"Secure the perimeter" had amounted to Rian making a sweep to confirm that the rough stone floor around the ship was as empty as it was before Beril covered it with gouges and rock particles, while Sareena tensely kept a sniper rifle aimed at the sunlight filtering through the cave opening a ways off. Just the way he liked it; standing guard was boring. The ion dispersion rifle he wielded, his weapon of choice, worked best when striking first anyway.
As Beril and Laani came out to report the results of their job of measuring the damage, Sareena slowly turned to face them, an irritated look on her face. Rian understood her fuming, of course: it was the helplessness. He made his living out of breaking down doors with guns blazing, and a big part of it was choosing when to break down doors and how to blaze with guns. When your life is in someone else's hands, you just have to hope they're better at it than you are, or at least that they won't screw up while your life is on the line.
He was certain Sareena knew that the situation was far better than the alternatives that involved them dying; but her instinct still said Beril was responsible for the current ordeal on its own merits. As did his, but he'd learned that people trained for more peaceful occupations have a more difficult time keeping their instincts from interfering with their logic. And Laani spent three years aboard Republic warships, she had to have come to grips with the fact that one general making a mistake could cost her life, as easily as one of her own could.
The normally overeager Beril noticed Sareena's expression; Laani wouldn't have the chance to start speaking first otherwise. "The bad news is that both the port engines are fried. Most of the damaged components are too far gone to be repaired, and there's too much damage in common to cannibalize one to fix the other. I could tear apart one of the starboard engines for the parts to get us nominal propulsion, but we'd still be down two engines and it's the speed we really need."
"By the way," Beril commented, "neat trick with the thrusters back there."
"Thanks; but unfortunately it'll only keep us from flying in circles at lower speeds, it's nowhere near enough to get out of the planet's gravity well. And jumping into hyperspace is our only real option if we're leaving with the ship's own power, we're not going to be able to take off unnoticed with that Gozanti out there, so landing again is out of the question."
Sareena sighed in frustration. "Are we sure it's still up there waiting for us? I don't think anyone's going to expect we lived through this landing."
Beril snarled. "Are you mad that my sheer talent got us out of a trap that your resistance buddies got us into?"
Rian shook his head gently. He wasn't going to walk into the middle of that.
Fortunately Laani interjected, so he didn't need to. "It's a completely standard Gozanti configuration, including the proton torpedo launcher. One torpedo could take out half our systems, and possibly even cripple or destroy us outright with a lucky hit, if it'd bothered to launch any." She crossed her arms before continuing. "Between that and how far it followed us, do you think it'll give up before finding out what happened to us?"
Sareena took a deep breath. It was something Rian had noticed: She frequently sighed, or took a deep breath, or otherwise made some sort of vocal noise before responding...as if she was trying to prevent the first words that came to mind from coming out of her mouth. "I suppose not. Now, I didn't get a good look at the fighters on the way down, but those were CloakShapes, right?"
"Yep," Beril confirmed. "With upgraded engines to keep up with us, obviously."
"Well yeah," Sareena agreed, "CloakShapes are cheap and easy to customize, there's no other reason to have one. Still, they perform quite well in atmospheres, so if they can follow us into the atmosphere they wouldn't have a problem following us in the atmosphere...OK, any brilliant ideas on how we can get off this planet in one piece?"
"The obvious approach," Rian said, "is a pirate ship."
"Yeah," Laani agreed, "pirates aren't normally self-sustaining, because piracy...And even if for some strange reason this base is, it'd have to be able to support pirate ships in orbit, because piracy still. We'd have to get to the base though, which might be a problem; CloakShapes are single-seaters like most fighters, and it's not like we can walk from island to island."
"Actually..." Beril cut in, sounding slightly embarrassed.
Rian fixed a hard stare on her face. "You landed us on the same landmass as the base and didn't tell anyone, didn't you?" he accused.
"Well someone was supposed to figure out a plan that didn't involve hiking through forsaken wilderness for hours first!"
"Seriously?" Laani demanded.
"Look: We entered the atmosphere, we traveled close to the ground, we're technically in walking distance of the base, and now we're powered down...somewhat permanently. Other than the order of operations it's exactly like I said we'd do, what more do you want?"
"Telling us sooner so we don't waste time," Laani countered flatly. "If we're close to the base, any reserve fighters or even speeders they have at the base could be out there searching for us, they could find us that much sooner. We've got a workable objective, but we need a relocation plan for it now."
Mission planning, Rian had a little experience with. "We'd have to do our own recon on foot anyway, so the only difference is making the extended trip." It was quite an improvement over hoping they could commandeer four fighters intact. "Still have your wilderness survival gear on board?" he asked Sareena.
