"Don't keep me in suspense, Worm."
A meaty fist raised a shot glass to a pair of blistered lips, then slammed it hard onto the durasteel tabletop. "Don't push me, Drakis. I'm passing you this one because I like you. Don't give me a reason to un-like you."
Kev Drakis ran a hand through his disheveled black hair. "I need credits, Worm...but this suspense, I don't need."
A smile crept up to Worm's deep-set eyes. "Vella still warming your bed?"
"You're crossing the wrong line," Kev said coldly.
Worm shrugged off the implied threat. "Relax. I got a proposition for you."
"I'm still waiting."
Hookah smoke drifted through the Last Chance tapcaf, creeping in the red light cast by overhead magnatubes. Leaning across the table, Worm dropped his voice to a whisper. "Package. One way."
Kev sighed impatiently. "I'm a courier. We're in a nightclub. Nobody's listening. Now where am I taking the cargo?"
Kev had had enough. He had gotten out of bed for this meeting and Worm was wasting his time. He finished his blue keeder in one swallow and stood. "Always a pleasure, Worm."
Worm held out his open palms. "I swear I don't know."
Kev remained standing.
"Will you sit down already?" Worm pleaded. "Everyone's staring."
"So? They can watch me walk out."
"But this is a private conversation, see?"
Kev's interest piqued. One of Worm's talents, along with his knack for brokering deals, was his ability to build suspense. Kev knew he could get his information now. He sat back down and signaled for another round. "How private?"
"Prime private?" Worm said with a hint of worry.
Kev held a straight face for around two seconds before he burst into laughter. "You should have been in holodramas. You almost had me."
Perspiration seemed to appear on Worm's forehead, and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. "For crying out loud."
In the last few years, Kev had become a student of reading body language and facial expressions. It paid to know who was lying and who was telling the truth in his business. From what he could tell, Worm was being honest. "You're serious?"
"Fierfek. I'm as serious as a star destroyer." He looked around nervously.
"Forgive me, but I find it hard to believe that Seventh Prime would need a small-timer like me for off-planet runs."
A serving droid arrived with Kev's drink and he took a quick sip. "Terrible. It's not the same without real ryll."
"I don't ask questions," Worm continued. "They say they got work. They ask if I've got a guy. I think of you, I think of Vella...the spacelanes aren't exactly safe right now, if you know what I mean."
Kev smiled. "Couldn't find anyone else you could trust, eh?" He sighed, working through possibilities in his head. There had to be a reason why a clandestine operation like Seventh Prime was willing to sub-contract. "Some of their runners probably got boarded." His eyes narrowed. "This cargo...is it sentient?"
Worm waved him away. "No life forms. I know your rules."
Kev stared into the distance, allowing his eyes to drift out of focus. "How much?"
"Five thousand or so, after my end."
"Your end standard?"
"Hey, it ain't a standard deal."
"You're kriffing kidding me, aren't you?" Kev snapped. "This is the real deal. You know the consequences if I screw this up. Your end needs to be standard."
"What about me? I'm the one recommending you."
"Standard," Kev said, unflinching.
Worm mulled it over. "Fine."
Taking a deep breath, Kev drained his glass. The chalky liquid bubbled into his nose and he had to stick his tongue out. "Where and when do I pick up my cargo?"
"Someone named Nornan Boone's holding a comlink for you."
"I don't like that. Why isn't he making the run?
"Not everybody has their own transport, huh? Boone's a thug. I drop him a few credits and have him hold to keep Imperials off me."
"Where is this Boone guy?"
"Over at Crosshaven Towers."
"The run-down terraces?"
"Yup," Worm said, pulling on his lower lip. "Oh, and Kev?"
"What is it, Worm?"
All levity drained from Worm's face. "I'd bring extra muscle if I were you."
"You would, would you?"
"Boone's no joke. He might be holding for me, but that doesn't mean he won't take your flight suit off your back. He'll rob you, then maybe give you what you came for." He grinned at a private joke. "Thinks he's chain lightning, too."
"Thanks for the warning," Kev said as he slid his hand under the table and took a credit chit from Worm.
"Say hi to Vella for me. Say, you aren't still singing are you?"
Kev's face flushed in embarrassment. "I'll see you, Worm."
"Not if I see you first."
Even in Coruscant's middle levels, there were lower strata, and Kev's destination was definitely not a Senator's home. He leaned on the door chime. The door slid open and an irascible old man squinted out.
"What the Sith do you want?" he demanded.
"I'm looking for a man named Bokur."
The old man turned aside and hacked a good one, then regarded Kev suspiciously. "Snake man?"
Kev checked the address plate on the permacrete to be sure he was in the right place.
"I never know his name," the old man said with a hint of disgust. He wandered into the back of the apartment. "Yuck, snake daddy, there's a Corellian to see you."
Kev entered living quarters resembling a junkyard resplendent with greasy engine parts, holozines, and filthy rags. A kid wearing a blast helmet slept on a ratty chair.
"Snake!" the old man yelled from the back. He returned and sat down to his soldering iron as if nothing was amiss. "That thing probably isn't even real," he said without looking up. "But if it is..." he tapped his head. "Shrapnel in here."
