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Shore Leave - Part 3

Major Andrew "Dobber" Dobson

Chapter 10

Korwin Solari sat alone in his private quarters on the SS Starfish. He had ordered his droid to stand watch outside the entrance, ensuring that he was not disturbed. He had given Ceryss specific instructions to prepare for the dinner this evening, as well as take care of some last-minute business. As he sat in his padded armchair, drink in hand, the holographic figure of Captain Gaspra on his private, encrypted channel, stood in front of him.

“Well, Solari,” she said, hands behind her back. “Did the plan work?”

“It did,” he said, raising his crystal glass to savour the smell of the brandy he had poured. “But there may be a problem.”

Gaspra’s eyes narrowed.

“What sort of problem?” she asked slowly. Taking a sip from his glass, he decided it was best to choose his next words carefully.

“I believe that Suli deChenzzi suspects something. She was very suspicious of the events earlier today.”

“Does she know it was you?” Gaspra asked coldly.

Korwin swirled his glass slowly, the brandy moving around the inside gracefully.

“Suspecting is one thing. Proving is quite another. Need I remind you, deChenzzi is well-known for her intelligence and tact, among her other qualities.”

As he took another sip from his glass, Gaspra sighed.

“She could pose a problem. If this is the case, I need to accelerate our timetable sooner than I thought.”

Korwin was surprised at this last comment. He hadn’t anticipated this move from Gaspra.

“So soon?” he asked casually, not betraying his concerns. “What about our agreement?”

“You’ll get what you want, Solari, once the job is finished. But only once it’s finished.”

“Very well,” he said, nodding. “And what of the … security problem?”

“It’s being taken care of. Discreetly. Gaspra out.”

As the hologram faded into nothingness, Korwin finished the last of his drink. Setting the glass down on top of the coaster in front of him, he stood up and walked over to the viewport window. The sun had begun to set, casting its long, waning shadow along the ocean. Oranges, reds, and purples blended across the sky as the lone jewel that was the sun began to hide behind the darkening figure of Star Island in the distance. The wind picked up speed and howled as it ran across the window. Realizing the task ahead of him, his parents’ words once more tickled the back of his mind.

A Solari must always do what needs to be done. No matter the cost. There is no doubt, no apprehension. Only success.

“For you mama … papa,” he said quietly to himself. “Always for you.” Turning to ready himself for the evening, he began to prepare for the machinations to come.

***

[Lounge, CRS Vigilant - 1800 hours]

Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds sat tipped back in his chair, feet up on the table, drink in his hand. The lounge aboard the Vigilant was sparsely populated with personnel and pilots. Iggy mechanically wiped the bar counter down for what must have been the sixth time that evening. Taking a sip from his mug, he let out a sigh.

I could get used to this, he thought. Now all I need is some sand, sun, and--

“Hey, turn up the volume!” he heard someone say.

As the volume increased, Reynolds began to hear what was a sports broadcast begin

to play.

“An exciting race this afternoon during the Contessa’s Cup,” said the reporter as images from the race flashed across the holovid screen. “According to eyewitnesses, the annual race was sabotaged. Instead of flying the traditional track like in previous years, the racing security measures were overridden and switched to a more challenging track setting. Several racers crashed or withdrew from the race, but thankfully no one was hurt.”

Lucky them thought Reynolds, savouring another sip from his drink.

“While Eudoran security personnel are investigating the issue, the race still went ahead due to a communications error. And what a race it was! The legendary Red Angels were forced into third place, a huge upset for them.”

Images flashed across the screen of the Red Angels making mistakes or being forced to loop around the track rings again. One shot in particular showed a Z-95 and a T-wing using the shielding as a slingshot maneuver to shoot ahead of one of the Red Angel racers and cross the finish line.

“Finishing in second place were underdogs and new fan-favourites Ledwin Kes and Imzi Noan.” The holovid switched to show the three top teams standing on their own leveled podiums. “And believe it or not, two New Republic pilots claimed first prize. Shown here are Major Andrew Dobson and Captain Dia Tann.”

Reynolds choked on his drink as soon as he heard their names. His feet slammed down on the deck plating, and he caught himself on the table with his free hand as the chair fell forward.

“They WHAT?!” he exclaimed.

“Quiet down!” said someone else as several individuals turned to look at Reynolds.

He stared in disbelief as Andrew and Dia smiled and waved from their spot on the podium along with the Duros and Rodian. The third-place winners didn’t look that happy, and refused to wave.

“The first prize was ten-thousand credits….”

“Ten-thousand credits,” Reynolds said to himself in awe. “Son of a moof-milker….”

“The victors had this to say….” The video cut to a new image of Andrew and Ledwin, an arm around each other’s shoulder, talking to reporters.

“What do you attribute to your win today? And how do you feel?” asked the reporter.

The two racers wore smiles on their faces.

“It all comes down to teamwork,” Andrew said, looking at Ledwin and the reporters. “Even if you’re on a different team. And some fancy flying.”

“And that last-second maneuver you did,” the reporter said, pressing the microphone in closer. “What do you call that?”

“Just nothing but ‘blast and fast’, baby! Wooo!!” cheered Andrew.

As Ledwin repeated the phrase and cry of enthusiasm, a round of laughter arose throughout the room.

“And Ledwin,” said the reporter, turning the microphone to him. “How does it feel to be the first racer in four years to win the Solari Star, worth twenty-thousand credits?”

Ledwin removed his arm from around Andrew. The vid camera zoomed to focus on him.

“It feels … it feels….” Tears began to well up in the Duros’s eyes. “It’s an unbelievable game-changer, that’s for sure. Excuse me … I have something in my eyes!”

With that, Ledwin turned around and began to walk away, using his sleeve to wipe away his tears of joy.

“And there you have it, folks! A win of a lifetime, with possibly more to come. This is Iqbal Billiebobbie Bahar, signing off.”

“That was a fortuitous win for them,” said the droid Syntax, Corsair Squadron’s leader, as he sauntered up where Reynolds was sitting. The news broadcast shifted to another story.

“I know,” said Reynolds, turning to look at the droid. “What are the odds, eh?”

“Actually, the odds of that happening are--”

“On second thought,” said Reynolds, holding a hand up to stop the droid, “I don’t want to know.”

***

“Careful,” said Andrew as Dia tightened the red bow tie around his neck. “I need enough room to breathe.”

“Just making sure,” she said, straightening the tie, “that no more crazy ideas get to your head.”

“How do I look?” he asked when she was done, stepping back and holding his arms out. He was surprised to find a tuxedo rental shop on the cruise ship. Especially one with his size.

“Like a dollop of handsome with a dash of charming,” she said, reaching up to squeeze his cheek.

BD-B2 gave a hoot of approval from the dresser.

“I’m surprised the little stowaway agrees,” he said, eying the droid. They had found him hiding in the closet when they returned from the race. Unsure exactly which bag he had hid himself in, there was nothing to do but accept that he was here. “I still don’t understand how he made it aboard. We packed those bags thoroughly.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” Dia said with a sigh. “Okay, since my make-up is already done, I’m going to go change. I’ll only be a minute or two, then we’ll go.”

