No Greater Love
by John R. Plunkett
"Why don't pod racers have ejection seats?" the kid asked.
Kathryn Nebulart pushed back the straw boater shielding her fair skinned face from the punishing rays of Tatooine's dual suns. A ribbon tied under her chin guarded against the hat being plucked away by a gust of wind.
The smoking remains of Seth Kar's pod lay scattered across the clubhouse turn, from the infield all the way to the stands. He'd been nearly vertical, with his engines running up to full thrust, when his power couplings fused. He would have ejected straight into the wall, even assuming he somehow managed to escape the flaming fireball his pod had become in less than the blink of an eye.
"What's the point?" Kathryn inquired.
The kid cocked his head, studying Kathryn more closely. She wasn't like the usual lot who frequented the pod racing circuit. She stood as tall as most men, though no one seeing how she filled her impeccably tailored khaki BDU pants and matching long-sleeved safari jacket could possibly mistake her for one. The sculpted, aristocratic beauty of her face and the porcelain perfection of her skin wouldn't last long in the heat and dust of Mos Espa, or at any other of the desert planet's widely scattered settlements. In recognition of that fact she'd slathered herself with sun-block lotion. Suede gloves protected her hands and a kerchief shielded her honey smooth, strawberry blonde hair, currently braided into a queue that she wore pinned up under her hat. By contrast, the pair of long barreled pistols she wore in cross draw holsters slung stylishly low on her shapely hips didn't merit any notice except for their utter lack of decoration or considerations of style. On the Outer Rim weapons were simply part of a person's outfit. These weapons, however, were meant to be used, not seen.
"So why don't they?" the kid persisted.
Kathryn turned and looked directly at the kid. He looked exactly like the usual riffraff who hung around the track whenever anything was happening and often as not when there wasn't. Bantha hide boots, roughly cut and stitched trousers and blouse, with a loose-fitting tunic of heavy cloth laid over it all. Ever-present dust reduced the clothes- and the kid himself- to varying shades of dark red and dirty brown. Kathryn guessed his age to be around nine or ten. On a civilized planet he'd be in school, or at least could be turned in for truancy.
The kid blinked. Kathryn's left eye looked normal enough, though colored the blue of gentle summer skies like Tatooine had never seen. Her right, by contrast, was a disturbing shade of red, with a glassy finish that made it look as inhumanly artificial as a 'droid's vid-sensor. In addition a pair of slender vanes, each about 30cm long, slanted outward and back from the sides of her head. They did not, as the kid had initially supposed, belong to some device Kathryn wore under her hat. The bases of the vanes mounted directly to her skull, ahead of and slightly above her ears. From the same points sprang four smaller antennae, a pair on either side, one pointing forward and the other backward. These were about finger length, round in cross section, and segmented. Each one had a bulbous tip set with a red lens that made it look like an eye on a stalk. The hat and scarf made it all easy to overlook, though it wasn't exactly hidden.
A sound grew in the distance, a high pitched, penetrating roar. Kathryn turned the other way, looking down the track. Another pod was on its way.
"So why is it?" the kid repeated.
Kathryn frowned slightly. The usual answer was that an ejector seat added too much weight. Pods were engineered to such narrow tolerances that practically every gram had to be considered and balanced against overall performance. In fact, most pods pushed so close to the bleeding edge that they had to be completely overhauled between races just to keep them running. On top of that, a good many pods were scratch-built from second or third hand parts, or at least so heavily customized as to bear little or no resemblance to whatever had originally come out of the factory. More often than not, the parts and assemblies hadn't been intended for anything even remotely like pod racing. Kathryn had seen any number of pods that, even if equipped with ejector seats, would surely have exploded instantly if the pilot had ever actually attempted to punch out.
"If you're the sort who needs an ejector seat," Kathryn said, "You don't get into pod racing."
A pod came streaking around the clubhouse turn, the thunder of its engines crashing back and forth between the spectator galleries and the cliff face. Its slipstream whipped the smoke from Seth's pod into whorls. Kathryn braced herself and shielded her face with a forearm as the pod's pilot slammed on full reverse thrust, blasting her with a storm of sand driven by hot exhaust. The pod slid into the pit and settled to the ground as gracefully as a cat jumping from a windowsill. The pit 'droids sprang into action, leaping onto the engine nacelles and tearing open access panels to tweak, tighten, replace, or repair whatever was amiss. There'd be plenty, even after a mere time trial. This pod didn't have the cobbled-together look may did; its four engines resided in a pair of glassy smooth, shark-like nacelles. Stubby fins gave the smoothly fared cockpit module some extra stability. The jet black finish gleamed in the sunlight as if hand polished, which in fact it was. Only the pod's name- Black Bitch- scripted in silver letters on either side of the windscreen broke the black uniformity. Nevertheless it was a pod racer, with all that entailed.
"How'd we do?" the pilot asked, pulling off her Bantha leather helmet and standing up in the pod's cramped cockpit, arching her back in a bone-popping stretch. The kid watched curiously; other loafers- older, male ones in particular- watched with more interest. She wasn't human but between her shoulders and knees she looked as pleasingly humanoid as Kathryn. Short, silky black hair coated every visible part of her- which was quite a bit; she wore only denim shorts and a khaki tank top, showing off a body easily as lithe and muscular as it was curvaceous. In place of feet a pair of cloven hooves terminated her shapely, muscular legs; a long, sinuous tail with a feathered tuft at its tip sprouted from the base of her spine. A horse-like head complete with a wavy, flowing mane sat upon her shoulders at the end of a long neck. Most striking of all, a pair of long, graceful wings with feathers as black as a raven's sprouted from just above her waist. She looked around with large, expressive, intensely azure eyes, then jumped lightly to the ground. A spiraled, mother-of-pearl horn sprouting from her forehead gave her a few centimeters on Kathryn; her folded wings added another half meter or so but even with her long neck the top of her head didn't quite reach Kathryn's chin. She seemed much younger, too, in her late teens or early twenties as opposed to Kathryn's early to middle thirties.
"It's coming through now." Kathryn's expression became distant as she listened to information coming over her cybernetic commlink. Then her face split into a grin. "Good show, Natsumi! Since Seth Kar cratered, you won the number four slot!"
"Yeah!" Natsumi exulted, leaping into the air and striking at the heavens with her fist. "Let's get tanked!"
"Don't get cocky," Kathryn admonished. "We still have to win the race."
"Aw, with your pod and my skill we can't loose." Natsumi dismissed the race with a casual flick of the wrist. "I wanna celebrate."
Kathryn sighed. At times like these the gulf of years separating her and Natsumi seemed like a bottomless chasm. She felt more like a babysitter than a companion in arms. Natsumi was good, no question about it... but her raw skill hadn't been tempered by experience. Her future balanced on a knife edge between growing into someone truly formidable... or spectacular self-destruction. Typical of the young she seemed to care not a whit for the risks she faced. "First we put away the pod and tune it up," Kathryn said. "Get the sled and help me load it."
