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Thread: Imposters

  1. #21
    "Nerfburger," he answered immediately, "Wings are great, but they're small, and fiddly, and the sauce has to be right. You can't beat biting into a big juicy burger, almost too big for your mouth."

    Jeryd realised just how hungry he was, then. It felt like a hole had been scooped out of his middle, rendering his extremities weak and heavy. His mood soured like blue milk in the sun. He had to watch that. Instead he focused on dreams of a nerfburger, loaded, stacked high, with crisp fries and a thick shake. For the sake of his own dignity, he suppressed a groan. Why did Rayner have to go and mention food?

    He couldn't stay grumpy. The day had taken a dramatic and unexpected turn for the better. He was leaving the Citadel. Today. His unuttered prayers had been answered, even if they had come in the unlikely form of Kyle Rayner. They had a mission, and though the details were still unclear, he could safely assume it had something to do with people smuggling themselves out of Imperial space. And, if he was going to keep his unlikely partner happy, he was going to have to put himself in the shoes of someone in that unenviable position. Not literally, of course. Empathy. That was the key. Neb was always telling him off for judging people too harshly. For speaking without thinking. He didn't get it. Sometimes, it just felt good to ignore the brakes, to swing your dick, now and then.

    Speaking of which...

    "Wait. We're getting our own speeder? That is sick. Have they got the new Meresti Fang?"

  2. #22
    A chuckle which developed into a full laugh was response enough to that question, and Hal shook his head when they stepped into the turbolift. "Ha, no, nothing that fancy," he replied. "Besides, that'd draw way too much attention, especially paired with our uniforms. Nah, it's mostly run of the mill stuff, aside from the armored transports."

    The disappointment coming from Jeryd's side of the turbolift was palpable. Hal could just reach out and palp it. He didn't, of course, but he could have if he'd wanted to.

    A bit of light humming to fill the silence, then Hal glanced over. "But, if we're lucky, there might be something you'll get a kick out of. Let's just say I'm on good terms with one of our fleet technicians."

    He refused to elaborate, instead changing the subject back to food. "Burger almost too big for your mouth? Can't say I've ever had that problem," he said, then faked a yawn. Animalistic jaws spread open wide, revealing his fangs, and teeth meant for rending flesh, with some mild evolutionary concession towards just enough in the way of molars to make being an omnivore possible. "You're old enough to drink, right?" he asked, but it was more of a statement paired with the wink he gave, and he certainly wasn't looking for an answer. "Think I know just the place."

    The turbolift did not lead directly to the garage, so the pair had to cross the main floor of the Citadel, and punch in a keycode on the service lift to head down. More humming from Hal, who also rocked forward and back, riding up on his heels or toes to amuse himself, as if all was right with the universe, and he hadn't a care, until the doors opened to the garage at last.

    Fleets of speeders, armored personnel carriers, service haulers, and other vehicles stretched out before them, each tethered to their own charging post. Here and there was a gap where a vehicle was missing, but most were available. And, much like Hal had said, there was little to get excited about. No sports speeders, nothing flashy, just reliable, respectable, forgettable transport. But Hal wasn't looking at the fleet, instead he was looking for someone, and led Jeryd away from the paddock of speeders towards the repair bays, where he scanned each stall until at last he saw what he was looking for. A brown tail with a dark tip jutted out of the seat of a pair of pale blue coveralls, while the tail's owner was elbow-deep in an engine bay.

    "Durias," Hal called out, and that tail snapped with surprise. Leaning up out of the broken speeder's engine bay, a brown-furred Nehantite stood up and looked back, appearing at least twenty years older than Hal.

    A broad smile crossed the brown Nehantite's face, revealing a missing tooth, and a few yellowed ones, and immediately a conversation erupted between the pair in Nehantite. The language was fast, light, and flowing, with a hint of chatter to it like quick birdsong. Laughs were shared on both sides, and Hal approached to look into the engine bay, making remarks about things there, as well as nod in appreciation for whatever this technician had done. Glances were spared back at Jeryd, as well as some more laughs, and Hal shook his head before continuing on, knowing full well that Jeryd couldn't understand them. Durias's accent was thicker than Hal's, that was certain, but each spoke with ease and familiarity and seemed to range between several subjects based on tone and facial expression, before Hal asked a question. The smirk Durias gave back, and the smile that brought to Hal's face were apparently good things, as they shook paws, followed by Durias fetching a set of keys - actual keys - from a rack on the wall and tossing them to Hal.

    The Imperial Knight gave an unmistakable thanks to his fellow countryman, and wished him well, before returning to Jeryd and switching back to Common.

    "There we go, we've got ourselves a ride," Hal grinned, jingling the keys on their ring. "Fresh out of rebuild after coming in from the impound lot. Been waiting for this one to be done. Should be back in that corner, there."

    It was no short walk to the corner of the garage, passing basic white speeder after basic white speeder, and the occasional pale silver speeder among them. Near the end of the line was a red, menacing machine with boxy form and dark tinted windows. Its brightwork had been brushed, and it bore the hallmarks of armor plating. Hal looked at it, and walked right on by to the rusted old speeder beyond it. It was at least four different colors of green and brown, with a single white fender which was half-covered in flat gray primer, the other half covered in badly-pulled dents. No panel gap could claim consistency with any other, and half of its trim was missing, along with its left headlight. The whole speeder floated at a bit of an angle, as if the gyros in it weren't capable of holding true, and there was a crack in the windshield. It was as beater for sure, yet it wasn't content with only looking that way on the outside. Its dashboard was cracked, one of its gauges was missing, the upholstery was torn, and the steering yoke was from some other speeder altogether. Worn silver tape was lashed over the worst of the seat tears, and no fewer than seven air fresheners hung from the rear-view mirror.

    "Been waiting for this to be done," Hal nodded at their speeder, still smiling.

