Friday, 22 January 2021

A Reading Retrospective on 2020

A Reading Retrospective for 2020 should have, ideally, been put up in 2020, or at worst in the first week of January this year. But if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that the best laid plans of mice and men, go oft aft agley, or something like that, and so here we go, twenty-two days later, or however many it will be by the time this goes up.

 

Thankfully, this won’t be very long; I did not read all that many books this year, which, I suppose, has at least this silver lining.

 

So here it goes, in no particular order:

 

Romantic Guerilla, by DS Kumar 

 

You know how you sometimes get this inexplicable craving to eat a vada pav? But you’re miles away from your regular vada pav guy (everyone has a vada pav guy, right?). It’s hot, you’re in an unfamiliar corner of some godforsaken suburb, and there’s a chap you can see selling the stuff. It’s greasy, messy and there’s no other customers.  You don’t really want to, but you know you’re going to do it anyway. And so you shell out the money and take it in your hand and take the first bite, hating yourself already and—it tastes like vada pav. Not particularly good vada pav. You wouldn’t want to confess to your regular guy that you ate this. But it…is kind of all right. There’s potato. There’s besan. There’s a pav. The chutney has a tangy taste. You eat it all in a daze, knowing you may suffer unfortunate digestive after-effects, but in that moment, you know you could have done worse. 

 

I guess I could have done worse than ‘Romantic Guerilla’, an unfiltered outpouring of wish-fulfilment fantasy that occasionally borders on pornographic. And that’s because the writer is quite unabashed about it. There is a plot. The characters, such as they are, are consistent in their behaviour. Even the misogyny is undisguised and unapologetic, it’s just…there. 

 

It’s the story of a start-up founder who gets into a corporate battle with a billionaire, and predictably loses. However, putting together a rag-tag team of people the billionaire has hurt in some way in the past, he exacts increasingly ridiculous retribution. Ultimately, when it’s over, you know you need not have read it, and probably should not have, but for what it is, it…just is.




 

Beren and Luthien, by JRR Tolkein

 

Granted, it's more of an editorial commentary in parts than a single coherent narrative, and weaves back and forth between earlier and later drafts and poetry and prose, but this is still a shining showcase of JRR Tolkien's near-magical ability to transport a reader to an alternate universe using nothing but the written word.

 

The tale itself should be familiar to anyone who's read the Tolkien works beyond the most obvious two. Even if not, this story is referenced in Lord of the Rings by Aragorn on at least one occasion.

 

This is, then, that story—of the first union of High Elf and Man, of the renegade Beren and the half-Maiar Luthien and their chance encounter among the hemlock flowers in the realm of Doriath. Of Thingol's impossible task, which Beren dared to do for the love he bore for Luthien, and how she defied her father to go after him, how they, together with Huan, Prince of Dogs, faced and threw down no less than Sauron (in an earlier draft Sauron is a Huge Cat, by the way. Make of that what you will), and their confrontation with Morgoth himself.

 

It's a story of bravery and love, of pride and betrayal, of the shifting tides between good and evil and though the fact that it hops between drafts and formats would make it difficult to follow, it remains a stirring work of art; one of those whose beauty is often in what it doesn't explicitly say as much as it lies in what it does.

 

And some images, indeed, stay with me—

 

Of Luthien on cat's back, jumping from terrace to terrace of the Cat-castle;

 

Of Beren entering Nargothorond, his father's ring held high,

 

Of Luthien's song in Morgoth's Halls, one elf contending against the mightiest creature on Middle-Earth,

 

And of her dance in the silvery moonlight among the hemlock-flowers, which set in motion, in-and-out of the fictional world, the events that led to the War of the Rings.




 

Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes

 

Of Don Quixote itself, I shrink from saying too much. This was my third time reading this masterpiece, and each time, I think, the book told me different things. The first time I read it, back when I was twenty, it told me of a madcap Knight and his ridiculous squire going from one ridiculous adventure to another; the second time, it gave a social commentary on Spain at the time as well as the noble and plebian people who inhabited it; this time, it told me a near-tragic tale of a world that laughed at idealism that seemed to work as well in this century as it did when Cervantes wrote it.

