Ahead of him, Renn sees Renci disappear into the trees, Mira circling above. He can hear the AZ-15 getting closer and closer behind him. He just cannot get enough distance between himself and this droid. Renci might be right that they could lose them in the forest, but there is a limit to how long he can keep up this pace. In New Meen, he was shocked to find he could not even catch Chando, who was never able to outrun him back when they were fresh lieutenants. Clearly, a single month of recuperation was not enough time for his muscles to recover from three months hibernating in carbonite, or maybe Vira606 has left deeper scars than he thought. Either way…. “Ya can keep runnin’ if ya want, but I’m—” Suddenly, the sound of pursuit is gone, and his lungs are burning. He cannot breathe and Renci told him those storms were only in the upper atmosphere but here they are up in the mountains as well and this must be why there were respirators in those desks and of course their respirators are in Renci’s backpack and that is it! He has had enough! He swings the Czerka up into position and spins to fire off a shot at the AZ-15, taking a chunk out of the pursuing droid’s shoulder. And then he is crashing through the trees and leaves, and branches are hitting him in the face, but he does not mind because he can hear them and thank the stars he can breathe again.
Renci pauses, looking around, trying to see what has happened to Renn through the thick foliage. Something seems off in the forest around her. As she takes a step towards where she heard him, vines whip past her, but she does not notice that she just evaded a deliberate grab. She sees parts of the forest being torn up by Azzy’s repeating blaster as it sweeps back and forth, unloading in Renn’s direction. Tendrils that were just reaching toward her divert to go after this new threat. With Iggy only just now entering the treeline, Renci pulls her blaster, intending to shoot at Azzy, but then her world is a mess of teeth and claws and auburn fur as something drops out of the tree onto her. It grabs at her, its teeth snapping at her shoulder, but she slips out of its grasp, tearing up her sleeve and arm in the process. The wounds look superficial to her, but they burn… a lot. She looks up at the towering creature, noting its facial tusks and six limbs. This must be the bearsloth that she read about when preparing for the trip. “Easy there, fella, we don’t need to be enemies here,” she says. She yanks a shot from her utility belt and jabs it in her thigh, releasing the anti-venom, and then snaps a few blaster bolts off at Azzy, but her gun does not have the firepower to do much to its thick chassis.
Around Renn, the understory is ablaze from the shots of the AZ-15, and flaming leaves and branches fall all around him. Through the haze, he sees the enormous creature towering over Renci and the gashes and bites on her, and he thinks, No, that’s not the fight we should be in right now. He bounds through the forest toward them, trying to keep tree trunks between himself and the AZ-15. As he approaches the creature… the bearsloth, he communicates to her, It’s okay; we’re sorry that we’re intruding; we didn’t mean to bring this to your doorstep. He growls at her; it is easier to get ideas across that way. The bearsloth turns to him and steps away from Renci, dropping to all sixes and growling back; he thinks they are reaching an understanding.
Renci watches, amazed. She knows Renn is an outdoorsman, and she has seen him handling Mira, but this is something else entirely. Once again, she feels an irritation, almost an anger, at Vault. Amulet was so valuable to the Rebellion, and Renn would be, too, but with the heavy-handed way Vault treated him, he will never join up properly. How many other potential allies has Vault similarly mishandled? she wonders. But this is not a good time for reflection.
The AZ-15’s barrage was interrupted by tendrils knocking its light repeating blaster from its hands, but it locates the gun and reacquires its target without much difficulty. There is a tree in the way, but it shoots right through, sending shards of wood exploding in all directions. The forest around Renn erupts in fire again. He is clobbered by a falling branch, and enormous splinters of trunk embed themselves in his side as he ducks away from the searing heat of the blaster fire. For a moment, the sounds, the smells… he’s back on Vryssa, looking around, wondering where the rest of the 908th is. But the Czerka is in his hands, not a blaster rifle, and when he snaps back to the present, he sees that the bearsloth has charged the AZ-15, knocking its weapon to the ground under her massive body and putting herself between him and the droid. He takes a shot at it, but with her in the way, he cannot get a clear view. He hits the tree behind the droid, sending a shower of branches and leaves into its way. The droid maneuvers around the bearsloth, and the last thing Renn will remember from the fight is that it also has a built-in light blaster pistol.
Iggy finally catches up to Renci, charging at her with its electrostaff primed. She backs up, throwing her bola at it, hoping to ensnare. She knows how nasty that electrostaff is, and her best play is to stay out of its reach. The bola does not wrap around its target, but Iggy has to shake it off its weapon before it can attack her again. Behind her, Renci hears a rifle shot, and then torn up foliage rains down in the area, getting in Iggy’s way as it slogs through the undergrowth at her. She hears the bearsloth roaring in anger, and Mira shrieking in panic. She spares a moment to glance over in that direction and is rewarded with an electrostaff slamming into her torso. As she backs away from Iggy again, she sees Renn in a heap on the ground, and she snaps another shot off at Azzy. It is a lucky hit, right at the leg joint. The limb spasms, and the droid falls beneath the bearsloth. “Yes!” she cheers, taking a quick celebratory sip from her canteen. With Renn unconscious, there is no audience anymore, so she does not need to keep up her super-serious game face.