  3. #23
    For the duration of Rayner's exchange with the mechanic, Durias, Jeryd remained still. He watched from a distance, unwilling to draw attention to himself. The alien pair talked, and laughed, and inspected the vehicle, then they looked his way and laughed some more. He looked away, pretended not to notice. His arms were folded, which, as a military faux pas, was second only to putting your hands in your pockets. He listened intently to the sounds they were making, unsure where one word ended and another began, but amongst the jumble, he was convinced he heard the following: "Empire," "secret," "gambling," "vegetables," "red boot," and "taxidermy." The relevance of these details was lost on him. So he distracted himself with his surroundings.

    Rare was the opportunity for him to go to places such as this. He'd visited Engineering two or maybe three times before, always as part of some lesson or exercise. The armoured vehicles were his favourite, though they were kept at the other end of the facility. He'd read somewhere that the Meresti Fang was being adopted for broader use as part of the Empire's armoured transports for high-ranking personnel. It was beautiful, large, and luxurious - he couldn't wait to see it tanked up - but it was probably still in development, being put together in some research facility in the middle of nowhere. Still, the Citadel boasted some great kit. On their way to Durias's place, he spotted a chromium Luger Hulk, and a black EXO-9 with the new Seinar-Tagg 88's. It was one of the vehicles used to ferry politicians and ambassadors and the like from the starport. When they passed by, it was like being inside a sonic shower.

    Presently, however, they were surrounded by some wholly standard fare. Non-armoured, but with signs of customisation. Jeryd was no mechanic, but he recognised a custom job when he saw one. He'd privately hoped, given the good nature of his relationship with Durias, that Rayner had secured for them a tidy ride. Nothing flashy, of course. Rayner was right about not wanting to draw too much attention. No. Something simple. Understated, but with an unmistakeable air of quality. He was thinking the rich smell of leatheris upholstery, he was thinking a smooth varnished dash, with maybe a bronzium trimming, here and there. He was thinking...

    Rayner was smiling at the junk heap like it was a puppy that had taken its first shit outside.

    "Been waiting for this to be done."

    Jeryd snorted in amusement, "Shall we come back in a year, then?"

    Rayner was still smiling, and looking at him expectantly, and then the speeder, and then him again. When the punchline never came, the creases of mirth at the corners of Jeryd's mouth collapsed in on themselves, as the gravity of the situation took hold.

    "I'm not getting in that thing."

    He saw it, the brightness in Rayner's eyes, the change in his muzzle, the lift in his body language. Some prepared argument about the benefits of subverting expectations, or, or learning the value of humility, or how fucking rust was in this year. It didn't matter. None of it mattered. And Jeryd cut him off before a sound left his happy face.

    "I'm not getting in that thing!" He cried out, rounded the front of the rust bucket with purpose, and perched his boot upon the bumper. The whole vehicle lurched. His hands went into the air, "No! No. Absolutely not! I'm too young to die in a heap like that! I haven't even had my booster jab!"

  4. #24
    "Did you... not see the technician?" Hal asked, brow crimped as he shot a warning look in Jeryd's direction.

    The keys jingled in his paws, and he came to the pilot's door and unlocked it. Mechanical mechanism, not even power locks.

    "Did you not notice the registration tags?"

    The door popped and creaked as he opened it. While most every vehicle in the lot had exempt tags, declaring they were government speeders, this one had a plain civilian tag. Hal leaned down to reach a lever under the dash, followed by clang of a spring-loaded latch coming free up front, the entire hood vibrating from being released.

    "Maybe you didn't consider how fast we'd be shot if we pulled up in one of those other speeders? How quickly our cover would be blown?"

    Reaching a paw under the hood's edge where it met the windshield, Hal pulled it up and tilted it forward on its brackets to reveal something which had no business in the speeder at all. A gleaming black-chromium engine, certainly from something modern and expensive. High-end stabilizers, custom intercooler, and a pair of compact turbolaser cannons mounted behind the grill, which appeared to be on a motorized hinge.

    "Or were you too busy being up there to see the reality of what goes on down here among the masses? Get in the damn speeder."

  5. #25
    "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't notice the state-of-the-art engine under the hood. My x-ray vision must be malfunctioning!" Incensed, Jeryd threw open the door of the wretched vehicle and dropped into the seat, bringing storm clouds with him. "Stars forbid I show some reluctance to get into a vehicle that literally looked unfit for purpose."

    He glanced across at Rayner, an Imperial Knight, and found no amount of rank could hold back the ocean of frustration he had been holding back, "This is precisely my issue with you, Rayner. You deny me the information I need, then hold it against me when I don't instinctively know it. And you cannot pass up an opportunity to give a lecture, can you?"

    If Rayner was ready to respond, Jeryd failed to notice or care. Again, he scoffed, though this time gone was the mirth in his voice. Instead, his words dripped with disbelief, "And 'Our cover?' No. I did not consider how quickly our cover would be blown, because I had no idea there was going to even be any cover. I don't even know what we're doing, here. A few arbitrary questions and a datapad. That is not a briefing!"

    In his temper, he struck the dash with palm of his hand. No damage was done but it served to punctuate his rant in a definitive, albeit petty way.

  6. #26
    Hal let the hood drop back into place with a thud, the metal panel latching under its own weight, before climbing into the pilot's seat and shutting the door. His smile was gone, and he rubbed his paw on the steering yoke before leaning back into the seat, venting a sigh.

    "Jeryd," he said, losing all formality, "I'm not trying to make you feel dumb. Quite the opposite; I'm trying to show you a new way to learn. You excel in the classroom, and at challenges where you know what's expected, because you know how to study, and you study very hard. I have no doubt you're smarter than I am, when it comes to raw intelligence. You've certainly made me look like a fool more than a few times when we were cadets together, but this isn't any sort of payback for that."

