Tower of Time: Long Ago and Far Away
   

Under the Shadow of the Builders
Part 2- Taris: The Lower City

Carth sat across from his perpetual companion of the last week in the dimly lit Lower City Cantina. All around them where pushy humans and aliens yelling for more ale, making quiet deals, deep in games of pazaak—doing anything but watching Ev and Carth. That was the way he liked it. Much better than that party last night.

Ev sat her tumbler onto the table with a sly smile. “So?” she asked, looking up at him through dark lashes.

“So, what?” Carth asked, leaning back in his chair and staring at her. 'What now?' always seemed to be the question with Ev. He took a swig of the ale.

“So,” she started, propping her elbows on the table, “did I do a good job, sir?”

Carth laughed, “A little unconventional, but that was a fine and successful covert operation.”

“I'll take that as high praise, coming from you, Onasi,” Ev chuckled. “You'll forgive me then?”

“For what?” Carth almost asked, but stopped himself. For disappearing on me several times? For dragging me to that Sith party? For acting without consulting me? For forcing out unpleasant memories?

Ev's smile faded, sobering, Carth realized, in response to his own scowl.

“Sir?” she pressed.

“Next time, try to consult me before storming off on some reckless plan,” Carth said, then took a long drink, watching her for a reaction.

Instead of snapping back a quick response as she usually did, Ev fell silent and started vacantly off into the crowd of the cantina. Carth could only wonder what was on her mind.

He sighed, “We're just one step closer to our goal, but not even these passes are enough to get us into the Undercity. If we waste any more time, there won't be anything left of those pods we heard about.”

Ev nodded. She seemed only partially focused on the present. “I doubt we'll find any more convenient parties down here, and we don't have a legit reason to get down below,” Ev assessed, “There has to be another way down there to the pods.”

“More scavengers, are you?” the heavy bartender asked as he strolled past them.

Carth straightened up, mortified. How long was he listening in?

“More or less,” Ev responded coolly.

“You won't find anything left of those Republic pods down there,” a graying but tough-looking mercenary sitting two tables over laughed, “The Black Vulkars already picked over everything.”

“We'd still like to have a look,” Ev said, maintaining her even facade, but Carth detected some disappointment in her eyes.

“The swoop gangs have the run of this area,” the bartender explained, “They can get down there, past the guards, when no one else can. But, I'll tell you something,” he said, leaning closer, “If anyone knows a way around those blasted Sith, it's Mission Vao.”

“Mission Vao?” Carth asked, “Can we trust this guy to help us?”

The bartender laughed, “Mission is about as trusting a kid as I've ever met. Sure, she'll help you out.”

“A kid?” Carth asked incredulously.

“Mission is a punky little Twi'lek orphan, blue, but she and her Wookiee pal take care of themselves down here just fine,” he said, waving one hand in a meaningless gesture, “There isn't another pair like them in this area. I'm sure they won't be hard to find.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Carth said quickly, catching Ev's expectant stare over the top of her ale tumbler.

“Any time,” the potbellied man smiled and moved on.

Ev slammed the mug triumphantly onto the table. “Well, we have our next contact,” she said shortly, “I'd like to start searching for her—with your permission.”

“Not without me,” Carth said firmly, and rose from his seat. “The best way at this seems to be doing a casual sweep of the public areas in this vicinity.”

Ev nodded slowly. “Or we could ask around? It seems like Mission and her friend are well-known in this area.” Standing, she surveyed the noisy cantina. “There's no Wookiee in here, so I guess we start someplace else,” she suggested.

As they eased their way across the crowded room, Carth complained under his breath, “Looking for a Twi'lek we've never met is worse than searching for Bastila. At least we know what she looks like. It's like finding a bullet in an ore mine.”

“How many blue Twi'lek girls that hang out with Wookiees can there be in the lower city?” Ev pointed out as the doors of the cantina slid open in front of them.

Carth and Ev stepped into a firefight.

Shrapnel flew in all directions while laser pistols screamed over the clash of vibroblades. In the middle of the skirmish was a lanky brown Wookiee defending a petite Twi'lek girl with an awkwardly large backpack strapped across her shoulders. Hemmed in on all sides by thugs, human men, Aqualish, Rodians, and a pair of angry Gamorians, the pair backed farther apart from each other in an effort to avoid enemy bolts and blades.

“You'll give that back, little girl!” one of the thugs shouted.

