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Beyond the Saga Coruscant Lights (OCs, Canon/Legends compatible)

Discussion in 'Fan Fiction- Before, Saga, and Beyond' started by cthugha, Jul 28, 2016.

  1. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Sep 24, 2010
    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


    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.
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  2. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Sep 24, 2010
    Chapter 2


    There is a thing about police work that most people don't understand, Tanarra thinks as she wordlessly hands over her keyring and the day's reports to the nightshift droid. Not that she can blame them; if your only contact with law enforcement is watching Murder-and-Mayhem channel holoseries, it's only natural to assume that they spend most of their time protecting private citizens by hunting down petty criminals.

    She gives a little snort that sends her nose-tentacles waving as she walks out of the front office and into the short security corridor that leads to the door. The disappointment on that bearded guy's face today when she told him that no, they wouldn't waste any resources and personnel hours on a pointless chase for his stolen hovertruck -- and his helpless insistence that it was their job, even their karking job, to investigate when a crime was committed.

    Tanarra allows herself a narrow smile as she braces herself for the outside. She'll have to show Norrin the mind-image of the guy's expression when she told him straight out what police work is actually about.

    Crowd control. Not protecting the sector's citizens from each other -- a hopeless endeavor in any case -- but protecting the sector from its citizens. That's why they are tracking suspicious activities all over; and that's why, in this time of unrest and increasing uncertainty, they certainly couldn't spare any resources for helping out private citizens too stupid to take care of their own property.

    With another deliberate snort, Tanarra steps outside.

    This city stinks.

    It's always the first thing Tanarra notices when she leaves her climate-controlled home or the not-so-climate-controlled but at least partially air-sealed B-Sec office. (She doesn't go anywhere else in this city if she doesn't have to; and if she does have to, it's always in full riot gear, gas masks included.)

    Sometimes she wonders how all the other creatures milling around on the open-air platforms and planks and stairs here deal with this; but then, she figures, they probably don't even notice half of what she does. Her nostrils, like all Clorran's, evolved on the plains of their homeland, where her half-feral cousins still roam and follow the scent trails to the breeding places of the mobile bor fungi. Here in the bowels of Coruscant, however, her acute sense of smell is a nuisance more than anything else. Sometimes Tanarra thinks she should just get a vagus override like Nerrin, but she's still not comfortable with the thought of irreversably shutting down one of her senses. What if at some point she does decide to go back to Clorr, start a bor bar, and settle down with one of the hicks her taker always tried to set her up with?

    The thought makes her snort again. Good thing: it gets at least some of the stench out of her system. Who is she kidding? It's not like she could afford even the ride home with what Borkk Security is paying her.

    So she just tries not to breathe too deeply as she makes her way down the plank to the Grav train station. If there's anyone in her past life who really deserves her hate, she thinks while she tries to avoid touching any of the other waiting passengers, is that guy who sat between her and Nerrin on the orbital shuttle when they first arrived here. Not because he was ugly and stank and made crude jokes about her and Nerrin starting a family -- she knows it's often hard for outsiders to keep Clorran genders apart -- but because he was the first to tell her how the sense of smell actually worked.

    It's bad enough that she can smell the garbage refinement plant from thirty levels down, the Gaspress works over from Pym-3 sector, and the pheromones from the B'nishi gene-swapping party apparently going on just now in their hanging arcology. But knowing that, in order for her to smell that, tiny little particles from each of the materials she smells have to enter her nostrils and get stick to the mucous membranes inside -- that's just terrible.

    She holds her breath as well as she can until she gets off at Brodignag 22/300, where the Grav train intersects the central pod drop. Her home is twenty levels down, what used to be a five-second pod ride, but since they've started making you pay extra for turning on the inertial compensator she's been taking the slow ones, which crawl down through the levels at sightseeing pace.

    At least she doesn't have to smell any of the things she sees through the curved synthglass pane. The visual impression is sufficiently terrible to make her wish she was back with the exterminator squad that was her first job on this planet. It paid even worse than her job at B-Sec, but there was a grim satisfaction to stomping into the worst of this sector's pest-ridden apartments, all tricked out with gas masks and isolation suits, and let loose with their flamethrowers or chemical weapons to kill any and all living things in the vicinity.

