She eased the ship down within the spaceport's dusty courtyard.
"2 meters starboard clearance," the auto-drone, landing system announced. "2 meters port clearance. 8 meters to touchdown, 7, 6, 5..."
She didn't even hear the monotonous, cautious voice anymore. When she first acquired this worn out tub she'd spent months trying to figure out how to bypass the docking announcements. When she couldn't, she hired a splicer to cut around the droning sequence. That had been time and money down the drain. Now she just accepted and dismissed it.
"...touchdown in 3, 2, 1..."
A soft, thudding bounce and she was clear.
"Landing successful, " the voice announced "All systems are green."
She could see that last part for herself. The console did, in fact, display all green readouts. All except fuel. That particular gauge glared orange, a reminder that she was mere slivers away from red. Red meant "nearing empty" which the flat voice would most assuredly confirm. To her, red meant "fill up now or else spend untold weeks in a place you'd rather not be."
"Yeah, I know," she muttered at the display "Best get to work."
She stood up and stretched, rubbing at her eyes. Her lower back popped faintly and her eyelids burned on the inside when she blinked. "Must've been out longer than I thought," she groaned. It was easy to lose track of real time when the scenery was nothing but pinpoint stars in utter blackness, interspersed with the colorful fog of hyperspace tunnels.
She rolled her head around, wincing at the crunching crackling noises her neck made. She yawned in spite of her clenching jaw trying to stop it.
"Yeah, definitely better make this quick. Then get some dirt-side shut-eye."
The landing ramp made a soft hiss as it lowered to the ground, sending up little puffs of dust. As she strode down to the barren soil she reached up and stretched her red-tinted goggles into place over her red-rimmed eyes. At the bottom of the ramp she unsnapped the strap on her holster and tucked it behind her gun belt. She also shrugged, shifting the short-barreled plasma rifle slung over her shoulder and across her back. One could never be too careful. With her right hand on the butt of her pistol and the left gripping the low slung belt, she made a noticeable display of easing her gun in its holster. Anyone who might have been watching would understand the not-so-subtle signal of "I'm ready for trouble. Are you?"
She stood there with one hand on her hip and one on her gun, slowly scanning with a turn of her head. She took in each doorway and alley, each shadow and passerby. This was absolutely not her first touch down.
Satisfied that there was no immediate danger, or at least none that she couldn't easily handle, she made her way under the arches and into the open. Putting one of the columns in her blind spot, again she did a slow scan of the street scene. Nothing that comforted her, nor anything that made her hackles rise. This was a backwater port like any other. Never a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.
She made her way down the wide street toward a fungoid merchant's stall. As she neared, she raised her chin in an almost imperceptible gesture. He returned the look by flicking his black eyes toward a masked figure, casually leaning against a wall near the mouth of a narrow alley. Mostly concealed behind a triangular buttress, what she could see of the figure was only his hooded and masked face and the point of one knee. He, well she assumed it was a he, had one foot drawn up and braced against the wall behind him. To anyone who glanced this way, he looked to be a man loitering in the shade. To a hunter like herself she saw him for what he was - an unidentifiable, yet obvious, watchman. She knew right away she was in the right place. As she slid past the stall and into the alley, she gave a short nod, which the masked man returned, looking past her as if she'd never been there at all.
She made her way down the twisting alley, past huddled buildings. She turned right at a drunkard who appeared to be sleeping, sprawled in a doorway. He was neither drunk nor actually sleeping. Another lookout. She turned left at the red astromech droid with a crack in its dome. Lastly she made another left, two doors past the locked door with chipped green paint. This was it, exactly the place the anonymous bulletin had directed her to. Well, her and any others in her line of work. She didn't know who had placed the post any more than they knew her.
She descended the few stairs cut into the ground and ducked under the low overhang of a sandy arch. She pushed through the brown, double doors and stepped into the dimly lit foyer of a bustling cantina.
A dented and dinged protocol droid with only one lit eye greeted her politely. "Good day, stranger. Might I have the pleasure of your name?"
She paused for merely a second as she recalled the pass phrase. "Well, Blinky, I wouldn't be a stranger if I walked around with a name. Would I?"
"Indeed," the droid replied haughtily and retreated back into an alcove.
She passed the droid and descended a short, wide staircase into the bar area.
"I have to get some sleep. A slip like that could mean life or death," she scolded herself. Indeed, hers was a galaxy where the briefest pause, with a password or a trigger, meant the difference between carrying on or not.
