Sharp spears of light jumped from the bits of quartz in the blanket of dirt and sand on the ground. With the shattered light came heat: a merciless, pounding heat that Callista had never once experienced in her many travels across the galaxy, nor even imagined could have existed. Of course, she had grown up on a water planet; by comparison, every climate seemed extreme compared to the one on Chad--at least she had thought so as a little girl, when Uncle Claine would sit her on his lap and tell her stories of his younger days as a trader roaming the galaxy. She never was quite sure if she could believe him, though. Somehow, the images seemed far too fantastical for even her young, impressionable mind to imagine: deserts that stretched cross whole continents; boundless fields of long-bladed grass that covered the earth; ice and snow that left the ground beneath them dead and barren year-round. To a child who had known only the mighty oceans of Chad her entire life, and had learned to speak the language of the tides that rose and receded with its temperamental moons, Uncle Claine's stories seemed nothing more than products of his overactive imagination. He had teased her at her ever-present skepticism back then; later, she would come to laugh at it too, once she saw some of these worlds for herself as an adult.
But even Uncle Claine would have been surprised at this kind of heat, she thought with an exasperated smile, as sweat began to trickle down her temples and into the corners of her mouth where its saltiness stung her. With a grimace, she wiped it away with her sleeve, though that seemed to do the trick only temporarily.
Beside her, Luke looked completely unaffected. She watched him casually push the sleeves of his flight suit up to his elbows and bring his gear from out of the ship, as if oblivious to the high noon sun. If he felt the savage rays at all--if he felt them pricking his skin as they did hers right now, he showed no signs of it. Callista smiled to herself as she stole sideways glance at him. She should have known that a desert farmboy like him would have felt perfectly at ease in this sort of heat; this probably felt no warmer than a cool spring day on Tatooine.
Luke pulled a small scanning device out of his backpack and held it out before him, panning across the surroundings of their makeshift landing dock--a moderately shallow canyon carved out by some body of water that Callista guessed had probably dried out long before any of the planet's original settlers had ever made their home on this world. On the computer-generated map, the canyon had looked like a relatively isolated spot: not too far from the cluster of settlements in the center of the Halderian continent, but far enough for their ship to land unnoticed, and remain out of plain view for the time being.
"I don't get any life readings within a 30 kilometer radius." Luke shut off the scanner and turned around to look at her. "Not any human life, anyway. Looks like we picked our spot pretty well."
"You think the ship'll be safe here, then?"
He walked towards the ship and ran a hand down the side of its armor. "I won't lie to you," he said. "I'd feel a thousand times better if we had a cloaking device installed on this thing, but since we've got no choice than to go without one... I'd say this place is as good a hiding place as we're going to get, don't you think?"
She shielded her eyes from the sun and looked in at the reddish-orange canyon walls in the distance. "Barring any rock slides," she said matter-of-factly, "or any other natural disasters."
Luke chuckled. "Well, if this were the Falcon, I'd be a little more worried--Han notices every little scratch and he holds grudges forever. I'm not nearly as protective over my ship though. Anyway, I think it's safe to assume that she'll be in one piece when we come back."
"Those walls look pretty steep, Luke," she said after a while, her eyes once again returning to the formation of rock that enclosed them. "And rough. You think the droids'll be able to make it up there?"
"I saw a pathway down there," he said, pointing to the narrow ledge that wound around up to the top of the canyon wall. "It'll take us a little more time to get to the surface, but I'd rather not leave the droids behind here if at all possible. We're going to need them once we get into town. Besides, I have it on good authority from the jawas who sold them to us that those two are quite the experts on rock climbing. In fact, I think that was pretty much the deal clincher for Uncle Owen."
For a moment, Callista forgot about the sticky discomfort of the heat and laughed softly. "I'm glad to hear that. It's been a while since I've scaled walls-"
"Master Luke, Mistress Callista! Wait for us!"
As if on cue, Threepio emerged from the ship, a blur of muted gold in the brightness of day, running towards them as fast as his joints would allow, no doubt fearing he would be left behind. Artoo followed close behind him, rolling his way down the gangway and nearly stumbling on a jagged piece of rock at the foot of the ramp. He sputtered out a slew of high-pitched electronic sounds--Callista wondered if it was his way of cursing--and the noise apparently drew Threepio's attention for the moment. He turned around and proceeded to scold his counterpart. "Don't you use that tone with me, Artoo Detoo--I did tell you to watch yourself! You know this is a strange place, why don't you listen to me and be more careful?"
The astromech remained indignant, spitting out an irritated reply that was promptly ignored.