Ev raised an eyebrow at Carth then drew her vibroblade and dove into the fight.

“Ev!” he tried to call her off, but it was too late. With sigh, he set his jaw, drew his blaster pistols and moved into the cover of the doorway. Years of training and instinct overtook him. The battle drew him in.

A trio of Twi'lek and human men skidded around the corner. “Mission!” the foremost of them exclaimed, drawing his own blade. “Beks! Gather up!” he yelled over his shoulder, and then joined the fight with his companions.

The Sith who claim to be repressing these gang fights aren't even here, Carth thought grimly—and somewhat thankfully.

The Twi'lek girl, who must have been Mission, suddenly shrieked and fell down onto one knee, grasping the other. Before Carth could track who had shot her, Ev already stood protectively over her, deflecting attackers.

And blaster bolts.

Carth momentarily lost his trace-like focus on the battle. No...It couldn't be. He shook himself and redirected his attention, shooting down a Rodian gunman.

“Get out of here, woman,” a Black Vulkar thug sneered loudly as he crossed blades with Ev, “This isn't your fight.”

“I just so happen to need this kid's help,” Ev retorted, dodging and parrying. She held her own easily against the much bigger man. “And she can't help me if you've cut her to pieces.”

The thug opened his mouth to speak, but Ev cut him down with three swift strikes while his guard was open. Carth fired two shots to finish him off. He couldn't help but be impressed by the ease and skill with which Ev fought. Special corps, no kidding. He no longer wondered how she alone managed to get off the Endar Spire.

Reaching one hand down to Mission to help her up, she asked, “You okay?”

“Took a shot to the shin. Yeah, I feel great,” she said sarcastically then added, “Thanks, whoever you—Zaalbar!” The Wookiee roared angrily, and only her limp kept Mission from racing over towards him.

At the edge of the battle, one of the Gamoreans had knocked Zaalbar’s bowcaster away while the other pinned him against the wall with a stun stick. His eyes rolled back in his head and he slid limply to the floor. Swift as lightning, Ev burst through the skirmish towards the Gamoreans and their prey, delivering swift and crippling blows to anyone who tried to intercept her. Carth did his best to cover for her.

Another group of incoming Hidden Beks protectively encircled Mission.

The lumbering Gamoreans had already begun to shackle Zaalbar up when Ev lunged up to them. “Leave that Wookiee alone,” she growled.

Hardly intimidated by the small-statured woman before him, one Gamorean grunted and raised his cleaver. But Ev was faster. She delivered a strong slice to his wrist. Bleeding and squealing, he dropped the huge ax. Ev was barely able to dodge out of its path, but quickly recovered and held her vibroblade threateningly before her. Carth flicked up the power settings on his blasters and fired a volley at the second Gamorean. That, and Ev's threatening stare, was enough to persuade them to retreat as fast as they could lumber away. At that moment, the Hidden Beks finished off the remaining Vulkars that hadn't already turned tail and fled.

With the air clear of laser shots, Mission, hobbled over to Ev and the fainted Wookiee. Wincing, the young Twi'lek asked, “Is he going to be okay?”

Ev nodded and sheathed her vibroblade, “He just took a stun stick to the gut. I'm sure he'll be up and moving soon.”

Mission squatted down next to him and reached for Zaalbar's hairy wrist for a pulse but drew back. “Binders! Those dirty, rotten—” she exclaimed indignantly, “Those were Gamorean slavers allied with the Vulkars!”

Carth moved cautiously out from the cover of the cantina doorway. From behind him, there came a gravely chuckle, “That's one way to get the little Twi'lek's attention.” He whirled around. The graying mercenary stood smirking between the open doors, “I wouldn't have pegged you as the reckless type.” Without another word, the man slid past Carth and strode slowly away down the passage.

“Mission! You there!” one of the Hidden Beks called, “Let's leave this mess before the Sith show up!”

“Zaalbar's down!” Mission protested, rising to her feet.

“You two,” the man pointed his thumb towards two other men on his left, “Help her with Zaalbar.”

“I'm not carrying no Wookiee,” one of them grumbled.

“Yes you are, and get to it,” he snapped. “The rest of you, gather up the rest of our injured,” he said then added grimly, “And any Bek bodies.”

In the scuffling that ensued, Carth holstered his blasters and made his way over to Ev, where she still hung close to the young Twi'lek. He leaned close to her shoulder and said in a low voice, “I thought you were going to at least warn me before you do something crazy like, you know, charging into a gang war.”

