On the appointed day, JT walks past the Grove Café on the bazaar deck as casually as possible. Even though she is dressed in her generously-pocketed utility jumpsuit and has her backpack, she is loaded down with more bags of supplies from Aquamarine. She could not resist making just a few more gala-related purchases while on this level. Besides, it provides a good cover for her being here. JT walks a bit past the café, then turns. “Hey, Ursa! It’s JT. Remember? We had lunch.” She perhaps lays it on a bit too thick.
Salad before her, Ursa Diol sits at one of the little wrought-iron tables, surrounded by potted plants. She lays down her silverware deliberately and looks up at the younger woman. “Jai Tessa, of course I remember you. Where have you been?”
JT lifts her arms, showing off the bags. “Well, I had to get some decorations for the gala.” She digs around in one of them and pulls out a sample. “How do you like this coral—”
“You know that is not what I mean,” Ursa cuts her off. JT fumbles at the comm on her belt to look it over and claims that no one has called her. At this point, Ursa stands, folding her arms across her chest and looking the younger woman straight in the eye. “When the clerks went back to get you at the dinner hour, you were nowhere to be found!”
“Well, yeah,” JT says, innocently. “I asked the caretaker there, and he said I was good to go. So I went to get my own dinner.” She rambles on about milkshakes and compliments Ursa’s salad, but the other woman seems unmoved. As she gestures, JT accidentally drops the coral, which shatters on the fake stone floor. “Oh no! I’ll have to get another one of those. Maybe go back to the shop… Whatever. I did do some thinking. Like the moff said, I just had to clear my head. And I think I have seen that fellow around.”
Ursa’s eyebrows shoot up. “Oh really!” Her hand drops to her purse, but she pauses before pulling out her comm. “Where?”
JT explains that she has been on the bazaar deck quite often, and for the past several days she has seen a Pantoran coming out of one of the salons just after the lunch hour. She had not thought anything of it until she realized he had the same distinctive hair as the crew member who had helped her in the cargo hold, white with lavender tips. “It’s really nice, actually. Don’t think it would work for me, though. I’ve got way too much oil in my hair—” Ursa opens her mouth, but before she can interrupt, JT cuts herself off. “Sorry! I’m getting distracted. I’m sure I could point him out to you. It’s almost about that same time now.”
Ursa nods and waves over a server to settle her check. As JT leads her from the Grove Café, the older woman speaks into her comm. “Sergeant, we have a lead, and I need you to get to the bazaar deck immediately. But we cannot have the same sort of scene as we had in the Snowscape.” JT can hear grumbling coming from the other end of the line. “You can bring whatever backup you think you will require to get the job done correctly this time. Discreetly arrive—” Ursa turns to JT. “What was the salon’s name?”
“The Cutting Edge,” JT supplies.
“—at the Cutting Edge on the bazaar level.”
* * *
Collar up and peaked cap in place to cover his hair and shadow his face, Tcho moves swiftly through the bazaar level to the rendezvous point. Physically, he feels fine. He has had a few days to recover from the Snowscape debacle, and while he would not want to make a habit of daily stim shots, they have helped a lot with the injuries he sustained then. A few early morning runs with Kerr-Lonn-Ny have loosened him up a bit, too—as well as confirmed to him that the drug cocktail she was given has cleared her system.
Only when he is just outside the Cutting Edge does he slip Gomarr’s hat into his jacket pocket so that he can enter the salon as himself. He looks over the products on the shelves while watching out the window for the splash of blue hair that will be JT in position. It only takes a few minutes, but they feel like hours. Finally, he sees her, and the moff’s chief-of-staff is with her. Glancing up and down the crowded thoroughfare, Tcho also notes the presence of Stormtroopers. He cannot help but feel a bit on edge, even though he knows what is coming and has prepared as much as possible. As the attending physician on his own case, Tcho has no illusions about how gravely wounded he was last time. He could have died, and here he is, doing it all again. He takes a breath to calm himself and steps out of the salon. All this preparation, and still he cannot stop the jolt of adrenaline that accompanies hearing the shout, “There’s that Pantoran!”