"Of course," she replied, "so we should be okay if mundane natural threats come up. That still leaves the pirates, though."
"Beril," Laani asked, "there weren't any traces of installations on the surface, were there?"
"Unless you consider that fighters have to come from somewhere, no. As far as our scanners could tell there's just a ton of rocks, plants and water."
"That means no scanning installations on the surface," Laani mused. "OK, we should have enough parts in our miscellaneous supplies to throw together an infrared jammer to take with us."
Beril shot a disbelieving look at Laani, before Rian had to guess what Laani had in mind. "Isn't creating a thermal anomaly going to pinpoint us?"
"That all depends on the range," Laani countered. "With all the moisture in the atmosphere for there to be so much rain, and the shade from the giant trees, and the heat reflection potential of the exposed rock? There's plenty of environmental diffusion there, a jammer'll do just fine to mask heat signatures."
"Ah," Beril said, "you're hiding us from the Gozanti's lifeform scans, which could spot us anywhere on the island's surface from orbit."
"Exactly. And with no ground installations, there's nothing with enough sensitivity to identify jamming at the ranges we're talking about. Fighters or speeders would detect the anomaly if they got close, but I understand Rian has a solution for that."
"Oh yeah," Rian confirmed with enthusiasm, as he hefted his ion dispersion rifle for emphasis.
"Just one problem," Beril said. "The base we're headed for is where any search operation is going to be run from. As long as they're looking for us, there's going to be a lot of traffic getting close to us."
"Good point," Sareena said as she placed a hand to her chin. "It's going to be especially difficult if it turns out the launch area is the only entrance."
"Rian," Laani said, "your powered armor. It doesn't require an active onboard reactor, does it?"
"Doesn't have one," he said, "the energy core charges externally and stores power for up to twelve hours of operation. It doesn't have a reactor energy signature to be detected, by design."
"Good. The best way to get them to stop searching is to convince them there's no longer anything to find. Overloading the ship's reactors would do a fine job of vaporizing any organic material aboard and drawing their attention."
"So they couldn't know we weren't there to find," Rian concluded. "But does mean we'll have to carry, or equip, anything we want to keep."
"What?!" Beril complained. "I go to all the trouble of saving the ship, and now you want to blow it up?!"
"It does sound rather drastic," Sareena agreed.
Laani rolled her eyes. "I'm not exactly thrilled with the idea, but it beats waiting around to see when they find us. Besides, we survived the landing, and that's the important part; one light freighter is a small price to pay for our safety. If we knew where else these caves open to the surface that'd be one thing, but we don't even know if there's another opening. And we sure don't have time to look."
Sareena let out a long sigh. "You're right. I just hope blowing up the only escape option we already have is a good idea."
"It's not an escape option," Rian declared, "that's the point. Buying time for us to find an actual escape is all it's good for now." Speaking of actual escapes..."Beril, how far away are we from the base?"
"Few kilometers," she answered listlessly.
"We'd better hurry then," Laani said. "If we get delayed and this turns into an overnight hike, we're in big trouble."
"You ladies and Beril go and load up," Rian said, "I'll keep watch here."
"Excuse me?" Beril protested, too indignantly to be a genuine reaction, as Sareena walked back towards the ship. Not that he'd have said it if he was serious.
"You know you'd just ask what I wanted you to do too," he countered patronizingly.
"Not the point!"
Laani sighed. "Seriously, go grab what you can already. Do you really want to be hanging around while I'm rigging the timer for the reactor?"
Rian caught the glimpse of fear in Beril's eyes before she turned and ran after Sareena. "Hey," she called out in jest, "I thought the captain went down with the ship?"
"It looks pretty down to me," Sareena answered flatly.
Laani slowly shook her head. "I really hope she was exaggerating about hating wilderness," she commented.
"She isn't going to let the air kill her, if that's what you're worried about," he said. "Same way Sareena isn't going to let the price tag on the ship kill anyone else."
Laani paused for a second. "So noted. Doesn't powered armor take a little while to start up, though?"
"Couple minutes," Rian answered, keeping his eyes peeled for possible attackers from the direction of the cave opening. "I'll head in when Sareena's out here to cover. Don't you have a jammer to jury-rig?"
"And a reactor to push near overload and a timer to actually start the overloading. Figured I'd give Beril a headstart before the reactor warnings started."
Even though Ahsoka had set the timer for the reactor herself, she still flinched at the cacophony of the ship's reactor exploding, over half a kilometer behind the four of them. It was at least an order of magnitude louder than the sporadic thunderclaps that had played all around in the storm clouds overhead, above the towering trees.
