Once out past the asteroids of Smuggler’s Run, Renn gives control of the Resolve over to a clean Renci and takes his turn in the shower. Renci once again tries to get Rita to let her help plot their course so that she does not need to reveal more specific information other than the sector of their destination, but the astromech remains resistant. Giving up, Renci preps the ship’s sensors and navicomputer to collect as much data as possible on the jump.
Rita runs the calculations. Her data is a little out-of-date, and she chooses a circumspect route, just in case. “Get comfortable, organic,” she messages. “The flight to Rannon will take twelve hours.”
Renci triggers the jump from the helm. Once they are in hyperspace, she gives Rita a hundred credits. “Do not tell anyone that that is where we went. After we drop Siero off, we will take you to a civilized planet. You can go wherever you want from there. But if you’re looking for work, I know some people, including other astromechs.”
She steps out of the cockpit into the common area, where Siero is repairing the gaffi stick. Renn emerges from the shower as she is telling the teenager, “You did a good job out there, but I’ve got to make an important call. I’ll debrief you later.”
Siero looks a little nervously down at the damaged weapon. “Come with me ta the cargo hold, lass,” Renn tells her. “I’ll patch you up.” They head through the door, and Renn shuts it behind them. Renci looks over at Rita in the cockpit, takes a deep breath, and steps into her quarters, closing the door behind her. She enters the comm code into her wrist-mounted holocomm. It barely rings at all before it is answered, and the shimmering image of Elaiza appears above her wrist.
“Renci, I was expecting your call.”
More people knowing things they should not have a way to… although Renci supposes Kaylu could have relayed the message back to Fayce, and then she could have told Elaiza…. “Something weird is going on with JT, and you’re someone who’s important to her but who she’s said exactly nothing about… What do you know about what’s going on with her?”
“That is what I am investigating,” the older woman replies.
Renci frowns a little. “Look, I want you to come clean. Are you JT’s teacher? She’s been really distant and dark lately. And I think you know, she’s probably the sunniest person in the sector.”
“JT is indeed far too naively trusting of people and too emotional as well. Perhaps what you’re perceiving as distance is JT modulating herself. I have been trying to guide JT into a more centered view of life. ‘Distant and dark’ are very vague terms. What do you actually know about what is going on with JT? Why are you prying into this?”
“I think I’ve seen her more recently than you have. Let me put it this way… After a bad encounter with a dark Force user, JT survived but came back talking about how I deserve a promotion and how she needs to take down some crime lord. And when I say take down, I don’t just mean put him in his place…. She is fixated on bringing him all the way down as efficiently as possible, which is not how the JT that I know operates. When she gets revenge on someone, she turns their business into a charity, not sells them out to be murdered by pirates. Something happened when she fought that Darksider. I thought you might have some insight into that.”
As Renci talks, Elaiza’s expression grows sterner. “What path did you lead JT down? Her training is incomplete, but I am not going to let this stand. Tell me about these Darksiders you exposed her to and maybe we can bring her back.”
“Hold up,” Renci says. “Ease your throttle, lady. I didn’t introduce her to any Darksider. She runs with her own gang. They were trying to rescue someone. Have you heard of a Zikka? Zikka Herkin?”
“Yes, JT has mentioned something about her.”
“They went up against her. JT’s going to be back in New Meen eventually, and I should be able to find out from her family when. Can you help me help her? I know you think I’m some kind of attachment she has, but if I can be there to help her, maybe she won’t fall. She’s got a bit of a vigilante streak, but I know it’s because she wants to see justice done, not because she wants to hurt people.”
“If you can let me know when she will be there, I will come,” Elaiza agrees.
“It’s okay to call you on this number?”
“Yes, but only for this purpose. And if you find out anything else about what happened to her, let me know.”
“She might’ve been… uh, ‘Influenced’. A witness said there was some sort of unavoidable attack.”
“If you can find out anything else from this witness about what happened, you are to tell me.”
“When was the last time you saw her, and did she seem herself then? I’m trying to pin down if this happened on Dathomir.”
“Dathomir is a dark place.”
“So I’ve heard from some people who have been there.”
