Renci kneels by the underground stream, organizing her backpack in preparation for heading out. Renn stands nervously nearby, then grows resolute and crouches down near her. “Renci, lass, I know ya have things ya want ta get done, but look at yerself. Ya need ta rest.”
She turns away from him and splashes her face again with water from the stream, then catches her reflection. She does look run-down, and seeing her sunken eyes, the dark smudges under them, she is reminded of JT. But what she says is, “We don’t have time to rest. We barely got out of there.”
“I know, and I’m sorry fer that.”
“Sorry for what?”
“That we barely got outta there, and I don’t even remember how we did.” As much as he does not want to, he needs to address this head on, own up to it, or she will never take a break.
Renci downplays it. “One of us pulled the other out; I don’t even remember which.”
Renn shakes his head at that. “I fell apart back there.”
“Yeah, and I fell apart outside,” Renci counters.
“And we canna risk both of us fallin’ apart as we move forward. We—both of us—need ta take a break, clear our heads.”
She sighs. JT’s been working too hard. Maybe I’ve been working too hard. “Yes, you’re right. We should rest. We’re in a nice, relatively safe, stable place…” Renci flops down on her back, looking up at the high ceiling of the large cave, and sees dust starting to fall. Suddenly she shouts, “Get out of the way!”
Renn does not know what alerted her or which way to get out of. He leans down, intending to pull her to her feet, and gets struck by rubble come loose from the ceiling. Renci meanwhile, has rolled to the side, into the stream. She hops up out of it and looks around. The cavern is now brightly lit, the shaking having disturbed all the fungi. She sees Renn where she left him, sitting back on his heels, hand pressed to the side of his head. “Renn? Renn, are you okay?”
“I think so,” he replies.
“Did you get hit in the head?”
He chuckles at the inevitability of it. “Aye, a little.”
Renci does not detect any hysteria in his behavior, just amusement. The room has grown still and silent, so she sits down next to him and pulls out her general purpose scanner, reviewing the readings she has been taking all day and mulling them over. “Have you ever been on a planet with earthquakes or volcanic activity?”
“No, but I’ve been in cave-ins and collapses. And Kash did tell me about Sullust and the cave exploration they did there.”
“JT told me a bit about that job, something about getting in trouble for asking about payment at the wrong time.” Renci sticks a hand back in the stream, noting that the water that was so refreshingly cold when they first entered the chamber is now tepid. “Anyway, I think that’s what we’re looking at here. There was some sulfur in the readings I got as we flew through the clouds. There are all those minerals in the cave walls here… This mountain isn’t a volcano, but this is volcanic activity, probably just coming from much deeper down. That doesn’t rule this planet out for a base, though. It could be a source of power.”
“Geothermal heatin’, not bad fer balancin’ out the cold weather.”
“But we should get out of here,” Renci declares. “There’s going to be aftershocks and tremors…” However, she does not get up just yet. “Are there any creatures that actually live in lava?”
“Sullust has really large tunnelers. They don’ live in the lava itself, but their tunnels fill up with it, and they can stand the heat… Oh, what were they called?” He tells Renci about a few other animals that dwell in or near lava as he pulls the datapad out of his vet kit to swipe through it. “Rockrenders!” he announces triumphantly, once he finds the entry.
“You know a lot about lava creatures for someone who has never been to a volcanic planet,” Renci comments.
“She really likes them,” he replies.
Renci scoots closer so she can also see the datapad and says, “Well, I guess they are kind of big and strong looking….”
“No,” he laughs, “not the rockrenders; Kash likes volcanic planets.” But now he is distracted by the information at his fingertips, and he flips through the entries on other volcanic creatures.
Renci stops Renn as he is paging through and points out the lavaburrower, which actually can live in lava.
“Did ya want ta catch one ta ride it? We wouldna be able ta last long in the lava ourselves.”
“No, no,” she says. “I just noticed this one says it is found on Dathomir.” Renci had spent time with JT on the Hoth job, and everything was normal. But then JT left abruptly for Dathomir, and it was after her return from that trip that Renci started noticing strange behavior. “You were there, right? JT and her gang went there recently. What was that all about?”
Renn drops the datapad down in his lap and thinks for a moment, trying to decide what he is comfortable telling Renci. “I realize ya don’t have much of a family—”
“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Renci mutters.