She took in the patrons at the various tables and the bar in the space of a few blinks as she raised her goggles to her forehead.
Behind her, she heard the droid step forward and greet another entry. "Good day, stranger. Might I have the pleasure of your name?"
A few alien grunts was the unnamed entry's reply.
"Indeed," the droid said, and then stepped back into its alcove.
She knew she hadn't been followed, but she moved into the crowd all the same. Exposing your back was a calculated ploy, whether you were on the hunt or not.
She approached the bar and ordered. "Twin Sunrise."
The beetle-faced bartender didn't utter a word, merely grabbing a bottle from the shelf behind him and bending to get another from underneath the bar. As he poured them together, the milky yellow base swirled with the clear red liquid and formed a dull orange middle layer, separating the two.
"<12 credits,>" the bartender said in series of chittering noises.
As she reached for the chips in the pocket beneath her holster, a gravely voice slid in and answered to her left. "Don't worry about it, Myrff. Put it on my tab."
Her hand withdrew from her pocket and rested on her gun, easing it in its holster.
"A fine woman like you shouldn't have to buy her own drinks," the voice attempted to slur seductively.
She turned her head slightly to behold a drunk Duros, leaning one elbow on the bar.
"What's your name, sweetheart? I like those goggles."
She didn't take her hand off her gun and she didn't blink. She just locked eyes with the blue-skinned alien.
"I know, it's loud in here. Maybe you didn't hear me," he burbled again "I said you've got a nice pair." The drunk leaned in closer, as if going for a kiss already.
She turned her body toward him and let him get within inches. Then a quick 'thwup' of leather and her pistol barrel rested firmly below his belt buckle. He halted with a jerk.
No one in the bar seemed to notice, as her right hand was hidden from view, but the bartender certainly saw it. Then he suddenly decided there were some dirty glasses on the far end of the bar that needed his immediate attention.
"I'm sorry...sweetheart," she cooed "but I prefer someone who's got something to show me." She pressed the pistol in harder and downward. She reached up with the finger-less glove on her left hand and gingerly stroked his blue dome. "I like my men a little less drunk and a lot more...horny. Get me, blue?"
"Easy. Easy," he drawled, backing away from the uncomfortableness in his southern region. "I think I know exactly what you mean."
"Really? That's very good for you."
"Oh yes. I know just what you need." And with that the drunk Duros turned on his heel and was gone.
A low, deep chuckle sounded from a table nearby. She turned towards the laugh. "Mmwrrrow ommphf," a Wookie called, raising his own Twin Sunrise. "<Nicely done.>" the rolling bellow meant.
She tossed her chips down on the bar with a clatter. The bartender was back to scoop them up immediately.
"<Thanks for the big tip,>" he chittered and clacked with what must have been a smile to his native race.
"That's not for you," she said over her shoulder. "It's to buy his." She raised her own glass towards the Wookie. He quaffed his drink in response.
"<I don't mind the money,>" the bartender said "<But are you sure you want to buy his? It's his seventeenth! Have you ever seen what a drunk Wookie can do to a place?>"
"That's not really my problem. Is it?" She took a long drink from her glass and flicked another 10 credit chip onto the bar. "Just in case he raises a ruckus."
And with that she walked away and found an empty booth in a shady corner.
It meant she had to twist her rifle to the front and place her pistol plainly on the table, but she sat so she could observe the whole of the cantina's patrons. She must have looked mysteriously menacing, for it was another 20 minutes before a young Twi'lek girl came by the table to ask if she needed another drink.
"Can I get you anything?" the girl asked, looking more at the exposed guns than their owner or the empty glass.
"I'll have a water...a stimulating water," she said with a heavy-lidded, slow blink.
"Yes'm. Sure thing. But, I, uh...I should tell you that 'stimulation' is an extra 3 credits. It's five just for the water."
She dug into her pocket. "In that case, here's 15. Make it a little extra stimulating and keep the change."
"Yes ma'am. Right away."
The girl was back in a hurry with a tall glass that packed a punch. Then she was gone as quickly as she'd come.
She took a drink and coughed on the after-buzz. "Good girl," she said with a slight scratch to her voice. "I should have ordered some food too."
It was another 10 minutes and her stomach growled to reiterate her earlier thought. The waitress never came back. "Tip big last," she laughed to herself "Keeps them coming back for more."
