Valentia, six weeks ago
“If you don’t take the spent casks out to the rubbish piles, we’ll have the rodents for patrons,” Kierra muttered to Dant, as she wiped a towel across the wooden bar that ran along the back wall of the Waypoint. She’d been over this more than once with the young man since he started work here a few weeks ago, but he was distracted, as most of the young men on Jelucan were, with thoughts of speeders, ships, and smuggling. He spent a great deal of his time dreaming of the glamorous life that waited for him off-world. He had little attention left for matters as dull as work.
“They’d probably tip better than this lot,” Dant groused, waving his hand vaguely at the smattering of humans and aliens left in the cantina this late in the evening.
Kierra smiled, in spite of herself, not in small part because what he said was true. The smugglers and adventurers who drank at her father’s cantina were rarely eager to part with their credits, no matter how good the service. Of course, there were exceptions. Imperial officers often magnanimously over-tipped in fact, a strategy employed to engender gratitude and buy respect. Kierra, for one, had no love for soldiers of the Galactic Empire. Her father, a veteran of the Clone Wars, had seen to that.
“Never you mind,” she said now to Dant, “just see you take the casks out.” She needlessly gave the bartop another swipe. It was as sparkling clean as it had been mere moments before when she had last wiped it, but Kierra was bored, and she hated being bored.
As the whine of the repulsors faded and the faint ticking sound of cooling metal consumed the interior of the freighter, Giru was already stalking his way towards the egress ramp from the engine compartment. He was swearing quietly under his breath as he tugged off his stained gloves and mentally ran through a list of things he desperately needed to make the ship function for another week. Foul language was nothing strange aboard the Valkyr, but the way Giru shifted constantly between swearing in Basic, Huttese, and an old and nearly forgotten Corellian dialect indicated that the list was bad.
As he rounded the corner to the main corridor, the ship’s captain, a sturdy but mangy looking man by the name of Tyrell, was already standing at the hatch, frowning as he caught the flow of expletives. “That bad, huh?”
Giru came to a sudden halt, shaking himself from his mental daze. “Bad, Cap,” he confirmed as his face contorted into a grimace. “Flux stabilizer is nearly shot, causing a nasty knock in the hyperdrive core. Need to get that flow balanced again or we could end up scattered across the sector one of the next times we jump to lightspeed. The alluvial damper may be cracked, too.” He paused to heave a sigh. “And that’s just the hyperdrive.”
Tyrell nodded, his own face screwed up in thought. “Not much on this rock. Mining colony. How bad is the hyperdrive? Can we boost again, make it to some place more civilized?”
Giru winced. “Civilization” typically meant the Core Worlds to most people. But in their line of work, it was any place where there was a trustworthy mechanic worth his fees where the local gangs wouldn’t shoot you on sight. In short, places where the Empire had not already taken a plasteel-booted foothold – which were increasingly few in number every year as the Imperial starfleet spread terror and dominion farther from the Core. With a shake of his head, he responded, “Can’t say. Could last another week, could last another month. Could punch a hole in the hull as soon as we start it warming up after we dust the skids.”
Tyrell swore, now. He was relatively sober at the moment, which was by itself a mixed blessing. It meant he was likely to be far more reasonable about repairing the ship. It also meant he would be quite soused in short order, just as soon as his business was complete – if he could afford enough of the local brew after docking fees, tariffs, and bribes. And the parts they needed to keep the ship off the ground. If he went sober too long, his temperament would rapidly devolve.
Taking a breath, as much to steady himself as to indicate to Tyrell that he was about to speak, Giru said, “Look, we can probably be okay if I can get the stabilizer under control. I’ll see about adding a layer of sealant to the damper to make sure that doesn’t fly off when next we spin it up. But we can’t fly with an unstable engine core, Cap.”
The older man nodded reluctantly, but emphatically. Giru noticed his left eye had begun to twitch. This was a bad sign, indicating the captain’s sobriety had already gone too long. Tyrell fished into a pocket on his ragged vest and pulled out a cred chit, offering it up to his mechanic. “Get whatcha need for the stabilizer. And some extra sealant – the good stuff, not whatever they use for their mining rigs. Keep us flying.”
“Aye, Cap,” Giru said, quickly pocketing the chit while tucking his gloves into a back pocket. Tyrell palmed the release for the ramp and Giru set off without another word.
The city of Valentia had become the largest trading hub on the planet Jelucan when the Empire established their primary garrison in the city. This meant increased commerce and trade, and people had flocked to the city in droves seeking prosperity and a better life. However, as happened on all worlds occupied by the Empire, things did not go favorably for the locals.
Imperial taxation on trade was obscene even by the standards of the former Trade Federation, meaning that the locals actually lost money when the Empire moved in, reducing their profit margins to the point where businesses were barely managing to stay afloat. This often forced mergers between the various shipping companies into a single entity which was run by the biggest bootlicker the Empire could find, ensuring an Empire-friendly monopoly ruled the ports. The government got their excessive dues, and the sellout got as much money as they wanted because they had zero competition. Things were different with worlds in the core, of course, but the Core Worlds were older and wealthier and so influential that they could not be bullied by such tactics; but the rubes in the Outer Rim were ripe for the squeezing.
