Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Under the Shadow of the Builders
Part 1- Taris: The Upper City

“Are you sure you don’t need a cane or something to help with that limp?” Carth asked, eying Ev as she stubbornly limped out of the apartment complex and into the midday sunlight. He had managed to find her some civilian clothes common to middle-class Taresians while she had recovered. If not for the forest green military vest she insisted on keeping from her tattered flight suit, the loose beige tunic and brown slacks made her look like any other local woman. Not that he could begrudge her for wanting the extra protection and storage that the four-pocketed vest offered.

Ev turned back towards him and her dark eyes flashed. Carth already knew that look. She was going to argue and he was going to lose. “Look, Onasi,” Ev said as he caught up with her, “I’ve spent the last day and a half walking circles around that musty room to convince you that I wasn’t going to pass out or fall over. Doing laps gets us nowhere closer to finding Bastila and getting off this planet.” She paused. “Changed your mind about letting me out of that room already?”

Carth sighed. “But—” he argued futilely. That limp could attract unwanted attention.

“I’m too young to carry a cane anyway,” she added. Then, with a half smile, she closed the distance between them and threw one arm over Carth’s shoulders. “And I’ve always got you to lean on, honey, if I have some trouble.”

Carth shifted uncomfortably but nodded. “Right. Well, we should get moving.”

“Alright,” Ev withdrew her arm and asked professionally, “Where to?”

Squinting out into the light, Carth gestured towards the end of the walkway platform near them, “We’re actually not far from our crash site and it doesn’t look like they have cleared the pods away yet either. If they’re still drawing a crowd, we might be able to learn something about other crashed pods.”

The pair started off through the crowds. Silver-armored Sith soldiers mingled with well-dressed people, but non-humans were conspicuously absent.

“I take it you’ve checked this site out already,” Ev stated rather than asked.

Carth caught himself walking too quickly and slowed his pace to match hers.

“Yeah,” he responded, “And so far all I can tell is that several other pods crashed in this sector, but most of the rest of them fell as far as the Undercity.”

“That’s a start,” Ev nodded as she warily scanned the crowds. “It kind of reminds me of Coruscant.”

“Coruscant?” Carth asked, startled by the sudden change of subject. He noted uneasily that both the strolling Sith and locals gave his limping companion a wide berth.

“Yeah, Coruscant,” Ev said casually. “It’s where I lived before I…” she stammered, searching for words, “before I joined the republic army as a pilot. Anyway, it’s an endless steel city. The upper layers are for the clean and the rich and the poor and ostracized are hidden farther down, out of sight. I’d bet the Undercity here is like that. Poor, dirty, and rough.”

“Then we were lucky we landed up here,” Carth said, but he didn’t need to remind himself of that fact. They were more than just lucky to have landed only a short dash from that apartment complex.

“Where’re you from Carth?” she asked.

Something inside of him felt stretched to the point of snapping. “Telos,” Carth replied shortly. Hasn’t she had enough fun squeezing citrus into that wound already? He thought bitterly.

“Hm, Telos,” she said thoughtfully, rolling the name over on her tongue, “Telos, Telos…”

With every utterance, Carth could feel the pain and bitterness well closer and closer to the surface.

“Don’t think I’ve ever been there,” Ev said at last.

Carth stopped and stared at her in disbelief as she limped on ahead. What is she playing at? Is that all? How could that have been such an innocent question? She grilled me on my past once already and knows how that stings. Still, I bet that woman is laughing at me inside, and I’d never know it. He sighed, trying to shake off his frustration, and then jogged up to where Ev had stopped.

“So that’s it,” Ev observed dryly, staring at the battered escape pod from an inconspicuous distance away. Salvage droids still rolled and skittered about it and two Sith soldiers stood at attention nearby. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be seen of a curious crowd.

“There wasn’t really much to see in there in the first place,” Carth shrugged, “I’m sure you remember. I got what I could out with me when I carried you away. There’s really nothing but a lot of blood.”

“Great,” she murmured under her breath.

“What?” Carth asked.

“Nothing,” she quickly replied, and limped off in the direction of the nearest soldier.

“Ev!” he exclaimed, “What are you—?” It was pointless. He shadowed after her.

“What’s going on here?” Ev approached the soldier, masking her limp as best she could.

“A Republic space pod crashed here a couple of days ago,” came the drawling response. Ev could almost sense his scowl from behind the silver mask.

“There were definitely some organics in the pod when it landed, but they slipped away in the confusion.”

Ev nodded. “I’ll keep my eye out for shady-looking Republics then.” As if as an after-thought, she asked, “Any more of these things come down in the city?”

“A few more landed in the Undercity,” the Sith replied.

“Find any survivors in those?” Ev persisted innocently.

“Civilian, in case you haven’t heard, the Rackghoul disease is running rampant down there. If those Republics landed alive, they wouldn’t last long in the Undercity,” he scoffed.

“Huh,” Ev shrugged. “Didn’t even send a patrol down?”

The soldier stiffened and tightened his grip on his blaster. Even Carth could sense that Ev had egged him too far.

He rushed forward and snaked an arm around Ev’s waist. “You look tired, sweetie, we should get you back home,” he insisted firmly and led her away. Ev resisted his push, but Carth was stronger than the injured woman.

“Yes, move along,” the soldier ordered irritably.

“Evrue Pell, you’re crazy! What were you thinking?” He hissed in her ear when they were a safe distance away.

