This is a story that evolved during role-playing during the last two and a half years. It's more coherent than role-playing, however, with the irrelevant bits kicked out. Our well-known friends Antilles, Darklighter, Celchu and Skywalker make very short appearances in the second part, but I'm certain you'll like Samica Trey and Rhun van Leukenas much as I do.
Let me point out that I'm not a native speaker - but don't worry, apart from Rhun ("Roon fun Loykin") nobody important is pronounced in a German fashion!
If you want to comment, congratulate, or complain (I'd prefer the first two *g*), contact me under email@example.com
A long time ago
In a galaxy far, far away...
„Saaaa-haaaam! Wake uuu-huuup! Good mooooorning!“
Lieutenant (Junior Grade) Samica Trey jumped out of bed, temporarily unsure where she was, then quickly shut off her chrono before anyone in the adjacent cabins heard it. In fact, she doubted anyone on board of the Victory-class Star Destroyer Resolve could have missed it.
Raking a hand through her short brown hair, she wished she had just erased the voice-alarm function on the chrono her friend Tass had given her at her graduation.
Well, at least thinking of Tass brought a smile to her face - and there hadn´t been many of those since she had been transferred here. Oh, it was not a bad posting - even if the Resolve was „only“ Victory-class - but things had been much easier on the backwater world she had previously been stationed on.
Another glance at her chrono told her it was past time to get ready - forty minutes to the first patrol of the day. The first out of three. She knew they gave her more patrols than anyone else because she was a female, but she didn´t mind it too much. She loved flying, and it kept her busy - and it wasn´t as if she missed all that much.
The Resolve´s officers´ mess was relatively empty at this time, and Samica was grateful for it when she saw her duty roster. Four patrols. The last thing she needed right now was the sneering faces of her fellow lieutenants.
„Bit late for a breakfast, isn´t it, Lieutenant?“ a voice inquired, and Samica managed not to jump. Commander Norden had a rather unnerving way of creeping up behind your back when you least expected it.
„Yes, Sir. I´m hurrying, Sir,“ she replied when he had waved off her hasty salute. She wondered if she had ever done anything to deserve his mistrust, but once again, she guessed it was just his way of bullying her a tiny bit. Well, Sam, don´t complain, she told herself angrily. You could have joined the Survey Corps, which would have suited everyone, but it was your decision to accept this. That´s what happens if you finish thirty-seventh out of a thousand. You just don´t decline the honour of becoming an Imperial TIE fighter pilot, even if you happen to be a girl. So don´t give them the satisfaction and quit - that´s exactly what they want.
The dressing room was already empty when she entered and she broke a personal record in pulling on the black flight suit. The other three pilots of her flight group were climbing into their machines when she entered the fighter hangar. At least they didn´t try to cause any trouble. Well, that was not fair. They had always been very correct, which was probably more than she could have expected, since if she had to do four patrols a day, that meant they did, too. But right now, they were all only flight officers, who could get into serious trouble if they showed disrespect to a superior officer. Although Samica somehow doubted that the repercussions would be too severe if someone showed any disrespect to her. Which probably meant the respect was real. Miracles never ceased.
Samica keyed the intercom to flight group frequency. „This is VSD-R-167, report in.“
„VSD-R-168, ready.“ That was Caller, her wingman, who was actually two years older than she, but he hadn´t left school at sixteen to enter the academy. That´s just two and a half years ago, she thought. Doesn´t sound that much. Still - I was so young back then.
„VSD-R-170, I´m ready.“ She didn´t know a lot about Doyle and Arras, the other two pilots in her group, other than what she´d read in their files, which was little enough. They all seemed to be decent enough fellows, though. She´d always given all she could to be a good officer, and so far, it appeared she had succeeded, at least as far as these three were concerned.
„Flight group alpha three, you have clearance,“ came the voice of the hangar flight control officer.
„I copy. Follow me.“ Samica veered out of the hangar, carefully catching the fighter in the moment the crane dropped it into vacuum. Three TIE fighters screamed out from the Star Destroyer and fell into formation behind her.
Two hours later, they returned to the ship, after another uneventful patrol. In the dressing room, Samica carefully searched for signs of dissatisfaction with the number of patrols still to come, but the others were engaged in a discussion about canteen food, which didn´t sound too bad. „Good work, people,“ she said before she left the room. „See you in an hour.“ She returned their salutes and went to get something to eat.
This time, the mess was full - at a table near the entrance, she saw three of her fellow lieutenants and tried to get past them unnoticed when she heard Lt. Forit´s voice:
„Well, Lieutenant Workaholic! You just can´t get enough, can you?“
Samica, for the second time this morning, forced herself to turn slowly. „´Morning, Lieutenant,“ she said. „If you refer to my patrols... I like flying.“
Forit made a apologetic gesture. „Sorry, Trey. No offense?“
She sighed and sat down at the table. Lieutenant Hide made room for her, and she nodded in his direction. He was one of the few people on Resolve she actually liked.
„So, Trey,“ Lt. Malcolm Downlead leaned forward over the table, “It does have its advantages to be flying four patrols a day, doesn´t it? No need to get any sim-time!“
The others laughed, and Samica managed a grin. „As I said, I like flying. And it beats the simulator.“ She hoped the remark sounded more sincere than she felt.
For the next few minutes, she occupied herself with the food on her plate and was happy to just sit and listen. She noticed that Hide was doing much the same, and she decided she liked him a lot. In any case, he didn´t join in their banterings about fellow pilots. Samica wondered what they said about her if she wasn´t present. Maybe it was better if she didn´t know.
„He, Trey,“ Downlead´s voice entered her musings, „what about a match of turbo-squash tonight? Unless you´re too tired, that is, of course.“
Samica looked up at the tall, beefy man in surprise. It had never entered her mind that Downlead thought much of her, but the opportunity to get some rec time with a fellow officer after hours was certainly worth an hour of sleep. „Why, yes. I´ll be free after 2000 hours. Is that okay with you?“
„2000 it is. But I have to warn you, I´m a lousy player.“
„Good, then you won´t beat me all too often,“ Samica replied with another grin, one that felt a lot more natural than the last one.
Downlead was waiting for her in the gym, and she felt the .75 gravity as soon as she entered. She was grateful for it, too; eight hours in the cockpit had been harder than she had thought they would be. TIE fighters didn´t have inertial compensators, and she doubted she´d have been able to play in normal gravity.
„Fit, Lieutenant?“ Downlead asked.
„Ready if you are,“ she replied.
It turned out he hadn´t lied about his skills; despite her rather poor condition, Samica managed to beat Downlead twice while having to admit defeat only once. After an hour, however, she felt too tired to strike one more ball today, and they ended the game.
Downlead was silent while they dressed again, and she wondered why. She only hoped he didn´t entertain any funny ideas about her. Regulations were very strict about relationships between pilots, but even if they hadn´t been, Samica didn´t feel particularly drawn towards him. If anything was up, she wanted to know.
„Come on, Downlead, what´s on your mind?“ she asked as innocuously as she could.
He hesitated, fiddling with the fasteners of his uniform tunic, obviously stalling for time, and she began to worry in earnest.
„What´s up?“ Samica asked again.
Finally, Downlead looked up. „I need to ask you a favour.“
„What kind of favour?“
„You know we´ll be entering real space tomorrow in the Colonies?“
He sat down on the bench and began to pull on his boots. „My parents live on Hertes, and I need to contact them. Unfortunately...“ He shrugged. „We´ll only be near the planet for about half an hour, and that´s exactly when I´ve got a patrol.“
He broke off, looking at his boots as if he was looking for spots. She was surprised to see him so shy; she hadn´t thought he was.
„So, what you want me to do is fly your patrol for you,“ she finished for him.
He didn´t look up. „Yes.“
„They´ll notice when you enter the com room when you´re supposed to be on duty.“
„They won´t. Forit is on duty there at the time. He´ll cover for me. I´ll tell the boys in my flight group as well. They won´t turn me in.“
Samica considered. If she entered the hangar with her helmet on, there was no reason anyone had to notice. Still, if she got caught, she would be in serious trouble. But if she really could help someone who could be her friend... There were few things she needed more than friends she could trust right now.
„All right,“ she said. „I´ll do it.“
Still, all the way back to her cabin, a voice in her head kept nagging at her, and she could only hope that she hadn´t made the biggest mistake in her young career.
Samica sat in the cockpit of Malcolm Downlead´s TIE fighter and told the voice in her head to stop worrying. There was no way back now anyway. The three other pilots hadn´t said anything at all, and the hangar officers obviously hadn´t noticed anything unusual. She had been worried someone could realize Downlead should have been taller and certainly broader in the shoulders, but nobody had, and she supposed she was past the worst.
Samica keyed her com. „VSD-R-16-ah-3, ready to go.“
The other pilots reported in, and Samica got ready for takeoff.
For years afterwards, she wondered how what happened next possibly could have happened, but she never came to a satisfying conclusion - she simply lost control of her fighter the moment it was flung out of the hangar, and momentum sent her reeling towards her wingman - Downlead´s wingman - who demonstrated better reflexes, pulling out barely in time, avoiding collision by centimeters. Warning klaxons wailed in the hangar, takeoff was aborted, and Samica felt her stomach sink down to her knees. This was it. She´d be thrown out of Starfighter Command, maybe even the Navy, and she should have known it. No reason for them to give her the axe just because she was a woman. She´d done it all by herself, and she deserved whatever she got.
Samica became aware of a voice in her intercom, a voice that sounded as if it had been yelling at her for minutes. „Come in, VSD-R-163! Dammit, what´ve you been thinking?“
She drew a deep breath to steady herself and let it out slowly before she replied. „I´m coming back in, Sir.“
„You´re going to complete the patrol, Lieutenant! Copy that?“
„I copy.“ How was she going to explain this to Downlead? „Flight group alpha two, form up on me.“
„Returning into formation, Sir.“
Samica established a com link to her wingman - the pilot she´d almost killed. „I´m sorry, one-sixty-four.“
There was no reply.
She completed the patrol in a daze, wondering what she was going to tell Captain Kolaff. If Downlead backed her story, maybe there was a chance that he would not send her home.
She returned to Resolve´s hangar, hurrying to the locker room. She was looking for Downlead when a voice blared over the ship´s intercom: „VSD-R-163, report to the bridge at once!“ So much for any hope she might have entertained about the Captain´s lenience.
An arm grabbed her from behind, and she whirled to see Lieutenant Downlead´s face contorted with fury.
„Dammit, Trey, can you tell me what the hell that was supposed to be?!“
„I - lost control during takeoff - I´ll explain to the Captain - “
He let go of her arm, snorting with disgust. „I´ll go to the Captain.“ He turned and trudged off out of the locker room, leaving her staring after him.
Samica swallowed hard, forcing herself to calm. At least he was decent enough to take his part of the blame. That was more than she had dared to hope for.
She had just finished dressing when there was another announcement over the intercom. „Lieutenant Trey, report to the Captain immediately!“ Steeling herself, she adjusted her cap and went to the turbolift.
Powered doors whooshed open as she entered the Star Destroyer´s bridge. Captain Kolaff stood there, glaring, with Lieutenant Downlead at his side and a few aides whose names Samica didn´t know.
Samica bobbed her head in a precise salute. „Lieutenant Samica Trey reporting as ordered, Sir.“
He took a few seconds before he deigned to notice her. Though she kept telling herself the gesture was meant to intimidate her even further, the effect was not lost on her, and she did her best not to let her apprehension show.
„At ease, Lieutenant,“ he finally said, and she stood at parade rest, not intending to let herself be treated as anything less than an Imperial officer. That she still was.
„Now, Lieutenant,“ the Captain began, arms folded behind his back. Captain Kolaff was an imposing man, as tall as Downlead, but his greying hair lent him even more authority. He was also a man who thought the Navy should be composed of exactly that - men. He had not been thrilled at the thought of having a female fighter pilot on his ship, and despite her good grades at the academy, he had never doubted something like today would happen sooner or later. Still, there was no doubt that she was good - normally.
„Lieutenant Downlead has just told me that he was not in the cockpit of the fighter that almost crashed two hours ago. He told me you were. Is that correct, Lieutenant?“
„You are aware that it is against protocol to change shifts without the approval of a superior officer?“
„Is it true that you approached Lieutenant Downlead and begged him to fly his patrol?“
Samica almost gasped, staring at Downlead in disbelief. The man actually had the gall to smirk! She turned back to Kolaff, and the look on the Captain´s face told her he knew Downlead had lied. He was willing to take the opportunity to get rid of-
„Answer me, Lieutenant!“
She knew it wouldn´t do her any good if she told him the truth. He had to realize what a pile of rubbish Downlead´s explanation must have been.
„We could just as well settle this before a court martial, Lieutenant. Is it true or not?“
She drew a deep breath. „Yes, Sir.“
He turned ice-cold eyes on her. „You know, Trey, that such an offense is enough for me to kick you from the Outer Rim to Coruscant, to say the least. You are lucky that Lieutenant Downlead asked me to be lenient. Indeed, you are lucky that I don´t degrade you. But let me tell you this, Trey-“ there was not even the pretense of any respect left in his voice now - „if you ever give me any reason to, I swear I will kick your sorry butt all the way back to Imperial Center. Have I made my point clear, Trey?“
„Yes, Sir. Thank you, Sir.“ It was a miracle, she thought, that she didn´t choke on it. I should have joined the Survey Corps.
He turned his back to her and looked out of the front viewport. „Dismissed, Lieutenant.“
Samica saluted and left the bridge, somehow managing not to let her shoulders slump. She had never felt so miserable.