Kev made his way to the back room, which was just as messy. He found an unshaven, greasy-haired man occupying a corner, his fingers massaging empty air. He wore dark, unmarked military fatigues. Intelligent eyes looked back at Kev, but Kev couldn't make out their color.
Suddenly a splash of light played off the space between the man's hands, and Kev flinched when realized the man was holding one of the galaxy's most dangerous reptiles: a crystal snake.
"You have..." Kev started.
The man extended his hand and the snake coiled around his wrist. "You're here about the job," he said very calmly. "My name is Piala Bokur."
Kev sighed. "I need you now. Put away that pet of yours and let's move." He relaxed. There was no way anyone in his right mind would handle a snake that deadly. It had to have had its venom drained. It was just a cantina trick. "They're harmless without venom."
The left side of Bokur's lip curled up into what might have been a smile. He clucked his tongue a few times and lowered his arm to let the snake slither into a pile of power couplings.
"At least tie that wompratty hair back," Kev said, pointing to Bokur's unruly mess.
Bokur rose smoothly to his feet, not the least insulted, and found a small band to secure his loose hair.
"You ever watch anyone's back?" Kev asked.
Bokur shrugged. "Couple times."
Kev glanced around the room. "What are you doing in this place?"
"I have my privacy."
"I need some backup." Bokur nodded. "How good are you with a blaster? Do you carry?"
"I don't use blasters."
"Everyone uses blasters. What makes you so kriffing special?" Kev was growing irritated. "We take heat, I have to know I'm covered."
"I'm resourceful. I can back you up."
Kev paused. "Tell you what. I'm going to see somebody. You tag along, and if I think you're okay I'll pay you for something more."
"That sounds fair."
"I didn't ask you," Kev snapped, jamming his finger into Bokur's chest. Bokur didn't back down. His face was as placid as the surface of an Aalderanian lake. Kev wheeled and stormed out. "Grab what you need and hit the accelerator," he called over his shoulder.
Bokur straightened his clothes, then clucked his tongue twice. The crystal snake hissed from somewhere.
Kev led Bokur through foot traffic like he was trying to ditch a slow walker. Bokur kept pace with no apparent effort.
"How long you been on Coruscant?" Kev asked.
"I don't know."
"You have to know. Don't lie to me. If you don't want to say, just tell me to mind my own business."
"Mind your own business."
Kev spun around, color in his cheeks. "Keep your boarding ramp sealed from here on out. I've run with a few guys like you before. You think you know something the rest of us don't." He tensed up and looked away. "Last guy to cross me got a blaster bolt between the eyes. He wasn't so funny then."
Bokur was unperturbed. He scratched his cheek. "Where are we going?"
Kev calmed down very quickly, a skill he had mastered over years of bartering with unscrupulous beings. His temper would flare quickly, but he could always put it down just as fast. "I'm moving for a new crowd this time. I don't like surprises."
Kev started off again. Bokur searched the crowd calmly as he followed.
As they reached a hole-in-the-wall shop alive with splash illustrations of shiny, custom spacecraft, Kev pulled up short of the door and turned to Bokur. "Little Maxie gets nervous, so don't look him in the eyes or make trouble."
The shop's interior displayed more retrofitted models and advertisements than actual parts. A shrewd clerk with a nervous twitch hung back behind a counter.
"Maxie!" Kev said jubilantly, arms spread wide. "How's the good life?"
The clerk's nervous eyes locked onto Bokur. "Who's that?"
Bokur disinterestedly inspected merchandise. "My wife's cousin," Kev said dismissively.
"I've never seen him," Maxie said.
Kev sidled up to the counter and slid a credit chit across it. "He's from Corellia."
A smile replaced the suspicion on Maxie's face when he noticed the amount of the chit. "Ah. Of course."
Kev lowered his voice and leaned his elbows on the countertop. "Fill up my databanks with everything you know about Seventh Prime." Maxie groaned and tried to return the chit, but Kev closed his fist around Maxie's hand and the chit. "Details, Maxie."
Maxie swallowed in a mighty gulp. "I've heard they're Black Sun."
"I know that part. Are they legit?"
"Very. Don't cross them."
"I only shoot back, Maxie. You know that."
"No," Maxie argued. "Seventh Prime hired a unique enforcer. Once you commit, he won't let you back out."
"What kind of enforcer? Have I heard of him before?"
Maxie shook his head. "I don't think so."
Maxie's voice dropped to a whisper. "He's Jedi."
Bokur chuckled quietly at something. Kev ignored him.
"Do I look Neomoidian to you?" Kev asked Maxie. "Don't try to scare me with creche stories."
"I'm on the level."
Kev paused. "Really? It's a tough swallow that Jedi run wing for smugglers. And tell me why you haven't contacted CSF yet? Jedi are big bounty. Palpatine has disintegrate orders on them."
Maxie backed up, palms in the air. "You think I want Jedi after me?"
"Jedi would never come after you," Kev laughed.
"Yeah, laugh. Have you ever seen a Jedi in action?"
"Not like that, no."
"I did once on Kalarba. Lightsabers take limbs off." He shook his head. "Not me. It isn't worth it. Jedi might be wanted for treason, but it won't be me that calls CSF."
