“Raging Gundark here!”
Azariah held his hand out casually as Karona put a glass in it, and started pouring. Jix and Yebhalo shrugged and did the same.
“Reactor core! Reactor core!” Hirani chimed. Backup was already pouring – he’d appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, next to Karona.
“It seems like you guys had a rough time getting here. Plus side is, I’m guessing you already know how to work as a team.” Karona took a moment to look each of them up and down, seemingly zoning out the crowded bar to focus on them. Her eyes lingered for a moment on the lightsaber on Jix’s hip, before continuing.
“How does ‘Dewback squad’ sound for now? We’re naming teams based on animals – we have Acklay, Bantha, Convor, and Nexu squad.” She waved her hand around different congregations of beings at the bar, resting finally on the group of female mercenaries at the next table. “Nexu’s also known as the Talons, their ship’s been grounded here for a couple of weeks.
“The Eagle, right? I was supposed to share a hangar bay with them.” Hirani offered. Karona simply nodded. “So that was the Gale leaving the smoke trail from here to Tarook. Sorry for your loss.”
Hirani just grumbled. After a moment, Jix looked up. “We weren’t expecting the blockade, but Captain Laroon’s piloting at least got us to ground in better shape than the ship.”
“Well, it’s crazy here. We need to start figuring out who’s doing what – First priority’s recon. I’m giving assignments to whoever pipes up first – there’s the fields east, the forest west, the lake north, and the chasms south by Gardulla’s place.”
“Gardulla?” Yebhalo and Hirani perked up simultaneously. .
“Yeah. The chasms go most of the way to the Hutt’s palace, but we don’t need to get too close, so don’t worry”, Karona said, waving off the Rishin that was trying to get her attention.
“We’ll go south,” Azariah, Hirani and Yebhalo all chimed simultaneously.
Karona raised an eyebrow. “Okay… Remember it’s just a recon mission, alright?”
Yebhalo nodded. “Have any transport? Ours is… in a bit of a state.”
A shake of the head. “I’m sure you can figure something out. No, Tiyo! You’ve had enough!” She turned and made a “back off” gesture at the Rishin, who skulked away to the bar counter. “Sorry about him. Decent pilot but always looking for a way to get a free drink. He’s been hanging around since way before I took over here… Anyway, you guys figure out if there’s anything we need to be worried about South of town, try not to go as far out as Gardulla’s place, and stay safe, alright?” Without another word, she stepped over to the table where the mercenaries sat, waving off Tiyo again as he approached. “You can have a drink if you bring me a droid head,” she snapped. “You can have a drink if you bring me a droid head”, he intoned, not quite sarcastically but not quite not either.
“I guess we’re going South,” Jix stated, knocking back his drink and standing up.
“What a day”, Hirani sighed, doing the same. “But I guess I gotta help out if I wanna get off this rock.”
Yebhalo was next. “I don’t plan on sticking around here for long, and I’ve got business with the Hutts. Mind if we head a little further down?”
Azariah nodded. “I’m also curious to see what the score is down there. Let’s get going.”
It was less than an hour later, that Hirani and Azariah were riding speeders along the honeycomb of chasms and canyons south of Manka Town, with Yebhalo and Jix seated uncomfortably behind them. The speeders coughed and spluttered, with gouts of thick, black smoke trailing behind them. Yebhalo had managed to wrangle a pair of cheap vehicles from the local repair shop, but for having effectively gotten them for free, she was certainly getting her money’s worth.
“That way!” Hirani called over the roar of the speeders, pointing her azure hands toward a natural bridge formed by dark, sandy rock snaking over one of the low chasms. The two vehicles barely lost speed over the traverse – they weren’t exceptionally fast vehicles so they were easy to control. Even Backup whistled happily from where he was magnetised to the back of the speeder. The passengers barely had a moment to enjoy the view spread out below them – a small stream split the center of the crevasse, thirty meters wide and half as many below them – before it vanished behind the flat expanse of grey-red rocks once again. They’d been travelling like this for at least an hour, and they were expecting to travel another two before reaching the palace, when Jix felt them shift directions again – Azariah was leading them this time, toward a column of dark smoke off in the horizon. Over the next five minutes, the smoke grew closer as they hit a straight, and started to hear a faint buzzing grow behind them.