The next day, another humiliation awaited her: Five patrols, with the official reason to give her „more opportunity to practise“. She succeeded in avoiding Downlead, Hide and Forit, but she couldn´t avoid her squad mates, who, to her absolute amazement, still didn´t complain, at least not to her. In fact, they behaved just as they always had, telling jokes and bragging about girlfriends, and she wondered if she should just breach with unwritten protocol and join them in the mess instead of her fellow lieutenants. They were a lot easier to be around, but she guessed that would kill her reputation completely. She was not „one of the boys“. Nobody past the rank of lieutenant was, and she even less so.
Two days after the desaster in the hangar, Samica was notified of a spontaneous sim training involving her and her flight group as well as Commander Norden. She did not feel comfortable about it at all, but she knew she could do a lot better than they thought she could, and she fully intended to let them see what she was capable of. Caller, Doyle and Arras didn´t look too worried - perhaps this was because they knew whatever happened next was her responsibility, and when she botched it, she´d be the one who´d have to pay.
Commander Norden entered the simulator room with his usual air of confidence and just a hint of arrogance, and they all saluted. He returned it and motioned for them to stand at ease. „We´ve spent entirely too little time training for situations in which we might be pitched against the new rebel ships,“ he began without preamble, and Samica relaxed a little. Maybe this was just a normal sim run, after all. „X-wings are faster than Y-wings, still not as fast as TIEs, but they have shields and a lot more firepower than either of those. This means we´ll fight in superior numbers whenever we can, but we can´t always choose the odds. Any questions so far?“
There were none, mostly because nothing he had said so far was new to them. None of them had ever seen combat against anything smarter than smugglers, who preferred the ancient Y-wings, but they´d flown sims against X-wings before.
„Lieutenant, as highest-ranking officer in your flight group, it will be up to you to get your people out of a situation alive - out of any situation. Questions?“
„No, Sir.“ She´d been good at this kind of thing back in her first days at the academy - her teacher, Captain Fel, had sometimes warned her not to put up too much ingenuity under fire, not if she could do things by the book. She was more comfortable with the book now, but she guessed she could still do it her way. Whatever surprise Norden had cooked up for them, she felt confident that she could handle it.
„Into your ships, then, gentlemen.“ They were not really ships - the machines in the simulator room were stripped-down TIE fighters which had been decommissioned and redesigned as training units. Samica strapped herself in and put on her flight helmet. From the inside, there was hardly a difference between the sim sphere and a real TIE, and when the projector sprang to life, showing her a star field, she concentrated on the task before her. Running the usual checks, she found nothing out of the ordinary - no asteroid fields, no concentration of mass that could have indicated a black hole - with Norden, you never knew - and all the telltale lamps in her cockpit glowed a reassuring green.
„Report status,“ Commander Norden´s voice crackled over com.
„VSD-R-169, all systems running smoothly.“
„VSD-R-170, you don´t happen to have a sandwich, anyone? I missed breakfast.“
„One-sixty-seven. Cut it, one-seventy. This is not for your amusement, you know.“
„Sorry, Sir. I´m ready.“
Four TIE-fighters fell into diamond formation, with Samica in front. She was not surprised that the Commander wasn´t with them. No doubt he planned to lead the attack against her group in person.
„This is one-sixty-seven. One-seventy, tighten it up, we don´t want any stragglers. Watch out for enemy fighters, all of you.“ Damn, I wish we´d had a proper briefing.
„One-sixty-eight,“ Caller´s voice came over com. „Sir, four enemy ships on four o´clock“ „I see them, one-sixty-eight,“ Samica replied. Four green dots had appeared on her rear screen, the colour indicating enemy ships. Her ship identified them as X-wings. No surprises so far. „Split up in pairs. Watch your wingman. Good hunting.“
She broke into a dive, Caller right behind her. They´d practised this maneuvre time and again, but it came as no surprise the X-wings had suspected it. They had a distinct advantage no real X-wing pilot was likely to have: an Imperial commander at the stick.
The rebel ships broke off into pairs as well, their pursuers hot on their tails, breaking into a series of evasive maneuvres to shake the TIEs off. Samica stayed behind hers, the targeting brackets on her HUD turning green, and she fired. The green laser beam glanced off an s-foil without inflicting any serious damage. They may not be Y-wings, but their shields aren´t bad, either, Samica thought, mimicking the rebel ship´s maneuvre and preparing for another strafing run when she heard Arras´ voice, close to real panic: „I´m hit! What - “
The red dot that had been VSD-R-169 winked out, and Samica saw a new dot had appeared, this one green. Another X-wing. So that was where Norden was. She could see that Arras and Doyle had managed to finish off one of the X-wings, but that still left her with a three-to-four. Those were not odds she particularly liked.
„One-six-eight, this is lead. Form up with one-seventy. You keep those two X-wings off me, I´ll worry about the leader.“
„One-sixty-eight copies, Sir,“ Caller´s reply came back over com, and her wingman veered off, climbing towards Doyle, who was under heavy fire. This is not going well at all.
The lead X-wing had turned and came towards her head-on. It was a maneuvre he could probably get away with, since Norden was a lot more likely to survive her fire than she was to survive his, so she broke into a spin and throttled speed to make him overshoot. He actually seemed just a little surprised to almost have been outsmarted, but not quite, and he broke off in time, denying her a good shot at him. More confident now, she gave pursuit, checking the tactical chart briefly and feeling her stomach sink as she saw there were only two red dots left. Doyle hadn´t made it, which left Caller facing two X-wings. At least his ship seemed to be more or less intact.
Commander Norden´s X-wing jinked in front of her, and she bet he didn´t like it a bit, but she was the one who could dictate speed. Several times, he tried to shake her the same way she´d tried to lose him earlier, but she was prepared for it this time, and stayed more or less behind him.
For a split second, she had his ship´s cone exactly in her targeting brackets, which was just what she´d been waiting for. Her fire-linked laser cannons pumped green beams of destruction into his unprotected rear, and her screen told her his shields were down. Let´s see if we can even out those odds even further. But this time, the commander broke out, catching
himself quickly. She hadn´t killed him, but she had certainly hurt him, and damage control told her his deflector shields were not rebuilding.
Samica took a quick look at the tactical. Caller had managed to cripple one of the X-wings seriously enough to render it useless, and his ship was still undamaged. She hadn´t realized he was quite that good. Talk about ingenuity under fire.
She checked Norden´s position and found him out of laser range. Retreated to lick your wounds, have you, Commander? She considered trying another head-on run at him, maybe this time, with his shields down, it would favour the one with the better nerve. Still, she wasn´t willing to wager her sim-life on the chance her nerve was better than her commander´s. And his hull was still more reinforced than her TIE´s. By the book, Samica. By the book. She brought her fighter around in order to get behind him when a yellow light flashed on her HUD, indicating someone was attempting to get a missile lock on her. Missiles? She´d never heard of a ship as agile as the X-wing that had a missile launcher!
Samica broke off her maneuvre, and the yellow light faded. She had to get in to Norden, and fast, when he could finish her off conveniently from five clicks away! That was something which had never been said during briefings, and Samica wondered if these sim X-wings were based on new intel data or just Norden´s desire to catch her with her trousers down. Well, so far, he hadn´t. And if she had a say in it, he wasn´t going to.
Closing the three clicks until Norden´s fighter came in her laser range again was more of an adventure than she´d cared for. The yellow light winked on and off again at least three times, but constant jinking on her part didn´t let him get a proper lock on her, and when she was at two clicks, he switched to lasers, planning to place the killing shot down her throat.
She had no intention to let him. Instead of returning fire, she broke into a sharp dive, spinning her ship around to get behind him once again. For the second time today, he hadn´t expected her to break. I´m not that greedy - and not that stupid. She knew he probably was the better shot, but she began to wonder whether she was the better flyer.
He carried through the maneuvre he had started to fly just before she broke, and it brought him directly in front of her lasers. She fired, but the distance was still too great; the beams lancing past his fighter without inflicting any damage. But she was faster, and it would only be a matter of time before he was in range.
„Lead, this is one-sixty-eight. Need help?“
She couldn´t believe her ears. Caller had actually done away with the second X-wing, with not as much as a scratch on his ship. He was still well out of range, but he was steering towards her.
„Attack formation green, one-sixty-eight. I´m going in first.“ She wondered if Norden was listening in on their com traffic. If he did, he knew they were going to do the „trap“ - she would get in front of his ship and draw his fire while Caller would shoot at the X-wing from behind. Normally, he shouldn´t know - this was a simulation under combat conditions, and a rebel pilot stood hardly any chance to make any use of the scrambled Imperial codes. Still, Samica doubted Norden was following Navy regulations here. Not that it was going to avail him anything. This was two-to-one, this was what she and Caller had been drilled in, and she was not going to let the initiative be taken away from her.
There was not much Norden could do with two TIEs on his tail, and he knew it, so he tried to break and take his pick at them one at a time. Now, however, he had to foresee two enemies´ reactions, and Samica managed to get off another shot at his ship. His hull was down to 50%. Just one or two more hits...
Suddenly, the canopy popped open, the projection of the starfield before her died, and she heard once again the noises of the simulator room surrounding her. Norden had aborted the run. Not a surprise there, either.
Commander Norden arrived at her TIE, and she almost flinched. He had the looks of a rancor ready to sink his teeth into whatever was unlucky enough to cross his path.
„What have you learned today, Lieutenant?“ he asked, and she thought she could hear his teeth grind.
„To watch my back, Sir,“ she replied quickly, and without any further comment, he stormed from the room.
Arras, Doyle and Caller emerged from their simulators, the former two a bit subdued, Caller grinning hugely, black hair tousled, blue eyes twinkling with pride. She realized he might just have saved her butt from being, as Kolaff had so aptly put it, kicked all the way back home to IC.
„Nice work, Caller,“ she told her tall wingman with a heartfelt smile.
„Thank you, Sir,“ he replied, still grinning.
The chrono buzzed, the initially silent sound turning into an annoying wail, and Agent Rhun van Leuken sleepily patted around on the console beside his bed to silence the disturbance, knocking over a mug and sending a few data discs sliding to the floor in the process, finally finding the button on his chrono and slamming down on it. He was asleep again even before his hand had the opportunity to rejoin the rest of him in bed.
When noise entered his sleep for the next time, Rhun hit the button on his chrono again, but this time, the noise didn´t stop, no matter how hard he slapped. Puzzled, he opened first one eye, then the other, and both were telling him it was 7.35. He should have got up an hour ago. And the noise was not his chrono, but someone trying to cause a short-circuit in the door buzzer.
With a muffled oath, Rhun jumped out of bed, his foot getting entagled in the blanket, and he cursed again as he sat down on the floor rather more quickly than he had intended. Another glance at his chrono told him he had indeed overslept for an hour.
Smoothing down sleep-tousled blond hair, he hurried to open the door. Outside was Sergeant Haynes, a short, powerfully built man in his late fifties, looking him up and down with a raised eyebrow.
„Shouldn´t you have been up and about for an hour?“ The grizzled-looking man asked.
„Ah - yes, Sir. I´m sorry. I - I think I didn´t hear my chrono. Give me three minutes, will you?“
„Not a good start for your first assignment, kid,“ the sergeant observed.
Rhun scratched his head. „Maybe it´s like in acting, Sarge. The worse the dress rehearsal, the better the actual show.“
The sergeant nodded towards his protegé. „Maybe you should do something about the dress bit, sonny.“
„I´ll be there in three minutes, Sir.“
„Better be.“ Haynes left.
Sithspit! This couldn´t have happened to anyone but him, Rhun was certain. His first mission for IntelOps, and the first thing he did was oversleep. Great. He fished for his shirt and trousers and pulled them on, then sticking his head under the tap with cold water. That finally made him come wide awake. He doubted the Sarge was going to tell any superiors about this, but it was embarrassing enough as it was. He was on the corridor in less than three minutes, where Sergeant Haynes waited.
The older man glanced at his chrono. „You´ve got about fifteen minutes to get some breakfast. If we´re going to stick to our original plan, that is.“ He looked at Rhun with true concern now. „No second thoughts, kid?“
Rhun shook his head. „It´s fine, Sarge. It´s just - well, I couldn´t sleep last night, and Cora gave me a sleeping pill. The stuff was rather good.“
„Yep. Ready for action, Sir.“
„Fine. See you in the hangar.“ The sergeant walked towards the turbolifts, and Rhun hurried into the canteen.
At this time, the light cruiser Liberty´s enlisted canteen was more crowded than usual, and Rhun had some trouble making his way through to the food processor unit. Muttering a few excuses as he stepped on toes or fins or claws, depending on the species of the appendages´ owners, he managed to claim a portion of the gooey stuff that passed for food whenever the Rebel Alliance couldn´t get their hands on anything more appealing. He carried his slimy prize over to one of the less crowded tables on the far side of the large room.
„Hey, Rhun! Did you sleep well?“
Rhun turned to glare at the brown-haired young woman sitting at another table. „What the hell did you give me, Cora?“
„The Ranat vendor who sold it to me called it „Sweet Dreams“. He didn´t promise too much, then?“
„I´ve got no idea,“ Rhun replied. „I slept so fast I didn´t even dream.“ He put down his tray on the table next to her and sat down. „Can´t speak. Must eat.“
She grinned. „In a hurry, are you?“
„Yep,“ he replied around a mouthful of food. „We´re leaving for the Inner Rim in fifteen minutes.“ His mouth twisted as he contemplated the contents of his plate. „I´ve heard people say this beats survival rations, but I tend to disagree.“
Cora sighed. „Me, too. I prefer eating something I can´t taste or smell to eating something that tastes and smells like bantha fodder.“ She cocked her head to one side. „Hey, Rhun... take care of yourself, will you?“
He looked up from his breakfast, slightly surprised. „Always do.“ He gave her a reassuring smile. „Can´t get any worse anymore, can it?“
„I suppose not.“ She patted his shoulder. „Retrieval on your first mission. Someone up there´s got a lot of confidence in you.“
„I hope I won´t disappoint him.“ Rhun finished the last of his food. „I gotta go. See you then.“ He picked up his tray and got up.
