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Shore Leave - Part 2

Major Andrew "Dobber" Dobson

Chapter 5

The sailing skiff came to a gradual halt as the skipper gave the order to cut the engines. As the hum died down, the gungan diving instructor stood up to address the small group of beings that had registered for the scuba diving session. The instructions were straightforward enough, and those who were not naturally inclined to have respiratory systems that allowed them to swim underwater were given breathing apparatuses. As Andrew and Dia inserted theirs, the gungan gave a final few pointers as to their journey.

“Wesa be diving down and taking the Coral Route todaysa. Thesa waters are heated by warm currents and thermal vents. Theysa make for nice feeding and breeding grounds for muoy life forms. Yousa need to be mindful of any sea creatures and reefs we seeya. Theysa not so dangerous, but are protected by big bombad laws. Our dive will takes us a through a few different areas before wesa return to the skiffsa. If yousa run into trouble, pressa the red button on yousa diving suits and mesa come right away. After yousa!”

With that, the gungan gestured for the patrons to enter the water.

“Have you ever taken this route before?” Andrew asked, taking the breathing apparatus out of his mouth.

“Not this one,” Dia said, removing hers. “But I’ve done others when I was younger. If you can pick the right one at the right time of year, it can be an experience you never forget.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Andrew as he reinserted the mouthpiece. Taking her hand, they walked over to the jump-off point and both leapt into the water a few seconds after the couple in front of them did and had been able to move away.

The shock of the water was initially cold, though not as cold as he thought it would be. It wasn’t long once they had both begun pumping their arms and legs before they felt warmer.

As the group made their way forward, the gungan moved deftly through the water ahead of them. Beams of light from the sun lit up the water ahead of them. The water above them glittered as it moved, and below them the white sand gave way to clusters of seaweed and other marine life and features. It wasn’t long before they encountered schools of fish and other sea creatures.

The fish were of various shapes, sizes, and colours, each school moving in unison while other fish swam about individually, their gills and fins working together like clockwork. In a nearby school, some were a mix of black and yellow colors, while others had wide, fan-like pectoral and dorsal fins.

Two sea-turtles swam over to inspect the swimmers cautiously, and passed in front of Andrew and Dia before moving off to search for food. Their fins propelled them forward, while the design of their ovular shells glistened like a rainbow as their bodies moved through the sunny water.

Moving deeper, the group soon came to the beginnings of a reef. Looking down, there were more creatures and colors than anyone would be able to count. Fish and lobsters moved about the reef. Colorful seahorses swam or used their tails to anchor themselves on the coral or nearby seaweed. A pair of crabs circled about on the seafloor, one claw held out in front with another high up in the air, clearly in a dispute about who should claim this territory. Several different types of starfish lay on rocks or pockets of sand, clearly enjoying themselves.

Motioning in a direction to their right, Dia pointed at a spot in the reef where a small dark hole was nestled amongst some rocks, coral, and sea anemones. It took a moment before he saw what she saw. Eight long, bright-red tentacles with luminous blue suckers slowly emerged from the hole, and an octopus slowly emerged from what could only be its home. It wasn’t long before the octopus took note of the two crabs still fighting. Moving slowly, its tentacles guiding its path along the coral and seafloor, it approached the two opponents.

Suddenly, it shot forward. The eight tentacles opened, causing the octopus to take the shape of an umbrella under water. Then, it shot straight down towards the two crabs. One was able to jump backwards out of the way at the last second, but the other crab was not so lucky. It was quickly enveloped in the body of the octopus. Sand shot up in a cloud, and then the struggling stopped as the octopus began to enjoy its meal.

Andrew could only stare in awe at the scene below unfolding in front of him. Dia gave him a gentle tap on the shoulder, then motioned that they should catch up with the rest of the group. As they made their way forward, they caught up with the rest of the group and spent several more minutes moving about the reef. They were about to cross through a large, natural divet in the reef when he heard a series of high-pitched, throaty clicking noises and squeaks behind him. Turning to face the sound, the breathing piece nearly fell out of his mouth as he jaw dropped.

Racing towards them was a pod of dolphins with light pink skin and a cream-white underside. There must have been about fifteen or twenty dolphins in total, all spread out at varying distances. Turning to look back at the group, he saw the gungan guide motion for the group to stop and spread out. As they did so, he quickly swam back and positioned himself in the middle of the group. As if it was already pre-scripted, the lead dolphin changed course slightly and made its way towards the gungan. In one fluid motion the gungan gently but firmly took hold of the dolphin’s dorsal fin, and the two became one. The dolphin continued to stream forward effortlessly, and one by one the other dive members took hold of dolphins that came near them.

Removing the breathing piece temporarily from her mouth, Dia gave a muffled “Hold on tight!” before taking hold of the dolphin that had made its way towards her. Seconds later, a second dolphin approached Andrew. He reached out and took hold of its dorsal fin -- and was unprepared for the surge of energy the dolphin made as it gave a few extra kicks to catch up with the dolphin that Dia had taken hold of. He nearly lost his grip, but managed to hold on and reposition himself after a few seconds. As his dolphin moved up beside Dia’s, she turned and flashed him a quick smile and a wink, clearly amused at his attempt to hold on.

Up ahead, he could see the dolphins pairing off into two parallel lines, making their way through the hole in the reef. The dolphins and their riders cleared it easily without bumping into the sides before suddenly disappearing. When it was their turn, Andrew felt his dolphin begin pumping its peduncle and flukes more rapidly, increasing their speed. Dia’s did the same.

As they cleared the reef, the two dolphins immediately rotated their bodies one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, then made a sharp ninety-degree turn to dive downwards before rotating again and racing down what must have been an underwater cliff face of some sort. Internally, Andrew gave a scream of excitement and terror as the dolphins continued their sprint.

After a few seconds, the dolphins leveled off as they neared the sea floor. Andrew looked, bewildered, at Dia who was clearly laughing at the excitement and his misfortune. Waves of air bubbles escaped from her mouth and moved out into the ocean. Before he could do anything else, he felt the dolphin swerve left. Looking forward, his eyes widened.

They were approaching what could only be described as an underwater forest of coral-like trees. Long stripes of seaweed extended up below them, their finger-like blades rippling with the motion of water as the dolphins and their passengers streaked by. Wide-eyed fish darted out of the way while sea anemones of every color and combination covered almost every inch of the trunks and branches. Some tentacles waved in every direction, while others retracted their tentacles into their bodies.

The pairs of dolphins deftly wove their way through the structures around them with enough precision that their riders were not harmed. The entire experience was similar to weaving through an asteroid field or a canyon without as much danger, though one that was exhilarating and colorful beyond imagination. When the group cleared the coral-like forest, the dolphins broke for a large mound of rock that had several openings.

As Andrew and Dia’s dolphins entered one of the openings, the tunnel was lit by a type of seaweed that had a natural bioluminescent glow. It provided just enough light so that they could see their path, as well as each other. Soon, they emerged from the tunnel into a large, open-area. Several rocks jutted up like pointed pillars, and bioluminescent jellyfish gently floated around the rocks aimlessly. The dolphins began to move upwards until they breached the surface of what must have been a natural air pocket.

The gungan let go of his dolphin and made his way over towards a rock ledge that was sticking out from one of the walls. Climbing out of the water and standing up, he made his way over to a small table that had supplies and lamps, one of which was already on. When all the group members had surfaced, they let go of their dolphins, who remained near their passengers. Several dolphins made clicking sounds.

“First of all,” began the gungan as he approached the edge of the rock platform with a lamp and box, “mesa want to thank our boyo and girlo dolphins for their ride. Thank you, boyos and girlos!” With that, the dolphins made some splashes with their fins and some gleeful sounds which reverberated pleasantly inside the rock chamber. Setting the lit lamp down, the guide took the box in both hands and opened it. “Now, before you gosa,” continued the gungan, “yousa all know how we thank our guests. Kiss kiss!”

With that, the dolphins let out a gleeful series of clicks in unison, then closed their beaks and gave a two-second kiss on the cheek to each rider. Laughter erupted from the group at the unexpected gesture from the dolphins. When this was done, the dolphins made their way over to the far side of the platform, eagerly awaiting whatever was in the box that the gungan held.

“Now, if yousa would make your way over here, you can take a quick break before we move on while I feeds our boyos and girlos. Mesa won’t be long.”

The group members began to swim over to the ledge and climbed out one at a time. As they did so, the gungan reached into the box and took out a medium-sized fish. Throwing it in the air, the first dolphin dove then launched itself into the air from the water. It performed a cartwheel as it caught the fish, then dove back down into the water. As it consumed its reward, it swam away towards the tunnel that it had entered. The other dolphins more or less did the same, much to the delight of the group.

“Did you know this would be part of the tour?” Andrew asked quietly, looking at Dia.

“Truthfully, no,” she said. “Though I did enjoy the look of surprise and alarm your face a few times.”

Andrew smiled and shook his head as she gave him a wink.

When the dolphins had left, the gungan turned to address the group again.

“Thisa structure is a natural underground cavern. Nickname isa the Shimmering Caves causa the way the light moves in the tunnels. Yousa get to see this soon. If you make your way through that path,” he said, pointing towards a pathway with an opening, “yousa can find the Shimmering Tunnel Network. Itsa network you can explore. Yousa no needsa get worried about being lost, as each pathway takes yousa back up to the surface eventually. Wesa meet the sailing skiff there. For now, yousa should take one of thesea underwater lamps to help guide you. Remember, pressa the red button on your swim suits if yousa need help.”

With that, the group members moved forward to take lamps and attach them to the hooks on their waists. When they were ready, they moved as a group through the pathway and tunnel until it came to a fair-sized open pool. In the water below, they could make out more bioluminescent jellyfish and seaweed, as well as a dozen different tunnels. Andrew felt Dia gently touch his left arm from behind and leaned in to whisper in his ear.

“Let’s wait until they go in. See which tunnels they don’t take.”

Andrew turned slightly to face her, an eyebrow raised at her curious suggestion, then gave her a slight nod in agreement. Before long, the other divers had entered the pool and selected their own tunnel to explore. This left only two tunnels that had not been chosen.

“So,” said Andrew, taking her hand once more. “Shall we check out the left one first?”

“Sounds like a plan,” she said with a smile.

They both inserted their breathing apparatuses and entered the pool of water together, letting go of each other once in so that they could swim efficiently. The jellyfish were spread out enough to not be a major concern. He entered the tunnel first, his lamp giving just enough light to show the way through the crystal-clear water. The light shimmered off the walls of the tunnel, giving off a sparkling array of colors that made it seem like they were swimming through a glittering rainbow. Small dents and alcoves hinted that the tunnel may have had other secrets contained within it. They tried a few, none of which were overly exciting. After a few minutes, they found themselves at a fork in the road, so to speak. Andrew shone his light down the left tunnel, then the right. The rockface continued to glitter when he did so. Not missing a beat, Dia pointed to the right tunnel and continued forward.

This time, they entered an area that had a connecting side-tunnel on either side -- which probably connected with the other tunnels -- as well as a rock plateau similar to where they stopped earlier with the dolphins. They emerged from the water, their lamps giving just enough light to illuminate the area and each other.

“I have to say,” said Andrew, disconnecting his lamp rod and grabbing the edge of the rock platform, “I’m surprised there are air pockets down here.”

“Must be some natural air tunnel networks that are part of the rock structure,” said Dia, doing the same. “Explains partly why the air isn’t stale. And,” she said, pointing at the rock face walls above them, “why the lichen can grow here.” Taking both of the lamp rods, she slowly shone them at the pale white strands that dotted the walls. After about a minute she placed the lamp rods back on the rock ledge and switched them off, leaving them in near darkness.

“Hey--!” Andrew began, before he felt two of her fingers land on his lips to prevent him from speaking further.

“Hush,” she said, “just watch.”