“Sir, I don't know about you,” Ev responded, “but I can't just sit back and watch when thugs are trying to beat up some kid. Especially when it's a kid we need help from.”

“Who are you calling a kid?” Mission demanded, almost reflexively, “And what do you want?”

Ev was, for once, without a retort.

“We're stranded off-worlders looking to get around the Sith guard and into the Undercity,” Carth explained, “And we were told that a Twi'lek by the name of Mission Vao would be our best bet at that.”

“That's me, and they're right,” Mission said triumphantly, “But why anyone would want to go down there is—”

“You three!” the Bek leader hollered, “Come with us. Gadon will want to talk with you after what you did in this fight.”

As they moved out, flanked by Hidden Beks, Mission turned to Carth and Ev and said, “Thanks, by the way.”

~~~

As the party of fighters, Ev, and Carth entered the Hidden Bek base, all heads turned. Those fiddling with swoop bikes lowered their hydrospanners, those dueling in the corner broke off their concentration, and those that just lazed around straightened up, eyes on Mission and the parcel she carried. The Beks that carried their wounded and dead friends broke off towards a set of cots to the left of the entrance while others rushed up to help them. As Zaalbar was hauled towards a cot, Mission's steps faltered, but she quickly recovered herself and continued towards the back of the room where a sturdy black man sat behind a sparse desk.

“Mission's back,” the man at the head of their procession announced. Now only he and two Twi'lek Beks remained as escorts for Mission, Ev, and Carth.

“Is she?” the man behind the desk asked. His voice was deep and rich but his gaze was unfocused. “And how did she fare?” he asked.

“I've got it right here, Gadon,” Mission said proudly, reaching back and patting the parcel on her back. “I don't even think they realized it was gone until we were back up in the lower city.”

The man, Gadon, smiled broadly. “Excellent work,” he praised, his gaze still vacant. “I won't ask how you did it.”

As they arrived at his desk, Mission laughed, “Trade secret!”

“We did have some trouble with the Vulkars just outside the cantina though,” the Twi'lek to Carth's left added.

Gadon's smile faded and he pursed his lips, “Any casualties?”

“They got Darya and Biarre,” the man in the lead said remorsefully, “And about seven other suffered nasty injuries.”

“When will they let up?” Gadon asked darkly, to no one in particular. Some action around the room had resumed, but Ev and Carth still earned uncomfortable stares. Carth fidgeted and glanced over at Ev, who seemed as icy calm as ever. Good job. You've gotten us into the den of a swoop gang. At least we found the Twi'lek girl, and she seems competent.

“Well, good job as always, Mission,” Gadon said at last. “Give the prototype accelerator to Therton and have it installed into one of the bikes. We've got to have it ready for the big race tomorrow.”

“Right away,” Mission nodded, then scurried off as nimbly as the pack on her back allowed.

“And who are these two?” the armored Twi'lek woman standing next to Gadon demanded. Her skin faded beautifully from pale yellow to sapphire blue down her lekku, but her glare was suspicious.

“A little bit of unexpected help,” the man in front of them said then stepped aside, giving them a better view of Gadon and his Twi'lek bodyguard. “They were already covering Mission and Zaalbar from the ambush when we got there. I don't think we'd still have the accelerator if it wasn't for their help.”

“Well, then, I owe you my thanks,” Gadon said.

“But it's rare that a couple of strangers would stick their neck out to help a swoop gang without looking for something in return,” the Twi'lek woman commented hostilely. “What do you want?”

“Calm down Zaerdra, we don't even know who they are, and we do owe them now,” Gadon said smoothly.

Ev locked eyes with Carth and nodded. He cleared his throat and explained, “I'm Carth and this is my partner Ev. We're stranded off-world pilots. We were looking to get down to the Undercity to check out the pod that fell there. We were told that Mission would be the one to help us get around the Sith guards. When we walked into a firefight with her and the Wookiee at the middle of it, we just kind of jumped in.”

“'Just jumped in?'” the green Twi'lek to Ev's right butted in indignantly, “That man is a sharp shooter and the lady handles a vibroblade better than anyone I've seen before.”

Ev looked down at her boots and Carth scoffed, “It was nothing but a few lucky shots.”

“Say what you like, but I know what I saw,” the Twi'lek murmured.

“If that's so, we could use your help around here. We're losing too many of our men and women to those war-mongering Vulkars,” Gadon said thoughtfully, “But why was it that you wanted to get into the Republic space pods anyway? The Vulkars have already picked them clean, according to our patrols.”

Carth's heart sank. Now what?