    His thumb traced over the worn enamel paint on the yoke, eyes looking at the damaged dashboard, yet not seeing it at the same time. "I'm trying to show you there's a different kind of classroom, and how to adjust to it. If you were Khoovi, there were some things he'd just understand, because he's lived them, and so I'd be working on other aspects instead. This is no dig at you. I know you want to be a Knight, and I'd like you to be one. But I want you to fully realize what that title means, and what we do. For you, today's lesson is on being observant of what isn't said."

    The keys found their way into the ignition, and Hal turned them bringing the speeder to life, where it stabilized itself instead of tilting. With the flick of a switch, the air conditioning came on, helping to dispel the mugginess which was building inside the speeder. "When I showed you that datapad, and told you about those trying to get off-world, kind of a clue that we're supposed to investigate that. But where you - by no fault of your own - fell back on seeing these people as pure criminals due to how you have been raised, and your training, I attempted to explain that not everyone who breaks the law does so with criminal intent, or hate in their heart. I was implying that this assignment is not meant to be a crackdown, but an investigation - a compassionate one if possible. I gave you two choices of cuisine, both pretty low-class, indicating that we're going to be dealing with street-level groups. It was meant to be a lesson on observing those around you, while we ate, and how they reacted to the uniforms we're wearing, so there's a freebie. Now I bring you down here, let you see me working with a fellow countryman - both of us being from a race well-known for being mechanics and technicians, and we talked about his work, meaning I also understand speeders.

    "From there, I am excited to bring you to this, you now knowing that this speeder was something the technician and I talked about, and it was planned for. The people you saw in those holophotos were working class at best. The food I brought up was working class. This speeder is working class. These are all clues I wanted you to pick up on, so you could start grasping the unsaid. I'm not blaming you for missing them, or berating you for missing them. But now that you know about them, I want you to take to heart that observation, connecting dots of information, can be the difference between success and failure on an assignment. We're in an unmarked speeder; smugglers of people generally avoid lawkeepers. Between just those two pieces of information, would you presume we're going undercover?"

    He then looked over, no smile, no joke, just a frank expression of honesty. "I'm not here to make you feel dumb, Jeryd. I want to teach you how to better operate when you get out there on your own. I want to teach you how to keep your wits about you, and how to stay alive. I know we're not best buds, but believe me, I'd really rather not have to go to your funeral knowing I could have done something which could have prevented it."

  7. #27
    Jeryd remained still, but underneath, his muscles felt like steel cables fraying from too much strain. He kept his mouth shut. By the time Rayner was done explaining, all the fight had gone out of him. And he had been so spoiling for a fight. All that unspent energy, wasted. He was a short fuse bomb, and Rayner liked to play with matches.

    Twice he said it. I'm not trying to make you feel dumb. Yet, when he replayed everything Rayner said to him, from the contents of the datapad, to the images and his choice of questions, to the talk of burgers, and then Durias, the speeder, even the registration tags, all of that information ignored. How could he be anything but the dumbest person in the Citadel? Khoovi would've got it. Onika definitely would've got it. Jensen would've successfully completed the entire mission, by now. And there he was, fumbling with the most rudimentary concepts of investigation like a wampa with a facet cube. He could feel the shame, of both his stupidity and his outburst, burning his face.

    What made the whole thing even worse, almost unbearable, was his companion's kindness. Kyle Rayner had been well within his rights, as his superior, to reprimand him for his attitude and his behaviour. That would've been easier to face. Or if Kyle Rayner had thrown a punch, instead. Sure, he'd be sore, but that would've have been nothing compared to this. Maybe it was a new kind of torture, to wield patience and compassion and understanding like weapons, to bludgeon him with generosity. Indeed, when Rayner claimed him to be the smarter of the two, Jeryd almost reeled. He hated that he was complimenting him, especially when it was so blatantly untrue. It felt like pity.

    Making eye contact was not an option. Instead, he stared at the underwhelming dash in front of him, lost in a daze.

    "Please," he said, after some time, "Can we just go?"

  8. #28
    "Yeah, we can do that," Hal nodded. "Buckle up, please."

    He reached for his own restraint belt, pulling it over his shoulder and lap and clipping it into place, and waited for Jeryd to do the same. From there, he reached underhand behind the yoke to grasp the drive select lever, then tilted back on the yoke, causing the dilapidated speeder to rise slowly. Another crank of the drive select lever and they started into motion, Hal turning tightly and heading out over the field of other parked speeders and transports. The speeder was old, much older than Kyle Rayner appeared to be, yet the old-style controls seemed second nature to him. A far cry from the automated systems and push-buttons of modern speeders, it was a craft from another time. Even the windscreen wipers had to be switched on manually as they cleared the shields which protected the garage, and headed out into the torrential downpour of the afternoon's weather, where Hal joined in an airlane of traffic.

    A few seconds passed, with Hal watching the other pilots, his lane, and also tapping a finger on the yoke each time they passed a kilometer. At the fifth tap, he finally breathed a deep sigh of relief, and began talking.

    "Oh thank fuck, now I can actually talk," he said. "My quarters are bugged like you wouldn't believe, always have been. Most areas of the Citadel are under surveillance, if I'm honest, but not to the extent my quarters are. And it's not unheard of to have transponders sewn into our uniforms without us knowing, often disguised as a button or something, but those have a five kilometer range at best. I know Durias, so this heap isn't bugged. You're not supposed to know any of that, but I think it's better that you do."

    Flicking his indicator switch with a finger, the audible click of an electronic resister could be heard as a little light flashed on his dash, and Hal turned off to another airlane, heading further from the Citadel.

    "So, the assignment. Officially we're supposed to investigate where and how a group is smuggling people off of Imperial Center, and into Alliance space. Then we're supposed to shut it down, and arrest all involved. Short, sweet, to the point, right? We shut down one trafficking operation," he explained. "But that's not what we're going to do, because it's stupid and shortsighted. Shut down one operation, the others hear about it and just move, but stay in business. There's more than one group doing this, obviously, and it's important for them to know their allies in the industry, as well as their economic opponents. Why should we just bust one group when we can do a little more digging, and identify them all? And not only that, shouldn't we learn how they're getting across the border, and where to? We know they're successful, as the identities of people being smuggled are then used for those who are smuggled in from the Alliance side of the fence."

