“We’ll need to be movin’ soon,” Jix said calmly, starting up at the sky. The planet didn’t have its own star – what passed for daytime was when the galaxy filled the sky. The accumulated light of billions of stars shining clearly around a layer of black, filled the centre of the sky with a streak of black separating it from purple streaks from the light refraction closer to the horizon. Jix only took a moment to appreciate its beauty before focusing on the task at hand. Yebhalo hadn’t even taken that kind of time – she was already four metres up one of the white-barked, blue-leaved trees that made up the forest, blaster rifle scanning the surrounding area. Azariah was similarly surveying the surroundings, single blaster pistol drawn while unloading the emergency supplies from the pod.
“What’s this?” he asked, lifting a satchel bag from the pod. By the way he was holding it, it was somewhat heavy, and made several clinking sounds as it moved.
“Careful!” Hirani said, grabbing the bag and hoisting it over one shoulder. “My mods are in there.”
“Enemy position modifiers.”
Jix raised an eyebrow. “What?”
Azariah rolled his eyes. “Thermal detonators.”
Hirani shook her head. “Not quite – I made them myself and with what I had to work with, they don’t pack quite the punch as detonators. Still, they’ll be useful.”
“We really do need to get moving!” Yebhalo called tersely. She’d gotten onto a large branch of the tree, and taken up a firing position.
“Company?” Azariah enquired.
Yebhalo answered by firing a shot off into the forest. Almost immediately, a yelp echoed through the white trees, and several loud snarls answered it.
“Definitely company,” Jix said, pulling a lightsaber off his belt and igniting it with the distinct snap-hiss that just about everyone in the galaxy recognised. Azariah and Hirani jumped off the pod on opposite sides, each drawing a blaster – Hirani drawing a bulky pistol, supporting it with both hands, Azariah pulling a smaller, sleeker model in his off hand to accompany the large one he already had out.
The snarls had changed into low growls and the odd bark and, more alarmingly, series of dull, heavy footfalls. A moment later, the sources of them came into view – massiff hounds – stocky, canine creatures sometimes domesticated by braver souls, but more often than not, wild, aggressive beasts, as tall as waist-height. Azariah took one look at the one bounding toward him, and decided that he didn’t want anything to do with the snarling fangs jutting from their drooling mouths, and opened fire. His first shot sparked wide by just under a foot, sizzling into the blue grass of the forest floor, while the second hit the beast’s shoulder. The beast slowed down, but kept charging. Jix started running to intercept as the sounds of blasters and yelps filled the trees. Just before he got into place, a few more shots from Azariah put down the creature heading toward him, as well as a second. The two moved to find the others; Jix again running to aid his erstwhile comrades.
Hirani and Yebhalo had also each stopped one of the hungry creatures charging at them and Hirani was running from a second while shooting back at it. She ducked behind the tree Yebhalo was on, blaster ready to hit the creature as it came around. Jix was also rushing toward her aid, but again was too slow as the beast rounded the tree, scraping its teeth over Hirani’s outer thigh, drawing blood from her blue flesh before she got her shot off, ending the creature’s attack.
She winced as Jix deactivated his lightsaber and clipped it to his belt almost immediately – almost a full second later the other Twi’lek called down that the others were scattering.
“I guess we scared them off,” Azariah commented, holstering his blasters.
“Indeed,” Jix said with the offhand certainty the Jedi were often known for. “But we definitely do need to get moving – who knows what else is in this forest.”
“I saw a town a good few clicks east of here on the way down, on the edge of the plateau,” Yebhalo observed.
“We’re on a plateau?” Azariah flatly enquired.
“Manka town,” Hirani said, ignoring him. “It’s where we were going to land anyway. Strictly speaking, it’s still my job to get you guys there.
