Posted by Darth Krzysztof
Twenty-one years before the Battle of Yavin
Zeva’s attempt to sleep ended as the ship shuddered. A dreadful grinding noise came from somewhere aft, and Captain Fann’s distant swearing confirmed her suspicion: they had not arrived yet.
She donned the uncomfortable spacer’s clothes. The ship was too warm for the jacket, but she pulled it on all the same. The scars on her right arm had brought enough embarrassing questions at the Jedi Temple; why risk further humiliation here? She tucked her lightsaber inside the jacket – Not that I’ll need it, she thought, I just don’t want to leave it lying around – and paused to examine herself in the mirror.
Without her Jedi robes, without her blond hair or her Padawan braid, Zeva scarcely recognized herself. In truth, she looked more like the form Kira IV’s dark side spirit had taken. She pushed that thought aside and left the passenger cabin to see what was going on.
She emerged into the Sable Fire’s common room, just as Captain Fann entered from the door that led to the cockpit. “Nothin’ to worry about, Miss Bel,” he said, though he was clearly worried. “Just a little problem with the hyperdrive. Pearl’s already workin’ on it.”
Zeva reminded herself (again) that she was using an alias on this mission. “Then we’re still in the Erawlon system?” she asked.
“Not for long.”
“I really can’t afford any delays,” she announced.
“Then you might’ve told me that up front.” The captain, a dark-skinned human, flashed his winning smile. “Now don’t get me wrong,” Fann continued. “Usually, when someone pays me twice the goin’ rate to get somewhere, I take ‘em as fast as I can. It’s professional, and it keeps the trouble they’re fleein’ off my back.”
“I’m not in any trouble,” Zeva said, glad that it was true. “I just have urgent business on Velcor’s Cross.”
“Sure, sure. What I can’t figure is why you didn’t just take a nice commercial liner, get yourself there in style, with cash like you were throwin’ around.”
“It’s like you said. Sable Fire is faster than one of those tubs.”
“Yeah.” Captain Fann was easily distracted by talking about his Barloz-class freighter – especially when the subject was her speed – but this time, his distraction passed quickly. “You ain’t my first charter lookin’ to avoid attention, mind you. But I never had a charter carryin’ one’a them Jedi laser swords before.” As Zeva tensed, the captain raised a hand, trying to put her at ease. “Don’t fret, now. Your ride’s paid for twice over, an’ a deal’s a deal.”
She peered at him. “How did you know about my lightsaber? I know I didn’t fall asleep.”
“Security scanner in the airlock.” Fann walked away from Zeva and took a seat at the common room’s dining room table, motioning for her to do the same. “I didn’t tell anyone on my crew.”
“Why tell me, then?” She eyed the chair opposite him, but didn’t move.
“Because I’m curious, Miss Bel. I never met a Jedi before. You are a Jedi, ain’t you?” When she nodded, he said “Since our trip’s gonna take a bit longer than either of us’d care for, I was hopin’ you might care to talk. To pass the time.”
“You wouldn’t rather help to fix the hyperdrive?”
He laughed. “All I do back there is get in Pearl’s way. An’ if she needs a tool or some such, she’s got Salley to get it for her. C’mon. Have a seat.”
There was little point in resisting. Her mission pressed on her mind, making meditation difficult and sleep unlikely. And Captain Fann might know things about the Sidori Cluster that could help. “All right,” she said, sitting across from Fann and folding her hands on the table. “What did you want to talk about?”
“When I was a boy,” Fann said, pouring a glass of water for Zeva, “Mother always told me to behave, or the Jedi would come in the night and steal me away. Do they really do that?”
“Not exactly, no.” Zeva explained how Jedi recruitment worked. Fann seemed disappointed that the Jedi weren’t the monsters his mother had made them out to be.
“So how old were you when they… when you joined the Order?”
“Too young to remember. Just a baby, really.”
“Then you don’t know your family.” It wasn’t a question.
“It’s our way. We aren’t supposed to form unnecessary attachments.”
He poured a glass of water for himself and took a long drink before saying “A family is never an unnecessary attachment.”
“Of course you feel that way, Captain; your family’s been part of your life for your whole life. Mine has not. The Order fills that role, for me.”
“They teach you ’bout the Force?”
A loud clang sounded from the engineering section. “But not a lot about anythin’ else,” Captain Fann said, his eyes still on Zeva.
She blinked at him. “I beg your pardon?”