    Reaching into his rucksack at his side, while keeping his eyes on the airlane, Hal dug out the datapad again and extended it to Jeryd.

    "If you read the assignment as written, it just says we are to identify and shut down the operation. Doesn't say how, and doesn't say how big we can consider the operation to be. That's where we're given flexibility as Knights, instead of being military officers. We get the the assignment, and we approach it how we best see fit, unless there are additional specific guidelines. I'm going well above and beyond the basic written instruction, because otherwise what we do will have minimal impact at best. And you're going to help me do it, as we are going to infiltrate this network pretending to be people trying to get passage to Alliance space. If I'd said all this back at the Citadel, we wouldn't have gotten out of the garage, as the brass would want an extended plan briefing. Is this all starting to make more sense, now?"

  9. #29
    Jeryd looked up from the datapad he wasn't really reading and offered him a nod. There was an uncharacteristic lack of confidence in the gesture. Not because Rayner's explanation wasn't starting to make sense, but rather because of everything else he'd just learned.

    For the past five kilometers, Jeryd reflected on their exchange, back at the garage. About how Rayner had demonstrated exceptional patience with him, while he possessed none. How quick to anger he had been over something so trivial, and in front of a superior. The least he could do was explain why he lashed out and said the things he said. He owed him that much. Over and over, he told himself the same thing. And privately, he wrestled with the best way to broach the subject without seeming too needy or pathetic. He didn't want to make a further fool of himself. It was still Rayner, after all. Even if he seemed nothing like guy he knew back in class.

    But it was Rayner who opened up first, spilling secrets and information like a gossiping infochant. He listened intently, stunned by the deluge. He knew about surveillance, of the methods used, and limitations of the technology. Extensive precautions had been taken to prevent excessive information leaking out through undesirable channels. He had trusted contacts at his disposal, people like Durias, who worked to his specification. And so arrangements were made for their transportation, tailor-made to the mission parameters. And then, there was the mission itself. Not content to successfully shut down one smuggling operation, Kyle Rayner had created his own mandate and had designs on a much bigger prize. It was a meticulously executed plan, with only one flaw: he was not Khoovi Wan.

    "I do understand," he said, as if in response to Rayner's unuttered doubts. "It's just a lot."

    And it was. More than he anticipated. Not just about the mission, but about Kyle Rayner, too. And himself. There was a divide between them, defined by their differences, and by their strengths and weaknesses. It had always been there. Jeryd used it to gauge his own capability, first, as a cadet, and then, as a future Imperial Knight. But this marked their first meaningful time spent together since Rayner's promotion, and it was becoming clear to him that there was no longer a divide between them. It was a gulf.

    He glanced out of the window. Sheer faces of glossy stratoscrapers rose up on either side, and through the water-dappled glass shimmered the lights of hundreds of criss-crossing speeders, above and below. The din of rain bouncing off the rickety roof was relentless, and one could be forgiven for thinking it was rocks falling from the sky instead. The all-encompassing noise was strangely comforting, much like the sound of rain on a canvas tent. And it served to fill the void of silence rather before it became awkward. He shifted his weight in his seat, to adjust the place where a loose spring prodded him in the back.

    The details of Rayner's plan were marinating. It was a chance to identify all major parties in a significant smuggling ring operating out of Imperial Center, right under the Empire's nose. The chance to discover their benefactors, contacts, and to divine their illicit means of escape. On the ground level, and with enough preparation, he could handle something like that. It was a rare opportunity. He couldn't squander it by moping over the shortcomings Rayner was offering to help him overcome. Krast, he was getting soft. There was a job to be done.

    "Okay..." He said, surfacing from his thoughts, "I take it you have some sort of contact on the inside who might be able to arrange a meet? Do we have a cover story? If you are going to give me some alias like... Zaladillo Maguiver, then I need to start practicing it now."

  10. #30
    It was a lot, and Hal knew it. The possibility that Jeryd would be a liability instead of an asset was high, and the Nehantite worked on considering angles and plays to lessen that risk, while maneuvering through traffic.

    "We've got a contact, yeah, but as far as cover goes, I need you to come up with some of those details," he replied. "They say honest men make the worst liars, and you've been one of the most honest people I've ever met - at least who isn't Selonian, they can't lie. So, I would suggest taking elements from your real life and expanding on them. That way you always have truth to fall back on. Need an identity? Think of someone you knew as a kid, someone with the sort of personality you need to adopt, and take their name. They've given you mannerisms, behaviors, and physical tips and traits for you to copy, and you'll remember them much more easily than if you just made them up," he explained with ease - the same ease with which he could be such a convincing liar, himself.

    "Don't try and copy something from holovision, though; too much chance of someone picking up on it. Heck, you could even use your real name for this one, if you want. Our records are sealed, so anyone trying to research us will hit a brick wall. Maybe you're trying to escape the pressures of your family. Maybe you don't want to be a soldier. Maybe you're running away with your handsome, dashing, suave, yellow-furred lover, because you know your family simply won't be able to accept our love."
    Last edited by Halajiin Rabeak; Aug 13th, 2022 at 08:39:29 PM.

  11. #31
    Jeryd was only half-listening to Rayner, now. In his mind, a seed had been planted and was starting to sprout. It was great advice: pad out your fiction with just enough truth to make it believable. And stars know he needed all the help he could get, for he was, even by Rayner's admission, a poster boy Imperial. From someone like Rayner, such a term would be meant as a slight, but for Jeryd, being a perfect example of an Imperial man was all he strived to be. A model citizen, the favourite son, an heroic soldier. In his early teenage years, he fashioned himself after Baastian Cain, replicating the mannerisms, the tone of voice, even the hair style. As he grew, he became his own person - the hair style stayed - but he was still the quintessential Imperial Boy. Might as well have the gear emblem tattooed to his scalp. So it made perfect sense that, in his pursuit of a believable alias, he should lean into that rather than attempt to be something he simply was not. And that gave him some options to consider.