“What better way to get clean information than to go straight to the source? And, I didn’t need your intervention,” she snapped back. “And I’ve told you already, it’s Ev.”

“You were about to pick a fight with him,” Carth exclaimed. “We don’t need that on our record already.”

“I had everything under control,” Ev retorted, now leaning heavily on Carth despite her best efforts.

“Tell me,” Carth said through gritted teeth, “how is provoking a man in armor with a gun a good idea when you’re weak and injured?”

“Drop it, will you?” Ev snapped. She tried to work away from Carth’s grasp, but he wouldn’t let her. “I got us the clear information we needed. The Sith haven’t picked over those pods you heard of yet. Something has got them scared down there. If our jedi is worth her lightsaber, she could have taken that chance and gotten away.”

“But now they might have you marked as a clueless trouble-maker,” Carth argued. “We’ll have to step extra carefully now.”

“We were going to have to in the first place,” she said firmly and set her gaze determinedly forward.

I can never win with her, Carth resigned himself to simmering silence as he guided her along through the crowds. Through her constant tugging to walk on her own, Carth could feel Ev growing weaker and her limp getting heavier. “Swallow your pride for a moment, Ev, and use my shoulder,” he said more gently than he meant to, “I don’t want to have to carry you back.”

Without a word, she grudgingly complied.

As they ambled down the street, the pair didn’t seem to attract much attention. For that, at least, Carth was thankful. Ev remained silent. Whether irritated at defeat or too busy taking in all the sights and sounds of Taris, he didn’t know. But, honestly, he didn’t care. If she keeps interrogating everyone we run across, our luck won’t last long. He grimaced. I didn’t ask to be stranded on a Sith-controlled planet with a stubborn woman I hardly know for my only companion. A very injured woman. And that was something he did care about. I need Ev at my back, and, at the rate she’s recovering, it’ll be at least a week before she’ll be in any condition to raise her vibroblade in a fight, and win.

Carth and Ev neared the other end of the walkway, and their destination. Ev was still intently scanning the surrounding people and buildings for who-knows-what, but Carth finally broke her concentration, “So, Ev, I’ve been thinking about your leg, and I—”

Ev, however, was maybe too aware of their surroundings. “No, absolutely not,” she said firmly and tried to push away from Carth again. “I am not going into that med clinic. Didn’t you see that Sith solder just come out of there?”

Admittedly, he hadn’t, but Carth still refused to let her have her way.

“You may be a top-notch soldier, but while your leg is like that, you’re a walking target,” Carth said as evenly as he could, “I refuse to take you anywhere that you might get shot at until you can move normally. We’re going in there. That is, unless you want to sit around for a few more weeks.”

“I’ll do neither,” Ev snapped loudly. Citizens and soldiers began to give her and Carth room, eying them warily. Noticing this, Ev stopped struggling against Carth. She lowered her voice, “That soldier knew we made it to the planet and escaped because I bled all over everything. They have my DNA sample, Onasi. I bet they’ve distributed it to all the med clinics in the area to keep an eye out for me. All they need is a hair off my head, and they’ve caught us.”

Somehow, all along, he had known that Ev would object, but that particularity hadn’t crossed his mind. “Ev,” Carth said, a sudden weariness falling over him, “I have seen soldiers, friends even, go out sick or injured and come back even worse, or not at all. You may think you’re invincible, but you’re not, and this is not a place I want to be alone.”

“Quit treating me like some green recruit,” Ev grumbled, “I know my body, and I know what rough lower cities look like. Before I joined the military and left Coruscant, that’s the crowd I ran with.”

“But we’re not talking casual thugs here,” Carth argued quietly, leaning closer to her, “I’ve heard there’s a gang war going on down below, plus a whole army of Sith that is out to get us. Even with both of us in top shape, what we’re trying to do is a long shot.”

Ev remained thoughtfully silent.

“We have to hope that the doctor here is an honest man that wants to see people healed,” Carth said, leading to the clinic’s door, “I did all I can for your leg already.”

“I couldn’t help but overhear you,” a young black man strode up from behind them, arms laden with sterile-looking white cases of some sort, “But if you’re worried about Zelka being a good doctor, you don’t need to be.”

Carth stiffened. Just how much did he overhear? “And you are?” he asked.

“Gerny,” the young man said with a polite nod, “I’m Zelka Forn’s assistant. He’s a good guy, so you should go right in and see him. I’m a little busy right now, so if you’ll excuse me,” he shuffled off through the sliding doors into the clinic and they followed him inside.

Not far from the entrance, a gaunt man wearing the tell-tale white coat of a doctor and with skin darker even than Ev’s, rummaged through boxes of data cards. He muttered to himself, “…meddling Sith. Have they no respect for privacy? They just keep making demands as if—”

Ev stiffened warily and Carth cleared his throat. Suddenly aware of their presence, the doctor hastily shut the data card box and turned to meet them.

“Good morning,” he said, a mask of cheerfulness covering his previous irritation, “Can I help you?”

“You’re Zelka Forn, the doctor here?” Carth asked, finally releasing his hold on Ev. She, however, continued to lean heavily on him. He took that as a sign of acquiescence.

The doctor nodded warily, “Yes I am.”

When Ev didn’t explain herself, Carth broke the stale silence and began casually, “My friend here fell the other day and cut her leg. I tired to patch it up myself for the time being, but now that we have the time, we figured she should have someone more competent look it over.”

“A cut?” Zelka asked, “From the way you’re standing, it doesn’t look like it’s just a little cut.”

“I fell pretty hard,” Ev said and shrugged.