As she turned to head towards the walk-in closet, BD-B2 hopped down off the dresser. His little legs made pattering sounds on the floor as he followed her.

“Oh no you don’t,” she said, turning to point at the droid. “You stay right there! No way you get to ruin the surprise.”

The droid gave a sound that was similar to someone saying “phooey” and turned back to race towards Andrew. He was about to climb Andrew’s leg when Andrew jerked his leg back.

“Oh no you don’t, you little stowaway!” Andrew said. “The tux and shoes are rentals. If you scuff or ruin them, I don’t get my deposit back.”

The droid looked up at him in wonder, tilting his head.

“And if I don’t get my deposit back, that means I’m not paying for any upgrades to your computer systems.”

The droid carefully considered what Andrew said, and began to back away slowly.

It wasn’t long before Dia emerged from the walk-in closet. As the door slid open, Andrew’s jaw dropped. BD-B2 gave a sharp double-whistle.

She was wearing a red headdress and maxi dress with off-shoulder ruffles. Her skirt flowed down far enough that he could just see her painted toenails and heeled dancing shoes. As she walked forward, the modest thigh slit revealed part of her leg. He could also see that the shoes had criss-crossed leather lacing that ran up a few times to her calves. Three golden ringlets hung from her left wrist, and her cylindrical ornamental gold chain earrings swayed rhythmically as she moved. Her lips were painted in a rich purple lipstick that complemented her dress and skin.

“It’s rude to stare, you know,” she said with a wink. Holding her white purse in front of her, she shifted her position to stick a hand on her hip and one leg out. “Well?” she asked. “What do you think?”

“Like an angel,” he said finally.

She flashed him a coy smile, then crossed the distance of the room to stand in front of him.

“Thought you’d say that,” she said, looking up at him.

“Any chance we could just stay here? Maybe order in instead?”

“Fat chance,” she said, tapping him playfully with her purse. “Besides, after your stunt earlier, you owe me. Big time.”

“Yeah,” he said, letting out a short sigh. “You’re right.”

“But,” she said slowly, gently taking hold of his white carnation and adjusting it, “if you’re good and manage to impress, there’s a possibility for some fun later tonight.” She stood up slightly, moving towards his right ear. “But only if you impress,” she whispered.

Andrew’s face blushed slightly, and BD-B2 gave another cheeky whistle. This garnered him a look of annoyance from the both of them, which in turn caused him to give a playful titter of a laugh.

“Any chance for a holo pic? For memory’s sake?” Andrew asked. She turned to face him again.

“Sure,” she said. “Bee-Dee, will you do the honors?”

The droid nodded, and positioned himself on the dresser they were standing in front of. Moving his arm around her waist to draw her in closer, she turned and put an arm on his chest while moving her leg partly in front of her. With a few clicks, the droid took a picture, and gave a few beeps to indicate that he was finished.

“Shall we get going, lest we be late?” he asked.

“We shall,” she said with a smile.

As they made their way towards the entrance, he opened the door and held it for her. She walked through and waited for him to exit and close the door. As it clicked shut, she took his arm and they made their way to the dining hall and ballroom of the ship.

Chapter 11

Suli deChenzzi stood alone at the railing of the upper level of the ship. The stairway some meters behind her led back down to the upper level of the dining area. Small lights lit the railing, providing a soft gentle glow as the sun had nearly set. A cool breeze came off the water, causing her dress and appendages to move ever so slightly. She was chilled, goosebumps appearing on her skin. But her mind weighed heavily on other matters, especially her dance with Solari later that evening.

She heard footsteps behind her as someone took the final steps from the staircase up onto the landing. She glanced over her shoulder to see who it was. It was Miguel. She turned back to look at the sun as it disappeared completely behind the island, and heard him stop several feet away from her.

“Good evening, ma’am,” he said. “I hope I’m not disturbing you.”

“Not at all, Miguel,” she said, not turning around. “What do you have to report?”

“We’ve done a sweep of the security feeds, and questioned a number of possible witnesses that were in the general vicinity. We do have one suspect -- a Mon Calamari -- in the detention area, but it’s difficult to know for certain if he was involved.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, turning around, brow furrowed.

“No one specifically saw him release the droid, ma’am. Too many people were focused on the race, and no security cams caught him deploying it. Also … he’s currently drunk, ma’am.”

“Drunk?” she asked flatly.

“Yes. He was rather inebriated when we found him. We’ll have to wait until he’s sobered up to question him further.”

Suli gave a sigh of frustration. “Very well, Miguel. In the meantime, have your people keep an eye out for anything suspicious. I don’t want any more interruptions to our festivities.”

“Of course, ma’am.”

With that, he turned to leave. Before he got to the first step, she called him.

“Miguel,” she said. He stopped, one foot on the step, and turned to face her. “How do I look?” she asked.

Miguel paused for a moment, considering his response.

“If you don’t mind my saying so, ma’am -- and I hope I’m not being impolite -- you look very graceful for the ball this evening.”

A small smile formed across her mouth.

“Thank you, Chief,” she said. “That will be all.”

With a polite nod, he left to attend to his duties.

***

Down in the ballroom, well over a hundred patrons milled about or sat at tables or other seating areas. Waiters and waitresses carried trays of food full of appetizers and drinks around to the patrons while the main dining tables were being set up to receive the numerous foods that would be served throughout the evening. More guests also milled about on the upper balcony above, with several pairs climbing the grand staircase.

Korwin Solari stood off to the side, speaking with several business and political individuals who were well-known to him. Laughter trickled throughout the room as people told humorous jokes or anecdotes. Solari took note of Chief Miguel as he descended the stairs and made his way towards the exit of the ballroom. As the Chief looked around, his gaze met Solari’s. Solari offered a polite nod and raised his glass. The Chief, in turn, gave him a quick, unassuming nod before continuing on.

He briefly admired the crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling before refocusing his attention on the discussion before him.

“So, Solari,” said one of the gentlemen across from him. “What’s your business secret? Korwin Industries has earned a generous portfolio return of almost thirty-percent year over year for the last seven years running.”

“Well,” he said with a small smile, briefly looking at the floor. “A modest return such as that requires strategic positioning. Especially to counter any economic headwinds. Let’s just say that I prefer to keep the interests of Korwin Industries diversified. Some might say that the fall of the Empire and the rise of the New Republic would be bad for business. Tumultuous markets. Interrupted supply lines. Currency devaluation. Contracts cancelled.” His peers nodded in acknowledgement of the issues he listed. They themselves had also needed to adjust to the new realities that the star system and the galaxy faced. “In truth, I looked at the situation before me, and selected the best cards to play. Nothing is better than free trade, and Korwin Industries trades freely -- for the right price, of course.”

A few laughs escaped the mouths of the patrons.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” came a voice over the PA system. The ship’s captain was holding a microphone in the centre of the room. The room fell silent as everyone turned their attention to him. “I’d like to thank you all for being here this evening. The crew and I hope that you have been enjoying your time on the cruise so far, and look forward to providing you with an enjoyable series of events and festivities in the coming days.

