Inside the Helmet
“Ah, Captain Orell,” Admiral Varana’s image resolved in the blue holoreceiver disk on the bridge.
“Admiral,” I straightened up a little in the seat and replied, “We’ve departed Bespin and are returning to the fleet. We have…”
“What is your current location,” the Admiral interrupted, I was going to tell him that…
“Hoth System,” Ma’ag blurted before I could even form the words.
“Excellent,” the Admiral’s image wavered a moment and then cleared. “You’re not returning to the fleet. You are to travel immediately to the Malastare System and rendezvous with Agent Maya of Alderaanian Security. She will provide further details.”
What? I cleared my throat with a little hint of snide. “Yes, sir. Ah… we have some information…”
“Agent Maya will provide further details. Proceed with all haste. Verana out.”
Did he just…interrupt me again? AND hang up? I leaned back in the chair, a little confused, a little annoyed. Ma’ag waited in silence next to me for a moment. Then, “Well Captain?” The word had a little venom behind it, and I couldn’t really blame him, he’s really attached to this ship. And it caught me off guard a bit too.
“I guess we’re going to Mallastare,” I shrugged and gave Ma’ag that ‘you heard the man’ look.
“All haste?” Ma’ag spun and started warming up the systems for departure.
“All haste.” Osik.
“Well, now what?” Ma’ag asked me looking at the sensors as the hyperdrive spun down. He looked as upset as I felt at the lack of information but I couldn’t help him because we were all in the dark on this one. We just exited hyperspace near Malastare, instructed to meet Maya, with no other information than that to work with. “We’ve got at least three hours in-system approach too.” Ma’ag added.
“Try the channel that Bail gave us for the secure transmissions,” I suggested, “it just might…” Ma’ag had already grabbed the comm and keyed in the secure channel from Senator Bail and the comm sprang to life.
“…nsmitting on secure channel to any Alderaanian agents… Repeat, this is a priority call to any friendly on secure channel. Is anyone receiving?”
“Got her! Apparently she’s been expecting us,” Ma’ag said. I looked over at Ma’ag who had a satisfied look on his spiky face. “Agent Maya!” I shouted into the comm, “This is Turtle, Alderaanian Freelance Security Vessel, transmitting Organa verification code now. What is your situation? We do not have any detailed instructions for extraction!”
“Who?” She didn’t even wait a heartbeat for an answer. Then, “Doesn’t matter… I’m in a Z95, just blasted my way out of Malastare Polar Orbital Station and I have three hostiles in pursuit!” she shouted back.
“Understood, changing course to intercept. How are you with high speed docking maneuvers?”
“We’re all gonna find out shortly!” she shouted back, “Fierfek! If I can keep dodging their blaster fire!”
Ma’ag muted the channel and confirmed what we knew, “Yeah she’s got three Headhunters in pursuit, actively firing on her, basically out of range but they are trying anyway. Could get a lucky shot, but…”
“Unidentified Ghtroc 720 freighter, squawk ident, and state your business in this sector.” The cockpit speaker blurted so unexpectedly we both jumped.
“Shab! Where’s that coming from?”
“Cruiser,” Ma’ag said, “big one. Outta nowhere.”
“Whose?” I asked.
“Sensors aren’t showing, but it’s not looking friendly. Just popped up and it’s changing course to our vector. It’s quite a ways off, and, well… I don’t think I want to meet them.”
“Agreed,” I said. “Let’s see if we can respond all innocent like while I let the rest know.”
I quietly called back to Torrin and Kirgilwho were in our somewhat hastily put together medbay, while Ma’ag gave a practiced response of, oh we’re just a trading vessel, come to Malastare to ply our wares, please don’t shoot us.
“Torrin, hang on to your shebs, it’s going to get a little furry in a minute, and I’m not talking about Kirgil.”
“Ooh I like furry! Be right there, and I’m not talking about Kirgil either,” came the response over the ship intercom. Then, in the background,
“Is hearing this!”
