Slayers of the Old Republic
Book V: Tatooine
By Michael Weyer
The heat hit them from the instant they stepped off the ship. Dry and oppressive, carried by the intense twin suns that hung overhead. Buffy and Bastila had been on a couple of desert planets before but nothing could prepare them for the conditions on Tatooine.
Zaalbar took one step onto the sand, took a breath and turned back to the ship. Vance frowned at him. “Hey, what about the life-debt?”
“Life debt or no, this planet is far too hot for me,” the Wookie rumbled. “I shall keep my vow to you by staying and protecting the ship…from inside, where it is cool.”
Mission giggled. “Yeah, you’re right. That humidity can be horrible for your fur. I might have to give you a big shampoo later with all that sand!”
Zaalbar growled. “Sand in my fur? A bath and shampoo? I am definitely staying here!” He walked back into the ship, leaving the others to laugh about his feelings.
Carth was talking to a man in a Czerka uniform and handing him some credits. He came back to the rest of the group. “I paid the landing fee so we could get around the outpost. It sounds like this is the only settlement anywhere around.”
Bastila nodded. “We received a vision just as we were landing. The Star Map appears to be in some sort of cavern.”
“Which means going into the desert,” Canderous noted. “That may be dangerous.”
“What kind of life are we looking at around here?” Faith asked in honest curiosity.
“Well, Tatooine is just about all desert,” Vance told her. There are two sentient species, the Jawas and the Tusken Raiders. The Jawas are…well, them.” He nodded to a couple of small creatures walking by, each barely taller than a child, covered completely in brown robes and hoods that hid all but their glowing yellow eyes. “They’re scavengers, finding droids or other mechanical stuff around and selling them.”
Buffy seemed surprised. “You know about this planet?”
Vance shrugged. “Stopped off here quick on a smuggling job a couple of years back. We’re pretty far out of the Republic eye so smugglers seem to congregate here. Also, hunters like to check out some of the creatures like the Krayt dragons and banthas.”
“You mentioned another species?” Faith asked.
“Yeah, the Tusken Raiders or Sandpeople. They keep to themselves, dress up completely in rags and don’t like outsiders. They’re vicious and are pretty nasty in a fight.”
Bastila stroked her chin. “It sounds as if we may have to find a way to talk to one of those races to find the Star Map.”
“I hate to say it,” Carth said. “But I think we should check in with the Czerka offices. They might know something.”
“Yeah, like where Griff is,” Mission piped up. “I mean, I know we’ve got the big quest going but I do want to find him and find out if Lena was lying or not.”
Bastila nodded. “All right. Buffy, Vance, Mission and I will go to the Czerka offices. The rest of you mingle around the settlement. Perhaps some of those hunters know something.”
“There’s also a swoop racing circuit around here,” Carth interjected. “They might know something too. And of course there’s the local cantina.”
Jolee smiled. “Ah, now this is what I’ve been missing. It’s a lot more enjoyable than gardening and avoiding spiders.”
“We’re so glad you can be entertained,” Buffy dryly said as they exited into the main outpost.
A building of stucco and tan adobe, Czerka's office only stood out by being about five stories tall, the tallest building in the small town. A polished brass plaque announced it was the company's regional headquarters.
Walking inside the adobe building, they encountered a female Czerka rep in business attire that was incongruous and silly amid the dry heat of the planet. An infuriated Duros was throwing up his hands in frustration while the human rep was the picture of corporate dispassion.
"And don't tell me to take my concerns to your corporate kiosk! I should have known better than to think…"
"Mister Braco, do you want me to call security?"
"Forget it! You won't listen no matter what I do!" He turned and stormed past the party, slamming the old wooden door on the way out.
"What was that about?" Buffy asked.
"He was questioning our business practices, but since he's no shareholder, we don't have to tolerate his suggestions or his behavior,” the woman said in a cool tone.
"Well, we're not stockholders, either," Buffy said. "But we came here to inquire about one of your employees."
"Well, I can look them up in the computer, if you like. Let me be the first to say that Czerka shows respect for galactic authority." She was turned away so she didn’t see Buffy, Vance and Mission roll their eyes in unison. She walked to the kiosk. "What employee listing?"
"Vao," Vance said. "Griff Vao. A Twi'lek. He said he was working in the mines."
