The galaxy was home to millions of inhabited systems and hundreds of thousands of sentient species. Untold numbers of starships plied the galactic spacelanes every hour of every day. In all that hustle and bustle, all the chaos of a functioning universe, it was sometimes easy to forget that space was big. Very, very big and, for the most part, completely empty.
Deep in the trackless wastes between star systems, where there was nothing but vacuum, stray particles of space dust, background radiation and starlight, the injured StarHawk hung motionless, licking her wounds. The damaged Delaya-class courier's blind hyperspace jump had last a few seconds and had miraculously avoided plunging them into Nal Hutta or the Y'Toub system's solar primary. Those few seconds had been enough to exhaust the ship's already strained power systems, however, and had overloaded the hyperdrive motivator.
The sleek, exotic-looking vessel was mostly powered down now, its systems all offline except for those that her crew of four needed to stay alive. And one that Lilithan'cara needed to keep her from wanting to kill herself.
She was as rough-and-tumble as anyone she'd ever met. A smuggler, a scoundrel and a former slave, she'd lived an exciting, often hard life. Sleeping rough, staying one step ahead of customs ships or rival scum, all of that was part of the job. She didn't mind that. Point of fact, she loved that. But crawling through a Hutt's sewers was too much, even for her.
As soon as StarHawk had made hyperspace and she'd powered down her quadlaser, she'd stripped off her soiled jumpsuit and thrown it into the trash incinerator in the rear of the craft. Then, all but naked, she run immediately to the refresher and commenced a long, scorching hot shower that she was sure would use up the rest of the craft's water reserves. So what if they went thirsty for a while? She needed to not smell like this anymore.
The adrenalin of the battle had kept her from noticing. Once it was over, however, she'd been driven near insane.
She felt the sheets of scalding hot water cascade over her lilac skin and smiled with the satisfaction. Even if she hadn't had to crawl through Ajuura's waste, she'd have felt slimy having been that Hutt's palace anyway. The indentured servants, the imprisoned aliens on the detention level, the slavish devotion of his retainers. It was enough to make her sick.
Closing her eyes as the water continued its relentless drumbeat against her epidermis, she heard the door to the shower slide open. She smiled as Rann looped his rough hands around her neck and pulled her to his naked body.
He smelled just as bad as she had before the shower but she didn't mind at all. Turning, she cupped his chin with one hand and kissed him, savouring the taste of his lips.
"Nice flying," she said once the kiss had ended.
"Good shooting," he replied. "I think you might have put the Karpasian brothers out of action once and for all."
Lilith grinned at the thought. "All in a day's work, huh? But what are we going to do about Ajuura's bounty? It's not like that sleemo's just going to forget about it."
Rann shrugged his broad shoulders. "Once we talk to the Guild, they'll take the bounty down. Ajuura backed out of a deal and blamed us for not responding well to it. Even if he does tell a few of the local agents, so what? We'll just stay out of Hutt Space for a while."
"And lose most of our business," she said with a scowl.
Rann laughed at that. "It's a big galaxy, Lilith. Maybe we can do some easy cargo runs again. Nothing too complicated. Take some time off."
Her lips quirked upwards. "A blue milk run, huh?"
"Exactly," Rann said, nodding.
She rolled her eyes. "Like this was meant to be a blue milk run? Like lifting the gems was meant to be a blue milk run? Like the Paradise job was meant to be a blue milk run?"
"Hey," Rann said, interjecting into her sarcastic tirade. "The Paradise job was a blue milk run. That job went off without a hitch. Except for the..."
"Droids?" Lilith finished for him.
He fixed her with a scowl. That same scowl had sent a few petty criminals running for cover but Rann was naked and sopping wet, which took away from the effect somewhat. Lilith leaned forward and kissed him. "Let's just shower, all right?"
He smiled, one hand tracing the delicate curve of her body, the other gently stroking one of her lekku. The motion sent shivers down her spine. "Sounds good to me."
Kissing her again, Rann stopped speaking. The two embraced and stayed that way, wrapped up in each other, for a long time, until the hot water went cold and then stopped running altogether.
The StarHawk had been rebuilt many times over the course of its long career. It was ancient ship, but nothing left aboard her actually qualified as ancient. The interior lay-out had frequently been changed over the decades that she'd served Rann's family but it had remained unchanged since he'd inherited the ship from his mother.