This night would not be possible, however, without the generous support of two of Eudora’s most esteemed citizens and patrons. I’d like to thank Mister Korwin Solari for his ongoing support of the Contessa’s Cup, as well as his generous donations this year to a number of charities involving victims of domestic violence, medical treatment centres, as well as youth programs in some of our other provinces.”

A wave of applause swept through the room. Korwin stepped forward to address the crowd, raising his hand to thank the crowd.

“Thank you,” he said as the applaus continued. “Thank you very much.”

As the clapping died down, the captain continued.

“Of course, this whole cruise would not be possible without the time, effort, and support of our hostess this evening. Many of you know Miss Suli deChenzzi through her business and fundraising abilities, as well as her generous support of humanitarian and environmental causes, among her other philanthropic ventures. Please allow me to welcome our hostess this evening, the inimitable Miss Suli deChenzzi!”

As the doors near the top of the staircase opened, Suli deChenzzi gracefully entered the room, followed by her assistant Seela.

As she moved down the staircase in slow, fluid movements, anyone there would have commented on how beautiful she looked.

To Solari, she was the personification of beauty.

She wore a stunning emerald green maxi wrap dress with a modestly plunging v-line, a slit exposing her leg at the thigh. A gold necklace with a brilliant red ruby lay nestled between her throat and bosom, while gold-hooped earrings jangled as she made her way down each step. Her assistant wore a more modest purple dress with a v-neck and slit that complemented her violet skin well.

Suli stopped half-way down the staircase, and raised her hand to the audience, smiling.

“Thank you!” she said as the applause died down. “Thank you all for coming! And thank you, captain, for your kind words about my … and Mister Solari’s, endeavours,” she said, gesturing to Korwin. “I look forward to an entertaining evening full of joy and laughter, good food and drinks, and of course speaking with many of you later. To begin our evening,” she said, meeting Korwin’s gaze, “I think it appropriate to begin with a dance on our newly refurbished dance floor.

What many of you might not know,” Suli continued, “is that Mister Solari and I placed a little wager earlier this afternoon regarding the outcome of the Solari Star portion of the race. Our wager was simple: if my pilot won, Mister Solari would donate fifteen-thousand credits to one of my charities. If he won, he would have the pleasure of earning one dance with me.” A titter of excitement arose throughout the crowd, especially from the women. “It would seem, however, that Mister Solari was the uncanny winner of this bet. If our maestro wouldn’t mind getting us started…,” she said, motioning towards the band on the far side of the room. She then turned to mouth something to Seela, who then began to make her way away from her mistress back up the stairs and around to one of the balcony ledges

Classical music began to fill the room as she descended the staircase. Korwin excused himself, placing his empty champagne glass on an empty standing table tray to his left, then made his way towards Suli and the other patrons beginning to trickle onto the dance floor.

“I would have thought you would wait until later to dance,” said Korwin as he met Suli in the middle of the floor.

“One would think,” she said, extending her hand and speaking loudly enough so that only they could hear, “but I’d rather not risk losing my appetite. I’m rather fond of the dessert menu this evening.”

His face not betraying the slight she had given him, he took her hand and the two began to move gracefully about the dance floor, each movement like fluid clockwork.

“Come now, Suli,” he said playfully, flashing her his roguish smile. “Surely you don’t think that ill of me?”

“Right now, I do,” she said, meeting his eyes intently. “While I can’t prove it, I still believe you had something to do with sabotaging that race earlier.” She let him twirl her around, moving closer then away from him, just as the dance routine permitted. Of course, she was careful to ensure that her appendages did not hit him.

“I assure you, my dear,” he said, “I was not involved with those events as you believe me to be. You know anything I do is for the greater good. Solari’s honor.”

“Which,” Suli countered as they continued to sweep around the dance floor with the other patrons, performing a series of graceful dance moves, “is checkered at the best of times. I remember some of the business dealings your mother and father made. Yours are very similar, and you mince your words and business dealings like a snake when you see fit. I wonder if your dear sister would agree with your methods?”

That last comment was like an icy knife plunging through his heart. A rare, momentary flash of hurt spread across his face.

“You dare insult my family,” he hissed at her. “My dear, late sister?” He made the decision to bury his feelings immediately, lest anyone else see them, and recomposed himself. “No,” he began through a polite mask. “My parents may have had a checkered past. But I have always acted to serve the best interests of my family’s legacy -- and our people.” The music began to change, indicating that this song would soon end. “I may,” he said after a moment, “not seem like an angel. But I assure you, I am no devil.” Letting go of her hand and waist, he stepped back as the other male dancers were doing, and bowed to her. “Enjoy the rest of your evening, Miss deChenzzi,” he said, looking up. “I hope my presence will not spoil it further.”

He stood up fully and made his way past her towards the staircase. She turned to watch him ascend it, while she stood alone in the middle of the dance floor. She turned quickly to meet Seela’s gaze from the balcony and gave a slight nod, then left the dance floor and made her way towards a group of donors that she recognized.

***

Andrew and Dia walked arm and arm through the main doors of the gala entrance with other arriving guests after clearing the security check before the door. Classical music drifted softly through the air as scores of people moved about. It was difficult to get a clear view of the dance floor due to the lines of onlookers, not to mention the fresh round of entrees and drinks being carried about by the waiting staff.

“Talk about ritzy,” Andrew said as they stopped to take in the scene.

“Enjoy it while you can,” said Dia, glancing at him. “You may never get a chance to attend something like this again.”

They began to make their way through the crowd, each grabbing a drink from a passing waiter. They had managed to make their way halfway along the right side of the room when someone behind them called Dia’s name.

“Dia?” asked a voice behind them. They both turned to meet a violet-skinned Twi’lek.

“Seela?” Dia responded.

“Oh my gosh, how are you?!” Seela said.

“What a pleasant surprise to see you,” Dia said. The two exchanged a quick kiss on each cheek. “I haven’t seen you since my last visit here as a teenager.”

“It’s been too long,” said Seela with an animated gesture. “You look absolutely fabulous! And who,” she said, looking at Andrew, “is this dashing man?”

“Seela, this is my partner in crime, Andrew. We were part of a unit with the Alliance for a while.”

“A pleasure,” Andrew said, reaching out to shake Seela’s hand.

“You sure know how to pick them, Dia,” Seela said with a wink. “If I didn’t know he was with you, I might just have had to steal him away.”

The two women gave light-hearted laughs.

“Oh believe me,” Dia said with a forced smile, “you really don’t want to do that,” then took a drink from her glass.

“Do you have a few minutes to catch up? It’s been too long,” Seela said.

Dia gave a quick glance to Andrew, who nodded.

“I can spare a few minutes,” she said, handing her drink to Andrew. “But first, I need to visit the little girl’s room. Don’t wander off too far,” she said to Andrew, then pointed a finger at him. “And don’t you dare do any dancing without me!”

As the two walked off, complimenting each other’s dressware, Andrew was left to take in the behaviour of the two women, and the other patrons at large.

“I need to get out more,” he muttered to himself, then took a sip from his glass. The sweet taste of a sparkling apple drink of some sort washed across his taste buds. Hearing the music end, he moved closer to an opening in the crowd, and noticed a well-dressed Pantoran gentleman ascending the grand staircase. In the center of the dance floor was the Contessa he had met previously, who then made her way deftly to a group of patrons on the other side of the room.

