(Author's Note: Still don't own Star Wars. Also, this story is a followup to my other Star Wars fic, Eclipse, and takes place several days after its end...but familiarity shouldn't be required.)
"This is the third time we've been sent someplace else in this blasted spaceport," the muscular human complained as the group walked down another alley. "Is there any chance the part you're looking for is actually here, or are they just taking our money and sending us in circles?"
"My money," Sareena countered, "and if you have a better idea, I'm all ears." Ahsoka reminded herself that the vibrant red braid was attached to the same woman who sported a loose blonde mass when they'd met; human hair was incredibly versatile compared to Togruti head-tails.
"I don't think we're going in circles, Rian." Ahsoka offered casually.
"And how would you know, Laani?" he growled, in an utterly ineffective attempt to intimidate her.
She sighed. She'd just started using the assumed name a few days ago and it was already getting old. "I've dealt with more than a few Rodians. This last guy was worried about you coming back to beat the bantha out of him, if he lied."
"So what, we're just supposed to trust him?"
"Heck no. They've had plenty of time to form a posse. We're heading in the right direction, but we might have some...active company."
"Fine by me," he proclaimed, "all this walking nowhere is getting on my nerves."
A small voice behind Ahsoka snorted. "Easy for you to say, Mr. Gundark," it said.
Ahsoka glanced back at her; the woman made eye contact and gave a weak smile in response. She wasn't sure whether the black attire was a fashion decision, or whether she was prepared to pass herself off as an Imperial officer at a moment's notice.
"Just relax, Beril. They won't want to start a fight in their own chop shop."
She sighed. "I know how shadowports work, Laani. And I'm not worried about them starting a fight," she said as she pointedly glared up at the back of Rian's head.
He scoffed. "It's no fun until they deserve to be beaten to a pulp," he said, cracking his knuckles for emphasis.
Sareena exhaled in frustration. "Don't take a loose view of 'deserving'. We're not here to cause a problem."
"Of course not," he answered with annoyed sarcasm.
Recognizing the sign for the warehouse that was the facade for their destination, Ahsoka spoke up before an argument could ensue. "Here we are...huh. All this exposed framework and no rust?"
"Unlike a space salvager to be this concerned with the appearance of their planetside operation," Beril expounded. "The owner's either wealthy or secondhand, and the only person in this port who might be wealthy is here with us."
Sareena sighed. "Then no one here is wealthy. Now come on."
Ahsoka and Beril hurried to catch up with the others, after a few awkward seconds where they both waited for the other to go in first. By the time Ahsoka reached the open floor, Beril had already reached the rest of the group, who were already speaking with the proprietor.
"We need a replacement sublight drive for a light-freighter class vessel," Sareena stated.
"Nice of you to show up," Rian said as Ahsoka joined the others. She choked the urge to react stronger than throwing an apathetic glance in his direction. She noticed, however, that the Gran owner's three eyes quickly looked at her, then slowly turned back towards Sareena.
"So I've heard," he said. "But sadly I have nothing that will fit your ship."
Before Sareena could respond, Beril cut in. "Our client isn't picky. Anything in the size range will do, they'll make it fit. Between you and me, I think a catastrophic failure saved them the trouble of removing the old engine."
"Ah, you're not in the market for the vessel you came in. In that case I do have something that I think will suit your needs. Come with me, please."
As the group slowly moved towards the back, Ahsoka evaluated the defenses. A few scattered tables near walls and piles held pairs of guards, each with a blaster rifle close by. Rodians, Trandoshans, Duros...but no humans. Uncertain whether this was coincidence, nor what it would imply if it wasn't, Ahsoka resolved to keep track of the demographics. They seemed wary, but nothing out of the ordinary for the guards on duty.
"You know," the merchant was saying, "I don't usually keep entire engines on hand, everyone needs parts for their repairs. If you'd come by a few days sooner I wouldn't have it, and if you'd come by a few days later it'd have been scrapped for parts. You're in luck today."
"So why did you keep this one on hand?" Sareena asked.
"It was a matter of..."
He cut himself off as Ahsoka quickly walked past him, wanting to inspect the engine as soon as it came into view.