„Good luck,“ Cora called after him. He waved and left the canteen.
Liberty´s hangar was as crowded as most of the rest of the ship, technicians from a half dozen different species hurrying around, making repairs, refuelling or simply trying not to get in each other´s way. Half a Y-Wing squadron was quartered here, the other half having found temporary quarters on the Endurance, another light cruiser not normally suited to take up even a flight group, but space had always been rare in the Alliance, and they had all learned to live with it.
Across the hangar, Rhun saw the light freighter Starbound and steered towards it. Sergeant Haynes was engaged in a discussion with a Twi´lek technician who apparently notified him about recent modifications - modifications the sergeant obviously was not too happy about - and Rhun joined him at the entry ramp.
„Everything all right?“ he asked.
„Mostly,“ Haynes grumbled. „Apart from the fact that these granite-slug-brained idiots have cut down on auxiliary power to make room for more cargo capacity, yes.“
„Maybe I could try to notch up some more power, at least for the engine,“ Rhun offered, and the sergeant threw him a measuring look.
„Ah, right. I remember - you´re quite good with freighter modifications, aren´t you? We´ll see if we have the time when we reach Kwenn. For the moment, we´ll have to make do with
what we have.“ He returned his attention to the Twi´lek. „Any other surprises I might want to know about?“
The technician gave him a hurt expression. „We don´t do anything here unless it´s been approved from above,“ he said. „If you´re going to complain, I suggest you go to one of the higher-ups instead of taking it out on me.“
„No, I´m sure it´s fine,“ Rhun chimed in, knowing better than to argue with a Twi´lek whose pride was injured. „Let´s get going, Sarge.“
After a little grumbling, Haynes ascended the ramp into the craft´s tiny cockpit. Rhun sat down in the copilot´s seat, although he couldn´t have piloted the thing if his life had depended on it. He was good with repairs, with computers, and he was an excellent shot with a blaster, but he most certainly was not a pilot. He watched as Sergeant Haynes´ hands flew over the controls, preparing the Starbound for liftoff.
„Control, this is Starbound,“ the sergeant spoke into the com. „We´re ready to start.“
„Copy that, Starbound,“ the flight control officer replied. „You have clearance.“
The freighter lifted off and moved out of the hangar, past the Liberty and the other ships of the small Rebel fleet: the Endurance, the medical frigate Redemption and a couple of smaller craft, medium freighters, mostly, but also two Y-wings patrolling the area and a battered-looking YT-1300 Corellian freighter. Not that I´ve ever seen a YT that didn´t look battered. Rhun looked at the old vessel wistfully. He had been planning on seeing the ship´s captain, Grant Dyson, aboard Redemption before he set out for the mission, but his oversleeping had settled that question, too. Now where did those fatalistic thoughts come from? Getting up with the wrong foot doesn´t mean you´re going to blow the mission, as well. So you´re going to say hello to old Dyson a couple of days later; he won´t mind. I bet the old smuggler´s got more confidence in me than I do myself.
„You all right, kid?“ Sergeant Haynes´ voice interrupted his thoughts.
Rhun looked up. „Just thinking, Sarge. I´d meant to visit Captain Dyson before the mission, but...“ He shrugged.
Haynes chuckled. „The old pirate likes you a lot more than he cares to admit, sonny,“ he said. „But don´t worry too much about him. He´s survived worse than a little jungle fever, you know.“
„Smuggler,“ Rhun corrected him. „He doesn´t like the word ‚pirate‘. Actually, he prefers to be called ‚business man‘.“
Haynes laughed and punched a series of numbers into the ship´s nav computer. „Well, Agent,“ he said as the computer signalled readiness for the hyper-jump and the sergeant reached for the lever. „This is it.“
Yes, this is it, Rhun thought as the stars turned into lines and they entered hyperspace. Ten hours to go over the mission again. The first part of it sounded simple enough - pick up a false code transmitter, install it into their ship. Then the next stage - fly the ship to Kwenn Space Station, prevent the abduction of a famous Rebel engineer, get him safely home to the Alliance while dodging fire from the Star Destroyer Resolve that would also be at the station and that would do all it could to prevent Dr. Blissex from falling into Rebel hands.
Piece of cake.
„How´s it going?“
Rhun emerged from under the electronics console, where he had been buried in wires and circuits for the better part of two hours, and gave Sergeant Haynes the thumbs-up sign. „Another thirty minutes, Sarge. I´ve fixed the primary transmitter module, but we might use a little backup. I´d say the Alliance shouldn´t deal with these people anymore. That false transmitter they traded us was more like a bug convention.“
„You think it was done on purpose?“
Rhun shrugged, wiping his brow with the back of his hand. A dark smear remained behind. „I really can´t tell, Sir. Not necessarily. At least I seem to´ve gotten the hang of it now.“
„We´re already an hour behind schedule. We could try to cut down a little on the hyper jump to Kwenn, but it´s going to be a close shave trying to intercept Blissex before the Imps do.“
„I´m working as fast as I can, Sarge.“
„I know. Keep it up, kid.“
„Will do.“ Rhun grinned, sketching a salute, and slid back under the console.
Half a day out from the Rebel outpost, and things had gone wrong they had never expected could go wrong. The hyperdrive had held together - barely - until they reached the station, and it hadn´t ended there. Apart from having to get spare parts for the hyperdrive, the false transmitter they´d collected had fried their systems as soon as Rhun had built it in, and the repairs had cost them precious time. Their time window allowed for three hours over schedule, and they had already used up all of it. Rhun did not want to know what would happen if they reached Kwenn too late, after the Empire had got its hands on Dr. Blissex.
Blissex was the engineer who had designed the Victory-class Star Destroyer twenty years ago, and his daughter, Lira Blissex, had perfected the design by creating the Imperial class. Blissex had joined the Alliance - or rather, the Rebel fraction around Mon Mothma that now formed the core of the Rebellion - several years ago and had avoided the Empire ever since, but that had meant he hadn´t seen his daughter in years. Despite their different opinions on political matters, it was an open secret that he missed her, a fact that had caused many a Rebel officer many a sleepless night.
Now the Empire had brought the hammer down on Blissex; Lira Blissex had sent holotapes all over the galaxy, announcing she was suffering from an incurable disease, wishing to see her father once again before she died. So Alliance High Command had sent Blissex to the appointed meeting place with several Rebel agents to watch him should anything go wrong. That had been two weeks ago. But now an agent aboard the Star Destroyer that was to carry out the operation had warned the Alliance that it was indeed a trap, that Lira Blissex - besides enjoying excellent health - didn´t have any desire to reconcile with her father, and that he was to be taken captive - or worse. So Commander Willard had sent him and Haynes to Kwenn with the mission to kidnap Blissex before the Imps did.
Rhun thought that you didn´t have to be in Intelligence to smell the trap, but either Blissex really hadn´t, or he was willing to wager his life on the belief that his daughter wouldn´t betray him like that. Fat chance. Rhun knew first-hand what Imperial doctrine did to the people that were under its thumb. His father was a stormtrooper sergeant back on Garon II, and he´d wanted his sons to become good imperials, too. So Rhun had run from home when he was sixteen, rather than become a stormtrooper, and if it hadn´t been for Captain Dyson, he might still be sitting in a gutter somewhere in Gerion, breaking into electronics stores to get enough money together to afford a false ID with which he could leave the planet, knowing his father
would keep looking for him.
It had been Dyson who brought him to the Alliance where he could put his skills to a better use. He had spent the past seven years cracking Imperial codes and training in the crafts that would serve a field agent... and now here he was, stuck to the elbows in wires and
lubricants, trying to buy them a little more time in souping up the old freighter´s engines. Not that this was likely to be the most exciting part of their mission.
But he didn´t want to think about the really exciting parts right now.
Samica turned at the sound of the voice she had been successfully avoiding for several days, suppressing a sigh.
„Yes, Lt. Hide?“
He jogged up towards her on their way to the mess. „I haven´t had the chance to talk to you about the stint you pulled on the Commander in the simulator.“
She watched him carefully. „And?“
„Have you been avoiding us?“
She turned again and continued down the corridor. „What is this, an interrogation?“
He had reached her and blocked her path. His eyes were serious, but she could detect no mockery there. „What I wanted to tell you is that you finally got him what he deserved.“
Samica did not quite manage to conceal her shock at his words. You never knew who
was listening - and it was entirely possible that he was a spy sent by Kolaff to test her loyalty.
„I was lucky,“ she replied a little tartly. „I had an excellent wingman, and I was having a good day, that was all.“ She made a gesture as if to shove him out of the way, and this time, he let her pass.
„I´m sorry if I hurt you somehow,“ he said as he hurried to keep up with her. „All I wanted to do was congratulate you on a remarkable sim run.“
She stopped again, this time looking him full in the face. He backed off a little. „Trey, there´s no reason for you to avoid the rest of us. I know some of them can be real buggers, but most of the time, they don´t mean it.“
„Do you know what happened in the hangar four days ago, Hide?“
He didn´t answer, which surprised her. He was acting as if he did know and was torn between wanting to tell her he did and wanting to conceal his source - which was Downlead, most likely.
„Downlead means it, believe me,“ she continued.
Hide heaved a sigh. „I believe you, Trey, but not all of us are like that.“
„Like you, for example?“
„Yes, like me, for example.“
They had almost reached the mess. „What exactly are you trying to tell me, Hide?“
He smiled. „Are you free for lunch?“
„Actually, it´s dinner time for me just now.“ Samica didn´t have any idea what Hide was up to. She didn´t think he was set upon testing her, but there was something in his manner that told her to be careful. The feeling annoyed her, because she had decided long ago that he was a decent sort. „But I´m free for dinner, if that suits you.“
„Perfect.“ He picked a table along the side of the officers´ mess - farthest from where he and the others normally sat, she noted - and went off to get them something to eat. She watched his back as he lined up for the food processor. She just couldn´t make any sense of the man.
„Was Garon II like this?“
She looked up quickly as Hide sat down on the seat beside her. „Pardon?“
„Garon II. That´s the world you were stationed on before you were transferred here, wasn´t it?“
She examined her plate. „It wasn´t anything like this. First, it was a ground-based station... and second, it was one of the least important worlds the Empire occupies.“
„Fewer rivalries,“ he guessed.
„You could call it idyllic.“ Samica faced him. „Where were you stationed before you came here?“
He hesitated for just a second, and the feeling in her gut got worse. „Gland,“ he said after a pause. „I don´t think you´ve heard about it.“ It was his turn now to examine the contents of his tray. „Anyway, it was a lot better there, too. I guess that on a backwater planet, there´s simply no need for rivalries. But on a Star Destroyer, there´s a better chance of getting on, right?“
Yes, and bloody likely I am getting on, Samica thought, but pushed the thought away. „Is that why you asked for transfer?“
„Not really. It.. just happened. I´m not an ambitious man, Trey. Did you ask for transfer?“
„Yes. It was more a matter of needing a change, though.“ She was not going to go into that matter in any greater detail. „I don´t know if you could call me ambitious. I want to do well, and I want to be respected... which is also easier on a backwater planet, but I couldn´t have worked on that if I´d stayed there. So I asked for transfer when I got my promotion.“
„You´re from Imperial Center, aren´t you?“
„And it doesn´t bother you to be surrounded by us hillbillies?“
„It bothers me if I am surrounded by idiots. There´s idiots in every corner of the galaxy.“ She stood. „I really need to get some sleep, Hide. It´s been good to talk to someone.“ Before he could say anything else, she left the mess, no wiser than she had been when she entered it, and she wondered what their conversation meant - if, in fact, it meant anything.
Over the next few days, Samica did not become any wiser. Hide treated her as if they´d been friends for ages, which would have been nice if it had not seemed so out of place. They even played turbosquash on one or two occasions, which put her slightly more at ease with him, but she couldn´t shake the feeling there was something he wanted from her and was slowly preparing her for it. Samica didn´t like it a bit. She preferred to be in control of things, or at least be let in on what was up, and this game of subterfuge was not one she liked to play. She could have just confronted him, but she was still afraid that might lose her someone to talk to. In addition, she did not think he was up to anything untoward. Samica waited.
A standard week after the near-crash in the hangar, a briefing was set for all fighter pilots aboard Resolve, held by Captain Kolaff in person, which was unusual. Commander Norden stood at the Captain´s side, looking as surly as always, and Samica saw several officers wearing the uniforms of Naval Intelligence. She couldn´t remember seeing them here before; they must have arrived by shuttle.
„Gentlemen,“ the Captain began, „we will soon be offered the chance to strike a blow to the so-called Rebel Alliance that might well prove to be critical. Two high-ranking Imperial officials are expected to rendezvous with us in about two days´ time. We don´t know for certain exactly when they will arrive, so for the following days, the patrols will be reinforced, consisting of two groups instead of one. Resolve will patrol this area of space until the boarding operation is complete. I need not remind you that the operation is highly classified, so this will mean that any ship, I repeat, any ship entering the area around Resolve without a valid Imperial transponder code will be destroyed immediately. Any questions?“
There were none.
Samica had learned not to ask questions in her first year at the academy. She was told enough to do her job, and that was it. Anyway, it seemed as if they´d finally see some action. Since she´d been transferred here, there had been nothing but patrols, which, in times of peace, normally fulfilled the function of at least giving the pilots the impression of doing something. Garon II had been more interesting; although the rebels were not active there, there was a lot of smuggling, and it was the task of the Imperial garrison to keep the spaceways safe. She was looking forward to doing something useful, like striking at the rebels whose only discernible aim it was to bring anarchy to the galaxy.
