A Good Reason to Die

by Josh “Nova” Caton

 In the watering hole lounge of the vaunted Mon Calamari star cruiser Liberty, one joke too many is never enough. And at this time of night, no subject is too ridiculous. 

“What’s this thing rated, anyway?”

 Elbows resting on the table, Bulldog flashed a look of confusion. “What are you talking about, Ranc?”

 “This table,” Rancor said, rapping it with a knuckle. “How much weight do you think it’ll bear?” 

Bulldog suppressed a chuckle but couldn’t contain a smile. “Why do you ask?”

 “Because I need another drink, and I need to make sure she’ll hold up.”

 The pilots laughed a good laugh, a laugh of rest. Even shuttered away in the belly of a warship, times like these made the war seem far away.

 But never too far away.

 An … unexpected visitor to the lounge interrupted the reverie. The six pilots wobbled into the closest approximation to military form they could manage in their inebriated states.

 “Col. Rambo, sir,” said Kallysto, the veteran amongst the evening’s revelers. “What can we do for you?”

 “At ease, men.” Stryker waited for the pilots to return to their seats. “I apologize for interrupting your R&R time, but something’s come up. We’ve received a transmission from an unknown individual on an outer rim planet saying they have information vital to the Alliance.”

 “Unknown?” Kallysto asked. “Don’t our sources have codes so we know who they are?”

 “Yes, and this transmission included cleared rebel security codes, although not ones typically used in communiqués with Renegade Wing.”

 Icestorm spoke up. “Do we know the nature of the information?” he asked.

 “The source will not reveal much, but hinted that it might unearth a traitor or series of traitors within the Alliance. He’s requested payment in person for the information and suggested a protocol droid also be present due to his lack of fluency in basic.”

 “Sounds strange,” Condor noted. “Do we think it’s legit?”

 “We’re skeptical. That’s why we’re sending Syntax. He can handle whatever surprises might arise, but he can’t play an undercover Alliance intelligence agent unless we invest in a whole lot of synthflesh. I’d like one of you to forfeit your next few days of downtime to accompany our ‘protocol droid’ to the rendezvous point and either obtain the information or prove it false.”

 “Where’s the rendezvous?”

“On Tatooine. Mos Eisley, to be specific.”

 “I’ll go,” Nova blurted before any of the other pilots could speak up.

 “Hold on a minute,” Kallysto protested. “Shouldn’t we send, say, a former child actor to play the part of Syntax’s owner?”

 Nova gave the former child actor an exaggerated look of shock. “What? You think you’re the only pilot who did a little acting when you were a kid? I’ll have you know you’re looking at the guy who played the lead role in Ballast’s primary school’s production of The Emperor and I. ” 

More laughter, this time with Stryker joining in. The colonel regarded the dark-haired Buccaneer thoughtfully. “Nova, I think you could use the ground experience. You’d better get to your bunk. You leave in five hours. The rest of you, enjoy your downtime.” Stryker turned to leave, but stopped after a step. “Do something about that table, would you? The thing’s bowing, and I’d hate to have to deduct the cost of a new one from your credit accounts.” 

***

 Conversation was brisk in the passenger bay of the Muurian transport Corona. Stash, the owner and pilot of the smuggling ship, had been entertaining the two pilots with tales of outside-the-law adventures. Nova and Syntax had hitched a ride to Tatooine with Stash, long trusted by the Alliance as a trader in the blaster coolant freelol variety. If their mission didn’t take long, they’d be riding back to the Liberty with Stash as well.

 A tone sounded, signaling that Stash was needed back in the cockpit.

 “Hey, thanks for the chat, fellas. Been a bit lonely around here since Bin got busted along the Sisar Run and shipped off to Kessel.” said Stash, as he rose to enter the cockpit.

 “Bin?” Nova asked.

 “My partner of six years. He was doing a solo run, a contract job and got boarded by an Imp patrol. It was all I could do to keep myself from charging Corona into that rock and trying to bust him out, but good sense got the better of me.”

 “You probably would have ended up alongside him in the dark.”

 “I know. I do miss the chap though. Heckuva gunner.” After a quiet moment, the cockpit tone sounded again. Stash sighed. “Better see what’s up. You fellas make yourselves at home.”