 

I did not much like the translation I read this time, however, and would suggest either the Edith Grossman version or the classic Wordsworth Editions translation.




 

The Plague, by Albert Camus

 

Reviewed in detail, giving this classic the space it deserves, here

 

Albert Camus’ chronicle of a plague breaking out in a coastal Algerian town might have felt too topical a book to read during the Covid pandemic, in Mumbai, but perhaps it was the only time such a book could be read without realising it was meant to be an allegory for fascism.

 

Or, given we live in a country where comedians are jailed for jokes they might have made; where film-makers are prosecuted for creative choices, and every person who has the guts to call the reigning government what it is, is held guilty of treason by an online lynch mob (if lucky), but an actual lynch mob, if not, perhaps it will be the perfect time to read The Plague at any time while we remain under its thumb.




 

The Man-Eating Leopard of Rudraprayag

 

My grandfather gave me my first Corbett when I was about 11, and I’ve read nearly all of the hunter-turned-photographer’s writing since then. Perhaps this is because Corbett never wrote like a hunter, but rather like a naturalist. His joy never seems to be in the hunt itself, nor is there any exultation about the kills he makes. As far as I could tell, Corbett took a stand early on that he would hunt only man-eaters, and even that he did with a resigned forbearance.

 

But whether he was a good hunter, or a great one, as a writer about hunting and the Indian forests, he is hard to match. And in Rudraprayag, he writes some of his best work. The story unfolds almost like a horror novel, with the titular man-eater’s impact on the people of Kumaon meticulously documented and portrayed. Corbett does not shy away from documenting his own several failures either, freely conceding that the leopard outsmarts him, and indeed there are occasions when he is lucky not to have become one of his victims himself.

 

Given that he could not have written all that he did if that had happened, I suppose we should consider ourselves very lucky as well.




 

Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola

 

Emile Zola's 'Therese Raquin' is one of those novels that reminds you that not all literature written in the 19th century was, well, like what you imagine it to be.

 

Over it's relatively-short length (under 250 pages), Zola writes a psychological study of crime, sexuality and passion.

 

Madame Raquin is a widowed shop-owner who has spoiled her sickly son, Camille, and married him off to her orphan niece, Therese.

 

Their married life is marked by a general lack of passion and extreme repression on the part of Therese, while the mollycoddled Camille lives a blissfully oblivious life. The appearance of Camille's old schoolmate, Laurent, inflames passions in Therese and Laurent is only too pleased to reciprocate, and they embark upon an affair that leads to disastrous consequences.

 

Through the course of the novel, Zola examines, under a harsh light, the impact of repression, guilt, and psychological deterioration. And yet, a lot of the work seems to be written in a hurry, with the characters being essentially placeholders for their passions, doing what the plot requires them to do in order to prove Zola's theories about his subject matter.

 

The descriptions are superb, and in the translation I read, (Penguin, 1965) the literary style is bold and unabashedly natural, touching on female sexuality in a manner that must have been unusual even for the French, back in the 1860's when the novel was published.

 

The ending feels rushed, almost as though the author, having completed the dissertation, and made the points he needed to make about his subjects - the urban middle class of France, adultery, crime, guilt and passion - decided to wrap things up so as to get it to the publishers in time to start his next novel (the rather more celebrated series, Les-Rougon Macquart).




 

Red Birds, by Mohammed Hanif

 

What would have been a clever, perhaps even well-appreciated book had it been written by someone else, ends up being a disappointment because it comes from someone of Hanif’s calibre and track record. It is not that the writer of Our Lady of Alice Bhatti and The Case of Exploding Mangoes has not written a good book; Red Birds has some fine passages and touches upon the very pertinent question of America’s culpability in perpetuating terrorism and insurgency throughout the world. But the lyricism, the sensitivity, and sheer beauty of prose and thought that Hanif demonstrated in his earlier works is missing from Red Birds, leaving it feeling like a work of anger that ends up lacking impact.