Kev regarded Maxie for another few seconds, then turned to Bokur. "Time to go."
Maxie watched them carefully as they left. Bokur spared him a polite nod.
Kev was halfway up the street when Bokur exited Maxie's shop, holding out his hand out as if checking the weather. Kev took his eyes off him for a split second, and when he looked back, Bokur had vanished. He couldn't spot him after a moment of searching, so he shook his head and turned back around. Bokur was right next to him. Kev almost leaped right out of his boots. "You watching my back?"
"I think so."
"What'd I say about hitting my thrusters?" Kev growled. They shoved through some rude pedestrians until it was just the two of them again. "You did what I asked back there, but that doesn't qualify you for anything."
"I'm kind of hungry."
"What's that to me?" Kev wondered if Bokur was even listening to him. They drew near food carts awash in the smells of steamed sea algae and mystery meat pies.
"I can't keep my mind on my job if I'm thinking about food."
"You're a simple guy, aren't you?" Kev asked. He stopped by the mystery meat pie cart and held up two fingers. "Me and him."
The vendor took some credits from Kev and served them up. Bokur swallowed his in two bites and they merged back into the foot traffic.
"I'm not partial to working like this," Kev said.
"I like legitimate work, I do," Kev said. When he noticed that Bokur was probably not even paying attention, he continued. "These small runs are the only jobs available, though." He considered his next words carefully. "I'm not knocking the Empire. I'm only saying that big companies have monopolies on the straight contracts." He glanced over his shoulder at Bokur. "Are you listening?"
Kev was unfazed. "You do stuff like I do, you have to know the angles. You have to be prepared." They wound through a few blocks before Kev looked around at the street signs. "Sometimes you have to spend almost as much money to be careful as you make on a job."
"This is Crosshaven," Kev said as he inspected a dilapidated housing complex. "You're really unarmed?"
Bokur shrugged. "That's what I said."
Kev tensed up. "I've got a small on my ankle. If anything happens, see if you can create a diversion so I can get to it." He nodded toward the rear of the building. "The back's probably safer."
They had to shuffle through a considerable amount of garbage to reach the back door, which was fixed open. As they stepped into the lobby, Kev could see a seedy man behind a counter watching them. Two thugs sat in chairs along the farthest wall. One of them wore his mustache bushy on his cocky face. His DL-44 Blastech was holstered low on his hip.
Kev looked at the man behind the counter. "Nornan Boone."
The man nodded at the man with the Blastech on his hip. As Kev turned around, Boone rose to his feet and planted his hands on his hips. An arrogant smile spread over his face.
"You here for something?"
"Are you Boone?"
Boone fingered his Blastech. "I said, are you here for something?"
"Where are the refreshers?" Bokur politely asked the man behind the counter. The man pointed across the lobby and Bokur left them all standing there as he vanished behind closed doors. Kev panicked a little, knowing the odds were now three to one, but he was too experienced to call after Bokur and appear intimidated.
Boone smiled wider. He gestured in Bokur's direction and the other two men followed Bokur into the refreshers. Boone circled Kev, his fingers tickling the butt of his Blastech.
"Our mutual associate said you have a comlink," Kev said as calmly as he could.
"Maybe I do."
Kev didn't know what Boone's game was. Middlemen were often on weird power trips. Worm had warned him that Boone probably wasn't going to just hand the comlink over. "Look, I-"
"Settle it down. You'll get what you're here for...after."
"After you pay me for it."
Despite his circumstances, Kev's patience was at its end. He had been dealing with Bokur's quirks for the last hour and he just wanted to pick up his cargo, make his run, and go home to his wife. And here was Boone, playing games. Kev crossed his arms over his chest defiantly. "I'm pretty sure I'm not giving you a kriffing credit."
"You'll give me what you have," Boone said with a hint of anger in his voice. He jerked a thumb back over his shoulder at the refreshers. "My boys are already taking donations from your friend."
"Never met the guy. Maybe I'll take a donation from you."
"Try it..." Boone said, his fingers hovering over his Blastech. "...and I'll burn you down right here."
"Do you even have the comlink? Tell me that much." Kev angled to a chair, where he could better try for his holdout. The last thing he wanted to be involved in was a blaster fight, but Boone seemed pretty intent on making sure someone got shot. Kev would just have to shoot Boone first to make sure it wasn't him.
"Yeah, I got the comlink."
Kev sat down slowly.
"What are you doing?" Boone asked.
"My feet hurt," Kev said as he reached for his ankle. "I've gotta rub them."
He almost had his hand on his blaster when Boone drew, and very fast. Kev looked back at the Blastech barrel and froze. That's what Worm had meant when he had said chain lightning.
"Going for a holdout?" Boone asked. "Nope."
Kev raised his hand slowly. "I'll rub my feet another time."
Boone holstered the Blastech. Then he drew it again. Then he holstered it. His eyes lit up. "Go for your holdout."
"I don't have one."
"Sure you do," Boone said as he drew and holstered again. Kev watched the path of his hand as it worked, the rhythm of the blaster clearing leather and dropping in again.
"Really. I don't like blasters."
"Liar," Boone said. His eyebrows came together and his face grew mean. "This time I pull for real."