Another 15 minutes ticked by. She was about to give up when the blue drunk from earlier pushed through the crowd at the bar. He was accompanied by a young Zabrak with prominent ink on his face and a crown of 6 short horns. The Duros whipped his head this way and that, pointing at the spot he was standing, then at his genitals, then made a shooting gun motion with his thumb and forefinger. The Zabrak laughed at that. Then he turned to catch the bartender's attention with a shiny coin. The bartender pretended to not know what the Zabrak was grinning about. The smile slid from the horned man's face and he produced another coin from his vest's inner pocket, making an obvious show of the pistol tucked into his armpit. Suddenly the bartender's memory improved and he nodded noncommittally towards her table. The Zabrak and Duros turned and squinted over the now passed out Wookie lying sprawled across his table. They made their way towards her as the bartender chattered something to a Rodian waiter and pointed at the Wookie. The Rodian was no fool, he went an got a droid to do his dirty work.
The Zabrak approached the booth and extended an open palm towards the opposite bench.
"May I?" he asked politely
"It's free unless the Empire's taxed it," she replied, placing her hand on her gun and sliding it closer. She rested a finger on the trigger and made sure the barrel was pointing at the nervous Duros' crotch as he stood, fidgeting by the table. "Go. Away," she said threateningly. He flicked a glance at the gun, covered his balls with both hands, and looked pleadingly at the Zabrak. The man with the horns laughed openly.
"Well, you heard her." He waved a dismissing hand at the Duros who retreated quickly.
Still laughing he turned to her and said "I don't think he likes you anymore. Or else, he's pretty convinced you don't like him."
"Kwrooooaawr!" came the startled and enraged yell of the awakened Wookie. He had jumped up from his table and had a protocol droid by its metal throat, brandishing one of its own arms at it. He'd ripped the appendage from its socket when the droid gingerly touched his shoulder to wake him.
"Quite the friendly establishment for a quite drink. No?" the Zabrak asked with raised brows.
"I don't startle easily and I don't give a scorched circuit about droids, Duros, and drunk fur rugs," she said. "I came here because I heard you had a job that needs doing. Did I waste my time?"
The Zabrak paused and blinked at her. "So you're a bounty hunter? That explains the demeanor. Yes, there is someone I'd like found and returned. Tell me, what is 80,000 credits worth to you?"
"It's worth about 80,000...plus expenses."
The Zabrak snorted a laugh and smirked. "You bounty hunters. It's always just about the money."
"Yeah. And?" she said.
"Then I think we have a deal. But I'll tell you plainly now, the reward is high because the risk is as well. And there are several other interested parties, so there will be competition to return the quarry alive."
"Is there an 'or' to that?"
"Absolutely not. You will not be paid if the target is killed. In fact, much worse things will happen to you if he is."
"I also can't be paid if I'm dead. I want 30,000 up front. Expenses, you know."
"Ha! Making demands like that will get you killed in a hurry." He leaned forward, letting his vest hang open, exposing his holstered weapon. She merely drummed her fingers on her blaster lying on the table. "You'd be lucky to get out of this bar," the Zabrak said flatly "You'd never make it back to your ship."
She kept her eyes on his and took a long drink of her stim-water. It fizzed in her throat and she had to work hard not to cough. The tense moment drew out longer. She didn't blink and neither did he. A squeaking droid rolled by, completely oblivious to anything except its tray of clinking glasses and plates.
Her tired eyes started to burn. "Don't you dare blink first, woman," she thought to herself. "He will kill you right here and not a soul would care."
The droid carrying the tray lost a wheel and toppled over with a loud yelp and a series of smashing, crashes.
She didn't jump or look toward the noise, but the man across from her broke the stare down, flicking his eyes at the distraction. It was only for a sliver of a second, but it was enough.
When his eyes came back to meet hers, one corner of her lip fought from twisting into a smile.
He exhaled a disgruntled sigh. "Droids," he grumbled, leaning back.
She cocked an eyebrow in a knowing "Yeah, well, what can you do?' gesture.
The Zabrak scratched lightly at the base of one of his horns. "So 'expenses' you were saying?"
"Yes. Expenses. Money up front."
"I can't get you thirty. That's not my decision. Fifteen?"
"Still too much. I could maybe persuade them for eighteen."
"Make it 20,000. I'll buy you a drink and a new wheel for your droid friend."
He burst out laughing. Heads turned toward them. "I like that. Deal! And forget that droid, I'm going to scrap him, personally."
He reached across the table and they shook hands. Then he whistled and gestured for the Twi'lek girl.
The huntress and the horned-man clinked their cups together and he filled her in on the details of the job.
Her hand never once lifted from the gun on the table.