After a brief pause, a new voice comes over the PA. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your co-pilot speaking. We apparently have had a little customs infraction. I'm sure it's just a mistake--a bureacratic error, probably. Of course, Freebird Transport will be unable to resume our journey after this leg until this is cleared up. However, we will provide you with vouchers for lodgings on Sel Zonn Station. When you exit the transport, please leave your identification with the station purser, and they will see to it that you have accommodations until we can send out a new transport to take over your journey. Thank you for traveling Freebird Transport, and thank you for your patience."
"Not even free drinks in the lounge?" Path shakes his head as he gathers up his things. "Their standards are slipping."
"We could take full advantage of the minibar on their centicred, I suppose," Rima answers. "If I thought this was actually a bureaucratic thing, I'd offer to help, but..." There is no need to finish the sentence. The only question in anyone's mind is whether the captain was trying to make a few extra credits by smuggling, or whether the Empire simply had it in for him.
The passengers walk through a heavy-duty airlock into a concourse which has clearly seen better days. It is dirty, and there are missing advertisements in the vid boards that line the walls. The working ones are mostly filled with Imperial propaganda holos and recruitment posters.
"Politics," Path mutters. "I hate election years. Imperials have no sense of humor."
"Or prompt payment, for that matter," adds Nalon broodingly. It's been more than a year since he received anything from the Empire, and that rankles his sense of honor. Someone needs to teach them that you don't break a contract, he thinks.
For the benefit of anyone who happens to be watching, Jebet puts on an elaborate display of surprise and rushes over to Rima. "Don't I know you?" she asks brightly. "Aren't you that singer?"
Rima turns, looks surprised, but covers quickly. "Oh! Yes, you were ... a roadie on my last gig but one, weren't you?"
"Yeah. I'm Bebet," Jebet explains as if reminding Rima of something she's only temporarily forgotten. Jebet relaxes a bit, feeling confident now that even if Rima hasn't remembered her yet, she won't give her away. As soon as they get a chance to talk privately, she'll have to find out why Rima's on the run too.
After handing over their IDs to the protocol droid at the purser's desk, the group passes into the Promenade, the central hub of the station. The Promenade is filled with the bustle of revelry and commerce. Spilling out of the gambling halls are the sounds of victory and the moans of defeat, while the music of local bands issues from the cantinas. Only a handful of citizens mill about in the main areas of the Promenade, a few gazing out the massive windows at the planet Brentaal hovering below. Businesspeople hawk their wares to the passersby, and a few Imperial naval personnel make their way down the main avenue on their usual patrol at a leisurely pace. The vast majority of figures to be seen are human; the large mixed-species group of passengers from Freebird Transport draws some hostile looks.
"So," Jebet asks Rima as they line up to check into the hotel, "do you need a roadie for upcoming gigs, by chance?"
"Well, I'm certainly open to negotiation," Rima answers cautiously.
Path says nothing. He doesn't know why Rima has allowed this unknown Sullustan to attach herself to their group, but this is clearly one of those moments when a good bodyguard keeps his mouth shut.
"Yes," Rima continues, warming to her theme, "once the name of Neera Donpol goes up in lights, I'm sure you'll be in my wake, kid."
Nalon gets in line just behind them. "So, are we supposed to do anything outside the hotel?" he asks, eyeing a nearby cantina. "Or are we supposed to leave the hotel at all?"
"We can do things not requiring our ID, presumably," says Rima.
Jebet frowns slightly. "I certainly hope so."
"Good," says Path, nodding toward a kiosk selling cushions shaped like stuffed animals. "I'd hate to miss a chance to buy a bantha pillow."
* * * Screen Wipe: * * *
* * * Two days later * * *
Our five heroes stand outside the hotel, staring in dismay at a news broadcast on a vidscreen.
"The Freebird Transport company filed for bankruptcy today and has canceled all future flights," a blonde human anchorwoman announces cheerily. "We'll have an in-depth look at the fall of this former transport giant at eleven. Meanwhile, in other news..."
"That's it!" Nalon snorts. "I be gettin' my ID."
"That's step one," Jebet says in a worried tone. "Step two is finding another way off this place. There's not a lot of work here for non-humans."
"I have some creds, but not enough to get all of us off the station," says Rima. The five have clearly formed a group over the past couple of days; if they haven't exactly told each other all their secrets, they at least have decided to stick together in the current situation.
Suddenly, Jebet feels a tap on her shoulder and a hears voice calling her name--her real name. "Jebet? What are you doing here?"
Jebet turns to see a red-haired human woman in mechanic's overalls. It takes her a moment to place the face, and then her eyes widen. Near the end of the Clone Wars, Jebet and her master attended an intelligence briefing conducted by a young officer from Alderaan named Maya Samaris. Maya reported on the results of an undercover mission in which she infiltrated a Separatist cell. The information she provided was vital to the nearly bloodless capture of a high-ranking Separatist leader. At the time, Jebet was very impressed by the agent's determination to see her mission through at all costs.
"It's Bebet," she tells Maya quickly, giving her a significant look.
"Bebet, right, of course."
"We're kind of stuck here at the moment, actually," Jebet confesses. "We came in on the Freebird. What are you up to?"
"Oh, well, since the war ended, I've just been ... doing this and that. Same for you?"
"This and that."
Maya glances at the rest of the group. "So ... are these friends of yours?"
Jebet hesitates a second and then nods. "Some I've known longer than others, but ... yeah."