The promise of action had a positive effect on morale, as well. Samica even heard her squadmates say how lucky they were to be doing five patrols a day, thus bettering their chances that the shuttle would come in during one of their turns. Doyle even hoped this was a trick played on them by rebels, bragging he could take on a whole Y-wing squadron on his own. Samica did not intervene, although she couldn´t help but remember his rather poor performance against a single X-wing. At least they were in high spirits.
She was flying a patrol with Lieutenant Hide´s flight group, already preparing to come back in again after nearly two uneventful standard hours, when Flight Officer Doyle´s voice came over com.
„Lead, unidentified ship at two o´clock, three clicks away.“
Samica checked her display. The newcomer was not an Imperial shuttle, but looked like a YT-1300 Corellian freighter. It´s always amazing these things still fly. She switched her com to open frequency. „Unidentified light freighter, this is VSD-R-167. Identify yourself or you will be taken under fire.“
Over the com, she heard panicked chatter, then someone answered, „Ah... VDR-something, this is Bunny. We´ve just gotten lost - wrong coordinates. Just let us correct that, and we´ll be well away from here, that suit you?“
Samica cursed inwardly. She was in laser range by now, but this freighter obviously did not pose any threat. Damn, why did Hide let her handle all this alone? They were of the same rank, and this was a responsibility she did not want to take alone.
„VSD-R-167, why is this taking so long?“ she heard a voice over com, and her blood ran cold. The Captain. „You have your orders, Lieutenant!“
„Sir, it appears to have been a coincidence. They say they simply got the wrong coordinates...“
„I don´t care about wrong coordinates! You have shoot-on-sight orders for any unidentified ship entering the area. Carry out that order, Lieutenant!“
The voice blabbing at her from the freighter panicked in earnest now, as the captain saw his ship targeted by four TIE fighters. „Officer, we´re willing to be boarded, if that can settle things. We really don´t want to cause any trouble...“
Samica drew a deep breath. Kolaff was going to rip off her head and spit down her neck, but she had to try. „Captain, the freighter offers...“
She was cut off by Kolaff. „I don´t care what the freighter is offering, Lieutenant! If you don´t carry out those orders right now, I´ll have you shot for insubordination!“
Samica wanted to scream. A part of her was willing to disobey the order, but another, larger part of her was afraid of what that would mean. She knew that Kolaff´s threat had not been an empty one.
„You handle this, Lieutenant,“ she heard Hide´s voice cut into her panic and watched in disbelief as the lieutenant turned his ship and flew back towards Resolve. His flight group hesitated, but they knew an order when they heard it, and maybe they were more than happy that the situation had been taken out of their hands. Samica´s mind raced. She could pretend a failure in her weapons systems. These things happened. But if the techs took her ship apart after this, which they would certainly do, and they found nothing, she would be even worse off than she already was. Time was running out. She had to act now.
„We attack,“ she said over com and was almost surprised to see her flight group obeying her order. Three, maybe four laser beams was all it took to reduce the light freighter Bunny to slag. They hadn´t even had their shields up. Seconds later, there was nothing left to indicate Bunny had ever even existed. It took Samica a few minutes to realize she´d just scored her first kill.
When Samica had entered the Imperial Naval Academy at Prefsbelt IV, a standard week after her sixteenth birthday, she´d been full of starry-eyed ideas about being a pilot. She would join the Survey Corps, discover new star systems for the Empire and see all sorts of adventure.
That attitude had changed somewhat during the two years at Prefsbelt, especially when she realized her grades might be good enough to get her into the Navy - maybe even Starfighter Command. There had been several Kolaffs in her life, to be sure, but her models were officers like Captain Fel, whose ideas of honour and duty she made her own. Commander Tonkin, her commanding officer on Garon II, had been a bit like him, if slightly more sloppy, but it had never crossed her mind that officers like Fel or Tonkin might be the exception rather than the rule. Now, sitting on top of her TIE fighter performing the usual postflight maintenance works, she tried to banish the thought that she might have been wrong about the Navy.
Her eyes fell on the entry hatch and its many dents. Each pilot added one when he´d
scored a kill, so the ship itself was the only witness to the number of kills it had gathered, since individuality did not count within the Empire. She had not added one. Her targeting computer had credited her the kill, so she was entitled to it, but couldn´t bring herself to be proud of shooting down a freighter that had not even offered token resistance.
She caught Flight Officer Caller glancing at her furtively from the side, but he looked away quickly when he saw she had noticed. He didn´t look too happy about the affair either. At least he had the consolation that it hadn´t been his responsibility. If he hadn´t fired, someone else would have.
But the same thing is true for me, a plaintive voice inside her persisted. If I hadn´t shot the freighter down, they would have sent someone else. Bunny was doomed no matter what.
Yes, another voice answered the first one. But just imagine they had sent someone else, and that someone would have refused too. And if they´d sent even another, and that other, too, had disobeyed. What you did today was a criminal act, and it would have taken no more than a tiny amount of courage to prevent it. Kolaff can´t shoot a whole Star Destroyer contingent for insubordination.
He won´t have to, the first voice replied. There isn´t a bloody thing I can do against people like Kolaff. And face it, most people on this ship would have carried out that order much more quickly that I did.
Samica gave an exasperated sigh and let herself drop to the gangway. This wasn´t getting her anywhere. She didn´t hope it was getting her anywhere.
The next day, there was a light flashing on the com terminal in her cabin, telling her she had a message. The Captain congratulated her on her first kill. Furthermore, the number of patrols in one day had been reduced to three.
Samica spent most of the next time in her cabin. She didn´t want to see any of her fellow lieutenants. She was half hoping that Hide would contact her, explain what he had been thinking to leave her like that out there, but there was no word from him, either.
Two days after she´d shot down Bunny, an Imperial shuttle arrived aboard Resolve, carrying a general in NavInt uniform and a civilian, a woman in her late twenties. Both of them were sometimes seen in the officers´ mess, and Samica could only shake her head at her fellow officers´ comments referring to the woman. She was certainly beautiful, black-haired, green-eyed, and regal looking, and Samica disliked her immediately. Neither she nor the general ever talked to any of the other officers in the mess, and Samica wondered what this plan was that would give the Empire so much of an edge against the rebels.
There was another thing that gave Samica reason to worry: Whenever she left her quarters, whether she had a patrol, a sim run, or she went to take a meal, she saw an officer in a white uniform without any rank insignia somewhere near. COMPNOR. Personnel from the intelligence branch of the civilian „Commission for the Preservation of the New Order“ were not an unusual sight aboard a Star Destroyer, but there were never more than two or three on the same ship, and she would have thought they had better things to do than following her around. COMPNOR was in relatively low esteem with the military (although it was most unwise to let them know about this). Samica had heard it say that, in order to rise high with COMPNOR, all you needed to know was the Emperor´s anthem and how to use a smashball bat. They might be in low esteem, but like all fanatics, they were dangerous, and although Samica didn´t have anything to be afraid of, she did not feel entirely comfortable with these goons around either.
She was returning from a simulator run when a compulsory meeting of all personnel, starting in thirty minutes, was announced through the ship´s intercom.
The great briefing room was crammed to the last seat. There were 4.350 people aboard Resolve, and they were all here. Samica was sitting with the StarCom officers, well away from Downlead and Forit. She had seen them when she entered, but she had not seen Hide, and remembering that she hadn´t seen him for several days, she began to worry. Nobody around her seemed to know what exactly the meeting was about, but she didn´t have to wait long, for then Kolaff entered the room. There was security personnel and half a squad of stormtroopers accompanying him, as well as his aides, and last came two black-clad Navy troopers dragging between them Lieutenant Hide.
He was a miserable sight, his tunic torn and bloodied in several places, and he looked as if he could barely walk. When they had dragged him in, the Navy troopers still had to support him or he would have collapsed.
Kolaff addressed the ship´s crew.
„Gentlemen, an incredible treachery has occurred on this ship, involving a commissioned officer sworn to the Emperor - gentlemen, I am talking about the worthless piece of scum here beside me: Sören Hide. He committed the ultimate crime against his Emperor and, indeed, his comrades: He sold information to the so-called Rebel Alliance and would have left you all to die at rebel hands.“ The Captain gestured over to the upper ranks of the briefing theatre. „Thanks to the wary eye of Lieutenant Torben Forit, who was on station in the com room when Hide made his last attempt to contact his rebel friends, their plans could be thwarted, preventing a disaster.“ Heads turned towards Forit, who nodded proudly, and there was applause from many of the people present.
Samica could only stare incredulously. Hide, a rebel? It did make sense, she reflected; after all, he had refused to shoot at the smuggler. But then, it did not make any sense at all. Hide was not a criminal. He would never have done any of the things Kolaff was accusing him of!
„Now, gentlemen,“ Kolaff went on, „you will witness what happens with rebel traitors detected on my ship.“ He drew a blaster from the holster on is hip, and the Navy troopers made Hide kneel down. Without any further ado, the Captain set the muzzle against Hide´s temple and pulled the trigger.
Samica stared, white-faced, as Hide´s body slumped to the ground, no longer held by the troopers, his head a smoldering mass. This was not real. It couldn´t be. It was all a nightmare, it couldn´t be anything else.
„This will happen to any other rebel found to be aboard an Imperial vessel,“ Samica heard the Captain continue. Disgusted, Kolaff prodded the body with a booted foot, then motioned for the Navy troopers to take it away.
I can´t just sit here, Samica thought as Hide´s lifeless body was carried from the briefing room. This can´t be happening. I can´t let it happen. It had all gone too fast, there should have been some point for her to make it stop.
People were getting up around her, and she realized the meeting was over. She was shaking so badly she could hardly get to her feet. A part of her mind wondered if the COMPNOR goons were watching her, and noted that she probably didn´t make a good impression, but she didn´t care. All she wanted to do was run to her quarters, hide under the blankets, and stay there. Or maybe she wanted to scream, kick at things, at the universe perhaps, or at least slap somebody´s face.
Lieutenant Samica Trey left the briefing room, wandered through the Star Destroyer´s corridors, at some point ending up in the mess, and had something to eat.
There was nothing left to indicate anything unusual had happened aboard Resolve that day.
Sergeant Haynes looked up from the nap he´d taken in the pilot´s seat for the last couple of hours and looked out of the viewport. There was little to see - no planet, no sun, just the „Last stop before the Outer Rim“, as Space Station Kwenn was sometimes advertised. There were other names for the station which were not quite so favourable. Kwenn served everybody, but that very fact made it a dangerous haunt for anyone whose concern it was to avoid the Empire. There was always a chance of running into an Imperial ship here, and even though Rhun had known they would have to expect a Star Destroyer here, the huge white wedge of the Resolve did nothing to dispell his apprehension.
Haynes cursed softly. „So they´re already here,“ he said. He raked his hands through his greying hair and beard. „This is going to be a lot tougher than we´d anticipated.“
„So what do we do?“
„First, we´ll hope this false transmitter was worth the credits we paid for it. Then we meet up with our contact and hope Blissex is still on the station. If he is, we pick him up and get the hell outta here.“
„And if he isn´t?“
The grizzled sergeant threw Rhun a mournful look. „Then I´ll have to worry about how I get aboard that thing and off again - with Blissex.“
Rhun leaned forward in his seat. „What d´you mean, ‚I‘? I´m with you in this, ain´t I?“
„The situation´s changed, kid. You don´t want to go up against a Star Destroyer on your first mission.“
„I´ll do it if I have to.“
„I know you would, kid, and thanks. But you´re about as green as they come, and if it hits the fan, I´d rather handle this alone.“
Rhun stared at him in disbelief. „I´ve been trained for this, Sarge. I mean, I -“ He was cut off by the flight control officer´s voice crackling in over com. „Light freighter Heavy Load, this is Kwenn Space Station control. Tell us your cargo and destination.“
Haynes leaned forward to hit the transmission key. „This is Heavy Load. We´ve got spare parts and electronics for the station.“
There was a small pause in which Rhun fidgeted, wanting to settle the matter here and now, but he didn´t know if the com channel was still open, and it would not have been a good idea to let flight control eavesdrop.
„All right, Heavy Load. You have landing clearance for docking bay 56a. Will you be needing assistance unloading?“
„Yes, that´d be great,“ Haynes replied, and to Rhun, he said, „There´s nothing as bad as declining assistance on a spaceport to arouse suspicion. If you don´t want help, they figure you have something to hide.“
„And if they come to help, you tell them you´re already done,“ Rhun finished for his sergeant. „That way, they don´t see anything they´re not allowed to see, but they won´t go as far as to tell anyone about it. I know. I´ve worked with Captain Dyson, remember?“
Haynes hid a smile. „What´s that supposed to tell me?“
„I´m not as green as you think, Sir. I´m a bit above book knowledge, and besides, if you´re going against that,“ he nodded into the direction of the Star Destroyer, „you might need someone to watch your back.“
Sergeant Haynes considered for a second. „Well, we can still hope Blissex is still here. No need to expect the worst before it hasn´t happened.“
„And if he isn´t, I´m going in with you. I´m not going back to Commander Willard and tell him I left you infiltrating a VSD all on your own.“
Haynes set the ship down on the appointed docking platform and let the engines cool out. Rhun realized that was all he was going to get out of him for the time being, but he also set his mind on not letting him carry on with the mission without him. He´d waited for this for a long
time, and he was determined not to quit now.
Now if only he could convince the queasy feeling in his gut to believe it too.
„All right, kid,“ the sergeant said as he opened the entry ramp. „Let´s see how bad things really are.“ He got up from his seat and stretched, and Rhun followed him from the ship.