“Appetizers, sir?” asked a waitress, stepping next to him with a round tray. The tray contained a platter of freshly baked scallops wrapped in bacon.

“Why, thank you,” Andrew said, taking one. He was about to eat it when she seemed to recognize him.

“Wait a second … you’re Major Dobson! From the race earlier, right?”

“Uh,” said Andrew, “I am.”

“That was quite the impressive finish. I’m a huge racing face. Would you mind if I got a holo pic with you?”

Andrew stood there, baffled momentarily. He had never been asked for a photo before for his flying.

“Sure,” he said with a shrug, popping the appetizer in his mouth. “Why not?”

The waitress fished a holo pic device from her pocket and moved in closer to him, handily extending the tray to her left while miraculously maintaining its balance. She held the device up in front of the two of them.

“Blast and fast!” she said cheerily, smiling. Before Andrew could say anything, there was a quick flash, and she moved away afterwards. “Thanks so much!” she said, turning back to him. “I really appreciate it. Enjoy the evening!”

His eyes re-adjusting to the light, Andrew took another sip from his drink and began to mill about the room with the other patrons. More were moving towards the dance floor, while others talked and laughed in small groups. Some stood by themselves, or with a partner. The odd attendee stopped to briefly speak with him to congratulate him on his race placement, or to thank him for his service to the New Republic. Others made their way towards tables staffed by serving teams with drinks or appetizers that were different than what was currently being circulated. He was also able to see the setup for the dining section, the circular tables immaculately decorated with dining cloths, napkins, dishes, silverware, as well as floral arrangements.

“There you are!” Dia said from behind him. He turned to greet her. “I thought you’d gotten lost.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Just thought I’d mill about for a bit. Enjoy your catchup chat with Seela? And where’s your purse?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said enthusiastically. “And long story short, she’s holding on to it for me while we dance. She had some last-minute urgent business from her employer come up, but she’ll be back. The drink’s been … taken care of,” she said sheepishly.

“Uh huh,” Andrew said. “I’m hoping you will pace yourself tonight.”

“Only,” she said, taking his drink from his hand. She quickly placed it on a tray full of nearly empty glasses that a waiter nearby happened to be carrying. “If you can keep your pace with me.” She gently but firmly grabbed his hand and tugged him towards the dance floor. “Come on!”

“Woah!” he said, caught by surprise. The music transitioned to another new song as the dance floor saw the exchange of new and prior dancing couples. As they entered about a quarter of the way onto the floor, she spun around to face him. Without missing a beat, he cupped his left hand and placed it behind her on her shoulder blade while she ran her arm up along his and placed it on his shoulder. They also met their free hands together, slightly out at the side. It took him a few steps to get the rhythm of the dance down, but once he did he moved in sync with her and the rest of the dancing partners.

“Nice recovery,” she said with a smile as they moved about.

“I try,” he said sheepishly, sliding his feet in time with her. She gave a small laugh and continued their dance, modifying the steps and patterns as they went.

They danced for several more songs, each presenting a new rhythm or style for them to move to. Dia was clearly having the time of her life. After this set of dances, he convinced her that they should find a place to dine that would at least allow them some privacy. This wasn’t an issue once they tracked down the maitre’d of the event, and Andrew showed them the executive membership card. Surprisingly enough, they were shown to a table in the corner that afforded some privacy from the bulk of those in attendance.

“I thought you were reluctant about using that card,” she said as he pulled out her chair for her to sit down.

“I am,” he said, pushing her in gently. “But there’s no money being charged for this event. And what I’ve come to realize,” he continued as he sat down, “is that sometimes a little influence can go a long way.”

“Indeed, it can,” said the well-dressed Pantoran male as he stepped up to their table. “Major Dobson, isn’t it?” he asked, extending his hand for a handshake.

Andrew stared at him for a moment before extending his hand and grasping the blue-skinned palm in front of him. “I am,” he said.

“Korwin Solari, of Solari Industries. That was quite a race you had earlier today. I wanted to congratulate you for your win. It was quite the show.”

“Thank you, Mister Solari,” Andrew said, breaking the handshake.

“And who, may I ask, is your lovely date for this evening?” Solari said, looking at Dia and extending his hand. Before Andrew could respond, Dia spoke up.

“Dia,” she said with a curt, slow voice. “Dia Tann.”

“Tann, you say,” said Solari, an eyebrow rising slightly on his brow. “Then are you…?”

“I am,” Dia said slowly, with a forced but polite voice.

“Ah. Well then. I shall not trouble you any further,” he said, letting go of Dia’s hand and standing upright again. “I hope that you both enjoy the rest of your evening.”

With that, he turned and made his way towards his own private table at the other end of the room where two other individuals of high-status met him.

“What was that about?” Andrew asked, looking at her.

“A bit of a long story,” she said as a waiter brought them their drinks and some appetizers. “But let’s just say that I’m not Solari’s biggest fan.”

“How so?”

“Well,” she said, taking a sip of her wine, “in truth Solari has at times used his money for good with respect to philanthropic enterprises and charities. But he plays hardball with his business ventures. Has been known to bully his opponents to get his way, or engage in hostile takeovers. What benefits him seldomly ends well for his business rivals.”

“Would you say he’s two-faced?” Andrew asked, taking a drink of water.

“Not so much two-faced as a cunning snake. Or a cheshire cat, offering you a toothy smile while readying its claws to pounce.”

***

Suli deChenzzi sat at her immaculately set private table with Seela. After rubbing elbows with business and political friends and acquaintances, both new and old, she was ready to eat her meal.

As the waitress brought the two of them their drinks, leaving the bottle of wine nearby in a bucket of ice, a second brought them a delectable meal of seafood and grilled vegetables.

“So, Seela,” she asked, cutting into the flaky white meat of the main fish with her knife and fork, “what do you make of the evening thus far?”

Seela stopped taking a drink of her wine and eyed Suli.

“Ma’am?” she asked.

“Oh come now, dear,” Suli said, stopping the movement of her silverware and throwing her a look. “While I seldomly ask you your opinion of matters, that doesn’t mean I don’t value what you have to offer me from time to time. So I’ll ask again: what do you make of this evening?”

Seela placed her wine glass on the table and folded her hands in her lap.

“Well, ma’am,” she began, “it would seem that the evening is going well. Everyone is clearly enjoying themselves. The food and beverages are popular.”

“And?” Suli asked, a coy smile reaching the corners of her mouth.

“And … I may have noticed an attractive bachelor. Or two,” she finished, taking a sip from her drink once more. She glanced at her boss, who was clearly enthused and curious about this last comment.

“Have you now?” she asked, working away at her fish once more. She lifted her fork to gently place a piece in her mouth, chewing away at it. “And will you pursue any of them?”

Seela blushed at this inquiry.

“Oh, well … I … you see,” she said in a flustered voice.

Suli gave a quiet laugh, clearly amused at herself and the situation.