Natsumi strolled off, throwing far more roll into her hips than necessary. The loafers ate it up, whistling and shouting. She gave them a toss of the head and an enigmatic smile.
"Hey, baby, I'll help you celebrate!" one of them called, leaning far over the safety barrier and leering. It took Kathryn a moment to realize that he addressed her instead of Natsumi. She returned his gaze calmly; as she shifted her weight it appeared as if her hand drifted slightly closer to the butt of her pistol. The fellow's expression changed abruptly to one of fear and alarm and he retreated hastily. Kathryn didn't bother correcting his misapprehension; she wasn't too old to appreciate a good time but she could do better than this riffraff and unlike Natsumi didn't feel obligated to flirt with everyone in sight.
Natsumi returned presently, guiding the sled casually with one hand. Kathryn directed the pit 'droids to activate the pod's repulsor drive; while it hovered above the ground Natsumi steered the sled beneath it. Kathryn had the 'droids shut down the pod and strap it to the sled, then hopped on the back while Natsumi drove them to the garage. A male Rodian with a brown cloak over his dungarees opened the door for them. "Good run today?" he asked.
"Fourth place," Natsumi replied, backing the sled into its parking slot.
His antennae bobbled excitedly. "Then maybe I'll get my money back after all."
"You can take that to the bank," Natsumi announced with absolute confidence. "We are gonna sweep the field." She flicked her tail for emphasis.
"I'll believe it when I see it," the Rodian commented.
"That would be wise," Kathryn said, casting Natsumi a warning glance. Natsumi grinned. Like a kid on a field trip, Kathryn thought sourly, but almost instantly relented. Compared to what she'd gone through back at Base this was a field trip. Nevertheless it still bothered Kathryn that Natsumi didn't appear to take this assignment seriously. The consequences of failure would be plenty serious.
"We need to work on the pod a bit, so if you trust us we'll lock up for you," Natsumi called.
"Sure thing," the Rodian replied easily. He didn't leave, though; he leaned against the wall and watched as Natsumi unlocked the tool cabinet and started laying out equipment.
A stab of jealousy induced Kathryn to deliberately turn her back on the Rodian before bending over to pick up a spare power regulator. To his credit he admired her buttocks for a moment before returning his attention to Natsumi. Kathryn cursed herself silently; of course men acted as if she didn't exist when Natsumi was around. Kathryn looked more than a decade older, though quite stunning in her own right, and didn't do everything possible to attract male attention short of rubbing her boobs in their faces. Kathryn always claimed she preferred not having men drool all over her and berated Natsumi for making a spectacle of herself. At least Kathryn salvaged what remained of her dignity by not glancing at Natsumi to see if she'd noticed. Video relayed from the pit 'droids showed Natsumi grinning at her. Of course she'd noticed.
The Rodian glanced at his watch. "See you on race day, ladies," he called, ambling off down the street.
"'Bye Arkatta," Kathryn replied, sliding herself under the pod. With a direct cyber-link to all of the pit 'droids she didn't have to get her own hands dirty. Still, it helped to work off some of her annoyance and she didn't want to look at Natsumi's smugly grinning mug right now.
A few blocks away Arkatta slipped into the shelter of an overhanging arch and stood for a while, watching the highly varied crowd bustle thither and yon. Other than some minerals Tatooine didn't have much to offer by way of exports. Nor was the planet exactly a major center of trade, but peoples from all over the Mid and Outer Rim came in surprising numbers. Truth was, Tatooine's Hutt rulers were known to turn a blind eye to a broad range of less than savory activities- for an appropriate cut of the take, naturally. So, in a sense, Tatooine was a major trade center. It was simply that much of it took place under the table, hidden from officious eyes.
A figure in a dark, nondescript cloak slipped in beside Arkatta and whispered something to him.
"They're at the garage, tuning up their pod right now," Arkatta replied, pitching his voice barely above the street noise. "Qualified for the number four slot on the starting grid, I hear."
The figure whispered some more.
"Of course I think it's shocking that a couple strangers should waltz in here and act like they own the whole circuit," Arkatta agreed. "But they pay well. And my reputation would be permanently damaged if anything happened to their pod while it was in my care. Not to mention all the money I plan to win betting on them."
The figure whispered only briefly, then pressed a very thick stack of bills into Arkatta's hand.
"Well, since you put it that way," Arkatta allowed, rubbing the stack between his fingers as he slipped it into his tunic. He could guess its value fairly closely, assuming the bills were all of the promised denomination. He didn't doubt they were; the figure's employers wouldn't try cheating him in such a clumsy fashion, not with so much at stake. "Check the usual drop point this evening."
The cloaked figure slipped away and disappeared. A few minutes later Arkatta continued on his way, humming tunelessly.
"C'mon, Katti, pull the stick out and drink up." Natsumi tossed back yet another beverage and slammed the glass down at the end of a growing line of empties.
Kathryn sipped her drink, still her first. Cybernetic filters scrubbed toxins from her blood almost as fast as she ingested them. So she could match Natsumi drink for drink- and more- if she cared to, but why bother? Since alcohol wouldn't make her drunk any more she'd lost her taste for it. Besides, she hated being called Katti. It sounded like something one thirteen year old girl would call another.
"Hey, barkeep!" Natsumi shouted, leaning back in her chair and snapping her fingers. "Another round!"
The barmaid resembled a vampire bat that stood about a meter high. She scurried over with a tray balanced on her head; she passed out glasses using long, skeletal fingers sprouting from her wing joints. Kathryn extended her hand as if studying her nails, though she still wore her gloves. Sensors embedded in her palm scanned the creature; it turned transparent as Kathryn's data processing modules injected information directly into her visual cortex. Apparently the beastie really was female, and a mammal at that.
"Any minute now that crowd of drunken spacers is going to work up the courage to come over here and start molesting us," Kathryn commented. With the suns set she didn't need the boater any more, allowing her antennae their full range of motion. The short ones really were eyes on stalks so she could watch the group without looking at them.
"Good," Natsumi replied, gulping down another drink. "It's about time. I've been working on them all evening. That redhead's pretty cute, don't you think?"
Six young human males clustered by the bar wore identical orange jump suits, suggesting that they worked on a company ship rather than a tramp. The one with rusty red hair stood a hand's breath taller than his companions; Kathryn's sensors couldn't scan that far but the fit of his clothing spoke clearly enough of what it covered: broad, muscular shoulders, a deep chest, a washboard stomach, sculpted thighs, and tight buns.
"You're staring," Natsumi accused, giggling.
Kathryn gritted her teeth and took a drink to cover her face. She had been staring, dammit.
The redhead glanced over his shoulder. Not at Natsumi, as his friends were, but at Kathryn. She shivered, practically feeling his eyes as they explored her body.
"Come on, Katti, have some fun," Natsumi whispered. "You did all the work to make this possible. Enjoy the reward. Please?"
Natsumi's plaintive plea touched Kathryn's heart more than she cared to admit. "Oh, all right," she muttered, glancing at the red head and giving him a mildly encouraging smile. That was all it took; he hurried over and sat down.
