arden_av“Just letting everyone know we are about to drop out of hyperspace near Nal Hutta.” Arden’s voice crackled over the Soul’s com system. “We should be…” she was cut off by nervous squeaks and chattering.

“No we are not going to come out of hyperspace in the middle of an asteroid!” the com clicked off.

There was the hard chunk of metal locks disengaging from behind her and the cabin door swung open. Arden looked back over her shoulder. Bralor stood in the threshold, the soft blue glow of hyperspace light falling over his face and dark cloak. His helmet hung at the end of his arm.

“You sure you wanna just stand there for this?”

“Kid, I’ve stood in the airlock of a YV-545 as it dropped from hyperspace right inside orbit of of Haariden to be thrown into a space drop as the transport maneuvered a slingshot return. Whole thing took less then 30 seconds.” The older man’s battle worn face twisted with a bit of a smile, “I think i can handle it.”

The Soul’s pilot snorted a bit of a laugh, her hand on the controls as she watched the navicomputer, it’s flickering numbers flashing. She eased back on the lever and The Free Flying Soul fell out of hyperspace, dropping the old soldier back into the seat beside her. The halo of swirling blue light slotted into the long streams of white stars for a quick moment before stopping into shimmering white pinpricks that dotted around the ship.

“Nal Hutta…” grunted Bralor. The plant ahead had an almost glassy green glow as it sat in the velvet black of space. “Proof that if you don’t look close enough, anything can look decent.”

“Have I mentioned that I hate this piece of Bantha droppings called a planet?” Arden scowled.

The little jawa next to her chattered impatiently.

“Because I hate Hutts, Hutts suck gigantically.” Arden answered. “The are just,” she shuddered,”gross.”

“Never met anyone who liked a hutt.” He set his helmet on the panel in front of him. “Not even another hutt. Why do you think they evolved in a way that on the off chance anyone could tolerate any other the pair could reproduce?” He gave the jawa a glowering look and propped his feet beside the Mandalorian helm.

Nik averted the glowing specks that passed for his eyes, chittering something under his breath about Hutt’s having good scrapyards.

“Such a lovely picture you paint.” Arden giggled as the ship hit the atmosphere. “I want to just get this done and get the hell out of here. Not give Durga a chance to change his sluggy little mind.”

“If he does, we do have a concussion missile rack stashed in the left mandible,” Trey said as he walked up to the bridge. “His mind won’t be changed for long.”

“You’re so cute when you’re menacing.” Arden laughed.

As he dropped into one of the cockpit seats, a smile flashed across the thief’s face. “You only say that because you know I only carry stunners and haven’t harmed anything bigger than a mip.”

“Got that right, champ.” Arden rolled her eyes.

The three of them watched the surface of the planet whiz along beneath them. Arden banked the ship around as Durga’s complex came into view.

“Well, there’s a case of thermals under my bunk.” Bralor looked over, no trace of that humor in his face. “Durga reneges on his deal and we’ll leave this place a pile of rubble behind us.”

“Sure we can’t any way?” Arden smirked.

“Not the sort of power vacuum you wanna open up on the Galaxy.” He grunted. “Make the war with the Trade Federation look like a polite game of Dejarik.”

“Always gotta ruin my fun, Clone boy.” Arden giggled.

“I am a dark cloud when sober.” He patted the sides of his cloak, searching for that familiar lump of metal tucked in the cache beneath.

“We’re getting hailed by security, giving us landing instructions.” The blonde sighed heavily. “And of course, they want to board for inspection.” At those words, Nik shrank a little and started looking for a good hole to hide in.

Trey frowned. “Tell Durga’s hired goons that they can inspect anything we take off the ship under our supervision, but they aren’t going to set a boot on the boarding ramp.”

He walked into his quarters and emerged a moment later with a pair of Deck Sweepers. “And if they agree, there might be something in it for them.” Hefting the blasters, he added, “And if they disagree, there will definitely be something for them.”

The Jawa, more visibly nervous than usual, chattered something again.

“No we are not going to get into a fight or get killed.” She looked back at the Jawa.

“Utinni!,” he spat, crossing his arms.

“Would you settle down before I toss you in the trash compactor.” Arden grumbled.

The Jawa, in his own special way, commented on the possibility that such an action might actually improve the smell and how he might just prefer it to her aroma.

“I don’t care if you would like it!” She yelled.

Bralor stood, watching the approach to Durga’s complex for a moment. Looking down he tapped the Jawa on the back of the head with two fingers. “Besides, you’re not getting off the boat, half-pint.”

Nik lifted his head, those glowing yellow orbs peering up from under the Jawa’s dark hood. Happy to oblige, he pulled his haversack over and rifled through for his little stunner. Better safe than sorry, with this bunch.

