“Crossroads of the Force” (PG-13) – Chapter Eight

“CROSSROADS OF THE FORCE”

CHAPTER EIGHT

MALAG, MALDARE

“Corellian ale!” Mako Spince barked at the bartender. The latter nodded at the smuggler and turned away. He returned a few minutes later with a mug of Corellian ale. 

Mako grabbed the mug. He took several swigs of the ale before he allowed his eyes to peruse his surroundings. The Omega Hole did not seem like much in compare to the Lumati Hotel’s swankier establishment, the Twilight Star. But the former happened to be one of Mako’s favorite bars throughout the galaxy. It was the type of place where a smuggler could make contact with new clients. Only . . . no one seemed interested in hiring him, tonight.

Several more swigs of ale followed before Mako’s mind settled upon the dark-haired young woman who had interviewed him, last night. The Corellian had hoped that a little charm would convince her to hire him for whatever job she had planned. But apparently the old Spince charm seemed to have lost its luster.

Or had the woman’s employer recognized him as the disgraced son of her colleague, Senator Ticho Spince? Mako had certainly recognized Senator Dahlma, when he spotted her and the young woman approaching Set Horus’ ship in the hangar, this morning. So Dahlma’s aide had hired Horus and Han. The revelation had left Mako feeling stunned and a little resentful. It irked him that the senator decided to hire the pair over him.

As Mako reached for his mug, a man appeared at his side and slid upon the empty stool next to his. The Corellian immediately recognized his new companion – the same man who had recruited him for an interview with Senator Dahlma’s aide. Only now, the man looked nervous. And slightly desperate.

“Still searching for a spacer?” Mako politely asked. He took a swig of his ale. “Or have you found your man?”

The stranger gave Mako a sharp glance. “Excuse me?”

Mako allowed himself a knowing smile. “You don’t remember me, do you? You tried to recruit me for a job, but apparently I didn’t satisfy your employer.” He paused, as he took in the man’s growing desperate air. A thought came to him. “Or maybe you’re looking for another spacer. Need to get off this rock?”

Recognition finally gleamed in the man’s eyes. “Oh, now I remember you.”

“I should think so.” Mako’s smile disappeared. “Perhaps you remember taking me to one of the suites at the Lumati Hotel, last night. To be questioned by a young woman, who was in need of a pilot.” Again, he paused. “Only I never heard from either of you.”

The man’s face turned slightly red. “Oh yes. Um . . . apparently my mistress had someone else . . . in mind.”

“And may I assume that your mistress happens to be Senator Zoebeida Dahlma of this . . . illustrious rock?”

Surprise flicked in the man’s eyes. “How did you . . .?” He broke off and shot a suspicious stare at the pilot. “How did you know? You never got a chance to meet her.”

Mako revealed that he had seen the good senator and her aide board a freighter, earlier this morning. “From what I had overheard, they were bound for Ord Mantell. Now why would a prominent senator want to visit a disreputable place like that?”

Casting a furtive glance over his shoulder, the man replied, “Look, you were right. I am looking for a pilot. I need to leave Maldare as soon as possible. And since you happened to be a pilot, perhaps I can hire you to fly me to Ord Mantell. We can leave tonight.”

“Tonight?” Mako scoffed at the man’s suggestion. “It’s nearly morning. Midnight. I’ll need at least a few hours sleep, first. We leave in the morning.”

The stranger’s mouth formed a thin line. “Fine. I’ll simply find myself another pilot.”

“Good luck,” Mako retorted with a snort. “As you can see, this place is nearly empty. And right now, most pilots are either barely sober, sleeping off their drink or indulging in other nocturnal activities.”

A heavy sigh left the man’s mouth. “All right. We leave tomorrow. Unless you have a problem. I’m willing to pay you five hundred credits.”

The fee satisfied Mako. He instructed his new client to meet him at the Vox Avenue hangar in the morning. “My ship, the Alastian Star, should be the only one there.”

The man gave Mako a hesitant nod. “Thanks. For your help.”

Anxious to return to his drinking, Mako waved the man away. “Yeah. Sure thing.” The two men bid each other good night. After his new client left, Mako summoned the bartender. “Get me another mug of Corellian ale. And this time, leave the bottle.”