“Not many people have. It has been removed from a lot of charts. The last time I saw her was about two and a half months ago in New Meen. She seemed fine then.” Elaiza pauses, then asks, “How did you find me?”
“I’ve been meaning to ask around New Meen for you myself, but I got a call from Kaylu—she runs the business side of things—and she said someone named Fayce had been asking about JT.”
Elaiza shakes her head disapprovingly. “If we are to bring JT back from the edge, you cannot conceal things,” she insists. “Anything you know could be helpful.”
Fair enough, Renci thinks. “This Darksider she went up against, Zikka Herkin, the rest of her family is reasonably pleasant, including her mother Kaylu Herkin, and her brother Renn Herkin, the unreliable witness.”
“These family members… do they know the nature of Zikka’s strengths?”
Renci considers this. She does not really know Kaylu very well, but from what Renn has said… “Renn was on the receiving end when he was younger, I think. He was the one who told me about the so-called ‘Influencing’.”
“Ah,” Elaiza says, as if that explains everything. “JT is a bit of an Influencer herself. We have talked a lot about the dangers of using it repeatedly on the same people, particularly people who one is close to, as they are the most inclined to justify those enforced feelings to themselves and actually change how they think because of them. I am relieved to know JT was not asking questions along those lines because she was doing it to someone close to her.”
Renci thinks back on her own observations of JT. Is this why it seems so easy for JT to talk to other people? Has JT been doing this around her, and she just never noticed?
“Do you know these Herkin people?” Elaiza continues. “Would you be able to talk to them more about these things? Or should I? It is probably best that they not know more about me than necessary.”
“Kaylu knows you’re looking for JT and that you’re friends with Fayce. That’s about it as far as I know. Renn… I might be able to learn more from him.”
“Very well. Let me know what you find out.” The small hologram winks out without so much as a goodbye from the older woman.
“Man, these Force users,” Renci mutters, as she collapses onto her bunk. “Some of them are a little out there.”
She sits there a few moments, pulling her thoughts together. The abrupt termination of the comm makes her think of how JT is always suddenly dashing off at the end of a call. Everything lately is making her think of her Muffin, whether it be Siero’s excitement over tech or Renn’s criticism of her disguise skills. I’ve got to find out what else of use he knows, she resolves.
* * *
Renn tells Siero to hop up on a crate so he can take a look at the ankle she has been limping on ever since he met back up with them at that… astromech lair. He starts pulling things out of Renci’s medkit, then crouches down in front of the teenager and slowly pulls off Siero’s boot. He manipulates the foot carefully, testing its limits, and Siero squishes her snout to keep quiet. Renn looks up at her. “Ya don’ need ta tough it out,” he says gently. “I’ll give ya a shot fer the pain in just a minute, but I need ta make sure yer nerves are fine first.”
“So you’re a doctor too? I thought you’re the driver.”
Renn smiles a bit. “Aye, Renci likes ta say that.”
“Aren’t you two a thing?”
“What, me and Renci?” He laughs. “No. That wouldn’t work… on many levels.” I’m no’ her type, and she isna mine.
“But, why are you doing things with her, then? It seemed like, from how you were talking before, that you aren’t part of the Rebellion.”
“I’m workin’ for Renci, and Renci is workin’ for them. I realize the distinction might be lost on ya.”
“Um… yeah, it is.”
“I’m workin’ with Renci because I thought the exploration aspect of it sounded interestin’. I’m still tryin’ ta figure out what I want ta be,” he smiles at Siero, “when I grow up.”
“But you don’t want to be a Rebel? It’s just… If you’re working for her, and she’s working for them… it’s sort of transitive, isn’t it?”
“There’s some as might see it that way. And if’n we got caught, I’d be treated as a Rebel, same as her, I would.” He sighs. “Probably worse. But the difference matters ta me. I don’ take orders from them.” He concentrates on wrapping her foot and ankle, letting the conversation end there, but Siero does not seem to be the kind who can abide silence.
“So, those things in the sewer…. I’m surprised there are such wild creatures in a city.”
“Ya’d best get used ta’ those, if’n yer wantin’ ta be a tech aboard a ship. Dianogas are quite common, and yer sure ta’ come across them doin’ maintenance work.”
