Chapter V: Vulkars, Beks, and Swoops Oh My!
Matthias poked his head out past the side of the door and saw a sight. The rancor monster had its back to him and was scratching and snuffling at another door farther down the cavernous room where the rancor had its nest. He leaned back to face the others
“There’s no way in the nine hells of Corellia you’re gonna make me fight that thing. I’ve seen what rancors are capable of and if you think for one moment…” He was cut off as Anaiya slapped her hand over his mouth.
“Guys, maybe this can help…” started Mission but Carth cut her off.
“Well we have to think about something! What about grenades?”
“No good. That thing’s hide is thicker than bantha leather. You’d just piss it off.
“What if we tried a couple of those Cryoban grenades we picked up and just blast it until our power packs run dry?”
“That’s a good idea…”
“I told you, we need something on the order of a laser cannon here!”
“As soon as you find one let us know.”
“Well why don’t we just head back up to the Upper City, there should be something up there that we could buy?”
“With the amount of credits we…”
A soft bark of alarm from Zaalbar alerted the others to the fact that Mission was now making her way stealthily across the grated floor of the nest.
“Mission, come back!” Carth called as softly as he dared. But Mission continued on and began to pick her way across a pile of bones and rotten carcasses that was heaped in one corner of the cavern-like space.
“If she snaps one of those bones, that monster will be all over her inside of three seconds,” Matthias whispered fiercely. They watched fearfully, blaster rifles and bowcaster at the ready. But Mission made not so much as a rustle. She bent down in the center of the pile and fiddled with something they couldn’t see that had been in her hands. Grinning like a madwoman she practically skipped back to their hiding spot behind the door.
“What were you thinking of? You could’ve gotten killed!” said Carth.
“Haven’t we had this discussion already old man? You ain't my father now just watch.” For a full minute nothing happened. Then Zaalbar began to sniff at something in the air. The rancor began to sniff too, taking in great snorting lungfulls of the mysterious odor. It then stomped over to the corpse pile and rooted around in it for a minute and then popped one of the corpses in its mouth. There was a muffled thump and the creature let out a gurgling roar and fell to the ground, dead as a stone. Carth, Anaiya, Matthias and Zaalbar stared at Mission, dumbfounded. Matthias swept her up into a joyful embrace.
“I take it back Mission. You aren’t a kid, you’re the luckiest, canniest, most reckless Twi’lek I ever knew!”
“Yeah that’s great Matthias,” said a startled Mission, “Wanna put me down now? I aint a pilot and I don’t fly real well.”
“Oh, right sorry,” said a thoroughly embarrassed Matthias.
“Hey what’s going on here?” called out a voice. Two Black Vulkars were standing in the doorway at the far end of the nest.
“A warrior’s work is never done,” quipped Anaiya as she took aim with her rifle and fired.
Infiltrating the Vulkar base was laughably easier than what they’d had to do to get there. Half of the resident Vulkars were drunk stupid in the base’s canteen and the other half were busy playing a rather violent game of pazaak in the barracks. It was child’s play to avoid them. The only real danger came from patrolling battle droids, but these were so old and rusty that Anaiya and Matthias took a few out with their vibroblades.
Mission’s hacking skills came in handy here as she hacked into the Vulkar’s system and disabled the security protecting the swoop garage, the most likely hiding place of the prototype accelerator. They didn’t have much more trouble in the garage either; surprise was on their side and any on duty Vulkars were swiftly silenced. The most difficult fight they had was with the Vulkars guarding the accelerator. A twi’lek named Kandon Ark was in charge of it and wasn’t about to give it up without a fight. But thanks to Anaiya and Carth’s quick draw skills the battle was over in less than a minute. Zaalbar with his wookie strength was tasked to carry the heavy accelerator while the others made sure the path was clear. The five adventurers walked out of the front doors of the Vulkar base without so much as being challenged. Matthias turned and directed a sardonic grin at the front of the base.
“You either got or you don’t. And boys, you ain’t even close,” he quipped.