    When he was kid, he had four close friends. First, there was Lex Rosco, a tough ginger-haired girl, who was raised with five brothers in a family very much like his own. Her father was an army general, and her mother, a notorious socialite who wrote sedate romance novels. Lex was argumentative, sceptical, and endlessly curious. She was the one who always found hidden places, and it wasn't a stretch to imagine her finding a place in some unsavoury underworld just to prove a stubborn point to her old man. But, it so happened that Jeryd knew that she was training to become a fighter pilot in the Imperial Navy. In fact, most of his friends were enlisted, which made their whereabouts a matter of public record.

    This included Bashbie Quavering-Tosh, a fellow wegman, who was cursed with a bucket of untamed brown hair and a physique like a large sack of potatoes. Endlessly lazy, and utterly convinced of his own excellence. They shared a love of the game and had the same filthy sense of humour but that was where the similarities ended. Bash loved to grow plants, later graduating to plants he rolled into cigarillos. He was an only child to two low-ranking officers in the army, and followed in their footsteps.

    Then there was Wyll, but he wasn't around anymore.

    Which left Zep.

    Zeppodor Bipplebix was once a sweet, sandy-haired boy with an unrivalled penchant for mischief. If something was off-limits, he'd find a way through, and if it was locked, he had to know what was inside. Contrarian to his core, the only way to guarantee he wouldn't do something, but was by ordering him to do it. A nightmare for his authoritarian father, no doubt, but he was quick to smile, and laugh, and was firmly loyal to his friends. But when Jeryd, Bashbie and Lex left for Manarai Military Prep, Zep changed. The drugs and the alcohol that were once a small act of rebellion against his father became a crutch, or so he'd heard. And after a string of minor misdemeanours, he ran away from home to become a dancer at the Starlight Empress casino. Six months later, he was jailed on two counts of larceny, one count of arson, and the attempted abduction of a preacher. The last he heard from Lex was that Zep served his time and had fallen entirely off the radar. It was perfect.

    There was already the ghost of a smile on his face, as he recalled the eclectic cast of characters from his past, but when he realised what Rayner had said, the smile beamed broadly and bright.

    "No-one would believe that. I'm way out of your league!" His mood lifted, he glanced out of the window again, and mused aloud while they descended between buildings, "You've got me well sussed out. The judgemental family, military pressure, the privileged kid who runs away... am I that obvious?"

  12. #32
    "Well, yeah," Hal replied. "But that's not a bad thing. It adds something genuine to your character, and people like those we're going to be tracking down can sense when something is genuine or not."

    Tapping the indicator stalk again, Hal pulled out of the airlane and turned down into another, starting a descent. "And, unless you've had experience like I do, lying through your teeth, pretending to be someone you're not, and maneuvering through dangerous people without them realizing what you're doing, I think that a play based in truth is best for you. It's easy to recall, easy to keep straight. Me? I've had so many names, so many fake IDs, and done so many things to keep my head out of a noose, even I get confused sometimes."

    The speeder came down near street level, and everything about their setting changed. The stratoscrapers still loomed above, but their tips were lost in the haze of rain as the surface of the street glistened with sheeting water and a rainbow of oil as it made its way to drainage slots. Bright billboards for upscale goods, and chain restaurants were gone, replaced by the dim buzz of neon, and front-lit banners calling out the services which independent shops offered. Tailoring, electronics repair, droid parts, legal services, hairdresser, and at least four places billing themselves just as a restaurant, while the bars were too many to count. In front of their doors, citizens rushed along with hoods pulled up, or umbrellas or other items held over themselves as faint protection against the afternoon's downpour.

    "I've barely used my name since I was fifteen," Hal explained, driving slowly while appearing to look for some place in particular. "That's when I left Nehantish, and got trained to be a Jedi. Since then, I've been on more planets than I can remember, booked passage or stowed away on countless starships. Snuck into abandoned buildings for shelter, or shared someone's bed just for a warm place to sleep. I didn't ask for any of this. It was found out I was Force adept, and well, the rest is history. When the Empire caught me, I was trying to cross the border and go home. That's all I wanted; just to go home. And now that'll never happen."

    He pulled the yoke, to one side, and the speeder creaked as it turned, easing into a parking lot where he tucked it neatly into a space and powered down. Yet he didn't reach for the door handle, instead sitting and staring out the windscreen as rain beat down upon it. "We're prisoners, you know that, right? We live in a gilded cage, but we're prisoners nonetheless. The Empire finds out you're Force adept, and you get brought here for testing, and are forced into the program. You don't have a choice. Resist, and you'll be arrested, or simply disposed of. It happens. But they're good about how they present things. Offering service to the Empire, doing good, being part of a team."

    Leaning back, the seat creaked, and he let his thumb rub over the well-worn yoke. "On my world, long ago we had a band of mighty warriors, in our history. Fearsome, powerful, and respected. Hundreds strong, and trained from childhood to be the best warriors, the most noble, the most legendary. No army could defeat them, and so the kingdom of Nehantish grew and grew out of the blood this army would spill in battle. And as a kid, you think this army is neat. Then you learn the truth.

    "They were slaves, all of them. Either sold by their families to the Sultan, or the male sons of captured or killed enemies. They were made eunuchs, the lot of them, and were given no choice but to serve the Sultan, and for their bravery and loyalty they were rewarded with ranks of honor and the adulation of the public. There was no life for them outside of their role as a warrior, and they served until they died. Serving so that their master could conquer and enslave more lands, under the guise of bringing order. And those who were conquered lost their sons to this war machine, which perpetuated until castration was made illegal. I wonder how many of them just wanted to go home. I wonder how many of them would have chosen a peaceful life if it had been an option. I wonder how such a system of oppression and slavery could ever have happened."