“Maintenance work?” she whines.
“Aye, what d’ya think keeps warships goin’? Renci’s lot need plenty of people with yer types of skills just ta keep their wrecks aloft.”
“I don’t want to be stuck in Maintenance! I want to be making faster ships or advanced weapons. I want to be doing something pretty cool, like that.”
Renn tugs the pants cuff back into place, covering the ankle wrapping, and stands up, shaking his head at her. “War is not ‘pretty cool’,” he says earnestly. “War is not cool at all.”
“You think I shouldn’t join them? You think they shouldn’t be fighting?”
“No, they’re doin’ important things, necessary things… they just don’t always do them the right way. I do think good people could make a difference in how they operate. And Renci is a good one. What ya choose ta do is yer own decision. I just want ta make sure it’s an informed one….” He needs to put this in a context she will understand, so that she realizes the gravity of it all. “Yer town has a palisade around it, why?”
“The town elders are worried the Empire will find us.”
Does she realize a palisade is no protection from that? “Have ya had any actual combat experience yerself? Has yer town been attacked?”
“Critters came down from the mountains. I was only twelve, so I didn’t really participate. I think someone got pulled off the wall…”
“Ya don’t have any understandin’ of what a war is like. Yu’ve not even seen a minor skirmish.”
“Well, what do you know about it?” she asks.
He counters with another question. “D’ya know what Zapal was doin’ before he was in charge of yer town?”
“I think he used to be in an army.”
“Whatever the galaxy army was then? Was it the Republic?”
“The Empire’s been around over twenty years,” Renn states, letting her work it out for herself.
“But… that doesn’t make sense. Zapal is protecting our town. He hates the Empire. Are you saying he was in its army?”
Renn nods. “Aye. And so was I.” He drags down the collar of his shirt to show his unit tattoo. Although it is now in crosshairs, Siero recognizes the underlying Imperial symbol that is a component of it.
“But why would you join their army? They’re evil.”
“If’n there was an army that was bringin’ order ta the galaxy and stompin’ out the crime bosses who were takin’ advantage of small planets like yers—”
“That sounds like a good thing.”
“That’s what I thought, too. Until I found out it wasna doin’ just that. It was doin’ a lot of horrible things.” What he saw on Lothal, what he did on Lothal as a young lieutenant, those are things that will stay with him forever.
“So… if you know that, then why wouldn’t you want to join the Rebellion?”
There is a lot in his personal story that is not relevant to the decisions that Siero will need to make for herself. Renn elides the bulk of it. “I gave the Rebels information.”
“You were a spy? A double agent?!”
Again, her excitement unsettles him. “Aye… but the people I dealt with, they didna care at all about me as a person, just what information I could give them, and… it caused a lot of problems fer me, it did. The Rebellion, what it’s doin’ is necessary, and there are a lot of good folks in it. I’m not tryin’ ta say otherwise. But what I want ya ta think about is this: Don’ blindly sign up for things. Not everyone will see ya as a person first, and a technician second.” He gives her a shot of painkiller and offers her a hand to help her down from the crate.
Siero limps over to the door to the common area and opens it.
Renci stands there, hand raised to knock. She lowers it and addresses Siero. “How are you doing?”
“Um, okay,” the teenager says, seeming subdued. “Do you have some, um… literature, I could look at… for your organization?”
“Oh, right, yeah, sure,” Renci says. Mon Mothma’s Declaration of Rebellion will be an excellent place to start…. “I’ll get that to you in a bit, but I need to talk with Renn first. Just wait for me on the couch.” She closes the door behind Siero.
Something seems off to Renn. What is this about? “Were ya checkin’ in with yer bosses?”
“No, though I should do that soon,” Renci replies. “I was talking with JT’s teacher. I want to know if you know anything else about what happened to JT. What exactly happened when your sister attacked her?”
He lets out a long breath. “I told ya’, I wasna close enough ta see what happened over there. But as fer the attack… D’ya remember what m’ back looks like?”
Where is he going with this? Renci wonders. “I’m sure it’s very well muscled—”
Renn rolls his eyes and turns around, pulling his shirt up over his head. He drapes it over his right shoulder covering up one glaring scar that is irrelevant to this discussion.
