Sorry it took me so long to update -- I have been fighting a massive dose of writer's block on this story. It's actually helped me to work on other projects so I could get back to this one. Thank you for being patient, and thank you for your reviews!
As the hatch to the Odosian II slid open, Bast reflected that this Eustis Penn had done a pretty damn good job of choosing a sanctuary for himself.
Cool air scented with exotic greenery greeted the two of them as they made their way down the ship's ramp. Overhead, brightly plumed whisper birds drifted by. The sky was a soft blue just faintly tinged with green, almost the exact shade of a sargoth's shell. From somewhere off to his right Bast heard the murmur of flowing water.
"That way," Dhani said, pointing almost directly ahead.
Through the forest, he thought he spied an edifice of towering dark stone, looking grim and incongruous against the lush vegetation. He supposed it made sense that Count Dooku had built something so at odds with its surroundings.
The planet had a muddled history and had fallen into disarray after the Count's death. But apparently some enterprising individual had decided to make a pile of credits by selling the unused fortress to Penn, who, according Dhani's wry observations, had a flair for the dramatic.
"Really," she'd said, as they began to make their descent toward Null, "what use does a slicer have for a fortress? He'd have done better with a penthouse on Coruscant or Gyndine. But I suppose that was too pedestrian for Eustis."
None of this exactly reassured Bast, who was none too sanguine about dealing with Eustis Penn after the debacle on board the Westwind. But a survey of their supplies had told him that their oxygen generators needed a refresher before they could even think of heading on to Chandrila.
So Dhani sent a message over the most widely used frequencies, asking to talk to Eustis Penn. He responded almost immediately; Bast guessed that the slicer had his equipment constantly scanning both normal and subspace channels for any chatter in the area. He sounded surprised but friendly enough.
Too friendly, in Bast's opinion. Unfortunately, at the moment no one seemed to be asking him for it.
They'd had little choice, though. Their oxygen supply would never gave gotten them all the way to the Core. Bast told himself that dealing with Penn was still preferable to trying to make contact with the tribes who inhabited Null. While they were marginally sympathetic to the Empire, he worried they might drive a hard bargain. Eustis Penn, on the other hand, apparently had no need to gouge them for parts. And Dhani swore that she and the slicer had parted amicably enough…
So here Bast was, tromping through the forest after the girl who had managed to turn his life upside down in less than three standard days. He couldn't shake the feeling that if he'd just been a bit more clever or more capable, he could have avoided the current situation completely, but exactly how he was at a loss to say.
The planet was beautiful, though. Good hunting grounds, he thought, looking over the widely spaced trees with a practiced eye. The whisper birds were prized by hunters the galaxy over, but Bast hadn't yet had a chance to set his sights on them. And he rather doubted that Dhani would appreciate him delaying their journey to Chandrila just so he could bag a few birds.
A wide door of some dark metal covered in an intricate embossed pattern opened as they approached. A voice came from the speaker directly inside.
"Welcome," it said, in Core accents as cultured as Bast's own. "Please come to the reception area on the second floor."
Bast arched an eyebrow at Dhani, and she shrugged. "Eustis always liked to control a situation. Might as well humor him."
A sigh tickled the back of Bast's throat, but he swallowed it and strode forward through a wide, short hallway that ended in an equally broad staircase. The interior of the building appeared to have been constructed out of the same dark, gleaming stone as the exterior, but gracefully curved lumas lit the way, making the effect more dramatic than brooding.
As they mounted the final step, an arched entryway led them into a spacious chamber agleam with shifting, subtle light. Bast recognized the pieces mounted at regular intervals in the dark stone walls -- he himself had owned one of Lugesh's light paintings, although it had been much smaller than the ones he saw now. Unfortunately, the painting was now gone, blasted into atoms along with everything else on the Death Star.
Odd that the thought of the lost painting should bring a little lump to his throat, the way the thought of his lost comrades-in-arms had not.
A tall man with a head of striking dark-red hair strode toward them. He wore an impeccably cut tunic and narrow pants, and was as handsome in his way as Rafi Vandemar had been. Naturally, Bast disliked him on sight.