"Hi," he said. "That's some pretty impressive headware you've got. Where'd you get it?"
"It's custom," Kathryn replied. A lot of men found her cyberware off-putting. Those that didn't were sometimes more interested in it that her. "I... volunteered for a special research project."
"Amazing." He ran his finger up one of Kathryn's antennae. She suppressed a gasp; the antennae were packed with nerve endings, after all. "What's your name?" he asked, looking deep into her eyes and smiling tenderly.
"Kathryn." She glanced at Natsumi, who watched the exchanged with a grin fit to split her face. As if I don't know what you're doing, she thought sourly. Natsumi had a way of... pressuring peoples' minds, causing them to do what she wanted without really noticing they were doing it. Kathryn's cyberware made her resistant, which was why she'd been selected as Natsumi's handler. Which in no way stopped Natsumi from using the ability on others for her advantage or amusement.
"I'm Aaron," he said.
Kathryn smiled. Knowing didn't help. Her body didn't care why he was being nice; it wanted him. "This place is rather noisy," she said, rising to her feet. "Can we go somewhere quieter?"
"Of course!" Aaron practically bounced to his feet. "I have a private cabin on board ship."
"Sounds wonderful." Kathryn took his hand. Probably belonging to an officer he knows isn't on board. But if it served their purposes, so what?
Natsumi watched them go, then beckoned to his five companions, who eagerly joined her. Under the circumstances it wasn't a surprise that neither Kathryn nor Natsumi noticed a cloaked figure leave its place in a darkened corner and hurry away into the night.
Air conditioning kept Aaron's cabin cool and pleasant but sweat slicked Kathryn's bare skin. She drew a deep breath as Aaron's hands slid up to her breasts and squeezed them, his thumbs stroking her nipples. His lips explored among the fine hairs of her pubic triangle. She clenched her teeth, arched her back, and grabbed his head.
Elsewhere, the cloaked figure who'd earlier spoken with Arkatta moved briskly among the garages near the track. Skulking, especially at night, was a dead giveaway. He walked up to Arkatta's garage as if he owned it- which, in a sense, he did. Arkatta- and by extension his garage- were bought and paid for. He produced a chit and held it before him as he approached; the security field deactivated automatically, sensing the presence of an authorized passkey.
Aaron drew himself up onto Kathryn, moving into position and massaging her with his body at the same time. Supporting himself on his elbows he kissed her throat, chin, and mouth. Kathryn inhaled, crushing her breasts against his chest. Natsumi liked to be on top; she wanted to control the encounter, to take her pleasure. By now she was no doubt atop one- or several- of Aaron's companions. Kathryn, on the other hand, preferred the bottom. She liked being persuaded and seduced. She wanted her partner to give her pleasure. So far Aaron was doing a great job.
Instead of opening the vehicle bay the cloaked figure approached a personnel door. The heavy panel could have resisted blaster fire but no such brutish methods were necessary. From within its garment the figure produced a custom built slicer 'droid and applied it to the very expensive lock Kathryn had personally fitted.
With the weight of his body pinning her down Aaron teased Kathryn, probing deep into her mouth with his tongue but merely stroking her vulva with the head of his penis. Since she couldn't curse she wrapped her legs around his waist and squeezed, trying to force him into her, and clawed at his back with her fingernails. Finally he relented, ever so slowly penetrating her fleshy fastness.
In only a few minutes the slicer 'droid defeated Kathryn's lock and the door hissed open. The cloaked figure slipped inside, glancing around to check the layout. Moving swiftly and certainly through the darkness it selected a heavy spanner from the workbench and stepped between Black Bitch's engine nacelles. Smashing the pod's power couplings was an indelicate but effective way of disabling it. Even with spares ready to hand they couldn't be installed and calibrated in time, especially if he smashed the test gear also.
The rate and force of Aaron's thrusts increased as excitement built within him. Kathryn gasped in time with the surging of his hips, gripping him so tightly she left marks on his skin.
Briefly the figure considered opening the access panels to get a better shot at the couplings but decided against it. There might be tamper alarms. He'd know soon enough anyway. He raised the spanner over his head-
A minute sound caused him to spin around, clawing for his blaster. He saw a pit 'droid standing there, holding a blaster pistol the way a regular sized person held a sub-machine gun. The next- and very last thing he ever saw- was a brilliant flash as the weapon discharged.
Kathryn sighed contentedly. Everyone knew 'droids couldn't hurt people. It was such a fundamental part of their design that only by installing a specially built brain could it be made possible. Even among the notoriously criminal Hutts such things were tightly controlled, beyond the reach of those with far more influence than a pair of newbie pod racers.
Everyone also knew that a robot body equipped with a servo control rig could do anything human operater wanted, including the commission of murder.
However, people tended to overlook the fact that a 'droid body run by a servo control rig could do any damn thing its human operator desired. Admittedly most human operators wouldn't be able to maintain that degree of control with Aaron buried to the hilt in their vaginas but that wasn't a problem for Kathryn. Her antennae and artificial eye were merely the most prominent expression of a network of cybernetic components that reached through her entire body; when she stroked Aaron's face she saw traceries of silver-gray synthetic organic circuitry on her hand and arm. The lines started with her fingernails, which were made of the same silver-gray material. From there the lines ran along the tops of her fingers, with little caps over each joint. On the backs of her hands the lines widened into a jointed plate that covered the whole expanse, with another cap on the back of her wrists and an elongated, diamond shaped mark on the underside. From there a web like network of lines reached from the back of her wrists along her forearms to a cap on her elbows. A second, more widely spaced web ran up the outside of her upper arm, then fanned out across her shoulder blades and upper back. The extremities of the pattern reached her spine but didn't cross it.
Nothing marked the front of Kathryn's body but that was an illusion; the soft, smooth skin Aaron so lovingly caressed with his hands, his lips, and his body hid as much synthetic organic circuitry as it did flesh and blood. The network surfaced again with prominent caps on her knees; a web pattern ran completely around her calves, thickening quickly on the way down until it completely enclosed her leg, like the top of a boot. Her ankles and feet looked entirely artificial, being composed of gray, metalized composite plates with no trace of skin whatsoever. Textured pads under her heels and the balls of her feet made her seem to be wearing shoes, even she wasn't, but her toes remained free. They lacked nails but came to blunt points, which made them a bit longer than normal.
Aaron took Kathryn's hands, one at a time, lacing his fingers with hers. He kissed her cheek, her jaw, her chin, and finally her mouth, probing with his tongue. He closed his eyes; because of that he didn't see that Kathryn did not. Nor did he notice her expression, which would have alarmed him. Her mouth and body responded to him with all the ardent passion a man could hope for, but her eyes did not. They merely watched, even now, as coldly and dispassionately as a machine. In a sense, it could be argued she was a machine: synthetic organic circuitry directly replaced about a third of her brain, and interconnected deeply with the rest. Without it she wouldn't exist; at best she'd be a vegetable, with nothing but reflexive responses. But there was a rather steep price for the life it gave: it did not feel. It watched, it analyzed, it reported. Even now it did those things, utterly untouched by the hot, sweaty pleasure that filled Kathryn's human mind. It maintained the smartlink to the pit 'droids, routing the command channel through several public and private networks to conceal its presence. It watched for the attack it's analysis and Kathryn's experience had predicted, and when the attack came it responded, untroubled by human fears and desires, unmoved by human feelings.