 “Thanks, Stash,” Nova said with a nod. He liked Stash, a not-quite-middle-aged human, and found himself charmed by the spacer’s galaxy-spanning tales. Syntax, on the other hand, was difficult to talk to. Nova had to admit he was intimidated by the ex-bounty-hunter-hunter turned elite pilot. He knew Syntax would risk deactivation to save a fellow Renegade, but that didn’t make the steel skinned droid any more approachable. Still, after an uncomfortably long silence, Nova started to speak up. But the droid beat him to it.

 “Why you?”

 Nova was startled. “Huh?” he blurted out.

 “Why are you my partner on this mission?” continued the droid.

 “Uh, because they needed someone to play info trader to your protocol droid.” he quipped.

 “I know the mission parameters, Nova. Why did you volunteer to come to Mos Eisley?”

 “Famous place, from what I hear. I wanted to see it, that’s all.” Nova realized Syntax wasn’t going to say anymore. “Is it as rough as its legend?”

 “Yes.” The droid said. “But not too rough for me.”

 Stash rounded the corner into the passenger bay. “Reversion in fifteen.”

 Nova nodded. “Let’s hope this guy’s info is worth the trip.”

 “Trust me,” the droid said. “Unless he can tell us where the Emperor keeps his toothbrush, it won’t be.”

 ***

 Nova squinted as the bright Tatooine suns glinted off Syntax’s metal shell. Mos Eisley Spaceport was less crowded than Nova would have guessed, but twice as hot. He tried his best to not look out of place, but a keen observer would have seen the gait with which the native Caridan carried himself was a bit more … Imperial than the average sentient strolling the sandy streets. Even so, the close fitting brown tunic, rough stubble on his chin and blaster on his hip was enough to fool a pair of Jawas that skittered by, tugging on Nova’s pants and pointing at Syntax. Nova shooed the scavengers away in a manner that seemed, at least to him, to be very Mos Eisley.

 As they pressed on through the streets, Nova felt the piercing gaze of a Gotal in the shadows of an alleyway, but he didn’t turn to make eye contact. Suspicion is about the only thing that grows here, Nova thought. A few more paces, and Nova’s ears picked up the bubbly tones of a jizz-wailer band. Almost there.

 “Ok, Lommie,” he said, using the droid nickname Syntax had picked for himself. He kept his voice just above a whisper. “You ready for this?”

 “Indeed, Master. Although I must say this is no place for a droid of my particular talents,” Syntax replied, his voice a good octave higher than normal.

 Nova allowed a short smile at Syntax’s acting, and together they stepped inside the Mos Eisley Cantina.

 The joint was jumping. Aliens of all species chittered, clicked, chatted and cooed in their varying languages and in varying states of drunkenness. He didn’t see any droids, nor did he see anyone tending the bar at the time of their entrance. Nova intentionally kept a thumb on the fléchette pistol on his hip as he surveyed the establishment.

 “Have a seat, Lommie, I need a drink.”

 Syntax made his way to an out of the way table as Nova squeezed his way up to the bar. A Twi’lek seated at the bar gave Nova a hard stare, but Nova dismissed the veiled threat with a nod of the head and a smile that said, “Try me today, punk.” He made eye contact with the heavyset bartender and ordered a Whyren’s Reserve for himself and the Cantemenin Falie Lager that was to be the signal for their contact.

 He returned to find Syntax sitting silently. “Anyone give you any trouble?”

 “Oh, no, sir. Though I cannot understand why I would be the only protocol droid in here, sir. The patrons here are so unrefined that a good LOM-series droid would be quite beneficial, I should think.”

 “Great, Lommie,  great.” Nova sipped his Whyren’s and let the whiskey linger on his tongue. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a Trandoshan clearly paying more than just a cursory glance to he and his droid.

 Moments later, the large meat-colored reptoid stood up from his seat and made his way to Nova’s table. Nova didn’t look up from his drink, even after the Trandoshan stood directly to Nova’s left and cast its rather large shadow across the table.

 “You musssst be new here,” the Trandoshan hissed.

 “You must think I don’t mind talking to lizards,” said Nova, thick with sarcasm.

 The Trandoshan put his foreclaws on the table and leaned down into Nova’s face. “This place doesn’t sssserve their kind,” he said, nodding his ridged head at Syntax.

 “Oh Master, perhaps I should—” began the droid, in a plaintive voice.

 “Cool it Lommie,” Nova said. He eyed the big reptile and mentally prepared himself for a fight. “Funny, I don’t recall my droid having anything to drink. It’s a slaggin’ good thing this hole doesn’t serve droids, because they do a poor job.”