The docking bay was small, with a ´fresher, a tool shed and a small food processor unit, a powered door leading out to the corridor and the heart of the station. Slits in all the installations - even the refreshing unit - indicated that you had to pay to use any of them. Still, the bay was reasonably clean, something that couldn´t be said about all the places Rhun had seen. It was certainly a change.
Haynes nodded at the young man. „Let´s get some of the crates out of the cargo hold,“ he said. „If anyone comes to help us unloading and we want to decline, we´d better make it believable.“ He opened the hold and set to work. Rhun rolled up his sleeves and hurried to help him.
An hour later, they were entering Kwenn Casino, the major attraction of the station, if you were generous. There were mostly humans here, but Rhun saw some of the more humanoid races of the galaxy - Twi´leks, a Devaronian, and a few Rodians. They were keeping to themselves, though, and most of the humans in the room were staying well away from them.
Sergeant Haynes steered towards one of the tables that gave him a good view over the room and ordered drinks and a set of sabacc cards from a serving droid.
„I don´t play very well, Sir,“ Rhun warned the sergeant.
„You were with Dyson and he never taught you to play sabacc?“ the older man asked incredulously, then laughed.
Rhun grinned. „Maybe he did it on purpose so he didn´t lose to me. I certainly remember my first swallow of Corellian brandy.“
„Perhaps it was, but after I´d spit it halfway through the cabin, Dyson didn´t talk to me for the rest of the day.“
Haynes shook his head. „How old were you?“
„Sixteen. But I still prefer...“ Rhun let his voice trail off as he watched someone enter the casino. It was a Twi´lek female wearing a dark violet gown and a matching cap covering her head tails, or lekku, who walked over to a music box, inserting a credit chip. Seconds later, the sounds of Annadale Fayde´s Meet me in my Heart filled the room. Rhun didn´t like the
balladeer´s music all too much, preferring bands like Deeply Religious or Red Shift Limit, but apart from the fact that he wasn´t likely to hear either of those on an Imperial space station, that was beside the point. This was their contact.
He shot a surreptious glance at Haynes. „I´ll do this.“ The sergeant nodded. „Fine. But in the future, finish your sentences. If your contact is not a beautiful female, people might get suspicious.“
Rhun nodded. He waited until the song was over and the next one was well underway - this was part of the routine - then went over to the Twi´lek´s table. „Nobody as beautiful as you should sit here all alone,“ he said, hoping he didn´t blush, at the same time wondering who had come up with these idiotic words for identification. „Can I buy you something?“
She eyed him levelly. „Not unless you are prepared to lose a lot of credits,“ she replied, and he sat down. Exactly the right words.
When he hesitated, wondering how to handle the next step, she leaned forward, smiling. „Your first time, handsome?“
It suddenly occurred to him that this might all be a misunderstanding, and the whole choice of words had obviously been designed for just that, and he wondered vaguely if the Alliance ever sent any female agents to Kwenn. He was saved from further embarrassing moments when she leaned in even closer. „We have a problem. Blissex hasn´t reported to me, and I haven´t managed to find out where he or his guards are. They´re obviously here on the station, but they´ve been keeping a very low profile, for fear of Imperial agents. I haven´t been here exactly as often as I´d planned, so they probably missed me when they arrived.“ She took a sip from the glass in front of her. „I had a message from Resolve yesterday. It´s still coded, but I bet you can remedy that, can´t you?“ Something touched his leg under the table, and when he reached down, he found that it was a data disc. Next time around, he decided, he would leave these things to the Sarge. He slipped the disc into his pocket. „Ah- thanks, Ma´am,“ he said as he got to his feet. She grinned and bared pointed teeth as she leaned back into her seat and crossed her arms over her chest. „Sure you´re not going to buy me a drink?“ she asked. „We could extend that a little... that´ll only cost you a little extra.“
This time, Rhun was certain he blushed beet-red. „Maybe another time, Ma´am,“ he got out, then quickly made his way back to Sergeant Haynes. The older man was grinning from ear to ear. „You´ve certainly got a way with women,“ he observed, and Rhun glared at him.
„We need to get back to the ship,“ he said quietly. „Blissex is here, but she doesn´t know where. And I need access to a computer. A good one, I might add.“
Haynes finished his drink - Rhun´s, actually, since he hadn´t been there to claim it - and led the way out of the casino, paying with his credit chip at the exit.
„How good?“ he asked.
„1100 or faster. I don´t think I can decode this thing with a datapad.“
Haynes nodded. „Okay. I´ll see what I can do.“
Samica performed the preflight checks on the shuttle with care, since it was not her vehicle of choice. In fact, she hadn´t flown one the things for half a standard year, and she had begun to wonder where Captain Kolaff was heading where she was concerned. Since Hide´s execution, she hadn´t gone anywhere without at least one of the COMPNOR goons on her heels, but she hadn´t been questioned either. She could make sense of that, at least, since the Captain had to check anyone who had been in close contact with Hide, and she hadn´t given him any reason to susoect that she was a rebel spy.
A week ago, she would have snorted at the very thought, but now, it was different. Hide was the only rebel she´d ever met - if he had indeed been one, which a part of her still tried to deny - and she´d expected them to be below smugglers, as fanatic as any COMP, but with even less discipline.
She returned her attention to the task before her. No good thinking about Hide now. She´d told herself that so often in the past few days that she had almost come to believe it.
What she couldn´t understand was the way Kolaff was shifting her around. She´d done watch duty in the hangar, something you normally didn´t have to do when you were past the rank of flight officer, and the next day, Commander Norden had told her to devise a sim run for the entire squadron. That was something she´d never done before, and she hadn´t done particularly well. The ideas had been there, but there were a lot of glitches in the programme, and she could tell Norden hadn´t been impressed.
Now she had been given the order to shuttle a squad of stormtroopers over to Kwenn. They´d reached the station earlier today, and it had become apparent that the strike against the rebels was to take place here. The general and the woman - who, as Samica had finally learned, was an engineer - had been taken to Kwenn earlier that day, to capture some rebel, it seemed. Now Kolaff had decided to bring in reinforcements, in case they were met with stronger resistance. Samica suspected it had to do with Hide. If he´d been a rebel spy, it was possible the rebels knew about their plans and had acted to prevent them. She would have felt a lot more comfortable with the situation in a TIE fighter cockpit instead of the armoured, but slow Lambda-class shuttle, but there was no arguing with orders.
She keyed the intercom switch to open the link to the small passenger compartment in the shuttle´s aft, then addressed flight control.
„This is shuttle Canvenum, ready for takeoff.“
„You have clearance, Canvenum.“
She piloted the shuttle out of the hangar, the stabilizer foils unfolding when the craft entered space. Leaving the wedge of Resolve behind, Samica steered towards Kwenn.
„Bad news, kid.“ Sergeant Haynes entered the freighter´s cockpit where Rhun was trying to decode the message using the portable MicroThrust computer Haynes had scrounged up from some unnamed source. „I´ve talked to some freighter captains here, and they say an Imperial general and a woman entered the station a couple of hours ago. That would have been Lira.“
„Have they seen Blissex?“
„These particular lot haven´t, but that doesn´t mean anything. I don´t even know if the Imps are still on Kwenn. And there is another shuttle coming in from the Star Destroyer.“ He scratched his beard. „How are you getting on?“
„Almost got it, Sarge. The data´s been coded twice. Our man aboard Resolve wanted to be certain, it seems. One code is one I´ve seen a couple of weeks ago, so that was not the problem, but the other...“ Rhun typed in a command. „Come on, son-of-a... Got it!“ He scanned the message quickly, and his eyes widened. „Damn,“ he whispered.
Haynes bent over him to read over his shoulder. „What is it?“ he asked.
„Busted vacsuit,“ Rhun murmured, using the intel slang expression for blown cover.
The message read: operation flotsam is underway + general and blissex daughter coming aboard tomorrow + next stoprelgim sector provbably gherro + i seem to have tipped off kolaff + potential defector on resolvelt trey human female from coruscant around 20tiepilotbrownhairb rown e
„That´s it?“ Haynes asked.
„That´s it. He got the message out, but there´s not even a date or anything. My guess is he was surprised while he was typing it.“ He swallowed. „Do you think he´s still alive?“
Haynes didn´t answer. He picked up the screen and read the message again. „Relgim,“ he said. „if we could get a message off to Sector Command, they´d be very happy to know this.“ He scratched his beard again, thinking. „This is what we do, Rhun. I´ll see if I can bribe someone to get this message on to the Alliance. You go back to the casino and try to find out if Blissex is still here; if he is, find out where, and try to find out what that other shuttle is doing here. If Blissex is not here anymore, it may be our only chance to get aboard that Star Destroyer.“
He´d said, „our chance,“ but Rhun didn´t even notice. „That Trey... d´you think she will help us?“
„That´s the problem with potential defectors, sonny,“ Haynes sighed. „She might not even know she is. She might not even suspect.“
„Well, but she must have her doubts, or Hide wouldn´t have mentioned her.“
„That´s what I hope.“ Haynes checked his chrono. „I´ll meet you here again in 45 minutes. That´s all the time we can spare right now, I´m afraid.“ He took the decoded data disc and headed off for the ramp.
Rhun took a deep breath and left the ship as well, after carefully erasing the message from the portable´s memory files. When he was about to leave the docking bay, he saw a mechanic´s coverall hanging from a hook in the wall.
Rhun grinned. At least this part was going to be easy.
During the next half hour, Rhun learned that people noticed a mechanic about as little as they did a droid - or a food processor. Maintaining the appearance of a dedicated worker, he managed to overhear enough talk from freighter captains and fellow workers to get most of the information he needed, without having to ask any questions that might have aroused suspicion. Nice work, van Leuken. He began to feel a lot more confident about the mission again, and if the Sarge had gotten the message off, well, then at least the Alliance knew where they were and could send some help. He guessed this could have been a lot worse, considering how it had started.
He was back at the ship at the appointed time, and Haynes was only minutes late, carrying a box. „How did it go, kid?“ he asked.
„Blissex is still on the station, at least he was seen here by a couple of techs. They also say he was here with several people, so apparently his rebel guard detail is still with him. There´s no Imperial shuttle here anywhere, at least none I´ve seen, so the general and Lira must have come with a civilian craft. The other shuttle is due to arrive in -“ he glanced at his chrono „- fifteen minutes, but I couldn´t find out what its mission is. It´s going to use the military installations here, though, which reduces the number of possible landing bays to about a dozen, which are all in the same area.“ He leaned back, grinning.
Haynes gave him an acknowledging nod. „Good work, kid. Meanwhile, I´ve succeeded in notifying the Alliance of Resolve´s next stop... and in putting this together.“ He gestured towards the box he had brought in with him. „When nothing else can be done for Blissex... we´ll see to it that the Imps won´t get anything out of him... and that Resolve is not going anywhere anymore.“ Rhun swallowed, but didn´t say anything. Haynes inhaled deeply. „My guess is that the Imps are waiting for the second shuttle before they act, so we have fifteen minutes to find out where Blissex is. What do you think?“
Rhun considered. „If I tried to hide on a space station, I´d probably stay in my ship for most of the time and keep a low profile.“
„My thoughts entirely. Which leaves us with 89 docking bays - minus a dozen military installations, minus 25 because they are not all occupied.“
“Where do we start?“
„Fifty-two. That way, we can´t say, ‚we should have started looking at the end.‘“
The sergeant nodded and picked up the box. „Sixty-two it is. Let´s get going.“
„Kwenn Space Station.“
Samica punched a button, and the shuttle´s stabilizers folded upward, the landing gear unfolding. There was a slight thump as the shuttle set down, hydraulics hissing, then Samica opened the hatch. The door to the aft cargo room whooshed open, and the stormtrooper squad jogged out, their armoured feet clattering on the ramp. The sergeant, to be recognized by the orange patch over his left shoulder, ordered two of his people to stay with the shuttle, then led the remaining six out of the docking bay. Samica watched after them as they clattered down the corridor. Stormtroopers were not noted for subtlety but for the terror they were supposed to inspire in their enemies, and anyone hearing a squad of them in a trot was likely to think twice before putting up resistance.
She sat back in the pilot´s seat, ready to lift off again at a minute´s notice should things go bad. Not that she expected them to.
„We should have started looking at the front,“ Rhun murmured as he glanced at his chrono. 15.05 hours. The shuttle had to be here by now, and they had checked the first twenty docking bays, but had seen no sign of Blissex.
Sergeant Haynes shook his head. „We´ll proceed exactly as planned. If we start looking at the first docking bay now and Blissex is in the next bay...“ He let his voice trail off and listened. „Sithspit,“ he said. „In there!“ Quickly, he opened a maintenance hatch to their right and pushed Rhun into it, following on the younger man´s heel, pulling the hatch close behind them. They both stood frozen as they heard the unmistakable clatter of a stormtrooper division coming along the corridor.
„Boys in white,“ the sergeant murmured when the sound had turned a corner far away. „So that´s what the shuttle was carrying.“
Rhun listened at the hatch. „That´s shooting, Sarge.“
From some distance away, they heard blaster shots and several screams.
Rhun looked at his sergeant in dismay. „Shouldn´t we help them?“
Haynes scratched his beard, his expression grim. „We don´t know anything about what´s going on out there, kid. I don´t know about you, but they sounded like a lot to me just now.“ He finished his scratching and carefully opened the hatch. The corridor before them was clear. Rhun followed the sergeant out of the small compartment and closed it behind him. There was still shooting ahead of them.