Sometimes Kathryn felt like two different people, one organic and one mechanical. Sometimes she wondered: could she even call herself human now? Or was she just a machine wrapped in a disguise of flesh pretending to be alive? She closed her eyes, letting her head fall to one side. If Aaron thought she was surrendering to passion it seemed kinder to let him go on thinking it.
In spite of the suns thousands of screaming fans crammed the grandstands and everywhere else around the track they could fit. No surprise, really; Boonta Eve was the pinnacle and centerpiece of the racing season. Because, quite simply, it accounted for more fatal accidents than any other event on the Outer Rim circuit.
"Good morning everyone and welcome to the one hundred and second Boonta Eve Classic!" the announcer declared, his voice booming from loudspeakers scattered through the stands. "The racers are coming out onto the starting grid and what a spread we have today! At the pole is our reigning champion and everyone's favorite, Yolvis the Xexto!"
Yolvis stood up in the cockpit of his pod, waving all four arms. The crowd roared.
"Number two is Yolvis' long time rival, Beedar Klint!"
Beedar sat with his feet propped up on his pod's windscreen. In one hand he gripped an enormous stein. He raised it in salute to the crowd, then emptied it into his toothy maw and tossed it away, belching loudly.
"In the number three slot we have an old favorite on the Outer Rim Circuit, Ferganal the Smasher!"
Ferganal jumped up on the body of his pod, arms up in double V-for-victory salutes. The crowd howled; Ferganal won only sporadically but he caused a large number of crashes, many of them fatal.
"Last but not least we have a surprise newcomer in the number four position, Natsumi Tenko!"
Natsumi jumped up onto Black Bitch's cockpit module, energetically waving both arms and blowing kisses. Today she wore jackboots, elbow length gloves, a belted jacket, and a mini-skirt, all made of hand tooled Bantha leather. The crowd cheered her as loudly as it had the others.
"Is my darling ready to go?" Natsumi asked, hopping to the ground.
"Ready, willing, and able," Kathryn replied.
"Just like me, then." Natsumi ran her hand lovingly along the pod's brightly polished flank. "Y'know, Yolvis doesn't look happy to see us." She waved at him, grinning brightly. He scowled back.
"Maybe he didn't expect us to make it," Kathryn replied. She kept her eyes on the pit 'droids as they lifted Black Bitch's engines off the sled and set them on the ground.
A lot of people didn't want Natsumi racing. The Outer Rim Circuit had gotten rather... inbred was the only word that seemed to fit. Everyone had their favorites and were quite comfortable with them. A newcomer- especially one who showed so spectacularly in the qualifying trials- was the last thing they wanted. In a more civilized part of the galaxy she'd never have made it this far; a hastily erected wall of legal obfuscation would have stopped her cold long ago. Out here, though, were plenty of people willing to sell their souls for a chance to stick it to their enemies, real or imagined. Which only meant that Natsumi had to win or they'd never be able to pay all the bribes and kickbacks.
"It is with greatest pleasure that I present our just and beneficent administrator, Jabba the Hutt!" the announcer called.
Natsumi, along with many others, looked up at Jabba's private box. From the track she could just see him, gazing at the crowd with large, closely spaced, yellow-gold eyes. He reminded her of a fat old bullfrog, though she'd never say so around here. However ugly and corpulent he looked, Jabba pretty much owned Mos Espa and his influence spread far beyond, across many worlds of the Outer Rim. He waved to the crowd- or at least he moved his hand a little- and said something the loudspeakers didn't pick up.
"Keep your eye on the second row," Kathryn said as the pit 'droids retired to the sidelines.
"Right," Natsumi replied as she slid into Black Bitch's cockpit, settling her wings into the wells provided for them. If the pod's slipstream caught them it would tear them right off, which would hurt like a sonofabitch. She pulled on her helmet and set the goggles over her eyes, then risked a quick glance over her shoulder. Front row racers got all the attention but someone who wanted to win watched the second row carefully. Many of the racers there were teamed- officially or otherwise- with front row people. Generally they were paid- quite handsomely- to make sure their principals scored well. They'd cut a racer off while allowing a team mate to pass or even deliberately run a competitor into an obstacle.
A line of standard bearers came out onto the track as Natsumi pulled her straps tight and ran final checks. She hardly need've worried; Kathryn maintained a live link to the pod's systems. It was like having an Astromech on board- better, even- without the weight. Kathryn figured that the arrangement would give Black Bitch a performance boost of nearly twelve percent- which, given Natsumi's position on the field, could make all the difference. She could win by pushing the other racers until they made mistakes or shook their pods apart. As the standard bearers cleared the track she lit all four engines; they spooled up with deep, throaty growls that reminded her of savage jungle cats roaring. She grinned feraly, grinding her buttocks against the hard seat. The sensation of wild power barely contained excited her like nothing else could. Some things really were even better than sex. But only very, very few.
Up in his box Jabba extended a pudgy arm and flicked the starting gong. The first lap counter lit up. Natsumi's hand clamped the throttle; acceleration slammed her as Black Bitch leapt off the grid. She had the lead!
It only lasted a second. Yolvis used his advantage of position to pull ahead as the pack swept around the first turn. Beedar ran beside him, less than half a length behind. Ferganal came up behind Natsumi at full power, clearly intending to ram her out of the way if necessary. Natsumi dodged to the outside; Ferganal was one of those who believed in large, powerful engines that could be used to batter an enemy into submission. Black Bitch's lightweight engines gave her good speed and agility but she couldn't take a pounding. Ferganal slipped by and slowly pulled ahead.
Pillars and arches of stone dotted the first leg of the course. The pack broke up as racers sought their own lines through the obstacles. Natsumi kept a close eye on her rear view mirrors; if a racer intended to run another into an obstacle this was a favorite place to do it. There was also the danger of wandering too far off course in the process of dodging terrain.
The land flattened suddenly into a wide valley. Yolvis and Beedar came out neck and neck; Ferganal came out a couple lengths back with Natsumi right behind him. Next leg went through a narrow canyon which in most places was only wide enough for a single pod. Yolvis and Beedar pushed together but neither would sacrifice his chance at taking the lead. Ferganal deliberately throttled back a hair to put himself beside Natsumi and turned into her, trying to force her farther off the track. Up ahead Yolvis suddenly lost his nerve and dropped back, giving Beedar the lead. It almost cost him; his right engine scraped the stone wall with a shower of sparks.
