My Pillar, My Beacon

Chapter 10

Carth didn't know whether to be thrilled, or completely despondent. If Bastila was held by a street gang, then the Sith didn't have her, she wasn't on a shuttle leaving Taris headed for Malak's flagship. And that was a good thing. But then, how were the two of them supposed to handle an entire gang on their own? "Prize for a swoop race." He muttered, shaking his head at the very idea. A Jedi. That particular Jedi...lowered to such a position. He had trouble getting his mind around it. "She's going to be impossible to deal with after we get her back." He warned with a chuckle he wished hadn't risen to his lips, but had. Bastila was a young Jedi, impetuous, proud. He hadn't exactly been filled with confidence when he'd realized just how young she was, but she had been fronting their naval maneuvers for months now. But he couldn't shake the impression that she needed a keeper. A master, someone to keep an eye on her, to keep her safe. That most certainly wasn't him...and there had been no one with her who qualified when she'd come on board the Spire. The only person she'd brought with her had been... Sarah. And as much as he tried to figure that one out, he couldn't. None of it made any sense at all. Bastila shouldn't have been out here at all. Certainly not on board his ship, the Endar Spire. And accompanied only by a single, fuzzily amnesiac recon specialist who hadn't even been aware that she was accompanying a Jedi. None of it worked for him. Had they just been bait to get the Leviathan to raise to? Was the Republic navy inbound to engage the Imperial flagship here, over Taris?

"Maybe we should just wait for backup." He breathed, and Sarah's stare snapped back to him. "I mean, the only thing that makes sense is that we were used as bait to bring the Leviathan up..."

"Even if that's so." She began dubiously, "I doubt if Bastila being captured by a street gang was part of the plan. Are you willing to sit by and let her stay like that? Let what will happen...happen?"

No. He was not willing to let a very young woman stay in that predicament. She most certainly had him there. He could only hope that it hadn't happened yet, that they still had time... It staggered his mind to have to consider that a Jedi could be raped, but if she could be held against her will, it just had to be reasonable to assume that other things could happen against her will as well.

"Exactly. I'm not sure what the Admiralty was planning here, but I'm willing to bet those plans have crapped out. And by now, if backup was coming, it should have arrived."

She had him there. "I don't suppose you're as fine at swoop driving as you are at pazaak?"

"You're the pilot."

"I pilot cruisers." He growled, "Military vessels. I don't drive toys." Bikes were the domain of reckless youngsters looking for speed and danger. He'd been that...once, but had worked that out of his system a long time ago. When he'd been that, he'd been too poor to own a swoop bike. And when he'd had the money, he'd had the wife, the child, the home, and more important things to worry about than breaking his own neck. "You can't compare a Hammerhead to a swoop bike!"

She gave him one of those smiles, the ones where she was beautiful, and he glared back at her, well aware he was being played. "That won't work, either." He growled, and the smile became a conspiratorial smirk. "And I'll remind you, we don't have a swoop bike."

"I could probably win one from a table." She frowned, and the beauty fled from her features. "But we're running out of time here. Malak won't wait forever..."

"Hey." He reached across the table, resting his hand on her shoulder. She had it right, of course. They were running out of time. Darth Malak wouldn't wait, and Carth had first hand experience of what happened when that one reacted.

"Even if we can't find Bastila, we have to go..."

Oh, damn. She suddenly had that parsecs away look he was beginning to become acquainted with, and didn't like. "Sarah!" He hissed, and she snapped back to him. "I need you here with me."

"Of course." She responded, peevish, but focused again. "I'm sorry, you deserve better."

"You've done a fantastic job so far." While buttressing failing spirits came with the captain's job he'd had for years, to the point where it had become second nature to him, he wasn't just feeding her what he felt she needed to hear. When she was on her game, she was the best he'd ever seen. It certainly had not been fair to have assigned her to this as her first shake down after being released from a hospital. He just had to hold her together, just long enough to get her out of here.

"Go see if you can find out anything more about this swoop race." He doubted if that was the route they'd go...he wasn't a swoop rider, and he doubted if she was one either. Let her go do that, while he tried to figure things out. They needed another place to stay, he wasn't willing to run and rerun the Sith gauntlet every time. He'd love to find her an actual doctor, although he was not overly optimistic about that one. No, the best thing would be to get all three of them out of this, completely. Then he would be free to raise hell over this, but right now, that was counterproductive.