    The terrible thing is that even after six years of service at B-Sec, she's often still not sure whether some of the creatures she sees shambling around in these corridors there are sentient or not. Humans, fine, she can live with that; they're similar enough to Clorrans in basic layout that they're easily recognized. But those six-legged, wall-hugging monsters there? These globs of slime or balls of hair? Three of the levels on her way are even filled with what looks like water but is actually a viscous gel, to accomodate some weird aquarian species whose name she's never bothered to learn. With a shudder, Tanarra remembers how one of her former colleagues in the extermination squad once almost went to jail over his "unlawfull killing" of a colony of sentient moss in a client's bathroom. Sentient. Moss. How are you even supposed to tell?

    But that was before the new management, thankfully. That back then was the Sector Police, a bunch of self-righteous bastards led by one Commandant Sozel, who then thankfully retired when the privatization order came down from up top. Tanarra remembers him, him and his stupid hat; when she signed up with B-Sec, she had to come by his office to get a work permit for the private security sector. Old Squarejaw, as everybody and their broodmothers called him, insisted on grilling everybody who wanted to carry a registered weapon himself. Imagine that; no wonder SecPol got shut down as soon as the government started cutting unnecessary expenses.

    Tanarra shakes her head as her pod passes by the slate-gray wall of a cargo tunnel. She can feel the vibrations from the hoversleds in there all the way inside the pod, but she knows from experience that it's nothing to worry about.
    The noises remind her again of the guy who came in to complain about his stolen truck today. In the old days, he might even have lucked out; wasting money and personnel hours -- and sometimes even lives -- on pointless stuff like that was one of the things Sozel prided himself on. He had a thing about ridding the sector of crime, and organized crime in particular. Sure enough, after he finally went, organized crime flooded in like a maelstrom and they had to contend with two plus years of gang wars before The Mech finally emerged as the main player to keep everybody else in check.
    The ride gets even slower as the pod enters a maze of girders and beams measuring easily three times its diameter. It feels like being chewed on by metal teeth, before getting spat out on the green-lit platform of the '280 terminal.
    The stink is worse here; but the rents are cheaper. It's visible in the clientele, too: all of them either running somewhere on one of their dozen jobs, eyes and stalks downcast, or huddled up in a corner with the dejected looks of those not going anywhere. No civilized movement, Tarlanna thinks and curls her nose-tentacles inward as much as possible. Nobody taking the time to plan their next steps or notice what's going on around them...

    Just then, one of the runners changes paths and almost hurtles into her, stopping at the last moment. It's some sort of near-human, Tarlanna can never tell those species apart; a young one, anyway. Wait, she knows him: it's the delivery boy from Gorgon's Groceries. They need custom cartridges for their kitchen unit, and Gorgon's is the only supplier of Clorran-adapted nutrients around.

    "Hey, Mister Forl!" he says, baring his teeth -- no: grinning, Tarlanna reminds herself. She'll never understand how humans and their kin can not read that sort of grimace as aggressive. "You sure your wife doesn't have an affair with a droid?"

    Tarlanna was prepared to push past and ignore him, but now she stops. "She's not my wife. I'm not a 'mister'," she growls, reaching out with one gloved hand to grab the boy's collar. "What are you talking about?"

    "Just saying," the boy wheezes, showing even more of his mottled teeth. "Was trying to drop off your box, but there was some creepy clanker in there, and another one outside the door telling me to sod off. Hey, if you let me go..."

    Tarlanna does, pushing him backwards a step in the process. The boy flashes her another grin and digs a box out of the floatpack chained to his ankle. "There you go, mis..., um, here." He pushes it at her and she takes it, reflexively. "Good thing I saw you, though! Ma Gorgon woulda chewed my face off."

    And with that, he's away again, vanishing in the flow of people and the smog of the corridors. Tanarra gives a little
    shudder and shakes out her hand; she normally avoids touching other people, even through gloves. Clutching the box under her arm, she quickens her own pace, until she is almost as fast as the bustlers she normally despises; the boy's words burn like little fires in the jelly sacs at her joints, making her stomp along faster with every step.

