The _Assiduous _launched a squad of ARC-170s at the Banshee, the Theta-Class Imp Shuttle and the ARC170 liberated from the prison facility on Felucia. Captain O’Keefe cautiously approached the inbound fighters. Crash and she blasted at the void, in the futile attempt to blast a hole in the starfighters. Baris, piloting the rebels’ ARC-170, pounded the control panel. Blast it, O’Keefe! I could’ve taken out half the squad with a proton torpedo if you hadn’t gone into the blast zone. He headed toward the action, lasers firing into the void. Kelyn didn’t want to get everyone killed on an overzealous assault, so he zigged and zagged, juking the shuttle away from incoming blaster bolts. Of course, his gunners were having a Sithmare of a time hitting anything with the ship constantly shaking all over the system.
Khaliktinkered with the turret controls, making them more receptive to his droid’s movements… sort of like linking N3MO with the Force. Results were instantaneous. The war droid mercilessly pounded an incoming ARC. The ARC didn’t call off its attack. N3MO kept him in the center of its targeting grid and refused to cease the pummeling. The ship exploded.
Crash and Sirona valiantly held their own against the Imperial pilots, but their blasters weren’t enough to get through the shields and thick hull plating. Baris kept his ARCs at bay, but his blasters just wouldn’t find their mark. He kept spinning and doubling back, tricking the ARCs to blast one another. Well, one Imperial pilot kept acting like he’d caught his wingman in the bunk with his girl. Baris took advantage of the confusion by looping while firing his blasters, hoping to catch both targets in the fire. Unfortunately, he thought, the Force just wasn’t strong with him this battle.
“Pound them!” Carson yelled, motivating his crew. The gunners all focused on a point-blank ARC target. Blast after blast shook the ship, yet it remained returning fire. Baris flew over, flanking the doomed ARC fighter. N3MOlet out a lethal blast from the turret gun and decimated the ship that seemed reluctant to perish.
“Should we jump out of here?” Carsoncommed O’Keefe.
“Well, I have your Admiral on the Banshee. If something happens to us, your little jungle trek was all for nothing.”
“Send us the coordinates for our jump, and prepare to get out of here,” Khalik requested.
Sirona sent encrypted coordinates, which Khalik made short work of decoding. Kelyn flew the shuttle toward the Banshee and rained fire on her attackers.
“Now get out of here, O’Keefe,” Kelynshouted.
“I’ve got some company,” O’Keefe protested.
Baris flew in, flanking O’Keefe’s unwanted admirers, buying her the moment to break away from the fight and jump out of the Felucian system. The Imperials weren’t happy to lose the ship and bathed the shuttle in fiery light. Kelyn spun the shuttle wildly, narrowly avoiding the intense fire.
The Assiduous continued to rumble toward the stolen Imperial ships. Blaster bolts took out another ARC. Khalik rushed to engineering and urged some more power through the engines. Kelyn dashed away from the surviving ARC and leapt out of the system.
Baris felt much lonelier, flying over Felucia. He exchanged a final round of laser blasts, then raced from his pursuer and jumped to lightspeed.
The rebels emerged from hyperspace in the Zandrax System, in the Unknown Regions. The Banshee led the way toward a monstrous Nebula Frigate, the Resurgence. Inside, they met Captain Verana. “Welcome to the Resurgence,” Verana says. “You have a home here as long as you’re willing to do missions for our patron. You have full access to all levels of the ship, including the medbay. Now guards, please escort Admiral Varth to his quarters.”
Once the lift tube door closed behind Varth, Verana seemed to remove the stick from his ass. “Please don’t mention Senator Organa’s name in front of the Admiral. They have been in touch, but now that we have taken action against the Empire, we do not want to implicate the Senator. Rest up. The Galaxy will need your services again soon enough.”
After two days, Captain Verana summoned the rebel team for a debriefing meeting. Captain Vischera had cracked under interrogation.