It took a couple seconds for the sounds of the explosion to subside enough for the precipitation to be heard again. The downpour didn't actually reach the level of "torrential" itself, in Ahsoka's opinion...but the jungle floor showed the occasional fallen leaf amidst the myriad vibrant bushes, vines, and other flora shielded from the direct impact of the rain; and those giant leaves were wider than she was tall, horns included. Wherever the rain managed to break through to the surface, it formed sheets of water, spraying droplets in every direction as it crashed into the ground from great heights.
She took a deep breath, something she was aware Beril was strenuously trying to avoid. Master Kenobi had told her once that the Force was strong in places such as this, and sure enough she could feel the intensity of its presence. He also told her that these times were when his master would remind him to be mindful of the here and now, to beware of anxieties of the future clouding his judgment. It was one of the few times he'd mentioned Master Jinn: "Impulsive, headstrong, empathetic...you'd have liked him."
"You're not proud of that terror you jury-rigged, are you?" Beril asked accusingly from behind.
She supposed getting stuck on the past wasn't being mindful of the here and now, either. "It blowing up when planned was nice," she responded evenly. Ahsoka had no doubt in her own abilities, of course, but there was a slight possibility that they'd all find out the hard way if the reactor's integrity had been compromised in the crash landing.
"I guess," Beril said with a sad reluctance.
Ahsoka, surprised at the absence of a comment about losing the ship, looked behind her. Beril dragging a damp sleeve against the creases that might as well have been sculpted on her forehead told most of the story. Her uncovered hair was slick with rainwater and almost shapeless, losing the distinction between the individual strands that she worked to maintain, and the occasional droplet ran down her hair to fall on her face. Clearly Beril's upbringing on Nar Shaddaa left her ill-prepared to deal with precipitation of this magnitude.
Not that Ahsoka didn't understand that the circumstances were extraordinary. Walking through the sheets of water on the edges of this tree cluster had almost been nauseating, as the impact of the water rattling her horns was enough to make her echolocation go haywire. If she was able to survive in the reactor when it exploded, the boom reverberating from every direction would probably have the same effect. But none of them could afford for her to cut off one of her senses, so she would endure.
"You going to make it?" Ahsoka asked casually to preempt the silence.
Beril rolled her eyes instead of answering. "You going to tell me why you wanted me to haul your ugly contraption around?" she countered, indicated the thermal jamming device in her hand. Which did, admittedly, look like someone had shoved one of those tiny Separatist recon droids through an oblong datapad.
Ahsoka sighed. "Someone needs to keep an eye on it, and I guessed this would get you out of hauling heavy supplies through the mud. Come on, we've got to keep up."
Even with all the rain splatters in the way, Ahsoka had an easy time seeing where Sareena and Rian were. Especially Rian, since the dusty blue color of his bulky armor didn't blend with the flora in color or shape. Plus, their "leapfrog" tactic of Sareena covering Rian's advancement with her sniper rifle, before Sareena caught up with Rian for them to start over, meant they made alternating bursts of quick motion that would be hard to miss.
"You know," Beril said while the two of them were hastily pushing forward and avoiding mud where they could, "since I already saved our lives, since you kind of need me now, and since I already feel like a wet rat...How am I supposed to trust you?"
"What, the jammer? Rian's armor will run out of power before the jammer burns out, and that's far more than enough time to—"
"No, you. You can do all this stuff, and all I hear is that you were in the Republic Navy...as if that explains anything about you! The fighting, the haggling, how you keep talking with Sareena alone...You're both hiding something from me. Something about you."
Ahsoka pursed her lips. So Sareena and Rian were right: her actions had drawn the very attention she'd been hoping to avoid. She hadn't really considered the possibility before, she had just kind of assumed she'd avoid it. What else was she unconsciously taking for granted, right now? Her ingenuity? Her talent? Her resolve?
"I left the Navy," Ahsoka said, "before the Clone Wars ended. I told you I'd heard of Ahsoka Tano...you could say I followed her career. And her trial was the trigger. I was with the Navy to do good in the galaxy, as she was with the Jedi. But then-Chancellor Palpatine was so intent on ignoring everything she'd done for the Republic she and I served, all to look like he was decisive. And of course, he was the one ultimately in command of the Navy. After her mentor in the Jedi managed to save her by finding the truth, I...realized there was going to be no one there to save me. The Republic was infected, and the person in charge of it had just proven his willingness to support executions on the illusion of sedition.