"That could be handy. I can use some help, and possibly you could too." Maya addresses the others: "Do any of you know anything about droids?"
Beejax nods eagerly. Path also raises a hand.
"And you're all stranded here, I guess?"
"We were thinking of putting on a comeback tour to pay for a ticket out of here," Path says, gesturing toward Rima.
"Well, if you can do me a favor, I might be able to do one for you. I'm working over there." Maya points toward a shop called Mechanical Allies across the Promenade from where they're standing. "We just got a massive order in, and we're really short-staffed. I could use some help cleaning droid parts. I can't pay you much, but I think I could work it so that lodging would be included--if you don't say anything to the boss."
She leads the group through a side door and into some back corridors. As soon as they leave the Promenade behind, the condition of the station deteriorates noticeably. The lights flicker periodically, and some of the wall panels seem to be loose. Maya opens a door, and the group steps into a large, high-ceilinged storage area full of droids of every description. Beejax's eyes light up at the sight of them.
"A bigwig up on Blue Deck wants his entire 'staff' to be oiled, polished, and refurbished before he takes off," Maya explains.
"If you set up a proper maintenance schedule for these things, you don't have to do them all at once," Rima says disapprovingly.
"It needs to be done by the day after tomorrow," Maya continues. "But follow me." She leads the way to an open area behind some crates. "Look, we've got some foam from packing; it'll make a nice soft bed. Just keep it out of the way during the day, and I won't say anything to my boss, okay?"
"I really appreciate it," says Jebet. Catching sight of a security camera in one corner, she drops her voice. "I ... um ... really need to visit the refresher."
"Of course. I'll show you where it is." Maya starts toward the door. Jebet glances back over her shoulder and gives a meaningful look at Rima.
"I should go too," Rima says, and follows them.
Path shakes his head as he watches them go. "It's a conspiracy. They do this every time." He shrugs. "I'll deal."
Once the three are safely in the refresher, Maya glances from Jebet to Rima in an inquiring way.
"Neera's got her own reasons for avoiding certain kinds of entanglements," Jebet explains. "She knows mine. So, is this really what you're up to here, or is there more going on?"
"There might be more," Maya says cautiously, "but I shouldn't say anything just yet. I want to keep an eye on your friends for a bit and draw some conclusions. You understand."
"That's fair. They're not folks that I know so well that I'd put my life on how trustworthy they are just yet, but I like what I've seen of the rest."
"Is there anything going on here that I should know about?" Rima asks.
Jebet hesitates. "We ... Maya here ...."
"Old school chums?"
"We worked together once during the Clone Wars," Maya explains.
Rima nods. "That's how we know each other too," she says, indicating Jebet.
"I will ask you one thing," Maya continues. "See if you can find out how the others feel about the Empire."
"I know the Gungan is grouchy about them not paying his bills," Rima offers. "I don't know if that's a deep philosophy or just professional pride."
"It's a good start," Maya says with a nod.
"Beejax has plenty of reason not to be fond of the Empire," Jebet adds. The two of them fell into conversation during the long ride on the Freebird transport, and Beejax has showed a certain amount of bitterness at how the Empire has been stripping Duro of its resources ever since they "liberated" it from the Separatists.
"And Path doesn't have any reason to love the Empire, as near as I can tell," Rima finishes. Path has let a few deadpan political comments slip during their travels, mainly about low opinions of the Empire and the unreliability of battle droids. "I don't think he liked anyone who was in charge, but he's certainly not a sympathizer."
"That's good to know," says Maya thoughtfully. "I may have more to say about this soon, but in the meantime, we really do have to get those droids cleaned."
Jebet nods. "I don't have a lot of mechanical skill, but just point me at things that need to be cleaned, and I'll clean."
As the three re-enter the storage area, they find Beejax already happily tinkering with one of the droids, whistling softly and apparently lost in his own world.
Path opens a panel on another droid and looks at the mass of wires within. "Oughta program these to do their own damn cleaning," he says, half to himself.
"That's not a bad idea," says Rima as she picks up a buffing rag and starts to work on a droid's exterior. "Except there was this story I heard about somebody who tried doing that with cleaning droids and wound up with every droid on the station becoming a cleaning droid. Then they released the coolant fluid and cleaned it up ... it was a little unclear on the details, but apparently, that was a bad thing."
Montage: over the next two days, the six of them work furiously to finish the job. The room becomes emptier and emptier as the completed droids are moved to a different area. Finally, only a few droids remain, and our five heroes are finishing up the work--or rather, four of them are. Rima is examining her dirt-grimed fingernails and moaning, "I'll never be clean again!"
Suddenly, the door slides open. The five look up as Maya bursts in, out of breath. "Come on--follow me!" she calls, motioning them toward the door. "Listen, the boss found where you've been sleeping, and he's not happy. He's on his way; I think it would be best if we weren't here when he gets in."
Maya hurries them through a maze of back hallways, finally stopping outside a door. Pulling out a keycard, she swipes it, and they enter a small, neat apartment which looks like it's been recently inhabited. "This place belongs to a friend of mine. He asked me to water his plants while he's off-station. You won't be able to stay here long-term, but at least for tonight, this ought to do. I've got to get back and feed the boss some kind of story. Meet me at Gundark's Cantina tonight at seven, all right?"
They all nod. The door has barely closed behind Maya when Rima speaks up.
"I call the sonic shower!"
Path looks at Nalon. "You have those spare towels from the hotel, right?"
Nalon opens his coat to show a variety of towels pinned to the inside. "Who wants fuchsia?"