Varth lectured, “WE DIDN’T KNOW UNTIL NOW… AFTER WE GOT OUR HANDS ON VISCHERA… THANKS TO YOUR HELP… THE FACILITY YOU ASSAULTED SERVED AS A FIELD STATION FOR RESEARCH INTO BLACK PROJECTS… SUCH AS MUTAGENS AND BIOTOXINS.
THE SCIENCE WAS BASED ON MILITARY RESEARCH CAPTURED FROM THE SEPARATISTS ON NELVANA 4. THE BIOTOXIN THEY COOKED UP WAS A BIO-WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION… INTENDED TO WIPE OUT ALL FORCE SENSITIVE BEINGS.
VISCHERA SAID THE BIOWEAPON PROVED A FAILURE. HE WAS PROBABLY YEARS AWAY FROM MAKING A NOTABLE BREAKTHROUGH. IT ONLY WORKED ON FELUCIANS… AND ONLY THE WEAK AND SICK AMONG THEM. THE IMPERIAL NAVY CONFISCATED HIS BIOTOXIN SUPPLY THEN SWITCHED HIS PRIORITY TO RESEARCHING MUTATIONS. THE MUTANT FELUCIANS YOU ENCOUNTERED WERE THE RESULT OF HIS EVIL WORK.”
Varth ended the meeting. He summoned the rebels again four days later. Captain Verana paced the room, quite frustrated. The briefing room aboard the Resurgence was clean and white, with several benches wrapping smoothly around a holographic projector seated on a raised dais in the center of the room. The projector
sprang to life, and the blue-tinted hologram of a Hutt appeared to hover a few inches away from the projector’s three curved prongs. With a brusque clearing of his throat, former Imperial officer Gilder Varth began to speak, wasting little time on pleasantries.
“BEFORE THE EMPIRE DECIDED MY CONSCINCE WAS A THREAT, I WAS PERIPHERALLY PART OF A TOP SECRET PLAN CALLED THE SARLACC PROJECT. I ASSISTED WHEN ANOTHER OFFICER WAS OFF SICK. I DO NOT KNOW THE DETAILS… BUT I WAS INVOLVED IN THE TRANSFERS OF LARGE AMOUNTS OF CREDITS AND RESOURCES. I ALSO BELIEVE THE SARLACC IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THOUSANDS OF DEATHS. CASUALTY REPORTS CROSSED MY DESK REGULARLY.
UNFORTUNATELY, I DON’T HAVE ANY MORE FOR YOU THAN THAT. I DID DISCOVER THE IMPERIAL NAVY WAS HIDING THIS PROJECT FROM THE SENATE BY USING SECONDARY SOURCES TO TRANSFER RESOURCES. I’M REFERRING TO FAKE CONTRACTORS AND UNWORLD ASSOCIATES… TO KEEP THE TRAIL FROM LEADING BACK TO THE SARLACC PROJECT. ONE OF THESE NEFARIOUS MIDDLE MEN IS A CRIME LORD NAMED DARGA THE HUTT. HE’S A SLIMY GANGSTER WHOSE LOVE FOR CREDITS IS SECOND ONLY TO HIS LOVE OF POWER.
PART OF MY JOB INVOLVED TRANSFERING PHYSICAL RESOURCES TO DARGA IN EXCHANGE FOR IMPERIAL AGENTS TAKING CONTROL OF RESOURCES PROVIDED BY DARGA. THIS IS THE ONLY LEAD WE HAVE.
OUR PATRON HAS AUTHORIZED ME TO USE YOU AS MY AGENTS. I NEED YOU TO TRAVEL TO THE PLANET CATO NEIMOIDIA. DARGA IS RUMORED TO BE IN THE CITY OF ZARRA. GET HIM TO TAKE YOU INTO HIS CONFIDENCE AND UNCOVER WHAT HE KNOWS ABOUT THE SARLACC PROJECT. Any questions?”