"So. I'm a deserter. I picked up a lot of stuff learning how to survive on my own, which ended up being really useful when the Empire came around a few months later. And that's why I'm here now, to fight the Empire that crushed or corrupted everything I had in life." Ahsoka sniffed and blinked away the tears that were forming, or at least spread them around her eyes enough that they could blend with condensation. "It's not something I like to spread around."
Beril was only silent for a second. "That...doesn't really explain anything."
Ahsoka rolled her eyes, despite knowing Beril was behind her. That was all true, even if only technically so in a couple places; if that wasn't enough for Beril's curiosity, too bad. She could at least bring something herself..."Are you going to tell me what made you leave Nar Shaddaa behind? It sounds like your kind of place, and I think you miss it."
"...No," she answered flatly, "I'm not going to tell you that."
"Well then," Ahsoka proclaimed curtly. "I trust you not to do anything that would needlessly endanger me, despite knowing hardly anything about you; and I expect you to do the same."
"Fine," Beril answered in the same curt tone. "Can you really see them through all this crap?"
The view ahead was dominated by an erratic spray of water droplets from multiple directions, but Ahsoka's mind obediently composited the constantly moving scene into a sensible image. The blue color of Rian's armor off in the distance stood out against the massive tree behind him...and his posture, facing their general direction with his arms crossed, was unmistakable.
"Yeah, they're waiting for us to catch up. Come on."
Beril sighed. "I can't wait to get inside...anywhere, really."
"The precipitation's beyond ridiculous, but it's a nice change of pace from being stuck in a ship." Ludicrous or not, Ahsoka was actually enjoying all the downpour. Not so much for its own sake, but because it was a sharp contrast to the environment of Wasskah which had giant trees of its own. She supposed she should be encouraged by memories of first handling herself independently of Anakin; but the memory of how it felt to be hunted for sport by Trandoshans, with three Jedi Initiates in tow, was something she preferred to avoid at the moment.
They hadn't been able to escape on their own, after all, and one of them didn't survive the ordeal. And there was a Trandoshan hunting them, for sport or otherwise; she could still feel the Inquisitor's presence faintly, enough to know he was lingering in orbit. Whether he was going to stay in orbit or check out ground zero personally was still unclear so soon after the explosion, but either way was safer for her companions. Safer for him to be out of her reach, too, so it was really a good thing for everyone. Except for the pirates who were going to be down a few ships, maybe.
"That wasn't why you killed it, was it?" Beril asked jokingly.
Ahsoka rolled her eyes as they continued on. Beril was certainly taking the ship's destruction personally..."No. But since you mention it...what do you think was going on up there? If the Gozanti was trying to kill us it'd have used its proton torpedoes, and if it was trying not to kill us it wouldn't have used its lasers either."
"Clearly they saw an advantage to not vaporizing us. Salvage value maybe. Maybe the attack was worked out in advance, the base did know we were coming."
"Someone tipped them off, obviously. But I've never seen an installation launch starfighters so quickly without being on high alert already. So it's not a coincidence we were followed by a ship this far along the Outer Rim."
The launch timing hadn't seemed unusually prepared to Ahsoka, though she eventually realized all her experience was from being stationed on warships in the middle of a war; the Navy couldn't afford to stray far from high alert, any more than she imagined pirates could be able to maintain high alert without morale and fatigue becoming problems. So if Beril was right, that meant the Inquisitor and the pirates were working together. Which would be strange, the Empire naturally opposed piracy and pirates typically were distrusting sorts.
Of course, Beril didn't actually know the Inquisitor was aboard the freighter. "So who do you think followed us, and how did they know to follow us?"
"Well...I doubt it was the guy Miss Organa was coaxing information out of. He was definitely a fixer, and the middleman doesn't get into the thick of things. His contact that I eavesdropped on, maybe, but Sareena said we'd be back in a week; and even if she hadn't why would he head out here so soon? I think it was that lightsaber maniac. I thought it was my imagination at the time, but I think he looked directly at me on his way out. He could have been following us already."
Ahsoka took a deep breath of moist air as she walked around a beige stone only slightly higher than her knee, but still tall enough that Beril might have had to climb it. That made sense; while they'd been theorizing that the Empire was tracking her down on the entirely correct assumption she was Ahsoka, all four of them had been there at that poor excuse for an ambush after they acquired the Sparrow's engine. The Empire could very well be following her indirectly by following them. And if they wanted to be sure she was Ahsoka before making their move, waiting for the ship to be isolated from civilization would eliminate opportunities for escape. Something of the sort could be what happened with the Silver Sparrow itself, in fact.
"The real question," Beril continued, "is why pirates are working with an Imperial agent in the first place. The options are obvious: The Empire made them an offer they couldn't refuse, the Inquisitor is in business for himself here, or the piracy is just a front for a covert Imperial group. But the implications vary wildly."