“Guys, company!” Yebhalo called out, readying her rifle, and shifting on her seat to be facing backwards, as Jix did the same.
Approaching from behind them, two of the droids hovering weapon platforms, the STAP’s, were closing in, complete with droid pilots. They didn’t seem to hesitate about opening fire, even before they were out of range. As the bursts of red blaster fire approached them, Jix was certain one of the streams of superheated plasma would hit them, when it exploded into a puff of smoke a few meters in front of them.
“We need to get closer” he called behind him, hoping Hirani would hear over the din. “You mean further, right?” she said, digging into her backpack, secured between her and the handles of the speeder. “They’re faster than us, no getting around that. We need to be able to hit back.”
“Working on it,” the tense Twi’lek replied as she threw something over her head behind her.
A second later, there was a thundering boom as the ground in front of the droids was engulfed in a puff of smoke and dust.
“One of your mods?” Jix grinned. A moment later, the droids emerged from the cloud – charred and dusty but still on the attack. Azariah’s speeder suddenly hit the brakes, and they seemed to appear next to the droids in a second. Yebhalo took a single shot, hitting the further droid clean in the head. Azariah, in the meantime, had one hand on the speeder, the other spraying yellow blaster fire at the other. Most of his shots went wide, as the droid fired another volley of shots at Hirani. Now in range, the shots went past and kicked up gouts of dust ahead of them, as Jix stood, lightsaber drawn, on the back of the speeder, batting away the few shots that got close to hitting. Hirani gritted her teeth as she swerved and juked the vehicle to avoid the denser dust clouds, and make the speeder harder to hit. A moment later, the shots ceased again as Yebhalo and Azariah both managed to land some shots on the second speeder, knocking the droid off the vehicle completely. Clear of the blaster fire, Hirani had just enough time to see the edge of the next chasm ahead, which seemed to be the source of the smoke column.
“Is that… Is that an old V-wing?” Yebhalo squinted as she looked down into the chasm. The stream was wider down this chasm, spanning four meters, but shallow. Next to it, a smoking starfighter had been set down, and a disgruntled looking Kel Dor Pilot was throwing water at the fire sputtering at its engine.
B4 whistled an affirmative. “Backup, help Az go fetch those STAPs, I think we could use them.” The little droid chirped again before whirring away. Jix, in the meantime, started bringing the other speeder carefully down a steep ramp in the chasm, while the Twi’lek women made their way down one of the narrower, closer paths on foot. “Engine trouble?” Hirani called.
“Contested skies” came the deep, slightly muffled voice of the Kel Dor. “Blasted Vulture droids got the drop on me! Care to give me a hand with this?” Hirani nodded as she got closer, jumping onto the ship, leaning into the cockpit, and pressing one of the controls in time as the pilot threw another bucket of water. There was a loud whirring for a second, and the fire died almost instantly.
“Not your first engine fire, I see.” He stepped forward, extending a hand, his other behind his back. Noticing this, Yebhalo and Hirani both drew on him, their blasters out and ready as he instinctively raised his, then raised it into the universal “Don’t shoot” position. “Two to one, buddy” Hirani cooed. “Just being cautious, I did just get shot down, you know”
“Yeah, about that, where were you headed? Starport’s that way” Yebhalo said, throwing a thumb over her shoulder, facing the opposite direction from where the ship was pointed. “Routine supply run. The Hutts need food and meds as much as anyone else around, right?”
“Uhh, huh.” Hirani cocked her eyebrow, waving her blaster slightly. “Right.” He sighed. “I really was. I was heading out from town – Karona will tell you. Name’s Tarr Kahn. Or you can ask for ‘Blockade’.”
Yebhalo stifled a laugh. “A pilot named Blockade got taken out by one Vulture droid?”
“The name’s ironic. I didn’t choose it.”
“No kidding. Either way, seems we’re heading in the same direction,” Hirani said, lowering her weapon. “My droid will be here in a minute, let’s get this bird in the air.”
Over the next hour, with the two speeders, and two appropriated STAPs parked next to the grounded ship, Hirani, Blockade, and Backup where scattered over the ship, working on different parts, while the others kept watch on either side of the canyon floor. “So, Yebhalo, why do you want to get to the Hutts?” Hirani called while thumbing the power switch – bringing parts of the ship to life eliciting an angry sputter from the engine. “Looking for someone. You?”