 

Red Birds is the story of an American pilot who crash-lands on the Af-Pak border, an entrepreneurial Pakistani kid growing up in a refugee camp, and the latter’s pet dog. The three narratives intertwine as the pilot waits to be rescued, the kid tries to rescue his brother, and the dog looks to do dog things. The mystery at the core of Red Birds is of a vanished US Air Force camp, and while there is a lot of writing about the clashing world-views of the refugees and the Americans, it simply does not have the impact that I know a writer like Hanif can give his work.

 

Maybe he was rushed by a publisher, or the manuscript ravaged by an editor, but in the end result, it ends up being a disappointment. 




 

La Reine Margot, by Alexandre Dumas

 

If Dumas lived today, he would have sold more books than Stephen King or James Patterson. Of this, I have no doubt. Sure, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers are considered part of literary canon, but they are also rollicking, entertaining tales written to please an audience. Margot is no different. An out-and-out potboiler of a historical fiction, it portrays the end days of the Valois dynasty in sensationalist, often sordid, tones. Every woman is a beauty, and every man a rogue, swordfights and poetry, poisoning and faith, are all jumping off every page, as the large and varied bunch of real historical figures, held by Dumas’ puppeteering hands, dance across the Louvre and other parts of Paris. 

 

Keeping track of the characters can be a challenge (apparently, every noble in France at the time was named Henri) and Dumas doesn’t bother to make his characters likeable either, but they are definitely not boring. Never boring.




 

Ahsoka, by EK Johnston

 

(Star Wars nerdiness ahead; you have been warned)

 

In creating the character of ‘Ahsoka Tano’, a padawan learner for Anakin Skywalker, Dave Filoni, the showrunner for The Clone Wars had to know he was taking a risk. The Star Wars fandom is famously toxic and puritan, and indeed the early response to the character bore this out. 

 

Nevertheless, he persisted.

 

The fact that today, Ahsoka’s character is so popular as to have a toxic fandom that fights internet battles over whether she was accurately portrayed in her only live-action appearance so far, speaks volumes for what Filoni and the Clone Wars team accomplished over the course of seven seasons.

 

The novel is a tie-in of sorts, telling the story of how Tano survived Order 66, her first encounter with an Imperial Inquisitor (Spoiler Alert: She curb-stomps him), and how she realised she could not remain in hiding but needed to do something constructive to try and help the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire. 

 

Told in a low-key style that really gets so much right about both the character and the ethos of the Star Wars world, Ahsoka is a nice addition to the Legend that is building around the Togruta who may have left the Jedi Order, but never compromised on its principles.

 




The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton

 

In 2019, I was left astounded by The Age of Innocence, it’s sheer beauty and almost hypnotic ability to sink the reader into the whirlpool of New York’s High Society around the end of the nineteenth century. 

 

In 2020, I was left heart-broken by how Wharton could, in the space of a few words, drag me back there, into a story even of even greater violence and desolation.

 

The House of Mirth is less about love; and mirth there is even less than in Innocence, but Lily Bart’s story is impossible to put down. I read it in under three days (an achievement for me in these degenerate times), and though it was nearly a month ago, have not really gotten ‘over’ it, if one really ever does get ‘over’ a book like this.

 

The story of the beautiful but poor socialite who is never asked to, or expected to, be anything but an ornament, and how that fault in her and those around her dooms her, of how a character’s strength can work against them, is heart-rending, and every page exposes a facet of human nature that is as guilt-inducing now as it was a hundred years ago.

 

Of all the books I read this year, The House of Mirth is perhaps the one I am most likely to keep in mind for the longest, though it is also the hardest to recommend, for it is not for the faint of heart.

 

 


Book Review: The Plague, by Albert Camus

 The Plague, by Albert Camus


 

In an unremarkable, mid-sized coastal town in colonial Algeria, rats start dying in the streets. Dr Bernard Rieux, a conscientious General Physician, is concerned, and when the first human casualties take place, tells the town's municipal authorities that they are likely in the early stages of the plague. His diagnoses is treated as alarmist, the name, 'plague' is suppressed and official notifications remain mild, advising only 'caution' and not taking more concrete steps.