    Again he tapped his thumb on the yoke. "But, at least today I still have my balls, so that's progress, right?" he looked over with a laugh. "And, trust me, Jeryd, I have had way above your league."

  13. #33
    Rayner's stab at levity was met with a tight-lipped "Hmph!" of amusement. A token gesture in recognition of his attempt at lightening the mood, but in truth, he was still recoiling at the unwelcome thought of eunuch slaves. He didn't want to dwell on it any longer than he had to, but the reality of their circumstances was that they were just one bad executive decision away from the same fate. If the Empire was so intent on controlling Force Sensitives within their own borders, it was not a stretch to consider they might seek a means to extend that control to the population itself, specifically the means to increase that population. He squirmed in his seat.

    "I was supposed to be in the army. Groomed for the officer programme - Captain Fisk, himself, had forwarded my recommendation - and I was one day away from the transfer date. One day. Then he called me into his office, gave me the news, and suddenly, everything I'd worked towards my whole life was gone. All because of one drop of blood. And that same night, I ran. More than that, I did what I swore I'd never do: I fled my duty, I shirked my oath. I betrayed the Empire."

    The shame of his confession set his gaze was adrift, drinking in the sights. It was like something from a holo series he used to watch, about a genius but unorthodox investigator who slipped into the Coruscant underworld to solve heinous crimes. From the flickering haphazard signage above seedy shops, to the shabby attire worn by the locals, the holo-makers had certainly done their homework. The only things missing were sirens, the sound of raised voices, and maybe a blaster shot to punctuate it all.

    "I got as far as the starport. One of the biggest, most secure starports on the planet," he said, with some small bitter amusement at his own stupidity, "I didn't know where I was going, but I had to get out. But what I didn't realise was that from the moment that test turned positive, I became one of the most watched people on the planet. They were waiting for me at the departure gates. A whole squad of them. And I fought like my life depended on it: I used my fists, I used the Force, I used my teeth. I guess they were under strict orders to bring me in alive, but they pushed the boundaries of their mandate to the limit. I woke up three days later in a military prison, and as soon as I was fit to stand, I was transferred to the Citadel."

    Now, he glanced at Rayner, and shrugged.

    "Maybe if I'd had your skills, things might have turned out differently."

    Only two other people had heard the story: Jensen and Neb. Of all the things he could've imagined to come from this unlikely partnership, spilling the unpleasant truth of how he ended up at the Citadel was the last thing on his mind. But it seemed like Rayner already had him figured out. In fairness, it wasn't like he hid his resentment in the beginning, or his disdain for the other cadets. Maybe it was because keeping a lid on his opinions was not something he'd ever had to do before. They probably all had him figured out by now. And that was okay.

    It helped, too, that Rayner had been so forthcoming about his own journey. There were truths there that Jeryd had similarly assumed - there was only so much time you could spend with the same people, every single day, without beginning to put together the pieces of who they were - but to hear them firsthand, and in such revealing detail...

    "I denied what I was for the longest time, to myself most of all, and I hid it well. Our whole lives, we are raised to believe it is wrong, that it's an affliction, something unnatural, to be feared. Until the Empire has use of it. And the funny thing is I asked for this. All I ever wanted was to serve the Empire, but I wanted it on my terms."

    Jeryd stiffened in his seat. A telling prickle up the back of his spine sent and icy chill deep into the pit of his stomach. He'd said too much. Scrambling for a way out of the hole was digging for himself, he flashed Rayner a smile, and decided to dispel his dirge of thoughts with some inappropriate humour:

    "And you know all those hotties don't count if they're paying for it, right?" His smile faltered then, for he heard the words in a new light the moment they'd left his mouth. Given Rayner's history, it was not a stretch to imagine there might have been times- when things were tough- when he had to-

    He held his hands up in apology, "Not that there's anything wrong with that!"

  14. #34
    "You kidding me?" Hal scoffed. "If they're a hottie, and they're paying for this," he swept a paw down over his body, "that counts double, my young friend!"

    A good chuckle was had, before he shook his head and ran his fingers through his dry headfur. "But, in all seriousness, I wasn't telling you what I did in order to try and badmouth the Empire. I was just trying to give you a different perspective on it, one which might help you understand why someone might want to escape to Alliance space. It's something you'll need to grasp well, to play the part in a convincing manner. And here, this joint? Yeah, we're here for a damn good burger, but also so that you can observe the others there, and see if you can pick up influences or mannerisms which will help tone you down a bit. It'll help with your cover."

    The keys were pulled from the ignition, followed by the release of his seat belt, and Hal looked ready to head inside, before he stopped.

    "Speaking of cover, I've found mine in the most unlikely place," he said, a bit of a smirk on that muzzle. "Did you know that there was a Nehantite Jedi, like, over a hundred years ago? I didn't, and I'm Nehantite! If even I didn't know, ain't nobody else going to, so why not borrow his name for a while. Halajiin Rabeak. Probably just call me Hal. You settled on a name, yet? Or just using your own?"

  15. #35
    “Zeppodor Bibblebix,” he said, sheepishly. It was difficult not to feel a bit daft about the whole thing; the last time he played pretend, he was a rosy-cheeked kid, dressed in primary colours, toting a water blaster in the sand pit at New Recruits daycare. He liked to imagine himself a frontier survivalist, like Rex Holdfast, fending off the alien hordes. Suffice it to say he was out of practice. But as he considered his new alias, the awkward tension in his voice started to melt:

    “He was an old mate of mine, Zepp. Bit of a wrong-un, to be honest. Did a stretch in prison, then disappeared. He won’t mind me borrowing his identity.” In recollection, a gentle smile pulled at the corners of his mouth, “He was a wind-up merchant, but people loved him. He’d like this undercover stuff.”