Tcho takes off at a run, trying to lead the soldiers past the booth where Gomarr is looking at ornate rugs, on standby to bump into a rack. The archaeologist was not impressed with this plan but agreed to help as long as he did not have to put himself in harm’s way. From the sound of it, he has had some wild experiences of his own. When Tcho and JT talked over ideas with him and Kerr-Lonn-Ny, Gomarr scoffed at this “trap” and told them about some creepy temple he was in where chandeliers fell on people.
As Tcho moves through the crowds toward the carpet seller and the cantina where Kerr-Lonn-Ny is in position, he is startled to see a second squad of Stormtroopers already in that direction. Alarmed, Tcho looks around for a route that will protect him from their sight, but this is all taking precious time and he can hear the sergeant shouting orders about cutting him off and hemming him in. Options narrowing rapidly, Tcho pivots to the nearest exit from the commerce district, pushing past other passengers and through an unknown door.
* * *
In his quarters—which even on a cruise ship he cannot help but think of as barracks—Renault jams the comm back on his belt and performs one last sweep with his razor, finishing a fresh trim of his gray buzzcut. He scoops up his helmet and locks it in place, then steps out into the common area. “You apes are with me,” he barks at his troopers. They scramble to their feet and throw him salutes. “You too, Silver Squad,” he orders. Although they give lip-service to his rank, he can hear the disdain under their yessirs. But they will do their duty. They had better. I must catch this guy; he cannot get away.
Once on the bazaar deck, Renault checks in with Ms. Diol for the current intel. The short woman with her has barely finished raising an arm to point when Renault is off and running after his quarry. Silver Squad, who he had instructed to approach the location from the opposite end of the district, has so far failed to respond to his hails, either through disobedience or failure to properly maintain their kit. Either way, unacceptable. Renault redoubles his efforts, pushing through civilians, keeping up with the young whippersnappers he has been assigned to aid him. Up ahead, the Pantoran passes under an arch labeled Beach Zone. Moments later, Renault pounds under it as well, and his visor dims accordingly. This bastard is not going to make a fool of me again! I know they said they wanted him alive, but if an accident happens, I can’t be blamed.
* * *
The blast of hot air takes Tcho’s breath away, and he momentarily stumbles in the sand as the bright light overwhelms his vision. His eyes adjust as he looks for this space’s exits, one corner of his brain wondering what species actually enjoy this kind of heat. Across the wide expanse of water, itself producing more glare, he sees a sign for a familiar establishment. If he can reach it, he can get back on track and at least be running on terrain he has previously scouted. Tcho throws a glance over his shoulder, mindful that he needs to keep at least one witness with him. But what am I going to do, swim across? He jogs across the sand dune or beach front or whatever this torturously hot place is, headed toward the waterline. Along the way he shucks off his jacket, trying not to overheat.
As the oblivious passengers around him thin, Tcho spies a hover jet ski at the start of a pier. He straddles the seat and flips open the access panel just below the steering bars, hoping onboard security is low. They are on a pleasure ship; under normal circumstances, no one would have any reason to steal such a craft. There is nowhere to take it to anyway, no chop shop or illicit second-hand dealer. He taps wires together, and the machine jumps to life, bearing out the accuracy of his assessment. Tcho is moving it out into the water slowly, getting a feel for its operation, when he sees the lead Stormtrooper bounding down the pier towards him. Tcho angles his ski out into the open water, beyond the reach of a leap from the dock. As he does so, he sees that there is a second hover jet ski at its end, which the sergeant now redirects toward. Great, Tcho thinks unenthusiastically, I haven’t lost my tail. He opens the throttle wide, and the craft leaps farther across the water, outside firing range. At least I won’t get shot again.
* * *
Renault runs across the shifting sand, wanting to just shout at everyone in sight to get out of his way, but he restrains himself. He cannot cause another scuffle, or one of those oafs in Silver Squad will use that as fodder to angle for his job. He sees the target on a hover jet ski, moving parallel to a pier. Renault charges down the wooden boards, but the alien pulls away into open water. Seeing a similar craft at the end of the dock, Renault recalls mocking lazy Scouttroopers for relying on their speeder bikes all the time. And here he is now, having to drive some equivalent vehicle, which shocks him as he gets it running. “Dammit! Stupid Scouttroopers,” he mutters. Renault races out across the water after his quarry. His underlings will have to find a way across for themselves. Light glares off the water, and his helmet fails to dim fast enough in response. Renault growls in frustration. And where is Silver Squad, anyway? he wonders.