This is a swan song to my favorite planet. Yes, the title is intentionally similar to Coruscant Nights -- in that this is something like what I would've liked that series to be when it was first announced. A story of ordinary people living extraordinary lives somewhere in the bowels of the galaxy's most densely populated world. Let's see how far I can take this. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ "The throneworld of the Empire is in the midst of being pulled apart—not so dramatically as having its mantle shattered, no, but its populace is undergoing that kind of tectonic shift. The citizens in some sectors have risen up against the Empire. While others have instead fought against their insurgent neighbors—a veritable civil war. One whose flames are stoked nicely by the New Republic resistance fighters entrenched on the surface. They sow distrust. Chaos is the result." (Aftermath: Life Debt) ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Chapter 1 OLL Carefully, Oll puts the tip of the blade against the skin, then gives it a slight push. There's no blood; apparently B'nishi don't work that way. At least these don't, he thinks. Kang's told him that the ones who live here, in and around the huge arcology hanging from the roof of the Pym-2 central shaft, are into genetic manipulation like no one's business, with families changing their source codes every other generation or something. So Oll takes care to ask every customer, and the B'nishi in particular, where and how exactly they want it. No point in accidentally cutting open an experimental secondary brain or something, after all. "Feel anything?" he asks the girl whose arm he's operating on. She smiles and shakes her head, eyes wide and shiny. But then, B'nishi eyes always seem to be like that. He wonders if they did that on purpose, coded it into their genes to trigger other species' cuteness reflex. "Of course she doesn't", the MD droid behind him says. "I calculated the dose myself." Oll rolls his eyes, and the girl smiles at him. "Sorry for him," he says, tilting his head towards the droid. "He's on loan here from sector government. Sounds like they're not too strict about resetting the memory module, huh, Em?" "Actually, the recommended reset interval is five standard months," the droid says, but Oll shuts him up with a command gesture that Kang showed him. "We could do without him," he says, "but then we'd lose the contract. Obviously." "Obviously," the girl repeats, still smiling. She looks down at her arm when Oll pulls up the epidermis with one pair of sterile pincers, and then shoves the tiny chip under it with another one. To her credit, she doesn't even flinch; she just raises her eyebrows, as if watching a fascinating procedure being performed on someone else. That's actually pretty much how it feels, Oll remembers from when he had his own chip inserted. Once the MD had anaesthesized his hand, everything that Kang did felt like he was doing it to a rubber limb. "There might be some pain later," Oll says as he lasers the wound closed and applies a tiny bacta patch. "Shouldn't be too bad, though. I hear you folks are good with pain." Her eyes narrow a little, and Oll feels like the smile on her face has grown a little sad; but it's hard to tell with nonhunans. "That depends," she says. "Thank you, anyway." "Sure. Just place your wrist here, now," he says, taking the chip reader from the shelf and holding it up in front of her. The thing's almost as old and clunky as the MD, which is no surprise given that it came from the same source. Apparently the sector governor got orders from up high that he had to increase security in Pym-2 by having every resident fitted with an ID and locator tag; but with the budget cuts going down at the same time, he was forced to outsource the fitting process to pretty much every company in his sector that was up for the job. That's how Kang's Kolors, the grimiest tattoo parlor this side of the garbage plants, got into doing the Empire's dirty work; and it's the best piece of business they've had in years. The girl daintily lifts her wrist to the chip reader, which beeps and crackles as it adds another number to the central database of Pym-2 citizens. "There, all done," Oll says. "You know you can pay with this at all registered shops and on public transport, if you connect it with your Sector Bank account?" "I do now," the girl says, winking at him. "But maybe you could tell me more about it?" "Um," Oll says. "I guess I should move on to..." "Hey, boy!" Kang calls from where he's working on the spindly third wrist of a Dug on the other side of the room. "Stop flirting and move it up a little! Look at that line!" Oll looks again. It is a long line, and he can practically hear Kang salivating at the sight. Sure, tagging pays a lot less than tattooing -- even less than piercing, actually -- but they haven't had more than five or six customers a day since the Boneskin fad fizzled out. These days, it's more like eighty tags a day, or even up to a hundred if they're quick. They're pushing back tattoo appointments by Imperial decree, but so far they haven't heard any complaints from their traditional customer base. In fact, a number of people who would never have come here under ordinary circumstances have expressed an interest in returning for a tattoo or a mod once the tagging campaign is over. "Right," the B'nishi girl says, getting up and flashing him another smile. "See you around, then." "Yeah," Oll replies lamely. Not