The forward-most inhabitable section was the cockpit, which was connected by a short corridor to the lounge. Off to one side of this corridor was the access hatch to the escape pod, while a tiny communications suite faced it on the other side. The lounge was fairly large and airy, positioned roughly where the two forward manoeuvring vanes were located on the exterior hull. It was here that the main boarding ramp, located in the forward, starboard section of the lounge, was located.
The floor was an alternating patchwork of solid deck plating and grill hatches leading to important machinery and circuits. A few monitors and consoles lined the walls of the lounge, though only one, the master systems display, had dedicated chairs in front of it. There was a dejarik gaming table in one corner, surrounded by four comfortable chairs. A couch ran along the portside wall and a scuffed wooden dining table was located near the small kitchenette, which had a view on the rest of the lounge. None of the chairs at the table matched any of the others and magnetic seals on the bottom of their legs kept them upright and in place.
Directly behind the kitchenette was the small medbay. Everything in that chamber was a sterile white, as opposed to the soft greys that predominated the rest of the ship's interior, except for the black of the cockpit. There was a single reclined cot in the middle of that room, a medical scaner overhead and a number of drawers and cabinets lining the walls. Beneath the cot was a medical stasis chamber, designed to preserve biological specimens.
The lounge ended in a corridor that ran the length of the habitable area of the ship. Six hatches inset in the grey bulkheads led to the crew cabins. Five were roughly identical, with a bunk in each, a desk, a computer terminal and a storage bin for personal effects, plus a small cubicle refresher station.
The sixth, located across from the medbay, was half again as large. This was the cabin Rann and Lilith shared. It featured a comfortable double-sized cot, a free-stranding wardrobe of Twi'lek design that had been bolted to the bulkhead, a footlocker and a hologram that was projected onto the bulkhead above the narrow computer terminal desk. It cycled through several different images of beauty, but all of them featured the forests of the planet Kashyyyk. Unlike the cubicle-sized refresher units of the other cabin, this master cabin featured a full-sized en suite.
Deeper into the ship was the ladder leading to the gun turrets, as well as the passage leading to the airlock, where Rann, Gila and Lilith had come aboard during the escape from Ajuura's palace. Beyond that, there were the two large cargo bays. These were utterly lacking in any of the creature comforts of the forward part of the StarHawk, all cold metal bulkheads and deckplates. All the Each had once featured a loading ramp that extended from the belly of the ship, but only one of those remained. The starboard cargo bay was just that, a cargo bay, usually piled high with supplies. The port bay, however, had been converted into a miniature hangar.
The loading ramp had been replaced by hatch that fell open. A small fuel tank and fuelling equipment dominated the aft end of the bay. The rest of it was filled with a small sublight starfighter, a Subpro Airframe-99 short-range scout. This ship, highly manoeuvrable and blindingly fast, lacked a hyperdrive and shield generators but featured a pair of fire-linked laser cannons and limited cargo space. It wasn't flown often but it was
Past that was the engine room, which was connected to the three enormous banks of ion engines that powered the ship at sublight speeds by a series of crawl spaces. The hyperdrive core sat in the centre of the room, the radioactive elements at its heart protected behind thick metal plates. This was Sheen Him's sanctum sanctorum. He even slept here, eschewing the cabins for a hammock slung over the hyperdrive core.
The StarHawk's systems were a patchwork, often jury-rigged and squeezed into a ship they hadn't been designed for. Even Rann Tye didn't know all of the ship's secrets.
For the first time in a long time, all four of the seats around the dejarik board were filled. Rann and Lilith looked across at Sheen Him and the small, red-skinned Twi'lek girl they'd liberated from Ajuura's servitude. Gila looked around at the StarHawk's interior in wonder, even though the lounge was relatively mundane. Lilith and Rann were both scrubbed clean and wearing new clothes, their soiled garments incinerated. Still, faint traces of the sewer smell hung in the air.
"I'll never get rid of that smell," Sheen Him said, shaking his elongated head. Though Aleena resembled rats or other small rodents to some extent, his species were often fastidiously clean, a trait helped along by their extraordinary olfactory sense. "I used half the cleaning chemicals on the ship to get the pilot's seat clean and I still couldn't get the stink out of it."
