Flying into the Corellian Sector on Nar Shadda was a little like flying into the past. It brought back many memories and I smiled as the ship broke through the outer atmosphere into the dirty air that covered the moon like a thick blanket. I knew this place well enough to know how the system worked, and unlike the galactic government, this had not changed since the last time I had been here. As I navigated my ship down through the dirty looking buildings which towered high up into the moon’s atmosphere I wondered how the hell anyone in their right minds could actually live here. It was every bit as rank, dirty and depressing as I remembered, in spite of the bright flashing neon lights and myriad of gaudy advertising that half blinded any pilots skimming their way dockside.
The bored sounding flight controller at the second largest space port directed me to my assigned docking berth as though he were doing it in his sleep, which might very well have been the case. I waited while he processed my papers and hoped that Thrawn’s people had been as good as he had promised they would be. Although the ship’s name had stayed the same, I had docked under the name of Amyshka Pavjäska, a human trader based out of Corellia. It was a false identity we had come up with before I had gone to Coruscant, just in case I had been stopped by a New Republic control but I hadn’t needed to use it. Having multiple identities for both me and my ship was not terribly legal under the Imperial system of rule but it would have looked odd for a freelance smuggler not to have some back ups, even if I didn’t use them it was still something I needed. Now I was grateful and Amyshka was a name I would actually answer to so using it wasn’t difficult. I was pretty certain that Jyrki didn’t know I had a ship of my own and if he did he most likely did not know her name. If he went looking for me in the Starport registry he wouldn’t find me.
I styled the ship into the holding area and then winced as the automated docking clamps seized her roughly, hauling her into the resting cradle. It was a good job I didn’t mind some scratches and dents because I was pretty sure after this there would be some more. I listened and waited while the dock side umbilicals attached and began feeding the ship power, air and water as well as extracting the waste. I plugged my cred-chip into the onboard and paid for two week’s worth of dock fees up front. Payment up front meant I and my ship would be left alone. I would slip the dock master in charge of my sector a bribe later on, just to make sure I was not harassed and my ship was not touched. As I undid my harness straps I sighed, this was a homecoming of sorts but it didn’t bring much joy.
Two hours later, after arranging for fuel and supplies, doing a thorough run through of my ship and adding some additional security in case the bribes I had given the dock master were not quite enough, I sat at the galley table with a cup of tea in hand and a holo map of the area I was in.
The Corellian Sector was one of the largest and most populated on Nar Shadda. It was my hope that even if Jyrki was watching star ports the sheer volume of traffic would make it difficult to spot me. I was pretty sure that Jyrki did not know what my ship actually looked like and even if he did, in the large star port docking bay it would be fairly hard to find.
I had debated whether or not to disguise myself with my Dantassi clothing but while wearing the mask would make me anonymous it would not make me invisible. The Bone Traders were a curiosity even here and dressed as one I would be noticed. It was easier to dress in non-descript clothing as the trader I was pretending to be and blend in with the rest of the crowds rather than stand out and be remembered. When I left my ship to go exploring it was the stench and heat of the air that hit me first. I had forgotten that as well, after the clean air on both Hjal and Nirauan, the air here tasted thick and foul. Nar Shadda was a filthy place in more ways than one.
The crush of beings walking along the concourses was almost overwhelming. I had forgotten what it felt like to be in such crowded places full of alien beings, bounty hunters, smugglers and criminals of all sorts. Moving through the crowds was a little like dancing and once I had found the rhythm of it I made my way to The Burning Deck to scope it out. I had plenty of time before the meet with Jyrki and I wanted to be ready for anything he had to throw at me even though I knew that would not be the case. He had my family, at least he had my father and that already made it personal and difficult. My gut boiled with anger just thinking about it.
The Burning Deck was surprisingly busy and as I made my way through the dimly lit main room I was glad I had not worn my Dantassi gear. It would have been insanely warm in the stuffy cantina and people would have stared, as it was I attracted little to no attention, or so I thought, as I pushed my way to the bar. As I was about to order a drink a gruff male voice interrupted.
“Not seen you in here before.”
I didn’t look at the owner of the voice. “That’s because I haven’t been here in a while.” I said with just enough intonation to let the man standing behind me know I wasn’t interested. He didn’t get the message.
“So, what’ll you have, little lady?”
I looked up to see the rough face of a man I didn’t recognise and the undisguised leer in his eyes told me everything I needed to know. “I’m fine, thanks” I said politely, flagging the bar-droid over.
“Didn’t ask you how you were, asked you what you wanted to drink.”
I sighed and turned around to face him again. “Right, my mistake. I was planning on having a stim’caf , not that it is any of your business.”
His expression turned dark. “That’s not very polite. I was just offering to buy you a drink.”