They spent the next few hours walking along the forest, following the setting galaxy. B4 struggled a bit with the rough terrain, but Hirani was determined to help him every step of the way. Yebhalo also was able to avoid the worst of the cluttered forest and mountainous terrain, which made the trip much quicker and easier. Almost three full hours later, they came out of the forest, a few hundred meters north of a makeshift road. Half a click to the east was a much-welcome sight – the telltale bluish shimmer of a shield curved round a cluster of buildings – white round permacrete structures with slight domed tops of transparisteel. Sections of similarly built walls ran around the town in a neat circle, with the few gaps flanked by small turbolaser turrets on either side. All of the buildings were fairly uniform, looking to be either one or two stories high, arranged in rough approximations of streets, with a large opening in the centre of town. There were only two exceptions. One of which was clearly the spaceport; a high reaching structure with three tall bays for medium-sized starships. Each bay could have probably housed the Harrowing Gale twice over, with a large section jutting off from the side facing the town courtyard – where whatever passed for customs and lodgings took place. The other building out of place was a flatter, more rectangular building, made of the same materials as the houses, but larger, with a sizeable balcony cut into the second floor overlooking the open area in the middle of the town, presumably the administrative building.
As they got closer to the town, the group noticed a Cerean was standing at the edge of that balcony, and a sizeable crowd, at least considering the size of the town itself, had gathered. The crowd was shouting and the Cerean was trying, woefully unsuccessfully, to calm them down.
The four travellers split up as they walked unnoticed into the crowd, apart from Yebhalo, who crept behind one of the buildings into an alleyway. The crowd was shouting questions and accusations at the Cerean man on the balcony, who was clearly the closest thing the town had to an elected official.
“We’re supposed to be far away from the war here!” Jix heard one person shout.
“How am I supposed to ship my supplies?” Was another. The mayor of the town called for order again and again to no avail, until a sharp whistle cut through the crowd from the direction of the spaceport. Silence fell on the crowd as they looked to the source. Standing on the long dome that extended from the hangar was a young Togruta female, too young to call an adult but certainly holding herself like one, dressed in travelling gear.
“Listen up, everyone!” She said in a confident voice. “I know we’re all afraid, and I know none of us were expecting the confederacy to come here. But here they are and the only thing we can do is defend ourselves!”
A quiet murmur started over the crowd that was cut short as soon as it started by a thickly accented voice on the other side of the courtyard.
“Ov course you vould go straight to violence, Karona!”
Atop one of the houses, similarly poised, was a Zygerrian woman, dressed in fine merchant’s clothing. Where Karona was young, roughly dressed, and held herself like a warrior, this woman was mature, opulent, and clearly accustomed to a noble’s life.
“You’ve all zed yourselves, ze Confederacy would have nossink to gain from coming here or attacking us. No ztrategic value in the location, few major exports. Zis is not an invazion, it is something they are after. Perhaps if we negosiate with zem, zey shall leave us to live in peace, and perhaps even allow us through ze blockade!”
Karona cut a hand through the air. “You can’t be serious! They’ll invade, and they’ll attack, and it’s only a matter of time. Even if we stay out of their way, at best we’ll all be enslaved to do their bidding! I say we fight! Anyone who wants to join me, bring your blasters, and there’ll be free drinks at the bar!”
A few cheers from the crowd came.
“You would provoke zem!? I am trying to keep uz out ov zis war, and you would bring zem to our doorstep!? Anyone who thinks zey can help with negosiations, I will be in ze mayor’s office, trying to figure somesink out. I urge you all to join, and I urge you, Karona, not to drag us into zis war!”
“I’ll meet you all at the bar!” Azariah called out, firing a pistol into the air. A few of the townspeople looked over at him. He’d stepped onto a crate, to give himself some height. The combination of his clearly Mandalorian armour, and the size of the blaster he held up, made him something of a formidable sight. The crowd was already beginning to disperse, with some of them still considering which way to walk, when the sight of the enthusiastic warrior emboldened them. Over the next five minutes, the gathering scattered – some heading into the mayor’s office, some into the bar, and some scattering to their daily business throughout the wide, dusty streets…
“How did you get in here?”
Issan, the Zygerrian businesswoman eyed the Lethern Twi’lek suspiciously, her feline eyes letting off a faint, yellow glow as they narrowed in the dark. She’d climbed down through an opening in the window into the building she’d been standing on during her address to the town when she saw Yebhalo inside the room.
“Broke in. Felt like talking in a more… private setting.”
“Zo it would seem. I azzume it is the same subject as we’ve been deescussing more publicly?”
“Yeah, I figured I’m not sure where I stand on this whole “resistance” idea. But I’m not ready to dismiss it completely. Same goes for cooperation with the Separatists. So I’m gonna head to the bar, but if there are any ideas you have that might benefit everyone involved, I’ll make sure they get heard.”
Issan leaned against the wall, her posture oozing confidence. “And in return?”