"Oh, switch off! All you ever do is complain-"
"Threepio--you were about to tell us something?"
"Oh! Oh yes, of course sir, excuse me... Artoo and I received some last minute information from the computer, Master Luke. Apparently, there are several cities just beyond this canyon. The closest one is Legori City, about 37 kilometers to the north. It's one of the smaller cities on Halderia, but it's got a fairly decent population. You and Mistress Callista should be able to find enough people there who might be able to help you."
"Thanks, Threepio." Luke turned to Callista again. "37 kilometers... That's not too bad, is it?" he said. "It shouldn't take us more than a couple of hours to get there. We may even have some time to scout the town."
Callista nodded absently--she had been looking at her plain dark blue flight suit, running a hand down its rough, stiff fabric. "Luke," she said, "given the way we're dressed, it's going to be quite apparent right away that we're out-of-towners... We never did get a chance to come up with our story. I think we better do that now before we start running into locals and come up blank when they ask us questions."
"Ah yes, the fun part," Luke said, laughing softly. He slid the strap of his backpack down his arm and unzipped the bag to examine its contents: rolled up clothes, tins of dehydrated food, bottled water, and a half-dozen other survival items they had stuffed in the bag at the last minute--both she and Luke had been through enough to know to always be prepared for whatever circumstances might await them, and had each packed accordingly. "Not much here to get creative with," he said. "So far, we just look like a couple of tourists roughing it on a camping trip."
"We're going to be asking an awful lot of questions for a couple of tourists--people will get suspicious really fast unless we have a good reason to be asking them."
Luke was silent for some time, then after a while, his lips formed a triumphant smile. "Not unless we're specifically here to ask questions..."
"What do you have in mind?"
"What if we told people we're scholars? Historians from some obscure university in the core worlds--we'll make up the name of one, and they'll never know! We can tell them we're doing research on ancient legends, and we've come to Gerridion to gather information on an old legend we've come across, of a young man named T'min Fals who was rumored to have come here and then disappeared without a trace... They'll know we're here to get as much information on this story as possible, so we should be able to ask as much as we'd like without them wondering why. And if the people here are anything like the folks in Anchorhead who hung around the marketplace till sundown, it won't take much on our part to get them talking."
"That's perfect! We may just be able pull that off..." She paused, then grinned. "I always said you were diabolically clever."
He smiled--she knew he was embarrassed when she saw him take his eyes away from her--and said, "You spend a few years in the Rebellion, and you pick up a thing or two."
"Pardon me for asking, sir, madam," Threepio interjected, "but how can we be sure that this Darth Rath person hasn't already been here?"
The mere mention of Rath's name felt like a strangle-hold on Callista's throat. She swallowed hard and looked to Luke once again. "That's where it gets a little tricky," she said. "Threepio's right, Luke... Before we even get into this, we've got to know if Rath's already got his fingerprints all over the place. Otherwise... Otherwise this little excursion will have all been for nothing."
"We'll worry about plan B if plan A fails."
"And according to the eminent General Solo," she reminded him with a smile, "it will."
Luke shook his head, and she caught a hint of the playful wink she remembered so well. "Not if I can help it," he said. He paused for moment--he must have seen her wipe her brow for the third time in the last five minutes, because he reached inside his backpack for a bottle of water and handed it to her. "Here," he said, "you look like you're about to melt on me. I packed a few extra bottles."
"I didn't come too prepared, did I?" she laughed, taking the bottle from him. "I guess it's pretty obvious that I'm not quite used to this kind of weather."
He leaned in close and smiled. "That's what I'm here for," he said, blue eyes twinkling with laughter. "Besides, after a while, you won't even notice how hot it is anymore."
She responded with an incredulous look.
He held up his hand. "I swear," he said. "You'll be amazed at the kind of tolerance you can build after only a few days of this."
"Hey, it'll be far worse when I take you to Tatooine someday-" The words cut off abruptly from his mouth, as if he realized, at the same moment that Callista did, what he had just said out of instinct. She saw his golden cheeks turn tawny--when he blushed it was always subtle, but she always knew when he did--and he hastened explain the slip of the tongue. "I... I had... always wanted to take you there," he said softly.
He had told her this once--a long time ago, when she had laid in his arms underneath the star-studded Yavin sky. At once, the hollow ache of remembering returned to her, as always, too much to bear.
"I was going to take you to our homestead--what's left of it, anyway. I wanted you to see Anchorhead, Mos Eisley, where I grew up... I wanted... to share that all with you."