It didn’t take long before something happened. As they held onto the rock ledge and gently kicked their legs and free arm to keep themselves afloat, the lichen began to emit a soft blue glow. After several seconds, the color changed to a luminescent green, then yellow, then purple. Soon the colors began to ripple and change in waves.

“I don’t believe it,” Andrew said in awe of the spectacle before him.

“I’ve never seen this variety before,” said Dia, “but I figured it was similar to other cave lichen in the area. Just the smallest amount of light causes them to emit a powerful glow. So, what do you think?”

He turned to face her. The shifting rainbow of colors danced off her blue face and lekku just enough that he could make out some of her features in the darkness. Using his free hand, he reached up and stroked her left lekku. The lekku gave a slight twitch, and she let out a gentle “ah” of pleasure. He guided his hand to cup her cheek, and could see her eyes glinting in the darkness.

“I think,” he said, meeting her eyes, “you’re absolutely beautiful in this light.”

Without missing a beat, he could just make out what must have been a blushing smile. She wrapped her free arm around his body, and moved closer towards him. Her wet, warm lips met his, and they became lost in that moment exchanging one kiss after another.

“I wish,” she said, breaking her lips from his and taking a short gasp for a breath, “that we could stay here longer.”

“Me too,” he said, kissing her again.

“And I wish,” she continued between kisses, “that this war would end. And we could be together.”

“We are,” he said, quickly gasping for a breath before kissing her again, then began moving to kiss her exposed neck. She gave another slight moan of pleasure.

“But,” she said with a small giggle, “we can’t keep the group waiting.”

“I know,” he said, stopping just long enough to meet her eyes again. “But I don’t think they need to see the most beautiful woman in the entire galaxy right now.”

“Talk less, kiss more,” she said before kissing him more deeply this time. He placed his hand on her waist and drew her even closer. Their warm bodies pressed against one another.

And it was at that exact moment that their gungan guide interrupted them.

“Whasa matter?” he asked as his head broke the water a few feet behind them. “Are yousa both okay?”

Dia gave a slight scream of surprise and let go of Andrew while he spun around to face the gungan.

“Uh, we’re fine,” Andrew said, blinking at the gungan for several seconds. “We must have, uh, accidentally pressed the buttons against the rock face earlier. Sorry.”

“It’s okaysa,” said the gungan. “Yousa be surprised how often thisa happens during the trips.”

They both gave a nervous round of laughter.

“Oh,” said Andrew, his lips and teeth barely moving, “I’m sure it does.”

“Yousa betcha,” said the gungan, smiling at them. “And at least yousa not acting like love fishies or anything.”

They both stared at the gungan, not saying a word.

“Unless,” he continued, moving his head back and forth, “yousa are being like love fishies. But mesa no judge.”

With that, he disappeared underneath the water and began taking the tunnel to their right.

Dia let go of him. “Come on,” she said as she grabbed their lamp rods and handed him his. “We shouldn’t keep them waiting.” As she lit the light she dove under water. Andrew gave a sigh of frustration.

“Well,” he said, his shoulders sinking as he switched on his light. “At least it wasn’t something I said.”

***

They emerged several minutes later from a natural donut-shaped tunnel that was in the middle of a cove of what must have been a small island. Red-and-orange rock structures jutted up around them, connecting to a larger overhanging rock. Yellow-blue seabirds cawed and flew around them, their nests built into the indents of the rocks above them. As they moved away from the circle, they were able to place their feet on solid ground, which was a mix of smooth rocks and sand. The water was knee-deep, and small waves splashed against them as the water ebbed and flowed around them. Several of the sea-birds dove in the distance into the water, then emerged several seconds later with fish caught in their beaks. With a few flaps of their wings, they were airborne again, heading back towards their nests.

As the group gathered around, sharing stories of their discoveries while in the tunnels, the gungan instructor moved to stand in front of them. In the distance, they could see and hear the sea skiff approaching.

“Mesa like toa take this opportunity to thank you allsa for joining this tour, and hopes you enjoyed your experience. If yousa coulda line up here, the skiffsa will drop a ladder for you allsa to climb.”

As the skiff stopped, a ladder lowered from the side. One by one the group members made their way over to it and climbed up onto the main deck. At the back of the line, as Andrew and Dia made their way with the rest of the group members, something glinted out of the corner of his eye. Looking down in the water, he saw a series of smooth stones of varying sizes and colors. Nestled just underneath two stones was another that looked brighter and had a ruby-red like color. As Dia moved forward, he bent down and fished for it, plucking it out of the water. Examining it in his palm, it had an almost gem-like quality to it, giving it the appearance that it might hold some value.

“You coming?” he heard her ask. He looked to see her staring back at him.

“Yeah,” he said, standing up and pocketing the stone. Walking towards her, they reached the skiff. He was the last to climb up the ladder. As they sat on one of the benches, she turned to face him.

“What did you pick up in the water?” she asked.

“Oh, just a memento. For this place. I don’t think we’ll be back here anytime soon.”

“Not anytime soon, no,” she said. Then, after a moment, “but maybe someday.”

“Yeah,” he said, putting an arm around her. She bent her head slightly and rested it on his shoulder. “Maybe someday.”

***

Half an hour later, the skiff reached the dock where it had taken off. The group members departed down a boarding plank and made their way to the changing areas. After a quick private shower, he got dressed and met Dia outside near the waiting area. From there they retrieved their personal belongings from the check-in desk, and made their way towards a food court in the distance. A warm breeze blew in from the water, and the odd bird or two flew overhead. Other patrons and vacationers milled about the area.

“I’m starving,” she said, surveying the numerous food vendors as they approached the food court.

“So, one of everything then?” he asked playfully.

“Ha,” she laughed, “and ruin my figure? No way. But I know one thing that will hit the spot.”

“Oh?” he asked, raising an eyebrow at her.

“Yeah,” she said, pointing towards one that had a dragon-like sea creature extending across the top. “Sushi!”

They sat down ten minutes later at a table with two trays full of food, dipping sauces, and their drinks under a row of beach trees that provided ample shade from the high-noon sun. They sampled the varieties of sushi, seafood pieces, and vegetables that came with their dishes, dipping them in sauces or eating them outright.

“So delicious,” she said, her mouth half-full of food. Dipping a piece of red-pink meat with white stripes in some soy sauce with her eating sticks, she brought it to his mouth. Opening his, she slipped the meat inside. The combination of salty liquid with the tangy fish exploded in his mouth. He, likewise, did the same with her with a piece of vegetable sushi wrapped in a dark-colored seaweed.

“I have to say,” he said through a mouthful of food, “this is delicious. Unlike the food we are served in the Mess Hall.”

“I hear that,” she said, swallowing her mouthful of food. “There’s only one thing that is consistent between here and onboard a star cruiser.”

“Oh?” he asked, finishing his own mouthful. “And what is th--?”

Using her right hand, she reached up and around his cheek, pulling his face to hers. Their lips met briefly, and she pulled away smiling.

“You have terrible table manners,” she said, and turned to dip a piece of vegetable in a pale-yellow mustard before popping it in her mouth. “You had some soy sauce on the side of your mouth.”

“I have bad table manners?” he asked incredulously, but playfully. He noticed a small smudge of mustard on her lips. “Have you seen yourself after you’ve eaten a powdered donut?”

“I’ll have you know,” she began, looking at him and leaning forward, an eating stick pointed at him, “that I have impeccable--”.

He leaned in, connecting his lips with hers. She pulled away, a smirk on her face.

“I believe you had some mustard on your lips,” he told her.

“Really?” she said with a small laugh. “Is it still there?”

“I can’t really tell,” he said with a smile. “But it never hurts to be sure.”

They kissed again several times. It took a seabird to break them apart.

As the yellow-white bird landed with a clatter on the table, its long, curved beak shot forward and snatched a piece of meat from her plate. It quickly gobbled it down, and made to snatch a second.

“Hey!” she called, waving at the bird. “Shoo! Shoo! Get out of here! Get!”

The bird took off with a honk, and began its ascent upwards and away from the table. A few other patrons nearby laughed casually at the scene before returning to their meals. Her cheeks turning bright red from embarrassment, Dia turned to look at him.

“Well,” she said with a sigh, placing her chin on an open palm and pushing her tray away. “There goes my meal.”

“Maybe,” he said as she pushed her plate away. “But I think I still have enough to share.” Dipping a piece of sushi in a red sauce this time, he brought it to her lips. Without missing a beat, she opened her mouth and ate the piece of sushi.

“Well,” she said, turning and meeting his eyes, “at least I have the most considerate boyfriend this side of the galaxy.”

***

Contessa Suli deChenzzi sat in a beach chair on the deck outside of her main office. Reports had come trickling in all morning, some with good news, others with unwelcome news. The oppressive mid-day sun beat down on her skin, adding to her foul mood. The only thing that made sitting outside at this moment bearable was the cool breeze, offsetting some of the heat -- though that paled in comparison to her worrying about her missing husband, Firith.

Hearing the door slide open behind her, she lowered her sunglasses and used her lipstick mirror to see who was approaching. It was her chief of security.

“Beg your pardon, ma’am,” said the chief, stopping a few feet away. “But I bring news that is of great importance.”

“Come forward, Miguel,” she said, snapping the mirror shut and pushing her sunglasses back up. “Now,” she said, sitting up in her chair. “What do you have for me?”

Miguel straightened and stepped forward, handing her a data pad.

“Reports from the eastern province, ma’am. And another from Baterron.”

She read through each report quickly, gleaming the important facts. She sighed, and set the data pad on her lap.

“That’s the third raid this month, Miguel. They’re becoming more frequent and bolder.”

“They are, ma’am, yes,” he began.

“And how do we defend against such incursions while ensuring the safety of our guests? We can’t keep this from the media forever.”

Miguel shifted uncomfortably from where he stood.

“A difficult task, ma’am,” he said carefully. “But we may have a lead for the next one.”

“Chief,” she said sternly, “I want proof, not leads. You know as well as I that local security forces can’t act on a hunch.”

“No, ma’am,” he said, nodding his head in agreement, “they can’t. But, if we can catch them in the act, that may provide enough evidence to have local forces move in. And, if we might enlist the help of the New Republic in orbit --”

“No,” she cut in sharply. “If we involve them now, whomever is pulling the strings behind these abductions will be tipped off, and we’ll never rescue those who have been taken. We will only enlist their help as a last resort.” She sighed and stood up from her chair, removing her sunglasses. “Now, tell me what your lead is.”

“All of the targets to date have been, for lack of better words, ritzy events. Some private ones, too. Small enough to be away from a major security presence, but enough people to kidnap with a few transports and armed troops. While I don’t have concrete facts, I do have a possible source that may have revealed the next target.”

“Which is?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Tomorrow’s cruise event,” he said, folding his arms in front of him. “And the Contessa’s Cup.”

“How reliable is your source?” she asked.

“My source is reliable,” he said, shifting uncomfortably, “but the information is second-hand.”

“Second-hand?” she asked incredulously.

“Apologies, ma’am,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “But it is the best lead we have.”

“Again, Chief, I want proof, not leads,” she said tersely, then walked past him and placed both hands on the railing, leaning against it. Then, a thought dawned on her. “Though … you may, in fact, be right. The cruise ship will be isolated from local security at the resort, and there will be more than enough people on the ship.”

“Not to mention a number of high profile patrons; including yourself and Mister Solari, ma’am.”

Solari? she thought. What’s he up to this time?

“If I might say, ma’am,” said Miguel, taking a few steps towards her. “I’d rest easier ensuring your safety by not attending the event.”

“No,” she said, turning around. Walking over to him, she placed a soft hand on his shoulder. “I appreciate your concern and loyalty as always, Miguel, but I must ensure the safety of our guests. I am also fully capable of taking care of myself.”

“Very well, ma’am,” he said as she removed her hand, “but at least let me add some extra security detail. Undercover, of course. And may I also suggest a personal tracker, just to be safe?”