“Relax, darling,” Suli said. “Just having a little fun.” She took a sip of wine from her glass, which mixed well with the fish and enhanced its flavour. “Though you would do well to find out more about any potential matches that you eye.”

“Ah, I see,” said Seela. “You’re suggesting I know everything about one’s character before I pursue them further?”

“It would certainly be an advantage, dear. And once you do, make them work to keep you.”

Seela watched as Suli began to work away at some of the vegetables.

“And how much fun would that be,” she asked, “knowing everything and removing the mystery and fun a potential relationship could hold?”

Suli eyed Seela carefully before responding.

“A fair comment, dear,” she said carefully. “I suppose a bit of fun from time to time would be in order.”

“Just like you did with Solari?” Seela asked.

This stopped Suli short of taking another drink.

“Why, whatever do you mean?” she asked Seela.

“I watched you both closely as you danced earlier this evening. You said something to get under his skin.”

“I may have,” she said, taking another sip of her wine, then waved her glass around. “What of it?”

“You clearly know Mister Solari very well. What did you say to upset him so?”

“Nothing too harsh. I just gave the odd quip about his demeanour and business dealings. And his family,” she finished after a moment.

“That quip must have been quite the jab,” Seela said, narrowing her brow. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you stung him. Deeply. You didn’t by chance insult his late parents and sister, did you?”

Suli paused, considering her answer.

“I may have,” she said flatly.

“Suli,” Seela said, giving a sigh and leaning over slightly, arm now resting on the table. “Was that the best choice, especially for this venue?”

“Korwin Solari is a snake and a bully,” Suli said intently.

“Maybe when it comes to business, yes,” Seela countered, “but he does have a heart. And he is still a man who generously helps people, regardless of what others think. Would you think it fine if he insulted your dear husband at a similar venue?”

Suli set her drink down and shifted in her seat to look at Seela for several moments.

“No,” she sighed, clearly understanding Seela’s point. “I wouldn’t.”

Seela nodded, then began to work away at her meal.

“I suppose I should apologize, shouldn’t I?” Suli asked her.

“It would be a kind gesture,” she said, looking at her again, “especially considering the circumstances.”

Suli gave a small, amused laugh. “You’re very cunning, dear. Have I ever told you that?”

“I learn from the best,” Seela said coyly.

“Very well then. I’ll apologize after our meal, though certainly not before our dessert. To cunning women,” Suli said, holding up her wine glass. They clinked theirs together, and enjoyed the rest of their meal.

Chapter 12

“Tonight was nice,” said Dia as she wrapped her left arm around Andrew’s waist while they exited the main dancing room for some air. She had complained earlier of feeling slightly nauseous, and had asked that they temporarily step out for some air. He had obliged her, and they were immediately met by the cool breeze off the water. Small lights gently lit the railing, and in the distance the candle-like flicker of light from other ships or island communities dotted the seascape.

“It was,” he said, doing the same to her with his right arm. “And I’m glad you decided to pace yourself with the wine.”

She threw a glance at him as a smirk crossed her lips.

“Well, I needed to be sober enough to enjoy dancing and not embarrass myself,” she said as they found a spot near the railing that offered some space from other patrons. She took a sip from the glass of red wine in her free hand. “And, this being only my fourth glass of wine over the last few hours, I’d say I handled myself well.” She took another sip, her nose wrinkling at the taste of it. “Though why it suddenly tastes bitter is beyond me.”

“Could be something to do with how it was prepared,” he said.

“Possibly,” she said, taking another sip. Her nose wrinkled once more.

“Let me try,” he said, offering his hand for the glass. She passed it to him, and watched as he took a quick sip. “Hmm … tastes fine to me.” He handed the glass back to her. “A mild sweet taste that goes down smoothly -- much like my dancing I hope.”

She gave a small laugh as she took the glass back from him. “Alright, I admit it. You have some smooth moves … for a nerf herder.”

“I’ll settle for being a handsome nerf herder if you want,” he said with a wink.

She stood up on her tip-toes slightly and gave him a peck on his cheek, her purple lipstick leaving a faint mark on his skin.

“I may be able to live with that,” she said. “Now if only I could get other women to stop hitting on you.”

“Only one way to do that, dear,” he said, pulling her slightly closer, “and it involves expensive rings.”

A sharp whistling sound came from their right as an object was launched skywards. It exploded a few seconds later into a bright shower of red and green. The fireworks for the evening had begun.

“It wouldn’t be the worst idea,” she said after a moment as a second firework was launched into the air. “It would also be better than paying assault or blaster wound fees,” she finished as the second one exploded into a shower of yellow sparks. They both laughed briefly at this last comment. “Though in truth, getting assigned to the same cruiser let alone ending the war is a long shot. Especially with our current assignments.”

He paused as the third and fourth fireworks rocketed into the air.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,” he said before the firework exploded. She moved the wine glass to her lips, this time taking a mouthful of the bitter wine. As the firework exploded into another shower of red, green, and yellow, his news was like a bombshell hitting her. “I’m putting an application in for a spot in Rogue Squadron.”

She hiccoughed when he said this, wine snorting out her nose. She made several hacking cough sounds, and took the napkin he produced from one of his pockets to quickly clean her face.

“You’re WHAT?!” she said as she broke away from him, the sound of the rhythmic launching and explosion of fireworks partially masking her exclamation. A few nearby patrons turned to briefly look at them before turning their attention to the show again.

“I said, I’m--” he began.

“I know what you said you nerf herder!” she said sternly. A wave of red light cascaded across her blue face. “How can you even think of doing such a thing?”

He stood there for several seconds, not saying anything, clearly baffled at her response.

“Dia, I--” he began. She held up one finger to stop him, and then drained her wine glass. The bitter taste ran down her throat.

“If you’re upset--” he began, but she cut him off.

“Do you have any idea what that would entail? What it would mean for you? For us?”

Once more he just stared at her, taken aback, his eyes searching for what to do next.

“Take me back to the room,” she said, placing the wine glass on the ship’s thick railing, “now.” Pivoting around, she began a brisk walk down the walkway, her shoes clacking against the deck, maneuvering her way through the stream of guests exiting the ballroom to watch the fireworks. A knot began to form in her stomach. She hadn’t liked this news at all.

***

Korwin Solari leaned against the railing of the upper deck of the ship. He was alone, save for the gentle glow of the lights around him and the sound and shower of fireworks on display above him. The wind was cool, giving the occasional whip as its strength increased then subsided. He held a private commlink in his hand, and ensured he was on an encrypted channel. A small earpiece in his ear carried the voice so only he could hear it, making the voice on the other end easier to hear over the noise.

“And you’re sure that my new request will be honored?” he asked the speaker on the other end.

“I will make no guarantees, Solari,” came Captain Gaspra’s voice. “With the Sovereign, Vigilant, and other New Republic ships -- not to mention general security -- in the system, there is little room for error.”

Dammithe thought.

“From here on out,” she continued, “any changes you make you will have to find a solution for. However, if any of them jeopardize our plans, you will be the one to pay for it. Dearly.”

“I understand,” he said after a moment.

“Good. Maintain silence from here on out. I will contact you again if necessary.” With that, the connection ended.