The Mandalorian picked up his helmet off the console. Tucking it under his arm, he turned to the stunner wielding Vullif. “Alright, Captain, how do you want to play this?”

“We make it clear that they aren’t welcome on this ship, and maybe lay out a few credits to reinforce the point.” He smiled a bit. “If they don’t take the hint — or the money — then we blast them. Peggats or plasma.”

Arden tapped the comlink. “This is Free Flying Soul, landing vector locked on final approach.”

The YT-2000 light freighter banked hard as it pressed into Nal Hutta’s atmosphere. The edges of the ship began to glow slightly as she ripped through toward the surface. As they broke through the clouds they saw the flat, marshy bogs, stagnant, muddy puddles and patches of sickly marsh grass that covered the planet. A moment later, the Soul came to a soft landing on a pad near a large palace in the southern hemisphere of the planet.

“Home sweet hell.” Arden said as she swiveled around in the chair. “Nik take a look at the stabilizers in the ion engines. They felt a little sluggish upon entry.”

The Jawa chittered back at her, explaining that if she new how to handle their output better that he wouldn’t have to make more adjustments, then fled from her glare in the direction of the engines.

Bralor slid his helmet over his head, sealing it into place. “Lets go pay the piper.” He shifted his shoulders and his cloak straightened, hiding the way his hands rested on his pistols in their shadows. He followed Trey out of the cockpit with Arden close behind.

The noxious swamp gas seared Arden’s nostrils. She finally remembered why she hated this planet. The green clouds that hung just above the trees. The swampy marshes that housed all the poisonous snakes, and other monsters. The one thing she hated most was the damn Hutts. The sluggy bastards screwed with her entire life, and now they were about to do it again. She choked back a few swear words and took a big sniff of the acidic putrid air. So many horrid memories were bubbling up.

Bralor, Arden, and the rest of the crew marched down the hall with Trey in front. The pilot shot the Mandalorian a sideways glance but neither the helmet nor his gate showed any emotion, but he was good at hiding things. She knew he was cataloging every inch of the Hutt’s lair including her and Trey, committing every bit to memory. She swore she was going to make him tell her how he did it, how he calculated all the odds. Her thoughts were shattered as Trey’s voice echoed down the hall.

“Sure am glad those Nikto were reasonable,” Trey said with a smile as they into the cavernous hallway leading to Durga’s throne room.

“Yes well, it didn’t help that you gave them way too much.” She tried to put on a false smile and pretend nothing was wrong.

“Actually I’d say that it helped a lot. Besides, would you prefer they were crawling through the ship? We probably would have lost more that way.”

Arden shot an annoyed glance at Trey and then to Bralor. There was more than one way to handle the Nikto guards rather than just paying them off. They could have used the Ambassador to show they were on official business for Durga. They could have had the diva use her feminine wiles on them to let them land for free.

This was one of the things about Trey that she knew would keep him from ever being nothing more than small time. He never thought far enough ahead. As much as she respected the thief, he would always fall short.

The group wound through the dingy dirt colored halls, past dozens of Gamoreans all guarding the Hutt’s home. It seemed like more security than usual, but that was the life of a crimelord; someone was always trying to take what you had taken from someone else.

“This seems more locked down than usual.” She said nonchalantly, as she counted the guards just in case things went bad. “Hope Durga’s happy to see us.”

Kyra took in their situation from her position at the rear of the pack. She’d left the light-foil behind in exchange for a worn DL-18 blaster which her hand casually rested on. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”

From beneath those heavy shielding robes, Tiila’s voice sounded concerned. The tone being her only identifying marker of the woman beneath the thick layers of cloth unless the cool atmosphere of agree-ability could be measured. “He is expecting trouble, let’s hope it isn’t from us.” Despite her hopeful suggestion, she doubted it.

The pink skinned woman had forgotten how stifling her costume was but she would rather have worn it than the gold circle she had left crammed unceremoniously beneath her bed. “Even if the trouble is unrelated to us, it could become so easily. No amount of caution is unnecessary.” She knew with great intimacy the level of trouble that could walk into these familiar halls.

“So just to be clear, no one here has an itchy trigger-finger, right?”

“You’ve met us right?” Arden smiled at the red head.

Kyra glanced from the porcine Gammoreans to the leathery-faced Weequay – all armed to the teeth – and sighed. “I was afraid you’d say something like that.”

“And besides,” Arden said with a smile as she caught up with Tiila, “that’s what we have the ambassador for, to be our moral compass.” Arden gave Tiila a sickening smile.

The unamused look was lost in the folds of canvas. “I don’t know what gave you that idea.” Her folded arms ached to sweep the sweat damp hair that currently clung to her throat. It wasn’t that hot. Perhaps it was the uncomfortable anticipation of Durga’s reaction to her return and what they had planned. With each step she grew more certain that it would be a hot day on Hoth before he even considered such a deal.