 

Within weeks, the town is gripped by an epidemic and has to be shut down, the doctors are overworked, supplies are low, the authorities are flailing, makeshift isolation centers have to be made, and people are dying faster than they can be buried.

 

The town, named 'Oran', remains isolated from the rest of the world. Families and lovers are separated, the town guard assumes the status of keepers of the peace, quarantines and isolations mean that even when a loved one dies, they are buried, and later cremated, alone.

 

There is heroism too, in the efforts of Rieux and his fellow-doctors, in the army of volunteers that helps, from the acerbic Priest, Father Paneloux, to the journalist Rambert whose first instinct is to smuggle himself out. The Plague comes for young and old, rich and poor, and as months pass, Oran is under a pall of gloom that isn't sorrow so much as hopelessness. The newspapers print a daily death count, which is observed with morbid interest. The theatres show the same pictures shows over and over, and the people watch anyway.

 

And the people lose their sense of self, and find that even waiting seems pointless, and hope is gone, and there seems nothing to live for. They burn their own dwellings and defy the lockdown, they run to the gates to get shot rather than endure the confinement. 

 

The writer brings out all this through the eyes of characters at the forefront of the battle against the plague, but without a hint of sentimentality. Rieux and his friend Tarrou, love-lorn Rambert and ageing bureaucrat Grand, firebrand preacher Paneloux and profiteer Cottard. Each has his part to play in the travails of Oran, and they do play it as humans do; some heroically, some cowardly, some forced into it and some standing up to be counted when it matters the most.

 

The language (as translated) reflects the subject material, alternating between bursts of dialogue and emotional depth and passages of torpor, as though his words too should be in consonance with the course the Plague takes and the emotions of the people of Oran under their 'imprisonment'.

 

And finally, if that all sounds familiar, that's because it is; and Albert Camus, who wrote 'The Plague' in 1947, was writing about more than an infectious disease. 

 

'The Plague' is a chronicle not so much of a sickness but about humanity, about dignity and about the innate value of hope, however dormant, however deeply-buried. It is about invisible enemies of all kind, whether Gods or monsters, real or imaginary. It's about the Nazis, and the dictators, about police oppression and the power of the wealthy, about inequality and cowardice, about bravery and faith.

 

It's about the importance of ploughing on, in whatever little way we can, even when the cause seems hopeless.

 

And Camus, who knew only too well that evil had not ended with the defeat of the Nazis any more than disease had died out with the end of the last pandemic, gives us a chilling warning through the last lines of the book:

 

"He knew what these jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks and book-shelves; and perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it roused up its rats again and sent them forth to die in a happy city."




Sunday, 27 September 2020

Star Wars Fanfic - Meiloorun Cocktails (Daily Drabble #6 - Withheld)

 MEILOORUN COCKTAILS


(c) Levente Peterffy


I look upon the wretched hive of scum and villainy that is the cantina on Jondari. Fifteen years into the glorious rule of the Empire, and there are still places like this strewn all over the Galaxy; existing right under the nose of the authorities, where illegal deals and criminal activities are carried out; where those scum, the Rebels, flourish.

 

I know the time will come when all the Galaxy will bow to Emperor Palpatine, from the aristocrats in their palaces to the minor miscreants in run-down places like this. But for now, the Emperor has other priorities, and so these places are allowed to exist.

 

“Why are we here, Agent Taus?” 

 

He’s a good lad, is Captain Argon. Top of his class at the Imperial Academy. Has become my right-hand man in many ways. 

 

“To smoke out a Rebel cell, Argon,” I say, checking my blaster. It’s fully-charged. It was when I left the ship, of course, but it never hurts to check again. In the Empire, we are nothing if not thorough. Argon does the same.

 

“What information do we have? You didn’t brief me at the base as you usually do.”

 

“Indeed, Argon, because this information is for your ears only. You know what our primary task is, don’t you?”

 

“To locate, investigate and eliminate all Rebel activity.”