Kelyn raised his hand. “What kind of opposition are we looking at?”
“Hopefully none,” Varth said in his version of a joke. “The goal is to cuddle up to the Hutt and get him to spill the beans. More than likely, you’ll have to do some snoop work. UNFORTUNATELY, DARGA’S BASE OF OPERATIONS IS UNKNOWN. HE HAS BEEN SEEN IN DARGA. CHANCES ARE SOMEONE THERE KNOWS HIS WHEREABOUTS.”
Tor raised a hand. “Where in Zarra are we likely to uncover leads?”
“ZARRA GOT ITS BUTT KICKED DURING THE CLONE WARS. HALF THE CITY IS IN RUINS. THE OTHER HALF IS ALMOST IN RUINS. THOSE WHO REMAINED ARE ALL BUNCHED TOGETHER IN A SHANTY. I know you acquired an Imperial shuttle. Discretion is the name of the game with this mission gentlemen, and the appearance of the Theta would make all links to Darga dry up instantly. Captain O’Keefe has volunteered to fly you in.
“I trust her with my life,” Tor said.
“Can we get the turret attached to the Banshee?” N3MO asked, his fingers moving as if he was back in the turret.”
“You leave in the morning, gentlemen,” Varth warned the group.
Khalik pondered a rush overnight installation job. He pictured O’Keefe’s wrath if things didn’t go according to plan. “We don’t have time,” he decided.
The next morning, the Banshee and ARC-170 were off to Cato Neimoidia.
Their first impression of Cato Neimoidia was of a beautiful sand castle kicked to the ground by a malicious Kowakian monkey lizard. Every time pieces of the sand castle were revived to their former glory, more monkey lizards rushed in to trash the structures.. The city was once incredibly opulent, full of ornately carved palaces, crusted with intricate facades, with even the road cobbles carved and often inlaid into mesmerizing patterns, but now is a smoking ruin, ransacked and burned – a product of the Clone Wars. The Banshee cruised above crumbled towers and rubble strewn streets, with a sparse population wandering in the desolation.
The rebels noted with alarm there were areas where they could see through the roads and see sky underneath. The light was starting to wane.
It was closing in on the dinner hour. They smelled the spices of cooking fires upwind in the breeze and they could see smoke rising from throughout the city and trailing off the side. There were tents and ramshackle shanties strewn amid the wreckage of the grander structures. They didn’t feel the city swaying in the breeze, but they were aware of its position on the massive bridge. The entire city was shaded by a massive rock arch, which now seemed impossibly large.
A Neimoidian female met the crew at the docking bay. She hastily collected the two hundred credit docking fee. Kelyn slipped her an extra three hundred credits. “For assistance later on,” he suggested.
“I will help you however you need,” she said.
“We’re trying to find someone,” Carson said.
“You should talk to Grahrk. He owns the General Store. He knows everyone around here.”
“Where do we find him?” Tor asked.
“Go down the bridge. His shop is the Trade Federation Battleship sticking out of the cliff.”
The team decided to hurry against the setting sun. They had no problem finding what was indeed a quarter of a Trade Federation Command ship jutting out of the cliff. It was only a matter of time before it plummeted into the valley below with the rest of the wreckage. A ramp led up into the ship. As Tor stepped in, he could feel the ship teetering, one instance closer to collapsing. He hoped he wouldn’t be inside when it finally happened.
Grahrk sat behind a pile of sandbags in the center of the shop, a blaster rifle aimed at the door. His finger twitched near the trigger. A Neimoidian wearing blood-stained Clone Wars soldier armor stood next to Grahrk. “Grahrk,” the “soldier asked in a slurred voice, “Do you have any Jedi caf? I want to drink Jedi caf.”
“No, Jedi Lok. We only have carbon-frozen caf.”