Kev's fear was getting the best of him now. He still resented Boone for putting him in this spot, but he had to get over that and run through his options. He couldn't find any, so he inched his hand down his leg to try for his holdout blaster again. Maybe Boone would miss, or only clip him, and he could get a solid shot off. Kev frowned. And maybe a Jedi would come to his rescue. He held his breath, watching and waiting for his opening. He would only get one shot and he knew it.
Boone smiled and his hand went for the Blastech...but it was gone.
Bokur had crept up behind Boone and disarmed him. He held the Blastech and examined it as if it were a strange object from a distant moon. Boone slowly raised his hands and looked over at Bokur, nearly fainting when saw the DL-44 in someone else's possession.
"These are too random," Bokur said as he removed the power pack. "Harmless without their venom." He holstered the Blastech for Boone, who suddenly became very friendly.
"I was just testing you," Boone said with a forced smile.
Kev whipped out his holdout piece and aimed it straight at Boone's chest. "Comlink. Now."
"Sure, sure," Boone said. He handed over the comlink, eyeing Kev's blaster the entire time. "No hard feelings, eh?"
"I won't make you draw, Boone," Kev said. When Boone breathed a sigh of relief, Kev hauled back and socked him across the jaw. Boone dropped to the floor like a slab of duracrete.
While Bokur scratched his head, Kev looked back toward the refreshers. "What happened to those two guys?"
Bokur shrugged. "What two guys?"
Kev glanced down at the unconscious Boone. "Why didn't you just give me the comlink?"
"You expect him to answer?" Bokur asked.
Kev headed to the exit, holding up the comlink. "Come on. I'll buy you a drink while we wait for the mynock to chirp."
Kev and Bokur pushed into a row of humanoids crowded near the bar. Pink neon outlined every edge in the Spacer's Lounge except for the dark corners. Hustlers talked fast and women danced to the quick, short melodies of a Bith house band.
The bartender, an attractive human woman with short dark hair, wiped her hands on a towel and nodded at Kev for his order.
"I'd like to buy my friend a drink," Kev said.
Bokur looked around for Kev's friend, which drew a smirk from the bartender. "What's your flavor, fella?" she asked.
"Two blue keeders," Kev said. He checked his credit chit. "How about real ryll in those, eh?"
"For your friend..." the bartender said, winking seductively at Bokur, "anything."
"I wanted to say thanks for what you did back there," Kev said to Bokur as the bartender stirred their blue drinks and spiked them with ryll.
"That's what you're paying me for, right?"
Kev regarded him curiously. "Sure." He took a deep breath. "This business I do, it doesn't have to be all bad, you know. Guys like Boone make it trouble."
The bartender slid their drinks over to them. Kev sampled his with satisfaction. "And they say droids can do it better."
The bartender flashed Kev a smile before turning her attention to Bokur. "Are you new to Coruscant?"
Kev sipped his keeder and pretended he wasn't interested.
"I'm only passing through," Bokur said.
"Aren't we all?" she asked. She put her face close to Bokur's and looked deeply into his eyes. "I'll be free in two standard hours. How about you come and fix my hyperdrive?"
"Two standard hours?"
The bartender nodded, licked her lips and sauntered away.
"What was that all about?" Kev asked.
"She must have me confused with a mechanic," Bokur said with a grin.
Kev chuckled. "My wife is clever like that. Well, not exactly like that. But she's pretty witty. That's one of the reasons I love her so much."
"I've never been much for love."
"I used to think like that. I was young, single, free of attachments..."
"Are you going to tell me how love changed you?"
"It did. But it also sapped some of my edge." He paused. "When I walk into something now, I have to think about more than just myself. I have to ask what will happen to my wife if something happens to me."
"What's her name?"
Kev searched Bokur for signs of sincerity, but Bokur proved unreadable. "Vella." The name emerged from Kev's lips like something sacred. "We met when I was doing legitimate runs." A grin split his face as he dove into his memories. "Funny story. I made a delivery for a guy, and she was his assistant. Transceiver parts for his satellite. Somehow she convinced me to shuttle her back to Corellia. Even paid her way."
"Is that what you meant about her being clever?"
"Exactly," Kev said. He frowned. "But it turns out she was a slave. Strange how slavery continues around the Republic, isn't it? I mean, here we have this democratic body supposedly devoted to freedom and due process, and yet the slave trade endures. Well...it's not exactly the Republic anymore, I guess."
Kev wanted to stop, but he was too deep in. He'd been wanting to talk about this to someone for a long time. "We ended up falling for each other. She had no family left, and my work is pretty lonely."
"Didn't her owner come looking for her?"
"If she were any other slave, he probably wouldn't have bothered. But she'd kept his records." Kev looked into the swirl of his blue drink. "That was the first time I killed a man. He was a bounty hunter. I tried to reason with him."
Bokur patted him on the back. "You're happy now, right?"
"Yes. With Vella I'm happy."
"You have to find what makes you happy in life."
Just as Kev thought he had Bokur figured out, the comlink chirped. Kev listened for a minute and then put the comlink back into his pocket. "They want to meet at 0100 hours, standard time."
Bokur glanced at his chrono. "What do we do until then?"
"We can go somewhere quiet."