 

“That’s right. And we have done that pretty well so far, haven’t we?”

 

“We have, Agent Taus.”

 

“Well, a Rebel cell exists on Jondari. We know this because there have been several attacks on our fuel shipments over the course of the last few rotations, and plotting out where they occurred on a map leads us to believe Jondari must be the locus of these attacks, ergo…”

 

“The Rebels have a base here.”

 

“That’s right. And our people have been searching for it, but with no success. Until earlier today, I intercepted a scrambled transmission sent from here. From this specific cantina—” 

 

“If it was a scrambled transmission, how did you gather anything from it?”

 

I take back my words about Argon. He asks too many questions. 

 

“It doesn’t matter what it said, you idiot, why would anyone send a scrambled transmission if they weren’t Rebels?”

 

“There could be any number of reasons why a transmission would be scrambled,” he says. 

 

“By the Emperor, Argon! What are you, a bleedin’ Jedi? Always looking for another explanation that doesn’t incriminate people?”

 

“What’s a Jedi, Agent Taus?” he asks, reminding me he’s from an Outer Rim planet that probably never heard of those cultists.

 

“It was a religious order of warrior monks sort of thing,” I tell him. “They had a Temple up on Coruscant and fought with light-sabers and what not. Advocated peace and brotherhood…up until they tried to kill the Emperor. This was before he was the Emperor, but you get my drift. We got rid of them all, we did.”

 

“What’s a light-saber?”

 

“Oh pfft…what does it sound like? There was a handle, see? And when you pressed a switch on it, a laser-blade would come from the handle, like a sword-blade. I remember they would be green or blue in colour, and could cut through anything, even metal. Very dangerous, they were. Very very dangerous. Took a lot of good soldiers to kill them all. Haven’t seen one these last fifteen years though, thank the Emperor! Good riddance.”

 

“Did you ever see a Jedi yourself, Agent Taus?”

 

“Matter of fact, yes. I was assigned as a Senate Guard back during the Clone Wars. Saw my share of those nasty traitors. Shaak-Ti, Depa Billaba, Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi.”

 

“Isn’t Obi-Wan Kenobi on the list of the Empire’s most wanted criminals?”

 

“Indeed he is, number one on the list.”

 

“Who’s number two?”

 

Fact is, I don’t remember, the Most Wanted list is well above my pay grade. I have not seen it in years. That’s the purview of the Emperor’s Special Enforcer, that creepy half-machine, Darth Vader. 

 

So to change the subject I stride past him, into the cantina, and fire my blaster at the ceiling. This results in a section of the roof falling on my head and sending me sprawling to the ground. I am thankful for my helmet, I guess I’d have gotten a much nastier hit without it. Argon helps me get back up, as every patron in the cantina stares at us.

 

“You’re supposed to set it to minimum damage mode before shooting at ceilings, Agent Taus. It says in Standard Operating Procedure Manual Rule number…”

 

“Shut up, Argon,” I grumble. 

 

These provincials like Argon can really get on the nerves sometimes. I look around the cantina. The bartender is a Rodian. One of the waitresses is a Palliduvan, another a Trandoshan. The band is Bith, and there are two dancers, one a Palliduvian (who finds that attractive, I cannot imagine—creepy as anything with that pale white skin and slit eyes) and another—well, this is a surprise—a rather attractive Togruta. The dancers one gets to see on these boondock planets are usually the rejects of better places—girls too old or too unattractive to pass muster there. But this one is a beauty; red skin, white markings, tall white lekkus with bright blue stripes. She reminds me of someone I’ve seen somewhere, I don’t quite remember now, but…but it doesn’t matter. After all, they are all typical alien scum. The Republic encouraged equal rights for all races and laws to keep those protections in place. Absolute bantha-shit! Humans are superior, and the Empire has ensured these riff-raff know their place. 

 

“This is Imperial Agent Taus,” I announce. “Everyone stay in your places. Who is in charge here?”

 

The Rodian steps forward from behind the bar and starts speaking his gibberish. The problem with these middle-of-nowhere planets like Jondari is that species like Rodians, who are perfectly capable of forming human words, are able to get away with never learning a proper language.