 “I don’t like droidssss.” The Trandoshan pulled himself up to full height. “And I don’t like you.”

“Me?” Nova said, exaggerating his expression of disbelief. “What’s not to like about me?”

 The Trandoshan’s tongue flicked from his nostrils. “You smell like an Imp.”

 Nova let his head drop and forced a chuckle from his throat.

 “Well, you know what they say, don’t ya big fella?” The Trandoshan bared his teeth. “This place can get a little rough”—and then the pilot struck. With his left hand, he grabbed the reptile by the back of its scaly leg and slung it into the table’s edge. As the beast staggered, Nova rose from his seat and planted a forearm across its chest. The Trandoshan sucked for air as Nova let the force of his blow carry through behind the saurian, then fluidly put both hands on its back and rammed its head into the table. The hulking creature crumbled to the floor. It was over so quickly the jizz-wailers didn’t miss a beat.

 “Hey, you!” The bartender called, rushing out from some unseen corner of the establishment to see to the ruckus Nova had caused. “Take your droid and get out of here!”

 Nova gave the bartender a satisfied nod and raised the glass of red Falie Lager above his head—then poured it onto the unconscious reptile below.

 “It’s common courtesy, Master, to leave a gratuity after making such a mess,” Syntax said as they made their way out of the cantina.

 “Yeah? Good idea, Lommie. Hey barkeep!” Nova flipped a credcoin toward the bartender. “The big fella’s sorry about the mess.”

  ***

 Syntax noted the increase in component temperature as he and Nova stepped back out beneath the Tatooine suns. He turned his head so his photoreceptors faced Nova.

 “You handled yourself well in there,” the droid said as a thrumming swoop sped by on the Mos Eisley streets. “I was getting ready to take him down myself.”

 “Yeah, well, you forget where I grew up. Carida’s a high-grav world. I haven’t been there for years, I bet one of my punches still packs a little high-grav-trained wallop.”

 Syntax scolded himself for not considering the data he had on Nova’s background in his memory core. He wondered whether too much cockpit time was reducing his capacity to process and cross-reference data, but dismissed the thought.

“Interesting that you choose to keep that a secr—”

 “Whoa, Syntax,” Nova interrupted. “Best stay in character. I think someone’s headed toward us.”

 Syntax widened his optic scanning and located the figure Nova had noticed. A long-snouted Vulptereen was weaving his way calmly through the bustling street, his path clearly designed to intersect with the one Syntax and Nova were currently traveling.

 “You think this is our contact?”

 “Maybe,” Syntax responded. “This one is a small-time snoop and data dealer. I recognize him from a job I pulled at Abregado-rae. Called Flun.”

 “Will he recognize you?”

 “Not likely. I was discreet on that job.”

 Nova turned down a less congested street and slowed his stride. Moments later, the Vulptereen was walking in stride with them.

 “Kal chub de Muuriae funda malnodat.”

 Syntax responded with “Kal ho.

 “Munde no farun de liften?”

He translated the Huttese language variant for Nova’s benefit. “Master, this gentlebeing has asked us if we arrived in the Muurian docked in bay 94. I told him we were. He then asked how much we would pay for vital information.”

 Nova seemed to consider this. “Tell him he should have a Farlie Lager at the cantina.”

 Syntax translated the phrase into the Huttese variant the Vulptereen was speaking. It only seemed to confuse the Vulptereen.

 “Faklen no bact  mun donden,Flun said with a snort. Kuba de funda malodat..”

 “He says he doesn’t drink anything that doesn’t require bacta to cure the hangover. His initial offer, master, still stands.”

 Nova frowned. “Tell him we’ve got fifty creds to burn. We’ll pay him what it’s worth.”

 Again Syntax translated, and the Vulptereen offered a response. “Fadda de din de jarra ne. Corona pluren fal ladda.”

 Syntax’s head swiveled toward Nova.

 “What’d he say?”

 “He said the dock master is overcharging us for Corona’s berth.”

 Nova gave the Vulptereen a vibroblading stare, though Syntax recognized the look as more falsehood than furor. Nova reached in his pockets and flipped a single credcoin into the dirt at the Vulptereen’s feet. The Vulptereen looked insulted, but the expression broke when he saw Nova’s gaze. Flun scooped up the credcoin and recessed further into the alleyway.