„All right, we need to know what´s happening up there,“ he finally said. „If anyone asks, we´re just spacers looking for the cantina.“
They covered the first hundred meters in a near-run, then slowing down when they got to a small scattering of people standing in front of a block in the corridor. An Imperial officer stood at the block with several stormtroopers at his side. Behind him, Rhun could see more stormtroopers leading away a balding, middle-aged man who was looking around him in horror and protesting vehemently as he was herded into a waiting civilian yacht. On the floor lay the bodies of three men and a woman in civilian dress - Blissex´ Rebel guards. They were too late. By minutes, but too late.
Casting a sidelong glance at the Sarge for guidance, Rhun saw the older man´s jaw work. He knew what his superior was thinking. There was no way for them to get Blissex out of this the straightforward way.
Haynes turned and went back the way they´d come, stopping at the hatch where they´d hidden earlier. He then turned towards the young agent. „Listen, what we´ll do is this. There´s the other shuttle somewhere this way. We´ll hijack it and fly it back to the Star Destroyer. We should land there not long after Blissex and the others. We´ll dress up as Imps - there must be a pilot and at least one stormie left there -“
„Two,“ Rhun said. „There were seven at the yacht, no bodies, one sergeant. That´s a squad that arrived with the shuttle back there, nine in all.“
„Even better. We´ll draw out the stormies, put on their armour, and kidnap the pilot. When we´re in the hangar, we try to get Blissex out with us in the shuttle again before they realize who we are.“ He gave Rhun a long, searching look. „You still with me, kid?“
Rhun only nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He was not comfortable at all with Haynes „plan“ once they got aboard the Star Destroyer, but they´d have about half an hour on the shuttle in which to come up with something more refined.
Sergeant Haynes drew his blaster and set it for stun. No good dressing up as stormtroopers with smoking holes in their armour. Rhun followed his example, and the two Rebel agents headed down the corridor.
Rhun and Haynes drew up before docking bay 3b, just as they had done in front of the last three military bays, and Rhun peered in. Quickly, he drew back again, holding up three fingers. The sergeant nodded at him, and without a sound, they crept back into the corridor and took position around the next bend, next to another maintenance hatch. The Sarge motioned for him to start their little charade. Rhun stuck his head around the corner and screamed, „Hey, we could use a little help here!“ He heard Haynes fire into the walls a couple of times, then went down on one knee and waited for a few seconds before continuing, „My com´s damaged, I don´t read you!“
Seconds later, two white-armoured stormtroopers rounded the bend. They never knew what hit them as blue stun bolts slammed into them and they dropped, boneless. One of them managed to get off a shot, but it was done out of a reflex rather than aimed at anything, and the red energy bolt whined past Rhun´s head by two meters.
„Quick!“ Haynes hissed, and they hurried to rid the stormtroopers of their armour and put them into the compartment. It seemed the sergeant had done this before, but Rhun was not much slower, since it ran in the family, if you could put it that way. Still, it seemed to Rhun an eternity before they put on the last pieces - breast plate and helmet - and when he was about to reach for the heavy blaster rifle, his blood ran cold as someone called, „Don´t move!“
Rhun froze, slowly straightening, the blaster rifle at his feet. It could as well have been in the Colonies for all the good it was going to do him down there. Sergeant Haynes had been surprised as well, and both of them turned to look at their captor.
It was a lean officer in an Imperial lieutenant´s uniform, only slightly shorter than Rhun. The Imp looked terribly young, and it took him several seconds to realize that he was looking at a woman. She had short brown hair and brown eyes that looked almost too large for her face, but maybe that was because she was just as surprised as they were. Not all that bad-looking either, a part of him registered, while another remembered the description of the potential defector Hide had mentioned. What had been the name - Trey?
The lieutenant kept her blaster trained on him. „What is going on here?“ she asked, her voice commanding, and Rhun adjusted his estimation of her age a little.
Haynes answered for them. „There were rebels in the hall, Lieutenant. At least that´s what we thought, but they seem to have escaped us.“
She looked at them measuringly. „Identify yourselves.“
Rhun fought down the panic rising in his gut and forced himself to think. He had no idea whether stormtrooper identification numbers worked the same way everywhere in the Empire. Well, this is where we´ll find out.
„R-6580 and R-6581, Ma´am.“ Certainly she couldn´t know every stormie designation aboard the ship. „Fourth squadron, second platoon, second company.“ Rhun wondered if there was more than one battalion aboard a Victory-class Star Destroyer, but with luck, she wouldn´t notice about those details.
„The others have already left with Blissex on the yacht, Lieutenant,“ Haynes added.
Her expression wavered for a second, puzzlement crossing her face, and her eyes narrowed. „Very well,“ she finally said. „Get back to the shuttle.“
„Aye, Ma´am,“ Rhun replied, and he and Haynes picked up the box and carried it towards the ship. He still didn´t know whether she´d bought their story or not, but the fact that she let them enter the shuttle with her was a good indication she did... or wasn´t it?
He decided to do whatever Haynes did, following the sergeant to the waiting Lambda-class shuttle. They entered the ship, and the lieutenant waited until they had gone through into the passenger compartment, then the hatch closed before they had the chance to think.
Rhun sat on one of the benches along the bulkhead and took off his helmet, then he turned to look at the Sarge, who was also taking off his. „Trey?“ he whispered. He didn´t know if she could hear them back here, but he´d better not take any chances.
„Looks like it,“ Haynes whispered back. „She matches the description. Maybe with her help, we can get Blissex out.“
Rhun did not speak his next thought aloud - if she didn´t help them, at least they would get the bomb aboard.
Half an hour later, the door opened, and Rhun jerked upright. They had agreed they would try to overpower her after all, rather than rely on the vague hope that she might be on her side, and had waited for the dying of the engines for a signal. They were still running, though, and the lieutenant was standing in the hatch, a blaster in her hand. She must have set the ship down so smoothly there hadn´t been any vibration at all and then left the engine running to catch them off guard.
And she had succeeded. What was worse, they hadn´t even had the chance to put their helmets back on again. And stormtroopers were most definetely not allowed to have a beard like the Sarge´s.
„Hands over your heads,“ she said, not letting them out of their sight. „Get out, both of you.“
Rhun glanced at Haynes for help, but this time, the sergeant only shook his head slightly and slowly got to his feet, hands raised over his head. „You as well,“ she said to Rhun. Biting his lip, he stood, forcing himself not to look down at the box again. They had programmed the bomb to go off in six hours. If they hadn´t brought the situation under control by then, they´d figured, it would be too late anyway.
She watched them closely as they left the shuttle. A whole squad of stormtroopers awaited them at the ramp, and if there had been any doubt that their game was over, it had gone now. Looking around in the largest hangar Rhun had ever seen, he found that the yacht was not even here. He hadn´t known a Star Destroyer had more than one non-starfighter hangar.
With nine blaster rifles pointed at them, there was no chance of putting up resistance. A Navy trooper handcuffed them, and another motioned for them to be taken away. The female lieutenant had left the shuttle as well, now standing at one side of the craft, her face expressionless.
„I´m sorry, kid,“ he heard the sergeant murmur when the stormtroopers marched them towards the exit.
Rhun shook his head. „Not your fault, Sarge,“ he said, his voice husky. „Next time around, we´ll just pay more attention to the stormies´ identification numbers.“
„And you´ll address an Imperial officer as ‚Sir‘,“ the woman said from behind him. Rhun turned his head to look at her, but he couldn´t detect anything in that face, not triumph, not satisfaction, not sympathy. One of the stormtroopers jammed his rifle into his back. „Move it!“
Rhun obeyed, following their guards into the turbolift at the end of the hangar. Neither he nor the sergeant said anything else during the long walk through the Star Destroyer. When they finally came to a series of small guard rooms with cell rows leading from them, and the Navy trooper who had led the way opened two of them, Rhun felt his heart sink even further. They were going to be separated.
The stormtrooper behind him roughly pushed him forward, and Rhun rather fell than walked into the tiny cell. Before he had the time to get his bearings again or turn around, the blast door slammed shut behind him with a finality that made his guts go cold, and left him in semidarkness.
Rhun slumped down against the bulkhead, drew up his knees and rested his forehead on them. All he could think of was that, six hours from now, the bomb would detonate, and he wondered if he should hope someone found it first. If nobody did, he could only hope they wouldn´t interrogate him before it blew. It wouldn´t matter for the Alliance, but it did matter to him. He´d heard about interrogation in Imperial prisons, and, frankly, he was scared to death. That damn transmitter. If it hadn´t blown the Starbound´s instruments to hell, they wouldn´t have lost all that time, they would have reached Kwenn in time, could just have picked up Blissex and been gone.
Samica went back to her quarters, still not sure what today´s events would mean. She´d just captured two rebels, single-handedly, at that. Surely now Kolaff wouldn´t need any further proof from her as to where her loyalties lay. She shook her head mentally as she remembered the whole incident. If the younger of the two hadn´t called her „Ma´am,“ maybe she would actually have believed them. She´d been nothing if not confused, but she had handled the situation well enough, and certainly Kolaff had to see that.
She´d just pulled off her boots when she remembered the box.
With a muffled oath, she jumped up, hastily pulling on her boots again, then remembering that using her comlink would be considerably faster. Quickly, she thumbed on her com.
„This is Lieutenant Trey, give me someone in hangar 3a!“
There was a pause that seemed to last forever, then: „Hangar 3a, Flight Officer Vatku spea...“
She didn´t let him finish his sentence. „Officer, Trey here. I have reason to assume there´s an explosive charge aboard Convenum. Check that at once!“
„An explosive charge?“ he answered, confused. „Who´s that talking?“
„Lieutenant Trey, StarCom, and if you don´t want this ship to blow up, I strongly suggest you do something now!“
That seemed to jar him into action, for there was a crackle in the line, and he was gone.
Samica sat back down on the bed for a few seconds, then got up again, finished putting on her boots, and went out, taking the turbolift into the hangar. When she reached the hangar level, flashlights winking red in the corridors told her that the area was on alert. A squad of detonite specialists ran past her, and she saw the entire hangar area was being sealed. She didn´t know how effective these measures would be against the bomb the rebels had brought aboard, but if the thing hadn´t detonated so far, there was a good chance the explosives specialists would disarm it before it could.
She went back to the mess, which was on the same level, where more people than usual had assembled. Several minutes later, the flashlights stopped, and there was an announcement over intercom that a bomb found in hangar 3a had been successfully disarmed. Samica took a deep breath. It was not very likely that the Captain would praise her valour in a meeting in the briefing hall, but sat least she knew she´d already done two things right today.
„Not bad, Trey,“ she heard someone behind her and managed not to jump. Commander Norden. „Quite good, actually. Maybe you should ask for transfer into Intelligence.“ He chuckled and walked away, leaving her to wonder if that had been the closest he could come to a compliment... or if he was picking on her again.
„Hey, congratulations, Sir.“ Samica turned and saw Officer Caller at the entrance, bobbing his head in a salute, which she acknowledged absent-mindedly. „Well done.“ His sincereness cheered her up a little, and she gave him a half-smile. „Thanks, Caller.“
She nodded at him once again as she made for the exit. While she walked back to her quarters, she realized that, for the first time in days, there was not a single COMP in sight. It appeared that she had finally managed to win, if not Kolaff´s respect, at least his acceptance.
Now if she could only figure out why she was feeling like crying.
Rhun had lost any sense of time. The only thing that he was certain of was that more than six hours had passed, and he did not want to think about what that meant.
Twice since they had locked him up here, a platter had been stuck through a small slit in the door, but he hadn´t seen anyone for he didn´t know how long. The first time, he hadn´t touched the food, knowing he wouldn´t be able to eat anyway, but the second time, he had been hungry enough to try it. Ironically enough, he´d found that it was better than his last breakfast aboard Liberty. Thinking about the Rebel outpost didn´t help, and he had tried to think of something completely different, had tried to call back to his memory song lyrics or poems he had once known, then gone over to remembering line-ups of smashball teams whose matches he´d followed four years ago. He did all the sorts of things he had learned in Intel briefings and which he had hoped he would never need, trying to keep his mind occupied in order to cling to sanity. It was getting harder and harder as the hours went by.
He had not heard anything from the Sarge; no sound at all had managed to come through to him. He wondered if they were holding Blissex anywhere near. It didn´t mean anything, he supposed, but he wished he could have talked to someone before they came for him. Doubtlessly, the Imps knew that as well. He wondered how much longer they´d give him. He didn´t even know whether he should hope he´d get it over and done with now or be given some more time. They wouldn´t get all that much out of him, he couldn´t give them any coordinates, and he didn´t know about any other secret operations the Alliance had planned at the moment. That might be good for the Alliance, but he didn´t dare think about what they´d do to him if they didn´t believe him. They´d know if he made things up, which might be even worse.
The door opened, and Rhun squinted against the light, his blood running cold as he saw two stormtroopers standing in the doorway. They reached down and pulled him to his feet without saying a word, leading him out of the cell. Poggler and Travers in the defense, number one and two - Taxon, number three, the Captain, Cude, number four. He´d made fourteen home-runs in that season. Number five, Singh; Myrdal and Frenji, six and seven. Eight and ten, the Kissem brothers, Elrot and Arn.
Rhun wouldn´t let himself think of anything else.