“—but they’re not always the easiest thing ta deal with… M’ sister kidnapped me, and they all went ta Dathomir ta get me.”
“She kidnapped you? What, was she an Imperial?”
“No, she was just a very jealous, messed-up person.”
“But they got you back?”
“Aye, I’m here aren’t I? But… it wasna a good scene. A lot of people got hurt.” Renci asks him if he knows what happened to JT. He puts away the datapad and gets up, taking in the current state of the cavern to cover pulling his thoughts together. He did not see JT at all during the chaos on the refinery level. Mostly blind as he was from the hibernation sickness, he did not see much of anything. He was trying to use Mira’s senses consciously for the first time, but she was flying all over the place, upset by all the angry emotions, and he himself felt so… off… during all that. JT did come to talk to him afterward, though, her arm in a sling, and she told him that she understood for herself now what Zikka had put him through, and she was sorry for it. “M’ sister attacked her and hurt her pretty badly.”
Renci was thinking of Renn’s sister as just a female version of him, maybe shorter and slenderer, same intense blue eyes…. Perhaps this Zikka is actually more buff and gritty than she had thought. “What, was your sister a bounty hunter? JT’s tougher than she looks,” she says, as she also climbs to her feet.
Renn simply says, “There’s no resistin’ some types of attacks.”
Oh, it must’ve been some sort of poison or gas grenade, Renci decides. “Was anyone else hit?”
“Is she herself?” Renci asks.
Renn rolls his eyes. Now that is a topic that has been much on his mind lately. “I don’ know. I thought I knew her, maybe I don’…”
Renn sighs. “I was gone fer months. I thought….” All that time she spent handling him, taking care of him… what should she be like, now that she is finally free of the responsibility of… him? Maybe she is trying to figure that out for herself. Maybe, like Renci said last night, it is not about him. Maybe, it is really about her, and Kash needs to decide how she wants to relate to him now that they are on more equal footing. He told her, when they parted ways after Gesaril, that he wished they had met under better circumstances and maybe someday they could. Perhaps that someday still has not arrived. “I don’ know. But ya were sayin’ about JT…?”
Renci describes JT’s recent focus and drive, her obsession with bringing down Romar Kek, and her talk of “deserving” things. Her normally sunny Muffin had even pushed Renci to demand a promotion during their most recent conversation. “The last time I remember her being this, well, obsessed, she was bringing down some tech company. It had enslaved her family, but her revenge was to break it into a bunch of charities. With this Romar Kek character, though, it’s like she not only wants him murdered, but in a maximally efficient way, getting as much benefit out of it as possible,” Renci shares, quickly adding, “But that creep deserves it. JT’s not wrong, just unusually brutal.”
Renn thinks back to his final exchanges with his sister, shouting angrily back and forth at each other across the refinery, and what his mother told him about Zikka’s attack on her. “That sounds an awful lot like how m’ sister was talkin’, obsessive and deservin’.”
“Does she get off on her own gas grenades?” Renci asks.
Renn looks at her, baffled. “That’s not an idiom I’m familiar with….”
“Sorry, it’s a Mandalorian saying…. Have you ever known someone really into flamethrowers?”
“I know some people really inta guns… yu’ve met Chando.”
Renci explains about Mandalorians who embody the element of fire, who incorporate flame projecting weapons into the armor itself, and how the gas from them would sometimes leak into their suits. “The chemicals can cause highs but also caustic burns. Some of these warriors revel in it. They do not merely use fire weapons; they are flame troopers. So what I meant is, is Zikka the kind who likes experiencing pain?”
“No, absolutely not,” Renn answers without hesitation. “M’ impression of m’ sister is that she might’ve liked causin’ pain in others, but she’d do whatever she could t’ avoid it in herself.”
Renci notes the distant look in his eyes, sees how uncomfortable this is making him. “Your sister was a real piece of work, wasn’t she?”
“Aye. And Kash’s crew, yer JT included, went through a lot gettin’ me back from her.”
“Well, you know, you helped them a lot, too. And me.”