Ev finally spoke up, “You see, we think a friend of ours was on one of those pods and we wanted to see her to safety.”

“Now that paints a different picture,” Gadon chuckled.

“You're Republic soldiers, aren't you?” Zaerdra surmised.

“We never said that—” Carth stammered.

“Would it be a problem if we were?” Ev asked with an eyebrow raised. Carth noticed her hand snake towards the hilt of her vibroblade.

“None whatsoever,” Gadon shook his head, but Zaerdra still looked wary. “We hate these Sith and what they're doing to our Taris as much as you do, I'm sure.” He paused and took a slow breath. “I may know what happened to your friend,” he said at last. “Tomorrow is the season opener for the Taresian swoop racing circuit. As their part of the prize, the Black Vulkars have put up a valuable slave: a young woman that they claim to be an officer in the Republic army.”

“Bastila,” Ev said softly.

“Then they don't know that she's a—” Carth stopped himself. Jedi. Then we still have a chance.

“Is there any way we can get at her?” Ev asked.

“Win the swoop race,” Gadon answered.

“Win the swoop race?” Carth repeated incredulously, “We're soldiers, pilots, not swoop jocks.”

“I used to do swoop races on Coruscant,” Ev offered quickly.

“You what?” Cart stammered.

“Well, then I have a deal to offer you,” Gadon said slowly, “You can enter the race under the banner of the Hidden Beks and race on the bike with the prototype accelerator that Mission just got back for us. If you win, you get your friend. If you lose, well then, you'll have to find some other way to get her.”

“Prudent,” Ev nodded, “You're helping us without provoking further gang warfare, but I get this feeling that you're not telling us everything.”

“Good catch,” Gadon smiled, “We have not had a chance to test the new accelerator design yet, since the Vulkars stole it almost immediately after it was finished. Our techs suspect that it's unstable and could overheat and explode on the track if not handled right.”

“So you get to try out your new toy without risking the lives of any of your people,” Ev concluded, “also prudent.”

“Do we have a deal?” Gadon asked and rose from his chair. He extended his hand towards Ev.

“Onasi, what do you think?” She turned to Carth and asked.

He shrugged, inwardly relieved that Ev had at least thought to ask him, “It's our best bet right now.”

Ev took Gadon's hand and shook it, “Deal.”

“You two are welcome to stay the night here; rest, relax, eat,” Gadon said, “Have someone introduce you to Therton. He can run you through the fine points of our bikes and that accelerator before you hit the tracks.”

“Thanks,” Ev said simply.

“Thanks so much,” Carth said over her.

The three Beks that had been their escorts dispersed, leaving Carth and Ev to find their way around the vast chamber.

“You used to swoop race?” Carth leaned close to Ev and asked as they turned away from Gadon and Zaerdra.

“Yeah,” Ev said, “I think so.”

“You think so?” Carth demanded, “What is that supposed to mean?”

Before Ev could answer, Zaalbar the Wookiee ambled up to them and began growling at her in Shyriiwook.

“I—yes I did,” Ev stammered in response.

“Zaalbar!” Mission exclaimed and hurried over to them, as if out of nowhere, “You're okay!”

The Wookiee turned to Mission and growled something that must have been reassuring because she smiled and relaxed. He turned back to Ev and broke into some kind of long explanation.

Ev stepped back a pace and her jaw dropped. This was the first time Carth had ever seen her unnerved. “It wasn't that big of a deal, really. You don't have to,” she protested.

Zaalbar continued earnestly.

“A life debt?” Mission asked cautiously, “Are you sure Big Z? That's a huge commitment.”

The Wookiee nodded then turned back to Ev.

“If that's what you want,” she said slowly, “then I accept. We don't plan to stay on Taris, though.”

Zaalbar nodded and responded confidently.

“Well,” Mission spoke up, “If Big Z is going with you when you leave Taris, so am I. We're a team.”

Ev smiled, “Fair enough. You've already proved your worth, kid. Though, honestly, I don't know where we're headed for once we get off this planet.”

Taking a lull in the conversation, Carth asked, “Care to explain what just happened?”

“Sorry, sir, I thought you knew Shyriiwook,” Ev apologized. “In saving Zaalbar from the Gamorean in that fight, who were undoubtedly slavers, I saved his life. For that, he says that he owes me a life debt,” she explained.

“Having a Wookiee and a Twi'lek kid along isn't going to help us stay inconspicuous, you know,” Carth said in a low voice.

“I'm not just some kid!” Mission protested, “Both Big Z and me are plenty competent. We'll be helpful, not a bother like you make it sound.” Zaalbar rumbled in agreement.

“Listen, kid, we're on a Republic mission,” Carth started.

“So?” Mission demanded.

“Say, Mission,” Ev interrupted, “Could you help me find someone by the name of Therton? I hear he can introduce me to the swoop bikes.”

“Sure,” Mission said and started off across the room, shooting a quick glare at Carth, “This way.”