"While true," Ahsoka responded, "none of those cases are going to make anyone eager to call for reinforcements; exposing a side business to the Empire or secret operation of the Empire is suicidal, and pirates aren't going to be more cooperative if an Imperial fleet that can wipe them out comes along. We might get out of here without any more complications."
"Yeah that's gonna happen," Beril countered sarcastically.
A low-pitched, slightly electronic groan came from ahead. "Some time today would be nice," Rian said condescendingly, his voice distorted by speakers Ahsoka assumed were integrated with his powered armor.
Beril scoffed. "Some of us don't have mobility-assisting environmentally-sealed exoskeletons, you know!" she said loudly.
"And some of us don't take leisurely strolls through jungles, so what's your point?"
"Yeah, yeah," Ahsoka cut in dismissively before the pointless argument had a chance to take hold. "You waiting around by a tree for a particular reason, or...?"
"It's the last tree before charging through direct exposure towards the next jungle cluster. Bad time to start separated."
Now that they'd all caught up, Ahsoka could finally spot Sareena crouched behind a pair of rocks, holding her sniper rifle vertically with one hand and looking off in the distance with the pair of electrobinoculars in the other. "Can you even see anything with those?"
"Well," Sareena answered, "nothing resembling viable imagery; but there's a slightly darker area ahead where our next waypoint is supposed to be, so our nav data is still good. Probably. No trace of power signatures either. Beril, you haven't picked up any nearby comms, have you?"
"Nope," Beril responded. Ahsoka hadn't even noticed any monitoring equipment that Beril had to be wearing; clearly she was far more experienced with clandestine operations than with precipitation. "If anyone saw what you guys did to our ship, they aren't talking yet."
"Time to move then," Rian declared as he unfolded his arms, returning the ion weapon leaning against his shoulder to his hands.
"Yeah," Ahsoka agreed, "the sooner we get this over with the better."
Maybe using her arm to diffuse the sheet of water at the edge would prevent the stomach discomfort this time...
"No power signatures," Sareena declared from inside the mouth of the newly discovered cave.
They'd headed here because the cluster of giant trees was the driest spot close to the mountain, and the pirate base inside it. It wasn't until they arrived that they discovered the tunnel and the volume of water it was dumping out, which was probably why the area was so fertile. A quick chemical analysis had revealed the presence of repulsorlift fluid in the water, meaning this was runoff from the pirates' hangar; so there had to be an opening into the base somewhere...with any luck, one that was big enough for them to fit through; charging through the actual hangar opening was all but guaranteed to result in a shootout, so it wouldn't take much for this to be a superior option.
And Sareena was tired of Beril complaining about the rain, anyway.
The ambient sounds of rainfall took on a metallic ring for a moment, as Rian stepped through the mouth of the cave and the downfall there sprayed meaninglessly on his armor. "This tunnel opening is straight and narrow," he noted to the other three of them. "It'd be a great spot for intrusion detection," he added suspiciously.
"Right," Sareena agreed, "assuming the pirates know this tunnel is here. We only saw it ourselves when we were close by, after all."
"There could be more active countermeasures, though," Beril said. "You sure the runoff isn't toxic?"
"Those trees out there are doing quite well," Ahsoka said. "They wouldn't look so healthy if there was anything in the water strong enough to kill us...though I wouldn't recommend taking a drink."
"Ew," Beril responded with disgust.
"In any case," Sareena declared, "we need to keep moving. Time for nightvision, people."
It might have been overly cautious, but a light source could easily be detected without electronic equipment, and if there was a connection into the base they certainly didn't want someone seeing them coming. To say nothing of the possibility of indigenous lifeforms...they hadn't detected any fauna thus far, of course, but on the other hand it'd be completely typical for animals to use caves as shelter.
They proceeded carefully down the tunnel. Or at least three of them did: Ahsoka strode down the center of the tunnel, confidently stepping on the foot-sized rocks in the stream; while Beril, Rian and Sareena cautiously walked down the damp stone ledge on the side. A task made more difficult by the green tinting of their IR goggles, or vision mode in the case of Rian's helmet, as it obscured some of the fine detail that would reveal the full shape of the rock surface in normal lighting.
"How does she do that?" Beril wondered.
"If you think runoff is bad," Ahsoka said, "try getting away from patrols through a sewer sometime. Actually, don't; I wouldn't wish that on anyone. Unless it's some of that fake fresh air scent you like?"
"Ew! No, sewage is how modern systems isolate nature's garbage; it's civilization's pus."