Bokur waved his hand at the cacophony in the Spacer's Lounge. "Quieter than this?"
No matter what time of day or night it was, Coruscant's walkways were always accessible and always congested, and the speeders ripping by overhead on propulsion engines didn't make things better. Kev had become accustomed to the city planet's quick pace years earlier, but he had never been able to accept the frenetic lifestyle so many humanoids embraced. He wouldn't ever admit it, but Bokur was starting to grow on him. The man was calm and carefree and he reminded Kev of himself before he had moved here.
"That's why you insist on knowing up front, right?" Bokur asked.
"That's right. I won't move sentient cargo."
"Slaves," Bokur corrected.
"I didn't have a reason to before the Republic collapsed. And, now, with Vella, I sure as Sith know better."
Bokur flinched at Kev's word choice. They walked a bit farther before Bokur spoke again. "You're concerned about this Jedi."
"How did you know about that?"
"I overheard your friend."
"Maxie? He's not my friend. But, yes, I have been thinking about that."
Bokur shrugged. "Jedi don't intimidate me."
"Me neither," Kev lied. "But I have to cover the angles."
Kev led them into a hovel amid hovels. An old woman sat on a nearby porch, petting a furry and cute six-legged feline.
"This is it," Kev said to Bokur. He turned to the old woman. "Hello, Mrs. Lucas."
"Vella's almost there," she said with a warm smile.
"Yes, she is, isn't she?" Kev beamed.
Bokur flashed Mrs. Lucas a smile before he followed Kev inside.
The place was run down, but accentuated with a woman's touch. Dim wall lights outlined a tiny kitchen and doors leading to a refresher and a bedroom.
"I think my wife is asleep," Kev whispered.
A wall-mounted vidscreen replayed holofootage of Emperor Palpatine's speeches in low volume. Bokur's attention was drawn to it.
"...remnants of the guerilla forces threatening free Corellian trading lanes have been eliminated by the Grand Army's anti-terrorist unit," Palpatine said.
"It's propaganda," Kev said when he noticed Bokur's fascination. Bokur glanced at him, then back to the vidscreen.
"Coruscant Security Forces installed the vidscreens in every registered domestic housing unit," Kev added as he took off his coat. "It's a felony to remove or deactivate them." Kev headed toward the bedroom. "Look, just make yourself comfortable."
Bokur turned for the front door. "I'll come back for you when it's time."
Kev scratched his head in confusion. "Where are you going? You're not backing out, are you?"
"I'm going to pay that bartender a visit."
"Oh. I see," Kev said with a relieved grin. "Just keep an eye on your chrono."
Bokur left without responding.
Palpatine was very animated on the vidscreen. "This is clearly a plot devised by the few rogue Jedi who continue to escape the Empire's clutches. Mark my words, the galaxy will not be safe until these Jedi are hunted down and brought to justice." A rousing cheer erupted from the audience.
Kev stepped into the bedroom, a cozy space with soft, colored lighting. A secondhand crib, in the midst of repair, leaned against the back wall.
Vella was relaxing on their bed against a stack of pillows. Her cup of stimcaf steamed beside a plate of bite-sized muffins. She was not beautiful by any means, but sincerity and warmth hovered about her. Her shirt was pulled up to reveal her pregnant belly. Kev placed his ear against it.
"I'm not a pillow, you know," she said.
"I like to hear the little noises."
"She's going to have a complex if you don't stop smothering her."
Kev sat up. "It could be a he."
"No. We're having a daughter. And we're going to love her and care for her like no one did for us."
Kev began to sing.
"The baby's poor ears..." Vella said jokingly. She reached for her stimcaf and Kev snatched it away.
"Oh, no you don't," he said.
"Just a taste?" she pouted.
"I might give her a complex and you might make her a caf junkie," Kev said as he sipped the stimcaf.
"There are worse fates," she said with resignation. She eyed Kev warily. "Are you going out again tonight?"
He set the cup down. "How's the list of names coming along?"
"Fine," she said, crossing her arms over her chest. "Don't change the subject."
He sighed. "I have something lined up. I might be gone a few days."
"You mean you might miss your child's birth."
"Vella...please. We've discussed this too many times to count."
"And you've been stubborn each time."
"I don't want to raise a child on Coruscant."
"What does that have to do with anything?"
"Just one more run, maybe this one, and we can settle down somewhere nice."
"Nice? By nice you mean like Corellia?"
"No. I don't know...I mean, maybe Alderaan or someplace peaceful."
"Oh. Then you're serious?"
Kev smiled. "I'm always serious."
She took his hand and kissed it softly. "Promise me something."
A tear rolled down her cheek and she shuddered. "Promise our baby will have a father."
Kev wiped the tear away with his finger. She clutched his hand to her face and squeezed her eyes shut.
"I'll be safe," he said.
When Kev stepped outside, Bokur was already waiting for him.
"It's time to go," Bokur said.
"Who's in charge here?" Kev snapped. He shook his head in irritation. Having to leave Vella was always difficult for him. Knowing that he was going to be gone for a couple of days, maybe more, when she was about to give birth really upset him. He considered himself a decent man, a decent husband, but a decent man didn't abandon his pregnant wife. Kev half walked, half stomped over the thoroughfares. "I want this over with as quick as it can happen."