~~~

Early the next morning, Carth settled himself in a seat near the front of the Hidden Bek’s private swoop viewing gallery, surrounded by Mission, Zaalbar, and some of the other Beks. Ev had snuck off to the track before Carth had a chance to wish her well. He hoped and prayed that she knew what she was doing. Force be with her, she may very well get us out of trouble as often as she gets us into it.

Carth glanced up at the viewing screen. Still nothing of the races. An advertisement for an indoor water park and resort flashed by.

“I hope Ev can win,” Mission said in an attempt to strike up a conversation, “You can get your friend back and we'll know all Zaalbar and I did to get that accelerator back was worth it.”

“I hope so too,” Carth agreed then asked, “Just how did you and Zaalbar get to be partners? You strike me as kind of an odd pair.”

“I saw Zaalbar getting hassled by some Vulkar thugs, and I got so mad, I just charged at them,” she explained, “They knocked me around, which got Big Z mad too, so he screamed and lifted one of them clean off the ground. After that, those thugs were scared enough to leave us alone. After that, we knew we were meant to be a team; a lone Wookiee and a lone Twi'lek. We've been together ever since.”

“That's gutsy of you to charge into a bunch of gang thugs,” Carth commented. Mission certainly didn't' look like the sort who could take on a whole team of thugs on her own.

“Hey!” she exclaimed, “Would you stop treating me like some helpless kid? You're not my dad or anything like that. I've been living here on the streets of Taris nearly all my life, taking care of myself, and taking care of Zaalbar. I bet I could fair better here than you can, Mr. Soldier.”

Carth bit his retort off short when the swoop track flickered into view on the huge screen in front of them. The whole gallery cheered. The first rider was affiliated with neither the Hidden Beks nor the Black Vulkars, which, Carth soon found out, the vast majority were. Ev, to his surprise, was second. He caught himself holding his breath as she made a shaky start, but within a few seconds she got a handle of the swoop bike and whizzed around the track.

“23.4 seconds!” someone behind him exclaimed, “Those Vulkars are going to have a hard time mustering someone to beat that time. Gadon sure found a great racer in that woman!”

Carth breathed a sigh of relief. So she wasn't kidding that she knew how to race swoop bikes. They had a chance of rescuing Bastila this way, thanks to her skill.

When the fifth racer, a rookie Vulkar, hit some debris and burst into flames, he was again thankful. The idea of loosing Ev to the races was not something he wanted to consider, and yet there was the possible instability of the accelerator installed in her bike. He bit his lip.

It took until the eighth racer for someone to beat Ev's time. A Nikto Vulkar called Redros snuck below her time by only a fraction of a second. The Beks broke out in angry booing. Carth slammed his fist against the armrest of his chair.

“Don't worry,” Mission reassured him, “Ev can keep racing as long as she beats that Redros' time next time around.

After the sixteenth racer, the camera panned across the staging area and Carth got his first glimpse of the slave cage. The young brown-haired woman inside was unmistakably Bastila Shan. She sat calmly on the floor of the cage. Probably mediating. Just like a jedi.

Before he knew it, all twenty-one riders had raced their first run. Only the top ten were permitted to race against the best time set by Redros. This round, Ev was first, and she easily cleared the standing time by nearly two seconds. Again, only Redros was able to beat her, and only by one tenth of a second.

The third round had only five participants. The first racer pushed his swoop bike too hard and slammed into the wall. He was instantly incinerated. It took the track crew some time to clean up the mess before the race could continue. The air in Bek viewing gallery was thick with tension. Redros was next, and was unable to improve his time and the two racers that followed were unable to catch up. That left only Ev.