    The home she shares with Norrin is one of the better places you can get down here: located at street level, so that you don't have to climb up or down through one of the ladder shafts to get there, and with a view-of-sorts of the central chasm if you set the windows to transparent. (They almost never do. The animated images of their native Hill Country, repetitive though they may be, beat staring through the mess of infrastructure pipes into the gloom beyond any time of the day.) There even is a floor-to-ceiling window that used to be a storefront looking out to the street; that one, Norrin likes to put on one-way so he can sit behind it and stare at passersby when he's not working.

    Right now, it's completely transparent -- and what Tanarra sees when she looks through it stops her in her tracks.
    The lights are on. The room is empty. And Norrin's headset, which she never takes off except for showering and sleeping, is lying in the middle of the drawing table, bent in a way that no organic limbs could have accomplished.
    Tanarra still hasn't moved when the front door suddenly whooshes open and a lanky humanoid droid steps out. "Miss Forl," it says, in a mellow voice that's terrifyingly at odds with its blackened-bones exterior. "So good of you to come. If you would follow me, The Mech is expecting you."

    The blaster is already in Tarlanna's hand, and though she is trembling with outrage inside, her hand never wavers as she aims it between the droid's photoreceptors. "Where is Norrin?" she asks, barely noticing how traffic in the street is already dwindling to a minimum at the threat of force. She knows the answer to her question; its only purpose is to give her some time to come up with a strategy for the next few steps.

    The terminal goal is clear: The Mech will pay for this. She is a B-Sec employee; there is an agreement. They leave the mob alone, the mob leaves them alone. Breaking into her home and abducting her partner: that's unheard of. Everyone will back me on this. Everyone, all the way up to SecGov. They will have to.

    For a second, the memory of the hardware store owner's face when she told him to suck it up and buy a new truck bubbles up in the back of her head; but she mentally stomps it down. They will have to.

    "Your partner already went on ahead with my colleague," the droid says, tilting its head. "Are you coming?"

    Tarlanna pulls her lips apart the way she saw the delivery boy do it, exposing her pointed teeth. "Of course," she says. "Lead the way."
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  3. Jedi_Perigrine

    Jedi_Perigrine Jedi Master star 4

    Apr 22, 2008
    I came for the unique subject, enjoyed it, but I'm bathing in the awesomeness that is your writing. The level of detail is superb, in that it gives me everything I want to know while simultaneously building the story's atmosphere. Yet it's not too much, it doesn't interfere with the tale. Your dialogue is smooth and builds the characters in as fluid a way as you constructed your world.

    Your descriptions of human smiles--perfect. I've always wondered what an alien (or my rabbit) thinks if I could/when I smile at them. "Oh no! Today is the day I'm going to be eaten!"

    Each main character is well crafted. I love the budding friendship between Oll and Aaphe. When I'm done here I'm going to have to look up what a B'Nishi is. I've never heard of the species. And of course, what's going to happen to Tanarra and her friend?

    Great job! I can't wait for more of this!
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  4. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Sep 24, 2010
    Thank you for the kind words, Jedi_Perigrine! I'm glad you're enjoying the story. It's fun to write -- I only wish I had more time to do it. The way my life is going at the moment, living in the Coruscant underworld sure beats reality :p

    Anyway, the third chapter is coming right up! Let's hope I won't take as long for the fourth one...
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  5. cthugha

    cthugha Jedi Master star 4

    Sep 24, 2010
    Chapter 3


    Oll watches in awe as Aapha thumbs through the documents on the datascreen for one last time, highlighting sections and sending queries to the legal database she downloaded at an anonymous HoloNet portal along the way, then pulls it all together with the flick of a thumb, stares at it wordlessly for a few seconds, and finally nods.

    "Like I thought," she says. "They do have a safety clause for customers faking their own deaths, but the burden of proof falls on them if they want to invoke it."

    Usheen just blinks, uncomprehending. "What does that..."

    "It means as long as they can't prove you're still alive, the store goes to your wife. Kaela, was it? As your registered partner, Kaela will have access to all your assets while you're missing, and full ownership as soon as you're declared dead. If the insurance company suspects you're not actually dead, they can log a complaint; but I don't see why they would think so."

    It's a good plan, Oll finds himself thinking, nodding along as she speaks. But half a heartbeat later, the horror kicks in again: What am I even doing here? Who is this girl, and how did she manage to drag me into this?