“Ok well I don’t think they bought it," Ma’ag called over his shoulder, "and I just cut them off with static. Boring conversation anyway. We’re going to want to get out of here soon. Soon would be good.”
This one was going to be close. I did some quick calculations in my head, popped them into the navicomputer to confirm, and said to Ma’ag, “We have to stay on our original inbound course but take your time. We’ll meet Maya roughly here at these coordinates, match speed, make a hot dock, and hit hyperspace. We stick that, and we won’t have to see if this thing can outrun a cruiser, let alone a bunch of Headhunters…”
I called Maya to tell her the plan. “Maya, you’ve got to do a full burn in a big arc to keep your distance from your suitors out there. I’m sending you the grid where I want you to meet us. We’re staying on our current course so that Cruiser doesn’t take any more liking to us. If my guess is right, we should have enough time to dock and go.”
“Well I guess that’s a better plan than the alternative…,” came the curt response.
The next half-hour was nerve racking. Ma’ag was flying Turtle as normally as he could without looking like he was trying to stall for time, and calling out sensor data and positions of the enemy ships. I kept in contact with Maya and would relay that info to her. She was flying that Z95 hard, dodging the occasional shots from the pursuers and trying to get to us in one piece. Torrin was standing by docking controls, weapons, and emergency systems in case we needed it fast. Kirgil… At that moment I had no idea what he was up to. Hopefully he was fixing something, keeping a hairy eye on our ‘guest’ in the medbay, or both. I called him just for status. Kirgil could talk his way into or out of anything and was usually talking. Especially after too much Gal. It’s when he wasn’t talking that I got nervous.
“I here. You leave me alone, I know what I doing.”
Okay, well, that said it all.
Maya was approaching. Fast. “Ma’ag? Shouldn’t we be doing a braking burn? Our closing speed is pretty fast and we need to match speed,” I prodded.
“Yeah, I know.” Ma’ag replied.
We closed. Faster. The Navicomputer screeched. “Ma’ag?”
Silence. He was looking straight out the transparisteel cockpit window, not even looking at the sensor readout. There was a peaceful look on his face, his usual not-a-care-in-the-galaxy look. But those Zabrak eyes, the intensity worried me.
“Ma’ag!” —nothing. I glanced over at Torrin who looked as giddy as a Mando boy with his first Kal, smiling, but silent.
The Navicomputer went from a screech to a wail. Collision alarms went off.
Ma’ag threw the Turtle into a hard 180-degree spin with the maneuvering thrusters and punched the Turtle’s engines to a full burn. I was thrown back in my seat at the force and the cockpit shook as the ship forced itself to an unimaginatively fast stop and then a full acceleration in the opposite direction. As soon as we recovered from the jolt, we all jumped into action at once. It was time for a docking maneuver at full speed and none of us had done that before. We gained speed quickly and as Maya approached in her stolen Z95, the other headhunters all started firing wildly at us. Still out of effective range, but it was going to make flying and docking difficult at best.
Then, the comm lit up as that big cruiser figured out we weren’t going to hang around.
“Ghtroc freighter, stand down! You are instructed to power down your engines and prepare to be boarded! You are in violatio……”
The comm channel went dead. I looked to the comm board just as Torrin pulled his hand back form the open channel cutoff switch and just said, “What? You didn’t really want to talk to them did you?”
I really didn’t. None of us did. I gave him a smile and simply said “Docking collar?”
“On it”, Torrin said already on his way out of the cockpit.
“Zake, get ready!” Ma’ag shouted. I grabbed the dock control and tried to watch Ma’ag and the sensors at the same time. Ma’ag was flying like a man possessed trying to match the speed of Maya’s Z95 right to the exact klick. And he was just about there.
“I’m at the collar!” called Torrin over the intercom.
“10 seconds,” Ma’ag said.
Just then a warning light started flashing. The Cruiser had firing lock and was powering up long range lasers. What could we do though? We were committed and I wasn’t going to add to the stress by letting everyone know that if we missed this we were about to be turned into space junk.