"Vao…Griff Vao…Twi'lek…?" she looked very nervous. "Sorry, but we don't have a Griff Vao working here…never did…"
“Are you sure?” Buffy asked, her voice carrying a touch of Force persuasion.
It had its effect as the woman nodded. "Oh, that Griff Vao," she sighed. "His supervisor was always complaining about him. Came to work late, slept through his shifts, faked injuries to get out of work…we can't prove it, but we think he might have been stealing company supplies."
"Yup," Mission said, shaking her head. "That's Griff, all right."
"I take it he's been fired?" Bastila asked.
"No," the official said. "We were too desperate for miners…" Under her breath, she muttered. "Though we really wanted to…" Clearing her throat and speaking normally again, she said. "Unfortunately, he was captured forty-eight hours earlier in a Sand People attack. In the end, it wasn’t cost-effective to continue the search."
"Griff…Sand people? Oh, no!" Mission stumbled with the news.
Bastila asked, "So, they've just been written off to die?"
"I resent your insults, Madam. Czerka cares deeply for its employees, though all sign a waiver form releasing us from liability since these attacks are so frequent. We've even implemented a program with Fazza in the hunting lodge across the way. Three hundred credits for each of the ceremonial gaffi sticks one can retrieve. It's as good as their heads, and far less messy." She folded her arms. "For more details, visit him. In the meantime, I've got to get back to my office." She turned and walked away.
"Friendly neighborhood Czerka rep," Mission muttered as they walked out. "Well, I guess that means we head -"
Just past the Czerka door, the infuriated Duros was pacing near a landspeeder, still grumbling to himself. Vance approached. “Sir?”
“I will leave your property. Happy now, Czerka?”
“We don’t work for Czerka,” Vance told him. “What is the trouble? Did you also lose someone in that last attack?”
The Duros looked them over, his eyes centering on the lightsaber on the man’s belt. He thought a moment more before speaking. “Jedi? Here?”
“We’re passing through,” Buffy explained. “But it still doesn’t explain why you were in the Czerka office. What were you attempting in there?”
“I try to tell Czerka that they show no respect for this land. This is no wasteland, despite appearances. Their disrespect has angered the native people. Think about it, would this not look like an attack, an invasion, to them?”
Bastila had to admit the point. “You mean to say Czerka has made no attempt to address the native people’s concerns?”
“Czerka is a bunch of slavers and greedy blood worms. They would sooner hire out bounty hunters to kill their problems than deal with them. It is not the native’s fault that we cannot understand their language.”
“I see,” Buffy said with a sigh. Already, she understood Bracon’s annoyance. “Do you think anything can be done to overcome this?”
The Duros thought for a moment. “Yuka Laka has a droid that is rumored to speak the local Sand People dialect. I was in there trying to convince Czerka to purchase it and send it to talk with the natives in the hopes the attacks could be solved. You have seen how well that went.”
“Well, now. That might be a good lead to check,” Vance smiled. “Would you object if a pair of Jedi went to talk peace to them?”
“Of course not! You…you mean you will try to talk to the Sand People?”
“If such a thing is possible,” Bastila warned. “This droid may not work.”
“Hey!” Mission objected, folding her arms. “These ‘natives’ ARE attacking people. Aren’t they also in need of consideration?”
“To try and fail is one thing. To not try is another. Good luck,” Bracon said. “I work in the spare parts store if you wish to find me.”
As he left, Buffy turned to Bastila. “Well, it sounds like we’ve got a droid to buy.”
“We’d better meet the others,” Mission pointed out. “Faith still has a lot of the cash.”
They were headed over to the nearby hunting lodge in time to see Carth literally drag Faith out, the Slayer obviously in a foul mood. “Oh, Lord, what’d she do now?” Buffy asked in a tired voice.
Faith snarled as she yanked her arm away from Carth. “I wasn’t going to hurt him! Much.”
“We’re trying to keep as low a profile as we can,” the soldier said. “I’m not going to let you start a bar brawl.”
“What happened? Vance asked.
Faith sniffed. “We’re talking to some hunters and this guy, Tanis, starts putting some moves on me. Jolee tried to use the Force to get him to lay off but even that didn’t work!”
“He what?” Bastila gasped but Faith went on.
“The bastard’s married and he’s not even hiding how much he’s leering at me! He even smacked my ass as I walked away!”