Zelka raised an eyebrow but only said, “Well, ma’am, if you would just come back with me and I’ll take a look at it.”

Ev took a few hobbling steps forward, hissing in pain. Carth quickly followed and she threw her arm over his shoulder again. The doctor shot him a distasteful look but neither he nor Ev argued. Ev’s right not to trust a doctor, and I’m not about to trust her not to say too much.

Ev slipped out of her pants and sat on the exam table while Carth situated himself in an out of the way corner of the small exam room. The hastiness of Carth’s bandaging job, even after he had traded scraps for proper gauze, was easily apparent.

The doctor frowned at the size of the bandaged area, “You should have come to see me sooner, no wonder you’re limping.”

Neither of the soldiers responded, so Zelka set to work gingerly unwrapping her leg. The thin scab etched a long line up her thigh. Zelka drew back, his eyes widening, “This looks like a vibroblade wound.” He glanced nervously between Carth and Ev. “You aren’t in one of those swoop gangs, are you? Is this from a fight in the Lower City?”

“What if we were?” Ev asked.

“The Sith hate the war between the Hidden Beks and the Black Vulkars,” he responded nervously, “and they’d hate to know that I was helping perpetuate the battle.”

“We’re not thugs from a gang or anything like that,” Ev said with a calmness that convinced even Carth. “We’re just a couple of off-worlders stuck here by that stupid Sith blockade. We got a little bored the other day and were sparring to pass the time and got a little careless.”

Zelka warily accepted her explanation. “I feel bad for you lot, stuck here at the will of the Sith,” he added with some sympathy. Zelka gingerly ran his hands across her leg and assessed, “This is a deep cut with a lot of swelling and tissue damage, but a good soak in kolto should heal it up. Do you have the time now?”

Ev nodded, “The sooner the better.”

“Since the blockade, we’ve been short on kolto, among other things,” Zelka said with bitterness hanging in his voice, “so I’m not going to put you in a tank. If you wait here for a moment, I’ll go prepare a basin for your leg.” He rose and headed for the door, but Ev stopped him.

“Say, Dr. Forn, this blockade must be really hard on you too,” she said.

Carth already didn’t like where this was going, but he was powerless to stop her.

He sighed, “There are no new shipments of supplies coming in and I’m running low. They’ve quarantined the Lower City and the Undercity, so even if injured or sick people could afford medical help, they can’t come up here to get it. On top of that, I’ve heard that the Rakghoul disease has gotten worse among the poor of the Undercity and the Sith have kept all the serum for themselves.”

“Rakghoul disease?” Carth found himself asking.

“It’s terrible,” the doctor said with a shudder, “it rots away at people, turning them into vicious monsters. If I could only get my hands on a small sample of it, I could synthesize it and do a lot of good down there.”

“Why don’t you tell the Sith how badly you need it and demand that they give you some?” Ev suggested.

“Me?” his voice cracked, “Demand anything of the Sith? They might get the idea to meddle in my work further or to shut me down.”

“So, I take it you don’t like the Sith?” Ev baited him.

“I, well,” he stammered, the collected himself, “I can’t say that anyone would like having their planet occupied by anyone else.”

“Do you happen to know anything about those downed escape pods?” Ev abruptly changed the subject.

“Escape pods? What escape pods?” Zelka asked defensively, fidgeting with the buttons of his coat. “Why would a doctor like me know anything about them? Of course not.”

“One came down not far from here,” Ev persisted, “You must have seen it.”

“They sent you to check out my operations, didn’t they?” he snapped and backed towards the door. “I am compliant in every way. You saw my facility. A soldier was here earlier today to check things out and he went away happy.”

“Like she said,” Carth said evenly, “We’re just stuck off-worlders.” Something sure has him tied in a knot.

“Cool it,” Ev ordered, “I’m asking because we’re the ones who came out of that escape pod and we’re trying to find out if any of our ship mates made it down alive.”

Idiot! Ev, why? Carth wanted to scream at her, but he held his mouth firmly shut. The damage was done. One minute she doesn’t even trust a doctor enough to walk into his clinic and the next she tells him exactly who we are. Make us easy prey, why don’t you? Seething, he clenched his fists.

“See anyone come through that looked like they got banged up in a crash landing?” Ev asked, her voice a velvety calm.

“That would explain your wound,” the doctor’s shoulders relaxed and he stopped glancing nervously at the door. “Come with me,” he said, “I have something you might want to see.”

Ev pulled her pants back on and, leaning on Carth, followed Zelka to the back of the clinic. He pressed his hand to a small panel mounted on the wall, and a hidden door swept away in front of them. Inside was a room of cylindrical kolto tanks. Four of them held the floating forms of republic soldiers.

“Those are—” Carth gasped.

“People keep bringing them in from the crash sites,” Zelka explained, “and I couldn’t refuse them.”

“Will these men recover?” Ev asked. She scrutinized the four men, looking disappointed.

“No,” he answered regrettably, “They were too far gone already. But I can at least help them end their days in comfort.”

“For that, we owe you our thanks,” Carth said. “Most of the crew was massacred aboard the Endar Spire. I’m glad you’re taking care of those that made it down. They were all good soldiers.”

“You sound like an officer,” Zelka observed.

“Of sorts,” Carth responded enigmatically, but that seemed to satisfy the doctor.

“You didn’t happen to have a young woman come through here as well?” Ev asked, gesturing to the tanks.

“No,” he shook his balding head, “Just these four and one more man who passed on yesterday.”