Lieutenant Bern Shelley stretched for the umpteenth time in the past hour and took another sip from the cup of caf at his elbow. Amazing the stuff hadn´t already dissolved the cup. The last hour of a shift was always the worst; after you´d gone through strings of data for three hours, you couldn´t get your eyes to focus on anything anymore. And most of the data reaching him was about as interesting as listening to a Gamorrean trying to tell a joke. Routine reports with the obligatory but horribly boring „everything as always“, the shopping list of some moff´s daughter somewhere in the outermiddleofnowhere system, complaints about too few resources and spare parts from hidden Rebel bases all over the galaxy. Join the Empire, idiots, and you´ll get all the resources you want, Shelley thought with a glance at his chrono. Twenty-five minutes until Lieutenant Hilgard relieved him. He was certain the expression of relieving someone had been coined on an Intentions base somewhere, maybe a hollow asteroid like this one, ten hours by hyperdrive Class One from anywhere, by somebody with more caf than blood in his system. Maybe I should have joined the Empire, but I bet they´ve got an Intentions branch as well. Poor souls. If they are anything like us, the war could be settled with the promise of a more exciting job, and everybody would be happy. No need to shoot at one another anymore. Now wouldn´t that be nice.
The lieutenant´s inner monologue was interrupted by a red light flashing on his screen, indicating an incoming Priority One message. Shelley´s eyes widened as the short note scrolled over the screen, then he hurried to get it on to Relgim Sector Command. You didn´t get a Star Destroyer presented to you on a silver platter exactly every day.
Samica returned from a simulator run tired and exhausted, wanting nothing so much as a shower and a good night´s sleep. At least with Resolve in hyperspace, there were no patrols, but Kolaff and Norden still had their ways of running her ragged. Now, though, she was looking forward to eight luxurious hours without any duties, in which she would catch up on some rest. She could get by on six hours of sleep for a quite while, and had been grateful for it in the previous weeks, but she had enough for the moment.
She had just removed her left boot when a lamp on her com terminal lit up. Incoming message. For a split second, she considered to pretend that she hadn´t seen it, but her sense of duty won, and she called it up. The message was from Captain Kolaff. She scanned it, stopped short, read it again, and then once again.
Utterly confused, she sent back a request for confirmation, which came immediately, with several unfriendly words from Kolaff about orders and her having to obey them. She got up, put her boot back on, and stood in the middle of the small cabin for a few seconds, trying to make any sense of this. Who the hell would ever consider sending a nineteen-year-old starfighter pilot who had never had anything to do with Intel in her entire life down into the detention block to interrogate a rebel prisoner?! She was StarCom, for heaven´s sake! There were lots of people aboard this ship who´d been trained to do this very thing! She´d come to suspect that Kolaff was a complacent megalo-maniac, but she hadn´t realized the man was absolutely bonkers!
She couldn´t refuse to obey, either. Her explanation might hold in any court martial in the Empire, but Kolaff wasn´t going to let her live long enough to face one of them, she was sure. She had no choice but playing his insane game, no matter how furious it made her. And right now, she was starting to become really furious.
Fuming, she stalked out of her room, towards the turbolift that would take her down to the detention level. If she was going to make a complete fool of herself, she might just as well have done with it as soon as possible.
The detention block was a long-stretching complex with less illumination than the rest of the ship, doubtlessly to conjure up even more fears in its occupants than their situation had done already. There were Navy troopers on guard in each of the sections connecting the rows of cells, and they saluted when she passed them, so they had obviously been notified.
Samica stopped in the control room to detention block 241. The Navy trooper saluted. „Sir?“
„I´ve been sent to interrogate the prisoner.“
The trooper nodded. „Yes, Sir. He has already been taken to interrogation room 241A. This way, Sir.“ He indicated a corridor ending in a heavy blast door. She nodded her thanks and walked up to the door, inserting the code cylinder she carried in her breast pocket, and the door whooshed open.
The little room was bleak, the only furnishing being a glow panel in the ceiling and a chair in the centre of the chamber. A stormtrooper stood watch by the door, saluting as she entered.
On the chair sat the younger of the two rebels she´d captured. He was staring at the floor in front of him and did not react as she stood before him. He was tallish, with a slight build, short blod hair and light brown puppy eyes. He looked rather unremarkable, but that was probably true for any spy who hoped to pass unnoticed anywhere. Plastisteel restraints around his wrists, ankles and chest tied him to the chair.
There was something else in the cell - a shiny black sphere about forty centimeters in diameter floating just above the young man´s head, whirring on repulsors. An interrogator droid, whose task it was to monitor the prisoner´s physical condition, administer truth drugs or stimulants, detect any indications that the subject was lying and record confessions. Rebel propaganda also had it that they could be used for torture, but Samica knew that was against the law.
Her anger at Kolaff was replaced by rising helplessness with the situation. She didn´t know how to lead an interrogation, and she didn´t want to know.
The rebel finally looked up at her, and she saw a hint of hope creep into the anxiety on his face. She set her jaw. He probably thought that a woman would be kinder to him than a male interrogator, but she wasn´t going to give him that. He might not look like it, but he was still a terrorist, and it was her task to determine the degree of his guilt.
„You have been captured trying to infiltrate an Imperial vessel, and you have tried to smuggle a bomb aboard, which, if it had detonated, would have killed over four thousand people.“
He raised his head. „Tell me something I don´t know,“ he said.
She threw him a sharp look. „What´s your name?“
He turned away and didn´t answer.
„We can do this the easy way or the hard way, but you are going to talk to me.“
„If you say so,“ was the reply.
She motioned to the interrogator droid. „Truth serum,“ she said, hoping that the droid would understand the order. She was relieved to see it did, hovering towards the rebel, injector extending. He flinched, but with the restraints holding him in place, he could not get far. The droid administered the drug to the man´s neck, then retreated again to its position a meter away.
Samica waited a minute for the serum to take effect. The rebel´s face contorted, and he fixed his stare again at the floor before him. She noted that his pupils were dilating fast.
„Where is the base your operation started from?“ she asked.
He struggled hard, then said, „Space.“
She leaned in closer, making him look at her. „Which sector?“
This time, he managed to resist slightly longer, but finally he couldn´t hold the word back. „Suolriep.“
Samica gestured at the droid again. „Another dose. Tell me when he´s at the limit.“
The droid whirred towards the young man again, and he squeezed his eyes shut.
After a pause, she repeated her question. „In which system is your rebel base located?“
„Not a system,“ he panted. „Just space.“
„But near a system, certainly. Which one?“
He shook his head vehemently, and she looked at the droid again. „Can he take another dose?“
The rebel moaned, but on the droid´s communications display, she read, „Affirmative.“
The droid moved in again, administering a third dose, and this time the prisoner slumped down in his seat and passed out.
„What´s this?“ Samica asked sharply. „He was supposed to be able to take another shot!“
„You didn´t specify you wanted him conscious,“ the droid answered.
Droids! Samica thought, exasperated. „Can you bring him to again?“ she asked.
Again, the interrogator droid gave the rebel an injection. He groaned as he regained
consciousness, his eyes all pupils, with no brown left in them. He was mumbling something that sounded like, „Number six, Myrdal, number seven, Frenji“.
„What´s that supposed to be, a star system?“ she demanded.
He raised his head with some effort. „Hey, you´re still here, Lieutenant?“ he slurred.
Samica folded her arms across her chest. „I´ve just asked you a question. Was that coordinates or something?“
His mouth twisted in a grimace that might have been a grin. „No. Left midfield of the Coronet Sand Panthers in ´45 season. You ever watch smashball, Ma´am?“
She took a step towards him, and he flinched. „Now listen, rebel, I think I´ve been very lenient thus far, but if you insist, I can just as w- “
Samica broke off when suddenly the ship lurched. She´d felt the engine sound change as it had left hyperspace, but the shudder that now ran through the giant vessel was nothing she had ever felt before. Just as she straightened again, looking about the room as if it might yield an answer, there was another tremor shaking the Star Destroyer, and she barely managed to stay on her feet. The stormtrooper had not been so lucky; he had lost his footing in a clatter of plastisteel armour, hurrying to get up again.
„Go out and find out what´s happening out there,“ Samica ordered the trooper. The man hesitated. „Sir, I´ve been ordered to watch the prisoner,“ he said.
„And I am ordering you to leave,“ she said. For a moment, she was afraid that he might refuse, but then he went out.
Samica returned her attention to the prisoner. The young man had cocked his head to one side and was watching her.
„Are you Lieutenant Trey?“ he finally asked. „The one Hide mentioned?“
She whirled to face him, staring at him in disbelief. „Hide?“ she asked.
„Yeah... Hide mentioned a woman who was likely to defect, Trey... you are a woman, aren´t you?“
She was hardly listening anymore. At last, here was everything falling into place. Hide had hoped to make her defect, so he´d spent that much time with her, trying to sound out how she felt about everything, and he´d expected her to disobey Kolaff´s order to shoot at Bunny, the way he had done. He´d trusted her, and she´d failed him. Had failed him twice, the first time when she destroyed the freighter and the second time when she watched his murder.
You could push even an Imperial officer only so far.
She was sick of being pushed.
She was not going to fail him again.
Before she had any opportunity to rethink the decision she´d just made, she took her code cylinder from her pocket, and knelt down before the chair. The restraints opened, and she took a step back from the young rebel, drawing her blaster and crossing over to the door. Just when she had inserted her code cylinder to open it, there was an explosion somewhere entirely too close to be comfortable, and she was flung against the bulkhead. When she got her bearings again, the lights went out.
There was no doubt now that the ship was being attacked. She had absolutely no idea who´d do such a foolish thing (though not too unsuccessfully, it seemed), but if she was going to get him out of here, that might just be to their advantage. The emergency lighting sprung to life.
„What - what are you doing?“ the rebel asked in utter confusion.
„Freeing you,“ she answered, matter-of-factly.
He was staring at her. „You´re letting me go?“
„We need to get out of here quickly,“ Samica replied, and she took a quick look outside. Then she remembered the sorry state he´d been in - something else she should not have done, and was determined never to do again - and came back. He was still sitting in the chair, too surprised to do anything.
„Can you walk?“ she asked.
„I... guess.“ There was more suspicion than astonishment in his face now. She couldn´t blame him.
„Listen,“ she said to him, „ -what´s your name?“
He eyed her cautiously, then obviously decided he couldn´t do any harm by telling her. „Van Leuken,“ he grumbled. „Rhun van Leuken.“
She nodded. „Listen, van Leuken, I know you don´t have any reason to trust me right now, and if it were the other way round, I probably wouldn´t trust you either, but your choices are either to trust me and maybe get out, or stay here and certainly be killed. Your choice. But hurry.“
He studied her face for a few beats in the ruddy emergency light, then, finally, he nodded. „All right,“ he said. „Lead the way. I´ll manage. But I´m not leaving without the Sarge and Blissex, if they´re still alive.“
„Blissex?“ Samica repeated. „You mean the engineer who designed the VSD,? He´s here?“
He frowned. „You didn´t know?“
„I am only a pilot,“ she replied bitterly.
Van Leuken gingerly got up from the chair. „You help me get them out?“ he asked.
Samica hesitated. That would cost them time, but it was also the only chance she could see how she could prove that she meant it.
„Yes,“ she said. „There´s a guard room outside. I can find out where they are held.“ She holstered her blaster again. „Wait here.“ Then she was gone.
Rhun tried to get his drug-muddled mind to think. Damn, all this made no sense. Granted, Trey had been a lot more decent than he had dared to expect any interrogator would be, but this was just insane. He had the feeling that it had to do with the name Hide somehow, but he couldn´t begin to figure out why. The splitting pain in his temples didn´t help, either. He knew he should probably just send her to hell, rather than let her catch him off guard and make him talk about things he should have kept secret, but as much as he tried to get himself to see that, logically, it was sheer madness to trust her, his gut feeling told him something different. He was a man who went on first impressions, mainly because he´d found that he could trust his feelings, and right from the start, his impression had been that she was a person who kept her word. That, he reflected, did make sense, for if you had just a shred of honour left inside you, you just couldn´t be an Imperial.
He made a few careful steps towards the exit. His knees still felt like pudding, but he hoped that would pass in a few minutes. He also wished he had a weapon, but on a Star Destroyer, he supposed that he was likely to find one very soon. He didn´t have the slightest idea what Trey had planned - if she´d planned anything - but right now, everything was better than doing nothing.
Samica returned to the interrogation room several minutes later. She had found the guard room empty, probably because the trooper on duty there had left to get help - against regulations, but that was fine with her right now. She had also found a glow rod, just in case the emergency lights failed as well. She tried not to think about any implications to her actions; she might just as well worry about that later.
Rhun had half-hid behind the chair and relaxed visibly as he saw it was her. „Did you get the data?“ he asked.
She held up a datapad. „Yes, the computer over there was running on backup. Your sergeant is in cell 241.45, Blissex in 241.13.“
„You know where that is?“
„Yes. I´ve got a layout here.“
Rhun eyed her cautiously. „I need a weapon of some sort.“
„We have to pass by another guard room on the way to Blissex´ cell,“ Samica replied. „I´ll see what we can do.“ She was not very thrilled at the thought of having him behind her with a blaster rifle, but that could hardly be helped.
„Lead the way,“ Rhun said, and she nodded, turning the corner into the detention block corridor. Just as they had left the interrogation room, another explosion rocked the ship, this one violent enough to knock them both off their feet. The emergency lights flickered and went out.
Samica brought out her glow rod. „Are you hurt?“
Rhun got back to his feet a little shakily. „I´m all right. I just wish I could think a little more clearly.“ He shot her an accusing look.
Samica did not answer. He was right, of course, but they had more important things to do.
She came to a halt in front of the guard room opening and peered inside. „All clear,“ she said as she went in. Rhun followed. The beam of her lamp illuminated a console with several dead surveillance screens, a vacated seat in front and an equipment locker on the side.
Rhun frowned. „Where is everybody?“
She shook her head. „I have got no idea. We had better hurry.“
Rhun grinned, and she looked at him quizzically. „What?“
„Your accent. I thought that was one that existed only in the Holonews from Coruscant. I never thought people actually talk that way.“
„Well, you sound like someone from a swashbuckler holo.“ She found the door to the equipment cache was locked and did not open with her code cylinder. „Help me with this door, will you?“
Together, they managed to break the door open, and Rhun took out a heavy blaster rifle, some spare power packs and another glow rod. „One or two of these might come in handy,“ he mused as he packed a medpak as well.