———-

WORLPORT, ORD MANTELL

“This . . . friend of yours has two children?” Inside the casino nightclub, Anakin stared at his companion in disbelief. “And what exactly am I expected to do with them?”

Voranda Sen shrugged. “Become their friend? I don’t . . .”

“Oh no! Thanks, but no thanks” Anakin retorted. “I have just spent nearly a decade raising Han. As far as I’m concerned, my stint with fatherhood is over.”

With a snort, Voranda shot back, “As long as Han continues to breathe, fatherhood will never be over for you, Set.”

“Perhaps you’re right. But I do not need more responsibilities in my life. I love Han like a son, but one is enough.”

Another dancer appeared on stage and began to perform. The wild orange-red hair, the close-fitting body suit and hoofed feet allowed Anakin to recognize her as a Human-Theelin hybrid. She struck him as a competent dancer, but not as sensuous as the Twi’lek. Bored, he eventually looked away.

Voranda continued to regard Anakin with knowing eyes. “You know, for a man of your temperament, you seem very determined to distance yourself from life. It almost seems as if you don’t care.”

“Perhaps life . . . or the galaxy is better off if I don’t care.” Then Anakin clamped his mouth shut, realizing that he had said too much.

Green eyes narrowed with curiosity. “Now what made you say that?”

Fortunately for Anakin, salvation arrived in the form of a grinning Han and Chewbacca. The young Corellian immediately sat down in an empty chair and declared, “You’re looking at the proud winner of 20,000 credits.” He turned to the table’s sole female with a nod. “Voranda! Good to see you, again.”

Smiling, Voranda replied, “The same to you, Han. You’re looking handsome than ever.” Her smile widened, as Han’s face turned slightly red.

Anakin decided to come to his young partner’s rescue, aware of Voranda’s habit of flirting with the Corellian. “I guess that game of sabacc turned out pretty lucky for you.”

“It was more than luck,” Han boasted. “It was my skill as a gambler. There was no stopping me.”

Amused by the younger man’s cockiness, Anakin rolled his eyes. Then he noticed that Chewbacca had remained standing. He pulled out the last empty chair. “Have a seat.” The Wookie nodded gratefully at the former Jedi and sat down. Anakin then introduced him to the red-haired pilot. “Chewbacca, this is an old friend of ours, Voranda Sen. Voranda, meet our new partner and co-pilot, Chewbacca.”

Voranda and the Wookie exchanged friendly nods. “How long have you been with Set and . . .” She paused, as her eyes narrowed. “Wait a minute! You look slightly familiar. Have we met?”

Chewbacca gave her a questioning stare and growled. Han translated. “He wants to know where you know him from.”

“Perhaps we’ve never actually met,” Voranda explained to Chewbacca. “But you do look familiar. I believe it was somewhere in the Abrion Sector, about a year ago. Were you ever with the crew of a freighter called the Drunken Dancer?”

Nodding, Chewbacca growled. Anakin glanced at Han, who said, “Chewie was with the Drunken Dancer, until he fell into the hands of the Imperials, three months ago. Uh . . . Set and I helped liberate him from slavery.” Han shot a look at Chewbacca. “Um, he wants to know you know of the ship’s most recent whereabouts.”

“On Tatooine, I heard that the Drunken Lady’s crew had recently disbanded,” Voranda replied. Anakin noticed the dismayed expression on Chewbacca’s face. The redhead continued, “Apparently they had been searching for a missing crewman, until a close encounter with an Imperial ship in the Alderaan Sector had convinced the captain to disband the crew.” She paused before adding, “Did you know that the captain’s daughter and several of the crewmen were former Jedi?”

Both Anakin and Han exchanged startled looks. “Really?” Han finally asked. “What was her name? The captain’s daughter?”

With a shrug, Voranda replied, “Honestly, I forgot.” She nodded at Chewbecca. “Perhaps he knows.” Anakin glanced at Chewbecca, who seemed lost in his own thought. The redhead added, “However, I have another matter to discuss.”

“Which is?” Anakin asked.

After a brief pause, Voranda continued, “I plan to hold a meeting, tomorrow afternoon. With a few pilots I’ve encountered here in Worlport. It’s regarding a matter I want to propose to all of you. It should prove to be very profitable.”