Somewhere deep inside the words made her chest pound, even as they stung some freshly bandaged wound within her. The heat bore down on her face again, this time mixed with the warmth of her flushed cheeks. Without looking in his eyes, she said, "I was going to take you to Chad too, remember?"
He smiled, a wistful smile laced with sadness at the memory. "For our honeymoon," he said, nodding. "I remember. I thought about going there anyway, after..."
"After I left." The words sounded harsh--empty and bitter, like the unfulfilled promise that had eluded them both. At length, she drew breath and met his gaze again. "So, Dr.," she said, "what do you say we get started on our research?"
The boyish, flustered smile appeared again. "After you."
Captain Ugmush would have felt right at home in the noisy, congested marketplace in the central square of Legori City.
Callista wrinkled her nose as a host of pungent and exotic smells wafted towards them from all directions: an odd, yet potent mix of cinnamon and fruit, cured meat and leather, and the cloud-full of dust kicked up in the air by dozens of feet that trampled on the ground in the cramped area, burning Callista's eyes and throat. It seemed as if all--or at least most--of Legori City's residents had congregated here in this late afternoon to examine the wares of the various vendors, and of course gossip and mingle and catch up with one another. Her former captain might have bristled at having to be in such close contact with humans--might have even gotten into some sort of altercation with some poor, unsuspecting vendor who no doubt would have been unable to appreciate Gamorrean-style bargaining tactics--but, thought Callista, the sow would have nevertheless delighted in the strange odors that clung stubbornly in the air and on their clothes, and she would have found the almost disorienting noise comforting.
Just beyond them, the sun was slowly sinking into the apricot sky, and the din of townsfolk had in turn begun to fade into a soft rumble as people started to disperse and go off to their various destinations: women headed home to their families, clutching bags overflowing with produce and meat, and useless trinkets that visiting vendors had managed to pawn off on them; others--men and women alike--clad in clothes stained heavily with dust and dirt, headed into what Callista guessed to be cantinas, if the sound of the raucous noise and music that blared from within them was any indication.
"Well, at least we can be sure this isn't some kind of ghost town," Luke said beside her. "From the looks of things, we'll have plenty of folks to talk to here."
"Of course, how willing they are to open up to perfect strangers--that's something else entirely," Callista said.
"We'll find out soon enough."
He had been looking in the same direction she had been: at the row of compact adobe structures that lined one side of the dirt road like tiny, drab boxes stuck together, whose uniform gray-white paint--once probably a multitude a colors, but since faded by time and the harsh sun--was chipped and peeling. Music spilled onto the streets from their lighted interiors, accompanied by the unmistakable sound of laughter and hooting.
Luke turned to her. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Probably, Callista said in her mind, and the thought brought a smile to her lips. "The people in there sure sound like they're in a good mood," she finally said. "They might even be a little chatty--even with a couple of outlanders like us..."
"Chatty enough for us to get some useful information, with any luck."
He fell silent for a few moments. She looked back at him, wondering why he said nothing, and she recognized the far-off expression in his eyes: a look she had seen on him many times before, when she knew he was thinking of his past, and the boy he had once been in another lifetime--long before the countless deaths and battles and incomprehensible losses had left their scars and drained his innocence away.
"The first time I came to a place like this," he began quietly, a hot, dry breeze gently lifting his sandy hair from his forehead, showing the youth in his otherwise wise face, "Ben told me to watch my step." He laughed and shook his head, looking at her as if searching out the memory somewhere in her eyes. "I was so cocky... I was so sure I'd be able to handle myself in there, but Ben knew I was in over my head--only I didn't know it yet..."
Callista smiled, feeling as if she had shared that moment with him as well--experienced it with him in some forgotten dream aboard the Eye. "I think it's safe to say that you can more than hold your own now."
She saw him reach down and touch the lightsaber at his hip, an involuntary gesture she herself made all the time--that all Jedi made--out of habit. Her eyes met his, and an understanding passed between them, a silent comprehension exchanged between two people who had once shared the common language of the Force.
Threepio leaned forward to tap Luke on the shoulder. "I'm almost afraid to ask, but... Should Artoo and I remain out here when you and Mistress Callista go into one of those cantinas? If I remember correctly, Master Luke, droids aren't very welcome in such establishments."
Callista turned back in the direction of the cantinas. A steady stream of people continued to pour into the small structures, but, as Luke would have no doubt also noticed, no droid had entered any of the cantinas in the time that they had been standing and watching the crowds.
At last, Luke sighed and nodded. "I'd hate to leave you two out here," he said, "but I doubt that 'no droids' policy has changed much over the years--no matter planet we happen to be on."