“On my mark, 3, 2, 1, NOW,”
At Ma’ag’s mark, I hit the switch on the docking control so hard that I left a mark on the console with my gauntlet. After a second the whole control board flashed green and the display read hard seal.
“She’s in! GO!”
“Punch it Ma’ag!”
Ma’ag had already warmed up the hyperdrive with our Ba’slan shev’la protocol, and just threw the lever into commit position without looking. The Turtle whined, the cockpit display board lit up, and the starfield outside the viewport went from pinpoints to long streaks as the jump to hyperspace commenced. We were gone. And alive.
“You?!” Maya blurted, “I remember you. You’re Varth’s guys, right?” but she said it like she smelled something funny, or was scraping nerf osik of off her boot. I guess we didn’t leave that good of an impression on her. “Bail sent you? Where’s Sirona?”
“Yeah, us”, I said with a little force behind it, “You’re welcome. Sirona who?”
“Captain O’Keefe?” Ma’ag offered. When Maya nodded, Ma’ag added, “The Admiral didn’t mention anything about her.” We all stood there in the cargo bay having just run from various parts of the ship after our emergency jump because we all just wanted to find out what exactly was going on.
“That’s not good,” Maya appeared worried for a moment. Then the look faded, replaced by a more determined one. “Well, that’s two I owe you guys.”
“Three,” Ma’ag added under his breath, but loud enough.
“Whatever, Brentaal and Coruscant were both kid’s play compared to this. Alright look, there”s really no time for reminiscing, I need you to take me to Nar Shaddaa as fast as possible – Tolea Biqua station in orbit – get me on, and somehow get me to Ginder the Bimm. When we’re close, I’ll contact him to meet at The Fallen Rodian. It’s a cantina there on the mid levels. If Bail sent you, then he must trust you for this. It’s crucial to the cause that I get to Ginder. But I can’t be seen coming on to the station. You’ve got to find a way to get me to him unseen, then you can be gone."
“What about that hot fighter on our hull?” I asked, “Might be a giveaway.”
“Not in Nar Shaddaa. Keep it, space it, use it for target practice. I don’t care. It was just a tool and I’m done with it.”
“Anything else we should know?” Torrin asked? “What aren’t you telling us?”
“That’s it. I have to get information from Ginder.”
“He’s an agent?”
“Maybe,” She paused for a second looking all four of us over, “Not really. Look, Nar Shaddaa is a cesspool on a good day. Every scum in the galaxy has a summer home there and shady dealings are everyday business, but the Imperials have been sniffing around and you can’t ever trust anyone there. But if I get to Ginder, and no one spots me? Then this is a success and we get another piece of the puzzle. That’s all I can say about it… And give this to Bail," she handed over a datachip, "directly! No one else, not Varana, not Varth, no one. You put it in his hand only, understood? …Where’s the ‘fresher?”
“I show.” Kirgil motioned for her to follow and headed off in the direction of the crew compartments.
“I’ll change course to Nar Shaddaa”, Ma’ag said and turned back toward the cockpit.
I stood there in the cargo bay with Torrin for a moment mindlessly flipping the datachip around in my hand while I thought about what just happened.
“Ever been there?” Torrin asked.
“No, but I know its reputation. Bounty Hunter’s paradise too,” I said with a grin. “Great place to shop.”
“Sounds fun! Any thoughts on an insert?”
“I have an idea. I think you’ll like it. Maya won’t…”
“I am NOT cutting my hair!” Maya shouted at the three of us in the cockpit.
“You’re right. You’re not. I am,” I grinned with my whole face, “Or Ma’ag can,” I jerked my thumb toward him in the pilot seat trying to look busy flying the ship, “He just has horns so I’m sure he’d love to try. You sure don’t want the Bothan to do it, he only specializes in growing hair.”
“Let me try,” Torrin muttered while casually unsheathing a huge vibroblade.
“NO!” Maya stomped.
“Do you want to live through this?” I asked
“Do you?” Oooh, she had real gett’se.
“Look, are you, or are you not, known to the ‘authorities’?” I asked
Silence and a stern glare was the only reply I got.