They quickly made their way back to the Hidden Bek base and were let in to see Gadon Thek without any fuss this time. Gadon raised his head from the stack of datapads he was reviewing with Zaerdra when he heard them approach.
“You’re back. Do you have the prototype with you?”
Zaalbar placed the accelerator heavily onto Gadon’s desk.
“One prototype swoop accelerator courtesy of the Black Vulkars,” grinned Mission.
“Okay we held up our end of the deal; we got you your accelerator back. So what about your part of the bargain?” said Carth.
“Don’t worry, I promised that you could ride in the race under the Hidden Bek banner and I’m still going to let you do that. In fact I’m going to go one better I’ll allow one of you to ride the bike with the prototype installed on it,” said Gadon.
“Gadon you can’t be serious!” cried Zaerdra, “We need one of our best riders on that bike!”
“I agree. This seems…awfully generous of you,” said Matthias. Gadon fixed them with a frank stare, his artificial eyes focusing.
“I have to be honest with you. There’s a reason I’m letting you ride the prototype. It isn’t entirely stable. My engineers said that there’s a good chance that it could suffer a burn out on the track. But look at it this way. If you win, then we all win. And if you happen to die, then one of my own riders could still come through for me.”
“Sounds like you’ve got your nerfs all in a row Gadon,” said Carth.
“Heh, you don’t get to be leader of a swoop gang unless you know how to work all the angles. Which leaves just one question: which one of you is going to ride the bike? I know it won’t be Mission or Zalbaar so which of you three are willing?”
“I am,” said Matthias quickly. The others stared at him with surprise.
“Why you?” asked Anaiya, “I’m a Jed… er a pilot, I have a much better chance of riding that bike and winning.”
“That may be true but do you have any experience on a swoop bike? Carth and I have already had you risk enough for us. Please I can do this, trust me.”
“And what experience do you have that makes you more qualified?”
“I rode one on Corellia once. I even won too.”
“Oh that makes me feel so much better,” said Anaiya, rolling her eyes.
“I have to agree with Anaiya here. We really ought to let her ride the bike,” said Carth
“No insult to your skills Anaiya but what if we let you ride and you ride a little too well? People will ask questions and it could get complicated quickly.”
Anaiya stared down Matthias for a minute or two and then gave a short nod of her head and walked off.
“If that’s settled then I’ll let all of you stay here at the base tonight so Mr. Starseeker can get some practice in and tomorrow morning we’ll take him out to the track,” said Gadon.
Anaiya watched as Matthias pulled the swoop bike to a stop at the end of the Beks’ practice swoop track.
“Huh. Not bad Starseeker. I could do better of course, but you’ll survive,” she said.
“Thanks for the confidence booster. You really know how to charm a man Miss Jedi.”
“Hey I’ve seen swoop racing on Malastare and Nar Shadaa so I’m well within my rights to criticize Mr. Starseeker.”
“Nar Shadaa, Taris, you sure get around don’t you?” said Matthias.
“I go where the Force, and my former Master, take me,” she said stiffly.
She continued to watch him for a few more moments as he tinkered with the bike. She couldn’t help but feel that there was something odd about this man, something she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Matthias finally noticed her staring and grinned.
“Do I have something on my face or something?”
“I don’t suppose there’s anything I could say that would convince you to give this up and let me ride?”
“I thought not. Typical male, always thinking they can do things better than a woman.”
“Oh, so now you’re bringing gender into it?”
“You just can’t admit that there is no real reason that I can’t ride.”
“Look Anaiya… I can’t really explain it but… I just have this gut feeling that this is something that I have to do. Trust me.”
“I’m having trouble trusting someone who wasn’t even aware enough to pick up my lightsaber.”
“You’re still mad about that? I’m sorry okay! But like I said, I was more worried about getting you out of there in one piece. You do know that if you had been standing just a little closer to that conduit, you would be kinda dead right now?” Anaiya sighed and rubbed her eyes.
“Yes, I know that and I am grateful to you for saving me but I just wish…”
“You really liked that lightsaber didn’t you?”