 

“Anyone who speaks Imperial Basic?” I say. 

 

“We can send for a interpreter droid,” says Argon. “We can—”

 

“Can I help you with anything, Agent Taus?” The Togruta dancer steps down from her stage. She’s dressed in a clinging blue blouse, matching skirt, and has a clear voice with a perfect Coruscanti inflection. Impressive, for a cantina dancer.

 

“I’m Captain Argon,” says Argon. “We are here to—”

 

“Shut up, Argon,” I say. “We don’t want to talk to an alien whore like you, we need to talk to someone with responsibility! Can someone translate the Rodian’s speech? The Palliduvian?” I don’t like Palliduvians much; but they look more human than these animals like Togruta and Trandoshans and the like.

 

“I am the Manager of this establishment, Agent Taus,” she says, pulling on a grey robe that she had draped over a stand by the wall. “Aldo here works for me. Now what was it you wanted?”

 

I hide my surprise that an alien woman, and a Torgruta at that, could be a Manager of any establishment, though I suppose a tiny cantina like this is not very particular. 

 

“What is your name?” I ask.

 

“Padme,” she replies. “Padme…Offee.”

 

“Well, Padme Offee, a transmission was sent from here four standard hours ago,” I say. “A scrambled transmission. Oh, don’t worry, our best minds are working on decoding it, but we don’t need to know what it says to know it has to have been sent by a Rebel operative.”

 

“A scrambled transmission, from here? Interesting…we do have two holo-communicators, but they are on an open frequency,” she says, pointing. 

 

“Someone must have brought in a scrambler,” says Argon. 

 

“It’s possible,” says the Togruta female. “You can check the two there, all the comms sent out…we record every message. If someone brought a scrambler, it would encrypt the signal as it went out, but it would be intact on our recorder.”

 

We follow her to a room behind the bar, where she leads us to a desk and pulls up the holo-recordings in a few strokes of a touchpad. 

 

“Four hours ago, did you say?” she asks. 

 

“Yes,” I confirm.

 

A series of recordings begin to play. They’re all harmless. Usual scum-talk. Men lying to their wives, children lying to their parents, businessmen lying to their partners. The Togruta leaves the room, telling us to make ourselves at home. This is actually a good thing. Shows she feels she has nothing to hide. 

 

“There’s nothing here, Agent Taus,” says Argon. We’ve been in there an hour, each of us going over one set of recordings.

 

“I suppose the team that monitors transmission back at base made a mistake,” I say. It could happen. Maybe it was not a scrambled signal at all, or they were the ones who scrambled it or something.

 

We step out of the office, back into the cantina. It looks strangely empty. In fact, as I look around, I realise that there are almost no patrons sitting there. But the entry of Imperial Officers like myself and Argon can have this impact. The sort of vermin that inhabits such places tends to fear us, and for good reason too. But I have no inclination to look into that now. It’s been a long day with no output.

 

“Did you find what you were looking for, Agent Taus?” asks the Togruta, looking at me with wide eyes. It’s odd how, in this grey robe, she looks so different from the alluring temptress who had been up on the stage. She seems very young now, though you never know how old these alien species are for sure. I’ve heard of some that live for centuries. 

 

“Uh no, that is…there must have been some mistake,” I say.

 

“But, Agent Taus,” says Argon, pulling at my sleeve.

 

“I’m sorry to hear that,” she says. “But of course I would have been mortified to know my cantina was being used for any sort of anti-Imperial activity. We are all loyal subjects here.”

 

“Agent Taus,” repeats Argon.

 

“You should know that you’re welcome here, at any time, Agent Taus,” she goes on. “It would be our honour and privilege to have you here as our guest. Would you like some Jamba Juice? Meiloorun Cocktails?”

 

“Why, that’s very…very kind of you,” I say, lost; quite lost in her shining blue eyes. “Uh…but maybe not right now, that is, it’s a long way back, and I—we—have to report our findings…”

 

“Agent Taus,” says Argon, almost shouting now. “There was a communicator in the office! It was on the desk! We did not check the logs.”