Sareena stopped moving for a second, as she recalled a particularly nasty abscess she had to treat, and the sickly green pus she had to drain out of it herself..."Can we not?" she protested.
"Fine by me," Ahsoka muttered. "You should get up here and see this anyway," she added at normal volume.
The tunnel opened into a cavern. Sareena had seen much larger caves, most recently the one Beril crashed the ship into; but compared to the entry point's ledge only being wide enough to walk single file, and the visibility slaughtering rainfall they'd trudged through, this place felt voluminous. It almost appeared comfortable aside from the green tint her goggles gave to everything, before she noticed the motion of water covering the center of the place, steadily flowing down towards the tunnel.
And flowing from the apparent end of a waterfall twenty meters away, which she guessed was what Ahsoka was drawing attention to.
"Water's shallow," Ahsoka said, "it just runs out the way we came in. And clearly it isn't falling directly from the hangar, or I couldn't hear myself without screaming."
Sareena looked to her right. The water didn't reach far away from the tunnel; the rest of the floor was damp but reasonably smooth, and wide enough that all four of them could cross side-by-side. And it led right up to where the water flowed in; erosion must've created a depression that the water splashed into.
"Come on," she said as she walked to the waterfall. Time to find out if this was their way into the base. The water source being indirect was in some ways a good thing. She'd been hoping for a horizontal entry path higher up in the mountain; with as high above their altitude as the hangar was, a direct path would require an extremely high climb over water-drenched rock and create an incredibly effective zone for surveillance. She had no idea yet what the apparent series of small drops entailed, but it'd have to be quite bad to be riskier than that.
As they approached the waterfall, Sareena noticed another tunnel opening leading out of the cavern, a tunnel the waterfall itself had obscured until they were this close. If the waterfall didn't pan out, deeper spelunking was an option.
"No power signatures up there either," Beril offered, saving Sareena the trouble of checking herself.
With as much safety as Sareena could expect, she looked at the shaft. Water poured out from about ten meters above from a vaguely cylindrical gap in the rock, rising vertically but slightly angled; the combination of the goggles and the water output made it too hard to gauge the total height. They had scanning instruments that could measure it, but it wasn't pressing: She could see enough to tell that the opening for the waterfall was tall enough for even Rian to fit through, and the gap itself was about one-and-a-half times his heavily-armored width.
The shaft was flush with the rock wall of the cave they were standing in. The incline leading up to it looked just gentle enough to be climbable without needing to break out specialized gear, and to get into the shaft laterally instead of climbing against the flow of the water. But even so, the path would need to be scouted before she could even consider sending all of them up that way, so the next question was who to send.
Rian was a nonstarter, the size and weight of his armor alone could easily destroy the very surfaces the rest of them would need to follow. Beril was no stranger to maintenance conduits, but getting her to trudge through natural tunnels seemed more like a joke than a plan. Sareena could do it herself; it didn't look that different from the several mountainsides she'd scaled over the years.
And she would have done it, if she didn't have access to someone more versatile than herself. "Beril, you're not going to be offended if I send Laani to follow our waterfall to its source, are you?" If nothing else, getting away from everyone would let Ahsoka use her Jedi tricks unobserved; there was no way Sareena could compete with those.
"Not at all," Beril answered, "she can play in the water all you like."
"Thanks," Ahsoka commented dismissively.
"Oh wait," Beril added as she pulled a palm-sized device out from her...sleeve, Sareena had to guess. "Here, take this."
"Covert holocam?" Ahsoka asked as she set her backpack on the cave floor. Sareena had almost forgotten she was wearing it, there certainly wasn't any change in her nimble movement to even suggest she was carrying extra weight.
"Yep," Beril confirmed. "The rest of us will want to see what's up there for ourselves, you know."
A passive observation device that small likely couldn't output enough power to be detected normally. "Good thinking," Sareena commented. "You've got ten minutes; if you're not back by then, I'm coming after you."
"Noted," Ahsoka responded with detachment, seemingly apathetic that her safety was being considered. Or perhaps, utterly unconvinced that she could be put in jeopardy in the first place.
Ahsoka walked next to the rock wall, and starting scaling it without a word. Sareena watched her ascent, on the extremely unlikely chance she'd fall and need someone to catch her; but Ahsoka showed that routine deftness of hers, firmly grasping hand-sized bulges in the rock and pulling herself up to them with little delay, as if she knew in advance they would securely support her weight...which Sareena reminded herself could be true.
"She's got very good arms," Rian commented once Ahsoka walked down the shaft, out of sight.
Beril scoffed. "We've known that since the Gamorrean Rumble...haven't we, Sareena?"