That feeling of antipathy only increased as the stranger -- who of course had to be Eustis Penn -- held his hands out to Dhani. She took them, smiling brightly as a supernova.
"Thank you so much, Eustis," she said. "I'm afraid our poor ship is in need of some tender care."
"Think nothing of it," Penn replied. Then his gaze shifted away from her to Bast, who had remained off to one side. "And your…companion?"
"General Moradmin Bast," he said, and gave a crisp half-bow. "Your service to the Empire will be noted."
The remark was something of a gamble, as of course Penn and Dhani had met while working for the Rebellion. But as far as he could tell, Bast surmised that the slicer was now a free agent…and Null was most definitely not a world attached to the Alliance. While perhaps Penn had no need of actual wealth, influence and connections were something else altogether.
It might have been a trick of the shifting light in the room, but Bast thought he spied an avaricious gleam come and go in the other man's eyes. All the better. Simple greed he could work with. It was idealists such as Rafi Vandemar who tended to cause the most trouble.
"This is a rather fine collection of Lugeshes you have here," Bast went on, moving away from Penn to study the painting closest to the stairs. In its current state, it resembled the polar lights he had once seen on Lanarsk Prime -- a rippling gauze veil in subtle shades of aqua and lavender and shell pink. "This piece would appear to be from one of his earlier periods."
"You are a collector?" Eustis Penn asked, surprise evident in his voice.
"Mostly an admirer. I regret that in my current position I don't have the time to decorate my quarters as I would like."
That was nicely done, Bast thought with some satisfaction. The implication is that I have the means to collect these works, and it's only the constraints of my service which prevent me from doing so.
Penn's face was a study of grudging respect. Behind his shoulder, Bast could see Dhani's eyebrows performing some complicated gymnastics. No doubt she was trying to decide whether Bast was feeding Penn what he thought the slicer would want to hear, or whether he really did know what he was talking about.
"It's good to see that there are still some devotees of the arts in the Empire," Eustis Penn said, after a distinct pause. "But about your ship -- "
"The oxygen generators need a recharge," Bast said immediately. "Through an odd set of circumstances, I required the loan of a vessel, a loan which the sub-governor of Odos was good enough to give me. Unfortunately, his shuttle was not quite up to fleet standards."
"I'll have my people look into it," Penn replied.
Dhani crossed her arms, and her full mouth pulled into something closely resembling a smirk. "Since when do you have 'people'?"
"Since always, my dear. You just didn't know about them."
Again one finely arched brow raised itself in disbelief. However, she somehow managed to hold her tongue.
Penn turned so that he faced her. His tone a limpid drawl, he said, "I'm intrigued, though -- how in the galaxy did you end up in the company of a high-ranking Imperial officer? Did he make you a better offer?"
The insult hadn't even been disguised. Clearly Eustis Penn thought of Dhani as the sort of woman who would go with any man who promised her some sort of advancement. What that said about the slicer himself, Bast didn't know. Obviously he hadn't scrupled at having some sort of an intimate relationship with the young woman.
The sight of her pale, stricken features only angered Bast further. No, he wouldn't fool himself into thinking that she was some sort of untouched virginal creature -- just the little he had glimpsed of her past was enough to refute that idea. But however littered that past might be with former lovers, he knew they had been exactly that: men she had cared about, if only for a short time. He couldn't believe she had entered those relationships purely for personal gain.
"Hardly," Bast said, injecting the durasteel tones in his voice that had usually proved quite effective with his underlings. "It was imperative that Miss Wardilow not perish on the Death Star."
As soon as the words left his mouth, Bast cursed himself for his indiscretion. Had it been necessary for him to reveal exactly how they had met?
To his surprise, however, Eustis Penn only nodded, as if he had already been in possession of that information. "Yes, I knew she'd been detained on the Death Star."
"What?" Dhani demanded. "How?"
The smile Penn flickered in her direction was so condescending that Bast wished he could forcibly wipe it off the other man's mouth. Since they weren't in anything resembling a position of power, he could only clench his fists at his side and hope that one day whatever force which guided the galaxy would allow him to give the slicer the beating he so obviously deserved.