Natsumi narrowed her eyes. The world around her seemed to dim slightly; instead of seeing she felt. Forces moving into and out of balance, probabilities shifting. The moment to act would be soon-
Ferganal realized that he'd gone dangerously outside the line. His pod's massive engines didn't turn well. He came off the power just a hair as he entered the turn. Natsumi stood Black Bitch almost on her side and pulled hard; in a flash she slipped by, clearing the opposite wall by less than a meter. In her rear view mirrors, past the bulk of Ferganal's pod, she saw a flash of flame, there and gone in less than a heartbeat as she wound her way into the canyons. Someone hadn't made the turn. Along this stretch Natsumi used her pod's agility to pull ahead of Ferganal and close with Yolvis.
Beyond the narrow canyons lay open land. Beedar, Yolvis, and Natsumi burst onto it almost nose to tail. Yolvis and Beedar started whipping back and forth, Yolvis in an attempt to slip by and Beedar to block it. Since she couldn't force her way past Natsumi eased back a length. She didn't think Beedar would be a problem; she'd caught a glimpse of torn metal on his right engine. With two pods hot on his tail he was pushing hard; chances were he'd suffer a serious malfunction before the race ended- or he'd have to take a pit stop and loose precious time. That left only Yolvis.
And Ferganal, who came roaring up from behind. Natsumi cut back and forth but he came on anyway, trusting in his pod's greater mass to survive any collisions. The track curved gently around a wide plateau; Natsumi took it flat out, nearly scraping the wall. Even so Ferganal inched up on the outside almost close enough to touch. He wanted to run her into the wall but didn't quite have the position. If she crashed now the wreckage would take him out, too. On the straightaway past the plateau he continued moving up; in front of them the track went into a valley that started wide but narrowed quickly. Natsumi let Beedar by rather than let him take a position where he might run her into a wall as the canyon narrowed.
Shelves of rock with stalactites hanging from them formed a roof over the canyon. As the path narrowed still further the canyon ended suddenly at a small cave mouth. Natsumi dropped power, letting Ferganal pull well ahead. The Lagulla Caves accounted for many of the Boonta's fatal accidents. The sudden darkness, the confined space, the stalactites and stalagmites... it took all a racer's skill just to go through it without piling up. As she exploded out into sunlight Natsumi's finger started to mash the throttle- the track ahead was a wide, sweeping turn devoid of obstacles- but a flash of premonition stopped her for just an instant. Something flashed in the air, kicking up a plume of dust just ahead. Natsumi glanced to her right; figures in dun colored clothes perched on the canyon wall, aiming long barreled weapons. Tusken raiders, taking pot shots at the racers. Natsumi jammed the throttle and jinked to the right; another slug snapped less than a meter over her head. Behind her she saw two pods; a shot struck squarely on the right engine of the most distant. For a second nothing happened, then smoke and flame erupted from the damaged engine. It wobbled, then nosed into the ground, exploding in a shower of metal fragments. A serious accident but not necessarily fatal. The Tusken raiders didn't bother shooting at downed pilots or the rescue skiffs; there wasn't any sport in it.
Beyond the Canyon Dune turn lay a long, open straightaway leading into the clubhouse turn. Natsumi steered a straight line toward the distant bluffs housing the grandstands and cranked the throttle. Instead of pouring on the power and pulling ahead, though, Ferganal eased off ever so slightly, jinking hard to trap Natsumi behind him. In her rear view mirrors Natsumi spied the pod she'd seen on the last turn coming up. Number six on the grid, piloted by a Dug named Crannus. Obviously he was Ferganal's partner and intended to help his boss rub out the competition once and for all. Natsumi jinked hard but Ferganal maneuvered with surprising agility. Up ahead what had at first been distant bluffs now loomed large. The straightaway looked long but pods ate it up fast. Again the world seemed to dim as Natsumi felt probabilities converging-
As the turn loomed up Ferganal got off his rhythm and didn't cut back quite as fast as usual. It left an opening- a very slim one- for Natsumi to roll on the power and slip by. Instead she cut to the outside and pressed a special switch. Black Bitch's right and left turning nozzles aimed out in opposite directions. The loss of thrust combined with her outside position caused her to slip back beside Crannus. The jet of hot exhaust from Black Bitch's left nacelle played across the intake of Crannus' right engine- and with a bang like a hand grenade exploding the compressor stalled. In her rear view mirror Natsumi saw Crannus' horse-like face twist into a rictus of horror as she released the button and turned hard into him. The pods came together with hardly a jolt; they'd been nearly touching already. With half his thrust off line Crannus couldn't steer out of it. The inside wall of the clubhouse turn flashed by and suddenly Crannus was gone. In her rear view mirrors Natsumi caught a glimpse of an explosion of flame and a shower of debris. Crannus exited the race at nearly the same place Seth Kar had during the time trials. Natsumi giggled.
During much of the second lap Ferganal concentrated on driving. He didn't try to sucker Natsumi with feints, he simply prevented her from passing. A couple pods came up behind but they didn't crowd. Natsumi suspected that Crannus' fate spooked them.
Beedar should have gone into the pit at the end of the first circuit. As he rounded the wide plateau at the end of the course he paid the price for his lack of caution. His right engine started banging and streaming smoke. Yolvis pressed even harder; Beedar tried to stay ahead and did- until the S3 fan on his right engine disintegrated in a deadly hail of jagged metal. With the grace of a sinking liner his pod nosed into the sand. Yolvis wisely hung back until the flying debris cleared- which gave Ferganal an opening. He took it, blasting straight through the fireball, accepting the risk of his engines ingesting debris as the price for taking the lead.
Natsumi cursed, though she couldn't even hear herself over the roar of her pod's engines. She hadn't figured on having to go through Yolvis to get at Ferganal. Now she had no choice... and Yolvis was good. As she came up behind him he danced like a ballerina, cutting off any possibility of her getting by and still managing to find the best line through the turns. Natsumi hunched lower in the cockpit until her eyes barely showed over the instrument cluster. Yolvis was a good pilot and a decent sportsman, a rare thing on the Outer Rim Circuit. But desperate times call for desperate measures. As she followed Yolvis on the approach to the Lagulla Caves she let go of the controls with one hand and reached down into the well sheltering her right wing. She found the hold-out blaster Kathryn had placed when she set up the pod on the starting grid.
Dirty tricks were stock in trade for the Boonta Eve Classic. Flashing one's vents to stall an opponent's compressor or actively running an opponent into an obstacle were common, if not exactly approved, practices. More daring- or determined- individuals carried heavy objects that could be lobbed into an opponent's intake. The rules forbade such practices but officials were known to turn a blind eye- if they'd been bribed or even if the attacker made a reasonably good show of it. Spectacular crashes were what the crowd came to see. Carrying actual weapons, though, was strongly frowned upon. Judges disqualified pilots- even popular ones- who equipped their pods with blasters, flame units, or mine layers. Since Natsumi was an outsider they went over Black Bitch with a fine toothed comb. Getting a hand blaster past them wasn't especially difficult. Finding an opportunity to use it was another matter entirely. Skiffs with video crews raced along the track filming the action from above; even at the frenetic pace of pod racing a blaster bolt would be seen and noticed. Except, of course, within the Lagulla Caves. The vid crews couldn't see through the roof and the sudden transition from light to semi-dark would hide the muzzle flash from other pilots. Unfortunately the caves were also the most difficult and dangerous part of the entire course. A pilot who could hit another pod with a hand blaster while guiding his own pod through- without cracking up in the process- surely didn't need a blaster to win.