 “What now?”

 “Back to the Corona,” Syntax answered. “My guess is, if someone wants to talk to us, they will know where to look.”

 **

 The only thing waiting for Nova and Syntax back at Corona’s docking bay was hard labor. Like the pilots, Stash hadn’t encountered anything out of the ordinary. With that, the Renegades finally resigned themselves to the fact that they’d come to Mos Eisley for nothing. Stash, however, set them to work loading crates of freelol in to the freighter’s hold.

 “Well, sometimes wild mynock chases are a blessing, boys,” Stash said. “You never know. The chap you were looking for might only have wanted to blast you.”

 “Still,” Syntax said, “I don’t like leaving without knowing something about whoever got a message through to the Liberty. As it is, our report is going to be pretty boring—except for the part about you pounding that Trandoshan in the Cantina, eh Nova?”

 Nova didn’t acknowledge the droid’s inquiry. Syntax realized the human hadn’t been listening to the conversation at all. Something else had him lost in thought.

 “Hey Stash,” Nova asked as he grabbed a crate of the blaster coolant from the gravtruck. “How long ‘til we burn out of here?”

 “A little over and hour standard, if the port authority stays on schedule,” the old man said.

 Nova nodded and added another crate to the stack. “Either of you guys know a good bookstore around here?”

 The bewilderment on the face of Stash and the still silence of Syntax told Nova that they did not.

 **

 Philosophers could debate for decades on whether artificial intelligence had instincts, in the way that biological life forms do. But Syntax didn’t need instincts to know something was wrong. 

Nova had been gone for 15 minutes when Syntax’s proximity sensors were triggered. Another being had entered the docking bay—and a quick directed scan revealed that it wasn’t Nova. In fact, it wasn’t human.

 With blazing reflexes possible only by impulse through circuitry, Syntax drew his blaster and dropped into a defensive crouch behind the gravtruck. “Stash, get—”

 The telltale blue wave of a stun bolt lashed through the docking bay and felled Stash with a thud. Syntax’s diagnostics registered a power surge in his components, a residual effect of the electricity of the stun blast. He squeezed the firing stud on his blaster and sent a line of fire back in the direction of the attacker.

 Blue energy again streaked toward him from the dark of the hangar’s entryway. Again, his diagnostics catalogued the energy as it cruised harmlessly past. This time, it was no stun bolt. It was an ion blast—specifically designed to knock out electronic systems. Or, Syntax knew, the occasional droid. He’d have bet his servos that whatever was firing the gun was the thing that had brought he and Nova to Tatooine in the first place.

 And Syntax wanted to get to the bottom of this.

 The droid fired again, this time his line tracking his line of fire intentionally high of his target. He’d get no information from a dead thing. He rolled out from behind the grav truck and advanced, using the Corona’s landing struts as cover.  The droid focused his optic receptors on the entry way and found a match—male Talz, two meters tall. Two more ion shots whizzed toward where Syntax had been behind the gravtruck. The Talz had missed Syntax’s move, and the droid wasted no time.

 Syntax sprung from behind the strut and fired two surgical shots at the stationary Talz—one struck the furred biped in the hand, forcing it to drop its weapon. The second and third caught the Talz in the lower abdomen, forcing the Talz itself to the ground in a slump. Syntax charged, blaster at the ready, to confront his attacker.

 The white-furred creature breathed heavily but, was breathing. Syntax kept his blaster trained on the attacker. “Keep in mind that that gut shot could have been right between those four eyes of yours,” Syntax said. “And tell me just who you are.” 

“Rablen,” the Talz wheezed. “I’m … bounty hunter.”

 “Bounty hunter? Never heard of you.”

 The Talz slumped as if Syntax’s remark had been another blaster shot to his gut. He didn’t say anything.

 “What is it you want?”

 “I thought … that would be obvious. I wanted to kill you. The great 9-LOM, the bounty hunter’s bounty hunter.”

 A mechanical scoff came from Syntax’s vocoder. “I don’t believe you. You could have taken me out when you stunned Stash over there. Then when you started shooting at me you used low power ion bolts that wouldn’t have disabled me anyway. You weren’t trying to kill anybody.” The droid paused. “You were trying to commit suicide.”