"We understand, sir."
"Do me a favor, though, would you? Make sure you stand close to the door. Callista and I will be able to keep an eye out on you that way... Just in case..."
"Yes, of course."
The split-second pause before his last comment was barely noticeable--Callista had wondered for a moment if she had actually heard it--but she knew it couldn't have been her imagination when she caught his momentary glance at her before he began to walk in the direction of one of the larger cantinas.
He hadn't said so out loud, but she knew: he sensed something.
If I only had the Force, I could...
Some part of her wouldn't let her finish the thought in her mind. The knowledge that she wouldn't be able to help him in this way--in the way she wanted so desperately to--once again knifed at her without mercy.
But this was no time for self-pity, she knew that. She would do what she could, that much she vowed--to herself, and to Luke. Softly, so as not to alarm the already jumpy Threepio, she said, "What is it? You felt something?"
Luke looked at her, his eyes already speaking volumes before he ever spoke a word. "Something's not right here," he said. "There's... I just think we need to keep our eyes open."
She nodded and took a quick glance around her, hastening her pace to keep up with him. The droids followed soundlessly behind them as they came to the doorway of a cantina. A brawny Tulderian stood guard at the front entrance, all two and a half meters of him eclipsing them, his sharpened tusks merely centimeters away from their faces. His muscles, covered all over with a thin carpet of gray fur, flexed and hardened, a silent threat meant to show them--if they hadn't already come to the conclusion themselves--that he was there for the sole purpose of enforcing whatever the rules of the cantina were.
"Hrrrsh! Urrdsh, sha, hrrsh!"
"Oh my!" Threepio was the first to panic, followed by Artoo, who let forth a series of incomprehensible whistles. "M-master Luke, he says we don't belong here... I do suggest we find another establishment, sir. It appears there are plenty of other ones we could-"
Luke remained calm, laying a hand on Threepio's shoulder to quiet him and looking the Tulderian straight in the eyes. Callista knew he was using the Jedi mind trick to mollify the alien--she watched him smile and gesture to the guard.
"Let us pass?" he said, his hand making the tell-tale wave at his waist, away from the suspicious eyes of the guard. "We won't cause trouble."
The Tulderian relaxed his muscles and released an affirmative grunt.
"I... I think he's letting us pass through!" Threepio said. The droid started to step inside, but the Tulderian placed his massive hand on Threepio's chest, shoving him and nearly causing him to tumble to the ground. "Or p-perhaps not... We'll wait for you and Mistress Callista out here, sir..."
"Remember," Luke said to Threepio, "close to the door where we can see you." He nodded at the guard, who grunted at him but stepped aside to let him and Callista enter. "And at the first sign of trouble-"
"We'll be sure to alert you, Master Luke."
Callista followed him in, nearly choking on the thick hooka smoke that enveloped the air like fog. A heavy-set man, tapping his hand at the counter in time to the rhythm of the music, took a long drag out of one of the many hooka pipes at the bar, inhaling deeply, then letting out rings of smoke slowly as if savoring every bit of the experience.
"Ha, you think you can beat me?" he yelled above the wail of the kloo horn soloist. "You think you can beat me?!"
The man sitting beside him, dressed in gray denim that looked almost brown from the dust that had ingrained itself in the fabric, laughed heartily, then slapped his hand on the bar. "Fifty serfas says that smoke's gone to your head!"
The first man took another drag out of the pipe and leaned towards the other. "Which means you'll be buying the next round of drinks," he said, laughing as he took the money and shoved it in his pocket. "You're on!" He grabbed the other man's hand and jammed their elbows on the counter. "Give me what you've got," he shouted again, and they proceeded in a grunt-filled arm-wrestling match that lasted only a few seconds until the first man easily pinned the other's forearm to the bar.
"Blast! No--I, uh, wasn't ready! I want a rematch!"
The man laughed, and reached for the hooka pipe again. "Had enough yet?" He turned beside him, now noticing that Luke and Callista had been watching them, and snarled, "What are you lookin' at?"
"Pretty good technique," Luke said, coming closer.
The man exhaled a puff of smoke. "It ain't technique, buddy, it's talent."
Luke grinned. "I'd've leaned in towards him a little bit more--you've got more power that way."
"You think you know better than me?"
"Just giving you a little tip, that's all."
The man slammed his elbow on the bar. "You think you can take me? Gavin here thought that a couple of minutes ago and you saw what I did to him."