“It was the first I ever built by myself as a conclusion to my training. It has… special memories. Had special memories.” Matthias stood up from where he’d been working on the bike and laid a hand on Anaiya’s shoulder.
“Hey, at least you still have the memories. That’s more than some people have.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I had an accident a few months ago. Damaged my brain so that I’ve got a lot of gaps in my memory.”
“I’m sorry. But the fact that you’re brain-damaged explains a whole lot about you Matthias Starseeker.”
“You just don’t stop do you? You know, you don’t act like any Jedi I’ve ever met. Why is that?”
Anaiya looked like she was about to say something but then stopped and said, “It’s late and we should both get some sleep. I actually would be somewhat upset if you plastered yourself all over the track tomorrow due to lack of sleep.”
“Well then, lead the way,” said Matthias, smiling and gesturing for her to lead. Still, he had to wonder why it was that Anaiya hadn’t wanted to answer his question. Perhaps another time.
As morning dawned over Taris and the light filtered its way down into the oily gloom of the Lower City, the arena for the big Taris Season Opener was already buzzing with activity. Long ago the stadium had been used for some sort of primitive racing sport but was now a swoop track.
In the younger days of swoop racing, swoop jockeys would race against each other, first across the finish line wins. However this, more often than not, resulted in the death of most of the racers. Then a bright young sentient came up with the idea that instead of racing against each other, the swoop jocks would race against their times. And so the modern era of swoop racing was created.
Anaiya, Carth, Mission and Zaalbar had accompanied Matthias into the swoop garage that was already crowded with other gang members swoops. As they prepared to send Matthias’s swoop out for its first run, Matthias looked around, checking out the competition. His eyes fell on a Weequay racer that was having an animated conversation with some Twi’lek girls.
“That’s Redros, the Vulkar’s best racer. He is rarely beaten,” said the Bek’s Ithorian crew chief. Matthias raised an eyebrow as some of Redros’ boastful comments made their way over to him.
“The bigger they are the harder they fall.” He said.
The stadium was almost packed to capacity as Carth, Anaiya, Mission and Zaalbar found their seats in the Hidden Bek section of the grandstands. Anaiya privately wondered why the Sith weren’t interfering. They probably just didn’t care if it kept the gangs off the streets for a little while. A voice blared out of the speakers spaced around the stadium that spoke in both Huttese and Basic.
“Welcome to the Grand Swoop Racing Season Opener!”
“That’s absolutely right and we have a big turnout today from all corners of the Outer Rim territories! And now here come our racers!”
The racers entered the stadium facing the crowd and then stood in a loose line, separated by personal and gang affiliations. Although the Taris Season Opener wasn’t limited to natives, the Sith blockade had prevented many racers from coming. Predictably, the biggest groups of racers were the Black Vulkars and Hidden Beks. Mission cheered loudly when she saw Matthias down with the Bek racers. He was the easiest to spot because he was the cleanest looking of the bunch of racers.
“And now…put your hands together for the sponsor of this great event! Taris’ own Davik Kang!”
Davik, who was wearing insanely expensive robes for the occasion stood up in his private viewing box across from the rest of the stadium and waved down to the crowd.
“Mr. Kang has graciously supplied a generous amount of credits as part of the Grand Champion’s prize and several other exotic items! Speaking of which…”
A spotlight illuminated a darkened corner of the stadium; next to the Timekeeper’s booth were the prizes provided by each entrant of the race. There was a mound of credits, exotic ales, fine clothes, expensive armor and weapons, illicit drugs, and in pride of place, a cage that contained… Matthias did a double take as he saw the woman who was inside. So this was the great Jedi Bastila that Carth and Anaiya had been going on about. She was slumped over in her cage, appearing to be breathing heavily. She was dressed up as a slave girl but what captivated Matthias most were her eyes. She had briefly looked up and for just a moment their eyes had met, he had felt something akin to an electrical shock shoot up his spine.