"How's your wife?"
Kev flinched a bit, then relaxed. "Fine."
"Is that why you want to hurry?"
"Something like that."
They walked for nearly 20 minutes until they reached the first turn. The corridor was dark but it seemed safe enough. Kev decided now was the best time for him to clear something up that had been nagging at him since he had met Bokur. "If I ask you a question, you won't take it personally, will you? And you'll be honest?"
"You're not an Imperial spy, are you?"
"Why do you ask?"
Kev shrugged. "I don't know. I guess because you seem so aloof most of the time. You know, the Empire takes its soldiers young. They're recruited, taught how to fight...to kill."
"Yes. And it's like someone who spends his life reading holos and studying, but not experiencing the real galaxy."
"There's this detachment there. These people have trouble functioning outside of their environments. They only see half the universe. Half of human nature."
"And that makes me an Imperial?"
"I guess not," Kev grinned in relief. "I can hardly see why you'd want a small timer like me."
"And you did save my life. I didn't tell Vella about what happened, though, or she would have had the baby right then."
The corridor expanded into a wide, empty byway. "It's this way," Kev said as he looked around, noticing that they were completely alone. "I don't like this place."
"What's wrong with it?"
"Too quiet. No witnesses." Kev stopped and listened, then shrugged and started walking again. "Since you're an Imperial spy and I'm in trouble anyway, maybe you can explain this whole Jedi thing to me. I mean, one minute they're the guardians of the galaxy, and the next they're traitors."
"Why do you care? Less trouble for you when you're smuggling."
"I wasn't smuggling when the Jedi were around. I didn't have to." He shrugged. "And I suppose I don't care all that much, really...I'm just trying to understand. The Jedi were about making things better for all of us. Or so they used to be." He paused. "I saw a Jedi up close once."
"Should I be impressed?"
Kev continued, unfazed. "I was in a big public hangar, working on my ship. Someone's hyperdrive motivator came up missing, and a big fight broke out. These three humans accused a pair of Rodians of stealing it, and pretty soon a mob of humans were ganging up on the Rodians. CSF would have just rounded up the whole gang and tossed them into a cell, let them all settle it in there. Stormtroopers would have just started firing until the mob dispersed. But a Jedi came instead."
"She calmed everyone down by being friendly and introducing herself."
"What was her name?"
"Something Unduli, I think."
Bokur seemed to take in the name.
"Anyway," Kev continued. "She brought all the people together and talked the problem through with them. She got them to calm down long enough to think rationally. They eventually found out that one of the humans had gotten drunk and knocked it into a locker." Kev scratched at his cheek. "But it didn't matter, because the Jedi had made friends of everyone. She left an impression on everyone there...a good one. She could have just walked by and nobody would have been any wiser to her presence. But she didn't. She stopped to help. Could someone who cares so much for others want to take over the galaxy?"
They turned a corner into a huge warehouse littered with crates and machinery. The hangar door was wide open. Kev approached cautiously and drew his holdout blaster. Bokur crept up beside him.
"This is it," Kev whispered as he wiped his brow with the back of his hand. "I wish these people would do this in broad daylight, in a crowded place. What does your chrono say?"
"We're here a couple of minutes early."
"Oh, good. Give us a chance to scope things out."
They crouched behind some crates and peered out at a lit platform in the middle of the building.
"I bet that's it over there," Kev said, pointing. "Where we'll be meeting them."
"What do we do now?"
"We wait," Kev said. He began to sing softly.
Bokur turned to him after only a few seconds. "Could you quit that?"
"Oh, right. We don't want to attract attention."
"That has nothing to do with it. You sound like a wounded rancor."
Kev steamed in silence, but eventually moved past the insult. They stayed hidden and quiet for ten minutes until the sound of footsteps on permacrete echoed through the warehouse. Two dark and shady men, blasters in hand, stepped into the light of the platform and looked around. When they failed to spot Kev and Bokur, they waved over four more men, two of whom guided a long, nondescript cargo box on a repulsor float. One of the men impatiently checked his chrono.
"Those must be our boys," Kev whispered. "I don't like this. They don't need five guys to deliver that freight. And those two definitely don't need their blasters out. I've got a bad feeling about this."
Kev slowly began to creep backwards.
A snap-hiss cut the air and a blade of pure blue light ignited into existence. It was the first time Kev had ever seen a lightsaber this closely, and he nearly fell over in his attempt to escape its reach. Maxie's words sprang to Kev's memory. He pictured the lightsaber taking his limbs off one by one. Kev noticed that Bokur, once again, appeared calm in the face of danger.
A tall, unshaven human, obviously Seventh Prime's Jedi enforcer, stepped into view, lightsaber humming. He appeared a little out of shape, and looked more like a common thug than a Jedi. "Drop it, ugnaught!" he ordered.
Kev was so petrified that he could only stare. It took him a second to register that he was even holding a blaster. When he did, he let it slip from his fingers and clatter to the ground.
"Over here!" the Jedi enforcer waved to his comrades. He signaled Kev and Bokur forward with his crackling blade. Kev felt utterly defeated. How could he take on a Jedi and win? He clasped his hands behind his head and stepped into the light of the platform. Bokur came shortly after, the Jedi enforcer right behind him.