Han frowned. “What is it? A smuggling job?”

“More like a smuggling operation,” Voranda corrected. “Possibly a long term operation for several years.”

Again, the two partners exchanged looks. Although Anakin felt leery of being part of a long term operation, he also saw the potential for greater profit. He asked, “When is this meeting?”

The redhead replied, “Tomorrow afternoon. In one of the casino’s private rooms, around three o’clock.”

Anakin nodded. “Fine. I’ll be there.” He stared at his two colleagues. “Han? Chewbacca?”

“I’m game,” Han said. The Wookie growled. “And Chewie says the same.”

A bright smile illuminated Voranda’s face. “Great! I’ll see you three, tomorrow.” She stood up and directed a flirtatious smile at Han. “By the way Solo . . . congratulations.” And she walked away.

The two men and the Wookie watched the red-haired pilot recede into the nightclub’s crowd. “You know,” Han began, “I have this odd feeling that she’s interested in me.”

A smile touched Anakin’s lips. “And is that a bad thing?”

“I’m at least twenty years younger than her! Are you serious?” Han retorted.

“So? She looks very attractive for a woman twenty years your senior,” Anakin slyly continued. “Since when have you ever been averse to older women?”

Han shot back, “When they’re old enough to be my mother!”

Still smiling, Anakin said, “Really Han! You need to be a little more open-minded.”

Han dismissed Anakin’s teasing with a wave of his hand. “And what about this job of hers? The last thing I want is to get involved in some big smuggling operation on a permanent basis.”

“Who said it was permanent?” Anakin replied. “Voranda has not told us everything.” His eyes fell upon the stage. The Twi’lek dancer had returned. Anakin felt an inclination to remain in the nightclub. But the fatigue in his body reminded him that he needed sleep. “I don’t know about you two, but I’m going to bed. Good night.”

Both Han and Chewbacca bid him goodnight. Anakin shot one last glance at the dancer and slowly made his way out of the lounge.

——-

MALAG, MALDORE

Three Imperial stormtroopers entered The Omega Hole’s empty barroom. One of the them headed straight toward the pudgy-faced bartender, who was in the process of cleaning the bar’s long countertop.

“Hey! You!” the senior stormtrooper barked. “We’re looking for someone. A human. This is him.” He switched on a small holoemitter that projected the image of a stocky man with dark, curly hair. “His name is Chattal Rahm. Have you seen him?”

The bartender immediately recognized the image. Despite his instinct to lie, he remembered his employer’s policy regarding the authorities – cooperate at all times. The bar came first – especially over any customer in trouble with the authorities. “Yeah, I’ve seen him,” he replied wearily. “Nearly two hours ago. He had been talking to another customer.”

The stormtrooper demanded, “Where did Rahm go?”

“How would I know?” the bartender retorted. “I didn’t follow the guy.”

A small stretch of silence followed. Then the stormtrooper asked, “What about the other customer? What were he and Rahm talking about?”

“What makes you think the other customer was a man?”

The stormtrooper removed his helmet and glared at the bartender with dark and intimidating eyes. He reminded the latter of a Mandalorian bounty hunter he had not laid eyes upon in over a decade. “Don’t play games with me, Barkeep!” the trooper growled. “Who was this other customer and what were they talking about?”

The bartender sighed. He had done the best he could to protect Mako. “Okay, the other customer was a man. A spacer, I think. This Rahm fellow had hired him for passage. Don’t ask me where, because I didn’t hear everything.”

“What did you overhear?”

After a brief hesitation, the bartender answered, “Well, the spacer’s ship is located in the Vox Avenue hangar. It’s called . . . the Alastian Star, I think. And they’re supposed to leave tomorrow morning. I swear it’s all I know.”

The stormtrooper gave the bartender one long stare, before breaking into a cold smile. “Okay. Thanks for your . . . help.” He donned his helmet and barked at his companions, “Let’s go!”

The bartender heaved a sigh of relief, as the stormtroopers marched out of the Twilight Hole. Good riddance, he thought. Now, if only Mako Spince never learn who had ratted him to the Imperials.

END OF CHAPTER EIGHT

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