You know, I never really thought about it but she’s not just pretty, she’s beautiful! Matthias shook his head and when he looked up at the cage, Bastila was slumped over once more. Get your head in the game Starseeker. If you’re thinking about some girl you’re gonna wind up as bantha poodoo!
The race was to be conducted in a series of heats. Every racer had to run a mandatory qualifying race in order to continue on. If they didn’t beat a time of 38 seconds, they were disqualified. When it came time for Matthias’s run, he slipped his helmet on as the two-headed, dual-language announcer cried out his name and his gang. He briefly waved to his companions in the crowd and mounted his swoop. The reason swoops were so dangerous was that they were little more than giant thrust engines with repulsorlifts and hand controls. Most swoops had five gears that the pilot had to shift through to attain greater levels of speed. As Matthias stared down the track ahead of him, waiting for the starting lights to start blinking, he took stock. The track was littered with deadly chunks of debris and devices called boost pads, which were repulsor devices designed to give a boost of speed to the swoop passing over it.
Matthias sat hunched down on his bike, the engine roaring as the starting lights began to blink. Red three times, yellow twice, then…GREEN! The second the light flashed, Matthias mashed the accelerator and took off. Shooting over several gravity pads, he quickly shifted into second and then third gear. He stared intently down the track as he navigated between the obstacles on the track. He had left all his nervousness behind him at the starting line and it had been replaced with core of cold determination. He followed his instincts, the swoop seeming to slow as he bent his entire being into piloting this dangerous machine to the finish line. In her cage, Bastila twitched and looked around as if someone had touched her.
Matthias had crossed the finish line at 35 seconds, which was more than enough to qualify. Redros had finished at 34 seconds. It seemed that the race was going to be very close even this early in the game.
While the other racers ran their heats, Matthias had the Beks’ Ithorian mechanic examine the swoop. The news was not good. The prototype was already starting to overheat. If he didn’t set an unbeatable time soon, then he might not walk off this track alive.
His second heat saw him achieve an impressive time of 32.66 seconds faster than anyone else. The celebration was short lived as Redros eclipsed the mark by almost a full second at 31.74 seconds. Standing with the other Bek riders in the pits, Matthias watched as Redros swaggered arrogantly back to his Vulkar compatriots. Turning to the crew chief he said, “Is she ready to go again and perhaps not explode?”
“The bike is ready and the accelerator should be good for one or two more heats.”
“You’re instilling me with a whole lot of confidence friend.”
“Do not worry overmuch human. Redros was giving it his all out there. No one else will be able to best his time…except you.”
“No pressure huh?” said Matthias. The fact remained of course that if he wasn’t able to beat Redros’ time, then all was lost.
For the third time that day he sat astride his swoop as the starting lights blinked down to green. He looked left towards the stands. There was Carth, Mission, Anaiya and Zaalbar cheering for him. He gave them a two-finger victory salute and then, on an impulse looked to his right where the prizes and Bastila were. It seemed that she was looking at him again. Even though his head was covered he smiled at her and gave her a thumbs up. She quickly turned away. He faced the track once more, breathing deeply as the lights flashed yellow, then green. He closed his eyes and opened the throttle. Here in this place he went when preparing to enter battle, there was no one but him and the finish line so far away. His eyes snapped open as he swerved around the debris and hit a boost pad.
Another boost pad.
More debris that he effortlessly skimmed by as by now he knew the track almost intimately. More boost pads driving him ever faster into the realms of speed only the suicidal go.
Alarms sounded on his control board. The accelerator was burning out. The engine was dangerously overheating, near to exploding. He swerved past a particularly jagged pile of speeder wreckage and hit another boost pad. He closed his eyes and reached for the shifter.
Two more boosts and he was speeding along so fast that everything was a mere blur. There was the finish line, so close, yet so far. The alarms were more insistent now with smoke pouring out of his intakes. He had to go for it. His onboard timer read 25 seconds.