“You worry too much, Miguel,” she said with a slight chuckle. “But both are excellent ideas. See to it.”

“Ma’am!” he said, nodding to her.

“One more thing, Chief,” she said as he made to move away. He stopped and turned back to face her. “I have two other important guests I need you to keep safe. I’ll forward you the information later.”

“As you wish, ma’am,” said Miguel, then turned to leave and attend to his duties.

With that, she turned back and walked over to the railing once more. Off in the distance she could see the cruise ship in the bay, small shuttles and transports ferrying supplies towards it. She gave a heavy sigh of frustration and despair.

This had better work, she thought to herself. Or there will be no coming back from this.

Chapter 6

The rest of the day proved to be eventual for the two vacationers. After their lunch, Dia took him on a two-hour winding climb up one of the nearby mountain paths. They stopped at the summit where a number of other vacationers milled about, admiring the view below. Standing on one of the metal lookout pads, Andrew and Dia admired what they witnessed below them. The resort and its outlying buildings, as well as other residential areas, dotted the landscape. Transports took off or arrived with their passengers. In the bay they could make out the crescent-shaped beach with its white sand snaking off into the distance, not to mention some smaller islands off in a distance, as well as the cruise ship which looked like a toy in a bathtub from this distance. Birds chirped and sang songs, and some fluttered near them or sat perched in the odd tree that was on the summit.

“It’s quite the view,” he said, his sweaty shirt sticking to him as he wrapped an arm around her waist.

“Sure is,” she said, repeating his gesture. They stood there in silence for some time, enjoying their company.

It was Dia who eventually broke the silence.

“Hold out your hand,” she said.

“Why?” he asked, looking at her.

“Just trust me,” she said, returning the look. “Hold out your hand, then extend your index finger like you’re pointing.”

“Okay,” he said, raising his arm outwards in front of him. “What am I pointing at?”

“Just point,” she said, “and you’ll see.”

“Okay, but I don’t see what--.”

He felt something flutter against his hand and grab hold of his index finger. A small bird with red feathers and a yellow underbody had landed on his finger. It extended its blue-tipped wings outwards, then closed them against its body. The bird also had two tail-feathers that extended past its body, presumably used to help it maneuver in flight.

He froze, not making a movement. The bird eyed him quizzically.

“Don’t make any sudden movements,” she said quietly. Sticking out her arm, she had only to wait a few seconds for another bird to land on her finger. There was one small difference this time; this bird had three small black diamond-shaped markings on its chest.

“What are they?” he asked quietly, not making any movements.

“These are Eudorian mountain swallows. The one you have is a male; this one with the markings is a female. They’re friendly to humanoids sometimes.”

“So … what do I do?” he asked, still not moving a muscle. The perched bird continued to eye him.

“Move your arm slowly like mine,” she said, turning hers back into an L-shape so that her bird looked at her. After a few seconds, he did the same. Both birds looked at each other, then them, before giving a few chirps. “Now,” she said slowly, “watch this.” Puckering her lips to whistle, she whistled four slow notes, modifying each one to make a pleasant sound. The birds turned their attention to her, chirping a few notes in response.

“I don’t get--” he began.

“Hush,” she cut in, then repeated the same notes.

The birds appeared to nod in understanding. It was then that they began their song. Their sounds were sweet and melodious, almost as if the two were having a singing recital and conversation at the same time.

When they were finished, Dia bowed her head.

“Do the same,” she said quietly. Andrew did.

In turn, the two birds extended their feathers and bowed, then took off into the air and circled behind them. They both turned to watch them fly off as other vacationers milled about.

“How did you--” he began, looking to face her.

“A bit of practice,” she said, flashing a grin at him. “I made a lot of trips up here when I was younger with my uncle. He loved getting away from the office and being in nature whenever he could. He taught me how to attract the birds and not scare them off.”

“How, exactly?” Andrew asked her, furrowing his brow.

“Trade secret,” she said with a wink. “The birds won’t do it for just anyone. Some believe the birds only perform for those who have a strong personal connection, or are deeply in love.”

“Huh,” he said, turning to look at several of the birds perched in a nearby tree.

“Come on,” she said, letting go of his waist and pulling him by the hand. “Let’s get going. There’s still so much more to do, and the day is still young.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Maglining,” she said, continuing to pull him forward.

“Maglining?” he asked. “What’s that?”

“A lot like ziplining,” she said as they made their way towards a small structure. Once inside, he saw several staff members in orange shirts giving demonstrations or standing near large open doorways with small lines of people.

“I don’t understand, and I’ve never done either of those activities,” he said, moving along with her.

“The long and short of everything,” she said, stopping to look up at him, is that it is the fastest and funnest way to get down from here. Unless you’d rather walk down the mountain again.”

“Well … I did enjoy the view from behind on the way up the mountain as you walked ahead of me,” he began. Her expression changed to a flat but stern look of incredulity. “Maglining it is,” he said without missing a beat. “How does it work?”

Before she could respond, they were interrupted by one of the instructors.

“Well if it isn’t Miss Dia Tann,” said the instructor as he walked up to them, his hair combed back with grey wings streaking his temples. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company this fine day?”

“Heya, Charlie!” she exclaimed, giving him a quick hug. “How are you?”

“Pretty good for an old fella,” he said, flashing her a smile. “I haven’t seen you in ages. You’ve grown to become quite the woman, I see. What have you been up to since I last saw you?”

“Oh, you know, running around the galaxy with the New Republic. Trying to stay out of trouble. You know, the usual.”

“The New Republic,” he said, caught off-guard. “What are you doing with a bunch of mud-skupping hooligans like them?”

“It’s not all that bad,” she said with a small laugh. “And they’re not all mud-skuppers. The Alliance took moof-milkers and nerfherders, too. Including some of the brainless ones,” she said, wrapping an arm around and leaning up against Andrew. “Isn’t that right, dear?”

“Oh, I’m not so sure about that,” said Andrew nervously as Charlie met his gaze, eying him carefully.

“Well,” he said slowly, “any man that Dia has an interest in must be a good one to keep around.” Charlie stuck out his arm to shake Andrew’s hand. “I trust you’re taking good care of her, son?”

“Only the best,” he said, taking Charlie’s firm hand and shaking it.

“Good,” said Charlie as he pointed a finger in his face. “Because if I ever find out that you mistreat her, there won’t be a place in the galaxy safe enough for you.”

Andrew stared at the finger in front of him, fearing for his life if only slightly. He stood like that for several seconds before Charlie broke into laughter and started slapping him on the shoulder.

“I’m kidding,” he said, “it’s what I do.” Andrew laughed nervously in response. “And, hey,” Charlie said, stopping to put a firm hand on Andrew’s shoulder, “in truth, I really appreciate what you two and the New Republic are doing. It’s not perfect, but it’s a helluva lot better than what things were like under the Emperor. C’mon, let’s get you two set up.”

It took only a few minutes for him to show them how to put the harness on. Dia, having done this many times before, had no problem. Andrew, on the other hand, initially put his harness on backwards. Charlie cracked a few jokes at this, while Dia tried to stifle her laughter. Once that was sorted out, they were ready to go.

“All you need to do now is activate your mag belt,” said Charlie, flicking on the one he held in his hand. Andrew and Dia did the same. Purple ribbons of energy connected with the mag line at an angle that they were standing under. “The mag belt will be secure enough to support your weight. If for any reason it stops operating, don’t worry. Safety nets run down the mountainside to catch you.”

“Has anyone,” Andrew asked, looking at him, “ever … you know….”

“We haven’t had any belt failures for the last ten years running,” he said. “We take the utmost safety with the lines and our clients. Med crews are also on stand-by in case anything happens.”

Andrew turned to look at the steep drop in front of him. The trees below looked like spikes ready to impale someone. He could make out parts of the net below him.

“Oh, I’m not so sure about this,” he said, feeling his stomach begin to roll as he stepped up to the jump-off point.

“There’s a first time for everything, dear,” he heard Dia say as she stood up on her tiptoes behind him and kissed his cheek. “Ladies first!”

He felt her hands connect with his back, shoving him forward. Losing his balance and giving a cry of surprise, he tumbled forward and let gravity take hold. He was just able to hear Charlie begin to roar with laughter.

Watching Andrew sail downwards, Dia got ready to launch herself.

“Hey, Dia,” said Charlie, placing a hand on her shoulder as she stepped up to the launch point. “Before you go, I just wanna say that I’m really sorry to hear about your uncle. He was a real great guy. I hope they find him.”

“Thank you, Charlie,” she said, turning to rest her hand on his. “I appreciate it.” She flashed him a smile. “You should stop in and see Auntie sometime. I’m sure she’d love a visit.”

“Will do, kiddo,” he said, giving her a wink.

With that, she leapt forward and let gravity take hold. Andrew had some distance on her, but she could still hear him screaming. She, on the other hand, laughed all the way down.

It took several minutes, but Andrew was the first to reach the bottom. As his mag belt disconnected, he landed on some sort of inflatable padding that mostly broke his fall and momentum, though that didn’t stop him from tumbling forward a few metres. Dia, on the other hand, was able to hit the pad and stop herself not far from where she landed.

As Andrew lay there, bewildered, she walked over to him and broke into a fit of laughter.

“You,” she began between breaths and giggles, “should see … your face … too … funny!”

Andrew stared back up at her, not saying a word.

“Come on,” she said, bending down to grab his hands, “we need to clear the landing pad.”

“Are there any more surprises today?” he asked, leaning on her to keep his balance.

“Mmm … maybe. Who’s to say?” she said with an amused look on her face.

***

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking along the beach hand-in-hand near their rental cottage. Although tired from the day’s activities, she had convinced him to take a dip in the ocean with her. The water was warm and soothing, the breeze cool and gentle. It wasn’t until shortly around supper time that they decided to leave the ocean and head back to the apartment. As they walked up the stone path from the beach, small beach lamps lining the pathway, they could just make out BD-B2 hopping excitedly up and down from one of the window ledges inside of the house.

“Looks like someone is happy to see you,” he said tiredly, his feet and legs aching from the day’s excursions.

“I like to think happy to see us,” she said with a tired sigh.

They both stopped at the rinsing station just before the deck and took but a minute to clean the salt water and sand from their bodies before grabbing towels they had left just inside the door from the deck. BD-B2 scurried along the floor and hopped out onto the deck, buzzing and chirping with excitement.

“Hey, Bee-Two,” said Dia, reaching down to scratch the little droid underneath his head. The droid purred in affection.

“So, what now?” Andrew asked, placing the towel along the backside of a chair.

“I’m going to go change,” she said, standing up. “You’re going to raid the fridge and cupboards and cook supper.”

“Oh,” he said, his shoulders sinking. “Great. What do you want?”

“Something delicious. Like last night’s meal,” she said.

“Uh huh,” he said as she took off inside. Heading towards the kitchen, he began to tear apart the fridge and cupboards, looking for something to cook. After a few minutes he was able to gather several vegetables, fruit, herbs, butter, some rice, and what appeared to be a type of white fish from the fridge. He also found a bottle of chilled white wine that could be used for cooking or drinking. Firing up the grill, he set to work preparing the vegetables and fish. After several minutes he set these in the grill to cook, then began to prepare the rice alongside the fish sauce. It wasn’t long before the aromas began to waft throughout the house.

“Smells wonderful,” said Dia as she came down the stairs. Walking over to the stove, she wrapped her arms around him and once more stood on her tiptoes to reach around and kiss his cheek.

“I try,” he said with a smile. “I need to check the grill. Can you keep stirring this?”

“Sure,” she said, taking over for him.

As he opened the grill, he reached for the tongs and flipped the foil-wrapped items over, then closed the lid. The fish was also beginning to grill nicely. Another twenty minutes or so, and the meal would be ready. When he entered the kitchen again, Dia went for the glass cupboard and withdrew a wine glass. She was about to pour herself some of the wine when he stopped her.

“I wouldn’t do that,” he said. “You’ll ruin the flavour of the meal if you drink that now.”