Bralor stepped up to the weequay at the door to the Hutt’s great chamber. He tilted his head back so that glistening black T caught the dim flickering light.

“We’re here for our audience with His Great Obesity.”

There was a quite mumble and hiss from under the guard’s lips. His eyes were narrowed as they looked over the Mandalorian’s shoulder to Trey.

“You care to repeat that, Di’Kut?” He leaned in close. “Open the door.”

The leathery face gave a shaky sneer back, shifting his long rifle from one hand to the other. Still he stepped back, and the door gave a metal chunk which echoed out down the stone corridor. The door swung, revealing the the brighter lights and steady piping music that poured out.

Bralor shouldered the guard as he passed and the Soul’s crew filed into the chamber. The music stammered and petered out.

“Vullif,” Durga’s thick, voice boomed. “I expected you earlier. But then, my expectations for you always seem to fall… short.” His fat tail shifted and curled at the end a little. “Not unlike your payments.”

The silent room erupted in a fit of laughter, Trey joining in with the crowd. “Yes, Durga. I’m sure you expected us earlier, despite being two days ahead of our agreement’s schedule.”

As if on cue, two of Durga’s Weequay entered pushing a repulsor sled stacked with several durasteel crates.

The Nikto walked forward and opened one of the boxes. After quickly rifling through its contents, he did the same to the other crates and then turned to Durga. “There is at least a hundred thousand credits here.”

Trey glanced at Bralor and the bounty hunter’s helmet moved almost imperceptibly down, a signal that the Nikto was giving Durga the correct estimate.

“Actually, it’s a little over a hundred thousand, Most Exalted Durga. More than fifteen thousand more than we expected.”

The Hutt laughed. “What have I done for the extra generosity, Vullif?” Durga’s throaty huttese echoed off of the walls.

“Not generosity, Great Durga.” the thief said with a smile as he placed a hand on one of the crates.”But our deal was to still owe you sixty-five thousand after our payment of eighty-five thousand. I figure this helps lower that remaining amount to fifty thousand.”

“It would.” Durga licked his slimy tongue across his lips as he studied Trey. “Except for the sixty-five you’ll still owe me, Vullif.” Those elongated marquise pupils looked at the container. “I’ll take this as interest for your late and lighter payments in the past…”

Trey slammed his fist down on the container. “That was never part of the deal, Durga!”

“I am altering the deal,” he said, his deep laugh rumbling. “Pray I do not alter it further.”

“I knew it.” Arden rolled her eyes. “Lord Durga,” the blonde stepped forward, “I know that Captain Vuliff has been late in the past, but we have paid you and given you extra this time. I think you can see that he has come with the additional amount in good faith. It would be in your best interest to take this as a extra against what is still owed.”

“Mind your tongue, shag.” The hutt’s large eyes, narrowed. “Before I forget the whole agreement…”

At the pilot of the Soul’s side, Bralor shifted his stance, his hands moving under the heavy cloak onto the pistols at his side. He eased them from their holsters, knowing that with enough well placed shots, he could whittle Durga’s immediate security to barely a handful. He gave a casual glance to Kyra.

Trey placed a hand on the pilot’s shoulder and leaned close to her. “I expected this, Arden. I gave him a way to screw us without taking you away,” he whispered to to her. “So back off.”

“Backing off.” Arden gave him a sideways glance. They would talk about why he didn’t share that little tidbit with her later.

Unusually quiet for unusually long, the Ambassador’s voice rose from behind the quietly arguing pair.”Do not mind Arden, Lord, she has yet to develop a tongue for business.” Her voice rang strong despite the shake she felt in her chest. Decades of training would allow no less.

“All right, Durga,” the thief said, dropping the pretext of respect and formality. “Ramis goes free and I still owe you sixty-five.” He paused, not sure what to say next. After a couple of seconds, he spoke, disdain in his voice. “I assume you want to send your Ambassador with us again? To make sure we’re on time with our next payment?”

A smirk, suspiciously more wicked than usual, slithered across Durga’s lipless mouth. “In fact, I need your next trip to be for me. I have a business partner on the planet Osarian. A few details need her…” He paused and licked his lips salaciously, a less than subtle indication of the subtext.”unique and specific negotiating expertise.”

Tiila felt herself lightening as her blood ran cold. Before, it was her job. It was something she even took pleasure in. Her body was a tool of his to use as he saw fit, but even the brief time spent aboard the Soul had changed her vision. She had been given a choice and found a level of peace in it that she had never known existed. This was the trouble Durga had armed himself for.

“As you so command, Lord.” She couldn’t risk the lives of the others over feelings she had only recently come into. “Send the files to my datapad and I will get you what you need.” She, once again, drew upon every talent she had to keep her demeanor steady. At least she was being sent out again without anyone getting hurt.