He does not know what to make of that comment at first. Kash’s crew? Yes. He arranged for them to capture the ISB officer Marek Quay, as he had told Kash he would. They both said they did not owe each other anything anymore after that, but clearly Kash felt some responsibility for what it had personally cost him. But Renci? Then he realizes what she must mean. His plan to get Marek Quay delivered to Desert Rose Solutions is what put the Vigilant into the Rebellion’s hands. “Right, the frigate.”
“The frigate, the intel. And even if you don’t like it, the inspirational story of Amulet.”
“Well, we need that,” Renci says practically, “so maybe it is best if you stay disappeared as far as the Rebellion is concerned. But that all aside, do you have any advice on how to deal with JT?”
“If she was Influenced by m’ sister, maybe ya can talk her down? Or maybe Eloii could help her.”
“She’s the psych in New Meen, right?”
“Aye, she specializes in that kinda thing.” Renn has talked with Eloii a few times himself about these topics.
Now it is Renci’s turn to look perplexed. “That’s a weird thing to specialize in.”
Renn watches Renci closely, trying to get a read on if she understands what he is talking about, but also not really wanting to clarify if she does not. Renci looks right back, evaluating something about him, as well. Finally, even though they are alone in a closed cavern, miles away from anyone else, she steps up close to him and drops her voice, whispering, “Do you mean this is a Force-related problem?” Renn nods. “Agh! I can’t believe I just outted JT!” Renci cries.
“Ya didna just out JT. She showed me tricks with her hydrospanner back when it wasna even a functionin’ lightsaber yet.”
“Wait, you know? How long have you known?”
“Since Gesaril. There was some source of dark power there. JT, Cal, they told me all about Force stuff then. Kash thought I needed ta be educated in this topic… fer m’ own safety.”
“Because of your sister? There was a committee working on Dark Side stuff…” Renci catches herself again. “I probably wasn’t supposed to mention that.”
Renn brushes it off. “I know about that already. Cal and Chando left DRS ta join it.”
“I’m not sure why we’re spending resources on that,” Renci says, shaking her head. “We don’t have enough to fight the Empire as it is. Why spend precious time and talent going after a third party?”
It might have been a rhetorical question, but Renn answers it. “The Empire has some of these dark Force users.”
“But you said your sister wasn’t an Imperial.”
“No, she wasna, not really. Some of the others in the group were, after some fashion. Definitely one of them had some sort of Imperial rank. That’s how I ended up in reeducation. And m’ sister was at a special school, at least initially.”
Renci is surprised. “Not a Jedi academy?!”
“No,” Renn says, “those don’t exist anymore.”
“Well, I don’t know your sister’s age.”
“She’s a year—” He corrects himself, “She was a year younger than me.”
“Well, her teachers must’ve been something. Probably got her all mixed up about the Force. I mean, Azalyn had a Jedi mother, but even she doesn’t really know much. When the Jedi all fell, the galaxy lost access to all that knowledge, all those universal truths—”
“No,” he vehemently interrupts her. “The Force, it’s not about universal truths. It can twist people and Influence ya ta believe things that ya shouldna, things that are no’ true. That’s what m’ sister did.”
“How can I stop this from happening to JT, her getting twisted into becoming a power-obsessed individual?”
“Maybe someone knowledgeable about Force things…” One of those times Cal tried to explain it to Renn, he mentioned having a teacher. Perhaps JT does, too. “Did she have any sorta instructor?”
Renci thinks back over whether she ever met anyone who that could be, and an image comes to mind of an older, gray-haired human woman. JT introduced Renci to Elaiza one time in New Meen, describing her as being important to her, and making a point of telling Elaiza that Renci was special to her. And yet… JT never talked about Elaiza at all, apart from that one time, never said where they met, never mentioned visiting her. Renci finds the complete absence of information she has about Elaiza to be telling in and of itself. She describes the woman, and Renn says the only person he knows in New Meen fitting that loose description is his own mother. “I only ever met this Elaiza once,” Renci explains. “It was at the dedication of the Val Isa Memorial Meditation Room.”
“That is a name I do recognize,” Renn says.
“Well, of course, there’s a room named after her in the New Meen Community Center. JT—”
“I broke her lightsaber.”
“What, you broke JT’s lightsaber?”
“No, Val Isa’s.”
“She was just some artist, wasn’t she?”