“Not even a little?” she asked, the glass and wine bottle tipped at an angle, though no liquid escaping its vessel.

“Not even a little,” he said.

“Spoilsport,” she huffed, setting both the bottle and glass down. She kissed him on the cheek again before she headed outside. “This better be a good meal to make me wait on wine,” she said.

“I hope to hell it is,” he muttered to himself, squeezing juice from a lemon into the sauce mixture as she exited the room, the light curtain flapping from the breeze.

***

After retrieving the food from the grill less than half an hour later and plating it, he exited the apartment with two plates of food. Dia lay on the deck chair, her blue legs spilling partly out of her orange beach dress with white flowers that complemented her new headpiece. She also wore a necklace of ovular wooden beads. Tipping the sunglasses from her face slightly, she eyed him.

“Dinner is served, m’lady,” he said, setting the plates down at the table.

“About time,” she said, removing the sunglasses and standing up. “I’m famished.” Walking over to the table, he slid her chair out, waiting until she was just about to sit down, then pushed it in for her. “Look at you, being all chivalrous,” she said, placing her chin in her open palm, elbow leaning against the table. “Now, where’s my wine.”

“Ah, ah, not yet,” Andrew said as he took his seat. Steam rose from the two plates into the air, and the deck lights began to flicker on as the sun began to set.

“Not exactly what I want to hear,” she said, picking up her fork and digging into the fish covered in sauce and herbs. Andrew remained silent, watching her intently and holding his breath in anticipation. She moved the fork towards her mouth. “This damn well better be…,” she began as she put the fork full of food into her mouth. She stopped talking to savour the food in her mouth. “Oh my gosh,” she said, swallowing her food and digging at the fish again, “oh my gosh, this is the best fish I have ever tasted.”

Oh thank god, thought Andrew, breathing a silent sigh of relief.

“What’s your secret?” she asked.

“A true chef never reveals his secrets,” Andrew said, beginning to pick away at his meal. “You should try the vegetables and rice.”

She made to try the other foods on her plate, savouring each bite.

“My god man,” she said after several mouthfuls of food. “Why have I not known your secret talents? Why are you not part of the kitchen staff on the cruisers?!”

“It’s more of a hobby,” he said, “and I wouldn’t consider myself a master of cuisine.”

“I thoroughly disagree,” she said, reaching for her glass of cold water.

***

Having finished their meal, they enjoyed the rest of the evening on the deck. They made casual conversation, and watched as beachgoers made their way along the beach. The sun had lowered, yet still provided enough light to see, casting its shimmering shadow of orange and purples along the ocean. Sailing skiffs dotted the coastline, though many had begun to make their way back to harbor. Baterron loomed above them, its ringed cities and settlements glinting from its surface like a lesser version of Coruscant.

When it became too chilly to stay out any longer, they went inside. Leaving the dishes and cookware on the counter for later, they made their way to the living room to curl up together and talk more on the couch. Rather than use a lamp to light the room, they had opted for the synthetic fireplace to light the room. Orange flames gave light that cascaded gentle throughout the room, giving it a warm and comforting feeling.

“So you’re telling me,” said Dia between laughs, “that the Wing Commander had several pilots put on tug duty, all because of some misadventure with plushie porgs?”

“Oh yes,” said Andrew between laughs, “you should have seen the Imperials, too. They were not impressed.”

“That is too funny,” she said, wiping a tear away from her eye. “I wish that I had been there.” She reached to squeeze the hand of his arm that was draped loosely across her shoulder and chest. “I wish I could be with you.”

“And I, you,” he said, gently kissing her head. “Now,” he said, removing his arm. “I think you’ll like this next part.”

“Oh?” she said, sitting up so that he could move. Getting up, he walked into the kitchen. He opened the fridge to remove a new bottle of wine, then retrieved a wine glass from the cupboard, as well as a small rectangular box from the pantry. Bringing his treasure-trove back to the couch, Dia’s eyes lit up in delight.

“Ooh!” she exclaimed. “What do we have here?”

“A red wine, which I hope is suitable for my lady’s palate, and a box of dark chocolates. I found these while I was rummaging around earlier.”

Her face lit up with delight as he sat down next to her. “You, good sir, have definitely scored some bonus points with me. Gimmi, gimmi, gimmi!”

Using a wine screw to pop the cork out of the bottle, he poured the red wine into the glass as she tore the box of chocolates open. She popped the first chocolate into her mouth, savouring the taste. As he finished pouring the wine, he handed her the glass, which she eagerly brought to her lips. As the wine combined with the chocolate, she let out a moan of pleasure.

“Now this,” she said with her mouth partially full, “is bliss.”

“I thought you might like it,” he said as she took a gulp this time from the glass of wine. “Though you might want to slow down.”

“But it’s so good!” she said, pouting.

“Yes, I know,” he said, taking her arm playfully. She, instead, shifted her wine glass to the other hand. “But too much too soon will make you tipsy.”

“Spoilsport,” she sighed, taking a chocolate from the box and popping it playfully into his mouth.

Half a box of chocolates later, she was already part-way through her second glass of wine.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, eying her.

“A little tipsy,” she said, “but nothing I can’t handle.” Immediately afterwards, a small hiccup escaped from her mouth. “Oh my!” she exclaimed as she covered her mouth with an open palm, slightly embarrassed.

“Told you to pace yourself,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah,” she said as he took another sip from the wine glass.

Chapter 7

[Day 3]

He awoke to the sound of chirping. And something poking at him. BD-B2 stood on his pillow, poking him in the face.

“Alright,” Andrew mumbled into his pillow. “Alright, I’m awake.” It took three more pokes from the droid before he rolled over and tried to swat the little droid, though he missed by a mile. The droid tittered and scurried off the bed and out the door. Looking out the window, he could see the sun was in the throes of rising for the day. Checking his chronometer, the time read just after 6:30 in the morning.

“Kriffing droid,” he mumbled, rubbing his eyes. Fumbling for the bath robe he had found the previous day, he wrapped it around himself and made his way for the bathroom.

As he checked his appearance in the mirror, the light blinded him until was able to focus. He had bags under his eyes despite having somehow slept for several hours. He sighed, and grabbed a cup from the counter to take a quick drink of water from the tap. As the water ran, he could make out the sound of bare footsteps making their way into the room. Dia appeared, with a switched-off BD-B2 in her hands.

“For once,” she mumbled as she entered the room, “I want to disassemble the little bugger.” She reached for the light switch and flicked it off, most likely because the bright lights were hurting her eyes, and then tossed the droid onto the top of the hamper just inside the door.

“Good morning,” he said quietly, turning to meet her. There was just enough light spilling in from the hallway that he could see her. She, too, had her bathrobe on, though loosely. Burying her head into his chest, she wrapped her arms around him. He held her, neither one of them moving.

“My kriffing head,” she said tiredly after a few seconds. “How much did I have to drink last night?”

“A glass-and-a-half,” he said, kissing her head. “After that, who knows?”

“Oh. Right,” she said, then heaved a sigh of exhaustion. “Did you enjoy last night?”

“I think we both did,” he said, squeezing her.

“Good,” she mumbled. “If I wasn’t so hung-over and exhausted, I would pull you into that shower right now,” she said, turning her head to the side and squeezing him harder. “But I’m going to take some medicine and go back to bed. Don’t wake me until breakfast is ready.”

“Why do I have to do all the cooking?” he asked her.

“Because,” she said, stepping back to look at him. “You’re so kriffing wonderful at it. And I’m going to need a kriffing wonderful breakfast to get through today.”

“Alright,” he said, rubbing her arms. “I’ll see what I can do. Just give me time to get ready.”

“Cool,” she said, giving him a kiss. She then reached beside him to open a drawer and pulled out a bottle of headache medicine. “I’ll be down later.”

With that, she left the room.

Half-an-hour later he was dressed and made his way downstairs, more alert from the shower but still groggy.

He surveyed the living room. The box of chocolates was empty, as was the wine glass she had been using to drink from. The wine bottle was, in fact, empty as well. He found that laying on its side next to the coffee table, along with her beach orange beach dress.

Rummaging around the kitchen, trying to not make too much noise, he scrounged up what he could for breakfast. He was able to find some eggs and cheese -- a cheddar of some sort -- to make scrambled eggs with. That, combined with some oatmeal, still-fresh fruit, and bacon made the main dish of their breakfast. He was also able to brew up some good-quality caff to go along with the meal. Setting the table, he added the dirty cookware to the growing pile from the night before. He thought about going up to get her, but decided against it. She did need some solid sleep after last night.

Instead, he sat down on the couch, intending to close his eyes for just a few minutes. To his surprise, she was the one standing over him an hour later as he lay curled up on the couch. This time she was wearing a white floral sundress with an array of sunflowers on it.

“Good morning, sleepyhead,” she said, gently rubbing his cheek and hair.

“Ohmigosh,” he said, sitting up. “What time is it?”

“Still early. I put the food in the re-heater. Come, eat.”

The sun spilled in through the kitchen window and glass door to the deck, providing further warmth to the kitchen. The food wasn’t as fresh as he would have liked, but there were no complaints from her. They mostly ate in silence, save for her praise of the meal and caff. Then came the dishes, which they worked through quickly together.

“Okay,” he said as he put the last plate away. “What’s the agenda for today?”

“Today is the first day of the cruise ship, so we’ll need to be ready to leave by ten. Boarding begins at ten-thirty. We can call a shuttle cab, which will take us to the main dock. You’re easy to pack for, but I’ll need help.”

“We’re going on a cruise for a few days,” he said. “How much could you possibly need?”

“Let’s see: I need some everyday clothing. Then some beachwear for tanning and possibly the pool if it isn’t too crowded. Then there’s clothing for dancing, clothing in case it gets cold. Oh, and clothing for the Contessa’s Cup race.”

“How could I forget?” he said, shrugging.

“Then there’s my shoes, make-up, and anything ancillary that I think I need to bring.”

“Dia,” he said, walking over to her and rubbing her bare arms, “we’re going on a cruise. Not a military campaign.”

“On the contrary,” she said, poking him pointedly in the chest with a finger. “We’re going on a cruise, and it’s a jungle out there. A lady needs to be prepared for every scenario.”

“Of course,” he said with a sigh. “How could I forget?”

***

A little over an hour later they found themselves down at the loading docks. Andrew and the butler droid that came with the ferrying service struggled to drag the several suitcases that Dia and he had packed, while she moved ahead in her dress, carrying nothing but her white purse. And, he had discovered, the executive membership card that that woman had given him days prior.

As they boarded the transport, several passengers gave them looks as they carried and stored the bags in the compartments.

Taking their seats, they waited only a few more minutes before the shuttle lifted off and took them to their destination.

With the cruise ship not being overly far from the port, it wasn’t long before they hand landed in the main hangar at the rear of the ship. The hangar was almost large enough to rival a Mon Calamari cruiser. Several other transports were landing or taking off, and rows of crates full of supplies lined the hanger while the work crew scurried to and fro, making preparations or retrieving what they needed. On the far end of the hangar sat several starfighter models, which were a mix of T-wings, R-41 Starchasers, and Z-95 Headhunters. Maintenance crews were working on them, while several racing circuit pilots either worked with their crews or gave orders. He also happened to notice two identical ships that were designed for what must have been top-tier racing.

“Woah,” Andrew said, stopping to look at the two pristine racers. “Are those Vaught-Krynex F8A Corsair racers?”

“Sure are,” Dia said, pointing to the red-colored bodies of the ships. He let out a low whistle.

“Someone’s got some credits. Any idea which ones we’ll get?” Andrew asked as he continued pushing their luggage on an air cart across the hangar.

“New and first-time racers typically get the Z-95s, while the senior racers get the other ships depending on their skill and ability,” she said.

“Then it’s a good thing the layout for the Z-95 is similar to an X-wing,” he said, “otherwise we might have a literal crash course in how to fly them.”