"I have my ways," Eustis replied. He shrugged, a negligent little movement that somehow showed off the fine drape of the tunic he wore. "You should know that."
From the brief nod she gave her ex-lover, Bast guessed that she probably did. The man was a slicer, after all -- one of the best, if Dhani's words were to be taken at face value. He didn't like to think that the Empire's databases could be so easily breached, but Bast knew better. It was an ongoing war that underlay the one fought in space, a struggle between Rebel slicers and Imperial coders to see who could would triumph: the Alliance operatives who could dissect code faster than a medical droid could perform an autopsy, or the semi-crazed geniuses who populated the encryption branches in Intelligence and COMPNOR.
"At any rate," Bast said, thinking he had somehow just lost some ground and not sure exactly how it had happened, "I believe it is safe to say that Miss Wardilow may be treated as a neutral participant for now."
"Bloom off the dusk rose?" asked Penn. He continued to stare down at Dhani without bothering to mask the expression of disdain he wore. "Rebellion lost its charm?"
Her chin went up in the movement Bast already knew so well. "A few weeks in an Imperial detention center tend to do that to a person." The soft lines of her lips hardened perceptibly. "But you didn't even need that much to walk away, did you, Eustis? All that took was a few command personnel who weren't quite quick enough to worship at your feet."
The barb hit home, Bast could tell; Penn's brows drew down, and he crossed his arms. "Idiots," he said.
"Maybe. Or maybe they were just doing their jobs." For a second longer she matched her former lover glare for glare, and then she looked away, a distant smile playing about her mouth. "But past is past, isn't it, Eustis? No need to dredge all that up now. Very simply, we need your help. And we hope that you'll give it."
If Bast hadn't been watching the other man so closely, he might have missed the almost imperceptible pause that preceded Penn's reply. "I would never let down a friend in need."
Well, at least not if you thought you might be able to get something out of it, Bast reflected in grim amusement.
The sunburst smile returned to Dhani's face. "We really do appreciate it. Don't we, General?"
The assistance, yes. The person providing it? Not quite so much.
Bast managed to adopt the expression of pleasant politeness he'd invariably been forced to plaster on his features whenever Grand Moff Tarkin or another member of the High Command made a statement he disagreed with but couldn't openly dispute. "Of course. As I said, your generous offer of assistance will not be forgotten."
Again that gleam came and went in Penn's eyes. Then he smiled and said, "I went to the liberty of having some rooms prepared for you, as I didn't know the extent of the repairs your vessel might require. I assume a suite with adjoining sleeping chambers will be sufficient?"
"Quite sufficient," Bast replied, without bothering to elaborate further. Let Penn think what he wanted. Separate bedrooms made the situation a bit easier to manage. If the sleeping arrangements were the slicer's not-so-subtle attempt at transmitting his opinion of their liaison, so be it.
"I usually take my evening meal at nineteen-thirty local. Of course I would like you to join me. It seems Dhani and I have some catching up to do."
There were few things Bast thought he'd enjoy less than hearing Eustis Penn and Dhani reminisce over their times together with the Rebellion, but refusing would only make him sound discourteous and petty. However, that didn't mean he couldn't inject a little archness into his reply. "We would be honored."
The quick, amused glance Dhani threw in his direction seemed to indicate she was wise to his game. But she sobered her expression as she turned toward Eustis Penn. "In the meantime, though, I think I'd like to rest a bit. The strain of the journey and everything."
She didn't look particularly strained, but the excuse worked well enough.
"Of course," Penn said at once. "DeeFour here will show you the way."
A protocol droid Bast hadn't even noticed came forward out of the shadows. Then again, he was fairly certain Penn had chosen that dark, gleaming finish for the droid precisely because it allowed the machine to blend into the background.
"If you will follow me?" it said, and gestured toward a turbolift located toward the rear of the reception chamber.
Bast nodded, and Dhani came at once to his side. Without speaking, they stepped into the 'lift after the droid. It pushed a button on the control console, and they shot upward, the lights on the indicator panel showing that their destination was a good five floors above the reception area.