Renci looks at his back. Renn’s right side is covered in the slowly healing scrapes and abrasions from being dragged by Volay, but that cannot be what he wants her to see. Oh. “Did some kind of creature do that?” Renci asks. Jagged, long-healed-over tears streak from his left shoulder down across his spine.
“No, m’ sister did.”
Renci looks closer. “Did she have some kind of clawed gloves?”
“She did it with the Force… when we were kids.” He pulls his shirt back on and faces Renci again. “This is one of the things m’ sister does… did. And she did it ta JT.”
“But she got medical treatment, right?”
“It’s not just a physical wound. It… I don’ know… It can linger with ya’. The Force, it’s not a simple thing. Cal patched JT up, and he knows a lot, but I don’ know if he was able ta treat the whole thing. And that whole place… there was strange energy all about. There were green lights movin’ throughout parts of the shipwreck….”
“They crashed a ship there?”
“No… That’s where they found me, in some sorta wrecked ship, I guess. I’m no’ really clear on the details. I wasna conscious by the time we were leavin’ it, and I certainly didna see anything when I arrived there. And now that I think about it, there was some sorta green light over around Zikka on the refinery level. Cal or Chando were much closer, and Cal would probably understand better what he saw than Chando would. They’re both pretty hard to reach right now, doin’ things fer yer folks. But maybe you would have a way to get a hold of them. Or Oskara, she’s often around New Meen with Nyn. She wasna close, per se, but she was definitely shootin’ in that direction, and that lass has got quite a scope on that turret of hers.”
Renci paces a little, thinking out loud. “So, JT was torn up by some kind of Force attack, and there were green lights? Can you tell me anything else? This isn’t much to go on.”
“The green mist, the lights, well, they seemed ta have some sorta life ta them. I’m no’ sayin’ there were ghosts, but it was like something left a lingerin’ presence there…”
“That sounds like ghosts,” Renci says, matter-of-factly.
“There was something else… m’ mother said she had a crystal that produced green light when she attacked her.” Renn sits down heavily on a crate. Why does he feel like he remembers this? Zikka, holding a crystal glowing with an eerie light; his mother and B’ura B’an, frightened. Is it because Mira was present? he wonders.
“There are way too many she’s in that sentence. Who attacked who?”
“Zikka attacked m’ mother when Zikka was in New Meen.”
“What? Zikka came to New Meen?!”
“Aye… I told ya’ she kidnapped me.”
“From New Meen?” Renci looks confused. “But I hadn’t seen you there since Nyn’s wedding.”
“Ah.” He runs a hand through his hair. “I was in the vault under the landin’ pads fer a few months.”
Renci realizes Renn is trying to avoid Imperial attention, but that seems a little excessive. Moving to a small town in the middle of the Ryloth wastes, sure, that is reasonable. But then locking yourself underground there? “Hiding out in a bunker?”
“No… I was in stasis. When yu’s attacked the Vigilant and Kash and Chando found me, I wasna well. The Empire has a disease it developed ta control people, and they’d infected me with it. Not control like m’ sister could do, but coercive control. Do what we want, or ya won’ get yer weekly shot. That sorta thing. When I started m’ assignment on that ship, just after their base in the Gesaril system had been attacked, they thought I was a Rebel spy—”
“Well, you were,” Renci points out.
“Aye, well, I convinced them they were wrong, but it was too late by then. They didna mind, of course. It’s a large organization, the military, full of infightin’ and backstabbin’, so the ISB was just as happy to have someone in the Army they thought they could make do whatever they wanted…”
Renci’s tone is so serious, he feels like he must be exasperating her, diverting the conversation so far from what really matters: what happened to the woman she loves. “Look, I know ya’ don’ care—”
“It’s not that. I need to know if you told them anything.”