Solari gave a disheartened sigh. Most of the plans were in place. Everything timed to specific intervals. They were a testament to Gaspra’s artistry as a seasoned Imperial officer who knew how to get a job done -- and done well. But there was one thread that he had been unable to negotiate. Taking care of it could prove to be costly. But he was prepared to do whatever it took to see it succeed.

Just then, he heard the faint clicking of women’s shoes between the explosions of fireworks on the wooden deck behind him. He carefully removed the earpiece and gently placed it in his pocket with his communicator.

“I hope I’m not interrupting you,” came Suli’s voice between fireworks blasts from behind him.

“No,” he said after a moment. He turned to face her, pressing away from the railing. “No, not at all. I was just taking care of a business matter that had suddenly come up.”

She stopped a few feet away from him, arms neatly folded at the wrists in front of her. Even in this light, and in the cool breeze, she was beauty incarnate.

“I can appreciate that,” she said, looking down at the deck momentarily.

He paused for a moment, contemplating what she could be after now.

“If I might ask directly,” he said, ensuring to not show his true feelings, “is there something else I can do for you this evening? Or have you come to insult me further?”

“There is,” she said after a moment. He watched as she fiddled with the small purse in her hands. “What I said earlier was uncalled for. And deeply personal.”

He stared at her, his face an image of stone.

“I hope,” she continued over the noise, taking a few steps closer, “that you can forgive me for that. If not now, then in time. It’s one thing to be business rivals. But it’s another to be a hostess and treat one’s guests poorly. I … know your family and sister mean a lot to you. Just like how much my dear husband means to me. I used my knowledge of your tragedy inappropriately. I’m sorry.”

He hadn’t been prepared for this apology from her. He took several steps towards her as the light from the fireworks washed over both of them. “Thank you, Suli,” he said after a few moments with a slight bow of his head. “I am sure I can look to forgive you in time.” More fireworks continued to explode above them, the wind picking up some speed. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said, beginning to make his way past her, “I have a busy day tomorrow that I need to plan for.”

“Korwin,” she said, extending an arm out to stop him and gently taking his arm. “One more thing.”

“Yes?” he asked, meeting her gaze.

Her emerald green eyes met his, her golden ruby necklace shining brightly in the night. He watched as she momentarily bit her lip, then began her next sentence.

“Regardless of what I said earlier,” she said, finding the words she wanted to say, “and regardless of our previous business dealings … deep down, I believe you to be a good person.” Another round of fireworks erupted into the air before taking on different shapes as they exploded. “It would be nice to see more of that.”

He momentarily considered her words before changing his stance to face her, taking her hand as a gentleman would. He wouldn’t necessarily forgive her -- not just yet -- but that wouldn’t stop him from being a gentleman in this moment.

“I assure you my dear, whatever decisions I make, I make for the good of everyone. Including yourself. I appreciate you coming to offer an apology.” He raised her hand and kissed it gently in a show of respect. “Enjoy the rest of your evening.”

He left her there, pondering his actions, and descended the staircase to continue adjusting his plans for tomorrow.

***

Dia continued her march down the walkway of the ship towards their cabin. Her stomach was churning, which greatly annoyed her.

“Dia,” Andrew called, his pace increasing behind her. “Dia, wait!” Within a few seconds he had caught up to her. She felt his hand gently take her arm.

She stopped and spun around to face him.

“Can’t we talk about this?” he asked her.

“We will,” she said tersely. She turned to continue her walk forward. He kept pace with her.

“Okay,” he said, moving up beside her. “Probably not the best time to drop the news. But don’t you think you’re overreacting just a bit?”

Her stomach churned and roiled.

“No,” she said flatly.

“Then what’s the problem?” he asked.

She stopped a few feet later, a hand moving to her stomach. A Mon Calamari deckhand held a mop and was scrubbing the deck ahead of them, occasionally dipping the mop in the portable cleaning bucket.

“Do you realize the kinds of missions those pilots fly? What their turnover rate is?”

Sharp pains began tearing their way across the inside of her stomach. She winced in pain.

“I do,” he said after a moment. “But they need good pilots. I thought….”

She moved to place a hand against the wall while keeping the other on her stomach.

“Ahh,” she said as the pain once more made its way across her stomach.

“...hey … what’s wrong?” Andrew asked, changing his line of conversation.

“I,” she began. Her stomach did a few somersaults. “I don’t feel so….” Sweat had begun to bead on her brow. She felt like she wanted to vomit. Quickly looking for her options, she saw that she was limited. If she moved to vomit over the railing, it would fall down below onto another deck and possibly other passersby. “Oh....,” she moaned, “I don’t feel so….” Seeing her only option, she rushed a few steps forward.

And vomited into the cleaning bucket of the Mon Calamari several times.

The Mon Calamari looked on with annoyance and disbelief, his shoulders sagging.

“Ohmigosh,” Dia moaned, wiping her mouth. She felt Andrew near her. He placed one hand on her back, the other to briefly look at her face.

“You look pale,” he said.

“I feel awful,” she said after a moment.

“Which way to the nearest medical bay?” she heard Andrew ask the Mon Calamari.

“Deck three,” she heard the Mon Calamari say. “Take the stairs up ahead on your right.”

“Come on,” Andrew said, gently taking hold of her. She puked one final time before finding the strength to stand up and go with him.

“Don’t think this stops our conversation,” she said between breaths as they made their way towards the stairs.

***

They entered the medical bay a few minutes later. The medical staff was busy attending to two other patients who seemed to have similar conditions to Dia’s vomiting.

A B1 medical droid met them, directing them to the last patient table in the room.

“When did it begin happening?” inquired the droid.

“Just a few minutes ago,” Andrew said. “She was fine, then she started vomiting.”

“Ma’am, can you describe the feeling?”

Dia looked up at the droid from where she was sitting on the table. “It’s like a mix of your stomach churning and then sharp cramp-like pains running across your stomach,” she began. Just then, the attending physician walked over to them. It was an ugnaught dressed in a small white doctor’s coat.

“Good evening, sir. Ma’am,” he said, hopping up onto the nearby stool. “I”m doctor Tamka. What seems to be the problem here?”

“A case of vomiting and stomach pains,” said the medical droid. “Much like the other two patients here.”

“I see,” said the ugnaught, rubbing his chin. “By chance did you eat the Eudoran shrimp at the gala this evening? And drink any red wine at any point?”

Dia nodded quickly, the odd tear running down her face.

“Ah, an easy diagnosis, then. You, my dear, have a mild form of toxicity poisoning -- or food poisoning, if you’d prefer simpler terms.”

“How is that possible?” Andrew asked.

“Eudoran shrimp are a delicacy,” said the doctor, turning to look at him. “But, if they are not cooked correctly, they can secrete a mild toxin into the consumer’s stomach.”

“I was wondering why some of the shrimp tasted a bit gamey,” moaned Dia. A burp escaped her mouth.

“That toxin, combined with the sulfur dioxide that is naturally added to the wine to help keep it fresh, increases the toxin’s potency. It is also why you may have felt the wine taste bitter rather than its normal sweet flavour.”