He was loath to say much of anything in the droid's presence, and Dhani appeared to be in agreement. Such quiet was uncharacteristic of her, but it reassured Bast that she could be discreet when necessary.
Once they arrived at the sixth floor, the droid led them down a long corridor flooded with natural light from a series of enormous windows. Not very defensible, Bast reflected, but even as the criticism crossed his mind, he noticed the faint shimmer of energy shields distorting the landscape outside.
He wondered if Eustis Penn really had the sort of enemies that a fortress like this seemed to indicate, or whether he simply enjoyed putting on an elaborate show. The energy required to generate such a high level of shields day and night wasn't cheap. Then again, Dhani had already made it clear that money wasn't a particular concern for the slicer.
Bast wished he could say the same for himself. If he had access to ready credits, then none of this skulking around in backwater systems and begging assistance from Dhani's admittedly staggering pool of ex-lovers would be necessary. No, they could simply land where they wanted, purchase whatever goods or services they required, and be on their way. The rank bars on his uniform would be enough to dissuade those involved from asking too many questions about his unorthodox method of transportation and his even more unlikely traveling companion.
A plan began to form in his mind then, even as the droid ushered them into a large, luxurious chamber. Furnishings that wouldn't have been out of place in the Imperial palace decorated the main sitting room, and a wide window let in another astonishing vista, this one of a round blue lake fringed by some kind of elegant, drooping local trees. Their meager belongings had already been brought up from the shuttle and deposited in a rather shabby pile behind one divan.
"Is there anything else?" the droid inquired.
"No, nothing," Bast said. All he really wanted at the moment was a chance to be alone with Dhani.
"Of course," said the droid, and promptly disappeared through the doorway.
Dhani had stopped in the center of the chamber and appeared to giving its contents a careful appraisal. She remarked, "If I'd known Eustis was worth quite this much, I might not have been so quick to give him the boot."
"Truly a bad business move," Bast replied, refusing to be baited. He thought he'd gotten a bit better at reading her expressions. From the lift of her mouth and the wicked sparkle in her eyes, he guessed she hadn't meant her comment to be taken seriously. He added, "Speaking of which -- "
"I've been thinking that we could quite easily resolve our current cash flow crisis."
"I wasn't aware we had one."
"Do you really believe we would have been forced to these extremities if it weren't for the fact that I have no easy access to my own accounts?"
She appeared to consider. "Well, when you put it that way -- "
"Precisely." He made his tone deliberately casual. "I think the best thing to do would be to have Eustis Penn slice into my accounts and take out what we need."
He'd gone completely mad. That had to be the only explanation. Then again, he didn't look particularly crazy. He watched her with a frank, somewhat relaxed air, as if he had just suggested that they take a brief stroll around the lake outside their window.
Dhani found her voice. "Come again?"
"Penn is a slicer, correct?"
"One of the best?"
Somehow she didn't like the idea of admitting to Eustis' excellence in the field, but since she'd already said as much, she knew lying would get her nowhere. "As far as I know," she allowed.
"Then it should be a simple enough procedure for him to access my accounts and withdraw the amount I specify. Really, I don't see any harm in it -- the only person who would report the funds as missing would be me."
He sounded reasonable -- almost too reasonable -- but Dhani thought there must be a flaw in his argument somewhere. "You don't think your accountant would notice something like that?"
"Accountant? I don't trust anyone else to manage my money."
That settled it. He must be mad. She had no clear idea of what a man with his rank earned, but she knew it must be far more than her parents or anyone else in her circle back on Commenor had made. How could someone with that sort of wealth get by without entrusting its management to a professional?
Some of her disbelief must have shown in her face, for he said, "What, really, do I have to manage? A few accounts, a small investment portfolio. I own no real property. Why should I, when I've spend my entire adult life away from my home world?"
She supposed she'd never really thought about it. True, some men in the Imperial service managed to maintain households back home, wives and children they didn't see for months at a time, but the majority of them lived a life apart, their only home the ship or the base where they were currently stationed.
For some reason she felt a rush of relief as she realized Bast's remarks meant he had no family stashed away somewhere, no wife or significant other. Why that should matter so much, she really didn't want to say. Not now, at least.