 

“What?” I ask.

 

“The office. The Manager’s office that we were just in. It had a private communicator. The suspicious message could have been sent from there. We should check its logs too!”

 

The Togruta female turns to the bar and picks up an elegant, narrow wine-glass in which the Rodian has poured some drink. She brings it to her lips, and I notice how elegant her fingers are, as though used to holding such finery. Truly odd to find someone like her in a place like this.

 

“Why, Agent Taus,” she says, waving her hand dismissively. “I assure you, no one but me has used that communicator. You don’t need to check those logs.”

 

“No one but you has used that communicator. I don’t need to check those logs,” I say, agreeing.

 

“No, look ‘ere, Agent Taus…she—she’s not telling us everything,” says Argon, and draws his blaster. He IS a fool.

 

“If you really want to check the logs, you can go back in there,” she says, placing her hands upon her hips, arching her waist ever-so-slightly to the right, suddenly bringing back the seductive dancer in front of my eyes.

 

“No, here. Bring them out here,” says Argon. 

 

“I will not,” she says, sounding quite indignant now. “You can’t just come in here and bully us because you’re Imperials! I run an honest business here.”

 

“Look, Argon, put that blaster down,” I say.

 

“That office is a death trap, Agent Taus,” he says, finger on the trigger. “If we go in in there, there’s only one way out, we would be sitting ducks!”

 

“Are you going to…blast me if I don’t comply?” she asks, incredulity flashing in her eyes. 

 

“I’ve set this blaster to the lowest setting,” says Argon. “Won’t kill you, Miss Offee, but will incapacitate you for a while, and pain like blazes after. If you don’t bring those recordings out even then, I’ll let you have it at full power.”

 

“You cannot be serious—” she says, looking at me in appeal.

 

Argon shoots.

 

His aim is dead straight at her chest.

 

She sways out of the way, like a dancer’s pirouette. The blast hits the wall behind. A few bottles explode.

 

Her hands are still on her hips. 

 

No one can move that fast. To avoid a blaster shot at this range, you’d have to be a combat droid. But who braves a blaster-bolt to protect a mere holo-recording?

 

I draw my blaster as well.

 

“Citizen,” I say. “We need to see those recordings, now. Bring the recording here and we will take it back to our base with us—and you will come along too.”

 

“Are you sure you want that, Agent?” she asks. “I assure you, it’s quite unnecessary.” 

 

Where have I seen her before? Why does she look so familiar?

 

“Padme Offee, you are under arrest for withholding information from an Imperial Officer. You can come with us now, or face the consequences of resisting arrest.”

 

“You should put those blasters down,” she says.

 

I fire. So does Argon.

 

Somehow, we both miss. Or rather, we don’t, because once again the shots end up behind her, exactly where the earlier one was, this time smashing nearly half the wall. 

 

Full-power blasters.

 

Not a scratch on the target. 

 

Not a combat droid, no, clearly not. But those reflexes, those…I remember my training officer’s words when we were being taught to use blasters.

 

“Most cadets focus on learning to shoot rapidly, but if you want to be promoted, to be more than an ordinary grunt, learn to fire with accuracy. A blaster bolt is quick, Taus. Shoot it at the right spot and you’ll get your target every time. Well, unless it’s a combat droid, they move fast. That, or a Jedi.”

 

And as I see two rays of pure white light appear from the handles in each hand, one shorter, one longer, one held in a reverse grip and one in a regular grip, I realise that those holo-recordings were not the only thing she withheld. 

 

“Seal the door, Aldo,” I hear her say. The Rodian sidles toward the control panel. Her voice is no longer that of a seductive cantina dancer or a business Manager. It’s the voice of someone used to giving orders. A warrior. A commander…

 

In a flash, I remember where I’ve seen her. In the Senate buildings, back in the day…and also, and also…in the list…I recall it now, yes, I recall who is second on the Empire’s Most Wanted List. Her name. Her name is…Soka? No, it’s…

 

“Yes, Commander Tano,” he replies, as the doors seal shut. I am about to tap the button activating my distress beacon, but I know there’s no point, I’d just be sentencing to death anyone who comes to our relief.