She gave him an incredulous smile at his joke.

“What?” he said as they entered the elevator.

***

After some maneuvering the throngs of cruiser goers moving up and down the deck hallways, they were finally able to find their room.

“This is the guest suite?” he asked, his jaw dropping at how spacious and glamorous the room was.

“Oh, this is nothing compared to the patron suites,” she said, tossing her sun hat onto the nearest queen-sized bed. She then began to unpack the first of her suitcases, hanging the dresses she had brought into the walk-in closet on the other side of the room.

“We could live here,” he said, running his hand over the smooth and ornately designed chairs near the dining table.

“You’d be out of credits within the month,” she said, flashing a smile from the closet. In her hand was the gold-colored executive membership card. “And I don’t think you would want to burn through this either to do so.”

“No,” he said, pacing around the room to admire the layout and the rest of the furniture. His eye caught an envelope with cursive writing addressed to the both of them that was nestled into the stand by the holovid display. He flipped it over to see a burgundy wax seal had sealed the backside. The seal had an intricately designed coat of arms with a large ‘C’ in the center. His curiosity got the better of him, and he cracked the seal to open the envelope. Inside was a small note, and two tickets.

“What’s that?” she asked as she exited the walk-in closet.

“A letter of some kind,” he said, pulling out the contents. He handed her the note, then began to look at the tickets. “I don’t believe it,” he said, his mouth falling open.

“What?” she asked, looking up from the letter.

“They’re two tickets to tomorrow night’s show.”

“Well, that explains this note,” she said, reading it aloud.

My Dearest Dia, Please enjoy these two tickets on my behalf for the show tomorrow evening. You and a friend are certainly going to be entertained for a wonderful evening. See you soon, Auntie

“Ugh,” she said, wrinkling her nose, “I bet it’s a musical number, isn’t it?”

“Not just any musical number or show,” he said, excitement beaming from his face. “These are tickets to see The Pirates of Merchance by Gilbert and Mulligan, put on by none other than the Royal Duchess’s Acting Society!”

“So?” she asked, shrugging.

“You don’t get it, do you?” he said. “The Pirates of Merchance is a classic. A swashbuckling tale like no other, with a plot twist so great you’d never think of it. It is next to impossible to get tickets, let alone tickets for a performance from the RDAS. I know all the songs off by heart.” He took in a deep breath, changing his stance to put his left foot out in front of him. He put his right hand on his waist, while extending his left arm outwards and upwards. “When I was a lad in the Queen’s navy,” he began. He immediately felt Dia’s index finger press against his lips, stopping him from singing further.

“No,” she said earnestly. “No, this is not happening. You are not singing.”

“But I,” he began.

“No,” she said once more. Then, he did something not even he expected he would do. He got down on his knees and began to beg.

“Please, can we go?” he asked, cupping his hands together. “I don’t ask for much, and it would be the highlight of this trip. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.” He watched as she looked down at him, clearly unimpressed. Then, he said the words which he would most likely later regret. “I’ll do anything you want if we can go.”

She cocked an eyebrow in interest. “Anything?” she asked, an amused smile creeping across her face.

He realized then that he had backed himself into a corner in his excitement.

“Well,” he began.

“Oh no,” she said, reaching down and gently taking hold of his shirt collar. She pulled him up, and close enough to meet her face. “You said ‘anything’ to see the show. And I dislike musicals greatly. So,” she said cooly, flashing the gold executive card between them. “After this afternoon’s race, you’re going to use this to book a reservation at the private dining establishment on board. Then you’re going to take me dancing. After that, you’re going to rub my feet.” He looked at her, realizing the web that she was weaving and beginning to regret saying ‘anything’. “And,” she said slowly, “that’s just the beginning.”

“Yes, dear,” he said, slowly nodding his head in understanding.

“Good boy,” she said, letting go of his collar and gently tapping his cheek twice. “You can also unpack the rest of the suitcases.” She tossed him the gold executive membership card, which he caught easily.

“Where are you going?” he asked as she moved around him to retrieve her hat and headed for the door.

“To get some sun, of course,” she said, and the door closed behind her.

Turning to stare at the pile of luggage, he knew he had his work cut out for him.

Chapter 8

The cruise ship was well underway by the time he had finished putting their clothing and other necessities away. It had taken some time, too, to navigate the ship map so he could find the major locations, not to mention the dining and booking areas. Each deck had a similar layout structurally, but contained different loadouts. Some were for maintenance, a dozen others were for passengers, while others still were for shopping, dining, games, or luxury activities -- not to mention spaces for the hangar, engine rooms, the kitchens, crew quarters, security, bridge, the casino, and security. There was even a small brig, presumably for rowdy patrons, or those who may have had one too many beverages to drink.

When he returned to the suite, Dia was waiting. Sprawled out on one of the beds, she was flipping through the events schedule.

“Good,” she said, looking up as he came through the door. “You’re back.”

“I am,” he said, closing the door behind him. “Enjoy the sun?”

“Very much so,” she said, tossing the data pad aside. “We should get changed. Hit up the buffet, then make our way to the hangar for racing practice and maintenance.”

They changed, separately, into clothing that was more appropriate for blending in with the crowd of cruise goers, like regular people. While the buffet line was long, they were able to make their way in and out quickly, filling their plates with pre-cooked food and wraps. The food wasn’t half-bad, but he could cook better. Then again, when one was cooking for an entire ship of people, quality wasn’t necessarily your primary focus.

After that, they made their way down to the hangar where they were greeted by the flight crews and primary race organizer. She introduced herself as ‘Skippy’, and gave them a rundown of the ships and the race rules and regulations.

“Any chance we can get a test-flight for the racing course?” he asked at the end of the briefing.

“Not until before the race during the warm-up period,” she said as they sat in her office. “I can give you a blueprint of the racing circuit -- it’s made available to all the racers before each race -- to study. But we won’t be arriving at the destination for another hour.”

“That’s fair,” said Dia. “What about flight suits and protection?”

“Everything will be provided. You can suit up now, if you’d like, and wait in the racers’ lounge until it is time to launch.”

“Peachy,” Dia said as she stood up. Andrew followed her and the race organizer out of the office. They were led into a room full of lockers. A handful of other racers, male and female, human and alien alike, were in the middle of getting changed.

“Heya, Chief,” said a male Duros, thumbing a hand towards Andrew and Dia as they entered the room. “Where’d you pick up these two mud-skuppers?”

“Mud-skuppers?” spat Dia. Andrew reached behind him and gently placed his hand on her arm, signalling to cool her jets.

“Easy, Ledwin,” said the race organizer. “I’d like to introduce to you all some late entrants into our race. This is Andrew and Dia. They’re pilots with the New Republic … and veterans of the Battle of Endor.”

The room fell silent as all eyes fell on Andrew and Dia. There was an uncomfortable silence as the racing pilots began exchanging glances with one another. A green-skinned female Rodian moved up next to Ledwin.

“Endor, you say?” said Ledwin, breaking the silence and zipping up his flight suit. Stepping forward, he reached out a hand to offer a handshake. “Sorry for my off-hand comment earlier. We wouldn’t be able to race here or on the other circuits if it wasn’t for brave folks such as yourself.” Andrew took hold of Ledwin’s hand in return, as did Dia, who eyed him cooly.

“Uh, you’re welcome,” said Andrew. “But I’m not sure I understand.”

“It all came down to a matter of race and ethnicity when the Empire was in charge,” said the female Rodian from behind Ledwin.

“Ah, where are my manners?” said Ledwin, turning to motion for her to come forward. “This is Imzi, my number two. Why don’t we let you get suited up first, and we can discuss racing after?”

Ledwin showed them to their lockers. Each locker contained a flight suit not dissimilar to those that the New Republic used. The helmets were knock-off A-wing helmet types, though the life support system was fairly standard. It didn’t take long for them to get suited up and make their way for the racing lounge.

“What exactly did the Empire do here?” asked Dia as they sat down at a circular table several minutes later.

Imzi was the first to speak. “A few years ago, the Empire outlawed aliens from the racing circuits. Wanted to promote a human-based breed of racers to win the challenges -- all from Imperial worlds, of course,” she said. “Ledwin and I had to stick to the lesser racing circuits, saving what winnings we could in hopes of making it big.”

“It wasn’t easy,” said Ledwin, shaking his head. “But after Endor, with the Empire in chaos, the rules changed. We could finally move up to the more challenging races as of a month ago.” He turned to smile at Imzi. “It wasn’t easy, and there were times when things were really lean. But racing here is our next big step to making it on into the racing circuit on Baterron.”

Andrew sat back in his chair, folding his arms across his chest.

“So, how much do you need to win?” he asked.

“First place would do it,” said Ledwin, taking a drink from his glass. “But the best we’ve ever finished is third.”

“How does the prize money scale?” Andrew asked.

“First place, as you know dear, is ten-thousand credits,” said Dia. “It scales downwards from there. Second is seventy-five hundred, third is five-thousand. There are some lesser prizes below that.”

“Yeah,” said Imzi. “But with maintenance and crew costs, not to mention living costs, things have been tight. We’re lucky to have made it this far.”

“So clearly, winning is in your best interests,” said Andrew. “What happens if you place below third?”

Ledwin shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “Third would help us break even. Allow us to compete in the next race in two days on Eudora. If we win that, it gives us an entry position for the racing circuit on Baterron.”

“Placing below third,” said Imzi apprehensively, “would be bad.”

“How bad?” Andrew asked.

“We’d,” said Imzi, looking at Ledwin, “have to give up racing. And sell our ships.”

Dia leaned forward, looking at them intently. “You’re all-in on this, aren’t you?” she asked.

They both nodded.

“What are you thinking?” she asked, her voice rising slightly. “Not even this nerfherder of mine would make a mistake like that!”

“Hey,” said Andrew, shooting her a look. He was many things. A nerfherder was not one of them.

“I know,” said Ledwin. “But it’s our best shot unless….” He trailed off, looking over Andrew’s shoulder. Giving Ledwin a puzzled look, Andrew and Dia turned to see what he had noticed. Two new racers had entered the room. They were Palliduvan females, both dressed in crimson flight suits with patches of sponsors stitched onto their arms and flight vests. Both had their red hair tied back into ponytails with green hair bands. Judging from the spitting image of both of them, Andrew figured that they were twins. “Oh no,” Ledwin said.

“Who are they?” asked Dia, turning back to look at Ledwin and Imzi.

“They’re the Red Angel sisters,” said Imzi, her shoulders sinking slightly. “They’re the best racing team this side of the galaxy. With their Vaught-Krynex F8A Corsairs, they win first pretty well every time.”

“They have big sponsors to boot. And usually collect the bonus prizes, too,” said Ledwin, finishing his drink. “No way we can compete with them.”

“They shouldn’t even be in this race,” said Imzi sadly. “It’s just pocket-change for them.”

Andrew turned to look at Dia, who gave him a thoughtful look.

“Bonus prizes?” she asked, shifting her gaze back to Ledwin.

Ledwin, in turn, slouched forward and propped himself up with a closed fist.

“Not all races have them,” he said, using his free hand to run a finger around the rim of his cup. “But the important ones do. This year’s race has the Solari Star as a bonus prize.”

“Solari?” asked Dia. “I’ve heard that name.”

“Yeah,” said Imzi. “Korwin Solari. Head of Solari Enterprises, and the richest man in the star system. He typically funds a number of races, events, and charities. Only the Contessa is second in wealth to him. Nobody has won the Solari Star for the last four years running.”

“How come?” Andrew asked with a puzzled look.

Imzi threw a holo puck on the table. The race course flashed to life.

“After the main race,” she said as the hologram quickly moved through the main thoroughfare, “racers have a chance to continue on to the bonus award location. In this case, Star Island.” The hologram stopped at an island that was, more or less, the shape of a five-pointed star. At each point was a cliff outcropping with a hole large enough for a starfighter to easily fly through. “The final ring beacon is nestled in the center of the island. This ring is protected by an energy shield, which can only be brought down if you successfully cross through each set of sensors from the cliff outcroppings.”