Renn realizes he has released information he did not need to, but there is no backing away from this now. “No, she must’ve been a Jedi or something, because JT was usin’ her lightsaber before she’d finished her own.” Renci looks at Renn expectantly. Clearly that was not a sufficient answer, and he is going to have to elaborate. So be it. Renci already knows about this dark Influencing thing. She might as well understand just how powerful it can be, especially if JT is affected by it somehow right now. “So… ya know how I was sayin’ about the Force bein’ used ta make ya do things ya wouldna normally?” Subconsciously, he backs away from Renci a bit, putting more space between them. “I shot JT once, and—”
“It wasna of m’ own free will—”
Renci steps up to Renn, shaking. She grabs his left shoulder and demands, “What made you shoot my Muffin?”
Renn looks pointedly down at her right hand and then back at her. She takes a breath and unclutches her fingers, letting him go. “It was on Gesaril. I told ya there were dark things there. Yu’ve met Saskwatch, right?” She confirms she knows the avian ambassador who is sometimes in New Meen. “He’s from there. His people use the Force ta communicate, and they asked Kash’s crew ta deal with some sorta dark feelings that turned out ta be at this temple. The place… it made ya uncomfortable. Cal and JT were seein’ things… There’s a lot about it I don’t understand. Anyway… I was gettin’ this feelin’ that JT was in the way, and shootin’ her just seemed ta’ make sense.” Renci starts to respond, and he quickly continues, “JT doesna blame me; she said that at the same time, she was feelin’ pressure to trap me in Zikka’s cell.”
Now Renci does cut in. “Your sister was there?”
“No, at least not when I was… or, not when I was there with JT… The temple was used by the group Zikka was in.” He is telling this story all out of order, and it is just sounding worse and worse. It doesna help that I was concussed most of the time.
“Wait, were you in this cult, too?” Renci asks, incredulous.
“No… they might’ve tried ta get me ta join once, but I don’ really remember that and… well, I ended up in reeducation instead…. Look, maybe Zikka Influenced JT in some way, more than I was aware of durin’ that final fight on Dathomir. Kash killed Zikka, but that doesna mean m’ sister left no lastin’ effects.” Stars know, he has been feeling those effects for twenty-odd years. And even now… There was no protectin’ Zikka from herself, he tells himself for the hundredth time. But he still feels like he failed to protect her.
I am going to find that Elaiza woman, Renci resolves, and she is going to help me fix this. “Renn, I appreciate all you’ve told me. Everything that happened with your sister must have been really hard on you.”
“It’s not as bad as it was before. She’s gone now, not hurtin’ anyone anymore.” He turns away from Renci, looking up at the ceiling. More to himself than to her, he concludes, “And… it’s not m’ fault, what she did.”
Renci follows Renn’s gaze up. There is an opening in the cave above, but at such a height that Renn immediately dismisses it and drops his attention to ground level. The way they came in and intended to leave are both filled in with rock now, but the stream must enter and exit this chamber somehow. Renn turns back to his companion, only to find Renci has disappeared. Then her voice echoes down from the hole in the ceiling. “Hey, there’s daylight up here! This shaft is a bit steep, but it isn’t too long.”
Right, the jumpboots. “There’s space to swim out down here at the end of the small river as well,” he calls up to her. “It’s deeper as it exits, but there’s plenty of headroom, so it wouldna be an underwater dive.”
Renci sticks her head out of the opening in the roof. “I don’t want us to split up.”
“There’s no way fer me ta climb up there, and we don’t have any rope.” That reminds him of the tack and their azurdactyl friend. He calls to Mira, who is idly circling the chamber, “Go get Volay and bring him ta the entrance Renci’s found, would ya?” The kiros bird flies up past the descending woman. As she lowers to the cave floor, Renn eyes her appraisingly. “How much weight can those boots take?”
“I don’t know. They’re specced out for personal transportation. What are you thinking?”
“I was wonderin’ if they could support both—” before he has finished the thought, Renci steps up to grab him. He wraps his arms around her to help take some of the weight, and she launches. They only get about a meter up before they are stuck just hovering, unable to progress further, so Renn lets go and drops back to the ground.
“Like I said,” Renci observes as she lands, “personal transportation.”
“So, the stream then.”
