With directions to the cliffs where azurdactyls like to nest, Renci and Renn return to the Resolve briefly to gear up. Renn disassembles the Czerka and stores the pieces in his backpack so that he has it if they really need it, but since they are headed out with the intent to work with the animals they encounter, his weapon of choice is the Field Sports Model 77 air rifle that Cal gave him at Blue Spring Lodge. A SmartTranq dart might not be potent enough for really robust creatures, but it should give them a bit of an edge. He slips an extra cartridge of them into a thigh pocket, just in case. As he loads their scavenged climbing gear into his backpack as well, he regrets not having Stell’la’s tack on hand. He had actually intended to bring it, thinking to reinforce a few pieces while they were in hyperspace, but when it came time to leave for Nabat to pick up Renci, it totally slipped his mind. Maybe we’ll be able ta slap something together from the climbin’ gear, he thinks. Finally, he loads up a stim applicator with five doses and slides it into the hip pocket of his bag.
Renci stuffs her datapad and her general purpose scanner into her medical backpack, then slides in the reservoir of her eopiebak and threads the drinking tube through to the shoulder strap so that she will have easy access to it on the hike. She clips on her blaster pistol and her new vibrosword, briefly considering whether she needs to bother carrying a knife around anymore. Surely, anything that a knife could handle, her new sword can. Besides, if they really need a knife, Renn has one. She looks herself over in the mirror mounted on the inside of the door to her quarters and smiles again at the red jumpboots. Time for some field testing.
They hike a few hours through thick conifer forest, Renn repeatedly getting too far ahead and then waiting for Renci to catch up. She takes him to task for this, telling him he needs to pay attention to his surroundings more. He counters that he is and maybe she is not, which is why she moves so slowly. They snip at each other a little over this matter, and he concedes that maybe he needs to pay more attention, but it is to his companion, not to the wilderness. They emerge from the pines at the base of a steep cliff. Now that they are no longer exerting themselves and have left the tree canopy, they realize that the temperature has dropped quite a bit and notice that it is snowing. The wind picks up as well. Almost at the same moment, they each grumble.
“This had better not be like Hoth!” Renci says.
Renn mutters more pessimistically, “This is goin’ ta be Blue Spring Lodge all over again.”
They discuss their options. Their light jackets will not stand up very well to extreme cold, but it would be at least a four-hour round trip for them to reequip back at the ship. Renn points out that they do not know the length of day here, so that might catch them out in the forest when night falls.
Renci berates herself for not having knowledge of these things ahead of time. “I’m a scout. These are exactly the sort of things I am supposed to know and be prepared for!”
“Don’ be too hard on yerself, lass,” Renn tells her. “Scoutin’ is about discovering these things, not already knowin’ them. If’n this planet were already well understood, we wouldna need ta be here.”
Renci pulls out her scanner as Renn studies the cloud movements. He judges the storm is not going to last all night; it will probably pass in just a few hours. While it is inconvenient for now, it is not bad enough to justify the time consumed going back for other supplies. Renci agrees they should just press on. It will be good to test her boots in crummy field conditions.
The lowest ledge large enough to host an azurdactyl nest is about twenty-five meters up. Renn tells Mira to go ahead and they will join her in a bit. As she flies off in wide, lazy circles, he pulls out the climbing gear and begins inspecting the cliff face, trying to find a good place for some initial anchors. Lead climbing is a little stressful, but it is worlds better than just free climbing. He moves up a meter or so in a few different areas, but none of them put him in reach of anywhere he feels confident placing gear. As Renn drops back down to the ground again, Renci comments that this would be a lot easier if the rope were already attached above. He offers it to her and asks, “D’ya want ta give it a try yerself, then?” She takes it, clicks her heels together, and rockets upward, powered by her jumpboots.
Renci slams into the cliff about halfway to the desired ledge and grabs for some handholds. She finds footing on a narrow projection of rock, but all this scrambling sends a load of debris sliding down around Renn. He dodges out of the way, calling up, “Are ya stable up there?”
“Yes, I’m good. Sorry about that; I’m still testing out these boots. Are you okay?”
“Aye. Can ya fix the rope anywhere?”
“I figured I’d just jump all the way up to the top and then lower the rope from there.”
“Is the rope long enough fer that? I don’ think it is,” Renn cautions. “Best that we just do this in stages.”