likely, he thinks with some regret; as much as he tries, most B'nishi still look pretty much alike to him. Meanwhile, the next customer -- a bearded human with one obviously synthetic eye -- is already sliding into the chair, and looking rather pissed about the holdup. Oll quietly curses himself for getting distracted -- after all, it's not like anything's likely to come of that abortive workplace flirt, even if he wanted it -- and sets to work. He's just made the cut and inserted the chip when the customer suddenly jumps up. "Hey!" he shouts. "That's my place!" Oll looks up, confused, and remembers to drop the pincers just in time before he reaches for the guy's arm. There's a noise coming from across the central shaft, one that he would have dismissed as part of the everyday background if the guy hadn't been gaping so hard in that direction. It's an alarm of some sort; and a second later his comm pings and he literally rips it off his belt to answer. "Um, sir," Oll says, trying again to grab the customer's still-sedated other arm, "you really shouldn't..." "Get off me!" the man barks, throwing him an angry look and pushing away through the shop, open wound and all. "They what?" Oll hears him shout into his comm as he exits. "I karking told you to..." Oll casts a helpless glance in Kang's direction, but his boss just shrugs. "Scanned him yet?" he calls over the murmur of the people waiting in line. Oll shakes his head. "Gotta go over there, then," Kang says. "Guy's got a hardware store somewhere around Brobignag. But later. Finish here first." Oll sighs. This is shaping up to be an even longer day than he expected. *** When he closes up shop, four, five-ish hours later, there's the girl again. The B'nishi one, with the cute face. At least he thinks it's her; the way her eyes go wide when she sees him step out certainly suggest as much. Pupil dilation, Oll thinks. The hole that lets the light in evolved to expand and contract depending on the light. Little light: open up. Lots of light: close down. But in most mammals, apparently, it also went together with what's going on inside. Interest, fascination, arousal make your pupils go wide. And as with everything to do with reproduction, that part stuck. See those huge dark spots in your potential partner's eyes? That means they're ready to go. And down here, where even the weak light of Coruscant's sun never reaches, that's all it means. He can see how the B'nishi, in trying to hack other species' cuteness reflexes, would go for this. Still, his heart can't quite keep up with his mind's cynicism about things. It gives a little flutter and sends half a smile up to his face. "Hey," he says weakly, unsure where this is going. "Hey," she echoes him, beaming. If her smile has pulled his heartstrings taut, her voice is the bow sliding over them, setting them to vibrate. Seriously? he thinks. Did I just step into a love story? Not that he minds too much; his life could definitely use some holo-romance spice to it. But he's not sure whether he should be worried: is she trying to, um, pull his strings, or is that just the normal B'nishi way of interacting with humans? "Um, I was just going to..." he says, then gestures at the door, feeling stupid. So he simply pulls down the shutters the way he was just going to. "Can I help you with anything?" he says, getting up. "I was just wondering if you... you know." She turns her head towards the chasm, the barrier lights painting a blush on her face. Intentional? "Tell me some more, like you said." "Oh. Um." So this actually is a love story, at least if she has it her way. "You know, I'd love to, but..." He steps up to the barrier and looks out across the chasm. There's the B'nishi arcology hanging down its center, the small turbines all around it whirring in the pungent updraft from below; and there, in the dim lights on the far side, is the bright yellow rectangle Kang was talking about. "I'm actually not done for today. I have to visit a customer on the far side." He manages a wan smile. "You might even have noticed him. Crazy old guy who just ran out on us before he was finished." He picks up his bag, heavy with the weight of the antique chip reader. "But maybe you want to come along for a bit? I sure could use some company." "Over there?" It could be Oll's imagination, but the girl seems to shudder a bit at the thought. "That's Brobignag, right? Where the, where the construction people live?" "Oh, it's not so bad. My, ah, my flatmate works in demcon herself." Stupid, he chides himself. You meet a cute girl and literally the first thing you tell her about yourself is that you live together with another woman? But the B'nishi girl seems unfazed, so he just swallows and goes on. "If it's the Sarkans you're worried about, they're actually really nice people, most of them. They only act tough for their show fights." Triple-C, the demolition-and-construction company Yenye works for, employs the reptilians for their strength and dexterity; but in their time off, they've built a whole economy of their own around their incredibly choreographed pit-fights, which are so popular that they draw audiences all the way from Pym-1 and Verity. Oll has never seen one in person, but Kang likes to put the live feeds on in the tattoo parlor. "Also, the store I'm going to is right at the edge. See that yellow box?" She leans in to follow his gaze, the side of her head almost touching his arm. Oll glances sideways at the top of her head, which comes up right to his