“Do you know how Jedi make caf,” Lok asks? They use the Force to move the water through the beans. There’s no percolator or anything. It’s just beans held in the air with the Force, with water poured by the Force, and it all goes into a mug.”
“Sounds like forceful caf, Jedi Lok.”
“Forceful caf. That’s a good one, Grahrk. Say, do you sell any Jedi hats or Jedi mugs?”
“No, Jedi Lok. The Empire would blast me if I did. You know that.”
“I’ll blast the Empire, Grahrk.”
“You do that, Jedi Lok.”
Baris stepped in. “Excuse me,” he began.
The blaster rifle turned onto Baris. “What’s your business?” Grahrk asked.
“To purchase items from your fine establishment?” Baris persuaded.
“Show your credits,” Grahrk demanded. “We have a looting problem in this neighborhood.”
Baris held out a fistful of money. “Welcome to Grahrk’s,” the old Neimoidian said.
“Did you ever meet a Jedi?” Tor asked Lok.
“Oh boy,” Grahrk groaned.
“I sure did. I fought in the Clone Wars for the Separatists,” Lok bragged. The Jedi were master warriors. One of them could slay an entire army. I got taken out by the biggest, toughest Jedi of them all. Called Tano.”
“Was he a human?” Baris asked.
“Togruta. A big one!” Lok yelled. “She cut my stomach open with her lightsaber. Look!”
Lok lifted his shirt, showing the nasty scar.”
“So, you’re a local hero,” Tor said.
“I don’t know about hero,” Lok said. “I did my best. And I was lucky to come home alive.”
“So you must have an important job in Zarra,” Tor probed.
“Nah, I don’t work. I hang out here with Grahrk.”
“And Grahrk must love every moment of it,” Baris sighed.
Grahrk smile and showed the crisp hundred credit chip Lok had paid for his caf with. “His credits are abundant and real,” Grahrk bragged.
“You must know people… like local thieves…”
“I hate thieves! I’d like to gather all the thieves and push them off the bridge.”
“Let’s do that,” Tor said, eyes bright with hope. “Let’s get the biggest thief of them all and push him off the bridge. How would we find him?”
“I’d ask my buddy Clavoy. He is real smart and works for the city. He knows people who knows everything.”
“So take us to see Clavoy,” Tor begged.
“Okay,” Lok said and leapt onto the ramp. The ship shuddered. The rebels all held their breath.
“How many times have I got to tell you not to do that?” Grahrk shouted.
Clavoy lived with his mom in the shanty. Lok pointed out her shack… a series of cardboard boxes painted a revolting pink. Moss grew in flower pots on the window sills. “Will you go in with us?” Tor asked Lok.
“Oh no,” Lok said shaking his head. “Clavoy says his mom doesn’t like me.”
“I’ll stay out here with you,” Tor said, reassuring his new friend. Did this guy have an authentic Jedi artifact? How much did he know about the Jedi?
Carson, Kelyn and Baris knocked on the curtain that served as a door.
“You aren’t taking my valuables!” Esther Clavoy shouted.
“We aren’t here to rob you,” Kelyn tried to assure the old woman. “We’re here to see your son.”
“He isn’t here,” Esther said. “Come on in. Will you have tea with me? I made a fresh pie, but it’s going to go cold before Cliff comes home.”
“We would love to have some of your delicious pie,” Kelyn said.
“I won’t put out afterwards. Just so you know.”
An uncomfortable aura drifted around the room as the rebels tried to force the vision of intercourse with the little old Neimoidian out of their minds.
“Before we eat, let us be refined. Would you please recite some classical poetry?”
Baris couldn’t think of any poems, but he tried to regale Esther with stories of the Clone Wars.
Esther’s face turned red. “The problem with you kids is it’s all about violence and killing. Tea is no place for such affairs. It’s about beauty and love! Get out! Now!”
Baris ran out of the shack.