Calmly, Luke sat beside him and clasped his hand. There was no fear in his eyes, Callista observed. No intimidation, no tentativeness. She couldn't help but smile as she watched him--he looked perfectly at ease in this place, as if he had spent years among the seedy crowds in the notorious cantinas on Turras 8, or Bantooine.
The man did not seem to regard Luke as much of a threat. With a smirk he turned to his friend and said, "When I'm through with him, I'll give you your rematch."
Luke held his smile in check and winked at Callista while the man wasn't looking. With what seemed like no effort at all, he drove the man's arm into the bar, eliciting shock from the speechless patron.
"Lean forward," Luke said nonchalantly, the twinkle in his eyes a little too noticeable though Callista knew he was trying hard not to show it. "That's the secret--works every time."
"Well I'll be damned..." Chagrined, the man shook Luke's hand and gestured to the bartender to bring over some drinks. "Any man who beats me definitely deserves a freebie," he laughed. "And what's your lady friend going to have?"
Callista sat beside Luke. "I'll have a Corellian ale, if you've got it."
"We've got it all right, little lady," the man said, "but it's flat as that pathetic singer over there. Here..." He shoved the drink in her hand, then slapped Luke on the shoulder. "Roug. Roug Dann. I own the place."
"Luke Lars," Luke said, extending his hand.
"Good to meet you, Luke. And what is your lovely wife's name?"
Even in the smoky light, Callista could see the red in Luke's cheeks. The comment had caught both of them off-guard.
"She's... she's uh-"
"Callista." For a moment, something in her, a spirit of mischief--or perhaps some part that really did want to pretend, even for a little bit--was tempted to let Roug's mistake lie uncorrected, but in the end, she decided against it. "Callista Darvis. I'm... Luke's colleague. You've got quite a place here, Roug."
He shrugged. "It manages to keep afloat," he said. "We had a hard time getting back on our feet after the Empire kept us under its heel all those years. It's taken me over fifteen years, but I've finally begun to climb back from the pit that we were in." He gestured at her backpack. "So you two aren't from around her, are ya? What brings you to our little burg here? Say, you aren't one of those smooth-talkin' vendors from Haddan City are you? 'Cause if you are, I ain't buyin'-"
"No, no..." Luke laughed and set his drink down on the table. "Actually, we're not even from Gerridion at all. We're from Corellia."
"Corellia? That's a long way from here, buddy. What brings you two kids to our part of the galaxy?"
Luke looked at Callista and smiled. "Funny you should ask that, because... we were hoping you could help us."
Roug wrinkled his brow. "Wait, wait a minute... I don't know what you're after, but-"
"No," Callista said, "it's nothing like that. You see, Luke and I--we're historians. The Od'iin Institute gave us a very substantial grant a few months ago, and it's our chance to do the research we've been wanting to do for a long time..."
"Research?" Roug straightened. "How could a guy like me possibly help?"
"You can help us out more than you think," Luke told him. "Owning a place like this--you've surely come across some tall tales over the years, haven't you?"
Roug slapped his knee and laughed. "Well of course! I've heard some real doozies in my time... But why would you be interested in some bar stories?"
"Some of those bar stories could be quite insightful Roug," Callista said. "You see, that's what are research is all about, Roug. We study myths and legends from all over the galaxy, and then we see if there's any historical evidence to show that there's a grain of truth in them. There's one in particular from here that we've wanted to find out more about for a long time... Have you ever heard of the story of T'min Fals?"
For what seemed like an eternity, Roug said nothing, then, as if ashamed, he looked down on the bar and shook his head. "There's a lot of stuff that flies around in here," he said, "I can't remember every single thing I've ever heard." There was an edge to his voice, something that made Callista look to Luke right away.
"So you don't know anything about the story?"
Roug shrugged, then shook his head once more. "Can't help you--I'm sorry..."
Callista knew there was something behind the words, but Luke's eyes told her they needed to let this go for now. "It's all right, Roug... We have a few more days to gather our research on this..."
"So," Luke said, "I don't suppose you could recommend a place for us to stay in while we're in town?"
Roug grinned. "You've asked the right person," he said. "It so happens I own an inn just down the street. It's nothing fancy, but it's clean, and it's got air conditioning. I'll even let you two stay for free--that'll be my attempt at civic hospitality."
"That's very generous of you," Luke said, chuckling softly. "Thank you."
He nodded. "Sure thing. I, uh, wish I could have helped you... Hey, if you get nothing else out of this place, at least you had a decent night's rest, huh?"
Luke turned beside him at Callista
and nodded. "I have a feeling we'll
get more than that when this is all
over," he said, then smiled. "Something
tells me we'll find exactly what we're
looking for here."
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