Renci secures an anchor and sets herself up to belay, then lowers the rope down for Renn, but it is too far up for him to reach from the ground, let alone tie himself in. Renci pulls the rope back up and roots around in her utility belt, extracting a small spool of synthrope. It is not much, but it is enough that if she combines it with the climbing gear via a double Mandalorian knot, the rope will reach Renn.
The wind whips more wildly around Renci on her tiny ledge as she belays Renn. Rocks loosened by her earlier scrambling dislodge themselves, sending a small avalanche down on him. He jams his left hand in a crack to hold himself in place and ducks his head, covering it with his right arm. A few rocks glance off his arm, but his backpack protects him from the brunt of the debris. Once everything is still, he confirms to Renci that he is okay to move again but explains that he is going to continue past her height and up to their target ledge. The rockfall actually revealed a section of cliff face much easier to navigate, and he is going to stick with that, rather than try to meet up with her.
At the top, Renn pulls himself up onto the ledge and calls down to Renci that he will find somewhere to anchor there, but she tells him she will just use her boots. He is uncomfortable with this plan. “What if ya launch, but ya canna maneuver laterally in this wind? At least stay tied in, in case I need ta pull ya this way or catch ya.” She agrees, and he sets up an anchor. Renci clicks her heels together and sputters up a bit, catching at the rock face halfway to Renn’s level. Her next attempt goes even more poorly, as the boots spark but do not seem to fire, and she slides back down to the small promontory from which she had belayed Renn. She tries a third time with the same result.
As the wind gusts and the snow continues to fall, Renn urges her to simply climb. The little ledge she is on must not be enough space for her to get a sufficient boost to her jump. Renci relents and top ropes up to join Renn. She sits on the edge, complaining glumly, “I’m out of practice.”
Renn tries to comfort her while disengaging from the ropes. “Ya canna be outta practice with gear yu’ve never used before.”
“I’ve never used jumpboots before; no one has.”
“That’s m’ point. Yer bein’ too hard on yerself.”
“No,” Renci disagrees insistently. “I should be better. Better at flying.”
Renn gives up. If she wants to beat herself up over this, she can. He indicates he is going to head farther back into this cave-like alcove to see what the situation is. In the dim light it looks like there is at least one nest back there, but he needs to get closer to know what they are dealing with. Renci tells him to go ahead and she will catch up. She needs to check on these boots to figure out why they were not firing right. As Renn slips off, she crosses her legs, bringing up a boot to examine. She fiddles with it, shocking her fingers, but she also feels a jolt in her foot. It seems these jumpboots work as shockboots, too, but there might be some crosstalk in the wiring. Somehow, she switched their mode when she was on that little ledge. She adjusts them back to jump mode but makes a note to herself to test out shock mode next time she is in melee. Satisfied, she takes a sip of water from the bite valve at her shoulder.
Renn moves in a crouch along the alcove wall, stalking cautiously into the dimmer recess to get a count of the animals and judge their mood. Something feels off to him, and as he nears a roost, he sees that the long snakelike azurdactyl is struggling with a tunneling garrix clamped on his tail. The azurdactyl reaches back with his small claws, trying to dislodge the other creature, the bulk of whose body is in a tunnel.
As far as he can tell, the animals remain unaware of his presence, and, to keep it that way, Renn does not alert Renci to what is going on. He brings up his air rifle, carefully lines up a shot, and hits the garrix with a tranquilizer bolt. The creature has thick skin but no plates, so the dart sinks in. The garrix releases the azurdactyl and rears its head up with a roar, weaving about as if in search of new prey.
Renci hears the cry and spins around, jumping to her feet. She notes that Renn is shooting tranqs, so she flips her pistol’s setting as she draws it, and then she steps into the center of the alcove, close enough to the garrix for a stun bolt to have effect. With one blast, the creature falls still. Renci’s movement and flashy weapon, though, have further agitated the azurdactyl. He beats his wings frantically, sending gusts of wind at Renci that knock her backwards and out of the cave. Renn sees her go over the edge and surges in that direction, but in a moment, she floats back into view, asking him, “Are you going to tell it we’re on the same side?”
“Ya scared him,” Renn tells her with certainty. “He’s hurt.” Since Renci seems to have stabilized her flight and can take care of herself, Renn turns his full attention to the azurdactyl, approaching him openly and slowly, holding a reassuring hand out for him to smell or lick or bite… whatever he wants. The creature flicks a tongue out, licking Renn’s palm, and allows him to come closer. Mira lands in the shallow cave but stays near the entrance, away from the giant flyer.