“Let me guess,” Andrew said. “There’s more to it than that, isn’t there?”

“Sure is,” said Ledwin. “The entire island has ion cannon and mine defenses. Get hit enough, and you crash -- possibly fatally. To win the Solari Star, you also have to pass through the final ring on top of the mountain on the center island within fifteen seconds of clearing the final ring. If you don’t, the shield goes back up, and nobody wins.”

“Sounds risky if you ask me,” said Dia. “And illegal.”

“It should be,” said Ledwin, “but the crowds have an appetite for it. Many have tried over the last four years to claim the prize; none have succeeded. Some fatally so.”

“The real kicker is that the credit pot grows each year,” said Imzi.

“How much is it this year?” Andrew asked.

Imzi looked at them both intently. “It’s grown to twenty-thousand credits.”

Both Andrew and Dia’s jaws dropped.

“Twenty-thousand?” Dia asked in disbelief.

Imzi nodded her head.

“First place is the easier win, especially for recognition. But if we could even win that bonus prize, the credits alone would settle all our debts, and then some.”

“Which is why we’ll be the ones to win it,” said one of the Red Angels standing at the bar counter. She turned around, drink in hand, and leaned back against the counter, clearly not impressed by whom she was looking at. Her sister did the same. “Why don’t you moof-milkers stick to what you’re good at?”

Ledwin let out a low growl and clench his fists, then twisted to face them.

“Why don't hotshots like you kriff off and race against someone in your own class?”

“Tough talk coming from a dirtball Duros such as yourself,” said the second sister. Ledwin was about to jump up from his seat when Imzi stopped him. The second sister gave a laugh, and smirked as she took a drink from her mug.

“Whaddya say we put those two in their places?” Andrew muttered to Dia as he leaned in close to her.

“It’d be my pleasure,” she said, cracking her knuckles underneath the table.

“Attention racers!” came a voice over the comm. “Track warm-up begins in ten minutes. Report to your craft. Repeat, all racers report to your craft.”

The Red Angels blew the four of them an insulting kiss, then began to file out of the room with the rest of the racers.

As Andrew and Dia made their way to their Z-95s, she kept pace with him.

“We should let them win, if possible,” she said loudly enough so that only he would hear.

“We can, if it comes to that,” he said, stopping her. “But we should also help them win the bonus prize if we can.”

“You’d rather win the money than help them?”

He stopped her, then stepped in front to face her.

“The way I see it, there’s no reason why we can’t win the prize money if we want to. But if it comes down to it, we can help them win that bonus money.”

“It’s suicide,” she said.

“So is attacking a Star Destroyer. We’ve been through worse.”

“I hope you’re right,” she said, turning to move towards the ladder to her Z-95. Grabbing onto the metal bars of the ladder and placing a foot on the first rung, she gave him one final look. “Because if you’re not, you’ll have many more favours to do for me before we depart this moon.”

Chapter 9

Contessa Suli deChenzzi sat in her shaded seat on board the SS Seahorse. She had a perfect view of the race about to take place. A handful of waiters and waitresses moved about the deck below her, serving the patrons who had also paid handsome credits to take the cruise and enjoy the special privileges afforded to them. Her personal assistant sat to her right, scrolling through reports on a datapad that had been coming in all morning. Most of them could wait, but there were a few that may need her attention should the need arise.

Behind her, two security guards stood watch by the stairwell, screening the guests that were also making their way up to their private seats. She also heard the distinct sound of Miguel’s boots as he padded his way towards her.

“Really, Miguel,” she asked with a slightly irritated voice as he stopped in front of her, “is all this security necessary?”

“If it were up to me, madam, yes.”

She was about to respond to him when she saw Korwin Solari exit from his private seating location and make his way towards her. Miguel noticed him as well, and turned to face her again.

“Security can also be used to keep snakes where they belong.”

“That will be all, Miguel. Take your staff and wait at the bottom of the stairs.”

Miguel gave a final disapproving glance at Solari, who had grown closer, and made his way towards the stairs.

“Seela, dear,” she said, turning to her assistant. “I’m feeling a bit parched. Would you mind fetching me something to drink? A fruit cocktail with extra ice will do.”

“Right away, ma’am,” said her assistant, moving out of her seat and down towards the stairwell.

“Hello, Korwin,” she said, looking up at him from her seat. She tipped her shades down slightly to get a better look at him. “To what do I owe this … pleasure?”

“The pleasure is all mine, my dear Suli,” he said, taking the seat her assistant had been occupying, and shifted to face her. He was dressed in an all-white suit with a peach tie that disappeared into his peach vest. A yellow rose sat nestled into his breast pocket. He flashed her a roguish smile, which would have charmed almost any woman. “I must say, you look particularly lovely on this sunny afternoon.”

Removing her sunglasses and folding them in her hands, she flashed him a coy smile.

“Flattery will get you nowhere today, Korwin. Do you wish to have yet another discussion about a business proposition? Or are you here for something more?”

She watched as he gave a small laugh, looked down, then back up to her.

“Before a race begins?” he asked, giving a sigh and adjusting himself to sit back in his seat, his arms on the arm rests. “That would be in poor taste of such an exciting event to start the first day of our cruise together. I merely wished to, as you might say, pop in and say hello. It’s been some time since we’ve seen one another.”

“Not long enough,” she said coolly.

He paused long enough to give a conciliatory nod of his head, then turned to look back at her.

“Please, my dear Suli, can we not put aside our differences for today?”

She watched as the starfighters that had been modified into racers made their final approach to the docking module that rose out of the water. The last two craft, which were Z-95s, connected with their docking arms and shut their engines off, awaiting the instructions to launch.

“Alright, Korwin,” she said, looking back at him. “If you want to play nice, I can too. I’ll ask again -- to what do I owe this pleasure?”

Solari gave a small sigh. “To simply ask if I’ll see you at tonight’s dinner gala. I hear that the menu this year will be quite exquisite. Perhaps I might even steal a dance or two?”

She gave a soft chuckle. “For the price of the food, it had better be to everyone’s liking. And you know,” she said as Seela returned with her drink, “that anyone who wishes to dance with me needs to earn it.” Unfolding her sunglasses, she placed them back on her face, then took the drink from Seela’s hands. She took a sip from the drink, the ice-cold beverage delivering an explosion of flavour to her tongue.

“Then I hope,” Solari said, standing up to button his jacket in the front, “that I earn the pleasure of having a dance with you this evening. Enjoy the race.”

As he turned to leave, she withdrew the straw from her lips.

“Korwin,” she called. He stopped, and turned around to look at her once more. “How about a little wager?”

He eyed her thoughtfully. “What did you have in mind?”

“Nothing complicated, really. Who do you think will win the race today?”

“Before I give you my answer, I must ask what the wager will be,” he said.

“Ah ah,” she said, “answer my question first.”

He paused for a moment before responding, studying her. “Why, the Red Angels of course. Their Corsair-class racers are the fastest ones in the race.”

“You sound so certain.”

“I am,” he said coolly. “They win every race they fly in.”

“Almost every race,” she countered. She took another sip of her drink, then met his gaze through her sunglasses. “I wager that those two new entrants in the race will be the winners.”

He turned to glance at the Z-95s in the docking arms.

“Those old clunkers?” he asked amusedly. “That is an interesting wager indeed. And what, if I might ask, are we wagering for?”

“If your Red Angels win, I’ll allow you to dine with me at my private table this evening,” she said, taking another sip of her drink. “And if I win … I want that yellow rose you’re wearing.”

He looked down at the yellow rose, then back at her.

“A strange wager,” he said, stepping forward. “But one I can agree to.” He extended his hand, which she took and gave a firm handshake to. As she let go, he gave a little bow. “Enjoy the show,” he said, then left to return to his own booth.

“Is everything alright, ma’am?” asked Seela as she sat back down.

“Yes, Seela dear,” she said. “I think everything will be just fine.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, beings of all ages,” boomed a voice over the speaker system across the ship. “The crew of the SS Starfish would like to welcome you aboard for the first day of our famous cruise. To celebrate all of our esteemed guests, you are invited to watch the racers of the Contessa’s Cup, the premier race of the Starfire Circuit.”

Cheers and claps rose from among the patrons below her.

“Before we begin, we’d like to introduce you to our racers before they speed away to earn the top prize of ten-thousand credits. In first and second place are the sector-famous twin sister duo, the Rrrrreeeeed Angeeelllllsss!”

The faces and impressive stats of the sisters appeared on the holo projectors around the ship. A roar of cheers could be heard from all corners of the ship, clearly indicating that they were a fan favourite. The announcer continued to go through the roster of pilots and their seconds while the stats flashed across the holo projectors.

“In ninth and tenth place, we have fan-favourites Ledwin Kes and Imzi Noan.” A few cheers rose up from below, though not nearly as many as the previous racers. “And in eleventh and twelfth place we have some last-minute entries.” Murmurs rose from the crowd below. Suli couldn’t help but feel a wave of uneasiness wash over her, though she tried to stay focused on the announcer. “All the way from the New Republic navy and serving aboard the CRS Vigilant, Major Andrew Dobson and Captain Diaaaaa Taannn!”

As their profile pictures flashed onto the holo vids, claps arose from a handful of patrons below. Clearly there was little enthusiasm for newcomers, especially those who were serving in the military.

“We’d also like to remind our patrons,” continued the announcer, “that should any of the racers decide to pursue the Solari Star after the race has finished, the prize this year is twenty-thousand credits.” A ripple of excitement and gasps ran through the patrons below, and the crowds that had gathered along the deck railings of the ship. “And with that,” continued the announcer, “we’ll get underway. Racers -- start your engines!”

As the engines on the racing crafts flickered to life, Suli sat back in her seat and took another sip of her drink, her free hand firmly gripping the arm of her chair. Anything could happen in this race. She only hoped that it wouldn’t be deadly.

***

Andrew sat in the cockpit of his Z-95, systems reading green. He waited tensely for the lights ahead of him to turn green, anticipating the drop his craft would make when the arms let go of his racer’s frame. To his left was Dia, who gave him a nod and a thumbs up. Past her he could just make out Imzi in the cockpit of her T-wing, looking nervous and tense.

“Racers, on your marks,” came the voice over the intercom. The lights remained red on the signal device. “Get set.” They slid to a yellow color. “Go!” As the lights turned green, the docking clamps began to release their ships. “And they’re off!”

All except Andrew’s.

“What the kriffing--?” he began.

As the other racers dropped several meters below, their engines ignited to full. Dia shot ahead, leaving him sitting there in his docking clamps. Then, without warning, they released. His stomach lurched as he was unprepared for the late release. Shooting an arm out, he engaged his throttle, and his Z-95 accelerated. He was in last place.

“Great way to start the race,” he mumbled as he chased after his opponents.

“Do try to keep up, dear,” said Dia as she overtook Imzi’s T-wing.

“Yeah, yeah,” he replied, shifting more power to his engines. As his craft picked up speed, the group began to approach the first ring. They mostly passed through it in order of release, save for a few who had managed to slide ahead of their opponents.

***

Aboard the SS Starfish, the crowd cheered as the announcer gave play-by-play calls.

“And in first and second place respectively are the Red Angels!” he called as a roar of applause rose up from the crowd. “Bin Kin-Moor and Hakari Onaka take third and fourth,” he went on until he reached the end. “And it’s Imzi Noan and Andrew Dobson in eleventh and twelfth place. They’ll really have to up their game if they want to win this race!”

***

As he spun through the second ring and cut to the right, Andrew glanced at his engine meter. He was building up enough energy that he could perform a drift or two if needed, or accelerate his speed to close the distance between some of the other racers. A few in front had, in fact, decided to do so before they got to the third ring. Two racers nearly collided as they went through, but managed to somehow avoid each other as they made a sharp turn left towards the fourth ring.