It was certainly the right size, it appeared to be almost as tall as the huge bay doors it was situated near, and presumably the same doors it came in through. The configuration was odd, though: Aside from the main exhaust, it also had multiple miniature ports around its back half, arranged symmetrically but angled in conflicting directions; the computer interface port was in a nonstandard location; and the whole thing was cased in a reflective half-ellipsoid shell that hid the innards of the machinery. So the engine had the ability to stabilize its own flight path without relying on external thrusters or control surfaces, it was intentionally designed to be awkward to maintain, and it was supposed to look good in use from all angles. Which would mean...
"This come from a star yacht or something?" she asked.
"...well, yes." he answered.
"No wonder you've been keeping it around, it's a lot more valuable with that chromium shell in one piece than all the components would be, even if they weren't nonstandard parts that'd be a hassle to squeeze into a standard drive...much like the engine itself would be a hassle to squeeze into a standard ship."
Ahsoka calmly looked Sareena in the eye.
"Does it still operate?" Sareena asked, catching the hint.
"I assure you, everything on the sale floor is in working condition."
"In that case, what price did you have in mind?"
"Seeing as this is a viable piece of high-end equipment...Twenty thousand."
Sareena shot an annoyed glance at Ahsoka. Asking Ahsoka if it was worth it.
"If you're that proud of it," Ahsoka cut in, "you wouldn't mind if I ran a few diagnostics first, would you?"
She tensed as the guards around the room slowly rose to their feet. Beril noticed too, and her eyes started nervously darting around the room. Rian nonchalantly glanced at the shopkeeper, but Ahsoka noticed that his aloof posture had become a simple standing position; she noted that he was tall enough that he could probably reach over Sareena to punch the merchant in the face.
"Normally I would mind," the merchant addressed Ahsoka directly. "Competitors with saboteurs, you see. But in your case, my friend, I'll make an exception. Just this once."
"Appreciated," she replied nonchalantly as she looked at the top of the engine, where its dataport was. She caught herself thinking about simply leaping up to it before she did it, and quickly climbed up the footholds she found on the flat side instead. Sareena was the only other person in here who knew she was a Jedi, and Ahsoka wanted to keep it that way.
The smooth, curved surface wasn't the easiest thing to stand on, but it was no problem for her. Nevertheless, she knelt to connect her engineer's datapad to the engine and start the diagnostic procedure; she wanted a complete view of the floor below. The guards were all alert now, half of them watching her and the rest keeping an eye on the other three, but their weapons weren't aimed anywhere, like they would be if they intended to prevent or cause a problem. Their numbers hadn't changed either, so if anyone had followed them here, they weren't willing to come inside.
"So Laani," Sareena said, "What's your estimate of what this is worth?"
Ahsoka watched the pad as the results went by. "Well, the complication is that our client is going to make it work. They'll crack the shiny casing open without hesitation, they aren't going to pay extra for anything past the propulsion. And whether the propulsion is good enough to justify twenty thousand credits is what I'm determining right now."
Rian huffed impatiently. "What if it isn't?"
Beril rolled her eyes. "Then we get a better deal or we walk, duh."
He hissed under his breath, but said nothing.
Since the summary of the procedure had just appeared on the datapad, Ahsoka decided to preemptively interrupt. "Eight years." she said with disinterest. "Older than I'd have guessed, but performance should be just fine." The identifying information she was actually looking for wasn't appealing. It was from a ship of the same manufacturer, model and production run as the ship they were tracking down; but the individual identification didn't match. They'd found a part from the ship's cousin, apparently.
"Age is good," Beril said to no one in particular, "the cheapy ones don't last more than two or three years; that's how you tell which companies sell ships and which sell parts."
Ahsoka pondered for a second. So a part from the same model of ship, produced at the same factory in the same general time frame...was found in the same region of space as the last known location of their target, around the same time their target had disappeared...but somehow wasn't the ship they were looking for?
She didn't believe it. "Anyway," she said before Sareena needed to ask, "I'd like to check the inside of it before I could recommend anything above eighteen."
Sareena quickly shot her an irritated glare. Ahsoka shrugged flatly in response. She was aware that she was basically dictating Sareena's fiscal discretion unless either of them wanted to blow their cover story, and she wasn't thrilled about how coercive it felt; but getting the merchant to let her perform further examination was the only way forward, short of actually committing to buy the engine on a long shot, and his sense of profit was all she had to work with.