Natsumi wasn't that pilot. She'd studied Yolvis carefully during the qualifying trials and knew she couldn't beat him in a straight race. As the cave mouth approached Natsumi braced the blaster between the right rear view mirror and the edge of the wind screen and flew with her left hand. Her lips drew back in a snarl, her eyes narrowing to slits as she struggled to ride the intertwining lines of probability like never before. She'd have only a fraction of a second to act and if she screwed up it wouldn't merely mean failure of the mission. She'd end up a spray of charred gore riding the shock wave of her pod's firey destruction.
The turning point of Natsumi's existence flashed by so quickly she never consciously noticed it. The blaster's muzzle flash lit the caves like a strobe. It didn't hit Yolvis or even his pod but it passed within about a meter of his head. It made him flinch- and that was enough. His right engine clipped a stalagmite, shearing the stone like a power saw. The engine disintegrated in a hail of fragments that tore Yolvis and the rest of his pod apart like a gigantic shotgun blast. Reflecting shock waves slammed Black Bitch's left nacelle against a rock and Natsumi's face against the windscreen. A large section of the lightweight fairing came away, fluttering like a bat in the pod's slipstream. Natsumi coughed, spraying blood from her torn lip all over the instrument cluster. She'd dumped a lot of speed to avoid crashing and two pods roared past. The first barreled straight through the fireball, its pilot counting on the explosion itself to clear debris from his path. In open air it probably would have worked; here the low ceiling reflected it back. As he burst into the open smoke erupted from both engines; not ten seconds later he nosed into the ground. Natsumi emerged into daylight with the second pod well ahead and pulling away fast. She fed on power; for a heart-stopping instant the leftmost engine stuttered before ramping up. Uneven drag pulled Black Bitch to the left but it wasn't anything Natsumi couldn't handle.
Tusken Raiders still waited on the rim of the Canyon Dune turn. Natsumi ignored them, sticking to the line like she was on rails and keeping the throttle wide open, betting that the raiders wouldn't be able to hit a turning, high-deflection target with their crude slug throwers. A bullet snapped over her head and another skipped from the right nacelle, tearing a ragged wound in the fairing. The pod ahead grew slowly but steadily larger. Natsumi didn't remember who it was and at this point didn't care. He drove well but not with Yolvis' skill. She'd pass him on the clubhouse turn. He tried to cut her off but she kept coming, flirting with compressor stall as Black Bitch shuddered in the pod's slipstream. She feinted right- he moved to intercept- and she slipped by on the left, standing Black Bitch on her side and squeezing so close to the wall that the top half of the windscreen shattered and blew away.
Black Bitch's left nacelle vibrated unpleasantly as Natsumi blasted into the first leg of the course. Bits of the shattered fairing flapped violently and occasionally broke loose. The controls felt sloppy; the leftmost engine wasn't running evenly. Come on, Kathryn, Natsumi prayed silently. Hold it together for one more lap. That's all I need.
As she'd expected Natsumi caught up to Ferganal in the twisty canyons. He glanced over his shoulder as she pulled up behind him, then rolled on more power. Several times Natsumi entertained the hope that he might fly himself into a wall but each time he pulled out at the last possible instant. As they rounded the plateau he swung wide and didn't even swerve much. Natsumi almost took the opening though she knew it had to be a trap. Now wasn't the time to get cocky. She reached for the holdout blaster- and couldn't find it. Either she'd dropped it overboard or it was clattering around somewhere out of reach. She didn't dare take her attention off the track to search for it. She and Ferganal roared through the caves and into the Canyon Dune turn. This time she paid attention to the raiders, carefully dodging their pot shots. Hopefully Ferganal would make a mistake. If so she needed to be right there to exploit it.
Coming out of the turn Natsumi noticed a ramp leading up from the canyon floor to the top of the ridge. She'd seen it before but since it wasn't part of the course she ignored it. She hadn't succeeded in going around Ferganal so maybe-
Natsumi swerved onto the ramp, hauling her pod's nose up and rolling hard. Black Bitch leapt into the air and flipped upside down as she slid sideways off the roadway.
Despite being jet powered pods were not aircraft. They lacked controls for true flight and their repulsor fields wouldn't lift them more than a few meters off the ground. Still, they could do quite a lot if a pilot were sufficiently skilled- or desperate. Black Bitch barrel rolled right over Ferganal and rebounded from the canyon wall, saved from a fatal collision by her repulsor field. Sliding down the wall gave Natsumi just enough extra speed to slip ahead. In her rear view mirrors she saw Ferganal gape, then start screaming. She couldn't hear a word, of course, but she could imagine what he was probably saying. Ferganal threw caution to the wind and came right up on Natsumi's tail. If she still had the blaster she could have lobbed it into his engines. She did not doubt for an instant that he planned to wreck her and be dammed what the judges thought. They might strip away his win but it wouldn't make her any less dead. In the distance behind him Natsumi saw another pod but it hung back, reluctant to come between Ferganal and his prey. Why take chances when third place- or second- could be his simply by keeping up?
Even with Black Bitch's throttle wide open Ferganal closed. The left nacelle shuddered violently and warning lights flashed on the instrument panel. Up ahead Natsumi saw the bluffs of the clubhouse turn, distant but growing rapidly. She was very nearly out of time; she had to get Ferganal now or never. She wove back and forth, slowly but smoothly, like a snake about to strike. Ferganal conformed to her as if they were dance partners, watching for his moment. It came when Natsumi swung slightly too wide; he swung the other way, coming up beside her before she could cut him off. Black Bitch's right nacelle slammed into Ferganal's left engine with a crash that started cracks in the fairing. The two pods raced along nearly side by side, bashing and grinding like logs in a mill race. Ferganal used his pod's greater mass to hammer Natsumi toward the left side of the course. There weren't that many obstacles and Ferganal couldn't aim carefully with Natsumi fighting him but he could run her into the clubhouse wall as he'd meant to do on the previous lap.
Natsumi glanced to her right. Only a few meters away she saw Ferganal, still shouting at her. The scene around him dimmed as Natsumi explored the future paths radiating out from her moment in time but Ferganal himself became brighter and clearer. She saw a cusp in the lines of probability. Ferganal would act soon-
Up ahead the bluffs loomed like a mighty wave of stone rising to strike down the impudent creatures who raced toward it in their fragile vehicles. At the same instant Ferganal turned hard to drive Natsumi into the wall she slammed on full reverse thrust. With a tearing crash Black Bitch dropped behind- and before he could react Ferganal drove straight into the wall. The shock wave from his pod exploding slammed Black Bitch several meters to the side and peppered her with fragments. Natsumi heard them rattling off her pod's belly like sleet and buzzing past her head like angry hornets. Red warnings lit up all across the instrument panel and smoke erupted from both nacelles but it didn't matter any more. Streaming fire and bits of hull Black Bitch roared across the line a good three lengths ahead of the runner up.