Kelyn tried to recite a poem. When Carson heard the first line to be “Womp rat, womp rat, womp rat, how you squeal…” he leapt in, reciting something he’d read on the walls of the spaceport. Something about Good Lord Nutray.
Esther nearly swooned. “That’s one of my favorites,” she sighed. Now, we have tea and pie. As she sat down, she made a series of complex gestures. Baris had watched closely, transfixed by the bizarity of this old biddy. He realized they were expected to participate in the ritual and copied the motions… slower, so the others could copy him.
As they had tea and pie, Carson looked around the room and saw several photos of Esther with a young man who must be her son. He memorized the face.
Outside, Tor pressed Lok about the Jedi. “Any Jedi artifacts?” he asked.
“Oh yeah, see this?” Lok said, waving his rags. “I made this myself. It’s an exact copy of the one Tano was wearing.”
“Master craftsmanship,” Khalik agreed sarcastically.
“Do you know where I can get a Jedi mug? I really want a Jedi mug.”
Lok was so loud everyone inside the huts could hear him. Carson and Baris raised their voices to blot out Lok’s rantings. They did not want this to turn ugly at the end.
“You can get a Jedi mug at Coruscant,” Tor suggested.
“Oh Coruscant, of course,” Lok said, amazed the answer and avoided him for so long.
“Where is your son?” Kelyn asked Esther. We could bring him this delicious pie and help convince him to straighten up his act, so he appreciates you more.”
“Would you do that?” Esther asked. “Could you also bring a piece of pie to that nice bartender, Woody?”
“It would be an honor,” Kelyn said.
They left the shack with directions for the local cantina Clavoy favored, the Dogan. No sooner than they had relayed the good news, blaster fire broke out. The sounds of repulsor engines drowned out all sound, and swoop bikes chased the locals from their homes. A blast here and there set a squalid shack on fire. At last, the swoops surrounded the rebels. The leader climbed from her bike and took cover behind it. “Pretty little ship you have back there,” she said. “What’s it’s name? You haven’t paid the docking fee. It’s a thousand credits.”
Carson chastised the swoop leader. “Only official starport authorities may charge docking fees. According to the Bureau of Starships and…”
Kessra, the swoop leader, turned her blaster onto Carson. “You misunderstood. It’s a thousand credits each. You’re lucky. You landed on the nice side of town.”
The swoops swooped in. The gang members swiped at the rebels with their vibroblades. N3MO took a jolt to his side. The droid stepped forward, saw whirling. He cut the bike and biker in half.
“Give it up,” Tor demanded from Kessra. “Our droid means business.”
“Everyone get the droid. Once their toy is broken, they’ll cough up the dough.”
“Thanks guys,” N3MO said.
Blaster bolts flew. A swoop driver slumped forward. His bike carried him over the edge, and he vanished in the mist below.
Carson stepped next to N3MO. “We aren’t going to let you get out of this alive now,” he threatened. “Half your people are dead.”
Kessra seemed to understand. She hopped on her swoop and took off, vanishing around the bend.
A gang member rode into a house across from Esther’s place. Tor could see him through the window. “Your boss has abandoned you. Leave now.”
“No! That’s impossible!” the biker shouted and drove his bike through the window and across the chasm to the far side, where Kessra had been hunkered down.
The other bike leapt onto a sandstone column. N3MO leapt after it and used its magnetic feet to latch onto the top of the swoop, nearly making it tumble off the column. The bike leapt around the columns, trying to shake off the droid. N3MO shook off the driver from his mortal coil and hopped into the controls, squishing the corpse before the swoop could fall off the column.
N3MO charged the last swoop. The rebels unleashed their lasers, and the gang member dropped dead.
The group fumed that Kessra had gotten away. They were quite tempted to set aside the mission and hunt her down.
Instead, they descended the disintegrating stairs next to the bridge. Carson found a piece of plywood, stepped on it and surfed down the slope. He saw Kelyn and Baris struggling, clinging to the wall, and he swooped them onto his surfboard and let them ride down to the level ground.