Ev nodded, lips pursed thoughtfully. The three of them stood in silence among the kolto tanks until Zelka grew fidgety again. “Well, we should get your leg soaked and healed up. Don’t tell anyone about this operation. I don’t even trust my assistant Gerny to know this. If the Sith found out, I’d be shut down.”

“Of course not,” Ev responded.

“Thanks again,” Carth said as the doctor led them from the room.

Ev hobbled proudly ahead of him, trying and failing to hide a grimace of pain.

~~~

Later that afternoon Ev surveyed the long racks of blasters behind transparisteel display windows. As soon her leg was healed up, Ev had insisted in seeing a weapon’s dealer. She wanted to replace the military-grade repeating blaster she lost during her escape from the Endar Spire. Carth couldn’t blame her, since vibroblades were only good for some situations. The little shop, unfortunately, didn’t seem to carry any military-class weapons in stock.

Keeping an eye on Ev, Carth chatted with the shopkeeper, a blond woman named Kelba Yurt, about her grenade selection. “Frag grenades, poison grenades, plasma grenades, thermal detonators,” Kelba explained, “They’ve all be outlawed since the Sith took over. I’m lucky they let me keep the more harmless ones.”

“I’m interested in what you do have,” Carth responded, “Adhesives, flashes, and stun grenades all have their uses. What’s your price for them?”

“One hundred credits apiece,” Kelba answered almost automatically.

Carth nearly choked at the price. Swallowing, he said, “I’ll take two of each then.” If this keeps up, we’re going to need to find work. We’re running low on credits.

“Hey,” she called from where she surveyed the blaster case, “Is this all you have right now?”

The shopkeeper jumped to attention and shuffled over towards her, Carth following casually after. “Unfortunately, yes,” she answered, “It’s all the munitions the Sith would let me keep. They confiscated all of the larger weapons,” she added sourly. “I suspect they’ve used my stores to supply their own troops.”

“So no repeating blaster rifles, then?” Ev asked.

“Not while we’re under Sith quarantine,” the Kelba shook her head.

“What do you want something that size for anyway? That’s too much to carry around,” Carth asked impatiently.

“Hmm,” Ev hummed irritably, ignoring Carth. “Thanks,” she added as an afterthought before turning back to the blasters.

While Carth returned to haggling for a lower price on his collection of medpacks and grenades, Ev deepened her study of the guns. A few minutes later, he had managed to bring the price of six grenades and five medpacks down to only seven-hundred credits. Ev, however, was still examining the weapons as closely as she could through the transparisteel window.

Carth strode over to her and tapped her on the shoulder to get her attention, “Hey Ev, meet me at the cantina around the corner for some dinner when you’re done here.”

She glanced over her shoulder and nodded, “Sure thing, Onasi.”

“Thanks for all your help Kelba,” Carth added as he left the store and headed back out into Taris’ upper city.

“Come back any time,” Kelba called after him.

As the sun set, the crimson and orange sky cast its colors onto the mirror-like towers. The Sith armor looked somehow more threatening as it reflected the fiery hues. This time of evening, the airways were thickly congested with shuttles and speeders, and more people than usual traversed the streets of the upper city. Some appeared to be returning for the evening, while others appeared to be going out for the night. The air hummed with engines and chatter.

Before proceeding to the cantina for dinner, Carth stood for a moment and watched the Taresians go by. Except for the patrolling Sith soldiers, Taris looked like any other bustling city. No one seemed to mind the soldiers’ presence, and many didn’t even appear to notice them there. There were more people smiling and joking as they passed by him than otherwise.

It baffled Carth. How could these people be totally content with their lives, continue on business as usual, while their entire planet was under an invasion blockade. Soldiers were everywhere and the Leviathan loomed in orbit above. Did they think that the Sith would soon leave peacefully? Did they think that their invaders would reward them for their complacence? As long as their own ways of life weren’t disrupted, did they even care? Where was the dissent and resistance?

Carth sighed and rubbed his temples. He suddenly felt so very alone. It was as if only he, on this vast urban world, saw the Sith as an uncompromisable foe. As if only he would oppose them.

That daunting feeling was almost enough to crush even him, but he had Ev. Despite the days they had spent together already, Carth still hardly knew her. She was unpredictable at best but stubborn enough he could hope that she wouldn’t give up on him or on the mission they had before them.

Carth caught a whiff of something savory on the breeze and his stomach grumbled. He tore his eyes away from the ebbing crowds and headed back down the narrow street behind him towards the cantina.

The Cantina was as busy as any should be around dinner time. No one seemed to take notice of Carth as he stepped inside and took a seat at the bar. He ordered up a glass of Taresian ale and waited.

We’re stuck up here. I can’t see any reason, other than the Sith loving control, for them to not allow upper city citizens down to the lower city. I can understand barring from the other direction…

~~~

Carth drummed his fingers on the bar then sipped the last of his second glass of Taresian ale. “What could be keeping her?” he grumbled.

“Hey there, you look lonely,” a sweetly smiling woman slipped onto the chair next to him. Instead of the loose tunic of the locals, she wore something decidedly more military. Even so, she was fit and attractive.

“I’m just waiting for a friend,” Carth responded, smiling back at her.

“Is he late?” she asked, sounding genuinely curious, but he knew better.