"How did you go on the gun turret?" Rann asked.
The Aleena shrugged. "I didn't even try."
Lilith couldn't help but laugh. Even Gila, who had been through some horrible traumas in the last few hours, offered a grin at that. "Sorry, boys," she said, shrugging her slender shoulders.
"I'm more annoyed about losing that jacket," Rann said. The red, lubricant and grease-stained jacket had been a fixture of his wardrobe for years. "That was a great jacket."
"You lost your jacket," Lilith shot back, "I lost my blaster! I loved that blaster."
Sheen Him huffed. "You pissed off a Hutt, we've got bounty hunters coming after us, the ship's falling apart and the two of you complain about a blaster and a jacket?"
Rann's smile went a bit brittle. "Yeah. I know. Sorry about that, Sheen Him. What's the damage?"
The Aleena let out a long, low whistle, leaning back in his chair. "It's bad. While you two were showering, I got the functioning droid brains trying to sort out the extent of the damage and how best to fix it."
"What about the third droid brain?" Lilith asked.
"I've got the other two talking to it, trying to bring it back online," Sheen Him said, "but I think it's going to need a full service. It'd be a lot easier if you let me have an astromech."
Rann met the Aleena's pointed gaze with a scowl. That was a pretty common refrain from the StarHawk's tech when one of the ship's many temperamental systems went down. "No droids, Sheen Him. Not on my ship."
Gila frowned at that, speaking for the first time. "What's wrong with droids?"
"I hate droids," Rann growled at the same time Lilith answered with an exasperated "It's a long story, Gila."
"Whatever, whatever," Sheen Him said, putting up his small hands in a gesture of surrender. "The point is that I think the third brain is going to need a full service next time we get anywhere near a droid tech. I can get it back to partial operation, maybe, but it won't work right until we do that."
Rann nodded. "Fine. What next?"
Sheen Him leant forward, manipulating the controls on the dejarik board. A three dimensional hologrammic representation of the StarHawk shimmered into existence above the black-and-white checkered surface of the table. A section of the ship towards the aft was illuminated in red.
"The hyperdrive core overloaded during the blind jump," Sheen Him said, nodding at the red section. "I've got it cooling down now."
"I want you to make that your top priority," Rann said.
Sheen Him regarded him with a significant look through the semi-transparent hologram of the ship. "Wait until you hear the rest of the list before you start assigning priorities, Rann. I'm not saying that to be difficult, I'm saying that because a lot of stuff got shot up pretty bad."
Rann nodded. "Fair point. Go on."
As Sheen Him listed each damaged system, the section of the ship that corresponded to that system lit up in crimson on the hologram. "Only fourteen of the ion drives are operation. The main power conduit back there was cut off, so the starboard bank is offline. It's not difficult to replace, just tricky without a drydock. The ventral power conduit was cut, too, and I won't be able to repair that until we land in a good facility. So the ventral quadlaser and shields are off-line until we do that. The long-range communications systems are fried and we overloaded most of the sensor rectennae. The ones we didn't are fried. Until we can reconnect the systems or get a workaround functioning, which is harder to do if we're down a droid brain, we're flying blind. We're out of concussion missiles, the quadlaser barrels are all warped from overheating and the forward tibanna gas cannisters need replacing."
Rann listened to the list with mounting dread. "That's a good two weeks of shore time."
"If you want it all fixed properly, yeah," Sheen Him nodded. "There's no problem with the atmosphere recyclers or the life support systems, though. So we'll have air to breathe. Even if we won't have anything to drink."
At this last, Rann and Lilith shared an embarrassed glance.
"I still want you to make the hyperdrive your priority," Rann told the little alien. "Lilith and I can focus on the communications array and the sensors."
"Right," Sheen Him agreed, noting something on a datapad he was carrying and shutting down the dejarik board. As he slipped off the seat, he turned back. "By the way, I thought you'd like to know that the proton torpedo that the Surronian ship fired at us..."
Rann's heart beat a little fast as Sheen Him trailed off. "Yeah?"
"It hit us. Square in the aft," the Aleena said, noting the expressions of shock on the others' faces. "It's a dud, though. The warhead is dark."
"God, were we lucky," Lilith said as Sheen Him waddled aft.
