Chapter 1: Ditmas Shar

Thellus Asteroid, Dressel System

13:6:33 GrS (22 BBY)

Ditmas was almost surprised when the Bothans let his ship dock on Thellus. Bothans were often very suspicious of humans. With the Separatists now blaming them for Ohma-D'un, their entire species was practically on edge.

The paled skinned red-haired Mandalorian and his sister Baci walked to the airlock in civilian clothes.

"Nu'ni emuuri ibic." ["I don't like this,"] Baci muttered bitterly in Mandalorian.

Verd ori'shya beskar'gam. ["A warrior is more than armour,"] Ditmas retorted dismissively with one of his typical Mandalorian warriorisms. ["Besides, we have our armour. It's just coming separately."]

["Ditmas, we don't have it. It is arriving in thirteen days. We will be here, on this asteroid, for thirteen days without weapons or armour. Not only is it blasphemy to abandon our armour like this, but it is extremely reckless—"]

["—Sister, there is no chance the Bothans will let us onto their station armed. Now, let me do the talking."] Ditmas hesitated for a moment at the air lock. Uncomfortable with his sister's continuing unease, he added, ["they are only Bothans."]

["Even being uncovered as mercenaries would put us in peril Ditmas. Mercenary work is illegal in Bothan space under penalty of death. Of all the kriffing Bothans in the Galaxy, these Askars are the ones who sharpen their teeth and whiten them, all to look more ferocious. Hell, they used to eat Dresselians! Without armour or weapons, they can devour us!"]

["Enough,"] Ditmas barked impatiently. ["We are Mandalorians! They sharpen and whiten their teeth to look more ferocious because, deep down, these Askars are every bit as weak, cowardly, and pathetic as the rest of their miserable race. This mission will go as planned."]

["There are twenty-six million Askars on rock,"] Baci scoffed.

["No, there are twenty million,"] Ditmas corrected. ["There are six million humans living here which will make our job easier."] Adding a confident ["we will fit in perfectly,"] he pressed the button to open the airlock.

As the airlock opened, the overwhelming stench of motor oil, welding fumes, ozone, and the musk of twenty million Bothans poured in. Ditmas groaned. Even with the air filters of Thellus, the smell was far worse than the interior of even the poorest Bio-Cubes on Mandalore.

Two Bothans and a human stood immediately outside the airlock. One Bothan was dark-furred, the other was creamy-coloured; all wore police uniforms.

Ignoring the smell, Ditmas blinked in shock at the Thellus human's hair style—his beard and hair were styled to look like a Bothan mane. All right, maybe we won't fit in perfectly…

"Good afternoon," the creamy furred Bothan growled as she sniffed the air curiously. "What brings you to Thellus? We do not get many visitors from Arkanis."

"We are attending the Futures' Symposium," Ditmas answered confidently, brandishing his datapad with his invitation. After handing it over, Ditmas pulled out his ID.

"Two weeks early?!" the dark furred Bothan growled with deep suspicion as she looked at his datapad. In the low gravity, the Bothan's facial and neck fur swirled and rippled to the point where even Ditmas could notice, although, the Mandalorian had no idea what the rippling meant.

"Indeed," Ditmas answered. "An extended stay is an excellent time for me to finish writing without the distraction of students. This is my research assistant, Norra."

"Research Assistant?" the cream furred Bothan growled accusingly. Both Bothans began sniffing the air surreptitiously.

What if they can smell that she's related to me? Ditmas thought in alarm. Their sense of smell can't be that good can it?

"She does look a lot like you," the human cop muttered, looking suspiciously at the Mandalorians himself.

"Coincidence, I assure you," Ditmas said with mild affront.

"You are two weeks early," the cream furred one pointed out again. "Where will you be staying on Thellus for two weeks?"

Ditmas was taken aback by that question. While he had been a hired gun since age thirteen, he was quite new to being undercover. "We will stay on the ship for now, if that's permitted. We might stay in a hotel, should I decide to get maintenance done on the ship—If that's not a problem for you Bothans."

The Bothan hmm'd neutrally, handing Ditmas his datapad back. "Your manifest says eight humans are disembarking. Where are the other six?"

"The other attendees are inside," Ditmas explained.

"Why are you speaking for them?" the human cop asked suspiciously.

"I'm not," Ditmas muttered. "Since it's my ship, I decided to come out with my research assistant to make things… simpler. Simpler for you."

"Well, thank you. Now can we meet the others?"

o.o.o.o.o

The eight highly suspicious Mandalorians with Arkanis IDs now sat at a tapcafé in the Gal'skar Docks District, two blocks away from where their ship was docked.

"See, told you it would be fine," Ditmas said confidently.

"Ni nu—" ["I don't—"], Akapu Dest started.

"—Speak Basic you fool!" Ditmas whispered harshly. "At least not until stage four commences."

"Sorry sir—I mean, just sorry." Akapu exhaled. "Sorry I forgot."

"We are in too deep right now for mistakes," Ditmas muttered. He looked around. Four Bothans at two different tables had their ears perked up and were staring. "Kriffing great."