“That explains it,” said Dia as the medical droid handed her a paper cup full of water. She downed it quickly.

“I typically see a few cases each year of this, so the prognosis is simple.” He hopped down off the stool and went to a cabinet, fetching a small box with pills in it. He ripped two square foils from it.

“Take one of these every twelve hours for the next twenty-four hours,” he said, handing them to Andrew. “Drink plenty of water, and stay away from any form of alcohol. I also suggest consuming foods such as soups, and plenty of bed rest. If the symptoms still persist beyond tomorrow night, contact the medical line for an immediate follow-up.”

“Thank you, doctor,” Andrew said as he began to gather up Dia. “Honey … do you think you can make it back to the cabin?”

“Yeah,” she said tiredly. “Yeah I can.”

As they were dismissed from the medical room, he held her as she slowly made her way back towards their room.

***

When they got back, she was able to slip out of her dress and into her nightgown on her own. BD-B2 watched in curiosity as she took the first pill and drank a tall glass full of water. Wiping her brow, she climbed into the bed and wrapped herself in the blankets. Andrew eventually did the same. They both lay in silence for some time.

“Do you still want to talk?” he asked her finally.

She rolled over slowly to look at him. She looked about as good as she felt, which was horrible.

“We should,” she mumbled. “But right now, I just want to sleep.”

“Okay,” he said.

She looked at him, then closed her eyes and sighed. She then fumbled underneath the blankets for his hand, and squeezed it when she found it.

“Not the greatest ending to the evening,” she said weakly. “But it was still mostly enjoyable.”

“Good,” he said, squeezing hers back.

“You know,” she said after a minute, “this could also be a blessing in disguise.”

“How so?” he asked.

She opened her eyes partially. “If I’m still not feeling well, I don’t have to sit through tomorrow’s musical,” she said with a small laugh.

***

He awoke the next morning to gentle and constant breathing from her, as well as imitations of snoring sounds coming from BD-B2. The little droid was crouched on the side-table next to Dia’s edge of the bed. His optics closed, his head gently rose while making a snoring sound, then lowered as it let out a series of sounds.

Snore … wah wah wah wah wah wah… snore … wah wah wah wah wah wah.

Shaking his head in amusement, he got up to have a quick shower, then ordered room service for breakfast. The food was moderately priced, surprisingly enough, and arrived within half an hour of placing the order.

“How are you feeling?” he asked her as she sat up in bed, slowly working her way through a bowl of oatmeal.

“A bit better,” she said, another burp escaping her mouth, “but still awful.”

“Would you like me to keep you company?” he asked her.

“Maybe for a little bit,” she said, placing her bowl of oatmeal on the tray. She nursed a glass of orange juice next, then set it on the dresser. “I just feel like resting for the rest of the day. Why don’t you go out and enjoy yourself? There’s lots of events going on today.”

Eventually, he did just that, leaving her to sleep. The events were plentiful and varied; there was something for everyone aboard, be it a sport, games, contests, the casino, or live presentations. He checked up on her every once in a while, little seeming to change in her desire for rest, even after taking the second pill -- though she was looking better as the day went on.

He spent the afternoon participating in some sports activities. After finishing a few rounds of kanji-ball, a game involving teams scoring points by bouncing balls off of spring nets, he was met by a familiar face on his way to the change rooms.

“Didn’t expect to meet you here, stranger,” said the chocolate-skinned woman with dark hair and a honey-sweet voice.

Andrew turned around to see a familiar figure.

“Captain Supriya,” he said, flashing a smile. “What a surprise! What brings you here?”

“Command is still working on finding me a proper ship after the Destiny was destroyed,” she said as the two walked out of the arena and into the sunlight. Birds cawed overhead as the ship sailed its way across the ocean. “You’d think with the gains we’ve made that another cruiser would be in order, but for the time being I’m captaining a modified corvette. Had some leave time built up, so decided to take a break and get some fresh air.”

They decided to go to one of the outdoor seating areas, each ordering a drink and a light snack, catching up on events since their last encounter. He also regaled her with his adventures with Dia and the Vigilant since their last encounter, leaving out the deeply personal details of course. When he told her about the tickets to the show that evening, she perked up.

“You’re a fan of The Pirates of Merchance, too?” she asked earnestly.

“I am,” he said with a sheepish laugh.

“And here I thought I was the only one,” she said. “You’re a lucky guy. Not many get to have a vacation like this.”

“You know,” he said after a moment. “Dia isn’t really keen on musicals, and most likely won’t be joining me this evening.” He leaned forward, his arms crossed on the table. “How’d you like to trade in your ticket for a more premium one? Ours aren’t exactly front-row seats, but they’re still pretty good.”

“Really?” she exclaimed in excitement, then recomposed herself. “Well, it wouldn’t feel right taking her ticket….”

“How about this,” he said, giving a counter-offer. “If she changes her mind and decides to attend, just swap tickets and seats. Things would then be as they were. Think of it as keeping her seat warm for her.”

Supriya gave a small laugh and a smile. “Done.”

“Great,” he said as she handed him her ticket. “I’ll meet you at the entrance at six.”

***

He went back to the room for supper. Dia was in the bathroom, and he could hear the shower running.

“How are you feeling?” he called to her.

“Better,” she said after a moment, “though still not at one-hundred percent.”

“If you don’t mind, I ran into an old friend while I was out and about. We’re going to meet and see the show together. You don’t mind, do you?”

The water stopped, and there was a pause for a minute or two. She emerged with her housecoat on, wiping away at her face and lekku with a towel. Despite sounding better, she still looked pale.

“Not really,” she said, sitting down on the bed. “Just leave me a ticket in case I feel good enough to go.”

“I’ll leave you this one,” he said, swapping out the tickets. “If you are feeling better, I’ll meet you near the bar during the intermission so we can swap seats.”

He kissed her forehead as she climbed back into bed.

BD-B2 scurried out the door and away as Andrew opened it.

“Where’s he off to?” Andrew asked.

“Who knows?” said Dia, waving her hand. “But it’s probably for the best. He’s been going stir-crazy all day.”

***

They met at the entrance. Supriya was wearing a casual pair of black pants with a navy blue shirt and a tan leather jacket. He, likewise, was dressed down to casual wear for the evening.

“If you don’t mind my say,” he said as they bought some popcorn and beverages, “you clean up well.”

“A little indulgence from time to time never hurt anyone,” she said as they walked down the port of the ship. “And I like to dress smartly and sharply.”

The sun hung low in the sky as it had begun its descent for the day, with night on its heels. It wasn’t long before they were ushered to their seats, which also began to fill. They were a number of rows back of the stage, but still within good eyesight. Other ticket holders from numerous worlds and walks of life trickled into the make-shift theatre to find their seats. Up on the stage, stage hands were setting up the scenery for the opening number.

“I still can’t get over the size and make-up of this ship,” he said. “It’s unbelievable.”

“Makes the ships we serve on seem like rusty old tins cans, doesn’t it?” she said with a wink.

“Hey,” he said with a laugh, “some of them probably are.”

As the stage crew left the stage, an announcer came out through the main door set up on the stage, as would traditionally be set up in any theatre.

