Starting with the Whimsy, each ship extended a docking collar to the ship next to it, which in turn did the same to the next ship in line until all of them were connected in a row. Kor and Prauf headed through the docking collar in their full Jedi regalia with Mia in tow. They could feel her excitement; she was having the time of her life, thoroughly enjoying herself. They exchanged a quick grin then plastered stern expressions on their faces to meet the runaway miners.
First was Rolf One Eye, who lived up to his name, a dirty black patch over one eye. At one time he’d been as tall as Kor, but years of hard living had whittled him down, leaving him stooped and gray.
Jorge Ancho and Ladd Inux quickly joined him, cousins, who looked nothing like each other. Jorge was tall, lean, and pale where Ladd was short and stocky, nearly as broad in the shoulders as he was tall, his bald head gleaming in the lights.
Kor strode in as if he owned the ship, a fact Rolf didn’t miss. “We know you’re working with the pirates,” he said without preamble. “What we don’t know is why. They’re killing people just like you.” He stopped and waited.
Rolf scowled. Jorge and Ladd looked to him for guidance then stared stubbornly at the deck.
Kor sighed heavily. “We can make you talk but we’d rather you told us on your own. There’s less – damage – that way.” Using the Force to make them talk wouldn’t hurt them in the slightest, but they didn’t know that.
The three men shuffled backward, fear in their eyes.
“You gotta protect us.” Rolf’s voice quavered. “It was just extra money at first, but then they turned ugly and threatened our families, our friends, everything. You gotta swear to protect us or we don’t say nuthin’ no matter what Jedi tricks you got.”
Prauf agreed for both of them. “Fine. We’ll protect you. But,” his voice hardened and their quick relief turned to dread, “if you don’t tell us everything, if you hold anything back, there’s no one who can protect you from us!” His lightsaber lit up and he sliced a corner off a countertop. He pointed it at them. “Understand?”
They nodded in terror.
“Good.” His lightsaber went out and he perched one hip on the counter. “Start talking!”
Rolf took the lead, occasionally aided by his two companions.
“Mizar comes from an old Republic word for misery and that’s what this place is. It’s miserable. It was originally settled by a crime family and it ain’t never changed. The stuffed shirts on Mizar underpay us for our ore then overcharge us for fuel. They always keep us on the brink of starvation and wrack and ruin. We can’t ever get ahead. Well, she does,” he pointed at Mia, “but she’s got a fighter pilot pension. The rest of us ain’t so lucky. We’re barely making it.
“I remember my granddad dying dirt broke after working his fingers to the bone his whole life. He and his friends organized a revolution back in the day, but Mizar holds all the cards. All they had to do was wait a few days until the rebels ran out of fuel then scooped ‘em up. There’s been a few other attempts here and there but they always end the same way.
“Then, a couple of years ago, these guys came to us. They’d found an old Imperial fuel tanker floating in the Rings somewhere. It was full of fuel, enough so they could go anywhere. They said if we helped them with info on when cargo haulers came in for ore shipments and what routes they were taking, they’d give us a cut when they captured them and sold the ore on the open market.
“And they did too. Well, at first.” Rolf shook his head at the memory. “We were such dolts. It turns out it was an insider on Mizar who told ‘em where the tanker was. He was just using them to make Jien look bad so he would be kicked out. After a while, we realized it had to be Sessra. He was the only one who stood to move up if Jien lost his position.
“But the guys double-crossed him. Sessra had bugged the tanker but they found all the bugs and removed them. Then they towed the tanker to a new location and told Sessra to take a hike. They staged a fake attack on their own ships to make it look like they were dead then turned to piracy for real. Now, we do what they say or else. They barely give us any cut anymore and we’re nearly as bad off as we were before it all started.
“We ain’t the only ones though, they’ve got other dupes too, all over the Rings.
“But the worst of it is, we found out they’re selling the ore to the First Order. They’re building a super-weapon on some ice planet called Ilum in the Unknown Regions. It’s supposed to make the planet killers on the Death Star look like squirt guns by comparison. They’re cahoots with them and when the First Order takes over the galaxy, they’re going to be given their own planets to rule over. And us little guys? We get screwed over again, just like always.”
There was a moment of silence when he finished.
Kor didn’t believe for a minute the First Order would give the pirates their own planets. In the First Order’s eyes, they were little guys too. It was more likely they’d be executed out of hand as soon as their usefulness ended. “I want everything you’ve got on the pirates; names, dates, frequencies they use, locations, everything.”
“We can’t take you to them,” Jorge said, “but we can bring them to you. They don’t hit every shipment we give them information about, but whenever an extra-large shipment is scheduled, they always go after it.”
“That’s right,” Rolf agreed quickly. “We can send ‘em some bum info making it look like a large shipment is going out. Your ship is so small you could tuck it right up next to the cargo hauler and they’d never notice it. Wait until they got close then, wham,” he smacked his hand with a fist. “You got ‘em!”