It was Pul Mibort's turn to be indiscreet. "Should we tell the admiral—"

"—Maybe we should just all wear signs for them to see," Baci muttered cynically, looking around at the staring Bothans.

"I mean… Prime. Should we tell Prime that we are…" Pul's voice died as he too noticed the staring Bothans.

"They are probably just curious," Taekidethay Yupor said optimistically. She brushed her white hair out of her eyes. "We are strange to them."

"Sure, that's what's going on," Ditmas groaned cynically. "Exactly what's going on."

"All right," a Bothan waiter growled upon approaching their table, "I got one Corellian sunshine, two Port in a Storms," the Bothan's fur swirled and rippled upon mentioning those drinks, "and some papitach wafers. Is there anything else you require?"

Ditmas took his Port in the Storm and said "no, thank you." He was surprised that such a strong Parmathe drink was served anywhere in Bothan space. He took a sip and coughed angrily. "THIS TASTES LIKE WATER!" he yelled, pounding the table dramatically.

The Bothan's fur seemed to compress into her body.

A defensive reflex, Ditmas realised to himself. When afraid, Bothan fur flattens and become tight. Almost like a shield… Interesting.

"I esh sorry," she began stammering in a mix of nervous Askar Creole and Basic. "We mix it with water because the beverage esh so hazardous. You must understand. Esh the law, kiz?"

Ditmas snorted at both her accent, which he found hilarious, and at the fact the Bothans outlaw pure Port in a Storm. Now that sounds like Bothans. "All right, all right," he chuckled. "Thank you for telling me miss." He took another cautious sip. If he held the beverage in his mouth for a few seconds before swallowing, he could perceive the aftertaste of a Port in a Storm.

"This Corellian Sunrise tastes like rice wine," Taekidethay grumbled.

"It is made from Ghoba rice," the waiter growled nervously. "Nokiz can grow a huge variety of crops here, yeah?"

"These wafers are good," Baci said with a smile, crunching on another, "thank you."

"Glad to hear it!" the waiter said with a smile. Her fur seemed to now jiggle.

As the waiter walked away Baci began whispering harshly. "You kriffing idiots. We are university professors, economists, and research assistants not Outer Rim brawlers. You are intimidating them!"

"She's right," Ditmas sighed. "We need to act weaker!" he exclaimed in sudden realisation.

"Uh…" Pul muttered, tilting his head to the right.

The Bothans were still staring at them.

o.o.o.o.o

Aboard the freighter, the holopresence of Titus Tarkin stood on Ditmas's desk. Titus held his hands behind his back, standing tall.

"Admiral," Ditmas said wearily, "we are here, mostly without incident. The Bothans are a bit suspicious."

"Ah, that is to be expected," Titus said consolingly.

"Respectfully sir, my crew is getting restless. Asking Mandalorians to sit around on a station for a whole two weeks—"

"I am paying you for the entire duration of your stay!" Titus exclaimed incredulously. "You can live like kings if you want."

"Respectfully, Admiral," Ditmas said sternly, "I understand the mission. The grave assault on your honour by the Askars—hell, if they had done that to me in your position, I would have hired Mandalorians too. The mission details though make no sense. Why are we here for two weeks? Why—"

"—You are being paid at double your normal rates during your stay, even when you are not in combat. Is that not enough?" Titus asked.

"It's the best deal we've ever had," Ditmas admitted, "but I would be more comfortable if things actually made sense. I want to know my field of battle."

"Don't you think observing the Askars for two weeks will help you learn your field of battle?" Titus asked pointedly.

"Well, yes, but it's not the Way," Ditmas muttered. "We understand our field of battle—understanding our opponents is simply not the Way."

"Ah yes," Titus smirked. "The Resol'nare… Focus on Mandalorian culture. Ditmas, I will say this. I hope that, during your two weeks on Thellus, you realise, as I have, that the Bothans are not merely your opponents but your enemies. That, by virtue of their culture, they are your enemies in every way imaginable."

Ditmas felt very much like he was being manipulated. The fact Titus was telling him the ultimate goal and tools of the mission explicitly, but was so vague and mysterious otherwise, was deeply troubling. On the other hand, Titus Tarkin is paying quite well.

o.o.o.o.o

On the edge of a park in Grav'shtarn, Ditmas patiently observed one of his primary targets playing with his grandchildren.

The young Bothans are actually cute, Ditmas thought to himself with mild surprise. The Askar Clan leader, Gavin Azi'skar, and two of his fluffy grandchildren were flying expensive-looking drones. Three of his bodyguards stood nearby. None seemed to have noticed Ditmas.

In every direction, on all of the walls and the ceiling, following the gravplating, were more houses, streets, parks and shops—a 360º panorama of Bothan suburbia.

"Ditmas," Baci's voice came into his earpiece, "is everything all right?"

"Sure," Ditmas muttered. "These Bothans are well… huh." Pressing the top of his electrobinoculars, he snapped a photo. "Got our first snap of the target," he explained reassuringly.