Because of this, spaceports the Rim over had become little more than extended garrisons. Imperial troops served as constabulary, now, and would occasionally accompany designated port administrators when they came to shake down a freshly landed ship. Giru had seen it everywhere, even in the Core. He had grown up on Ord Mantell, which was already largely controlled by Coruscant as the world had been settled millennia ago as a war-time ordnance depot, but once Palpatine had declared his New Order things had gotten worse. Giru had been five at the time the Clone Wars ended. He did not understand the things said about the Jedi insurrection, or what the difference was between a republic and an empire. The changes had not been obvious at first, they had come gradually. They became a fact of life so quickly one simply woke up one day startled. What would have seemed anathema even a few years ago had become accepted reality without a thought or a care. This was because there was now peace; the war was over, prosperity had ostensibly returned, but it had come at a terrible price.
Reaching the bottom of the ramp, Giru kept his head down a moment, eyes scanning about furtively from beneath the mat of unkempt hair that hung low over his forehead. He didn’t see anyone coming to hassle him about “docking fees” or other such euphemisms for “bribe.” With a heaving sigh, he straightened, scratched his fingers through his hair and made for the exit. There was shopping to do, and Tyrell’s ship still had business elsewhere within the week. The Captain only had one rule: Keep flying.
Hot. Kierra awoke to sun streaming across her face. She felt like she was basting. She kicked grouchily at the coarseweave blankets tangled around her waist and legs, wishing, as she wished every morning, for another hour of darkness in which to sleep.
Dragging herself reluctantly from the cot, she made her way to the small bathroom off the hall. Her quarters were behind the meager kitchen on the Waypoint’s ground floor. The first floor above contained three small rooms for let, only one of which was currently occupied. Kierra didn’t have to sleep at the Waypoint, but it made more sense than making the trek home, halfway down the mountain upon which Valentia was perched, only to turn around before dawn to trudge back up to the city. She had slept here more nights than not since her father fell ill. Someone needed to mind the inn while he recuperated.
As she turned on the tap and waited for the water to run, Kierra thought about her father. She should probably visit him soon. Dant could manage the place on his own for day, surely. It would be an opportunity to bring her father some of the bristlemelon he enjoyed. She had received three of the fruits from a craggy old spacer whose travels had taken him to Tatooine where the sweet melons grew wild. The spigot sputtered and reluctantly produced a stream. As she splashed the cool water on her face, she resolved to go home tomorrow.
Later that evening, Keirra mentioned to Dant that she was planning to leave the cantina in his care while she visited her father. She was surprised when he told her that he wouldn’t be available to work past mid-afternoon the following day.
“Sorry, Kierra,” he said with a grimace, “I had no idea you would need me to work and I have a, um, I have a meeting to go to tomorrow night.”
“Oh. It’s fine. I can go next week,” Kierra replied, though she was puzzled. She started to form the words to ask him what kind of meeting? but thought better of it when she saw him turn away, almost as if he were avoiding being asked.
Underwater. She was being pulled down deeper by her legs, kicking and tangled in the kelp. But, no; she could breathe, so she wasn’t underwater. It wasn’t kelp that grabbed at her limbs, it was sand. She was in a dune, sliding down, faster and faster, the wind whipping her hair across her eyes as her bare feet skittered across the rolling grains.
Kierra pulled herself up to the edge of sleep and out of her dream, her eyes focusing on the pale yellow ceiling of her room as she willed herself fully awake. The dream, or one like it, seemed to be coming more frequently, though she was not at all certain how often because many times when she awoke she had no memory of having dreamt at all. Then at night, just as she was about to slip under the cloak of slumber, she would suddenly recall a wisp of the dream from the night before, a brief but vivid impression that would slip away if she tried to catch it. The dream did not frighten Kierra, at least not once she shook free of those initial seconds of half-sleep where she inhabited both the dream and life, but it did perplex her. She had never been a fanciful girl. She knew her strength was her practicality and she had a difficult time understanding those who walked about with their heads in the atmosphere. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to understand them; they just seemed to be on a different frequency than she was. Well, in any case, there was no going back to sleep now, so she might as well get up.
Kierra swung her legs to the edge of the cot and sat a moment before rising to pad across the worn rug to the chest of drawers. From inside the top drawer, she removed the small box where she kept her personal things, including her money. It was market day in the west sector, and since she wasn’t going to be able to visit her father today, she would go to the bazaar and buy a book to take to him next week when she could deliver it in person. If she left soon, she would be also be able to stop at the vegetable dealer and still be back for what passed for the lunch rush at the Waypoint.
The Waypoint Tavern occupied a stout two-story white-washed building located on a small plaza west of the capital’s commercial center. Kierra stepped out onto the sloping cobblestone square and started off toward the merchants’ market, following a zigzag route along the alleyways that cut through the commercial and residential buildings that filled this part of the city. The structures here were less impressive than the buildings downtown, many of which reached ten or even fifteen stories high. The air was brisk but an unusually bright sun warmed the pale stone of the plazas along the route and Kierra found herself enjoying the walk. Emerging from an alleyway into the market square, however, she realized that she had chosen a busy time to visit. The trading center was a cacophony of voices, and the pale rose cobblestones were obscured by crowds of people jostling for bargains. The bazaar’s proximity to the spaceport meant it was usually lively on market days but Kierra had thought if she got an early start she would beat the throng. She surveyed the plaza and sighed. While she would have like to have bought a ration of meat for tonight’s pub stew, she saw that the butchers’ stalls were overrun with customers, all haggling over fambaa steaks and eopie briskets in the sun-filled courtyard, and she quickly changed her mind. Just the book then, she decided, as she stepped into the plaza, making her way toward the arcade where the booksellers stalls were arranged.