Rann let loose a breath he hadn't known he'd been holding. The idea that that proton torpedo had indeed hit them was terrifying. The paladium core that leant proton torpedos their extraordinary destructive power was noted for reliability. Less than one in ten thousand failed to detonate.
"What about me?" Gila said from across the dark table.
Rann turned. "We'll find you somewhere safe, Gila."
The Twi'lek girl blinked. "What do you mean?"
"Not every planet is like Nar Shaddaa," Rann assured her. "There's plenty of places you can start a good life."
"You want me to leave?" Gila asked and Rann was surprised by her horrified expression.
"Rann," Lilith whispered, a frown crinkling her hairless brow, "what are you doing?"
Rann turned to his partner, quirking an eyebrow. "Huh?"
Lilith jumped nimbly to her feet, locked Rann's elbow and pulled him from his chair and away from the dejarik board, saying to Gila over her shoulder, all smiles and sweet tones, "Please give us a second, Gila."
She pulled Rann over to the entrace to their cabin, out of the little Twi'lek girl's line of sight and suddenly her mood darkened and she pushed Rann against the bulkhead, her face twisted into a veritable snarl. "What did I do?" he exclaimed.
"Be quiet," she growled. "And listen to me. It's our responsibility to take care of her and we can't palm her off on someone else. We dragged that girl out of Ajuura's palace—"
"You dragged her!" Rann corrected. "It wasn't my idea to run across the Hutt's throne room and shoot her chain and bring her along with us and..."
He trailed off when he saw Lilith's face. "She was a slave, Rann."
Nodding, he swallowed. "I know. You did the right thing getting her out of there, Lilith, you did. But we can't keep her on board StarHawk. We nearly got blasted trying to get off Nar Shaddaa. It's a dangerous galaxy and I don't want to put her in unnecessary danger."
"She was a slave," Lilith repeated, speaking slowly as though to a recalcitrant child. "She knows that it's a dangerous galaxy."
Rann looked away, thinking of alternatives. "What if we took her back to Ryloth?"
Lilith almost laughed. "Don't be ridiculous! She was probably sold off by a clan leader on Ryloth as a baby to begin with. Look at her, Rann, look at the colour of her skin. She's a Lethan. They're rare. Incredibly rare. And that makes them valuable to slavers."
"Yeah," he said, his throat getting tight. Through the Force, his limited perceptions could detect Lilith's heartbreak. For most of her life, she'd been a slave in a Whiphid crime lord's household, a dancer chained to a wall much the way Gila had been in Ajuura's palace. He drew her into a hug, holding her close against him. "I know, Lilith."
Lilith returned his hug and he stepped back a second later. "So what do we do?"
"She's never had a proper home," Lilith said with a shrug of her delicate shoulders. "Let's give her one."
Nodding in agreement, Rann led them back to the dejarik table, where young Gila was looking off to the bulkhead, chewing her bottom lip. Rann and Lilith sat across from her, trading a significant look. Rann cleared his throat. "So, uh, Gila... well, the StarHawk's not exactly the safest place in the galaxy but Lilith pointed out that you're used to danger. Besides, you handled yourself incredibly well in Ajuura's palace. You saved our lives."
Gila looked back at her rescuers, at the people she'd rescued in turn, and a smile began to turn up the corner of her lips. "I can stay?"
"You can stay," Rann nodded, smiling in return.
"But you'll have to pull your weight," Lilith interjected. Rann looked at her curiously, but she went on. "The StarHawk can be your home, the same way that it's ours, but part of your commitment to that is helping out."
Gila nodded bravely. "Okay."
"How about you head after and see if Sheen Him needs any help?" Lilith suggested with a gentle smile. "I'm sure he'll need someone to pass him his tools, at least."
"Especially since you don't have a droid," she said pointedly and Lilith snorted a laugh. The Lethan girl ran aft, leaving a visibly disconcerted Rann in her wake.
"Thanks for that," Lilith said, kissing him on the cheek. "She'll appreciate it more than you know."
Rann nodded. "Yeah. Come on, let's get working on communications."
It took a few hours of being elbow deep in circuitry, dismantling burnt out systems, replacing damaged components and jury-rigging bypasses, before Rann and Lilith managed to rebuild and reactivate the damaged communications console in the cockpit. The connections with the transponder array were fine, though the array itself had suffered some damage. Rann sent Lilith aft to the array itself while he began a series of test signals.