Kathryn entered the suite just as Natsumi finished stacking the luggage in the middle of the room. A blast of noise from the club house faded to a mutter as Kathryn kicked the door shut.
"How'd we do?" Natsumi asked, looking up expectantly. Red syntheskin patched the cut on her lip. Her broken teeth could be replaced but buds weren't readily available on Tatooine even if she and Kathryn were willing to hang around that long.
"For starters, Ferganal is dead and no one suspects that he was assassinated," Kathryn began. "In addition-" she upended a bag on the table. Bundled banknotes spilled out.
"Hot damn," Natsumi breathed, scooping up a double handful. "Is this all profit?"
"If we can get out of town without Gardulla's thugs skinning us alive, then yes," Kathryn replied. "And Arkatta's share, of course. I figured you'd want to pay him back personally."
"You got that right." Natsumi stretched, flexing her wings. She wore denim shorts and a safari vest; to it she added what appeared to be a pistol belt. Loops on it held power cells like for a hand blaster but instead of pistols the holsters carried a pair of burnished metal tubes about thirty centimeters long and perhaps three in diameter. Textured grips covered their protruding ends. "How subtle do we have to be about this?"
"We stick to the plan," Kathryn said firmly, dividing the money into two approximately equal piles and stuffing each one into a light backpack, one of which she tossed to Natsumi and the other she put on herself, followed by her pistol belt. "Daddy will be very upset if we blow our cover now."
"I never get to have any fun," Natsumi pouted, pulling a thermite charge from her suitcase and setting the timer for twenty seconds. She tucked it under the pile of luggage. "Is the ship ready?"
"And waiting," Kathryn replied, picking up a bandolier of smoke grenades and putting it over her shoulder.
"Good." Natsumi picked up another bandolier loaded with grenades and started pulling the pins. "I hate long goodbyes."
The slicer 'droid which had been used to break into the garage where Black Bitch was stored currently lay on the scan plate of a terminal normally used to contact room service. While Natsumi had been pressing the flesh and Katrhyn collecting their winnings the 'droid had been patiently convincing the hotel's central computer that it was
Kathryn grimaced. Natsumi should have let her do a sweep before taking off. On the other hand, Kathryn would be the first to admit that it was better to be lucky than good... and Natsumi, by her nature, was very, very lucky. To satisfy her own conscience Kathryn stepped onto the balcony- making sure the room lights were off so she wouldn't backlight herself- and looked around.
The post-race party completely filled the clubhouse's top floor. As the winning team Natsumi and Kathryn had been invited, but properly it was for the backers, the people behind the winners. (And losers, which was the problem in this case.) Comiserate with the level of wealth and power concentrated in this one location was the level of security surrounding it. The clubhouse had a landing pad on the roof, currently protected by a force field and a pair of vehicle mounted air defense batteries, one at each corner of the building. As an added precaution there were guards in the lobby, too. concentrated in this
As they exited the suite Kathryn tossed two smoke grenades to the right and Natsumi tossed two more to the left. The hotel's fire alarm went off, sensing the smoke pouring from the first grenade. As guests rushed from their rooms they found the hall already filling with smoke. Kathryn and Natsumi simply joined the crowd rushing for the exists.
On the way out of the suite Kathryn lobbed two smoke grenades to her left and Natsumi flung two to her right. The hotel's fire alarm went off, sensing the smoke from the first grenade. In a few seconds the warning became in earnest when the thermite charge ignighted. Guests burst from their rooms into a hallway already thick with smoke; in a panicked mob they stampeded for the exits. Quite a few of them tried to use the lifts, even though the hotel's central computer had shut them down the instant the alarm went off.
Kathryn and Natsumi joined the crowd. The smoke didn't bother Kathryn in the least; , leading Natsumi by the hand; the When the first guests came from their rooms, summoned by the siren, they found the hall already filled with smoke. In a panicked mob they rushed for the lifts, even though the hotel's central computer had shut them down and thrown up force fields that denied entrance to the shafts. short order the warning made a beckoning gesture; a bandolier of smoke grenades flew to her hand. climbed up onto the balcony rail. "I hate long goodbyes." She dove off into space.
Kathryn climbed up while Natsumi plummeted ten stories straight down. At the bottom Natsumi spread not her wings but her hands; for no readily apparent reason she decelerated sharply, landing gently on top of the marquis over the hotel's entrance as if she'd merely jumped from a high step. Kathryn balanced herself carefully- it wouldn't do at all to bash into one of the balconies on the way down- and let go.
Kathryn thought it absoultely insane to have outside balconies on a world where terrific sandstorms would scour the flesh from a person's bones in a matter of minutes, then leave them to bleach under the punishing rays of the dual suns. At least Mos Espa had tall, grantite cliffs protecting it from the worst of the prevailing winds, to which the hotel operators had added an environmental force field that also cut the glare. Which in Kathryn's mind begged the qestion of why anyone would want a room with an outdoor balcony when standing on it was, realistically, just like being inside. But this hotel served tourists come to watch pod races, and it was a known fact that tourists wanted made no sense by any rational standard. In any case the particulars meant nothing to her; Kathryn had chosen this place because it served their
Kathryn climbed up on Natsumi's back. Together they dropped off into space. The clubhouse facade streaked past as they fell then slanted away. They almost made it across the plaza before Natsumi ran out of altitude and crashed into the street. Kathryn let go and tumbled, coming to her feet dusty but none the worse for wear. She looked around; across the street at the clubhouse main entrance there seemed to be a commotion of some sort. Someone pointed her direction and shouted something that she heard only as a faint call drifting on the night air. She sprinted up the street and ducked into an alley with Natsumi hot on her heels; Mos Espa wasn't a well lit city but to Kathryn's electronically enhanced vision midnight was as good as midday.
Arkatta owned a nice little place on the edge of the commercial district. Kathryn walked up to the front door and slapped the would-be saboteur's slicer 'droid against the lock plate. Almost instantly it defeated the mechanism and the door slid open. Kathryn put the 'droid back in her pocket and drew a pistol but didn't move up the stairs.
Arkatta knew at once that someone had cracked his security door. By the second beep of the quiet alarm he was out of bed with a blaster in hand, running for the secret rear exit. In his line of work unexpected visitors in the middle of the night invariably meant trouble. It bothered him to leave behind his valuable things but there'd be time to sort it out later.
Because of her dark coloration Arkatta didn't see Natsumi crouched in the shadow of a wall until she actually stood up. He spun, swinging his blaster, but Natsumi moved even faster. His blaster discharged into the air as her arm swept it aside. Her other hand drove a short, double edged dagger between his ribs and into his heart. He collapsed against her, gagging and spitting blood. She shoved him against the wall, twisting her dagger to break the suction and jerking it out. Arkatta gurgled and slumped forward on his face. A dark, wet stain spread on the ground around him.