"I don't think that request is reasonable," the shopkeeper countered.
Sareena took a deep breath through her nose. "And I don't think eighteen thousand is reasonable."
He shook his head. "I won't go any lower."
"Hey," Beril asked softly, "do you want to go looking for another engine?"
"No," Rian answered flatly before Sareena could respond.
Ahsoka saw the opening. "Look, if everything in there is in top condition, it'll keep our client's project, or ship, or whatever, in working order for that much longer. That's worth at least eighteen thousand, isn't it?"
Sareena looked annoyed, but Ahsoka was sure that was only a show this time. "Fine," she said deliberately.
"Well then." Ahsoka turned to the merchant. "May I?"
He paused, presumably considering his options...and, she guessed, the odds of her planting a bomb inside the engine so his competition would have one less competitor. "And what, exactly, are you intending to look for?"
"Mostly seeing that all the cables are intact, and haven't been marred by fire, moisture, mynocks, whatever. Then running more tests to be sure that the cable positioning doesn't adversely affect readings, which could indicate wires exposed inside the cabling." Also looking for some sort of out-of-place mechanism that could enable falsified identification, but he didn't need to know that part.
He sharply turned his head to the side, and two of the guards swiftly moved over to opposite edges of the engine, watching her intently. They were close enough that she didn't need her eyes or the Force to tell they were taking up flanking positions without actually aiming their rifles at her. Either they didn't know about the echolocation common to all Togruta, or they didn't care.
"You are pushing the limits of my patience," the shopkeeper declared.
"Then help me quit wasting your time," she countered. "Yes or no?"
He sighed. "Proceed."
"Relax guys, I'll be fine," she said as she descended halfway down the flat side of the engine, before any of her compatriots could consider saying anything about her safety. They were in far more danger than she was, after all.
"If you don't try anything," the green-skinned Duros guard to her left said menacingly.
"Like I said," she replied calmly as she opened the panel on the engine casing. "Is the competition really this cutthroat?" she asked idly as she peered at the cables inside the now-open compartment. "This is seriously the nicest ship business I've seen since the end of the Clone Wars."
"Yes," the merchant answered, "and that is why. Everything I sell is in working condition, standards my competitors do not adhere to. They find assaulting my merchandise easier than improving the quality of their own."
She moved her head around, exaggerating the movement while she took in the sights from several angles. Evidence of dust buildup, but no signs of actual damage. Most of the cables seemed tight and had little slack to maneuver, while a few...
"Hmm..." She slowly reached a hand in, keeping her attention on the two guards and her other hand poised against the engine in case she needed to move in a hurry. She gently pushed the loose-looking smooth cabling out of the way...and saw an industrial-looking switch hidden behind them, standing in stark contrast to the luxury motif of the entire engine. Reaching farther forward physically to flip the switch seemed unwise, with so many suspicious eyes on her, so she uncurled her little finger and reached out with the Force instead. The click was definite, but soft, as though the engine chamber was intended to muffle its own noise. Whoever designed this thing must have had a very clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish.
"Dusty," she declared as she withdrew her hand and closed the panel, "but looks undamaged. Whoever owned this last didn't see a need to maintain it beyond functional standards, but that's fine for our purposes. Just one more test to run..."
"Is such really necessary?" the shopkeeper asked with annoyance as she climbed back to the top.
She sighed in annoyance herself. "Look," she said flatly, "Our clients come to us because they want the job done right, much as I imagine your own customers do. So we have to prove that we're doing it right. Besides, you already let me run it once; if you're balking now, after I've already told you what I'd be looking for...I'd have to be suspicious, wouldn't I?"
He paused for only a moment. "Very well."
"Thank you," she replied, consciously pinning her sarcasm away from her voice, as she started an abbreviated version of the diagnostic procedure.
She heard Rian exhale loudly, without saying anything. He was definitely impatient, but apparently capable of holding his tongue; not that she would expect Sareena to bring him along if he was liable to cause problems. Still, realizing that he had been actively choosing to be abrasive towards her altered her perception of him somewhat.
It didn't matter, though. She tried to mitigate her smile at her success: The engine now identified itself as the ship they were actually looking for. The cables read the same too, not that it was truly important now. "I declare this adequate for our purposes."