Prauf allowed himself a large, unpleasant smile. “When does the next hauler come through?”
Mia spoke up. “The next one is due in three days.”
The next three days were the best Kor could ever remember. He spent every waking moment with Mia. The more he learned about her, the more he wanted to learn. On the second day, they were strolling around the station while she showed him all its features when he asked her why she left the New Republic and took up mining.
She flipped her hair back. “I enjoyed it at first, I really did. My parents were killed on Endor when that Imperial Captain crashed his Star Destroyer into the victory celebration on the forest moon. My parents weren’t Rebel Alliance leaders,” she hastened to add, “just a couple of technicians who worked on the fighters. But they were there and they died with the rest of them. I was six.”
Kor felt a jolt. “We’re the same age. I was six when that happened too.”
She smiled in acknowledgment and went on.
“After Endor, I was raised in an orphanage. I loved flying as far back as I can remember so I trained in everything I could get my hands on and eventually wound up as a fighter pilot. As I said, I enjoyed it at first. But then,” her mood darkened, “it started to seem as if their answer to every problem was another rule, another law, another regulation until you couldn’t breathe without breaking one of them. By the time I was cited for the third time for breaking some bureaucratic regulation I’d never heard, I realized it was time to get out.”
They turned a corner and started down a long, straight stretch. Her ship was docked along that section. “What’d you do?”
“I bided my time until I found an opportunity to use an obscure regulation to take early retirement. Boy, my captain didn’t like that one at all!”
Kor laughed. “There wasn’t anything he could do about it?”
She shook her head, her eyes dancing. “He tried to claim he’d never heard of such a regulation but I reminded him of the the times I was cited for breaking regs I hadn’t heard of either. It was either wipe my record clean or let me go. He dithered around so much the Colonel finally stepped in and made the decision for him. He let me retire with half benefits.”
She glanced out a window at her mining ship, the Fair Lady. Like most of the ships in the Rings, it was a Corellian Y-8 Mining Ship, only newer and in better condition. “My severance pay was enough to buy a good mining ship in decent condition and I came out here thinking I’d make a good living.”
Kor saw where that was going and shook his head.
She saw it. “Yeah, I learned that lesson pretty quick. If it wasn’t for my monthly pension, I’d be as deep in debt as the rest of them.”
“What do you want to do once we get this situation straightened out?”
She gave him a searching look. “You seem pretty confident you can get it straightened out.”
“A few months ago, I wasn’t confident of much of anything,” Kor admitted, hating to seem weak in front of her. “But learning to use the Force, turning Prauf into a Jedi, all the things we’ve been learning to do, it’s opened a whole new world for me.”
She put a hand on his arm, stopping him. “Turning Prauf into a Jedi? What are you talking about? You can only be a Jedi if you’re born that way.”
Kor cursed silently. He hadn’t meant to say that! He couldn’t believe the way he kept letting his guard down around her. “Uh, it’s a long story,” he temporized.
She waved her hands around empty corridors. Most of the miners were out in the Ring. “The hauler isn’t due until late tomorrow. We have plenty of time.”
He compressed his lips. “Okay, but you have to promise not to tell anyone.”
He examined her through the Force and saw she was telling the truth. “Okay.” He started at the beginning when he’d saved Prauf from falling to his death and worked his way through their adventures until they’d been captured by a bounty hunter turned mercenary military leader. In a moment of sheer panic, he’d somehow awakened in Prauf the ability to use the Force. He concluded with his discussions with Morg’s avatar about strength versus skill and how this might be one of those instances where strength was more important than skill.
“So, if you and Prauf combined your strength you might be able to make someone a Jedi?” she asked.
“We think so.” He paused as they reached an intersection “If we could, we wouldn’t have to wait for someone with the Force to show up and hope they’re a good person. Instead, we could choose a good person to become a Jedi. Someone like you.”
She backed up in surprise. “Me? I’m just an ex-fighter jock and a dirt poor miner. What kind of Jedi would I be?”
Kor shrugged. “I was just a cutter on a salvage crew in the shipyards. I think I turned out pretty well.”
“Yeah, but you were born with the Force,” she protested.
“I just told you though, it’s the person, not the Force, that determines whether or not you’ll become a good Jedi. You’ve heard of Darth Vader haven’t you?” She nodded and he continued. “From the stories I’ve pieced together over the years, it’s clear he had some problems even before he turned to the Dark Side. The only difference between him and a crime boss like Sessra or Jien is that Vader had the Force and they don’t. Aside from that, they’re all the same scumbags.” He resumed his slow pacing down the next corridor.
She matched him, thinking about it. She remained silent until they completed their circuit of the station and came back to the temporary quarters she used when she was there. She stopped in front of her door. “This isn’t an easy decision. Can I have some time to think it over?”
He smiled at her. “Of course. Take as much time as you need.”
He started to turn away but she stopped him. “Kor, no matter what I decide, thank you for the offer.” She stretched up and kissed him briefly on the lips, then spun around and darted through her door, closing it behind her.