Yebhalo subtly gestured toward Issan. “A bit of help from the more… financially minded people in town from time to time might help us do more good.”
The corner of the Zygerrian’s mouth curled up. “Of course. A fair price, I would say, so long as you keep Karona from… any provocations. And what shall I call my new… Benefactee?”
“Most people know me as Yebhalo. But as a sign of trust, I’ll share with you a secret… my real name…”
The bottom floor of the administrator’s office was large and spacious, but mostly filled with wide tables and computers. It meant that even though there were a total of fourteen beings in the office, the wide space was fairly packed. Jix was leaning casually against the wall next to the exit, watching Hirani work her way through the crowd. She’d gotten into the room the same time as the mayor, and she was skirting idle conversations that, while related to the planning of the protection of the town, seemed too trivial for her to waste time with. She was getting the measure of the people in the room, and her only real interests were the de facto mayor, a Cerean man whose brow seemed to be anchored firmly in the “furrowed” position – an obvious cost of the situation – and the noble woman who had actually gotten the attention of the townspeople. As she actively worked her way through the room, she occasionally glanced to the entrance. The Jedi she’d arrived with was clearly learning far more than she was, despite just standing there. Looking at his face, she could tell he was listening to all of it, shifting attention from one conversation to the next, filtering out the ones that were not of any consequence.
It was just as the young Twi’lek pilot found her way to the town administrator, that Issan sauntered into the room, and all attention went to her. The tall mayor, along with the other merchants, businessmen and fellow administrators all flocked to the woman, with a rancour of questions. The noise died down as she raised her hands and took a seat at one of the larger tables.
“One at a time, we will dizcuzz what rezourses we have available to uz. We will also discuss how best we will make contact wiz our … visitors, and arrange a peaceful arrangement.”
Hirani stepped out, shaking her head, with Jix following shortly after.
“She’s basically discussing terms of surrender!” she fumed, storming straight for the bar.
“She thinks business is still an option. Sticking to what she’s good at, no doubt,” Jix responded evenly, keeping pace with her with casual ease.
“Doesn’t she get it? It’s a blockade! Nobody’s going to do any trade, on any terms, except at gunpoint! There will be no give-and-take, just take!”
“Familiar with the situation?” the Jedi asked sagely.
“I’m from Ryloth. You’re a Jedi, you know what it’s been through the last few years… you know what my people have been through in this war…”
“Honestly, less so than you’d think. I’ve been… away from the order for some time. Longer than the war’s been, but I think I know what you mean.”
They stepped into the bar just a few seconds after Yubalo, and the three of them took seats at the table where Azariah was already seated. They looked around the bar. B4 had somehow found himself work, pouring drinks out of his internal storage and handing it to patrons. Hirani didn’t bother asking how he had acquired so much alcohol, but watched him with amusement. Jix and Yubalo, on the other hand, were taking the measure of the people spread throughout the bar – about sixteen farmers, mostly humans, radians, and ithorians, carrying dusty old rifles that had likely never been pointed at anything but mynocks. There were a few faces that looked more suited to actual combat. At one table sat four women of varying races. One with heavy mandalorian armour, with short, red hair, and a very heavy looking rifle, one with a waterfall of deep maroon hair and circular glasses as black as the sniper rifle strapped across her back, a stunningly beautiful woman with a slightly pink tint to her skin, and the woman who seemed to be their leader, an Arkanian who’d dyed most of her snow-white hair into a jet black. She was speaking energetically to the others, waving a scalpel as she casually fiddled with it. A mercenary squad, no doubt, with more than a few drinks scattered across their table. From what Jix could pick up from their conversation, they’d been at the bar even before the blockade had started, and even before Karona’s call to arms they’d been planning on getting into the fray. The only other beings in the bar that seemed experienced at combat were Karona, who had two fairly large slugthrowers strapped to her belt, which clanked and swayed as she blitzed around the bar, filling glasses with the bottles of pre-mixed cocktails she carried, and the Drunken Rishin who was following her around, with a light, brown sniper rifle strapped to his back. After a moment, B4 whizzed to their table, placing four short glasses on the table with a cheerful bleep, followed immediately by Karona, who waved two bottles of slightly luminescent, colourful glowing liquid.
“Thanks for coming by, guys. What’ll it be? Reactor Cores or Raging Gundarks?”