"Don't think we'd leave without paying you what we owe, you filthy traitor," Natsumi said, wiping her dagger and returning it to the sheath in her breast pocket. Along the alley what few lights there were quickly went out. No one investigated the cause of the commotion; such disturbances were common in Mos Espa. Natsumi jogged around the corner and met Kathryn on the street. Together they hurried on foot toward the space port.
"Any trouble?" Kathryn asked.
"Nope." Natsumi shook her head. "He came out just like you said he would."
Even in the middle of the night a goodly number of people moved about in the space port area. Unlike the rest of Mos Espa the area was reasonably well lit. Natsumi and Kathryn paused to brush off the worst of the dust before heading for the grid where their ship waited. As they walked Kathryn flexed her shoulders, sweeping her arms in wide arcs forward and back. Certain members of the crowd appeared to glow faintly red as her sensors detected charged weapons on their persons.
"I got 'em," Natsumi whispered, using a toss of the head as an excuse to glance backwards. She lacked Kathryn's electronics but she had other senses. She felt the lines of probability drawing her attention to particular individuals.
"Now!" Kathryn shouted, drawing her pistols so fast they seemed to teleport into her hands. In the electronic world of her mind red lines connected the muzzles to six individuals closing in ahead. Her hands moved with mechanical precision, her fingers stroking the triggers as fast as the mechanisms could cycle. The hisscrack of individual discharges ran together into a stuttering roar, muzzle flashes painting the scene in harsh, flickering light. Natsumi pirouetted like a dancer, stepping between Kathryn and the people drawing weapons behind her. As she whipped the tubes from their holsters dazzling white energy blades sprang from their open ends, thrumming ominously as she spun them through the air. Four of the attackers got shots off but somehow Natsumi's blades always managed to arrive at just the right place and time to splash the bolts harmlessly into the air or ground. Kathryn stopped firing only long enough to switch places with Natsumi, then fired again. Behind her six figures tumbled away, none of their weapons more than half drawn, spewing blood and cooked brain tissue from gaping wounds in the backs or sides of their heads, depending on how far they'd managed to turn before Kathryn shot them down. In front of her six more figures slumped to the ground, each one shot exactly through the eye.
"Good lord," Natsumi commented, switching off her lightsabers and putting them away. "As influential as Gardulla supposedly is, you'd think he could hire better gunmen." The exchange had evolved so quickly that only now were people not directly involved starting to run or dive for cover.
"Would you rather he had?" Kathryn replaced the power cells in her pistols before holstering them. She'd fired exactly twelve times.
"Might have been more of a challenge," Natsumi replied.
"Is that all this is to you?" Kathryn asked. Some of the corpses still twitched in a grotesque parody of life. The air stank of fresh blood, bodily wastes voided in the instant of death, and metal sublimed from the bores of Kathryn's pistols.
"I hear their souls scream as they're ripped from warm flesh and cast into darkness," Natsumi snapped, jogging along at Kathryn's elbow. "And some day that's going to happen to me, too. And maybe... maybe they'll be waiting for me on the other side." She fell silent for a moment. "So maybe I'd better enjoy living while I still can." She gave Kathryn a meaningful glance. "I suppose what you and Aaron did on board his ship was just a clever charade designed to lull our enemies into a false sense of security?"
Kathryn said nothing. Memories of Aaron flooded into her mind. The touch of his hands, the gentle caress of his lips, the sensation of his skin sliding against hers. The rich, sweaty smell of him filling her nostrils. "No," she admitted. "It wasn't."
At the gate leading to Pad 162 Kathryn reached for the slicer droid. Before she could even draw it Natsumi activated one of her lightsabers and swept it in a catenary arc. The metal mesh fell out of its frame with a crash, leaving an opening Kathryn could just step through without ducking.
"Then maybe if I can learn to be more serious," Natsumi said, stepping through the opening, "Maybe you can learn to pull that stick out of your ass."
Kathryn snorted. "You? Serious? I doubt it."
A moderate sized vessel- four hundred tons burden or thereabouts- occupied the landing pad. No lights showed on its exterior but a pale glow from its thrusters lit the way to its boarding ramp. As Natsumi and Kathryn scrambled on board the rumble of its engines built to a full-throated roar. Then the ramp cycled shut, cutting the noise back to a sub-audible rumble coming up through the deck.
A door at the end of the short corridor hissed open. Through it stepped a Twi'lek woman dressed only in a night gown so thin that her pale green skin showed clearly through it. She came only to Kathryn's shoulder but massed eighty kilos at the very least. "Welcome back," she said, smiling broadly.
"It's good to see you too, Grandma." Natsumi gave the woman a sisterly peck on the cheek but also fondled one of her enormous, flabby breasts.
"Any mail come for us while we were away?" Kathryn inquired. With makeup and plastic surgery Grandma might actually be as old as her name implied but Kathryn doubted it.
"A letter from Daddy," Grandma replied. "It's in your cabin."
"Thanks." Kathryn slipped by, ignoring what Natsumi had started doing with Grandma's nipples. She entered a small but lavishly appointed room decorated with deep carpet, ornately carved furniture that at least looked like real wood, and apparently silken drapes framing holo screens that looked like windows. Light came from brightly polished brass and crystal standards affixed to the walls. To Kathryn it looked like a brothel- which, in fact, it was. Grandma's ship, an old but still serviceable small liner, was in fact nothing but a self-deploying house of ill repute. The girls who worked the place were also the crew, and Grandma their captain as well as madam. For Kathryn and Natsumi it was the perfect cover; the ship- and the girls- could pretty much come and go as they pleased on just about any world or space habitat without drawing undue attention. Grandma prided herself on catering to eclectic tastes so both Kathryn and Natsumi could easily pass for working girls should the need arise.
A data pad lay on the bed side table; Kathryn picked it up and lay it against her temple. An induction port just under her skin downloaded the pad's memory directly into her data processing nodes. She wasn't particularly concerned that Grandma or someone else might have sliced the message; to the best of her knowledge the custom hardware and algorithms needed to unscramble it existed only in her head. One of her antennae wiggled slightly as she patched into the ship's intercom system. "Grandma," she began once the connection was made, "Would you send Natsumi around?"
"Okay, darling," Grandma's voice replied. On her end it sounded exactly like Kathryn's voice though in fact it was synthesized in Kathryn's data processing nodes. By radio or other electronic link Kathryn could imitate a person's speech well enough to fool a voice print analysis.
Natsumi came in carrying her backpack, weapon belt, and all her clothes except for a pair of white lace panties. Kathryn controlled her reaction, though she felt that at times Natsumi embraced her cover role with a little too much enthusiasm. "I got a message from Daddy," Kathryn announced.
"Oh?" Natsumi dropped her gear and sat down. "What does he say?"
"That your training is now over," Kathryn replied. "He has a mission for us. A real one."