***

“Ooh!” called the announcer. “A near-collision there, folks, but things are rapidly changing for the racers. The Red Angels still maintain the lead; Onaka is in third; Dia Tann has just taken seventh place!”

***

“Can’t you go any faster?” Dia called over the comm to Andrew.

“You don’t think I’m trying?” he shot back as he did a barrel roll with the other racers and cleared the fourth ring. As soon as he did, he hit his boost. His Z-95 surged forward, and he overtook Noan. Ledwin was ahead of him now, and Andrew pulled up beside him. He shot a quick glance over at Ledwin, who was trying to gauge the distance ahead while keeping Andrew in his sights.

“Pull back,” he heard Ledwin say over the headset. “We both won’t make it through.”

Sure enough, the sixth ring was quickly approaching -- and it was much smaller than the other ones.

As the racers began to line up and fly through one-by-one, Andrew glanced behind him to see Imzi hot on Ledwin’s tail. If he pulled back, he’d lose two spots of lead; but if he didn’t, he would fatally risk his life and Ledwin’s.

Cutting his throttle slightly, he let his Z-95 fall back behind Imzi’s T-wing. Unlike Imzi and Ledwin, however, he had been watching the racers ahead more carefully, and had noticed them begin to dive down as they cleared the ring.

He flipped his craft over one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. As soon as he entered the ring, he put full power to his engines, pulled the stick back as hard as he could, and engaged his boost once more. He shot past Imzi and Ledwin, and managed to get past another race before his boost ran out. He was nearly behind Dia at this point.

“About time you showed up,” she said to him.

“Figured I shouldn’t keep you waiting any longer,” he said as they leveled their crafts out.

***

“I don’t believe it!” cried the announcer over the loudspeakers. “Dobson takes eighth place with an incredible maneuver!” Cheers and gasps rose up from the crowd, as well as some applause.

***

Korwin Solari watched with great interest from his seat. There were only a few more rings to go before the first lap would be complete. The Red Angels were still poised to win, and easily held a lead from the others. Still, with how some of the other racers were performing, he wanted to secure a win. He leaned over to his attendant, and whispered a set of instructions. His attendant nodded, and she left to make her way to the stairwell. The Contessa took note of her as she left, then refocused her attention on the race.

***

“Ninth ring coming up,” said Dia as they leveled themselves off once more. “Get ready to break left as soon as we pass. If we boost, we can gain some distance on sixth and seventh place.”

“Copy that,” said Andrew, his military training kicking into gear. As they cleared the ninth ring, they cut their craft left and hit their boosts in tandem, closing the distance between the pair ahead of them. “Fall in behind them; let’s ride their slipstream until we pass the next ring.”

“You read my mind,” Dia said as they slipped in behind the two racers. It was smooth sailing through the tenth ring, which afforded them the ability to easily slip ahead of the two racers they were pursuing. To their surprise, Ledwin and Imzi had managed to stay on Andrew’s tail.

“Don’t think you can leave us behind,” he heard Ledwin say as the two T-wings slid in behind them. As they passed through the tenth ring, Imzi’s T-wing shot past them all rather quickly, and fell into the lead ahead of Dia. She had clearly been saving most of her boost, using the T-wing’s natural speed to take up most of the race until now.

“You snooze, you lose,” they heard Imzi say smugly over the radio.

“So that’s how you wanna play, is it?” Dia said. “Remember, it takes two to tango!”

Dia flipped her Z-95 into a roll and shot forward with a boost, sliding in front of Imzi to enter the eleventh ring ahead of them.

“Showoff,” Andrew said with a smirk as they began to clear the eleventh ring.

As the racers leveled off once more, they began their approach to the twelfth and final ring. After that, it would only be two more laps through the same circuit. The racers ahead were just about to pass through the twelfth ring when the lights activated on it. A swirl of energy shot forward, producing a ribbon of energy that spiraled forward. The Red Angels were able to anticipate the sudden change quickly and maneuvered to match the spiral shape of the energy field.

The R-41 Starchaser behind them wasn’t so lucky.

One if its wings clipped the energy beam, shredding it to pieces. As the craft slid to its side due to the impact, its nose struck another part of the energy beam. The craft spun out of control, smoke and flames protruding from its body, and hit the ocean below in a splash of water. The racers behind it broke off all together, forced to loop around to the rear of the racing line.

“Everyone barrel roll, now!” barked Dia as she put her Z-95 into a spin, narrowly threading the ribbon of energy. Miraculously, they all cleared it.

“What the kriff was that?” Andrew asked as he finished his corkscrew. The second lap had begun.

“Someone’s activated the advanced flying concourse,” Ledwin said through gritted teeth over the comm. Ahead, more and more rings began to activate. “The organizers need to stop the race!”

Starfish Bridge, this is Red Angel One,” came a new voice over the comm. “Request you stop the race immediately. Repeat, stop the race immediately.”

Static filled the airwaves.

“They’re not responding,” said another pilot. “What do we do?”

“The only thing we can do,” said Red Angel Two as they approached the second ring and its energy ribbon. “Race.”

***

Suli deChenzzi leapt out of her seat as a second racer clipped part of a ring and its energy ribbon. She grabbed the metal handrail in front of her, watching as the racer spun out of control and hit the water.

“No,” she said to herself. “This can’t be happening. Shouldn’t be happening.” Whipping around to look at her assistant, a look of horror on her face as well, she began giving orders. “Steela! Contact the bridge. Tell them to shut the race down. Shut it down now before anyone else gets hurt!”

Steela leapt out of her seat, comm unit in hand, and tried several times to connect with the bridge.

“I can’t, ma’am,” she said, her eyes wide. “Someone is jamming the signal.”

“Then get going, girl! Run to the bridge if you have to. I want this race stopped. And dispatch all the medical teams!” she called as Seela bolted towards the stairwell.

Turning her gaze to Korwin Solari, she noticed that his assistant had returned and was handing him a drink. She watched as Korwin met her gaze, and could just make out a faint smile on his face. He sat with one leg crossed on top of the other, raised his glass and nodded an acknowledgement to her. As she heard another explosion, she turned to see one of the T-wings spinning towards the water. Turning back to Korwin, she swore she saw him feign surprise and shock as the craft hit the water. As the crowd reacted in excitement and horror, Suli gripped the railing until her knuckles turned white, a knot of dread and disgust rising in her stomach and chest.

Someone had to put a stop to this madness before it was too late.

***

“Imzi!” Ledwin cried as he watched her T-wing spin downwards and into the water.

“She’s okay!” Andrew called as leveled off his craft and looked down to where she had landed. The canopy was opening, Imzi bailing out and swimming away from her craft. Rescue ships had begun to fly out to collect the crashed racers and their pilots. “She got clear.” He heard Ledwin give a sigh of relief.

As they approached the next ring, the energy ribbon would force them to pick a side. If they went left, they’d be on the inside track. But if they went right, it would put them on the outside curve, ultimately causing them to fall behind the others.

“Left,” called Dia. “Go left!” They did so, keeping pace with the other racers but giving each other enough room to maneuver.

“No prize money is worth this madness,” called another racer over the comm. “I’m dropping out.” Two others agreed, and the three racers broke off and made their way back to the hangar of the cruise ship.

“How many more rings?” asked Andrew as he did a somersault with his craft as he cleared the left turn.

“Two more to go,” said Dia.

“Any idea what circuit three involves, Ledwin?” Andrew asked.

“What would you say if I told you ion cannons and mines?” he asked.

“That I probably shouldn’t have asked that question,” Andrew said.

“Ditto,” Dia chimed in.

They cleared the eleventh ring with modest difficulty. The Red Angels raced ahead. This time, however, the problem was more difficult.

The twelfth ring had a shield protecting the front. A gold light lit the top of the ring. They watched as the first Red Angel fired three ion laser blasts, hitting the gold light squarely. The shield dropped just long enough for the first one to pass through. The second Red Angel wasn’t so lucky. Her shots missed, and she was forced to swerve away at the last second. This would force her to loop around and fall behind the other racers unless she was quick.

“Hit the target and boost as soon as you’re through,” said Ledwin.

Dia was the first to fire, then Andrew. Their ion shots hit the gold light, leaving the shield open just long enough for them to pass through and boost towards the first ring of the third circuit. Ledwin and the remaining racers did the same.

As they approached the first ring again, Andrew noticed that the energy fields had changed. Two ion turrets had extended from the sides of the ring. Blue bolts of energy began racing towards them. The racer in front of Dia was not prepared for being tracked after the first Red Angel had made her way through the ring, and took several direct hits.

As the racer’s shields and systems failed, it began to plummet towards the ocean, and was only able to recover at the last second, narrowly missing the waves in the ocean.

“Watch out for the mines,” called Dia as Andrew spun to avoid a direct laser blast and rocketed through the first ring. Sure enough, four mines had begun to detach from the outer layer of the ring. When they were several meters away, another round of ion blasts lanced out towards the racers, this time picking individual targets.

“Shoot them down if you can,” called Ledwin. “There’s nothing in the rules about penalties for shooting the mines.”

“The only problem is,” said Dia as she fired off a few shots at one of the mines, “is that it draws you off course, and you have to line yourself up for a straight shot. It’s doable, but risky.” The mine fizzled with electric blue energy, temporarily disabled.

“We may not have a choice,” Andrew said. “Depends on what the rings ahead have in store for us.”

As they cleared the second ring, the third ring had a shield that was active for a few seconds, then dissipated.

“Are you kidding me?!” he exclaimed, seeing the shield flash on and off.

“Not kidding,” Dia said. “Watch your interval; break off if you can’t make it.”

They did make it, but just barely. Ledwin managed to pass just as the shield began to close. The two racers behind him had to break off and try again.

It was just the four of them now. The Red Angel in the lead, Dia second, with Andrew and Ledwin in third and fourth respectively.

The next few rings only had partial shields covering half of the interior, which made for an extra tight fit. As the Red Angel’s F8A Corsair narrowly slid through the ring, ion cannons on the opposite side began to track her. She had just begun to boost when a shot connected with one of her engines. Her craft faltered for a few seconds, before it shot forward towards the next half-protected ring with mines. But it was just enough to significantly close the gap between the four racers.

***

“I don’t believe it, folks!” cried the announcer. “Red Angel One’s error has cost her; the four racers are within easy reach of one another. With half a lap to go, it could be anyone’s race!”

Cheers rose from the swelling crowds and patrons, eager to see who would win despite the danger.

She felt a figure grab onto the railing to her right. It was Solari.

“Quiet the race, isn’t it?” he mused, his drink in hand.

“Korwin,” spat Suli as she watched the racers make their way through the course and rings. “Did you have anything to do with this?”

“My dear Suli,” he said, turning to lean against the railing. “I assure you I had nothing to do with any of this. But it has certainly made for an interesting afternoon. It looks like I may get that private dinner after all,” he said, flashing a smile.

“Don’t be so sure,” she scowled. Just then a gasp erupted from the crowd. One of the Z-95s had clipped the shield of the eighth ring. One of its engines on fire, it spun briefly towards the sea before being able to recover. Suli let out a sigh of relief as the pilot had regained control. “But if I do find out you had anything to do with this,” she said, turning to face Korwin, a tentacled appendage making as if to wrap itself around him, “there won’t be a place in this star system that you can hide from me.”

He gave a curt laugh, and gestured to the patrons below. Several of them were looking up at the pair.

“Making threats now, Suli? How unlike you. I would have expected you to be more … sensible.”

Looking down to the patrons below, she retracted her appendage and scowled at Korwin.

***

“I’m hit!” cried Dia as her craft spun towards the ocean.

“Dia!” Andrew yelled as flames erupted from one of her engines. He tried to track her as she fell seaward, but couldn’t do that and keep his attention on the course. “Are you all right?” he asked eagerly.