    The speeder door opened with a squeak, and he stepped out into the rain. Water droplets pattered on the grey starched shoulders of his cadet uniform, reminding him how ill-equipped he was to be slumming it far from the comfort of the citadel. As they walked, glassy veils of neon-streaked rain parted to unveil a cluster of feeble shops and eateries huddled together beneath their flickering signs. On autopilot, Jeryd pivoted left and right to avoid the figures that passed him by, catching glimpses of their faces, ghoulish in the sordid glare. He imagined they were looking right back.

    When Rayner took a sudden turn, and vanished under one of the shimmering canopies, Jeryd followed. He led him through a narrow door and a curtain of large wooden beads into a place that did not smell like grease and the promise of nerfburger; what he smelled instead was a sickly scented candle with an undercurrent of… old. Before him, a long narrow shop stretched, lined with rows of clothes racks that were full to bursting with what, on first impression, seemed to be every article of clothing in the galaxy. Old clothing. Even the lighting was stale.

    He had been deceived and a pang of hunger punctuated his indignation. He shot Rayner a look.

    Not Rayner.

    “Hal, never in my life have I felt further away from a juicy nerfburger than I do in this moment, right now. Explain yourself.”
    Last edited by Jeryd Redsun; Nov 8th, 2023 at 05:49:20 PM.

  16. #36
    At most any other time, Hal would have found something to raise over his head to shield him from the rain and keep his fur dry. Aside from swimming or bathing, Hal hated being wet, as did most Nehantites. But today was a day outside of the Citadel. Outside of its walls, and free from the transparisteel roofed "open" spaces. For the first time in over a year, he felt rain - real rain, falling upon his head, and he stood momentarily, just drinking in the sensation of hard, fat, cold raindrops pelting against his headfur and face, seeping in down to the skin, spiking his short fur almost immediately. He could feel it wet his clothing, weighing it down just that little bit, and it was a welcome weight. Were he on his own, he would have let himself become soaked to the bone.

    Instead he could only savor a moment before taking Jeryd inside. True to the young man's assessment, there was no food to be had here, only second, perhaps third-hand clothing and gear. His nostrils twitched and fidgeted, taking in scents and smells more fully than Jeryd's human olfactory senses could, and he knew he was in the right place.

    Stepping forward, he began to inspect the racks, fingers filtering through hanging garments as he eyed them up. "Well, can't get mustard or burger sauce on those crisp, clean, eye-catching Cadet whites, can we?" he replied. "Have you never heard of... dressing for dinner?"

    Hal let the question hang in the air like yet another well-worn jacket, seeing if Jeryd would pick it up. When there was a bit more silence, he added. "After all, an Imperial Knight and a Cadet showing up to try and secure off-world passage from some underground group? That'd go over well, right? I mean, look at the speeder we got, vs. the usual stuff they assign out."

  17. #37
    “You’re not wrong about the uniform,” Jeryd conceded, wading amongst the cast-offs, “But when you promise a man food and take him clothes shopping instead… there should be a law against it.”

    On the rack before him, a suspect assortment of garments in varying states of decay: a once handsome shirt with pinstripes long-faded into prison stripes, a light and airy summer shirt ventilated at its threadbare seams, and a jacket so ancient it crunched when touched. He pressed on, regarding a lime green bobbled sweater as if it were a nest of swamp needlers, and as he did so, he noticed another shopper who had been browsing the rack from the other side. Presently, she was admiring a blue silken blouse, pressed against her chest, arm extended like an invisible dance partner. She traced a finger over the delicate embroidery on the sleeve, and indulged a fleeting smile. When she looked up, he feigned interest in an ailing tank top and mirrored her actions, measuring it up against his chest.

    “You may want to try something closer to your size,” she said, her accent was delicate and unusual, and her teeth were showing through a barely contained smile, “In the men’s section. Over there.”

    His gaze snapped across the room, to the place she was suggesting. He put the tank top down at once and cleared his throat for a masculine, “Thank you.” Now she laughed, and bowed her head, uttering something in a tongue that was at once delightful and wholly unintelligible to his ears. He responded with a small and knowing smile of his own, and shuffled off towards the men’s clothing.

    “Okay. What would Zepp like…” he said, under his breath, “What would Zepp like…”

    It was a mantra he used to remind himself that he was not shopping for himself, Jeryd Redsun, the proud and charming son of Imperial aristocracy. Today, he was dressing Zepp Bibblebix, the reject who rebelled against his privileged upbringing just to turn his old man’s face purple. Zepp, who lived for his own amusement at the expense of everyone and everything, and who would absolutely not shy away from a pair of namana-coloured trousers. He snatched them off the rail with a grin.

    “Hey, Hal,” he called out, assessing the waist against his own, “What’s the word on the street? Is yellow in?”

  18. #38
    Hal watched Jeryd out of the corner of his eye, at first, but soon decided to just let the cadet bumble his way through the racks until he came up with something. After all, Hal had a more pressing problem: finding the right pair of trousers which would also accommodate his tail.

    Sure, there were various species with tails, but the trick was ensuring it would be right for *his* tail. Reptilian species had tails too thick, and the tail fly would leave half his ass exposed. Lepi had those short, scut tails that seemed to point up, which would make their tail fly uncomfortable. On and on, Hal's mind went, running through tailed species, and what would fit him best. The odds of finding anything here which specifically came from a Nehantite were slim at best, so it would be a matter of making do, instead of a stylish choice.

    The rifling of his fingers through the selection of work trousers in his waist size halted as he heard Jeryd call to him. Fortunately Hal was facing the other way, so Jeryd didn't see his wince at the sudden recognition of his own, real name. Instead he let the expression pass, and turn his head back slowly, to take in the vibrant tragedy of legwear Jeryd was half-modeling. Blinking, he looked at them, then at Jeryd, and back to the atrocious pants. "They're... a statement, that's for sure. Are they the right size?" Hal replied, inwardly praying they were not. But then again, part of him hoped they were, so that Jeryd could never live down the holopics he was going to take.