“Yeah,” he said and, looking up at the clock above the bar, almost cursed. “Thirty-five minutes late. Has it been that long? I guess I’ve been too caught up I the news holos,” Carth tried to laugh at himself, but his heart began to race. Ev can’t still be looking at blasters. She better not have gotten herself caught…

“It looks like you’ve been stood-up,” she chuckled with him. “I could keep you company until your friend shows up, if you’d like. The name is Sarna,” she said, extending a hand.

Carth shook her hand and rose from his seat. “I’m sorry Sarna,” he said, trying to keep the creeping urgency from his voice, “I should probably go check in on her.”

Sarna looked somewhat disappointed, but hid it well, “Maybe I’ll see you around some other time.”

“Maybe,” he agreed absently, “Have a good night.”

As soon as Carth was out of the cantina, he almost broke into a run. He swung into the supply shop where Kelba was closing up for the night. Ev was nowhere to be seen.

“Back already?” she asked. “What can I do for you?”

“Have you seen the woman I was with?” Carth asked, his voice a few pitches higher than usual.

“She left only a few minute after you,” Kelba replied, “So, no, not since then.”

“Did she say where she was going?” Carth asked quickly.

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention,” she shook her head.

“Well, thanks anyway,” Carth said as he turned and hurried back out onto the street. It was all he could do to keep from running as he scanned the crowds around him. She better not have gone off someplace else without telling me. I’ll… His throat tensed angrily. But no soldier like her would do that without a good reason. If she got caught by the Sith… Carth didn’t want to think about it. They had to do the impossible already. He couldn’t face that alone.

Yet, he couldn’t keep the possibility from his mind. They wouldn’t keep her alive if she didn’t talk. He shuddered. Despite his best efforts to block it out, scenario after scenario played out in his head as he rushed down the street. All of them looked grim.

~~~

After rushing back to the apartment and finding it empty but still locked, Carth hurried back out into the night. His heart pounded in his ears as he fought to keep from breaking into a full-out run.

If the Sith have her, maybe they’ve already realized we’re from the Republic and were just waiting for a chance to pounce. Or maybe she mouthed-off to the wrong guard. If they have her, I’m sure she wouldn’t have responded to interrogation yet. It’s only been an hour, and she seems more stubborn than that. She probably hasn’t mentioned me or the apartment yet. Then again, what I’ve heard of Sith interrogation techniques…

He took a deep breath to calm himself, but it failed to help any. If only I knew where the Sith headquarters were in this area. I wouldn’t stand a chance breaking in, but I can’t just leave Ev to the Sith.

Only a few blocks from the apartment, he heard a familiar voice over the chatter of the crowds, “Hey! Onasi!”

Carth whirled around to see Ev standing near the edge of the street platform. She looked both fit and healthy. “There you are!” she said as he pushed through the crowds toward her. There was a hint of relief in her voice.

“Where the hell were you?” Carth asked, more harshly than he meant to.

Instead of flinching back, she straightened up and reported as professionally as any soldier, “I was heading back to the apartment, but I seem to have forgotten how to get there.”

“Why didn’t you come to the cantina?” Carth demanded.

“The cantina?” she echoed.

“I told you to meet me at the cantina around the corner from the shop once you were done so we could get some dinner,” he reminded her.

Ev slouched and looked down to her left, “I forgot…”

“You forgot?” he asked, “What kind of soldier are you; that forgets about dinner and can’t remember the way home? I thought you were some kind of elite?”

“My short-term memory should have no bearing on my other skills,” Ev shot back sourly.

Carth sighed. “Ev, I’m sorry,” Carth finally allowed himself to relax a little, “I thought the Sith got you.”

Ev chuckled, “They almost did. I accidentally wandered up to their headquarters, but managed to convince the guard that I was a lost dueling circle reject.”

“You what?” Carth admonished gently, “Ev, you have to be more careful.”

“I know, sir,” Ev nodded then pointed out, “But now we know where the Sith base is. That is, if I can remember how to get there.” She laughed at herself.

A thought struck Carth, and he narrowed his eyes. “Ev, how do I know that you’re not some Sith agent, and that you didn’t just take this chance to tell them all about our plans?”

“I am a Republic soldier,” she hissed angrily, “Sir.”

“A fresh recruit that was specially requested by the Jedi to be transferred to the Endar Spire at the last minute,” Carth pressed.

“Are you suggesting that I caused the attack and now I’m trying to get you caught too?” Ev demanded, closing the space between her and Carth so that they were barely a hand’s length apart. Although she was considerably smaller than Carth, she didn’t let that difference intimidate her.

“I’m not suggesting anything,” Carth retorted.

“Oh yes you are,” Ev accused, her voice dangerously low. “Not only do you not trust me. You expect me to turn my back on you.”

“I didn’t say that,” Carth argued.

“No, you didn’t,” Ev said evenly, “But you might as well have. If you’d rather not have me along for fear that I could turn on you at every second, fine. Leave me here right now. I could make myself comfortable on Taris.”

Carth started to protest, but Ev continued on.

“But know this, Carth Onasi, I am every bit as much a victim of this crash as you are. Only, they’re more likely to come looking for you, when all is said and done. I’m just a soldier, expendable,” despite her harsh tone, Carth caught a look in her dark eyes that was almost pleading. “If you’d rather that I didn’t make it off that ship in the first place and want to continue the search for Bastila on your own, be my guest.”

Ev fell silent and Carth was at a loss for words. Have I really come across that badly? “Look, Ev,” he began, and grasped her hand in his, but she flicked her wrist out of his hold. “I couldn’t leave you. We’re in this together. This task is huge and it will take both of us to get through it alive.”

Ev sighed, the fire fading from her eyes. “I believe you. But for us to work together, you’ve got to promise me that you’ll trust me.”

“I—” Carth stammered, “I can make no promises about that.”

“At least try?” Ev urged.

Carth knew he wasn’t going to get anywhere until he acquiesced. “Fine,” he agreed. “Now, if you’re done, how about finally getting some dinner?”

Ev cracked a smile as her stomach rumbled loudly, “That, I can agree on.”