    Only she didn't, he remembers. He was the one who invited her to come along to Usheen's hardware store, thinking that he'd just scan his runaway customer's ID chip and then be off again, to have some caf with Aapha if things went well, or more likely home to chat with Yenye and tell her all about his crazy day.

    Instead, he's down twenty-six levels from where he belongs, helping a mysterious alien hide away a fugitive from Imperial law. And all of this for a cute B'nishi smile that could mean anything, from co-evolved social automatism to plain cold manipulation.

    He inwardly shakes his head. No, not just because of that. Also because of outrage at a system that forces a man like Usheen to choose between faking his own death and spending life in prison -- and all that because of a fit of anger when the privatized police refused to help him. And it is a good plan, he has to admit: this way, at least Usheen's family gets to keep the store, plus his life insurance to make up for the loss of the truck and its cargo. It's the best deal he could hope for at this point, and it's all thanks to Aapha's mysterious friends and their resources.

    "I'll contact you soon," the B'nishi promises Usheen in her comforting voice. "Meanwhile, stay put. I'll try to keep you updated on how Kaela and the kids are faring, but from what you said, it sounds like she'll be able to make things work."

    There are tears in the corner of Usheen's eyes, but he swallows and nods. "She's a strong one. I know she will. Just..."

    Aapha lays a steadying hand on his shoulder, the way she did back at the hardware store after he finally realized what his mistake would cost him. "It's not forever," she says. "Things will change. The laws will change. You'll see. I'll come and get you."

    Oll's own good-bye seems hollow in comparison; his mind's not in it. In a half-daze, he follows Aapha outside.

    "What was that all about?" he asks once she's finished locking the door with her passcode-and-keycard routine. "'The laws will change'?"

    She looks around the deserted walkway that connects these endless rows of modular homes. "It's obvious, isn't it?" she says, turning her wrist to show the scar he inflicted on her this morning. "The chips, the Restrictions -- these are acts of desparation, symptoms of political crisis. Whichever way the wind blows, things are going to be different once the crisis is over."

    "I... suppose." Oll blinks to clear his head; lots of things still don't mesh in there. "You didn't really need me to tell you more about the chips, right? You know all this. You can do all this. Who are you, really?"

    She gives him a sad little smile that chips away at his resolve to not let her off the hook so easily this time; then she lays a hand on his arm, and he realizes it's hopeless. "I'd like to get to know you better, too," she says. "So, how about this caf you mentioned earlier?"


    His mind is still churning when they arrive at the place she suggested: a cafe that clearly used to be hip and fashionable sometime back in the day but is barely keeping up appearances now. It's a synthglass construction hanging precariously in the struts next to the Chasm, its all-around windows looking out over the depths on one side and towards the water levels on the other. That's the main attraction, Oll supposes: sitting at a table on the Blue side, as they call it, they can see schools of glitterfish, bulbous-eyed Gloobans, and the occasional tentacled softbot flitting about behind the huge transparent wall that separates their liquid world from the rest of the city.

    "It's not water, you know," Aapha says when she catches him staring. "See what the softbot is doing? It looks like it's just flailing in place, but actually it's building something. If you look closely, you can see the refraction index changing" -- she leans across the table, bringing her head close to yours and pointing -- "there. See? Their habitat is a mixture of different gelatinous substances, some of them thicker than others. I think it might be cleaning a road, or building a home. You know, for incubation."

    "Viscosity architecture, huh? Fascinating." He'll have to tell Yenye about this; she loves that kind of stuff. "I always assumed it was just another water level."

    "It's a whole different world," Aapha says, and Oll can see the fascination in her own eyes -- but still tinged with that sadness that seems to be getting stronger the more he looks at her. "This is just a glimpse. The Wet, as they call it, goes on all the way back to Pym-1, and it's as high as twenty levels at some points."

    "Good for them. I visited Quarrenland once, and it's terribly claustrophobic." Oll shudders at the memory of the gloomy one-level indoor ocean, surrounded by steel walls on all sides, and inhabited by way-too-many rival clans of water purists.

    "Really? You've been to Quarrenland? But isn't that in, what was the sector..."