Renci sets herself down next to the kiros bird and, sounding proud of herself, declares, “It’s all about earning your wings.” In response to Renn’s quiet snort of amusement, she elaborates, “That’s an expression where I’m from.”
“Where are ya from?” he asks.
“Not from around here.”
Renn lets that go. He has enough baggage of his own that he can recognize someone shutting down a line of inquiry. He steps away from the azurdactyl to examine the tunneling garrix and is surprised when Renci speaks again.
“Actually,” she says, checking herself—there is no reason for her not to tell him—”I’m from Mandalore. But there’s nothing for me there anymore.” She joins him at the unconscious creature. They study it for a bit and determine that it is blind, so it probably detects prey through vibrations or smell. Based on the jaw, it usually eats squishy things like grubs, but they would have to be pretty enormous to fuel the garrix’s bulk. That might explain why it went after the azurdactyl’s tail. It stirs as they watch it but quickly retreats back down its tunnel.
Renn returns to the azurdactyl, which Renci and he agree to call Volay. Once he and Volay have gotten a little more comfortable with each other, Renn inspects the tail wound. He pulls out the vet kit and swipes through its datapad. This creature has a very similar structure to Stell’la, so he finds the kinetic glider entry and uses that as guidance on treating the tail, flushing out the bites and stitching them closed. As he works, he and Renci discuss how to proceed. They decide to just hole up in this alcove with Volay for the night, since all of them are injured to one degree or another and could use some rest. This will give the storm a chance to blow over, and then they will have the light of day to locate places of interest further up the mountain.
Renci sets up her scanner to detect approaching life forms and adjusts the settings to send a vibration to their comm links if anything triggers it. She does not want a loud alarm to go off and scare the animals. Then she joins Renn and looks at his datapad, picking it up and flipping through a few other entries. “These azurdactyls seem distantly related to the Alderaanian thranta and the Kaminoan aiwha,” she comments.
“He’s a lot like Stell’la,” Renn agrees, pointing out that Rylothian kinetic gliders are also distantly related to those creatures.
Renci notes Volay watching Renn closely. The azurdactyl stretches its wings, and she adds, “I bet they really love flying, just for the sake of it. Look at how eager it seems to be up and out. And it’s intelligent.”
“Oh, sure,” Renn says, “he’s intelligent, but ya question Mira.”
“When did I do that?” Renci asks.
“When I was sendin’ her up ta scout out the ducts on the last job.”
Right. She does remember that. “Well, that was an Imperial torture facility.”
Renn looks up at her, incredulous. “What does that have ta do with Mira bein’ smart?”
“Anyone who was smart would be reluctant to go up into ducts in an Imperial torture facility. And she just flew right up. It was an Imperial torture facility.”
“Aye,” Renn agrees flatly, “so ya keep sayin’.”
Renci realizes what she has been hounding on and to who. “Sorry, that was insensitive of me. I know that was hard on you, what you went through in one of those.”
“It was a long time ago,” Renn says quietly, dismissing the topic. But Zekra Fol on the Vigilant, that was too recent, he thinks, and that brought a lot of it back. He focuses on packing up the vet kit to fill the awkward silence and then tries changing the topic. “So, they love flyin’? Perhaps yu’ll be able ta impress him with yer fancy shoes.”
Renci looks down, considering them, “I’m not sure about how well they perform in sustained flight.”
Renn glances over at the boots as he stands up and moves away from Volay. “They seem ta be an accident waitin’ ta happen.”
“They’re a prototype,” Renci asserts, sounding almost angry. “Part of my mission is to test them. They’ve only been tested in a lab, and that’s not enough.” Her urgency comes across as accusatory. “I need to make sure they can stand up to anything. If an Imperial walker comes along, these could help our people literally jump out of the way.”
Renn shakes his head. “It’s like talkin’ ta Kash!” he marvels. “Everything I say is wrong, somehow.”
“It’s not about you, Renn,” Renci replies. “It’s my mission, and it’s important.”
“I wasna questionin’ any of that. But ya sound really defensive.”
“I am defensive,” she insists, just as intense as before. “But it’s not about you; it’s about me. I’m psyching myself up. You’re right, these are really dangerous! But they could give us the edge we need.” She lets it go at that.
Renn gathers up all the climbing gear, and Renci fashions it into makeshift tack for Volay: reins and a simple body harness that they can clip into. After a couple of stim shots, they are sufficiently recovered from the injuries of the day. With the scanner set up, there is no need for anyone to keep watch. Following a dinner of field rations, they bed down on either side of Volay to benefit from his warmth, each alone with their own thoughts.