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.”
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.”
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.