Vines slap at the bearsloth as it continues to tussle with Azzy, and the droid slashes up with its claws. The bearsloth rears and drops its full weight down on Azzy repeatedly, ultimately mangling the droid’s claws beyond usefulness. Renci focuses her shots on Iggy, and electricity runs over its frame as she pushes it closer and closer to overloading. Iggy surges menacingly toward Renci, and as she backs away, she sees a large pile of leaves fall out of the tree behind the droid. It then rises up and swings a beat-up old electrostaff at the unaware droid, knocking the weapon from its hands. On the next attack, Iggy catches the newcomer’s electrostaff and flips its assailant to the ground, laying claim to the weapon.
Renci takes another shot at Iggy, but it does not do much to the chassis. She backs up towards where she saw Renn lying… she needs that rifle. She glances over her left shoulder, but Renn is not there anymore. Looking over her right, she finds him lying a few feet further over. She drops down beside him and sees that his left arm and torso are wrapped in plant tentacles. Mira has her prehensile tail tightly around his right arm and is fluttering urgently, trying to tug him the other way. “What are you idiots doing?” Renci mutters. “Just give me this, and I can finish this right now.” She unclips Renn’s rifle from the sling and swings it up, but it is much heavier than she expected, customized slugthrowers not being part of Rebel training. Her shot goes wide.
Iggy swings the electrostaff down at the camouflaged figure, who rolls to the side to avoid the strike, then rolls right back and thrusts out arms in the droid’s direction. Renci sees Iggy go flying up and back, crashing through leaves and branches, sparking all over, but the droid lands on its feet. Renci shucks off her backpack to give her more freedom of movement so she can bring the rifle all the way up, pulling a face at how awkward the grip feels. She shoots at Iggy as the new combatant gets up off the ground. Mira twitters at Renci agitatedly, but Renci is in the zone; she does not notice. Iggy moves to take one step forward, but the circuit overload cascades, overcoming its systems and shutting it down. She looks tensely at the new arrival, rifle still raised, and a male voice suggests, “You might want to shoot the plant instead.”
Renci turns and sees that Renn has been dragged even farther away, toward what appears to be the gaping maw of a carnivorous plant. She shoots down its open mouth, spraying ichor everywhere, then scoops up Mira to shush her. She turns back to the stranger, stroking Mira a little. “That’s some impressive camouflage.”
“If you’re up, you’re a target. As long as you remain a pile of leaves, nothing bothers with you,” he replies.
Renci decides to think of him as that, Pile-of-Leaves. Through all the mud and twigs, she suspects he is Mirialan, but age is difficult to tell. “I take it you escaped from that facility some time ago?” she asks.
“Some time ago,” he agrees.
“We were exploring it when those droids came after us.” She sets down the rifle, accidentally knocking over her backpack, and pieces of equipment spill out across the ground: the datapad, the droid head, the comm device, the gas canister.
The Mirialan takes note of the items. “I haven’t been in there recently. It’s still patrolled regularly by droids. They’re following whatever directives were left when the facility was evacuated.”
“All the prisoners in there are dead now,” she tells him.
He nods, then looks past Renci. “Is he still alive?”
“Probably. He’s been through worse stuff than this. This probably isn’t even top five.” Renci kneels next to Renn, removes his backpack and vest, and starts to assess how bad the injuries are. There are a lot of cuts and scrapes and gashes, but fewer burns than she expected. Whatever his vest is lined with was able to diffuse a lot of the energy from the blasters, though the skin underneath is starting to blister from the heat. And this is not a great environment for cleaning wounds. She administers a stim, but it is not enough to wake him.
The Mirialan asks, “What about your bearsloth? Can it carry him?”
“I only just met it,” Renci says, gesturing at the bite and claw marks. “Even had to take some of the anti-venom, which of course I brought along, because I prepare for things.” She lightly pats Renn’s arm. “He’s good with animals and got it to help us.” Then she sits up straighter. “I’m good with animals, too,” she declares. She grabs Renn’s vest and heads over to where the bearsloth is still sitting on the defunct security droid. She lets it smell the vest and speaks calmly to it. The bearsloth gets up and nudges her, sniffing her and then nuzzling her. Then it lumbers along with her over to where Renn is and lets them drape him over its back.
“You’ve been trapped on this planet all this time?” Renci asks Pile-of-Leaves.
He nods. “There are no space-faring vessels in that hangar.”
She looks down at Renn’s unconscious form. “Guess the bearsloth is coming with us,” she says. “You’re welcome to, too.”
By the time they find their way to the Resolve, the stim shot in Renci’s medkit has refreshed. She shifts Renn off the bearsloth and gives him another shot, which wakes him. As he gets his bearings, Renci tells him, “Pile-of-Leaves here really saved our skins. Also, your gun is really heavy. Hope you don’t mind that I took a few shots with it.”
“I’m still alive, so no,” he replies.
She stands up and starts to move toward the ramp. Renn asks about medical treatment for her, but she declines for now. “I’ve got to make a call, so I’ll leave the two of you to get to know each other.” She probably means him and the Mirialan, but Renn reaches over and scratches the bearsloth behind the ears.