Sareena rolled her eyes, deriving a negligible sense of satisfaction from the goggles preventing anyone from noticing. "What's that supposed to mean, Beril?"
"When were you going to tell us about Laani?"
"Tell you what about her?"
"You can relax, she already told me everything."
Sareena paused for a split second. Beril was clearly trying to squeeze information out of her by pretending she already had it, with as hard as she was trying to sell it; but it was still annoying that Ahsoka had managed to keep Beril's attention for this long. "Really? What did she say?"
"You know," Beril answered after a short pause.
After a pause of her own, Sareena responded: "How am I supposed to know what she told you, much less whether they're the same things she told me?"
"AHA!" Beril exclaimed. "So she is hiding something!"
Sareena shook her head. Beril was perfectly capable of being subtle, but she clearly wasn't trying it now. "How could I know that without knowing if what she told you is the same thing she told me?"
"If you didn't think she was hiding something why would you even think what she told you isn't what she told me?" Beril countered, unflummoxed by the complicated construction of the sentence.
"You mean besides the Empire-sized gap in all the records we could find?"
"Well...yeah, besides that!" she hurriedly responded.
Rian slowly shook his armored head. "Smooth," he commented sarcastically.
"Shut up!" Beril protested.
Sareena exhaled in annoyance. "Do you honestly think we didn't check out every aspect of her story we possibly could before we'd even consider using her as a contact, much less an operative? What kind of half-baked operations do you think we're running here?" Conveniently, that was entirely true.
Rian answered before Beril could. "The kind that don't warn us about multi-million credit bounties?"
"Yeah!" Beril hurriedly added.
Rian's posture shifted slightly towards Beril; if Sareena's memory of his body language was right, he was looking at her disapprovingly from behind the helmet. "Don't try to upstage me," he said patronizingly, "you aren't fooling anyone."
"Am too!" Beril responded on instinct.
"Other than yourself."
"Look," Sareena interrupted, "we didn't hear about that one because Intel didn't think it was important, because it wasn't on Laani Sy. I informed them they're at risk for termination if they let another Togruta bounty slip past us."
Beril looked up, slightly. "What if they knew Laani was that Ahsoka," she asked, "and were trying to get her killed?"
Now Beril was legitimately trying to eke her answer out. "Didn't we figure out the bounty was supposed to draw attention to a Jedi? That'd be pointless if they already knew where she was."
"Well..." Beril said with a pause, "how do we know only the Empire is after her?"
Sareena took a deep breath. She knew Beril well enough to know that if she was actually that paranoid she wouldn't need to pause to express her concern; she was stalling in the hope of regaining her momentum. Something Sareena didn't think she needed. "Seriously?" she said incredulously. "You're really positing that some other group has moles in our organization, and has some way to know where Ahsoka is, and yet chooses to let a bounty warning slide instead of, let's say, tipping off the Empire so they can kill her for them?"
The sudden movement of Beril's neck showed that Sareena had successfully taken her off guard. "Well when you put it like that—"
"Give it a rest already," Rian said dismissively.
"No no," Sareena said with sarcastic enthusiasm as she turned her head to look directly at Beril, "I want to hear who she has in mind."
For a couple seconds, the only sounds came from the waterfall.
"...crap," Beril finally said with mild dejection.
Sareena took another breath, reminding herself not to be smug. She couldn't very well tell Ahsoka to reign herself in and not do the same. The trick now was to sound like she was revealing something that 'Laani' couldn't deny if pressed, so Beril thought she 'won' something instead of continuing to look for a 'prize'. "Now on the actual subject...Laani served aboard numerous vessels in the Republic Navy, and deserted some time near the end of the Clone Wars. The quality of the surviving Republic archives leaves a lot of ambiguity, but to the extent possible every deployment she mentioned to us occurred and the limited biometric data we got matches Laani's. And clearly she's capable of performing the job she says she was there to do. What more do you expect from me?"
Before either of them could answer, motion from the shaft drew everyone's attention.
"Mixed news," Ahsoka said with minor strain as she descended down the rock wall. "This connects near the base, but it's no good as an entry point. It's covered with a steel grate."
"How do you know it connects near the base?" Rian asked.
"Let me show you," she answered as she reached the floor and walked towards the rest of them. "Thanks to Beril's little holocam..."
The little device projected a glowing three-dimensional image around the four of them; Sareena moved the eyepieces of her googles to just above her eyes to get a less green-tinted look. Most of it was simply rock and more rock. In one direction was a still frame of running water covering an angled rock floor, streaming in from a patch of gray sky apparently; in the opposite direction was what at first appeared to be a rock barrier in front of a cavern, but she quickly recognized that its surface was too smooth to match its scattered rocky texture.