“DANK FERRICK!” he heard her curse into the headset. “Yeah, I’ll make it. But it’s all up to you now.”

As Ledwin pulled up next to Andrew, he fired several shots at the mines ahead. All scored direct hits, clearing a path for them.

“Two rings to go,” Ledwin said. “At least I’ll make third.”

Something stirred inside of Andrew. He still wanted to win, but having Ledwin win third just wouldn’t sit right with him.

“Hey Ledwin,” he said as they approached the eleventh ring. “How’d you like to finish better than third?”

“What do you mean?” asked Ledwin.

“I mean, let’s stick it to that Red Angel. Blast and fast style. Are you with me?”

They cleared the eleventh ring. One more to go. He saw the ribbon of energy begin to form, creating a double-barrier that looked and acted almost like a slide.

“Blast and fast?” Ledwin asked.

“Something stupid that might work. Follow my lead onto the shield, and boost when I tell you.”

“O-okay,” said Ledwin apprehensively.

Closing the gap on the Red Angel, who had to slow down just enough to make the curved turn, Andrew rotated ninety degrees and guided his Z-95 towards the shield. It connected, his craft bouncing gently. Energy rippled as the craft glided along the shield. Ledwin did the same, though a bit more awkwardly with the T-wing’s design.

“Get ready,” Andrew said as they approached the curve. “Boost now!”

As the engines roared to full power, the Z-95 and T-wing shot forward along the curve. It took all his strength to keep the ship steady. Both he and Ledwin had enough momentum and speed that the curve acted like a slingshot and sent them propelling forward. Andrew looked up just in time to see the pilot of Red Angel One gasp in surprise from her cockpit at the sudden move.

“Pull up ... now!” said Andrew as he and Ledwin raced past the F8A Corsair. They both pulled up … and blasted through the final ring. “Now that’s how you do a blast and fast!” he hooted.”

***

“I DON’T BELIEVE IT!!” roared the announcer. The crowd lost their minds in excitement and cheering. “A daring move by both Dobson and Kes literally propels them into first and second place!! The Red Angels finish third for the first time in their racing history. This will be a major upset for them, folks!”

Suli glanced to look at Korwin’s face. She could almost make out what she thought was an eye twitch. He stood there in shock.

“Looks like I win,” she said, plucking the yellow rose from his blazer pocket. Korwin stared at her as she took a long smell from the rose, enjoying its intoxicating fragrance.

“Yes,” Korwin said, recomposing himself. “Yes, you did. A race well run.”

“Especially for a race that was sabotaged.”

Solari remained silent as Miguel finished climbing the stairs, making his way towards her.

“Ma’am,” said Miguel, stopping next to her. “We’ve found something that may interest you.” He handed her a black disc-like object, the size of a small dinner plate. It had a bulbous lens for an eye, a short antenna that jutted from its head, and four small mechanical arms that hung limply from its body.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“It’s an ID9 Seeker Droid, ma’am. Most likely an Imperial design, though it has no official markings or codes. We found it in an inconspicuous area near the bridge. Put up quite the fight before we were able to disable it. We believe this is what caused the communication error.”

She turned the droid over in her hands, examining its lifeless body. Her thoughts were interrupted by the announcer.

“I don’t believe it, folks!” called the announcer. “Dobson and Kes are making their way towards the Solari Star!” Murmurs and gasps rose from the crowd. “No one has won the Solari Star in four years, but we’ll soon see if luck is about to change.”

“I want a full investigation, Chief,” she said, handing the droid back to Miguel. “Go over all the security feeds. Question any witnesses that may have seen something. But do so discreetly.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said, nodding. Pivoting around, he made to leave for the stairs.

“I suppose I’m off the hook then?” asked Korwin, giving her a glance.

“Time will tell,” Suli replied, eying him carefully.

“I’d be very interested to see what your Chief of Security reports, then. If he finds anything.”

Suli refrained from responding, turning back to watch the Z-95 and T-wing approach the star-shaped island.

“How about another wager?” he asked after a moment.

She wasn’t in the mood for any more games, but decided to play along to appease him and keep up a good appearance.

“What did you have in mind?” she asked coolly.

“If the Duros pilot wins the Solari Star, you’ll dance with me tonight at the gala.”

“And if the New Republic pilot wins?” she asked.

“Well … I’ll leave that part of the wager up to you.”

She thought carefully. It was doubtful that she would get any more information out of him for the time being. But there was a way to sweeten the pot.

“Alright, Solari. If the New Republic pilot wins, you need to make a donation to my charity foundation. Fifteen thousand credits.”

“Fifteen thousand credits?” he asked, eying her.

“It’s for a good cause,” she said flatly. “You are a gentleman after all, aren’t you?”

“That I am,” he said, extending his hand. “It’s a deal.”

She shook to seal the pact, Seela being the silent witness.

***

“I-I can’t believe it,” said Ledwin as they shot through the final ring. “We won. We won!”

“That we did,” said Andrew with a chuckle. Then, without missing a beat, “Are you up for the Solari Star?”

Dia’s voice cut over the intercom.

“You nerfherder,” she said. “After what we just went through? Are you crazy?”

“I might be,” he said, shrugging his shoulders to himself. “But I’m feeling lucky. How about you, Ledwin?”

“Yeah,” said Ledwin after a few seconds. “Let’s do it.”

“If you don’t make it,” said Dia, “I’ll kill you.”

“I’m sure you will, dear, if the ion cannons don’t. Dobson out.”

With that, the two racers surged forward to Star Island ahead of them. It wasn’t long before the first cliff loomed into view.

“Keep and eye out for those cannons and mines,” Andrew said as he saw the obstacles begin to activate. Blue lasers shot towards them.

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Ledwin said, matching his speed with Andrew.

The two racers rolled and dove towards the first cliff outcropping. They leveled off about two-hundred meters from the sea below them, and raced towards the first ring. They cleared it with ease.

“That’s one,” Andrew said as they angled towards the second cliff. This time the mines began to move up and down or from side-to-side, the lasers becoming more erratic but deadlier. Two shots almost stripped away Andrew’s shields, but he dumped his laser energy to shields to compensate for the loss.

“That’s two,” said Ledwin as they cleared the second ring.

Each approach became more and more complex. At one point between the third and fourth ring, Andrew was almost disabled entirely. Had he been so, the rescue crews would have been scraping his body and ship off the jagged rocks below for at least a week.

“That’s four,” said Andrew as they cleared the fourth marker. “Get ready to break for the mountain summit as soon as we clear the fifth.

When they reached the fifth, a shield rose up over the opening. Out of lasers, Andrew let Ledwin take the lead. He shot a series of ion blasts at the shield, weakening it until it disappeared.

The two racers shot through the opening, cutting right sharply. Andrew re-took the lead, with Ledwin close on his six. Mines and laser placements rose up from the trees below, opening fire on the approaching ships. The two fighters wove through the oncoming fire, racing up the mountainside as fast as they could. They could just make out the summit when the warning system activated in Andrew’s Z-95.

“What that--?”

“Ion missiles,” called Ledwin as a pair streaked from the mountainside towards them.

“Are they part of the defenses?” Andrew asked.

“They’re not supposed to be,” Ledwin said. “If we break, we lose the chance to win.”

“I might,” Andrew said, shooting past Ledwin, “but you won’t.”

“What are you--?”

“JUST GO!” Andrew called.

A second later, the two ion missiles connected with his Z-95, sending it spiraling to the treeline below.

Ledwin hit the boost on his craft, rocketing it forward.

Andrew madly pressed the buttons in his cockpit, hoping to re-activate the engines in time.

“Come on, you hunk of junk,” he said, furiously smashing his ignition button. “Come on, come on, come on.” The trees loomed dangerously closer.

As Ledwin cleared the summit ridge, his T-wing shot through the marker on the top of the mountain with two seconds to spare.

And as he did so, Andrew’s engines re-ignited. Pulling back as hard as he could and setting his throttle to full, his Z-95 just managed to clear the treeline, brushing the tops of several trees.

“Oh my gosh,” Ledwin said in disbelief, sinking back in his seat. “I did it.” Tears began to well in his eyes. “I did it. I really did it.”

“That you did,” crackled Andrew’s voice over the radio. “Now let’s head home. We have a victory flyby to do.”

***

Below them on the ship, the spectators were going wild. Holographic images of Ledwin Kes flashed to life around the ship, declaring him the winner of the Solari Star. Both Suli and Korwin’s jaws dropped.

“Looks like I get that dance after all,” he said, shifting to look at her.

“Yes, you do,” she said, after a moment. “And it looks like you’re out twenty-thousand credits.”

He flashed her a roguish smile.

“A small price to pay, for a dance with a beautiful woman,” he said. “Enjoy the rest of your afternoon.”

“Korwin,” she called as he walked away.

“Yes?”

“Did you know Ledwin would win?”

He waited until the two racers had rocketed by, their canopies tipped to the crowds below to wave, to reply. As the crowds roared with fanfare and chanted Ledwin’s name over and over, he had to raise his voice so she could hear him.

“I didn’t,” he said. “But no matter the outcome, I always win in the end.” And with that, he walked away.

“That you do, Korwin,” she said to herself as she watched him. “As do I.”

***

When they landed in the hangar, they were met by the small crowd of mechanics and the other racers -- all save the Red Angel sisters, who were standing by their crafts, scowling for having been knocked down to third place.

As Ledwin descended the ladder that had been hooked to his craft, his pit crew clapped him on the back and congratulated him. Imzi broke through the crowd and ran towards him.

“You did it!” she cried, hugging him. Tears shone in her round eyes. “You really did it!”

“No,” he said, putting her down on the ground and taking her hands. “We did it.”

Andrew circled around the T-wing and joined the duo as the crowd began to circle around them.

“Major,” Ledwin said, extending his hand. “I don’t know how to thank you. Because of you and your partner, we finally have a shot at the big races. The credits we won today … well, they’ll really help us out.”

“No trouble at all, Ledwin,” Andrew said, shaking his hand. “I hope that you and Imzi achieve your dreams some day.”

“We will,” said Ledwin as his crew members and some mechanics hoisted him and Imzi up over their shoulders and began to lead them away. From somewhere in the crowd, a champagne bottle popped and white foam began to spray them. “You can count on it,” Ledwin said, laughing with Imzi as they were carried away.

Dia was the only one left standing several meters away from him when the crowd cleared. Andrew hadn’t immediately noticed her in the crowd.

“Uh, hi,” he said hesitantly.

She began to take slow, measured steps towards him.

“You know,” she began slowly, her words keeping pacing with her steps. Her hands were hooked into her flight suit pockets. “It’s a good thing that no one was seriously injured today. It could have been a lot worse.”

“Yeah,” he said as she moved closer.

“I saw the whole thing on the holo projector after I landed,” she said. “That was quite a move you pulled at the finish line. Ingenious even.” As she made her last step in front of him, she took hold of his flight suit collar with her left hand, pushing him gently back against the frame of the T-wing.

“Uh, thanks,” he said, blushing slightly.

“And you helped Ledwin and Imzi take second place,” she said, leaning up towards his face, her mouth stopping near hers. He could feel her warm, sweet breath roll over his face. “Not to mention letting him win the Solari Star. Well,” she said, lowering her voice, “that was pretty sweet.” Her warm lips connected with his, and he was lost in the moment.

As she pulled away a few seconds later, she flashed him a teasing smile -- then sucker punched him as hard as she could in the gut. He gave out a cry of surprise, the wind rushing out of his lungs, and as she let go of him he collapsed to his knees on the deck plating.

“Taking those two ion missiles in a Z-95, on the other hand, was possibly the stupidest thing you have done to date. Do that again, and I’ll kill you for real.”

He sat there, gasping for breath.

“Come on, you half-witted nerf herder,” she said, turning to walk away. “You owe me a foot rub. And some chocolates.”

“Yes, dear,” he finally croaked, standing up to follow her.

End of Part 2

Part 1

Part 3

Part 4