Ah, so it is Rebel Renci. “No. They locked me up after we left Verpine space. Rumors were goin’ around the ship that our movements might’ve been leaked, and the loyalty officer was havin’ polite chats with anyone whose record was at all tainted. And our loyalty officer, well, she knew me from before. She’d… worked on me durin’ reeducation. But on the Vigilant, it was just light questionin’ at first. I wasna interrogated fer serious until yu’s were actually makin’ yer move ta take the ship.” He rests his elbows on his knees and drops his head into his hands. It is not an experience he likes to think about: that woman, with her hand on his shoulder, smelling his own burning flesh…. Shock gloves are not meant to be held in place for so long. And to have her there on the Vigilant and using the same techniques again…. He looks back up at Renci and clasps his hands together. Focus on the positive; it’s over, and she didna break ya this time. “That was when they realized they’d been right about me, after all. But she didna have much time ta work on me, what with the attack startin’. And Kash and Cal reviewed the footage later; they confirmed that I didna give anything up.”
“Okay,” Renci says. “Sorry for pressing you, but I needed to know that nothing was compromised. So… back to your sister attacking your mother?”
“There wasna treatment fer the virus. I was bein’ stored in the vault, frozen, until they were able ta work out a cure. Only Kash and m’ mother could get in. Zikka accosted m’ mother when she’d already opened the door. She—Zikka—attacked m’ mother and left her there. If Kash hadna opened the vault that next day, m’ mother would’ve bled out. But while they were both there talkin’, m’ ma and Zikka, m’ sister had a crystal in her hand, one that glowed with a greenish, misty light. So since that ship on Dathomir also had that sorta creepy glow, maybe there was some sorta Force thing m’ sister was usin’. Some sorta artifact or talisman, maybe? I canna tell ya’ more. The Force is a crazy thing that makes no sense. I avoid learnin’ about it as much as I can get away with.”
Renci shakes her head disapprovingly. “It’s better to know about potential threats than to not.”
“There’s a limit ta the number of dark things I want bouncin’ around in m’ head…. And with Zikka gone, I don’ see that I really need ta learn more about it.”
“Well, I do need to. And I’m going to ask as many questions as I can until I can figure out how to help JT. But even that aside, if there’s a planet that could work as a Rebel base and it has some sort of dark power to it—”
“I’d advise ya ta stay as far away from it as possible.”
“Well, I didn’t ask for your advice. Knowing for sure would be valuable. Maybe I’d find something useful… or something I could smash and feel better. If I’m exploring a place, I would want to know if it’s a dark Force place.”
“I… would probably be able ta tell ya,” he admits. I’ve said so much already, she might as well know.
“You’re Force-sensitive, like your sister.” Renci finds she is not surprised.
“Not like m’ sister.”
“I didn’t mean—”
“Not like m’ sister on many levels. I canna do anything she did. I don’t have any trainin’. But, aye.”
“So, what, you’re like Cal?” Renci asks. There have definitely been a few times Renn has seemed to unexpectedly know things.
“No, I don’ read minds or see visions. Or move things like JT. And fer yer explorin’, I… I’m no’ sure I’d be able ta do anything really helpful. No’ beyond just bein’ able ta tell ya something is off.”
“You say that about a lot of things, Renn. I want you to know that you have been really helpful on these missions. I want you to know that I value Renn Herkin, not just Amulet.”
He is quiet for a moment. “Thank ya fer sayin’ that. And… thank ya for what ya did with Vault.”
“I don’t need to be thanked,” Renci says. “It’s part of my duty. We’re not going to win this war by becoming like the Empire.”
* * *
The next day, they drop Siero off on Rannon, a little more worldly-wise than she was before. Renci promises to return before long with a comm and a booster, so that there will be a way to communicate. She impresses upon the teenager, though, the risk that comes with the equipment: the potential that it could be detected. Siero accepts this as a challenge to develop some shielding technology.
Late that night, they reach Ryloth, and Renn sets down in Lessu just long enough for R1-T4 to disembark. On the flight from there to Nabat, the ship finally devoid of extra passengers, Renci closes herself up in her quarters and places a call to Fortune.
“So, Baker, how did it go with Rannon?” the cloaked hologram asks.
“It checks all the boxes: friendly locals; excellent hideout in mountains; even an energy source, geothermal power. The wildlife is… manageable. And friendly locals, did I mention that? They ran away from Empire fifteen or so years ago.”
“You did mention them. And they wouldn’t mind us moving in next door?”