He clipped a piece of wreckage. The swoop started to vibrate violently and the alarms reached fever pitch. 28 seconds. Almost theeeeerrrrrreeeeee…
He screamed across the finish line, trailing thick black smoke behind him. His swoop hit the gravity field beyond and immediately began slowing to a stop. But Matthias wasn’t waiting for that. Before the bike had stopped he threw off his harness and leapt clear. The bike exploded into flames as it slowly stopped, with Matthias well beyond it. He staggered to his feet and then yanked off his helmet. For a moment he just stood there panting as the crowd held it’s breath. Then he threw up his arms in triumph and bellowed out a cry of victory. The crowd, including Anaiya and the others, joined with him roaring in approval.
As crewmen rushed out to put down the flaming swoop Matthias staggered slightly towards the Timekeeper, an elderly Duros. The Timekeeper held Matthias’s arm aloft and spoke into his own microphone.
“Hail the Grand Champion of the Taris Season Opener! Matthias Starseeker of the Hidden Beks, with the fastest time of all time!! 30.26 seconds!!”
The crowd exploded into applause once more. Matthias held his arms aloft again yelling along with the crowd. The adrenaline still ran strong in his blood and right now he felt that he could take on an entire planet of rancors and win.
“And here to present the champion with his prize,” called out the announcer, “is Brejik, leader of the Black Vulkars!”
Brejik, a thin, weedy, dark-skinned man emerged from a side entrance that led to the private balconies with a murderous look on his face. He snatched the mike away from the Timekeeper and stood before the crowd.
“People, hear me!” he cried. Matthias thought that while Brejik may not look like much, he certainly had a lot of charisma.
“Before I present the so-called champion of the Beks with his prize, there is something you must know! The winning rider cheated!” Matthias felt anger, white hot, blaze up on the remaining surge of adrenaline in his body.
“You’re a damn liar Brejik!” he shouted. Brejik shot him a look of pure venom and continued with his inflammatory speech.
“His swoop bike was equipped with a prototype accelerator! Clearly an unfair advantage!”
“The same accelerator you stole from the Beks in the first place,” Matthias shouted back.
“Because of this Hidden Bek treachery, the Black Vulkars withdraw their share of the prize.” There was an immediate uproar at these words. In the stands Anaiya jumped to her feet, her hands going for her blaster rifle but Carth’s hand restrained her.
“Don’t. The second someone pulls a weapon up here it’ll be mass pandemonium.”
The race officials were looking at Brejik in dumb astonishment.
“Brejik you cannot do that!” said the shocked Timekeeper, “It violates all our most sacred traditions, traditions that have been in place far longer than you have been leader of the Black…”
“Old fool! Your traditions are nothing to me! I am the wave of the future! If I want to take this woman and sell her on the galactic slave market, you certainly won’t stop me!!”
“I might have something to say about that Brejik,” called out an icy voice. They all whipped around to see the door of Bastila’s cage fly open, cracking the guard who was standing in front of it in the head. Bastila, who now had no trace of weariness or a neural disruptor collar on her, picked up the guard’s double-bladed vibrosword.
“You! You were restrained by a neural disruptor! How in the nine hells of Corellia could you have possibly summoned the will to free yourself?!” cried Brejik.
“You underestimate the strength of a Jedi’s mind Brejik. A mistake you won’t live to regret.” At those words Brejik’s face twisted with hatred.
“Vulkars, to me!” he screamed, spittle flying out of his mouth, “Kill the woman! Kill the swoop rider! Kill them all!”
The situation quickly degenerated into an all out war, in both the stands and the pits. Snarling, Matthias whipped out his blaster pistol and vibroblade and waded into the oncoming Vulkars, adrenaline surging into his blood once more. He covered Bastila’s back as the two engaged the Vulkars that had come to Brejik’s defense. During a slight lull in the fighting, Matthias looked towards the stands and saw that the majority of the smaller gangs had turned against the Vulkars and were fighting alongside the Beks! Grinning fiercely he turned back to face his opponents, and was blindsided by Redros. Grinning evilly, Redros was about to jab his vibroknife into Matthias’s throat when Bastila’s sword stabbed into his back. Matthias leapt to his feet, shot her a look of gratitude, and then blasted a Vulkar that was trying to attack Bastila from behind. Now Brejik was alone, faced by Matthias and Bastila.