    "If you're going that loud with your pants, you're gonna need a shirt and jacket to match. Or at least a hat, as a heads-up," he then added, turning back to flick through a few more pairs of trousers. More of the same, almost nothing with a tail fly, until at last he paused on a pair of dark brown oilcloth engineer's trousers, with a near-perfect tail fly. Pulling them out, he smiled as he saw leather-reinforced sides at the hip, and triple-reinforced knees. Slot pockets for a few tools on the right, near the knee, and a loop on the other side for a mallet to drop through. Everything looked great, except for the tear near the right main pocket, but a bit of focus, finding all the broken threads in his mind's eye, was enough to use the Force to pull them back together, and fuse their ends as if the tear was never there to begin with. That done, he folded them over his arm and began looking at shirts, where the selection to fit him was mercifully wider.

  19. #39
    Jeryd re-evaluated the bright yellow trousers. He tried to imagine the kind of combination of clothes suited to such a bold base. Rayner had given him food for thought; he could always find things to match but he doubted he had the stomach for it. Before the trousers made it all the way back to the rack, he spotted a small tag hanging from the belt loop. He turned it in his fingers and his eyebrows almost leapt from his face.

    “Three credits?” he said, shocked and indignant. He looked up, “Three credits!?”

    The rest of the shop’s occupants seemed unphased by this outburst. Perhaps it was a common occurrence, because – and, here, Jeryd systematically inspected every price tag on the rack – there had to be some sort of mistake. But no, it was the same story, again and again: 3 credits, 4 credits, 5 credits, 2 credits. Impossible! The cheapest pair of trousers he owned had set him back 90 credits at a half-price sale. He could buy Zepp Bibblebix an entire wardrobe for that! This changed everything. The namana trousers were saved from the rack and tossed over his arm as he advanced at pace along the rest of the display.

    Most of the stuff was garbage, probably stripped off dead paupers, picked up and disregarded as quickly as their previous owners. A glance across the room revealed that Rayner had finally unearthed a pair of trousers for himself. Jeryd frowned. They were a miserable and heavy-duty affair, but Rayner, who had a much better idea of the kind of company they were about to find themselves in, had chosen them for a reason. This forced Jeryd to recalibrate his own search. He backtracked and reluctantly plucked out a pair of brown overalls he avoided earlier. They were suitable for some kind of workplace, with only one shoulder strap instead of two, and a strip of breathable orange fabric that ran the length of the inside leg into the crotch. He spotted something else orange a moment ago.

    It was a casual shirt, burnt orange in colour, with short sleeves. Age made the fabric loose and the collar worn. At least they suited each other, Jeryd thought, pairing the overalls with the shirt. At least there was some colour.

    “Is this better?” he said, taking a temporary break from the bargain hunting to close in on Rayner, “Are we mixing it up with dock workers, tonight? Droid spanners? …Fresher divers?”

  20. #40
    "Add death-stick dealers, smugglers, code slicers, hookers, and more to that list," Hal replied before looking back over at Jeryd's selection. His eyebrows fell a bit, eyeing the more basic look the cadet was now showing. For as much as he had at first disliked the yellow trousers, the sight of Jeryd with actual work clothes looked... wrong. Hal could pull off being an engineer, or at least a hauler, without issue. His family's blue-collar background, his undercover work for the Jedi Order back in the day, and his getting by on the current Order's limited supplies on Ossus made that much easy. But Jeryd was a rich kid, one who'd never done a day's work in his life.

    Oh, sure, Jeryd had done training for the Imperial Navy, and plenty of exercise and worked hard in the Imperial Knight Cadets, but that wasn't the same as really getting your paws, er, hands, dirty, and putting in an honest day's work. Or a dishonest day's work, for that matter. The Nehantite actually reached up to rub his chin, pink eyes going back and forth between a workman's clothing and the fresh-faced Cadet.

    "Get those yellow trousers again," he said at last. Hal then draped a few more selections over his arm and came over, so that he could speak quietly.

    "Slight change of plans," he spoke under his breath. "And... I'm gonna need your buy-in on this one." Setting his own selections down, he accompanied Jeryd to a rack of shirts, and continued to speak quietly. "If you dress like a working class young man, you'll be expected to know working class things, and... you don't know most of them. So right now, you can't use that as cover, understand? Put on what you had, there, and folks will guess you're a warehouse worker, and that you'll know models of forklifts, or that you're a delivery assistant for heavy equipment, and would therefore know certain locations or routes well. Slip up on that and folks get suspicious. I can pass as an engineer because, well, I'm a decent engineer. And if nothing else I can talk about bowling, or darts, for hours.

    "But you, you're a model cadet, from a wealthy family. Hang on, don't take this the wrong way. Your family took things to the shop when they didn't work right. Or had plumbers or electricians come out when something wasn't working right at home. The time of your family was worth more money than the time they'd spend to fix something themselves, so they hired someone else to do it and never learned - that's not a bad thing, that's how the rich usually operate. And it allowed you to focus on your studies and your own pursuits, so it's totally understandable, between us, that you're not going to know a lot of working class stuff. So, that means we need to work on your persona. Zepp was a classmate of yours, meaning probably similar social status, right?"

    Not waiting for an answer, he continued, "Meaning he probably wouldn't know how to rebuild an inductor, or clear the marzal vanes of a turbo retro-encabulator, either. But would he try and get away from under his family's thumb by escaping the planet or system with a lover that his family wouldn't approve of? Or at least use someone like that in order to get out of getting forcibly inscripted into the Imperial Navy, perhaps? We're going to be trying to convince some very suspicious people that we're legit, so we need our cover to feel legit. See what I'm getting at?"

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