“You stick out, Miss Bel. I might not’a have guessed ‘Jedi,’ but you don’t exactly blend. I can’t help but wonder what you’re doin’ out here on a secret mission. I don’t mean no offense,” he added quickly.
“I don’t take any,” Zeva said, though she felt color rising in her face. “But that’s exactly why I’m here. The Council believes this assignment will be good for me.” That, she thought, and I’m far away enough from anything important that it won’t matter much if I blow it. She hated herself for thinking that, but couldn’t help it. You don’t send the new Knight after Dooku or Grievous, after all.
“An’ just what is your assignment?” The smile returned to Fann’s face. “Maybe I can help you.”
“If there’s something in it for you, you mean?”
“Nah. You’ve put me an’ mine well into the black, Miss Bel. I can afford to help you out. An’ I’d be lyin’ if I said I wasn’t curious.”
Zeva decided to side with her instincts and trust the Captain. That’s what Master Tulu would have done… “We’ve heard rumors of a secret Separatist base inside the Cluster, put there to prey on the Perlemian Trade Route. I’ve been sent to investigate.”
“Startin’ at Velcor’s Cross.”
“Seems that way. One secret base, one Jedi.” She smiled at him, trying to look natural. “Of course, if you really want to help me, that changes things.”
“I reckon it does.”
A low rumble sounded from somewhere aft, and someone came running into the common room. It was Pearl, the engineer, a Twi’lek girl younger than Zeva. She seemed surprised – and a little angry – to find Zeva and Fann talking. “Cap’n,” Pearl said, “I could use yer help for a bit.”
“Salley ain’t helpin’ you?”
“He is, but I need the both of ya to hold up the assembly so I can get underneath it. Only take a second.”
Captain Fann excused himself and headed toward engineering. Pearl followed, but not before shooting Zeva an odd look.
What was that all about? the Jedi asked herself, staring at her glass of water. Pearl had barely spoken to Zeva so far… had she given the engineer some reason to act that way? It must have something to do with the Captain. Is Pearl jealous? Is there anything between them? Does there have to be, for her to be jealous? And is there anything between Fann and myself to be jealous of?
Was that what hid behind his charming smile… some attraction to Zeva? That possibility bothered her. She’d never been desired before, as far as she knew… how could she be sure? Pearl seemed to see it, whether it was there or not.
It doesn’t matter, she thought. Don’t encourage him. You can’t afford any entanglements on this mission.
It’s only an entanglement if it’s mutual. Was that the case? Was he attractive? Some of the women I’ve met who talk about such things would say so… He certainly expects that grin to have some effect on me. And if she had to ask if she was affected, then she wasn’t. Was she?
She shook her head, but found it no clearer. I hope you know what you’re doing. Just because you’re on your own out here doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want.
Who’s doing anything? I just think it might be pleasant to kiss Captain Fann.
That idea surprised Zeva. Where had that come from? It wasn’t like her to think about his lips on hers… to imagine his arms around her, his breath in her ear…
She stood up, knocking her glass of water to the floor. “Stop it,” she said aloud. “You’re a Jedi Knight, damn it. You’re better than this.” Perhaps some vestige of the dark side spirit still clung to her? It didn’t matter. When Captain Fann came back, Zeva would just have to spurn any advances he made.
Still, she had no Master looking over her shoulder, and the Council was far, far away…
Sable Fire shook violently, and the lights flickered. “Captain?” Zeva called, but Fann was already headed to the cockpit.
“We’re under attack!” Fann shouted. “Can you crew the turret?”
Zeva nodded and headed aft through the vast, dark cargo bay and into the heat of the engineering section, where Pearl and Salley were working furiously to fix the hyperdrive. Without stopping to look, the Jedi climbed the gunwell and buckled herself into the gunner’s seat. She pulled on the headset and took the controls in hand, swinging the laser cannon around as she waited for it to charge.
Stars spun across her view from the turret as Fann put the ship through a defensive maneuver, and Zeva caught a glimpse of three starfighters closing for a pass. Blasts of brilliant blue erupted from them as they streaked past, weakening Sable Fire’s deflector shields with each hit.
“Z-95 Headhunters,” Zeva said into her microphone. “They’ve got ion cannons.”
“Must be pirates, then,” Fann replied. “They’ll try to take out the engine and board us. You should have power now.”
Zeva confirmed it on her heads-up display. She wasn’t much of a gunner, but if she found her marks through the Force, rather than her target screen, Sable Fire might have a chance.