Renci strips down to the long-sleeved green swimsuit she wears as an inner layer and puts all her clothes in her backpack with her jumpboots, then seals it up. She lowers herself into the tepid water near the cave wall and swims sideways, holding her bag up out of the water as much as possible, protecting the contents even more. Renn, more used to just tolerating uncomfortable conditions, does not mind about soaking his clothes. He disassembles the Czerka and stores it to keep it dry, but then drops into the river and swims normally.
They exit the water into another large chamber with several tunnels leading out of it. The center has a large table-like slab, and it just screams command center to Renci. “The brass is going to love this! This is the kind of superfluous thing they would demand.” She snaps a holopic of the setting.
Renn snorts. “Ya make them sound kinda vain.”
“Sometimes they are. A lot of people are. The point is, this is already a good site, and this makes it a good sell and smoothes over the volcanic activity—opportunity. What I really need to find is a good place for the astromech droids… They aren’t going to be able to float up the river we just took.”
“Well, I’m sure once ya get engineers here, they’ll be able ta work out the structural issues. And ya can recharge the droids geothermically.” They briefly scout out each of the side tunnels and find one leading upwards. “So do ya have many other possibilities ta check out?”
“One more planet. Rumors of ruins, which is interesting. It could have good places to hide.”
Their tunnel connects to the cave that Renci has been calling the X-wing hangar the whole time. Volay and Mira are waiting for them just inside it, pink and purple light playing across them. The humans step up to the cave entrance, and in the fading light of day, Renci asks, “Do you want me to take a look at your head now, before we fly back?”
“The sun’s settin’, and it’s a long way ta go. Plus we’ve no tack…”
“So we should get going now while there’s still light,” she concludes.
“No, that’s not what I meant. I think we should camp here. Then in the mornin’ we can maybe find some vine ta fashion tack out of.”
Renci agrees and pulls out her medkit. She has him sit down and examines his scalp. As she pushes his short dark hair aside to seal up the new gash, she notices some scarring under it from previous injuries and treatments. The curve of those stitch marks… Are they in the shape of montrals?! She is not even going to ask. Every relationship has its things.
Once she is finished, she has him stand and run through a few stretching tests to make sure his balance has not been affected. Satisfied, she clears him to go scout out the area and gather whatever he can to make their campsite more comfortable while she sets up the scanner.
When Renn returns, his report is not favorable. Up this high, the terrain is mostly lichen-covered rocks and short, scraggly pines, so there is nothing to supplement their dwindling supply of ration bars. As they settle in for the night, they also come to realize that the cave entrance is rather exposed, and the cold mountain wind blows right into it. Volay slithers further back into the cave, and Renci curls up beside the azurdactyl for warmth.
Renn tries to sleep, but despite Mira’s efforts to soothe him, he finds that tonight is just going to be one of those nights. Too much happened today; too many old paths were retrod. His sister, reeducation, the Vigilant. Six months ago, there would have been whiskey on hand, and maybe that was not the best way to handle things, but it at least quieted his thoughts enough and dulled the edges of his memories. Thank the stars there is none around, or to be sure, he would have a hard time resisting it. It all makes him miss Kash fiercely, and he hopes she is sleeping more easily than he is, wherever her work happens to have taken her this time.
Snow begins to fall outside the cave, the wind blowing it into the entrance, where a thin coating accumulates. A break in the clouds opens up, and the full moon illuminates the now-pristine mountainside. Renn turns his back to the wind funneling into the cave and pulls out the Czerka. He begins methodically cleaning and checking each piece, taking some comfort in the routine activity, even as the weapon itself reminds him of the struggle to just stay alive on Gesaril for the days before Kash and Draac tracked him down.
Renci wakes to the buzz of her scanner reporting two large lifeforms at the cave entrance. As she tries to clear the cobwebs from her head, she wonders why it did not go off sooner. Oh, those minerals. Kriff. If they make a base here, they will have to set up repeaters. She sees eyes reflecting the moonlight and jumps to her feet, drawing her blaster. “Renn, we’ve got company!” she shouts. She fires a shot at the closer creature, then groans in frustration when its hide dissipates most of the energy. Slightly singed, it hisses at her.