As he waited for Lilith to get to the array, buried as it was beneath the deck plates in the lounge, he sat back in the pilot's chair, looking out at the velvet blue-black of interplanetary space. The ship was oriented facing towards the galactic core, so a band of stars that resembled a milky-white ribbon was visible. He'd spent relatively little time Coreward, mostly operating from the Expansion Region to the Outer Rim. A long time ago, his family had actually come from the Core, or near to there at any rate. His mother's mother's mother's parents had been exiles from Metastrato Prime, political refugees of some persuasion or another.
Heaving a sigh through his nose, he finally heard a chirp over the ship's intercom. "I'm hear, Rann," Lilith's voice echoed through the cockpit speaker. "It's a bit of a mess but it looks like the antenna's salvageable."
Rann was relieved. The antenna consisted of kilometres of cable wrapped around the transceiver machinery itself. If that was damaged or otherwise disable, they'd have no way of repairing the communications systems.
"Hang on," Lilith said, a moment later. "One of the power cables has come loose."
Rann rolled his eyes. The StarHawk's mixed and matched systems meant that cables built by one manufacturer were often fitted to plugs never meant to hold them. In a dire situation, with a lot of manoeuvring and high speeds, it was unsurprising that a few of them should come loose, especially considering what he'd put the communications system through.
A second later, a rising tone sounded from the communications console. Rann stood and went to investigate. He grinned as he saw that the communications system was back online, even if the computer was still a bit scrambled from the Karpasians' ion blasts. He took the system offline temporarily, defragmenting the computer drives and deleting any corrupted data he found in the directory. Lilith rejoined him, leaning over his shoulder. He smiled as he felt one of her lekku brush against him.
"How's it going?" she asked, examining his screen.
"I just need to reboot the system, copying the files from the back ups," Rann said. "Take a look at the navicomputer. It might have suffered some of the same data corruption."
"Right," Lilith nodded, slipping into the co-pilots chair. She brought up the navicomputer's drive directory and began to go through it. The StarHawk's navicomputer was an impressive device, even if it had failed to operate properly during the escape from Nar Shaddaa. A custom built component installed decades before, it contained countless hyperspace routes in its memory banks. Noticing something unusual, she frowned. "What's this?"
"What's what?" Rann asked, turning away from the comm console.
"One of the sealed memory sections," Lilith said, tapping away at the console. "I can access it now."
He frowned, joining her. A lot of the StarHawk's computer system included encrypted or protected files, left behind over its decades of service to Rann's family. Most of the time he ignored them, though Sheen Him had taken to cracking a few of them for fun. Most had been corrupted and the rest were just sections of unneeded or unwanted coding. "Could Sheen Him have cracked the encrypt?"
Lilith shook her head. "No, he always tags the files he cracks. This one was locked until, well, this morning I guess. The power loss must have partially fragmented the encryption matrix."
"That should have destroyed the data in the file, too," Rann said, confused. "Unless..."
"Unless someone wanted the data backed up," Lilith said. "This encryption wasn't meant to keep that information secret or separate from anything else in the system. It was meant to keep the data safe."
"What is it?" Rann asked, leaning over her to access the file. It opened on the console's main screen. "Just hyperspace routes."
"Well, the file was in the navicomputer," Lilith reminded him.
"Can you overlay them on a galactic map?" he asked. "Maybe we can see where they lead."
Lilith shook her head. "There's no frame of reference for them. I have the routes, but not the end coordinates or even the start coordinates. They must be in a separate sealed section of memory. We could overlay them on current shipping charts but this data's old. Very old. Who knows what kind of spatial anomalies have cropped up in the meantime."
Rann sighed. "All right. Tag the file. We might find something useful there later."
"Will do," Lilith said, tapping in a few more commands to her console. "All right, looks like the navicomputer is up and running, no data corruption. As soon as Sheen Him gets the hyperdrive back online, we should be ready to jump."
"The comm system will be ready as soon as the drives finish rebooting," Rann said, even as he reached for the intercom control on Lilith's console. "Sheen Him, how's it going back there?"
"A few more hours and I should have the hyperdrive back up and running," Sheen Him answered, his already high-pitched voice sounding tinny and distant over the cockpit speakers. "I'll get a few jumps out of it, at least."
"Gila helping back there?" Lilith asked.