~~~

“Where've you been?” Carth asked impatiently as soon as Ev entered the apartment the next afternoon. “You said you'd be home nearly an hour ago.”

“I got side-tracked,” Ev replied tersely. She let the door fall closed behind her then turned around and locked it. Ev sauntered over to the bed and dropped the two bags she'd been carrying with her onto it. One, plain brown, looked like the cantina take-out she had gone out for in the first place. The other, decorated with a loopy 'S' and some black ribbon, looked suspiciously like something out of a department store.

Ev untied the ribbon and reached into the second parcel. “What do you think?” she asked with a sly grin on her face. She held up a slinky plum-colored dress with a slit up one side and two rows of glittering fake gems around the halter neckline. At least, Carth hoped they were fake.

“And I suppose that this dress has something to do with why you're late?” Carth asked. What on earth does she need a dress like that for. Ev isn't the type to collect clothing. Then again, I could be wrong... He stood up from the workbench where he'd been tinkering with his blaster pistols.

“It does,” she responded, “But I didn't forget dinner.” She laid the dress back down onto the bed and then thrust the bag of cantina food at Carth. “Sorry to keep you waiting. I'm sure you thought I got lost again or went off to tell the Sith on you or something,” she joked, but the defiant look in her eyes kept Carth from arguing—or agreeing.

It's uncanny how often she's right. Carth sighed as he took the package from her then began unpacking it onto the small collapsible table they'd found in the closet. “Care to explain the dress, then?” he asked, curiosity finally getting the better of him.

“I met a nice young man at the cantina, and he asked me if I'd come to his party tonight,” Ev answered coyly.

“A party?” Carth snapped, “Ev, we're not here on Taris to socialize.”

Ev broke into peals of laughter, holding her side.

“This is a military mission, Evrue Pell,” he continued. Carth could feel his face reddening. “Just because we—”

“Yes, sir, I know,” Ev interrupted, “I'm sorry,” she stammered, stifling her laughter, “And that's why I agreed to attend.”

“This is going to help us get at Bastila?” Carth asked skeptically.

“The young man who invited me is a Sith soldier,” Ev explained evenly, “and so are all of his friends.”

“A Sith party!” Carth exclaimed. “You're not going.” What was she doing chatting up off-duty Sith soldiers anyway?

“Cool it for a second, would you? And let me explain,” Ev snapped but there was laughter in her eyes.

Carth clenched his fists but kept his mouth shut. Of all the reckless things she's done...

“Rubbing elbows with these restless young Sith may be our ticket into the lower city,” she explained. Suddenly taking on a submissive posture, she asked, “With your permission, sir, I'd like to give it a shot.”

With those dark eyes staring pleadingly up at him, how could he refuse? “Fine,” Carth said huffily, “But you're not going alone. I'm coming with you.”

“Fair enough,” Ev smiled, “But you have to promise not to drink too much.”