Bralor stood still, his mask not even betraying the sound of his steady breath.

He knew what Durga’s work would entail. The Mandalorian himself had been manipulated for years by the Republic into doing dirty work, but he was a soldier. This was different.

He quite disliked the way unsavory types like the Hutts would abuse those in their care. He’d been there for Aidenne as her lord sent her on some rather unpleasant tasks. At least those encounters ended in someone else’s death. Even so, he did everything he could to pull her further and further from Zann’s grasp. But this…

He stifled the urge to put a bolt between the Hutt’s great, golden eyes. That wouldn’t solve the problem. Yet…

“Of course you will.” The fat Hutt folded his hands across his large belly. He looked down to the Nikto that stood before him. The man nodded. “It is done.”

“This unexpected turn takes my ship out of work, Durga.” Trey took a step forward. “Makes it difficult for me to keep up on my payments when I’m not able to draw income.”

“Until that sixty-five finds its way to my door it is still my ship, Vullif.” He laughed that deep, hollow laugh of Hutt. “And I will take that into account regarding your payment plan. You will be back to your petty crimes in little time.”

“As you wish, Exalted Durga,” Trey replied, the sarcasm in his voice barely concealed. “We will run the Ambassador to her errand.” Beneath his breath, he added, “And a hundred thousand credits isn’t petty.”

The hutt dismissed the Soul’s crew from his presence and they walked back down the corridor to the landing pad. Glancing over at his pilot, Trey sighed. “I didn’t tell you about the extra payment because I wanted a genuine reaction from you. And I wanted Durga to think he was getting the better of us.”

“One of these days Trey,” Arden shook her head, “you’re going to stop underestimating me.” She quickened her pace at that point and moving well ahead of him.

Trey watched her walk away, then turned to Bralor. “Maybe we should have dropped a homing beacon in Durga’s throne room and sent a few concussion missiles in after we left.”

“Are you kidding?” Arden turned and glared at him. “And send half of Nal Hutta after us?”

“As a matter of fact, I was kidding.” Trey said, scowling. “Maybe you will stop underestimating me sometime too.”

“Why don’t you take a long walk into hyperspace!” Arden stormed without looking behind her at Trey.

Tiila’s voice held a undertone of anger that seethed out in more than just her words. “Maybe Arden would benefit from spending some more time under Durga’s thumb. She has grown far too used to her freedom.”

Eyes narrowing, Trey turned to their Ambassador. “Be careful, Ambassador. Without Arden’s taste of freedom, you’d never have a chance for your own.” His voice was defensive.

Shrugging her hood back, Tiila got dangerously close to Trey’s face, the atmosphere of fury perfuming her skin. “Then the little brat can do the hutt-smut work for the aristo. I’ll remember my chance for freedom while I’m in his bed.”

In the back Kyra gave a hesitant look to the cloaked man beside her. “What’s this all about?”

Bralor gave a look back. Durga’s lackeys had let them alone to disembark. After all, what would they do, but leave. In fact, the whole landing pad seemed utterly desolate, save for the lone Soul. At least when they had landed there had been seven other ships: three other cargo freighters and four personal transports – two of which had borne the faded signs of the Black Sun’s barbed mark.

“Stress and tension,” he replied, leading her up the gangplank after the others. “Nobody likes thinking their strings being pulled. Not by their enemies. Not by their friends.”

He jabbed the console in the cargo hold, and the plank closed up behind them. “We just need to get some space between us and this dar’yaim.” He gave a nod to the droid that wheeled up to his feet.”Then we’ll sort it out. We always seem to.”

Knocking over several breakable items, Tiila stormed directly to her room. All too familiar locks clamped into place once the door slid shut, an air of warning left in her path of destruction. As if that weren’t warning enough, the sound of several delicate things hitting the walls finished the scene of complete unwelcome.

For his part, Trey marched straight into the lounge and uncorked a bottle of Vycinythian brandy and skipped pouring it into a glass. He punched the intercom. “Ms. Ramis, if it’s not too much trouble, get us the Hell off this rock.” Pulling another swig off of the bottle, he continued, “I need to get back to the void.”

Arden muttered under her breath as she walked into the cockpit. Nik chirped a word of greeting at the pilot as she slid into the seat next to him.

“You better not have grifed up the stabilizers I want to get out of here.” She said as she flicked the instrument panel and the Soul hummed to life.

“Utinni.” The Jawa responded.

“Good.” She pulled back on the wheel and felt a familiar tug in her stomach as the ship lurched off of the landing pad. Flicking a few switches, the gear folded back up into the ship as she banked around to make her departure. As Arden positioned the ships nose up, she jammed the throttle forward and the Free Flying Soul launched into the black, leaving Durga’s palace, in fact the whole planet behind them.

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