“Oh, boy,” Buffy intoned. “Good move getting her out, Carth.”
Faith sniffed. “So what’s up?”
“We need some cash to buy a translator droid,” Buffy said.
Carth frowned. “Can’t we use TM-34?”
“Nah, he’s a utility droid,” Faith said as she reached for her wallet. “They’d need something better.” She counted out some credits and then handed them out. “Okay, here’s a few grand. That ougtha be enough.”
“I hope so,” Buffy said. She nodded to them. “Okay, we’ll be back soon. Carth…just…try to keep her on a leash.” She paused and smirked. “Actually, I take it back, she’d like that.”
Both Carth and Bastila weren’t exactly certain how to respond to that.
The droid shop was a dismal place. Badly lit, badly maintained. The proprietor was an Ithorian that took nips from a flask as he hunkered over a half-functional droid, clumsily attempting to wire servos together. It took him several minutes before he had even noticed the new customers.
"What is this? A customer I don't recognize? Perhaps you bring off-world money to Yuka Laka? You are lucky to come at this time. I have one droid ready for purchase - an HK-47. It is quite a fine protocol droid, though I think it's been modified. It claims to understand Sand People dialect. There are armor mounts on it as well. Combat ready, perhaps?"
"Handy for if protocol doesn't work," Mission joked.
"Motor functions work well, the protocol functions have been tested, and it handles weapons. I think it has seen combat, but the droid will not tell me. The unit is a little uncooperative. They get that way if they go too long with no memory wipe."
"And if the unit becomes more 'uncooperative' after purchase?" Bastila asked.
"You can leave it alone if you find its mannerisms amusing. The droid may be eccentric, but it is stable. I tried to wipe its memory when I got it, but I can't seem to access its core circuits. It was built for security - very durable. It also claims not to have any access to its memory, anyway."
"What does its designation mean?" Buffy asked.
"Haven't a clue. Doesn't match any protocol or utility standard. Maybe a retired model or a prototype. I acquired it from Czerka’s warehouse. I have a friend there who sold me the droid to cover his gambling debts. He said no one would miss it."
"Gee, doesn't sound suspicious at all," Mission drawled. "Warehouse guys have a bad habit of paying off their debts with other people's property, y'know."
"Could you show us the droid?" Bastila asked. Yuka Laka gestured to a droid standing in the far corner of shop. The droid was humanoid in shape, made of durable red metal. It appeared to be very well made, bulky yet able to move quickly, its hefty head turning toward them as its golden eyes flickered. It spoke in a synthesized voice that was crisp and cheerful in a way that Buffy found vaguely sinister.
"Greeting: Hello, prospective purchaser! I am HK-47," He cocked his metal head, the gears whirring. "Query: Would you be so kind as to purchase this model from Yuka Laka? It would serve my purposes to be removed from his ownership."
"A droid who sells himself?" Buffy asked, amused by the prospect. "Why would I need to?"
"Disclosure: I am a versatile droid, fluent in verbal and cultural translation. I am also highly skilled in combat should your needs be more….practical. Speculation: Judging by my fine construction, I suspect I am unique, perhaps a prototype or intended for a very specific customer. How I ended up here, I cannot say.”
“Can’t?” Vance asked with suspicion. “Or won’t?”
“Admission: I must confess that much of my memory is blocked, prospective Master. Whether by deliberate deletion or accidental programming is not certain. Perhaps further maintainace may restore it.”
“Do you speak the language of the Sand People?” Bastila asked.
"Statement: that is true, but no one has expressed interest in THAT part of my programming. It is only one of several…exotic functions. Observation: You are not a farmer or businessperson. You are armed, and comfortable being so. I heard you taking with the Ithorian. You seek to go hunting outside the gates of Anchorhead, yes? I can serve you well in both regards."
"Doesn't Mr. Laka question you about your functions?"
"Answer: No. With the restraining bolt in place, I cannot access them. Explanation: Doubtless the fool Ithorian considers my resistance an 'embellishment' to an otherwise mundane protocol droid.”
Vance narrowed his eyes, his suspicion growing. “I’ve heard rumors that combat droids are predisposed to turn on their owners, and require restraining bolts to make certain they don’t.”
