Authors: Michael Reaves
eela Kaarz sat in her assigned seat, staring at the blank hull next to her. The shuttle had no viewports in the passenger area, so there wasn’t much to see, save other prisoners. There were maybe three hundred such—males and females of perhaps a dozen different humanoid species, packed into the transport in tight rows. The smell of various body odors was sour and potent. She saw no other Mirialans such as herself. She knew there were some from her home-world down on the hellacious world of Despayre—at least, there were if they were still alive. The prison planet was rife with danger—wild animals, poison plants, violent storms, and extremes of heat and cold due to an erratic orbit. Not a place to which anybody of her species, or most others, would voluntarily go, unless they had a most serious death wish.
Teela didn’t harbor a death wish, but it mattered little now what she wished. Her right to wish, along with just about every other right, had been taken from her. She was no longer a galactic citizen. As of a standard year ago, she was a criminal and a prisoner.
Her “crime” had been simply to back the wrong political candidate in a planetwide election on her world. The Emperor had decided that the man running for office was a traitor, as were his most influential supporters. He had thus
ordered a score of well-to-do Mirialans to be rounded up, given a speedy “trial,” and convicted of treason. Given the public outrage over this travesty of justice, it had been deemed politically inexpedient to execute them then and there, and so Teela and her compatriots had been shipped off to die on a world many light-years away—a world so dangerous and inhospitable that it almost seemed to have been designed for the sole purpose of being a prison planet.
It had been quite a shock to be among those so chosen. In the span of a single planetary rotation, she had gone from being an influential and well-to-do professional to a criminal, and had existed in the latter state for a standard year. She had been lucky—and astonished—to have survived that long. She had been an architect, specializing in encapsulated arcology design—not a profession that prepared one for survival on a world where every other animal slinking around considered you prey, or every other plant had thorns from which a tiny scratch could cause agonizing pain before its poison killed you.
Before her fall from grace she had been near the top of her game, a much-sought-after professional who had designed the Ralthhok Encapsulization on Corellia and the Blackstar wheelworld in the Sagar system. She had been fêted and lionized, a guest of monarchs and Senators, heads of industry and starfleet admirals. She had thought nothing of taking an atmo-skimmer halfway around Mirial to dine with friends on different continents for each meal.
Now just having a dinner that didn’t bite back was a luxury.
She had been lucky, but her survival hadn’t been entirely due to luck. Her father had been fond of the outdoors, and as a young girl she had gone camping with him frequently. He had taught her woodcraft, and while the plants and animals on the prison world Despayre were different from those on Mirial—to say the least—the principles of dealing with them were the same. If it had teeth and claws, it was
best to avoid it. If it had thorns or serrated edges, it was not a good idea to stray too close. One kept one’s awareness firmly in the here and now and did not indulge in the luxury of daydreams and reverie unless one was safely barricaded behind makeshift walls constructed of cast-off battleplate or jury-rigged fields. And it was a good idea not to let one’s guard drop even then, because there were predators inside the compounds as well as out; predators with two legs instead of four or six, but nonetheless deadly.
One year. And until this morning, there had been no reason for her to believe she would ever leave Despayre, however much time she might have left to live. But when Imperial Guards landed outside the makeshift shantytown the prisoners had named Dungeontown, the rumor had quickly spread. There was a project in orbit, the word was, and they needed more labor.
“I hear they got twen’y t’ousand Wookiee slaves workin’ this t’ing,” the man sitting to her right said. He was talking to the prisoner on his right, and not Teela, but as close as he was, she’d have to be deaf to miss the conversation. The prisoner to her right was a Bakuran; coarse, and convicted of multiple crimes, according to the bragging he’d been doing to their mutual seatmate: robbery, gun-running, assault, murder. He smelled like slime mold.
“That right?” The prisoner seated one away from Teela was a Brigian, a tall, purple-skinned humanoid whom Teela had seen in Dungeontown a few times. The only Brigian in their town, she had heard. He was soft-spoken when he answered the Bakuran, but she’d also heard that he had been an assassin good enough with his hands that he seldom needed a weapon. There was a story that he had once killed a virevol—a kind of wolf-sized, saber-toothed rat found only on Despayre—with nothing more than a stick. And then cooked and eaten it.
Thieves and murderers. Pleasant company for a woman who had, until she had been arrested for a poor political
stance, never gotten so much as a skytraffic ticket. Not that she had made that knowledge public. The more dangerous criminals in Dungeontown thought you were, the greater the chance they would leave you be. When anybody asked her what her crime had been, Teela always just smiled. That tended to make the questioner think twice about whatever his intentions might be toward her.
“Yar,” the Bakuran said. “Half a million droids, plus a load o’ construction bots—extruders, shapers, benders, like that, too. Big sucker they be buildin’, whatever t’ kark it is.”
The purple humanoid shrugged. “Die on the planet, die in space. No matter.”
The transport slowed, then stopped. After a moment there was a
that vibrated through the ship.
“Sounds like a ramp just locked on,” the Brigian said. “Looks like wherever we’re going, we’re there.”
The Bakuran turned to look at Teela, giving her a long up-and-down leer, then a toothy grin. “Wouldn’t mind a bunkmate, if space b’ tight,” he said. “You’ll do.”
“Last ‘bunkmate’ I had accidentally died in his sleep one night,” Teela said. She smiled.
The Bakuran blinked. “Yar?”
She didn’t say anything further. She just kept smiling.
The Bakuran’s grin faded.
A guard appeared. “Everybody up and single-file,” he said.