“Ladies and gentlemen, beings of all ages,” her voice rang out as the PA system came to life. “I’d like to welcome you to tonight’s performance of The Pirates of Merchance performed by the illustrious and multi-world renowned Royal Duchess’s Acting Society!”

A wave of applause rose from the crowd. The stages actors began to exit in a straight line, each turning left or right as they came out.

“Tonight is a special night,” continued the announcer, “as the actors and actresses behind me performs for the first time a new, more updated version of the play suitable for a modern audience.”

“This should be fun,” Supriya murmured to Andrew, who nodded in agreement.

“The Acting Society will begin with their opening number shortly, which we would like to dedicate to our two patrons of this event -- Mister Korwin Solari, and Miss Suli deChenzzi!”

A round of applause once more spilled through the audience, many of whom stood up to turn around and applaud in their direction. Twisting around in his seat, Andrew saw the two of them in one of several private boxes to the right of them on the upper level of the ship. Each stood up to address the crowd, smiling and waiving.

“And now,” continued the announcer, “I’ll kindly ask that you take your seats, and refrain from taking any holo pics during the show so as to not distract the actors. Ladies and gentlemen, beings of all ages, without further ado I give you The Pirates of Merchance!”

An enthusiastic buzz rose through the crowd as the acting troupe stepped forward. As the lights dimmed, their song began and they began moving about the stage for their introductory number. Once this had finished, most of the actors left the stage, leaving one of the lead actors -- a Mon Calamari male -- to begin the first number.

“When I was a lad in the Queen’s navy,” he began, “I cleaned the windows and swept the floor….”

Andrew and Supriya drank up the performance, as did others around them, quietly mouthing the words as the song continued.

The rest of the first few scenes were similar as the other principal and secondary characters were introduced, as was the main villain -- The Pirate King of Merchance.

“Quite the show,” said Supriya, who had nearly finished her popcorn. Andrew nodded in agreement. As the scene came to a close and began to transition to the second act, Andrew thought he heard several humming sounds that were rapidly getting closer and louder.

No sooner had the Pirate King and a handful of his pirate goons made their way back onto the stage than four small sailing skiffs rose over the bow of the ship. A little more than two dozen humans and beings from other races jumped from the skiffs and began making their way into the crowd and onto the stage.

“Considering that this is the scene where the pirate troupe is introduced in full, I’m surprised they went all out with the costumes and special effects,” said Supriya.

Andrew, who had shifted his attention to the stage actors, saw an entirely different scene unfolding. The actors were looking baffled and not continuing on with their part of the scene.

“I don’t think they’re actors,” he said, quickly turning to Supriya. “We have to go. Now.”

“Why?” she asked. Then she saw what he did and the same idea dawned on her.

“Nobody move!” came a booming voice over the PA system. “Stay where you are and don’t move!”

The crowd, thinking this was part of the act, gave a round of applause. That changed once a handful of blaster shots screamed in the air as shots rose towards the sky. People began to scream and panic as the newly arrived individuals moved through the crowd, trying to maintain control.

“Just our luck to encounter real pirates on a vacation,” Andrew said as he and Supriya squeezed their way out of their row and began sprinting towards the exit. A number of other theatregoers had the same idea. More blaster shots continued to fill the air as people screamed and cried.

“Nobody move!” came the voice over the PA system. “Stay where you are, or we will shoot!”

They were about to hit the exit when another skiff full of eight pirates rose to their right above the railing. Those trying to escape stopped where they were, forced back by the new group of pirates.

“Come on,” said Supriya as she grabbed Andrew’s hand and pulled him to the left. A hatch near the wall leading to who knew where was their only chance to escape. No one else had seemed to notice it. Flinging it open, Andrew was the first to slide down the ladder while Supriya followed closely behind, closing the hatch behind her.

“Do you have a comm link on you?” he asked.

“I don’t,” she panted.

“Where did they come from?” he asked.

“Your guess is as good as mine. Could be related to the attacks and kidnappings that have been going on over the last few months. Come on, we need to keep moving.”

They began to make their way down the hallway, being attentive. They were clearly in a maintenance tunnel or area of the ship of some sort.

“What do you mean, attacks?” he asked.

“According to the media, pirates have been making random attacks on resorts and other cruises over time. Local authorities have been baffled and unable to stop them. Most have taken place on the main world, several have taken place on this moon -- though all of those have been in other provinces.”

“If it's this serious, we need to alert the security team. Or the Vigilant,” Andrew said.

“Agreed,” said Supriya, her feet pounding on the deck plating. “But we need to be careful. This could be happening elsewhere on the ship.”

***

Suli watched in horror as the scene unfolded in front of her. Blaster shots rang through the air as people panicked and tried to find shelter or run away. A number of stun ring blasts lanced out towards the theatregoers.

“Miguel,” said Suli, producing a commlink from her purse. “Miguel, come in!” static filled the airwaves. Suli turned to look at Seela, who was equally concerned. Just then, Solari burst through the curtain behind them.

“If I might be tactful,” he said, moving quickly towards them, “we should all leave. Now.”

Suli didn’t want to abandon the people below, but she had no choice. Rising out of her seat, she took Seela’s hand and the trio exited her private booth. They began making their way through the corridors of the ship. She tried to raise the captain as well, without success.

“We have to get to security,” said Suli. “Or the bridge and alert the captain.”

“It would be better,” said Solari as they turned the corner, “if we could get off the ship.”

“And leave these people?” protested Suli. “I think not!”

Korwin stopped and wheeled around to face her.

“It’s better if we get you to safety,” he said. She gave him a puzzled look, trying to understand his meaning. “Trust me. Let’s go.”

They continued down the hall and rounded another corner -- only to be met by four Imperial stormtroopers.

“Freeze!” said the lead stormtrooper. “Don’t -- aaaaugh!”

Suli surged forward, brushing against Korwin’s shoulder, and used her four tentacled appendages to grab ahold of the four stormtroopers. With some effort, she bounced each several times against the walls and floors until they dropped their blasters or were rendered motionless.

“Did you just?...” Seela began.

“They’ll be fine when they wake up,” Suli said. “Come on.”

“There they are!” came a voice from behind them.

Suli glanced behind her to see Miguel charging down the hallway, four stormtroopers in tow. A door opened behind Solari to reveal another fresh group of stormtroopers. They were cornered, unable to move forward or fall back without risking a firefight.

“Miguel,” said Suli as the squads cornered them. “What is the meaning of this? Why are Imperial troops on my ship?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Miguel said as he stopped, producing a pair of handcuffs. “But I have no choice. Two nights ago my wife and little girls were taken hostage. If I don’t do what they want, they’ll be killed.”

The stormtroopers clicked their blasters.

Solari bent down and picked up one of the blasters that lay strewn on the ground from the first group. As he stood up, he pointed it at the two women.

“Korwin?” Suli asked. “Are you…?”

“Whatever our differences,” he said, a click sounding from the blaster, “I’m doing what I am for the greater good. I hope in time you’ll understand.”

Before she could say anything, he fired and the world went black.

[End of Part 3]

Part 1

Part 2

Part 4