shoulder. According to Yenye, that's a good sign; one of the partners should be able to put their head below the other's, she likes to say. Sometimes Oll wonders if it's just to squash any thought of the two of them ever being more than friends. "That's a long way," the B'nishi girl says wistfully. "But I'll come. It's an adventure!" And just like that, she hooks her arm into his and pulls back her shoulders mock-heroically. Oll can't help but smile. "Okay," he says. "Oh, wait." He turns back to lock the shutters using the chip implanted in the back of his hand. It itches a little and he rubs the scar with his other tumb as they set off towards the subgrav station. "How long have you had yours?" she asks, looking at what he's doing. "The chip? Since day one, basically. Two weeks ago, when we got the contract." "And it still hurts?" "Just a little. More of an annoyance. Watch out here." They have to take the plank down to the station, as the lift has been out of order for months now; and one side of the plank is notorious for being a rainbird toilet. He guides the girl past the slippery streaks of guano and feels suddenly ashamed for his neighborhood. She doesn't seem to notice, though, looking instead at her forearm, where her own implant wound is only just healing. "I don't understand why they have to make them so big, though," she says. "At the arcology, we have life monitors that you can diffuse through the skin with a delivery patch, and you don't even feel a thing." "Yeah, well," Oll says, "I guess they just went with the oldest and cheapest they could find." Though he has caught himself thinking that all this cutting-open and sewing-shut could be some kind of psychological trick to remind people that they belong to the Empire with body and soul. If the rumors about what's going on in the greater Galaxy are true, they might just feel like they need to resort to measures like that. There even are revolts here on Coruscant, he's heard -- through the grapevine, of course, because the holo channels are all monitored and even mentioning rebellion could and would be counted as treachery by SecPol, or whoever their duties got outsourced to now. It's only when they get down to the station and she huddles up close to him to avoid the bustle of the other passengers that he gets out of his own head enough to remember to ask for her name. She smiles up at him, and for another moment of baseless suspicion he expects her to say, Do we really need to use names? like the smoky women in those Darktown flicks. But no. "I'm Aapha," she says. "And you?" "Oll." He's trying to memorize every aspect of her face in that moment, to connect it with the name. The sweep of her eyebrows and hairline, the angle of her eyes. Aapha. The slight creases at the corner of her mouth that make her look like she's always smiling. Aapha. The curve of her cheeks. Please, please don't let me confuse her for some other B'nishi like I did with Ponoma-the-Ishi-Tib. "Um, Ollen, actually. Ollen Vaniver." He notices she's holding out her hand, and shakes it. It's less soft than he expected, and her grip is actually quite strong. "Pleased to meet you, Ollen. Now, about those chips..." On the subgrav, they stand huddled together in a grimy corner and talk all the way to the '22 hub. Aapha seems less interested in the various consumer applications of the chip -- such as booking the fee for this train ride directly from their Sector Bank accounts the moment they stepped through the door -- and more in the security aspects: "What would happen," she asks, for example, "if someone were to, well, accidentally lose their chip?" Oll makes a face. "Not good. Say, if you lose your arm in a factory accident, I suppose they'd let it slip and just require you to get implanted with a new one. But basically the policy is that losing your chip automatically makes you a suspect of treason. Since the chip is your ID, anyone who got registered for one but doesn't have it -- or anyone who still doesn't have it by next week, for that matter -- is considered a fugitive from the law and assumed guilty until proven innocent." He gives her a one-sided grin which, for once, she doesn't echo. "Trust me, you do not want to mess with them on that." Which is why, when the two of them are finally standing in Usheen's Hardware Store a good half hour later, the look that passes between them is one of sympathy mixed with horror. "You did what?" Oll asks the bearded guy, Usheen, who ran out on him just a few hours ago. The store owner juts out his forearm and shows him the wound. "Got rid of the damn thing," he repeats, his voice a growl. "Damn useless B-Sec and their karking policies. They don't help me, I'm not beholden to them. End of story." It's not, as it turns out, the end of his story. After they sit down in the cluttered back room of the hardware store, with Usheen's eyes flitting over to the security screens every other second, Oll patiently explains to him that he's already registered, the chip's serial number is already logged as implanted, and he could be convicted and locked away even for the delay in having his chip scanned and activated because he ran away earlier. "We could have glossed over that, I'm sure," he says. "But with the chip lost... where did you say you put it?" "Didn't," Usheen mutters, visibly rattled now. "I threw it down the chasm, soon as I was out the B-Sec office." Another look passes between Aapha and Oll; this time, the horror dominates. And then Usheen tells them the whole story.