The Brigian was closest to the aisle, the Bakuran behind him, and Teela behind the Bakuran. He kept glancing back at her, quick and nervous looks, as they filed out of the ship and into the sinuous tube of the pressurized ramp.
At the entrance to a huge and cold assembly area, Teela saw there were thousands of other prisoners entering through scores of ramps connected to other transports. She could smell the perspiration and fear from the prisoners, mixed with the stale, metallic tang of recycled air. Guards
stationed at scanners monitored each incoming line. As each prisoner passed through a scanner, there sounded a musical tone.
Reading their implants, she guessed. Most of the notes were the same, but now and again a different tone would sound, a full step lower, and the prisoners connected to them would be separated from the others and directed away from the main body toward a stairway to a lower level. Maybe one in fifty, she figured.
Who were they? she wondered. Rejects? Culls? People bound for a one-way trip out the nearest air lock?
When Teela passed the scanner’s arch, the tone emitted was the lower one. She felt her heart race faster, her breath catch, as the guard brusquely ordered her to step out of the line.
Whatever that sound meant for those it selected, she was apparently about to find out.
hould I break their skulls?” Rodo asked.
Memah Roothes said, “No. Just throw ’em out.”
“You’re sure? I don’t mind.”
“Much as I admire a man who enjoys his work, I’m asking you to try to curb your enthusiasm.”
“You’re the boss.”
From behind the bar, where she occasionally took a turn mixing drinks, the owner of the Soft Heart Cantina watched as Rodo, the pub’s peacekeeper, went to attend to the off-duty and getting-progressively-louder customers. That there were two Imperial stormtroopers soused and gearing themselves up for a fight didn’t worry her. Rodo—if he had another name, nobody she knew had ever heard it—was one of the biggest humans she had ever seen. Born and raised on Ragith III, a descendant of human colonists who had been genetically bred and selected for generations to adapt to the one-and-a-half standard-g environment, Rodo, at over two meters and 110 kilos, was not a man you wanted to have mad at you. Somebody once parked a landspeeder in his spot on the street outside the cantina. Rodo had considered this an insult, and he had been direct in dealing with it.
Seeing a vehicle picked up and turned over without help makes an impression—people didn’t park in Rodo’s spot
anymore. He was also extremely fast and very, very good at some weird kind of martial art, which he could use to tie a drunk and belligerent patron into a knot faster than you could call the Imperial cools to come and haul the problem away.
Rodo’s presence was why things tended to stay pretty quiet in the cantina, even on a payday like tonight. When somebody got too loud or combative, usually Rodo’s arrival at the table was enough to solve the problem.
Usually, but not always …
Memah turned to finish a drink order. She saw—out of the corner of her eye—a human male, a spacer by his garments, gazing dreamily at her, chin supported by one hand as he leaned over his drink. She gave no acknowledgment of his admiration. A Rutian Twi’lek from Ryloth, with teal skin that seemed to glow under the fullspec lights, she was used to such looks. Her skin, in both color and tone, was one of her best features, which she tended to showcase by wearing short and sleeveless dresses.
She knew that, to most humanoid races, she was startlingly beautiful; even her lekku, the two large, fleshy tendrils that hung about her shoulders instead of human hair, seemed to have an erotic attraction for humans. And she was fit enough, due to a daily swimming and zero-g workout regimen, although it always seemed to her that she could stand to lose a kilo from her hips.
Memah had managed this place for two years, and owned it for two more, before the galaxy had gone crazy. Of course, war was good for business in a cantina. Beings about to ship off to battle in the middle of nowhere on some backrocket planet knew they wouldn’t be relaxing in a place like hers the few times they weren’t blasting Rebels or droids. This tended to promote a certain to-vac-with-tomorrow attitude, which translated into considerable profits for her.
The Heart was crowded, and it took Rodo a minute to work his way to the would-be fighters, who were at a two-seat table near the east wall. One of them was on his feet and the other rising when the big bouncer arrived. He was a head taller and nearly as wide as both of them put together. He eclipsed the light, and both men looked up to see what was casting such a gigantic shadow.
Memah grinned again. There was no way she could hear what Rodo was saying to them. The place was noisy with conversation and laughter, the clink of glasses toasting, the scrape of chair legs on the hard floor. She had two more tenders working the bar, both busily mixing drinks and drawing down the taps. It wasn’t a quiet environment. But she knew essentially what the big man was telling the two troopers. They had disturbed the spirit of the Heart, and they would have to leave—now.
If they were wise, they’d smile and nod and hustle themselves to the door. If they were stupid, they’d argue with Rodo. If they were
stupid, one or both would decide that how they behaved wasn’t any of the peacekeeper’s business, and they’d be happy to demonstrate their Imperial combat training to him, thank-you-very-milking-much!
Rodo’s response was always based on their attitude. Play nice, and they could come back tomorrow and start fresh, with no hard feelings. It went on a sliding scale from there. In this case, the two must have decided that the enforcer wasn’t as tough as he looked, and worth at least a few choice words, probably concerning his parents or siblings and his immoral relationships with them.
Before either trooper could do or say anything else, Rodo grabbed each one by the shirtfront, moving incredibly fast for such a big man, and, in an amazing display of raw strength, lifted both clear of the floor and banged their heads together. If they weren’t unconscious after that, they were certainly stunned enough to cease hostilities. Holding
them thus, Rodo walked toward the door, as if doing so was no more effort than carrying two large steins of ale.
It didn’t take him long to achieve the exit—everybody between him and the door moved with great alacrity, clearing a broad and empty path. The room went almost quiet as the door hissed open and Rodo tossed the two into the street.