Then, they reached a disintegrating bridge. Tor crossed without incident. Kelyn and N3MO rode their new swoop bikes across. The board broke beneath Khalik’s feet, but he managed to get across.
At the far side of the bridge, they saw the words “The Dogan” carved into the stone wall. Inside the cave was the bar. Tiny monitors surrounded the main bar, showing security feeds from throughout the city. There was a large radar screen, which any patron or employee would explain was used to detect Imperial bombing raids. The bar was not only a watering hole but a bomb shelter. Those who found sanctuary at the Dogan rarely left. However, the clientele and staff were among the best informed of city news.
Clavoy sat at the edge of the bar, talking to Normvy, the largest Neimoidian ever. He could be mistaken for a mutant Gammorean. “Well, not only is skin the largest organ in the body, but another interesting little tidbit about skin is that the Neimoidian body sheds about three pounds of it over the course of the year.
Normvy shook his head and drinks some ale. “Some of mine just crawled away.”
Woody, the Chadra Fan bartender, asked, “I don’t understand, where does it go?”
Clavoy replies, “To the atmosphere… dust.”
Normvy choke on his ale and chuckled, “What?”
Clavoy insisted, “Yeah, yeah, about 75% of all dust is Neimoidian skin.”
Carson stepped up to Clavoy’s side. “Actually, Cato Neimoidian dust is 16 percent Neimoidian skin, 63 percent plant dust and 29 percent rotted beetles. Most the balance is surprisingly made from decomposed moles.”
Clavoy had a new friend. Kelyn offered Esther’s pie to Woody and Clavoy.
“We’re looking for someone. They say there’s a Hutt in town…” Carson explained.
Clavoy said, “They say Hutts are hermaphroditic. Both male and female. I say this cannot be, because they are all aggressive, something you don’t see in the fairer sex. You see, the roots of physical aggression in the male of the species is found right here, in the old DNA molecule itself. Right up here at about one ‘o clock as I recall. Hold on to your hat because the very letters, DNA, are an acronym for the words ’Dames Are Not Aggressive’. “
The barmaid, Diatoy, approached. “They stand for Deoxyribonucleic Acid.”
Clavoy retorted, “Ah yes, but parse in High Galactic declination and my point is still moot.”
“Would you know where the Hutt is, being a loyal servant to the city and all,” Kelyn prodded.
“There is one who would know.”
“Oh no,” Normvy moaned.
“The Wizard of Zarra.”
“The what?” The rebels all blurted in unison.
“Is he an actual wizard?” Tor asked.
“It’s more of an honorary term,” Clavoy confided. “He is the last surviving member of the Neimoidian Inner Circle. We have him protected in a bunker. But for 250 credits you can have a holoconference with him and ask questions.”
“Where do we find him?” Tor asked.
“Back up to the bridge, make a right, cross two more bridges, and at the news kiosk time in ‘Council.’”
Carson asked if there was a back way out of the bar, fearing to cross the bridge again. “Yeah, you can take the cargo elevator,” Clavoy offered.
Soon, they were all off to see the Wizard.
At the kiosk, they typed ‘Council.’ A turbolift appeared and swept the rebels underground, where a dozen B-2 battle droids aiming their blaster rifles at them. “250 credits,” the lead droid demanded.
They felt compelled to pay.
The Wizard appeared as a five meter high face surrounded in fire. “Who dares disturb the Wizard of Zarra?” the Wiz demanded. “Oh, and is Darth Vader dead yet?”
“Not yet, we’re afraid,” the heroes responded.
“We seek Darga the Hutt,” Tor informed the Wiz.
“To find Darga, you will need to find Warrick Raden. He is a ground level lieutenant in Darga’s organization. You can find him in a warehouse at the coordinates on the screen. The Great Zarra has spoken!”
The hologram vanished.