"That barrier is clearly artificial," Ahsoka continued, "and barely in view from this angle are—"
"—a pair of speeder-scale ion cannon emplacements," Rian finished, "flanking the tunnel opening into the cavern."
"...yeah those," Ahsoka confirmed. Sareena looked hard at the edges of the cavern opening she saw, and sure enough a weapon barrel was visible on each side. She noted to herself that if those were speeder-scale, then the entire tunnel would be just wide enough to accommodate a light freighter directly; not just speeders, starfighters and shuttles.
"Someone stumbles across those," Beril commented, "you're just asking for someone to toss a bomb past them. They have to be near the base itself, probably even on its power grid."
"Exactly. They're well hidden until you're actually in the tunnel, in their firing range; and I assume the local rock covering the barrier's supposed to hide it, and whatever's behind it, from exterior scanning."
Sareena slowly shook her head. "I don't suppose this gets us any closer to getting in."
"Not directly," Ahsoka admitted. "I mean sure, we could blow up the grate, and let everyone know where we were...if we didn't mind climbing right into the line of fire. Ion cannons that size are perfectly capable of frying organic beings our size."
"Not a pleasant scent," Rian commented. He was carrying an anti-vehicle ion weapon himself, and Sareena chose not to wonder how often he'd fired it directly against personnel.
"But," Ahsoka continued without addressing Rian's comment either, "I saw something that might be meaningful up on the ceiling."
Sareena looked straight up...and saw, in the projection, some sort of opening in the rock with...more rock behind it. "Is that another tunnel?"
"Near as I can tell," Ahsoka confirmed. "Couldn't do much more than look at it from a couple angles, but I think it could be running parallel to the big tunnel. It might connect elsewhere, like down here...and possibly in the cavern behind that barrier. It's worth checking, if nothing else; if we get desperate we can head back here and try the grate. As I'm sure Beril will remind us, we don't have a ship of our own now."
"Well we don't!" Beril unsurprisingly reminded them.
Sareena briefly closed her eyes, trying to visualize the layout from Ahsoka's image. The running water meant the big tunnel angled downwards and its mouth was exposed to the rainfall outside, the ceiling opening being directly over the grated opening suggested they were produced by the same source of erosion during the planet's geological history, the barrier appeared short enough that the ceiling opening would allow looking over and behind it...
She opened her eyes. "It's worth a shot. Even if it doesn't actually connect all the way through, the chance to actually see what we're getting ourselves into would be worth it. Assuming it's not monitored, of course."
"Ceiling entrances are often overlooked," Rian commented.
"Especially with ceilings that weren't built," Ahsoka added. "Why would they block off the floor but not the ceiling if they knew it was there? There weren't any active power signatures from that direction that this holocam could detect, so the opening itself is probably safe."
"Still worth a shot," Sareena agreed, as she put her goggles back in position.
The holographic image receded back into the device in Ahsoka's hand. "I imagine you want this back?" she asked.
"Probably a good idea," Beril agreed as she took the covert holocam back.
"Okay," Sareena declared loudly, "Rian and Beril, you two make a sweep to see if there's any other exits out of this cavern. We'll be right behind you."
"And why is that?" Beril challenged.
"Because I don't want any of us isolated if we can help it," she answered flatly, "and your hair looks like it's had enough spray from this waterfall as it is."
"...whatever," Beril commented dismissively as she and Rian walked off, while Ahsoka slowly put her backpack back on.
"She's how old again?" Ahsoka asked once the two of them were well out of earshot, not much of a challenge with the waterfall right there.
Sareena sighed, fully aware of how annoying Beril could get. "What'd you tell her on the way here, anyway?"
"That I deserted the Navy after Ahsoka's trial."
So Beril had heard that from both of them. Convenient. "She tried making a bigger deal out of it."
Ahsoka snorted. "Yeah, I heard."
"We could be here all day on the subject." Whether the subject was Beril's perception or Ahsoka's. "Do you already know if the tunnel connects down here?"
"The Force guides us...which means yes, but I can't explain how or where or why."
"...seriously?" Sareena asked skeptically.
"Yeah, I thought it was crazy the first thousand times I heard it too. But I've never known the Force to be forthcoming with context. Like how I can tell the Inquisitor is still in orbit, and not on the surface."
Sareena took a deep breath. "But not precisely where, or why."
"Exactly. I assume he's waiting for something...meaning it'd be best if we could get off the planet without looking like we're hiding something. Speaking of which, we should catch up before Beril gets more suspicious."
"'More suspicious'? Beril? Now that would be a trick..."