Ev's swoop bike left the staging area with a burst of speed and continued to accelerate down the track as she dodged hazards. The obstacles blew by at a dizzying rate. Suddenly the engines began to sputter and flare. “Ev! Be careful!” Carth yelled involuntarily, jumping up from his seat. Others jumped to their feet around him, yelling and cheering. Ev regained control of the swoop bike and eased down on the speed. In seconds, she was safely across the finish line. The whole room cheered. She had won.

“Nineteen seconds even!” someone yelled, “I've never seen a time even close to that before!”

“Hey wait! Look!” Someone else yelled.

Subtitles scrawled across the bottom of the screen, “Racer Redros claims that victor Ev cheated to win and Black Vulkars withdraw prize slave. Victor denies cheating...”

Even as the scrawling text announced the situation, it worsened. Blasters and blades flashed, and Ev was once again in the middle of a gang fight. Suddenly, the slave cage flew open and Bastila charged out, grabbing a blade off the nearest thug.

Carth's heart raced. He turned to Mission and asked, “Can you get me down to the track?”

“Sure thing! Follow me,” she nodded and darted off towards the exit. Carth and Zaalbar struggled to keep up with her.

By the time they reached the track, the fight was already over. All the Vulkars were either dead or gone.

And Ev and Bastila were arguing. Figures.

“And were was your lightsaber?” Ev demanded.

“I misplaced it,” Bastila spat back.

“Some jedi knight...” Ev retorted.

“Actually, I'm still a padawan, not a full Jedi yet,” Bastila corrected her matter-of-factly.

“So the most important jedi in the galaxy is a padawan who can't keep track of her lightsaber? Great,” Ev baited her.

“Excuse me?” Bastila exclaimed, her pitch rising.

“Well, I'm glad I was here to rescue you in time,” Ev said.

“I was doing just fine on my own. I didn't need your help,” Bastila argued, “I'm the one who saved you from that horde of gang thugs.”

“Now I think you've got things mixed up,” Ev declared. Finally, she noticed the arrival of Carth, Mission, and Zaalbar. “Oh good, you're here Onasi,” Ev sighed then pointing at Bastila, she said, “You can talk her down, sir.”

“You know,” Carth said uncomfortably. Getting in the middle of a cat fight was the last thing he wanted, at the moment, “Before we do any more talking, we should get someplace more private. Let's head back to the apartment and figure out what to do next once we get there.”

“Yes sir,” Ev nodded.

“Fair enough,” Bastila snapped, still seething.

As they left, Ev turned to the Beks that still lingered around the track. “Tell Gadon thanks for me. You guys can keep the winning purse,” she called.

“Thanks! Will do!” one of them called back, waving.

“Who are those two?” Bastila asked quietly, gesturing over her shoulder.

“Mission and Zaalbar,” Carth answered, “Ev incurred a life debt with the Wookiee, Zaalbar, and Mission wanted to stick by him, since they're good friends.”

“Fabulous,” she murmured sarcastically.

“Though, I’m glad to see you in one piece, Bastila,” Carth admitted as they walked, “For what you mean to the Republic, I couldn’t stop believing that you were still alive.”

“I’m glad to see you too, Carth,” Bastila responded, “Though, I admit, I didn’t expect to. How many others made it down?”

“As far as I know, just Ev and me,” Carth answered. The soldiers in Zelka Forn’s care crossed his mind, but he decided not to mention them. Glancing over his shoulder, he saw Ev chatting animatedly with Mission and the Wookiee.

“And what of her?” Bastila asked, gesturing crisply in Ev’s direction.

“What about her?” Carth asked. I don’t want to start another fight.

“Ev is a good fighter. She’s special corps. Although unconventional, she’s a good strategist on top of that,” he answered, surprising himself at how much he praised her. Bastila said nothing, deep in thought. Carth took a deep breath then grudgingly admitted, “And I know we wouldn’t have gotten to you if not for her crazy ideas.”

“Crazy ideas?” Bastila asked, raising her eyebrows.

Just then, the five of them passed the cantina, and the graying mercenary Carth had seen earlier emerged and called out to them, “Hey! You there, racer!”

“Yes?” Ev responded and stopped. The rest of the group paused around her.

“I saw how you raced—and fought—down there. You've got guts,” he said, “If you're interested, I've got a job for you.”