    "Forex Industrial. Yeah, that was before the Restrictions." -- And just like that, she's got him talking about himself and his own past. Not that he minds telling his stories; after all, previous attempts at dating have shown that his colorful history is one of his greatest assets. So he dives into memory with abandon, telling her how he got himself expelled from C.O.R.E. on the other side of the planet ("no, not Core U, let alone what used to be called Coruscant University -- now Imperial Center U -- but the 'Cooperative Organization for Research and Education', so called solely to profit from association with the aforementioned much-more-prestigious institutions") thanks to his research focus and his association with a couple of other suspect student types.

    "You were studying what?" she asks, frowning incredulously, when he first lets the word roll of his tongue.

    "Ecumenopolology. Go on, try and say it."

    "Ecumololol... oh, come on. You're making things up."

    "No, it's real. Or used to be, before the ICHER audited and rightsized our department. It's a subfield of urbanology, the study of cities. You know ecumenopolis, right?"

    "What they call Coruscant. A city-world."

    "Right. So ecumenopolology is the study of city-worlds. It's what I do... well, what I used to do. These days, I study people's various appendages for the best place to put Imperial tracer chips." He gives a rueful laugh that's meant to sound ironic but comes out too sad, too true. "I was modelling the substructure of parts of Coruscant to see how the weight of the upper levels affects the lower parts. It was a collaborative project with a field crew doing the same thing on Nar Shaddaa; our approach was, basically, to compare the anomic urban growth on the Smuggler's Moon to the half-guided, half-chaotic construction efforts here. Um..."

    Aapha is rubbing her forehead, looking up guiltily when she notices Oll's glance. "No, no, it's interesting! I'm just not sure I understand all of the words."

    "I'm sorry -- it's just so long since I've last talked about all this with a moderately intelligent person." Which is not quite true; Yenye is always up for arcane academic debates, but she knows all of this stuff already. She was there, after all. "Anyway, the Imperial Committee for Higher Education Reform -- ICHER -- was not so happy with our conclusion that their neat and well-ordered city on the surface was only able to exist because the bottom-dwellers underneath were constantly rebuilding and fixing the lower levels in a chaotic, unguided process. They thought we were trying to undermine their authority; so they kicked me out. Me, and quite a number of other students and faculty who were pursuing avenues of research that were deemed irrelevant or dangerous."

    Now he's got her attention; here eyes are big and positively shiny when he pauses to take a sip of his caf. "So... you became a rebel?" she asks, her voice sinking to a whisper on the last word.
    This time, Oll almost manages to disguise the bitterness behind his laugh. "Here on Triple Zero? Not likely." He shrugs. "No, I -- we -- ran away. Thanks to some heroics by the student board, we got the rest of our tuition refunded, so a couple of us banded together and decided to do something crazy with all the time and money we'd been handed." He leans back, taking another sip, and smiles; from now on, he knows, the story is all adventure. "We decided to hike all the way across Coruscant... on foot."


    The rest comes easily. He knows he's got her enthralled by the way she reacts to the tales of their exploits and encounters in the undercity, the stories of crumbling subterranean cathedrals and bustling alien hives, of endless tunnels and vertiginous walkways, of the terrible week they spent locked into their patched-together environment suits dragging themselves across the part of the undercity reserved for ammonium-breathers, and the time they were abducted by worshippers of some cybernetic wannabe deity who had wired together his/her/its believers' brains using parts filched from hovercar remote controls.

    He's told some of these stories so often, in various degrees of detail and embellishment, that his mouth is running on autopilot most of the time and he can devote at least part of his brain to thinking. For all the awestruck innocence she's displaying right now, the girl in front of him is still an enigma. What does she really want, and how does he figure into her plans?

    When she picked him up in front of the store, she couldn't have known he was going to visit Usheen on the other side of the Chasm. Or could she? He was his next customer after her, and if she waited around in front of the store... it's possible. But why?

    The chip reader, he remembers. He has to stop himself from reaching for the bag that's hanging from his chair. Back in Usheen's hardware store, when she told him the plan, she said she had to plug her data pad into the chip reader so she could scramble their signatures while they went to put Usheen in a safe house.

    She used him to get at the firmware in the chip reader. Now she can scramble anybody's locator chip, so the Sector Government can't trace them.

    'The laws will change,' she said. And her face when she asked if he was a rebel...

    He almost stumbles over his words when the last shadow of doubt finally dissipates. "Um, yeah, and then, well, the Restrictions hit," he finishes lamely. "You know."