“The locals are okay with a hidden Rebel base. I talked to them about it. They won’t be able to offer much in the way of supplies or support—there is precious little technology there—but they can give info about the local area. Plus there are a few potential recruits looking to get out of that backwater life. Of course, they’ll have to be vetted, I know. I did meet one uncannily savvy tech. When you don’t have much to work with, you have to get really creative.”
“Good to know, good to know. Speaking of tech, how did the boots work out?”
Renci smiles; she cannot help it. “I love these boots, I’ll be honest. At first, I wasn’t sure. It wasn’t exactly my style. But they are great. I wish someone had told me about the shock functionality, though.”
“The, uh, shock functionality, you say? That… worked out well?”
Renci begins to suspect that Fortune also did not know about that capability of the boots. “Did you get a set of schematics for the boots from the tech who made them?”
“They’re great boots, but the shocks need a bit more insulation. And if they could be juiced up a bit, that would be good. They can’t carry more than one person. They were fine for me, but I don’t know how well they would handle a larger person, like a Wookiee or a Whiphid. I can’t carry a second person in an emergency, not even for a short length of time. So pumping that up a bit would be really useful. They’re a little difficult to fly with compared to a traditional jetpack, but they’re easier to hide, so that’s good. They are kind of heavy, though. I would recommend these for Spec Force use. It would be great if every scout could have a pair, but I understand our resources are limited. Clicking the heels to change the mode is really convenient.”
“That’s really good feedback. I’m sorry about the miscommunication.”
“I’m glad you chose me, respecting the perspective my flight skills give me.”
“Baker, it’s not just your flight experience, it’s also your willingness to try new things.”
Renci finds herself wondering if she was the first person offered the boots to try. “Wait… who did make these?”
“They were assembled by one of our more innovative engineers…”
“So, this came out of Boulder’s shop… You can let her know it worked out this time. But next time… I want full information. The people testing these have a real need to know. We should be given the specs along with what we’re field testing, so we know what to expect.”
“We’ll try to be better about that next time. Anything else come up? Your driver still working out for you?”
“Yes, that’s going fine, but I did have a few extra expenses. We rescued an astromech droid and acquired some superior astrogation charts for the region. But it cost about 1250 credits.”
“Oh… that way exceeds the unexpected expenses budget… You know we’re only allotted 250 per mission.”
Renci tries a different tack. “We did run into some unanticipated repair expenses… can you put it down as ‘grease for boots’? Under a different line item?”
Fortune laughs. “I like your style, Baker, but I can’t do that.”
“I’m just trying to find the right part of the budget you could pull from… Why are there all these different budgets, anyway? Isn’t it really all the same credits? Okay, what can you cover?”
“Well, I could spread it over the three missions, so that would be 750. But you won’t have any UEB for the upcoming trip to Lamaredd.”
“You can use money from last mission?”
“I didn’t finish the paperwork on that one yet.”
“Thank goodness for bureaucracy, then,” Renci cheers. “I really appreciate the flexibility. I know we field agents shoot sidewinders at you all the time, but you really barrel roll with it.”
Ignoring the Mandolorian idioms, Fortune advises, “And remember, we can’t be paying expenses for your hired vehicle’s upkeep.”
“I’m exploring the outer edges here; I can’t just take a Space Greyhound. If I had a ship of my own, things would be different, but since that request hasn’t been fulfilled yet, I have to hire a competent driver with the appropriate type of ship.”
“The request is on the books, Baker. I’ll let you know when I hear anything. On the surface, Rannon sounds good, but we still need more backup locations, so do proceed with Lamaredd.”
Renci looks over the small amount of information she has on that Outer Rim world. Mostly water, hot jungle, primitive sentients, rumors of temples… .
“In the meantime,” Fortune says, “stick with the driver you have, if you’re finding that works reliably.”
“If that’s what you want, it’ll be several days at least before I can head out again.” Z’voak is going to have to look over life support again, and they will have to make sure the Resolve is clear of dianogas before they undertake another journey. Plus Renn could use some time to decompress and recover from the injuries he sustained on the mountain.
“That’s fine,” Fortune replies. “Take a week or whatever you need. We’ll get the next set of tech out to you by then.”
“All right,” Renci agrees. And that gives me plenty of time to track down Oskara.