She poured a line of laser fire at the lead ship as it came into range, but it evaded the barrage and blasted the freighter’s stern with more ionized plasma. The shields barely held, then gave out under the next Headhunter’s pass. Fann jinked hard to port, saving Sable Fire from the last ship’s attack, but spoiling Zeva’s aim. Pearl was shouting at Salley now, but the Jedi tuned it out, concentrating on her task.
Since she’d have to anticipate Captain Fann’s maneuvers to have any chance of success, Zeva reached through the Force and touched his mind. She lined a fighter up and pulled her trigger, pounded the Headhunter’s shields until they collapsed, and put a final shot clean through its fission engine, sending the fighter up in a bright orange fireball.
She’d exhausted the cannon’s charge, so all she could do was watch as the remaining fighters swept past the freighter, taking her rear deflectors down again. “Hang tight,” Captain Fann said. “Shield’s gonna be down for a few; I gotta try’n shake ’em.”
Sable Fire changed course, and Zeva shook her head, saying “You’re headed for the asteroid belt.”
“I can handle ’er in there.”
“Maybe so,” she said, masking her doubt, “but we can’t go into hyperspace in there!”
“If we don’t go in there, we won’t have time to fix the hyperdrive!”
Zeva shut her mouth and waited. With so much power going to engines and shields, the cannon was taking forever to recharge… Fann evaded another pirate barrage and banked his ship into the asteroid field, forcing the Headhunters to break off pursuit.
“Pearl?” called the Captain, “I could use some good news.”
The engineer simply shouted “Almost there! We just need to hook the assembly back up!”
“Any chance it’ll work?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out,” Salley groused.
“Mama told me there’d be days like this. You sound off the second you’re ready!”
At last, power returned to the cannon. Zeva searched for the two pirates – and found a third.
“There’s a shuttle out there,” she said, “behind the ring-shaped asteroid. Zeta-class.”
Fann said “I was wonderin’ where she was hidin.’ They have t’have somethin’ t’board us with.”
“Hyperdrive’s ready!” Pearl shouted.
“Then we’re makin’ a break for it. Think you can take that shuttle out, Miss Bel?”
The Sable Fire flew past the ring-shaped asteroid, and Zeva fired at the shuttle until the shields fell and the external fuel pods ruptured, causing the entire ship to explode. Captain Fann pushed the sublight engines for all they were worth, racing toward the edge of the asteroid belt as the Headhunters rejoined the chase.
As the freighter’s lone weapon slowly recharged, Zeva could only watch as the pirates opened fire – with laser cannons. So much for the boarding action, she thought, as Sable Fire’s shields crumpled, and an alarm sounded somewhere below. One blast hit close to the turret, sending a shower of sparks over Zeva. The target screen went black, and stress fractures spread over the window.
Zeva released herself from the harness and leaped down the gunwell, sealing the passage behind her as she fell back into engineering. “The window’s going to blow!” she shouted.
“That hatch won’t hold,” said Pearl. “We need to move forward!”
The three of them raced to the cargo hold, and Salley closed the hatch just as another pirate attack rocked the ship. Sable Fire listed to port before correcting her course, and Pearl seemed on the verge of panic. “You better help the cap’n,” she told Salley, who headed forward at once. When Zeva started to follow, though, the engineer stopped her. “We’d just be in the way. Safer to wait it out here.”
Metal blocks filled much of the hold’s available space: carbonite alloy mixed with tibanna gas, Sable Fire’s legitimate cargo. Zeva leaned against one while she regained her composure, reaching into the Force to find out what was going on in the cockpit. “He’s hurt,” she said. “Captain Fann’s hurt.”
Both women started forward, but the ship’s power spiked, causing the slabs nearest Zeva to suddenly liquefy. The Jedi fell under a wave of liquid metal as it poured from the blocks; Pearl turned back, but Zeva waved her off, and the engineer left her alone in the cargo hold.
More and more of the slabs melted, filling the bay with carbonite, making it impossible for Zeva to free herself, As she struggled to keep her head above the surface, she heard the engine’s pitch begin to rise. That’s it, she thought as the carbonite flowed over her. We’re going into hyperspace. We’re going to make it!
The pirates blasted Sable Fire again, and the power grid flamed out, engaging the slabs and flash-freezing the carbonite into a single, solid mass. The blasts ruptured the hull, sucking her crew out into space, and leaving Sable Fire a smoking husk with a single life held captive within…