“Then you need to change your appearance, and you’ve got to look like hell too. You’re going to be my bounty, I’ve roughed you up into compliance, and I’m delivering you to a client. Simple. Effective. But you’ve got to cut your di’kutla hair!”
“Don’t call my hair stupid, Mandalorian,” she snapped pointing a finger at me. Oh she knows some Mando’a. That got me right in the gett’se. I was starting to like her kot even if she was a pain.
“Fine, sorry. I’ll rephrase. Will you agree to cutting your hair to help disguise you for a covert insert that is essential to the success of both of our missions?”
There was that glare again and about five seconds of silence. “Yes.” Then she turned and stormed out of the cockpit leaving me watching her walking away, Ma’ag at the controls of the Turtle apparently oblivious of the interaction that just occurred, and Torrin, laughing so hard that he wasn’t making any noise.
“…Now?!” I called after her as she vanished out of sight. I looked at Torrin, “Wonderful girl. Either I’m gonna kill her or I’m beginning to like her.”
“We’re landing in docking bay seven in one minute. We have clearance. Get ready,” Ma’ag called down from the cockpit.
“Okay, Kirgil, you’re going into The Fallen Rodian first. Let us know if anything looks, you know, not right.” I said.
“Have drink.” He replied. I just rolled my eyes inside my helmet where no one could see. Kirgil was Kirgil. He was the best at getting things done, just most of his best work took place with a drink in his hand at a cantina.
“Maya, resist the urge to make a sound. You know the drill. And, sorry… Torrin, hood her.” Torrin threw a stained, disgusting old gear sack over her freshly shorn head and clamped her hands behind her back in some binder cuffs.
The ship shuddered and with a big thump we were down. The ramp began to lower to the bay and Kirgil was already halfway down when it banged into the deck. He took off to ‘inspect’ the ship and before any of us were on the ramp, he had already spoken to someone in a mechanic’s jumpsuit and was gone.
The three of us started down the ramp. I led the way, with Torrin guiding a hooded and bound Maya behind. We had dressed her in an ill-fitting set of Ma’ag’s greasy repair coveralls that we ripped in a few places for effect. At the bottom of the ramp I turned us toward the main doors into the station and instantly got the attention of the security guard there. Not a surprise really. A fully armored Mandalorian, a big human in heavily modified separatist kit, and a beat up captive getting pushed along.
“Hey, you there!” the ‘guard’ called. He was far from a true security professional. He tried to look it though with a military haircut and insignias of something on his sleeve. But besides the clean clothes, expensive boots, and big carbine, he didn’t carry himself right. I gave Torrin a subtle gesture to hang back for a moment and strode forward. “What’s your…”
“Ordo Mereel, of House Praxxis.” I interrupted the guard in mid question, “I have a bounty here that I have to deliver to a client on C-level and I don’t have a lot of time.” I marched right up to the guard and stood there with hands on my utility belt, inches from my blaster holster and just waited. If this was going to work, it had to start here with confidence.
He stared back at me for a moment just blinking and then said, “Uh, yeah, okay. Go ahead.”
I gave Torrin a nod to form up and we all proceeded out of the bay into the station proper. I was sweating profusely in my Buy’ce but no one had to know that. I switched to our private helmet comm channel and said, “No weapons or ordinance allowed on station, but one forceful sentence from someone in beskar’gam, and it’s ‘sure, bring your big guns on in! We don’t mind!’”
“Advantage us,” Torrin replied in my earpiece, “I like it here so far.”
We stopped at an inconspicuous location and I called in to Kirgil. He didn’t reply directly but the channel opened and I heard him telling an off color joke to someone. The same one he tells to most of his marks, or stupid bartenders. “…Twilek, Human, and Wookie walk into cantina…”
“We’re on, Vod. Kirgil is just broadcasting his bad jokes. No threats at this time,” I relay to Torrin, “let’s move.” We descended one more level and found the cantina. The door was wide enough but we went in single file again with Maya in the middle. I spotted Kirgil at the bar animatedly talking with a random spacer, he glanced over, discreetly pointed with a furry finger at a table to the left, did not give us a wave-off and continued his story without anyone else noticing. I turned and a Bimm seated along the back motioned to us with his drink hand. We led Maya over to the table, still bound and hooded.