“Objection!” HK said in what sounded like true shock. “I am a law-abiding droid. Yes, indeed. Law abiding, that is me. My former owners are alive…or, at least I believe so. You see, my memory core was damaged.”
"Not the most convincing I see,” Buffy noted. “Maybe it's best you stay with that bolt in place, then."
"Objection: My functions are wasted here, prospective purchaser!" He almost seemed to whine. "Would you sooner see me in the hands of some Czerka middle manager or moisture farmer?"
Buffy and Vance exchanged a look before Buffy spoke. “All right, say I do purchase you. What is to say that you won’t turn your ‘exotic’ functions on to my crew…or on me?”
"Statement: It is expressly forbidden for me to harm my master. It is the first protocol built into all droids, including myself. Secondly, my master will have to specify a target before I will attack it. Disclosure: I may be autonomous, but lack resources. It is therefore impractical to turn on those who would keep me in working order.”
"I'll have to haggle with Laka about price."
“Advisement: I have noticed that he is a coward. He will be responsive to…aggressive bargaining."
Buffy raised an eyebrow. “Eager to get away from here?”
"Statement: I wish only to be purchased away from this poorly-skilled oaf. I have no need to be subtle. Err…of course. I shall be quite pleasant to you if you purchase me away from this fate. Please?"
"I'll take that under advisement, HK-47. Thank you." The Jedi moved over to Luka, who appeared eager to talk.
“So, do you wish to purchase him?”
“How much?” Vance asked.
“For such a rare item? I would say…two thousand credits.”
Vance frowned. “But you said he was troublesome and not well put together. Maybe I can persuade you to let him go for fifteen hundred?”
The Ithorian considered it and nodded. “Very well. I shall remove the restraining bolt and the droid will be yours.”
He took the credits, filled out a receipt card and moved to deactivate the bolt on the droid. “Here you go then, all yours. I suppose fifteen hundred is the best I could get for this worn-out thing.”
”Objection: Worn out!” the assassin droid shouted. “Listen you talentless meatbag! One word from my Master and I’ll tear you apart limb from useless limb!”
”Um...you’ve gotten yourself a bit hostile there, droid.” Yuka Laka nervously noted.
“I have always been hostile!” HK proudly stated. “Now that I don´t need to rely on your primitive maintenance skills anymore, I don´t need to hide it!”
”Yes, that kind of problem. Good luck with that.”
“Observation: I am not a problem, you useless organic meatbag! You and your lack of any organized mechanical skills are a problem!” HK claimed with a hint of smugness.
“Well, just keep away from me then. I´m just an honest businessman.”
“Query: Can I kill him now, Master? I would ever so like to crush his neck, just a little. It has been a long-time fantasy of mine.”
Buffy swallowed as she held up a hand. “Ah, not right now, HK. For now, follow us out. We have to meet the rest of our crew.”
“Threat: You hear that, meatbag! I will be back!” HK waved a metal fist at the terrified owner as he followed the Jedi out.
As they exited into the heat, they saw Faith lounging by the entrance. “Hey,” she said. “So you got your droid?”
“Introduction: Greetings, meatbag. I am HK-47. If you are an ally of my Master, then it is good to meet you. If you are not, I will flay the skin off your pitiful bones!”
Faith backed up as she stared at him. “Whoa. Who programmed this guy, Dirty Harry?”
“Statement: I do not recognize the term but believe I have been insulted. Master, may I crush her pitiful self?”
“No!” Buffy yelled. “She is not to be harmed in any way and neither is anyone else in my crew. You get that, HK?”
“HK?” Faith frowned. “H…K…” Her eyes widened. “Oh, shit…Oh, B, you didn’t…”
“Didn’t want?” Bastila asked, positive she wouldn’t like the answer.
Faith smacked her forehead. “Do you even know what an HK designation means?”
Buffy frowned. “Actually, never been able to figure out why droids have certain letters. I just figured it was his type of protocol unit.”
“HK,” Faith repeated. “Hunter. Killer.” She waved at the droid. “He’s not protocol, B! You just bought us an assassination droid!”
“Statement: “Is there someone you wished killed now, Master?”
Bastila put her head in her hands as Buffy and Vance exchanged shocked gawks, each realizing their crew had just grown in a rather unique way.
Coming next: A rather tense mother-daughter reunion, Canderous meets a face from his past and the trip to the Dune Sea begins.