“Again, kind of you but unnecessary I have enough creds to purchase my own.” I shifted slightly to move away from his presence which had somehow managed to become annoyingly close to my body. He needed a shower in the worst way.
“You know, a slip of a girl like you could get hurt in a place like this.” His voice was a low growl.
I nodded with an expression of feigned boredom. “So I’ve been told.” I said and went to move to a different spot altogether but instead of allowing me to leave he grabbed my arm.
“Let go.” I spoke quietly. If he had been smart he would have picked from my voice as well as the look in my eyes just how close he was to dying. Over the years I had been grabbed and man-handled more times than I cared to mention and I wasn’t about to take it with a smile any more.
“I think you’ll have that drink with me and then maybe I’ll show you my ship.” He said firmly as though I didn’t have any choice in the matter, “You look like a girl who enjoys seeing the inside of ships lying down.”
It took me two simple moves to put him on the ground, with the third one I hurt him. I crouched by his side as he doubled up in agony and whispered in his ear. “Do I still look like a girl who could get hurt in this place or do I look like a girl who could hurt you in this place? Do yourself a favour, flyboy and leave us strange girls alone. You don’t know where we’ve been or what we’ve been taught to do to desperate, pathetic men like you.”
He nodded his head, rendered speechless by pain and I moved away to a different spot at the bar to order my drink. A few of the patrons close enough to see what had happened shook their heads and whispered to themselves but in a place like this, that had been a mild discussion and the fact that no blasters had been drawn was disappointing. Everyone loved a good fight, even if it had them diving for cover under the tables. I had not wanted to draw attention to myself so I had dealt with my new friend as quickly and as quietly as I knew how. There were a couple of bounty hunters in the shadows who had watched the scene with marked interest and one of them had given me the nice job nod. I paid for my stim’caf and made my way to the upper gallery, found a shaded table with a good view of the whole floor and sat down to think and observe.
Even as a child I had loved to watch people and growing up in a place like Mos Eisley had been perfect for that, even better was working at a docking bay. I had long understood that I was different and that I sometimes saw things about people and beings other did not but I had never really known why and simply accepted the fact. Now, after my years of working for the Empire and being trained in some of the ways of the force, the Bunduki arts and Jhal’kai I saw just how much I had leaned. It was eerie in some ways, like watching a strange dance whose choreography was constantly being changed and reconfigured all the while the dance was ongoing.
Most people assume that everything is random but that is never really the case. There are patterns all over the place, even in crowds full of strangers there are patterns. As I observed the cantina I began to notice some of these reoccurring patterns, I could tell who was a stranger in town, and maybe first time to the cantina itself, I could point out the regulars who had their niche carved out and their piece of cantina territory claimed. It was easy to spot the smugglers and the legitimate traders, just as it was easy to pick out the bounty hunters look for their mark or waiting on a deal. Little things gave people away, my father had taught me. Gamblers called it a tell he had said. At the time, as a child listening to my father speak of these things I had just thought him clever but now I understood that as a smuggler himself he needed to be able to read people, read crowds and situations in order to save his own hide from being caught.
I saw him before he noticed that he had been made. Subtle and sly he was good at his job but the strange tingle that rippled down the back of my neck said that his feigned indifference was a ruse and that he was on guard, as it were and waiting, watching for me. I was not here for playing games and tired of the messing around. This was one of Jyrki’s men, I was sure of it but I wanted to be one hundred percent sure and it was time to get the show on the road. When our eyes met, for split second he understood and made no pretence about why he was there, instead he got up from his chair in a lazy, beguiling manner and made his way through the crowd, up the side wall stairs to join me at my table. I didn’t know who he was but I didn’t have to.
“You’re on Nar Shadda early, Miss Gabriel.” He said conversationally, signally one of the floating droids for a refill on both our drinks.
“And you have me at a disadvantage, while you seem to know who I am I have no idea who you are.”
His smile was thin. “You may call me Lorano Dek.”
“And you’re keeping tabs on me because…?” I asked.
“Because I was paid to do so.” He replied.
I nodded. It had crossed my mind that maybe Jyrki would pull something like this but I had hoped for a day or two without a watchdog. “Well now you see me.” I said. “I was in the neighbourhood and didn’t feel like hanging around in space waiting for the due date. So get to the point. ”
“We have a mutual acquaintance, Miss Gabriel, he is anxious to meet with you.” He toyed with his drink, I didn’t touch mine.
“Mr. Andando is the one who set the meeting date, Mr. Dek, why should he be anxious?”
“He was not sure you would come.”
I gave the thick set man a small nod. “Well, he has something of mine I would appreciate being returned…unharmed.”
“He would be willing to see you now to discuss the terms of reimbursement.” He said letting me know that he had contacted Jyrki the moment I had been seen entering the cantina. At least I thought, this meant they had not found my ship or figured out which port I had entered in from. I had not felt as though I had been followed prior to entering the cantina.