"Of course I am!" Gila's voice answered. Rann and Lilith shared a grin.
"Understood," Rann said. "The navicomputer is operational and we'll have communications online soon..." Even as he spoke, a soft beep emanated from the communications console. He recognised the tone immediately. So did Lilith. They exchanged a puzzled glance. "Hang on, we're getting a message. Stand by."
Putting Sheen Him and Gila on hold, he went to the station behind Lilith's chair. Sure enough, a message was being beamed directly to the StarHawk on an encrypted private frequency that only one person in the galaxy had access to. Rann's eyes widened. Lilith, looking back at him, asked "What is it?"
"It's Treetops," Rann said, swallowing. He hit a control, directing the message to the cockpit's holotank. He settled in the pilot's chair just as the projector grille glowed blue. A holographic image of an elderly female Wookiee shimmered into life. She was somewhat stooped, her facial fur flecked with grey, but even in bluescanned simulacrum she projected wisdom, intelligence and tenacity. A long, gnarled wooden walking stick was held in one of her massive paws. She wore long, ceremonially adorned robes and some of her longer fur had been braided into long locks fastened by metallic and wooden beads.
Barking a greeting, she asked what had taken them so long to answer.
"Sorry," Rann said, offering a genuine, though contrite, smile. "We ran into some trouble on Nar Shaddaa." Quickly, he related what had happened.
The Wookiee chuffed a mocking, affectionate laugh. With low, keening growls, she outline why she was contacting then. Lilith and Rann shot each other a look as she spoke. At long last, she stopped and waiting expectantly for Rann's reply.
"Well, you should know that we're pretty badly damaged right now," he told her.
Treetops bared her fangs warningly. The mission she'd just given them wasn't dangerous, she insisted, but it was vital and time sensitive.
Rann nodded. "All right. We should have hyperdrive back in a few hours. We'll get on it, Kaali, and we'll get them to you as soon as we can."
With a nod and a growled thanks, the Wookiee Kaalibaparra, codenamed Treetops, signed off. The holotank went dark. Rann slapped the intercom control again.
"Sheen Him, get up here," he said into the mic, deactivating the system again before his Aleena technician could reply. Turning to Lilith, he asked "What do you think?"
"I think it's damn unusual," she replied. "Kaali's never ordered us to do something before. This must be really important to her. I just can't think why."
"What, you mean picking up two people from some planet nobody's ever heard of?" Rann said, sarcasm dripping in his tone. "At least we won't need a fully functioning ship for that. It should be a..."
"Blue milk run?" Lilith finished for him, rolling her eyes.
Before Rann could respond, Sheen Him and Gila, the Aleena slightly shorter than the Twi'lek girl, entered the cockpit. "What is it?" he asked, sounding irritated. "I was this close to getting the motivator back online."
"A message from Treetops," Lilith answered. "We're wanted."
"Who's Treetops?" Gila asked.
"Our boss," Sheen Him answered, looking at Lilith. "What's the job?"
"She's not our boss," Rann shot back defensively. "Treetops is the codename of a Wookiee named Kaali. She's been a friend of my family for a very long time. She offers us sanctuary and a base of operations when we need it."
Gila nodded, adding "I've never seen a Wookiee before."
"So what did she want?" Sheen Him pressed.
"She's got friends stuck on a planet on the Outer Rim," Lilith answered. "We're going to pick them up."
"Is that all?" Sheen Him said, sounding a little bored. Gila, however, looked thrilled.
"Where are we going?" she asked.
"Over towards the Tion Cluster. A little planet in the Tobali system, out in the Thanium sector," Rann answered, though all of that was lost on Gila, whose astrographic knowledge was limited to the Y'Toub system and the rest of Hutt Space. "We're going to Rhen Var."
Hours later, with the hyperdrive repaired and functioning, the StarHawk's ion engines flared. It repositioned itself before making the jump to lightspeed. If the crew had waited just a few minutes longer or if the damaged ship's sensors had been functioning properly, perhaps they would have noticed the ship reverting to realspace just behind them.
Instead, their hunter found nothing but residual radiation.
The elegant, sleek curves of the Surronian-designed starship lingered a few moments, its scanners piecing together the StarHawk's ion trail and determining its course. A second later, it leapt into hyperspace, hot in pursuit.