 The Talz looked up at Syntax with four dark eyes and shook his head in mild disbelief. “You are sharp. That’s why you were so good, 9-LOM. Me? I was a lousy hunter. Great tracker, I mean I’m one of the best trackers there is. I managed to find you in that rebel fighter squadron and lure you here, didn’t I?  But I’m a slagged lousy hunter. I could never close the deal, never deliver the merchandise. Never. I once hunted this assassin half way across the galaxy and ended up with a hole in my gut and zero creds. I never amounted to anything.”

 “And you thought getting killed by me would make you famous.”

 “It wouldn’t be the first time someone got snuffed by you and got a new reputation by dying, that’s sure. And hey, I’ve got no family, no crew. I’m broke. I’ve got nothing to live for, so dying’s as good a thing as any.” Raben closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the stone of the entry way. “So you going to do it or what?”

 Syntax paused.

 “Yes. I’ll kill you. But first you’ll do something for me.”

 ***

 Corona left Mos Eisley spaceport as planned. Syntax was seated at the dejarik table when Nova emerged from the rear passenger compartments.

 “How’s our new passenger doing?” the droid asked.

 “Fine, I guess. The bacta patch will keep the wounds under control until we can get him proper medical care.” Nova sat down beside Syntax and took out a datapad. “I’ve got to tell you that’s some arrangement you made. You really going to kill him?”

 “No, probably not unless he gets out of line. I thought Stash needed and extra set of hands and another two pair of eyes aboard this bucket. Rablen, or whatever his name is, obviously has some skills or he wouldn’t have been able to get us to Tatooine. I don’t think he’s dangerous, and Stash felt the same way after I presented him with the deal: The Talz gives Stash some help for a while aboard Corona, and I’ll come back and waste him when I get the chance. I was a little surprised he agreed.”

 “I think the poor furball was just looking for some direction and needed someone to put him on a different jump course. I gave him a copy of this holobook I picked up dirtside. Thought he might get something out of it.”

 “Ah, I see you found the bookstore you were looking for.”

 “Three, actually,” Nova said, leaning back in his chair. “Spaceports have a market for bookstores, I guess, with all the travelers passing through. I picked up a couple volumes, but this one little alley shop, the third store I went into, finally had what I was looking for.”

 “So tell me,” the droid said, indicating the datapad, “is this what made you volunteer to come to Mos Eisley?”

 “It’s called Treehome.” Nova said with a nod. “Written by a Wookiee, Gralbarra.”

 “I didn’t realize Wookiees were a literary species.”

 “Sure they are. I have to use a translator program, of course, but the spirit of the work survives a switch to basic.” Nova seemed to refocus his attention on Syntax. “Gralbarra uses the Wookiee’s treetop cities as a symbol for everything they want to preserve from the Empire. The Empire wants to portray Wookiees and other nonhumans as subspecies, incapable of culture or art. Mindless muscle, in the Wookiee’s case. Gralbarra, and others like him, prove the Empire wrong time and time again. That, of course, is why the Emperor has a banned book list the size of a Super Star Destroyer.”

 “So you volunteered to come to a hole like Mos Eisley for the chance to find a dealer who sells banned books? This had the potential to be a dangerous job. Getting smoked on some book search would sure be a bad way to die.”

 “I don’t think so, Syntax. We’d both agree that given the state of the galaxy, getting vaped fighting the Imps in space is a good reason to die. And so is this this,” Nova said, wagging the datapad in his hand. “Gralbarra is fighting his own war. And his courage, and that of those like him, gives me one more reason to keep climbing into a B-wing. You see?” Nova shook his head in frustration. “I guess I’m not making much sense to you.”

 Syntax seemed to consider this. “While I do not pretend to process the concept of literature completely, I think I comprehend your point. By going out of your way to read something a Wookiee wrote, you fight the tyranny that the Emperor would exert over your mind.”

 “That sounds about right.” Nova offered the datapad to Syntax. “You want to read it?”

 “Our new Talz shipmate might enjoy it, but I do not think I have much use for it, Nova, thank you.”

 “Suit yourself.” He rose and stared toward the Corona’s  cockpit. “I’m going to see if Stash needs a hand with our next jump transfer.”

 Syntax noticed that Nova had left his datapad on the dejarik table. He picked up the pad, and, after a moment’s hesitation, plugged the pad into his own input jack. Seconds later, the complete volume of Treehome was stored in his memory core. 

Those X-wing hyperjumps can be a long haul, Syntax told himself as the datadump finished. Just in case he got bored.