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so. I’m tired from my trip and I need to find a hotel to stay in.” Implying that I had not come in a ship of my own.
That caught the mercenary’s attention. “As you pointed out he has something belonging to you.” He said pointedly. He had not expected me to refuse him flatly and I wondered what Jyrki had told this man about me.
I nodded and shrugged. “So he does but I would not be here if I did not also have something he wants. So we will meet on my terms. If he is disagreeable to this then tell him the deal is off.” What ever it was that Jyrki wanted from me he had wanted it badly enough to go after my family which had meant risking a lot, if not everything. I wasn’t sure where Uncle Vahlek fit into all of this but I was damned sure it wasn’t good. I was, as Thrawn would say, stalling for time, though I wasn’t exactly sure why. It was a gamble and I was hoping that whatever it was Jyrki wanted or needed from me it would be enough to make sure the cards were stacked in my favour, which would be a first.
Lorano Dek nodded slowly, “Would you be amenable to meeting Mr. Andando here tomorrow at the same time?”
I nodded. “I can agree to that” I said then added, “Only next time keep your friends out of my face.” I said, nodding to the man who had offered to buy me a drink earlier.
Dek laughed. “Him? He’s not one of mine. Herden is exactly what he appears to be, Miss Gabriel, a down and out spacer. I didn’t bring any friends with me, I was told that would be unnecessary with you although after that lovely little performance I can see that Mr. Andando did not over estimate your ability to bite.”
I regarded the square jawed man who sat opposite me and inclined my head slightly at his compliment. “Then it’s a date Mr.Dek. Please tell your employer not to try anything funny.”
“I’ll be sure to pass along the message.” He got up from the table with all the languid grace of a gurreck and I understood that this was his way of letting me know he would not be so easy to put down as the spacer named Herden. I stayed seated and watching him leave, waiting until I could not see him any more before I took my leave of the bar.
The main concourse was crowded but even so I knew I was being followed. I wasn’t sure who it was and I wasn’t about to take any chances or let them know I was aware of their presence so I led them on a merry dance all over the sector until I came to small but fairly decent looking hotel. I did not want to lead whoever was dogging me to my ship especially if it was one of Jyrki’s people. While I had learned a few things since Jyrki’s tutelage he was still the man who had pretty much taught me everything I knew about ships and ship security. I did not want him playing with mine.
Once I had checked in and paid for a room, I went back out to do a little shopping again I had the sensation of being watched and hoped that who ever it was that was tailing me was enjoying the show because I was shopping for some clothes, some snacks and general hygiene products like a new toothbrush and shampoo. Once I was done with shopping, I returned to the hotel, dumped all my stuff and went down to the reception to ask about local food delivery services. I was in the mood for something hot and spicy. The petite Rodian at the reception desk gave me her recommendations and I went back up to my room to order food and pass the time watching the holonet.
As I lay in bed much later I tried to run through every possible scenario that could happen. I would have been lying if I had said that the prospect of meeting with Jyrki didn’t scare me because it did. My fingers grazed my neck looking for the necklace that Thrawn had given me but it wasn’t there. I had taken it off before I had left Nirauan and left it on my bedside table. I knew Thrawn would see it and I hoped that he would understand that I planned on coming back to claim it. That I planned on coming back to him and not ending up in a bacta tank, losing the precious pendant due to someone taking it off and not giving it back to me. He had kept it safe for me before and I hoped that would be the case now.
It was a strange bed in a strange place and sleep did not come quickly. I lay half awake for a long time with images of the past, present and possible future running through my mind. When I finally did drift off to sleep it was full of vivid nightmares which lingered long after I had awoken early in the cold dawn reaching for a man who was thousands of light years away, weeping without fully knowing why.
For a long time I simply lay in the bed, staring up at the ceiling wondering what the hell I had done in coming all the way out here alone to confront someone I no longer really knew or understood. When I could lie there no longer I heaved myself out of the bed, showered and went to get some breakfast. There was no point in meeting with Jyrki on an empty stomach; it only made me grouchy which made negotiating difficult. As I sat in the hotel’s dingy breakfast room cradling a cup of the worst stim’caf I had tasted in ages I wondered what the meeting would bring. Things were slowly building to a head and it was like watching a very bad speeder accident happening in slow motion. I could not more stop it than I could turn away from watching it.
I had hoped to begin a new life on Nirauan, to put my past behind me but Jyrki seemed determined not to allow me that. Like a bad dream he kept coming back to haunt me. Unfinished business a friend had once said, it comes back when you least expect it. This, I thought morosely as I sat staring into space, was one strange little love story that while it might have begun sweetly enough, was going to have a very bad ending.