The two men with drawn blasters leveled their weapons at Kev and Bokur.
"Relax," the Jedi enforcer said. "I got 'em covered."
One of the men chuckled and holstered his weapon, but the other man wasn't convinced and he only lowered his blaster.
A wiry human with shrewd eyes stepped forward and pointed accusingly at Kev and Bokur. "Which one of you flies the ship?"
"Me," Kev said nervously. "I'm the guy with the ship." He regained some of his composure. "What's with the blasters?" He turned toward the Jedi enforcer. "And the Jedi? This was supposed to be a business transaction."
The Jedi enforcer backhanded Kev. He tripped over his own feet and tasted blood in his mouth.
"When I ask a question, I want an answer," the shrewd man said. "I don't want more questions, and I certainly don't want to hear a story."
Kev's eyes were angry, and he was embarrassed, but he knew he was in a bad spot. He rubbed his cheek where he had been struck while the Jedi enforcer stared him down.
"There's only supposed to be one of you," the shrewd man said. He regarded Bokur. "Who's this?"
"Don't worry," Kev said. "He's my mechanic."
"Who's worried?" the shrewd man asked. He nodded to one of his men, who searched Kev and Bokur for weapons.
The Jedi enforcer thumbed off his lightsaber, a sound that made Kev flinch. The Jedi enforcer chuckled.
"That's enough, Mako," the shrewd man said. He turned to Kev. "Here's how it's gonna go. You drop this freight on Nal Hutta to our contact. Then, and only then, will we activate that credit chit you've got in your pocket."
Kev knew he wasn't in much of a negotiating position, but he also wasn't about to lie down under a star destroyer. "No deal. I get half up front or you can make your own run."
"This isn't a negotiation."
Bokur turned to the Jedi enforcer. "Where'd you get the lightsaber?"
"None of your business," the Jedi enforcer growled.
"How do I know you'll even activate the chit once the drop's made?" Kev asked.
"How do I know you won't steal my cargo?" the shrewd man replied. "You'll get paid when my contact confirms receipt of the merchandise."
Kev crossed his arms over his chest. "Not good enough."
"Do you even know how to use that thing?" Bokur asked the Jedi enforcer.
The Jedi enforcer unhooked the lightsaber, ignited it, and hacked through a crate near Bokur. The movement was clumsy, but effective. Then the Jedi enforcer, chest heaving with anger, glared at Bokur. "Keep it up and you'll find out how well I can use this."
Bokur backed away, hands raised. "It was just a question."
"And what did I say about questions?" the shrewd man asked as he looked Kev and Bokur up and down. "You two are becoming a problem."
The Jedi enforcer shut down his lightsaber and hooked the handle to his belt. The man who had kept his blaster out finally decided to holster it.
"Half now. Or we're leaving."
The shrewd man laughed and waved his arm to emphasize the odds against Kev and Bokur. Even the Jedi enforcer chuckled a little. "You're not going anywhere unless I say so."
Kev knew he was in a tight spot, much worse than he had probably ever been in. He glanced over at Bokur to see if the other man had a plan, but Bokur just appeared calm as always. There was no fear in his eyes, but he was observing everything.
Kev swallowed hard. Fear was starting to creep up on him, but he had to make a stand. If he let one spacer walk all over him, it wouldn't be long until word got out that he was soft. "Half up front."
"Do you know who we represent?" the shrewd man asked.
"I don't need information like that. I make runs...and I get paid half in advance."
Bokur looked at the Jedi enforcer for a second, then smirked, shook his head, and turned back around as if he was privy to some private joke.
The Jedi enforcer's anger and insecurity seemed to boil a bit. He fingered the lightsaber handle, but the shrewd man noticed his agitation and shook his head to discourage him.
The shrewd man considered for a second, then sighed in defeat and planted his hands on his hips. "You can have half up front, but think of it as a business agreement."
"What do you mean?" Kev asked.
"If this works out, we have more runs lined up."
"No. This is a one-time deal. I do this and then I go my own way."
"There's a lot of money in these runs."
"I'll think about it," Kev lied. He had no intention of working for these people again, no matter how much they paid. He didn't like being intimidated and bullied. "We'll see how it goes."
The shrewd man tilted his head a bit to one of his men, but his eyes never left Kev. "Transfer half to the chit."
The man who had been spoken to reluctantly downloaded funds to the chit Kev produced via a datapad.
"I don't have to tell you what will happen if you cross us," the shrewd man said.
Now that the negotiations were over, there was less tension in the air. Kev pocketed the chit and nodded to a floating long box. "That the cargo?"
The shrewd man nodded. Everyone remained in place except for Kev and Bokur, who trudged over to the floating long box. Bokur suddenly grabbed Kev and stopped him when they were halfway there.
"What are you doing?" Kev whispered as he looked down at Bokur's hand on his arm.
"Ask to check the cargo."
Kev shook free of Bokur's grip. "That's not how we do it in this business."
"Do it this time," Bokur demanded. "These people aren't being honest."
"Who is these days?" Kev asked. He glanced back to see the shrewd man watching them from across the platform.
"What's going on?" the shrewd man asked.