(c) Charlestanart


Me and Argon? We are about to die. We know it, even as we open blaster fire. We know it, even as she deflects the bolts effortlessly, almost lazily.

 

We are in a room with Ahsoka Tano, former Commander of the 501st Legion, apprentice to Anakin Skywalker, one of the last surviving Jedi.

 

We are about to die.

 

She raises her right hand, the one with the long lightsaber in it, turning off the blade. Argon goes sprawling backward into the wall, where his head collides with the concrete with such force that his helmet cracks and he falls to the floor in a heap. I wonder if he is alive in there.

 

I keep firing, though I know its little more than a distraction.

 

She walks up to me, as though taking a walk in the Palace Gardens. The shoto—the lightsaber in her off-hand—flashes, and my blaster is cut in half and falls to the floor. It must have taken incredible precision to cut only the blaster in half and not take off a part of my hand with it. But then, she’s Ahsoka Tano. 

 

“I could kill you, but the Empire would find out there was a Jedi here, and a Rebel cell, anyway, wouldn’t they?” she says, conversationally, switching on the second lightsaber, and holding both, crossed over each other, such that my head is between the blade. One swish and I will be decapitated.

 

“I…I have sent for reinforcements already,” I lie. “They will be here any moment.”

 

“Have you?” she says. “Aldo, get out from the back way. Take only what’s important. Girls, you know where to go. Tell everyone to take off and make for Chopper Base.”

 

“You won’t get out in time. We are monitoring all ships leaving the system,” I say. “You can’t leave the planet.”

 

“No you aren’t,” she shoots back. “We would know. The only real question, Agent Taus, is whether you’re going to leave this cantina.”

 

“Am I?” I ask.

 

“That, Agent Taus, is up to you,” she switches off the sabers, and with a gesture, pulls up a chair for herself. 

 

I stare as she sits, and crosses one leg over the other. The minutes tick on the holo-clock. She’s waiting for the Rebels to leave the planet before she…what? Why am I even alive, still? 

 

“You haven’t sent a distress signal,” she states. It is not a question, so I don’t reply, I just nod. “Why?”

 

“You’d have killed them all.”

 

“I’d have had to,” she points out.

 

“You haven’t killed us yet,” I say.

 

“Will I have to?”

 

Her communicator springs to life. A Twi’lek female’s face appears. Her, I know. She’s exactly in the sort of Most Wanted list that is in my pay grade. Hera Syndulla, Phoenix Squadron.

 

“Ready for extraction, Commander Tano,” she says. 

 

She gets up. 

 

“Have you identified me, Agent Taus?”

 

“Yes,” I say.

 

“Has your friend there identified me?”

 

“Possibly.”

 

She gets up. The lightsabers are still in her hand, but they remain switched off. She begins walking to the office.

 

“So, what happened here, Agent Taus?” she asks.

 

I take a deep breath. 

 

“Why, Manager Padme Offee, Agent Argon and I stepped in to look into a suspected Rebel transmission, but found nothing. However, a fight broke out and led to a lot of damage. The losses led to the business folding up, and the Manager and staff, unable to make good the losses, have given up and are untraceable. We will find, I’m sure, when we unscramble the message, that it WAS a Rebel message, but by that time we will have no one to trace it back to. Could be any of the patrons who used to come here.”

 

“And will Captain Argon say the same?”

 

I lift up my blaster. It’s broken, of course. I get up and walk over to Argon. He is not moving, but he IS groaning. I pick up his blaster, that had fallen from his hand when he slammed into the wall. My hand trembles. To my credit, it trembles. I fire.

 

“Very unfortunate, but Captain Argon was killed by a stray blaster-shot.”

 

She opens the door of the office. 

 

“Pleasure doing business with you, Agent Taus,” she says. “I’d ask you to come back to the Jondari Cantina for that Meiloorun cocktail, but as you can see, we’re shutting down.”

 

X---X---X