“You Bek scum! You cost me EVERYTHING!” he screamed at Matthias.
“Die!” screamed Matthias as he charged Brejik. But the Vulkar leader dodged nimbly to the side and swept his blaster up to shoot Matthias in the back. But Matthias whipped around with impressive speed and knocked the blaster out of Brejik’s grip. Cursing, Brejik slipped a long metal rod out from behind his back. There was a familiar snap-hiss as the yellow double-bladed lightsaber ignited. Brejik swung wildly and it clipped Matthias’s thigh. He cried out in agony and fell to the ground. Brejik turned to Bastila.
“I should’ve sold you on the slave market when I had the chance,” he snarled. Raising the lightsaber towards her, his face twisted into an ugly leer, “It will be a shame to have to cut up such a fine body.” Bastila scowled.
“Do you honestly think that you can defeat a Jedi with her own weapon?” she said as she dodged Brejik’s thrust. Whipping her own blade around, she expertly disarmed him and then ran him through.
“You shall never harm anyone ever again,” she said as Brejik slipped to the floor, her face showing neither triumph nor pity.
Matthias had gotten to his feet by now and was looking at Bastila with admiration. Not only beautiful but a damn good fighter too.
“Well maybe those bloody Vulkars will think twice about trying to hold a Jedi prisoner. And as for you,” she said as she rounded on Matthias, “If you think that you can just collect me as some sort of prize…”
“Hold on there Miss Jedi, I think you’ve got me confused with someone else. My name is Matthias Starseeker, I’m here to rescue you.”
“Rescue me? Was that what you were trying to do, racing in that swoop competition? Well as far as rescues go, this is a pretty poor example.” Matthias stared at her in dumb shock. What had she just said? He’d went through that nightmarish race, and everything that had happened before it and she wasn’t even going to thank him?!
“I think you’ve got it even more confused. You were a helpless prisoner before I came along.”
“And as you saw, I was perfectly capable of freeing myself. Now what did you mean you’re here to “rescue” me?”
“Well since you did watch my back in that fight, I think we can say that we saved each other’s backs. Now let’s get back to Carth and Anaiya.”
“Carth Onasi’s alive? That’s good news. Carth is one of the Republic’s best soldiers,” she said, “Now we should get out of here, I sense that the Sith are about to arrive.”
Bastila was right because just as she and Matthias left the stadium, Sith troops began pouring into the stadium to break the remaining skirmishes.
As Bastila and Matthias hurried away from the stadium, Matthias suddenly stumbled to the ground. Everything went hazy and then a gray fog swallowed him up.
Bastila was fighting onboard a Sith starship, dueling fiercely with a dark Jedi. She moved with a fluid grace and her lightsaber swung in a constant arc as she blocked and parried. Finally, she saw an opening and took it. Slashing her saber across the Sith’s wrist caused him to drop his saber. Bastila drew back her yellow blade and struck. With a dull thud, the corpse of the Sith collapsed to the deck. Bastila looked up and saw the Dark Lord standing before her only a few feet away, choking the life out of one of the red and yellow-clad Commandos. The young padawan was dismayed to see that the all of the Commandos had died fighting and it was only the Jedi left now. With a gesture, Revan tossed the now dead Republic soldier aside and faced his opponent. With a snap-hiss, his red lightsaber ignited while tendrils of electricity arced and curled around his free hand. Bastila swallowed her fear as she approached the Sith Lord.
“You cannot win Revan!” she boldly claimed, raising her lightsaber. The other three Jedi rushed forward, having dispatched their own opponents. Revan snorted and flourished his lightsaber, ready for the attack.
“If you truly think that you four Jedi can beat me, then by all means,” said Revan as the dark side filled the bridge like a chocking pall, “come and get me now girl.”
Bastila was just about to charge at the Sith Lord when the Force warned her to jump back, not forward. It was well that she heeded the Force for at that very moment, the world exploded.