“I’m a smuggler without a ship. Why do you think?”
“Fair. What about the Mandolorian?”
“Heard a rumour. Apparently there’s someone out here, and if it’s who I think it is, I have a score to settle.”
Jix shook his head. “I think we’ve all got bigger problems than a grudge out here. We can fight each other after we’re not all in dang-whoah!”
A red burst of energy sparked off of the ground in front of Jix as he recoiled back – bringing his lightsaber over his head with that distinct snap-hiss just in time to spark off a second one. “Uh-oh, it’s a Jedi! Get him!” one of the droids called out. Azariah turned, along with the others, all drawing their weapons, to see the half-dozen droids lined up along the ridge at the top of the canyon.
“We’re all watching out and none of us thought to cover the top!?” Azaraiah exclaimed incredulously.
“Less talking, more shooting!” Yebhalo called, taking cover under the ship. The droids were spraying fire throughout the canyon, forcing the others to all take cover. Azariah, Tarr Kahn and Hirani all dashed for the speeder parked closest to the edge of the canyon. As the droids all peered over the edge of the cliff, struggling to get a clear shot without leaning too far over. The only easy target left to them was Jix – he was running along the middle of the canyon, toward the pathway up. As soon as he’d gotten to the path, the droids opened fire on him – six droids all forming a firing line. It took only a few moments for them to overwhelm Jix’s defences – he batted away two blaster bolts, before a third hit him in the shoulder, sending him sliding back down the pathway, his lightsaber rolling harmlessly next to him.
“Jix!” Yebhalo called, firing at the droids, taking advanaged of their distraction to get a shot off into one of the droids, ripping it to the ground in a shower of sparks. Kahn and Hirani both put bolts of blue energy into the droid at the far left, before the droids turned their attention back to them.
The droids kept firing a hail of blaster shots at them, forcing them to huddle under their respective covers. Shot after shot dug into the ground around them, and shot after shot sparked off the ship and the speeders they were hiding under. Dust kicked up and started filling the canyon. “We need to do something!” Azariah shouted, leaning one blaster over his head and firing blindly.
“Like what?” Hirani replied, throwing a grenade straight up.
“I think that got one of them!” Kahn said, flinching as another shot got too close to him.
“But they’re still shoot… Where’s my droid?” Hirani called.
B4-KP was almost casually scurrying across the canyon toward the ship. He’d gone unnoticed by the firing line of droids peppering the canyon, and made his way into the cockpit of the ship. A second later, the turret at the top of the ship whirred to life, and started turning, taking Yebhalo’s cover with it.
“What the… Backup’s here!” she said, diving behind the port wing of the ship, taking a glancing shot off her shoulder. She grinned as she watched the turret turn, grimacing as she lifted her rifle, firing a series of quick shots at the droids.
One of the droids took a glancing hit to the hip, and looked angrily at the source of the attack. That’s when it noticed the turret turning toward it. “Uh, ohhhhh…” the droid utterred as is disappeared in the sudden spray of cannon fire, along with it’s companions, and a large chunk of the cliffside.
- A phrase often uttered at the table.
“Well, the cannon still works,” Blockade sighed, getting straight back to work on the repairs. “That droid saved our hides!”
“What about Jix?” Azariah called, walking hurriedly to the base of the path.
“I’m okay…” the Nautilan called out, sounding decidedly not ok. Azariah moved closer, finding him sitting against the cliff wall, clutching his shoulder. “Just give me a few minutes, I’ll be good as new.”
The Mandolorian stared blankly at the massive black mark scorched into the jedi’s tunic. “Really?”
“Even among my people, I’ve always been hardy. How’s everyone else doing?”
“A few minor scrapes and burns. We’ll be alright as soon as we get moving.”
“Speaking of,” Hirani chimed in. “We’ve got the repulsors going – we don’t need that thing to fly, just to move. Shall we get moving?”
“Indeed – I can tend to my wounds on the move.”
“Alright, then. Blockade says the last stretch runs through the cave, but we’ll be going for another hour. Let’s get going!”