Renn swivels around and sees two feline forms at the mouth of the cave. There is no time to assemble the Czerka, not with those creatures so close and Renci’s blaster already blazing away. He lunges over to where the air rifle rests on the ground nearby, takes aim, and squeezes the trigger. The dart sinks in, but the beast snarls and charges, enraged. The ranphyx whips its head about, catching him with a few of its facial horns as he scrambles back away from it to his feet. The other ranphyx smells blood and plows into him, knocking Renn back into the cave wall but getting hit by a dislodged rock for its troubles.
Renn tries to maneuver past them, keeping their horns at bay with the air rifle, but they have him too well hemmed in. He has their full attention, though, and Renci makes her move. She draws her vibrosword and jets across, boots skimming just above the snowy ground, swinging at the one with a dart sticking out of it. She hits a nerve cluster in its leg, which it repays by turning around and sinking its teeth into one of hers. The other ranphyx snaps at Renn, and he whacks it with the butt of the rifle. Space is too tight to try shooting off a dart, so Renn pulls his knife and slashes at the creature, cutting it across the nose. He whistles for Mira, and she flies in. He is just looking for her to provide a distraction, but she tries to grapple the ranphyx with her tail. It is no surprise that the little kiros bird cannot restrain the larger beast.
Renci stabs down at the creature latched to her leg, her sword and its horns locking together, neither able to land a blow. She tries again, bringing the hilt in to clock the ranphyx on the side of the head, disorienting the beast momentarily. It releases her leg, and she clicks her heels together to flip the mode of her jumpboots. She does a spinning kick, connecting with its side. The thick hide absorbs the blow, but then electricity ripples across the boot and the ranphyx yelps. It rears up and claws right back at her, smacking the side of her head and wrapping its paws around her.
The creature on Renn does not manage to get its horns past the air rifle in his right hand. Mira’s futile attacks do distract it though, and Renn slices across the ranphyx’s throat. Blood sprays everywhere as it claws back at him in vain. He intercepts its limb with the air rifle and slashes down across it with his knife, severing a tendon. The leg buckles as the creature comes down on it, and the ranphyx does not get up again, blood pooling around its head. Renn sheathes the knife and brings the air rifle up, firing a shot at the beast on Renci.
Renci, arms caught at her sides by the claws, raises a leg up high and tries to stamp it down on the ranphyx, but the creature lets go of her to evade the blow. It quickly comes right back at her, snapping with its teeth, but Renn fires off another dart, taking it down. Renci looks across at him, and her eyes go wide at the amount of blood she sees.
“Most of it isna mine,” he wearily assures her, lowering the rifle. “Let’s drag these out and make sure they’re dead first.”
They haul the creatures outside and slit their throats. “So, dinner, after all,” Renci jokes, as she pulls out her medkit yet again for stim shots and wound sealant.
Once they are both patched up, Renn tells her, “Go back ta sleep. I’ll stay up and skin them, and we’ll be able ta work the hides inta simple tack.” His voice cracks with exhaustion, and Renci shakes her head at him.
“What about you? We can do that in the morning.”
“I wasna sleepin’ anyway. I might as well be doin’ something useful.”
“It doesn’t have to be crippling insomnia. We’ll say you took first watch, so you should try to sleep now. I’ll stay up.”
He gives a weak laugh at that. “If we call it crippling insomnia, then it is what it is. If we call it taking watch, then I failed at that.” He gestures at the creatures who snuck up on them.
“You don’t need to keep beating yourself up, Renn,” Renci says.
“I’m not, it’s just… I canna sleep properly, and… I’m still adjustin’. I didna exactly have the most straight-forward life.”
“No one has. You know how to learn to sleep properly? In a nice, warm, soft bed,” Renci declares. “When is the last time you did that, Renn? And that hanging contraption on your ship does not qualify.”
The luxurious bed in Kash’s bungalow is large enough for him, her, and her sand panther Natasha. “A few days ago, in New Meen.”
So much for that approach, Renci thinks. “You know what you need? A vacation.”
Now Renn really does laugh. “No’ the way they take them.” Renci was at Blue Spring Lodge with DRS. She knows the craziness that happened there.
“Vacations usually don’t have murders,” she assures him.
“Oh? And d’ya take many vacations?”
“No,” Renci admits as she settles into her watch, “too much work to do.”