"So you've just let it pile up."
"More or less. You may have a slightly inflated idea of what the Imperial service pays, even for someone of my rank. But a small fraction of it would be more than sufficient for our needs."
He smiled slightly. "A better ship, for one thing. At the rate we're going, we'll be lucky to reach Chandrila before the Empire finishes its second Death Star."
It took a moment for his words to sink in. The temperature in the room seemed to have dropped by a good twenty degrees. Voice tight with shock, she demanded, "The Empire finishes its what?"
An expression of dismay crossed his features before he managed to blank it down behind the usual polite mask. For a few seconds he said nothing. When he did speak, his tone was gentler than she thought she'd ever heard it. "The Imperial scientists are fond of redundancies. While of course everyone expected the first iteration to be sufficient, plans were already in the works for a second battle station. To be honest, I have no true idea of how far along in production it may be."
The sour taste of nausea rose in the back of her throat. She tried not to think of all the Rebel operatives who had suffered and died to ensure the first Death Star's destruction. To think they would now have to go through that all over again --
"You may not care," Bast said, "but I never supported the Death Star project. There were better ways to utilize the Empire's resources."
"Its resources!" she exclaimed. "Is that all you care about? What about the billions of people on Alderaan who were murdered?"
His jaw hardened. "We have covered this ground before, Dhani. I had no power to stop any of it. I know very little of the second Death Star, save that its construction is moving forward at an undisclosed location. I had the power to do one thing as far as that station was concerned, and that was to remove you from it."
How did he know to say the one thing that would cool her anger? Not completely, of course. The thought that the Empire had already begun to build another one of those abominations still made her feel as if she wanted to be sick. But Bast had saved her, had risked his own life to ensure hers should continue. It was easy to hate the Empire, but she knew she didn't hate him.
Far, far from it, if she wanted to be completely truthful with herself.
For now, she knew she needed to refocus her energy on their current situation. Bast was right -- this limping from system to system had to stop. And she had no doubt that Eustis could pull those funds out of Bast's account as easily as a spice smuggler could slip through an Imperial blockade. "So what's your plan?"
He seemed to relax slightly at her question. No doubt he'd expected her to continue the argument. "I'll have Penn transfer the funds to a credit voucher. Once our ship is repaired, we'll go to Obroa-Skai. It's the closest system where I feel we can purchase a reliable ship without too many questions being asked."
It seemed simple enough, but experience had taught her that simple didn't always equate to easy. "What if Eustis refuses?"
"Do you really think he will?"
She thought of her time with Eustis, his triumphs, his delight in unraveling whatever fiendish code the Imperials had been able to create. No doubt he would consider slicing into Bast's accounts to be ridiculously easy, something he could have accomplished while still a schoolboy. On the other hand, favor was often much more difficult to earn than mere credits. She guessed that Penn would never pass up a chance to have a high-ranking Imperial officer in his debt, however odd his request might be.
"No," she said. "I'm fairly certain he'll do as you ask."
There might have been something else she could have said, some question she could have asked as to why Bast had suddenly decided that urgency was of the essence. He hadn't seemed too concerned about their leisurely pace before now. Had he begun to tire of her, to see her as a burden he wished to rid himself of as soon as possible?
If that were the case, there wasn't much she could do about it. At the very least, she had some new information that would be quite valuable to the Rebellion. She could only imagine what the leaders of the Resistance would give to know of the existence of a second Death Star.
Dhani realized that she'd somehow hoped Bast would stay with her after they reached Chandrila, but that was a foolish fancy. He seemed to be a man of honor, and so would not abandon her until he saw her safely to the Rebel-leaning planet, but the idea of any future beyond that had been only a dream. And really, what in the galaxy had she been thinking anyway, that someone like General Moradmin Bast would throw away everything he'd been for a woman like her?
It was the first time she'd really let her half-formed thoughts on the subject take shape, and she wished she hadn't. Tears burned hot at the back of her eyes, and she turned away from him to stare out the window. He didn't follow her, but maintained his position at the center of the chamber, hands clasped behind his back.
Somehow she knew that his decision to stay where he was and not join her could only be a harbinger of things to come.