Carth ignored the last comment, “Well, let's eat before this food gets any colder.”

~~~

After Ev dressed—she had even bought a matching pair of high-heeled shoes—and smoothed down her usually unruly wavy black hair, the two of them set off into the city. The party was at an apartment complex no far off.

With Ev on his arm, Carth couldn't help but straighten up and grin as they walked. People they passed by stared at his companion. And with good reason. She does look beautiful tonight. The halter top and low-cut back revealed slim and graceful bare shoulders, as well as just enough cleavage to be tantalizing. She walked smoothly and confidently, even in her heels.

For a moment, he'd totally forgotten that she was an elite soldier that could probably still take down half a squad of Sith dressed like this. She almost made him forget that they were about to walk into a party full of Sith soldiers.

“Ev! You made it!” a young man with a wide smile and sandy hair exclaimed when they entered.

In the comfortably sized apartment nearly twenty twenty-somethings milled about to the music. Several of them looked up and stared inquisitively in their direction. A table along the back wall stood covered in drinks and snacks. Carth stiffened and caught himself from reaching for his blaster. On his arm, even Ev seemed to tense up.

“Of course I made it,” Ev said smoothly, “Your invitation to a party like this was irresistible to a grounded off-worlder like me.”

“You do look beautiful tonight,” the young man said as he approached. Reaching out, he took her free hand, but Carth was reluctant to let her go to the Sith. “Who's your friend?” he asked.

“Oh, this is my partner Onasi,” Ev answered, breaking away from Carth. “And, this is Yun Genda, the man who invited me to this party in the first place.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Carth said as evenly as he could and took Yun's hand in a firm handshake.

“You're her partner?” Yun asked. “And do come in.” He waved them farther into the room.

“Ah, yes,” Carth stammered as they walked.

“We're freighter pilots,” Ev explained, “I co-pilot for Onasi.”

“What's your usual cargo?” Yun asked. Carth didn't detect any suspicion in his voice. I bet he thinks we're smugglers or something like that...

“Well,” Ev drew out the word thoughtfully, “Lately we've been working for Rinnh Imports.”

Carth caught sight of a jug of juice next to the punch bowl with “Rinnh” emblazoned across it in silver lettering and chuckled.

“It's too bad they won't let you out for a run,” Yun laughed, “We could use some more produce on Taris these days. But, a quarantine is a quarantine.”

“Oh hey!” a fit, blond woman exclaimed and swept over to them, “You're the man from the cantina the other night.”

For a second, Carth's mind drew a blank. “Sara, right?” he guessed.

“Sarna,” she corrected him. “You found your friend, then?”

“Yes I did,” Carth answered, then gestured to Ev, “This is my friend Ev.”

Sarna nodded in Ev's direction. “Now, I don't think I caught your name,” she said.

“It's Onasi,” he replied. I might as well not give them my whole name. At least one of them probably has been put on alert with a list of names from the Spire.

“So, how long have you two been in this part of the city?” Yun asked.

Carth glanced over at Ev, who answered without skipping a beat, “We landed on another part of the planet just before the quarantine was enacted. Ever since then, we figured we would see all the sights Taris had to offer until we're allowed to leave again.”

“We've only been in this part of the city for about a week,” Carth supplied when Ev took a suggestive pause.

“Taris really isn't so bad, for being a backwater planet,” Yun said encouragingly. “It certainly wasn't my first choice for an assignment, but as junior officers, we can't complain too much.”

“How long have you been here, then?” Ev asked, glancing slowly between Yun and Sarna.

“It's been, what, three months?” Yun answered, looking to Sarna for confirmation.

“About that,” she nodded.

“You both arrived at the same time?” Carth asked, trying to stay calm. All this talking with the enemy isn't for me. I'd rather take action. He nudged his hand away from his blaster again. I wish I hadn't come. Only, there's no way I could let Ev come alone. Who knows what she'd do?

“Yeah,” Sarna answered.

“All of us here,” Yun said, gesturing around the room with a broad sweep of his right arm, “excluding you of course, are from the same class. We all arrived together and still stick together.”

“That's certainly nice that you can do that,” Ev commented diplomatically.

“Well, Onasi, can I offer you some Taresian ale and a look at the view off the balcony?” Sarna asked with a friendly smile.

He glanced reluctantly over at Ev who made a very slight nod with her eyes, and responded, “Sure. I'd love some.” He let Sarna lead him to the refreshments table, leaving Ev chatting with Yun. Trying not to be obvious about it, Carth glanced over his shoulder at Ev. She'd better not try anything.

Carth made small-talk with Sarna and some of her other friends on the balcony. Thankfully, she and her friends did most of the talking, and he only had to agree now and then. They didn't ask him many questions about himself, so he didn't have to fabricate many lies. He hated lying. Every once in a while, he caught a glimpse of Ev inside where she still talked with Yun Genda and sipped at a glass of something. Try as he might, he couldn't make out anything she was saying at that distance.

Several cups of Taresian ale and at least an hour later—he had lost track of time—Sarna said shivering, “It's getting chilly out here. Let's all head back inside where it's warmer.” She ushered them back indoors, placing a slender hand on Carth's arm as they went. As they passed the drink table, she snatched up two more glasses of ale and passed one smoothly to Carth.

“So, Orange-jacket, what's your relationship with your friend Ev over there,” Sarna asked gesturing with her thumb in Ev's direction. Her voice was somewhat slurred.

“I don't know her that well yet,” he answered, then quickly amended, “We hadn't been flying together very long before we got grounded here.”

“But do you love her?” Sarna asked, leaning closer. He could smell the alcohol on her breath.

No response came to mind. Instead, Carth found himself laughing. I'm not drunk yet, am I?

“You know,” he heard Ev say from the other side of the room, “I am curious about those swoop races.”

“They're intense,” Yun said and laughed, “But I wouldn't want to brave the swoop gangs down there just to see them.”

“Onasi and I can handle ourselves,” Ev said, laughing along with him, for no reason that Carth could see. “A little bit of 'danger' might be exciting after the monotony of being stuck here.”

“I see your point there,” Yun agreed. “Sometimes I wish I wasn't just guarding the elevator down, and actually getting some action down there.”