“You are?” I asked.
“Ginder,” he replied.
“Delivery for you. Do you have payment?” I had told Maya that a visual exchange of currency would be needed for this ruse to look real. I hoped her message got to him.
“Of course.” It did, he offered a cred chip which I took and put into my belt.
“You two! In the armor! Freeze!”
The voice came from behind us back toward the cantina door. I turned toward the door, and in the same movement, grabbed Maya and shoved her behind us. She crumpled into Ginder and they both ended up in one of the seats of the cantina table while Torrin and I formed a barrier in front of them. When I had fully spun there were three uniformed men just inside the doorway, the one in the lead pointing at us and two flanking him. They were in crisp gray uniforms with small-brimmed black hats, but no rank, insignia, or markings anywhere on them. There was a scream from somewhere as the one on the right drew a pistol from his holster, and the one on the left knocked a table to the floor scattering the patrons sitting there. It would be one of the last things any of them would ever do.
The one on the right who reached for his weapon first may have shot at us then, I don’t truly remember, but finding the fresh scorch marks on my armor later would confirm it. Thinking about it now it seemed as if everything had slowed down to a crawl, like the firefight took minutes when in reality it was over in just seconds. Torrin’s twin heavy blasters were out and leveled blindingly quick, and he was firing by the time I had drawn down on the armed Aruetii. I remember Cantina patrons screaming and diving under their tables, or some just looking, mouths agape. The first one fired, and at almost the same time Torrin unleashed from both his barrels and connected solidly with the first shooter and dropped him to his knees. He tottered for a moment and fell over in a heap. My shot hit the one on the left. He had drawn a blaster and fired as well, and I caught his off side so hard that he spun, throwing his blaster involuntarily from the force while falling behind a table.
The leader was now returning fire that may have also pinged off of our armor. Torrin rounded on him with another double blast as I leveled my heavy blaster to finish this so we could ex-fil before any more security showed up. I pulled the trigger and my helmet optics went instantly black as the auto-dimming blast filter engaged. The shabla powerpack had overloaded in my blaster and blown clean out of the magazine in a flash-bang that I felt through my whole arm. I went to one knee behind a table for cover and fished out a replacement powerpack as a round sizzled over my helmet and my optics reset. There was another double-bang and I looked up in time to see the leader fall from Torrin’s deadly fire.
I grabbed Maya by the scruff, still bundled up, and shouted “BACK DOOR!” as Torrin scooped up Ginder. Within a few steps I saw Kirgil already at the back entrance, door open, waiting with a very impatient look on his furry face. We found ourselves in a service corridor intersection after the door shut.
“Get her out of here! Can you do that? Are you clear?!” I asked Ginder. Torrin had un-hooded Maya and was keying the release on the binders.
“GO, we’re good!” Maya answered for Ginder. And they both took off running down one of the corridors.
“This way. I lead,” Kirgil said, “Hurrying!” How he knew the right route to make a clean getaway we’ll never know. I’ve stopped asking him. We’d been on station less than a standard hour and he was leading us through a maze like it was home, and in another 5 minutes we emerged from an accessway at the docking bay, and boarded the Turtle without incident.
Ramp up, I called up to Ma’ag. “Fast departure, ner vod. We don’t want to hang around!”
“Been ready, we’re gone. Grab something.” Ma’ag replied. We steadied ourselves as we felt the ship rocket out of the docking bay.
Helmets off, I grabbed Torrin’s forearm with my hand in the traditional Mando way and gave it a firm shake and a punch on the armor plate. He returned and gave that crazy grin I always see on him after battle.
“Zake,” I turned toward the sound of my name to see Kirgil casually leaning against the bulkhead, stroking his mustache fur with one hand… “How bad you want new armor?”