    The Restrictions: when the traitorous rumors of a Rebel Alliance dismantling the Empire's forces finally got too loud to ignore even here on the Imperial throneworld. When people started asking if it was true what they were saying on the blacknet: that the Emperor was dead, the fleet in disarray, and the Rebels coming to restore the old Republic.

    When the city authorities decreed that nobody was allowed to travel between sectors any more, "to ensure the safety and security of all citizens", and started enforcing the travel ban with lethal force. It was an insane idea, an impossible proposition, what with the hundreds of unmapped sublevels and the utter meaninglessness of sector borders anywhere below nominal street level -- but with the help of civilian subcontractors, from glorified local militias to entrenched gangs happy to take on the mantle of respectability, they managed to frighten the population enough that almost nobody wanted to take the risk. Rumor had it that two entire sectors in the South had been wiped out through orbital bombardment for refusing to enforce controls along their mutual border; that had been enough to send the rest of the planet's sector governments into a frenzy of compliance.

    Aapha's eyes narrow a little, and she tilts her head. "Really?" she says. "After all these adventures, you let yourself stopped by this?"

    Oll pulls a face. The girl knows how to put a finger into an open wound, that much's for sure. "Yeah, well," he says, trying to sound like it's not eating at him. "We were also... getting tired, you could say. One of us -- Reed -- was hurt, and Yenye and I were pretty much ready to take any excuse to take a break."

    "So you're saying you haven't stopped? You're just here for a while, until things change, and then you'll be on your way again?"

    He thinks about that for a second. From a purely strategic point of view, he should say yes; experience tells him that many girls have a thing for the archetype of the travelling stranger -- maybe because it means they won't have to worry about him sticking around after they're done having fun with him. But on the other hand...

    "I'm not sure," he says, and it's the truth. "For one, they carted Reed off to a surface hospital and wouldn't let us follow him, so I have no idea if he made it; and it just wouldn't be the same without him." He makes a point of calling up the mental image of his friend: his cheerful grin, even with a dozen spiky bird-traps clinging to his right arm and leg and hip, and the overdone Duros accent he affected whenever he was trying to gloss over his pain during the last few days.

    "But there's another reason," he goes on, after storing the memory of Reed back in the corner of his mind reserved for painful but important things. "When we started our hike, I was hungry for new things. I'd lived a more-or-less protected life in one small corner of this huge planet, of this city filled with almost every imaginable sort of life, in a density unparalleled anywhere in the universe, where every cubic kilometer can be home to dozens of different civilizations and cultures at the same time, some overlapping and some completely oblivious of each other..." He takes a breath, savoring the soft flutter of remembered awe making itself known somewhere next to his heart. "And it is, was, incredible. What I've told you is only a tiny portion of what we've seen, and even that is nearly impossible to describe. But now that I'm here, now that I've stayed in this one place for a while, I've noticed something else."

    "What's that?" she asks when he stays silent for a few more breaths, looking out of the window into the illuminated depths of the Wet. Almost reluctantly, he turns his gaze back towards her and leans across the table towards her.

    "There is so much here," he says in a voice that's suddenly much softer than the heroic tone he used for his adventure stories, "here, even in this one place, that I'll never be done learning new things. Even if I never leave Pym-2 again -- even if I restrict myself to, say, ten levels up or down from my own, ten meters deep around the Chasm -- there's enough to discover here for a lifetime of wonder."

    Aapha holds his gaze, and for a heartbeat it feels like something passes between them; something that transcends truth or lies and cares only about the moment.

    Then Oll lays his hands on the table, palms down on the cool, slightly sticky surface. "You, for example," he says. "I'd like to know about you."
    Ewok Poet and Jedi_Perigrine like this.
  6. Jedi_Perigrine

    Jedi_Perigrine Jedi Master star 4

    Apr 22, 2008
    You've got an amazingly deep story going here, I think it's great. Your characters are still awesome--true to themselves and Oll, with a past that makes him seem as real as I am. And then Aapha...who the heck is she? Mysterious and intelligent.

    I tried looking for more info on the B'nishi and couldn't come up with anything helpful. I'm hoping that means we'll get more details about them too? [face_whistling]

    I'm very much looking forward to the next post! :)