripped innards preserved forever in the vacuum of space. And there it would have remained, had not an enterprising band of Ugnaught salvage dealers, led by Maltor Glab and all of them ready for retirement, stumbled across it, repaired its neglected thrusters, and decided to turn it into their personal rest home.

It wasn’t long before spacers in the area discovered that there was a perfectly good refueling station in the area. Maltor and his boys realized they were lounging around in a nice little earner, and so it was that Maltor’s Drop sprang back to life three decades ago, and became the preferred resting station for deep spacers, runners and ne’er-do-wells. Slug-like miners from the third moon of Belkadan supplied the station with highly potent fuel in return for calcium, and though many investigations took place, no one was really able to explain how the Ugnaughts got their hands on such rich calcium deposits. Seeking alliances with no one, Maltor ran his station impartially, welcoming all on board, provided their pockets seemed adequately laden down.

Delnan Jja observed the light from Belkadan’s dying sun bouncing off the dorsal panels of the fueling station, sending waves of crimson to wash over pieces of moon rock that drifted close by and bounced off the station’s shields. He turned from the viewer and flicked on his sleeve comm.
“Camm, maintain this position. I wish to remain invisible.”
“As you wish, sir,” the small mic replied.
Jja sat back in his chair and watched the tiny moon between his ship and the station through the window in his cabin. Small puffs of moon dust denoted further fractures, and another lump, the size of his own vessel, broke away from the ailing satellite. Several ideas formed in his dark mind, each one more perverse than the first, and he itched to implement at least one of them.
“Come on, Calz,” he murmured to himself, “it’s time to play.”