"Nothing," Kev said over his shoulder as he started walking the rest of the way to the cargo.
Bokur fell in step behind him. "No slaves. That's your rule."
Kev stopped short and studied the size of the box. The possibility occurred to him that there could be a sentient in there.
The shrewd man took a step toward them. "What seems to be the problem?"
Kev was speechless. A million possibilities ran through his mind.
"We want to renegotiate the price," Bokur called back. His eyes stayed on Kev.
"You've got to be kidding," the shrewd man said. "Mechanics should stick to hydrospanners."
Bokur turned back and glared at him. "And you shouldn't deal with lives like property."
"That's enough!" the shrewd man shouted. He turned to the Jedi enforcer. "Take off one of his hands!"
"My pleasure!" the Jedi enforcer grinned. His blue blade sprouted from the lightsaber handle.
"Wait!" Kev wheeled and held his open palms in the air.
The shrewd man waved the Jedi enforcer back. The lightsaber hummed ominously in the silence.
Kev yanked Bokur by the sleeve. "What are you doing?"
"Trust me," Bokur whispered. "I backed you up, now you back me up."
Bokur slipped a blaster he had stolen into one of Kev's pockets. Kev realized he must have taken it from the man who had searched them. Kev opened his mouth to speak, but before he could utter a word, Bokur took a couple of steps toward the others.
Three of the men drew their blasters and formed a killing ring, aiming their weapons at Kev and Bokur. The fourth man, the man who had searched Bokur, searched futilely for his blaster.
"A job like this requires finesse. Am I right?" Bokur asked anyone who was listening.
Kev fingered the blaster in his pocket, wondering if he would have to use it.
"We have to get the cargo from here to there," Bokur continued, "and without drawing attention, getting boarded, or even raising suspicions...am I right?"
The men were angry, impatient, but they couldn't disagree with him. They waited for him to come to his point.
Kev glanced back at the cargo with a little more suspicion.
"I mean, we all know what's in the box..." Bokur said to the shrewd man with a wink. "...right?"
There was some surprise from the men, then anger. Without so much as another word, the Jedi enforcer raised his lightsaber and marched toward Bokur.
"Where did you get the lightsaber?" Bokur asked him with deadly seriousness.
Without thinking about it anymore, Kev aimed his blaster at the cargo box lock and pulled the trigger. The other men on the platform flinched at the explosive noise, but visibly relaxed when they saw that Kev had only shot the lock off the cargo box.
He hammered the remains of the lock off with the blaster butt and raised the lid. There was a ragged, frightened little Twi'lek girl inside. She squinted at the sudden and harsh introduction of light.
"That's it," the shrewd man said. "Kill them."
Most of the blasters were aimed at Kev. He braced for the inevitable, making sure his body was in front of the little girl in the box.
In one fluid motion, Bokur called the Jedi enforcer's lightsaber to his hand with some invisible force and slashed the barrels off all three blasters. The men were all too petrified for words, save the Jedi enforcer, who shriveled up in whimpering fear.
Realization washed over Kev when the puzzle he had been playing with came together. He recovered and aimed his blaster at the Seventh Prime contingency. "Don't even move."
Bokur walked over to the cargo box and laid his palm on the little girl's forehead. "She'll be fine," he said to Kev. His expression hardened, and he turned on the Jedi enforcer. "I asked you a question."
The Jedi enforcer had his hands up and was slinking to the floor. "I bribed a member of the CSF cleanup crew when they were clearing out the Jedi Temple. I'm not a Jedi."
"I know that," Bokur said. He stood ominously over the Jedi enforcer, and for a moment Kev thought he was going to execute him. "You should all pay for your crimes." He deactivated the lightsaber and lowered his head. "Get out of here. And don't let me catch any of you at this again."
They were all confused for a span of several heartbeats, but then realized their good fortune and bolted.
Kev regarded Bokur, then pocketed the blaster and lifted the little girl out of the box and held her.
Bokur slumped down on a crate and buried his head in his hands as if the weight of the entire planet had suddenly crashed down onto his shoulders. It was a drastic change from the carefree man whom Kev had become accustomed to.
"How did you know he wasn't a Jedi?" Kev wondered.
Bokur looked up and smiled. "I'd have thought that would be obvious." The smile left his face and he nodded at the Twi'lek girl. "Can you get her somewhere safe?"
Kev nodded. The bartender from the Spacer's Lounge appeared and waited patiently for Bokur.
"I have to go now," Bokur said. He took a few steps before turning back to pierce Kev with startling green eyes that Kev hadn't noticed until now. "You ask the right questions, Kev Drakis." A soft smile crossed his face. "Thank you for having faith. It means a great deal."
"Thank you for giving me something to believe in again," Kev said.
Bokur's smile faded as he melted into the shadows.
Kev watched their retreat for a second, then turned to the girl. He lifted her chin. "And what's your name little one?"
"Faera," she said shyly, her head tails twitching.
"Well, Faera, I'm going to take you home to meet my wife. Would you like that?"
She nodded. He smiled and she smiled back. He began to hum his song to her, and she hugged him tightly in response.
Original cover by Aryan. HTML formatting copyright 2008 TheForce.Net LLC.