Sareena looked at the merchant. "Nine thousand now, the other nine when it's delivered to our ship."
"Fifteen," he countered.
She frowned. "Twelve."
"So," Beril commented as the four of them walked towards the landing pad and their ship, "our boy was on a star yacht with an illegally modified transponder."
"No wonder the Pantorans couldn't find him," Sareena said. "Wonder what he was up to, if he didn't want them to know where he went."
"He's a government guy, right?" Rian asked rhetorically. "Sounds like black ops, didn't want the Assembly connected to whatever he was doing." Beril smiled, always pleased when Rian acted outside his trifecta of sneering, shouting and smashing.
"Whether they knew or not," Laani added. "Well, we'll ask them."
"Are you serious?" she said incredulously. "You think they're just gonna tell us if we ask nicely?"
"We'd check official spaceport records for the alternate identification signature ourselves too, of course. But if the Pantorans are serious about us finding this guy, they'll either want to know about this or need to tell us."
Beril still wasn't sure what to think of this woman she hadn't even heard of until a few days ago, but clearly she had one heck of a tenacious streak. And the only mechanics she knew who could play a black market dealer like she just did, also happened to be smugglers with ships of their own to maintain. There had to be more to her history than simply serving the Republic Navy during the Clone Wars.
"If he's still alive," Rian countered. "Finding a piece of the ship in a scrap heap? Doesn't sound good for the life support."
"The engine's in really good shape," Laani responded. "Salvagers had to have come across the ship intact and adrift. Whether the passengers had been captured or spaced is still a question, but there had to be some reason for it not to have been blown up in the first place."
"So where's that active company you were talking about?"
"With any luck, they don't shoot paying customers. But we're not out of here yet."
Sareena exhaled sharply in annoyance. "How much would an engine like that normally go for?"
Beril mentally compared the engine specs against known prices. "That size and that speed? A standard engine'd be around 25,000 credits new."
"So you're avoiding how much I overpaid second-hand."
"...yeah," she sighed. She worked with Sareena a few times over the past few years, but she always forgot how attentive she could be. And how cheap. She just assumed someone born into one of the most affluent noble houses in the galaxy would be much less of a spendthrift.
"Look," Laani said, "I'm sorry, but the whole thing would be a waste of time if we couldn't see if it was what we were looking for, and that was the only way I could get him to go along with it."
"He was perfectly fine letting you take that first look for free," Rian insinuated.
Laani rolled her eyes. "Yes, because when we came in he thought I was indentured to some Imperial inspectors. Once I got him to relent on that line of thought, that was as far as I could push."
"Oh is that why you were all bossy."
"You think that was bossy? Never been subordinate to someone who tried to dictate your every move because they knew everything better than you?"
"...point," Rian admitted.
"Besides," Laani continued, "there could be other clues there. Signs of what disabled the engine, or what environment it's been in. Things we don't have the equipment to determine here. If nothing else, it could be fitted into another ship, or maybe there's a similar yacht somewhere out..." Her voice trailed off as she looked over her shoulder, behind the group. "Have you seen any Gamorreans here?"
"There was one at that first cantina, I think," Beril answered.
"Is he the one trailing us now?"
She turned her head as if talking to Rian, who was walking besides her to her left, and checked her peripheral vision. Being only 1.5 meters tall had its disadvantages, among them that looking up at Rian's 1.9 meters constituted a pain in the neck; but even though each and every pedestrian on the street blocked her view behind them, the porcine features she was looking for were unmistakable, even in glimpses.
And having had both a homeworld and prior employment where Gamorreans were a common sight, she could distinguish such identifying characteristics as tusk angles and snout size. "It's him," she said with some resignation as she looked forward.
"How long's he been following us?" Sareena asked softly as she flexed her fingers.
"First saw him after we left the warehouse," Laani said in a similarly quiet tone. "He was keeping his distance until now."
A mix of snorting and squealing came from behind them, the volume indicating he was closing rapidly. "'Only one shot at this?'" she quoted in translation. "At what?"
"Doesn't matter," Laani said quickly, "we need to get out of the open. We're on the edge of the street; Side road."
As Sareena and Rian complied, turning past the corner of a large building, a squealing shout was punctuated by the sound of multiple blasters being armed. Evidently he brought friends.