“You know,” Ev said, her excitement visibly rising, “Onasi has been wanting to try out the swoop bike circuit here since we realized we were stuck.”

“He wants to race?” Yun asked.

Seeing his time to put in, Carth called over to them, “Sure I do.” He finished the cup of ale Sarna had given him and sauntered over towards Yun and Ev with Sarna still at his heels.

“He's a great pilot,” Ev praised enthusiastically. “I'd love to see him in the swoop bike races.”

“Hm? Have you done swoop races before?” Sarna asked, clinging to his arm again.

“I raced some back home,” he lied, squirming inwardly.

“Where's home?” Yun asked.

“T—” he started.

“Coruscant,” Ev said quickly over him, “just like me.” She paused thoughtfully, then added, aiming pleading brow eyes and fluttering lashes at Yun, “It's really too bad we can't go...”

“Why not?” Yun asked sympathetically.

“You don't have the papers, do you?” Sarna asked.

Ev and Carth both shook their heads.

“Oh course!” Yun exclaimed, slapping his leg, “The papers! If you come by tomorrow during the shift right before noon, I can have the papers ready for you and let you down into the lower city.”

“Really?” Ev asked with an eager girlishness Carth hadn't thought her capable of.

“Sure,” Yun boasted, “I can write up the papers for you two, easy.”

“That's great, isn't it, Onasi?” Ev cooed.

“I can't wait,” Carth tried to sound excited.

Then Ev tipped back her glass and downed the remaining ale.

“Can I get you another glass?” Yun offered.

“Aw, nah,” Ev dismissed him with a wave of her other hand. “I think I've had enough of that for tonight.”

“You know, Sarna,” Yun said, jabbing her in the side with his elbow, “This is far better when we were training under Karath, isn't it? Even if this backwater planet is dull as all else.”

Carth's jaw tightened.

“He wouldn't let us party at all on the Leviathan. It was all discipline, even down-time,” Sarna agreed, laughing.

Saul Karath. Anger boiled up in Carth's chest. “What all did you do on the Leviathan?” he growled.

Sarna stepped back, a little startled.

Suddenly, Ev burst out in hysterical laughter. Holding onto her forehead, she teetered and stumbled a few steps towards Carth.

“Oh, this was so much fun tonight,” she giggled, then fell forward onto Carth's chest. He caught her and helped her gain her footing again.

“Are you okay, Ev?” he asked.

“Fine, fine,” she laughed, “But maybe I've had a bit much to drink.”

“I could walk you home,” Yun offered.

“No, that's alright,” Carth said quickly, “I'll take her back myself. I don't trust her not to get lost like this.” Carth laughed. It's the truth. And I don't trust you with her or knowing where we're staying.

“I'm so glad you could come,” Yun said.

“Yeah,” Sarna agreed lamely.

“Are you sure you'll be alright,” Yun asked, moving closer to Ev.

“She'll be fine. She's been worse,” Carth fibbed. “Come on, Ev.” He wrapped one arm around her waist and began to lead her towards the door.

“Thanks for the invite,” Ev said over her shoulder. “We'll see you tomorrow.”

“Thanks for having us!” Carth said and waved as they turned out the door.

“Drop by again sometime!” Yun called.

Carth led Ev, arm around her waist as she leaned heavily on him, down the lift and out into the neon-lit streets. She said nothing until they rounded a corner out of sight of the apartments, when she straightened up and began to walk more confidently. Has she seen something? “Ev?” Carth asked quietly.

“What?” she responded.

“Did you see something?” he asked.

Ev laughed. “Onasi, I'm not drunk,” she chuckled.

“You just...” he stammered.

“But you, sir, are,” she gave a little laugh and shoved his shoulder.

Carth stumbled wildly away from her, but she reached out her hand to him. He grasped it and steadied himself. This time, she slunk her arm around his waist. “Sorry,” she apologized, but sounded about to laugh again. Carth threw an arm around her shoulder.

“Then why did you act like that back there?” he asked.

“Because you were about to put your foot in your mouth, twice,” she said smartly.

“What do you mean?” Carth demanded.

“You're an awful liar, lieutenant, and even worse when you're drunk,” Ev replied.

“You know what?” Carth began angrily, pushing her away, “That's what I hate about you. I never know if you're telling the truth or not.”

“Have I lied to you yet?” Ev asked defensively.

“See? That's it! How can I know?” he sputtered.

“Look,” Ev said, gaining control over her temper, “I got us what we wanted. We can get down to the lower city tomorrow.”

“But how do we know that kid will follow through?” Carth demanded. “Maybe he and his friends caught onto us and we'll be met with a squad of soldiers to arrest us.”

“And that's what I hate about you,” Ev accused, “You can't seem to trust anyone.”

“Damn right, I don't,” Carth spat back.

“And why not?” Ev pressed, stepping threateningly close.

“It's none of your business,” he snapped, then softened, adding, “It's not personal.”

“Oh yes it is personal,” Ev argued. “If you can't trust anyone, least of all me, how can you expect me to be able to work with you?”

Carth turned away, glaring up at the sky.

“Talk of the Leviathan seemed to set you off pretty badly back there,” Ev observed. The mere mention of that ship felt like needles into his heart. He set his jaw and strode more quickly ahead of her. “See!” she cried, “There you go again! That doesn't have anything to do with it, does it?”

“No,” he snapped, then corrected himself, “Yes, I mean, drop it, would you? I have my reasons, and no, I don't want to talk about them.”

Ev hurried up and stopped directly in front of him. As he stumbled to a halt, Ev grabbed both of his hands in hers and looked up into his eyes. “Carth, I'm sorry,” she said earnestly, “I didn't mean to—”

Unable to shake free of her gaze, he sighed. “No, I'm sorry,” he apologized. “It's just that, well, Admiral Saul Karath, he was my mentor.”

“And now he's with the Sith,” Ev sighed as the truth hit her.

“Worse than that,” Carth continued, “The first thing he did once he deserted to the Sith was attack Telos. I had a son and a wife there.”

“Oh Carth, I'm sorry,” Ev gasped quietly.

“I was there, but I couldn't stop him,” Carth continued, a lump rising in his throat, “I remember holding my dying wife Morgan in my arms, screaming for a medic that never came.” He swallowed hard. “I don't even know why I'm telling you this now, here,” he sighed and finally broke away from her gaze.

Ev squeezed his hands, then let go. “Let's get back,” she said gently, “You still look awful, sir.”

“Tomorrow morning isn't going to be fun,” Carth groaned as he stumbled down the street. Once again, Ev reached around his waist to steady him.

“You can have the bed tonight, I'll take the floor,” Ev offered.

“But—” he protested weakly.

“Don't go playing a gentleman on me,” Ev scolded. “You're going to have a hangover tomorrow morning, and I'm not.”

Carth laughed weakly, “Fine, you win.”

- Next Part -


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