“That's Canderous Ordo, a Mandalorian merc,” Mission explained quietly, to no one in particular.

“What's in it for me?” Ev asked, her eyes narrowed.

“To start, I've got some rakghoul serum, which could be of use to you if you're still planning to go to the Undercity,” he said with a smile.

“We don't have time for—” Bastila reminded.

“Give that serum to a doctor by the name of Zelka Forn in the upper city, and you might have yourself a deal,” Ev said quickly.

She’d help him just to help somebody else? That was not a side of Ev Carth had seen before.

Canderous laughed. “You're an interesting woman. Let's talk this out over a drink,” he said, gesturing to the cantina behind him.

“You guys can go on ahead. I'll meet you back at the apartments when I'm done here,” Ev urged, “If that’s alright.”

Zaalbar roared something, and Mission responded, “Yeah, I'm staying with her too.”

“We need to get going,” Bastila reminded them.

Carth sighed, “Fine. We'll see you guys back there. Call me on your comlink if anything comes up.” Or if you get lost. He watched Ev, Zaalbar, and Mission disappear back into the cantina with the Mandalorian with a knot in his stomach. He didn't like leaving Ev to her own devices again, for more reasons than he cared to count, but he liked the idea of arguing about it in public even less. So he and Bastila proceeded on to the upper city. Carth felt more and more uneasy with every step.

~~~

Carth caught Bastila up on their doings as best as he could while leaving out anything that could further worsen Bastila's opinion of his unruly subordinate soldier. Somehow, he found himself taking Ev's side in her absence as Bastila ceaselessly complained of her insubordination. Bitterly, Carth realized that he could do nothing to make her appreciative of the work they had done, trying to help her. There was no convincing a jedi.

The longer Carth and Bastila tried to come up with a plan to get themselves off the planet the more impossible it seemed. They didn't have a ship, and even if they did, there was the Sith blockade that would shoot down any vessel in violation of it. There weren’t even any other vessles leaving the planet to stow away on. It would take more than two soldiers, a jedi, a Twi'lek girl, and a Wookiee to break down the Sith occupation force, no matter how competent they were.

Several hours later, while Bastila napped on the cot in the corner, Carth’s uneasiness grew unbearable. “Where's Ev? How long can this job take? What did that Mandalorian want her for anyway?” he wondered out loud.

Suddenly, the building began to shake. And then again. Carth leaped to his feet. The third time it shook so hard that Bastila tumbled out of her cot and onto the floor. She yelped then yelled, “What's going on?”

“I have no idea,” Carth yelled above the rumbling. People both inside the building and out were screaming in a confused panic.

Bastila struggled to stand. “And where is that woman and her tag-a-longs? Shouldn't they be here by now?” she asked.

As Carth fumbled for his comlink he saw a flash of red through the window. Over the rumbling, he could hear the wine of laser fire. “Force!” he cursed, “The Sith are bombarding the planet's surface.”

Bastila was, for once, speechless.

Just then, the light on Carth's comlink flashed and Ev's voice fuzzed through, “Ev to Onasi, come in.” She repeated, “Ev to Onasi, come in.”

“Onasi here,” Carth responded.

“Carth, get to the roof, now,” Ev ordered.

“What?” Carth exclaimed.

“Get to the roof now,” she repeated herself.

“The Sith are attacking, what good is that going to do us?” Carth demanded.

“Just do it, now!” Ev shrieked. Interference buzzed over the comlink.

A moment later, Mission's voice took over, “We've got a ship, and we're not going to be able to pick you up if you're not on the roof.”

“I read you,” Carth replied, “See you on the roof.”

“How on—?” Bastila started.

“You heard them,” Carth said as he scooped up his pack, “Let's get to the roof.”

Not trusting the lifts, they pounded up nineteen flights of stairs. They didn’t dare to rest even a moment at each landing. When they reached the roof, the destruction all around them was already devastating. Buildings lay in ruin and fires blazed everywhere around them. It was a miracle that theirs still stood.

I'm sure Bastila would tell me that it is the will of the Force.

Not a moment too late, an orange and gray freighter swooped up to the building. The loading ramp already down. Zaalbar stood on it, ready to welcome Bastila and Carth on. As they lifted off, Carth prayed that this ship they'd found was fast enough to outrun the Sith fleet.

- Next Part -


Star Wars is (c) Lucasfilm Ltd. All original characters, stories, and art belong to SoA and may not be re-posted without permission.