"Sure." She gave him a ghost of a smile, squared her shoulders, and headed resolutely towards the gaming tables. Her expression was steel, hard edged... just one more shark in a pool. She seemed suddenly older, taller, less attractive, and he sighed, staring into his drink. Let her do this, alone. Everybody in the room understood by now that he'd throw down if she got into trouble, he didn't have to hang over her shoulder. He'd probably just hinder her efforts, she shouldn't look like she needed a protector...not in this crowd. That would just be a weakness, the last thing she needed. It was bad enough that he was edging out of his element here, himself. He'd done dingy. He'd done seedy. Low brow, definitely. But this was deeper than he'd go voluntarily. He had few illusions about what he came off as...he was a large man. Heavier than he'd like to admit. He had been in combat, ground combat, and was more than able and willing to go there. But he wasn't a criminal, in any real form or fashion. He'd always tried to walk a straight and narrow path, to do the right thing. While some of those around him now were just trapped and desperate sorts, stuck here, too many were predators willing to abuse those now locked in with them. He just wasn't certain how to distinguish one from the other.

"Yeah. The swoop races. There's betting, I assume." Her voice carried perfectly, timed to a perfect flash of credits in her hand. "An organizer? A schedule of upcoming races?"

In spite of himself, he let a grudging grin cross his face, aware that he appeared to be quite the indulgent and impressed partner. But was that off? No, it wasn't. And it worked much better than the wary distance that the truth would bring. He didn't want to look like someone who barely knew her. That would raise suspicions that they could ill afford to face right now. This had to work, it had to look right, feel right, sound right. As difficult as it was, he had to let himself go there. And then he'd just have to face the fallout afterward.

"Lots of interest coming up on the season opener, but I don't think it's going to be your sort of thing." One of the men, a burly, dark twi'lek wearing orange and red chuckled, and she tilted her head at him questioningly. "Big prize. Fascinating prize...but there won't much money in the betting, only in the winning. Only a fool would bet against the Black Vulkar pilot, so where's the money in that?"

"Fascinating prize?"

He laughed, his gaze coasting to Carth. "Well, maybe not fascinating to you, little girl. Maybe to your...?"

"That's my husband." And she said it like she'd said it a thousand times before, embroidered with the just the right amount of ownership, concern, and jealousy.

"Yeah. He might find the prize interesting. Unless you go both ways? Like women? I hear she's pretty, and young..." His glance at Sarah proved that he found her to be neither, and Carth came out of his chair at it, not having to act the part. That gained him the twi'lek's attention, and he glared back, until the man chuckled. "Nah, he still seems to like you just fine. Not that it matters, she's the prize, not the bet. The betting will be weak, sorry to have to tell you that." He looked anything but sorry, and Carth moved up beside Sarah, tangling his fingers in the tail of her hair.

"Let's go." He muttered, and she nodded slowly, letting him guide her away. He kept a cautious eye on the twi'lek, but the man seemed more than content to lean and smirk right where he was, his hands nowhere near his weapons. Carth was willing to leave him right there...

"Did you get what you needed?" He asked, ushering her into the hallway...eerily almost the same as the one that had accessed their last haven. This place was confusing as hell, each corridor the same as the last. It added to the surreal feeling, his unease with everything around him.

"Yeah." She wrinkled her nose thoughtfully. "It does seem that they have Bastila, and have every intention of offering her up as a prize for the season opener. As unbelievable as that is on so many levels, it's what we have to go on."

"Can we just...take her?" On the surface, it sounded like the best idea. Somehow, it didn't feel that way, and the glance she gave him proved that.

"Maybe at the race. Maybe. If we had a squad with us, it'd be more doable...but they're managing to hold a Jedi, and keep everybody else away from her as well. Other gangs. The Sith..."

"Even if I was a swoop rider...which I am not...even if you could win a bike at a pazaak table...which I truly believe you're capable of, by the way, do we risk trying to win Bastila? I mean..."

"The game will be rigged, but she'll be out in the open. We'll have eyes on target. We're still not even certain that it is Bastila. All they're certain of is that they've got a Republic crew member from the crash. You had female crew."

"Of course I had female crew." The Spire had been fully crewed, sitting at just over three hundred souls on board. Almost half of those had been female... "And even if this isn't Bastila..."

"Still one of your crew." She stated easily enough, and he nodded. While Bastila had to come first, he couldn't ignore his other responsibilities. His ship. His crew. He had failed already...

"Stop that." She elbowed him sharply and he stared down at her. She sighed, reaching up and resting her palm against the nape of his neck, tilting her head. "One Hammerhead against the Leviathan and her armada, those were crazy stupid odds, Carth...even for you."

"Crazy stupid odds seems to describe all of this." He sighed, nodding slowly. She was right, of course. He'd had no chance whatsoever to bring the Spire out of this intact. "I don't suppose you're a champion swoop racer as well as a master of everything else this has thrown at you?"

She considered the question, then gave him a rare and lovely grin. "Damned if I can remember."


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