„You know how to use those?“ Samica asked when she saw what he was doing.
He grinned and saluted, Rebel-style, touching the fingers of his right hand to his forehead. „Yes, Sir. Trained as field medic, Sir.“
She nodded at him, something like respect tinging her voice when she said, „Very well. Let´s see if we can get the other two out.“ She finished securing her datapad on her belt and whirled when she heard footsteps coming towards them. Rhun was bringing up his blaster rifle, but she shook her head. „Let me handle this.“ She straightened her uniform. „Hide behind the console, quick!“
Reluctantly, Rhun knelt behind the surveillance screens. „No funny business,“ he warned her.
She nodded. Two stormtroopers entered the room and stopped when they saw her. „Sir,“ one of them said.
Samica folded her hands behind her back. „Where is the officer normally on duty here?“ she demanded.
„Sir, we don´t know, Sir. We were sent to look for atmosphere leaks in the detention block.“
„Well, there are none here. And there is none on the left either - I came from there, looking for someone left here.“ She paused. „What´s happening out there, anyway?“
„The ship´s under attack, Sir, but the damage is minimal.“
Yes, I can see that, Samica thought sardonically. But if that´s what you want to think, go right ahead. „I suggest you go look for the guards and tell them I need them in block 243.“
„Aye, Sir,“ one of the two replied, and they left the guard room.
Rhun emerged from his hiding place. „Not bad,“ he said, acknowledging. „Now, where is Blissex?“
„This way,“ Samica replied, leading him out in the corridor again. Before cell 241.13, she stopped and tried her code cylinder. But the door was not powered and did not have a backup, not moving at all.
„I´ve got an idea,“ Rhun said, kneeling down by the electronic panel and bringing out one of the power packs he´d taken from the guard room locker. He carefully pried open the plastisteel casing and took out the power cell. Not knowing what to do with the casing, he put it between his teeth.
She looked over his shoulder. „What are you doing?“
„Being creative,“ he mumbled around the plastisteel in his mouth. „Ah, hold this, will ya?“ He held out the casing, and she took it.
„Learned this from one of the freaks in Equipment,“ he explained while he linked the power cell into the control panel. „Being creative, I mean.“ He sat back from his handiwork. „Try your cylinder again,“ he said.
She complied, and to her amazement, the door slid open. She didn´t have the slightest idea what exactly he had done, but it had worked.
Rhun looked inside the cell. „Doctor?“ he asked. „Doctor Blissex?“
Samica lit the cell with her glow rod, and they both saw an unmoving form leaning against the bulkhead.
„Oh, no,“ Rhun said and was at the engineer´s side with one leap.
Samica followed closely behind. „What is it?“ she asked, concern in her voice.
Rhun brought out his medpak. „I think they interrogated him a bit more thoroughly than you did me,“ he murmured, scanning the scientist. Then he heaved a sigh of relief. „Just passed out from exhaustion,“ he said. „Not a good prerequisite for getting out of here, but I guess a stim shot should take care of him.“ He suited action to words and administered the drug. Blissex gave a feeble moan, and Rhun shook the old man gently.
„Doctor, we need to get out of here. I´m from the Alliance. We´ll help you escape. My name´s van Leuken, and that´s Lieutenant Trey. She doesn´t look very much like a Rebel right now, but I think we can trust her.“
The engineer got his eyes to focus on his rescuers and made a face at the light in Samica´s hand.
„From the Alliance, you say?“ he croaked.
„Yes, and we need to hurry. This ship´s being attacked, which might give us a chance to escape, but there are still guards around here.“ Rhun extended his hand to him to help him up. Even so, he had to support the old man, who was still shaky. At least Rhun felt his own strength returning after his ordeal, so there was hope Blissex would recover in the near future as well.
„All right,“ Rhun told Samica. „The Sarge.“ The lieutenant nodded, and the three of them went to the next row of cells. Rhun helped Blissex to sit down briefly by the door, then knelt before the control panel to repeat his trick. Samica watched him intently. She knew how to fly a ship, and she could perform most standard repairs, but apart from that, her technical knowledge was restricted to the use of things she had to use - and always for the purpose they had been constructed for. She wondered who would think of using a blaster power pack to bring a damaged control panel back online.
Rhun nodded to her when he was finished. She inserted her code cylinder and typed in her code, and the door began to move - about two centimeters, then metal screeched on metal, and the door came to a sparking halt.
„Sithspit,“ Rhun hissed as he shook it, but it would not move any further.
There was a movement on the other side. „Rhun? Is that you?“
„Yes, Sarge. We´re going to get you out of here, don´t worry.“
„Lieutenant Trey and I, Sir. Blissex is with us. The ship is under attack. Lieutenant, help me with this door!“
Samica joined him at the door and together they tried to pry it open, but it did not move a millimeter.
„It´s jammed,“ Rhun said, dismayed, as he toiled. „From the explosions, probably. We need to get some tools - a fusion cutter-“
Samica bit her lip. To break open a blast door with a fusion cutter would take more time than they could possibly spare before they were discovered or the ship came apart around them.
„We don´t have the time, I´m afraid,“ she said.
He threw her an angry look. „I´m not leaving without him,“ he retorted, rattling at the door again, again, to no avail.
„Listen, kid,“ the sergeant said. „Get out of here - and what´s more important, get Blissex out of here. This is what our mission was about, and you can still do it. He´s bound to know a way out of here without meeting too many Imps. You risk the whole operation if you try to break this door open. Now go!“
Rhun shook his head in wild denial. „No! We´ve come this far, and we can get you out as well. Come on, Lieutenant, let´s try again!“
She shook her head in sympathy, but as she tried to help him once more, there was a deafening blast from somewhere inside the ship, as if to underline her and the sergeant´s point.
Blissex raised his head and looked into the direction the noise had come from. „That was in Engineering,“ he said, his face white.
Samica nodded, gingerly touching the young man´s shoulder. „We don´t have the time,“ she said softly.
„No,“ Rhun half-sobbed.
„Get out of here, kid,“ the sergeant said, authority in his voice. „You´ll make it. Good luck.“
Rhun tried to say something else, but his throat constricted, and he couldn´t get out a sound. Samica helped him get to his feet, then helped up Blissex. She couldn´t think of anything else to say.
Rhun cast one more glance at the cell door, then made himself turn around by force.
„Let´s get going,“ he said hoarsely.
Rhun trudged along, supporting Blissex, as they made their way through the Star Destroyer´s detention level. He hadn´t spoken a word since they had left the Sarge behind, and the others had been quiet most of the time as well. Blissex had advised them to see how bad the situation in the Engineering section was, and then try to make their escape by reaching a hangar bay through one of the lower levels of the ship. So far, they had met few people and had managed to avoid them, which convinced them the ship was under heavy attack, and no personnel was needed in the detention block to guard a handful of prisoners. In this part of the level, the emergency light still worked, and they had switched off their glow rods.
Samica drew up short as she turned the final corner before the turbolift shaft, hastily retreating into the corridor, motioning the others to do the same.
„Stormtroopers,“ she whispered. „Two guarding the turbolift.“
Doctor Blissex stepped aside and leaned against the bulkhead to give Rhun more freedom of movement. The young rebel agent turned to Samica. „Can you pull your trick again?“ he whispered.
„I´ll try,“ she replied and went out to lure them away. As soon as she had entered their field of vision, however, they brought their blaster rifles up. Samica dodged out of reflex, blaster bolts missing her by mere inches, and as she let herself fall, she could see another bolt coming past her, this one from behind her, and she saw one of the two stormtroopers fall back into the turbolift shaft with a smoking hole in his breastplate. She had drawn her blaster pistol as she went down, and her first shot took the remaining stormtrooper in the side. Another blast from Rhun killed him, too.
Samica got up again and looked behind her. Rhun and Blissex had come up to join her.
„They know you´ve defected,“ Rhun said. „But how?“
She shook her head. „I don´t know.“ She looked at him with yet another degree of respect. „Medic, sharpshooter, technician - is there anything you can´t do?“
„About everything else, Ma´am,“ he replied. „I don´t have the slightest idea where we are, for example.“
„Let me worry about the way,“ Blissex said. „We must go upstairs from here.“
Samica took a look into the turbolift shaft. „That´s not good,“ she said. „The lift is not working.“
„The light is,“ Rhun replied.
„Something must have destroyed the car somewhere down the shaft... or up,“ Samica said. She turned to the engineer. „Do you think you can make the climb?“
Blissex looked distinctly unhappy at the prospect of having to climb up a turbolift shaft in a Star Destroyer under fire. „I don´t think I have a choice,“ he said.
„I´ll climb behind you and help you,“ Rhun offered.
„I have a better idea.“ Samica went to the dead stormtrooper by the opening and pulled out one of the cases at his belt. It contained a slim cable, which she hooked to her belt, then handed the cable to Blissex, who slipped it through his, then handing it on to Rhun, who followed their examples. „Right,“ he said. „Here we go.“
Samica reached into the shaft and gripped the ladder rungs leading up the tube. She climbed a meter or two and looked back. Blissex was following much more slowly, but without too much obvious difficulty, and Rhun followed closely after, watching him to catch him if he fell.
They climbed slowly, to allow for Blissex´ exhaustion, but at least there was little danger of running into a patrol of stormtroopers here. They had to pause several times before the old engineer could go on, and Rhun soon began to feel his aching arms as well. He desperately hoped Blissex was not going to lose his hold, for he wasn´t sure he would be able to catch him if he did, even with the cable.
Suddenly, the Resolve lurched once more, and Rhun felt his fingers slip from the rung he had clung to. He yelped as his belt tightened around his stomach, knocking the wind out of him, and heard Blissex gasp as he felt the pull as well. Dangling, Rhun managed to grasp the ladder rung again and pull himself back up, gasping for air.
„Van Leuken?“ he heard Trey´s voice from above him. „Doctor?“
„I lost my footing,“ Rhun said between his teeth. „Doctor Blissex? I´m sorry. That was supposed to be the other way round.“
„It´s fine,“ the doctor gasped. „Just a couple of seconds.“
He took a few deep breaths, then nodded. „All right. We can go on.“
Samica gave him a few more moments before she took up the climb again, and Blissex and Rhun followed.
„Damn,“ Rhun heard her mutter a few minutes later.
„What´s wrong?“ he called up the shaft.
„The ladder is damaged here,“ she replied. „It still ought to be enough for us to go on, but be careful where you put your hands. We´re lucky, though; the metal has already cooled.“
Rhun saw what she meant when he reached the place. The bulkhead had caved in and broken in several places, melting bits of the ladder and twisting other parts of it. Rhun shuddered as he thought how lucky they had been that they hadn´t been here when that particular blast occurred. That would have cost them more than just their hold.
It got worse as they went higher, until finally they could go no further. The ladder simply ended by a gaping hole in the wall, continuing about ten meters over their heads, well out of reach.
„Where now?“ Samica asked the engineer. There was another explosion down the shaft.
Blissex looked about him unhappily. „Where does that hole lead to?“
Samica put her glow rod into her mouth and peered inside. „Hard to tell. I can´t see very much, but there´s a ground to walk on and no stormtroopers, both of which is fine.“
„Is the hole wide enough for us?“ Rhun asked from below.
„I think so, but be careful. The edges look pretty sharp to me.“ Samica pulled herself up on a ridge than had molten to a smoother handhold and inched through the opening, but she still felt the jagged metal scraping against her shoulders and hips.
„I´m through. You next, Doctor.“
Blissex had to be half-dragged through the hole, and emerged from it panting and bleeding from several scratches, but he shook his head when Samica threw him a concerned look. She realized she wasn´t looking much better.
Rhun managed to squeeze himself through with considerably less damage to his clothes and skin. He straightened and looked about him. “Where are we?“
„We should be in an access corridor just above the Engineering section,“ Blissex answered. „There has to be an entry into the section somewhere here. I suggest that we try to find ourselves a computer terminal and find out how badly the ship is damaged. What do you think?“
Samica nodded. „If we could find out which parts are likely to be deserted, that´s bound to give us an advantage. It would also help to know where the surveillance system is still intact.“
„Is there a terminal in Engineering?“ Rhun asked.
„There are terminals everywhere in this ship,“ Samica replied. „But I can´t get at all the information we are likely to need with my code cylinder. Most of it is probably classified.“
„I´ll worry about the classified data,“ Rhun said with a smile.
„I thought you said you weren´t anything but a medic, a technician, and a sharpshooter,“ Samica stated. „You didn´t say anything about being a code-slicer.“
He grinned. „Comes under technician.“ Serious again, he turned to the old scientist.
„There is a blast door that leads to the sublight propulsion units,“ the doctor answered. „You can practise your skill right there, my friend.“ He went several meters into the corridor, finally found what he was looking for. „Here we are.“ He stopped before a heavy - and closed - blast door.
Rhun nodded. „Lieutenant, we´ll be needing your code cylinder for the first stage.“
Samica inserted it. „My code as well?“
„We can always hope,“ he replied, and the door opened when she had keyed it in.
They were greeted by a terrible heat from the room beyond, and jerked back from the opening, squeezing their eyes shut against the heat. The large room the door had opened into was a raging inferno, the sublight engine on fire, and the staircase descending down was twisted with the heat.
„Do we have to take this way?“ Rhun asked, queasy.
Samica pressed her cap before her mouth and nose and looked down into the section. „There is a catwalk still undamaged that leads across the room,“ she said, muffled. „The stairway goes down to it. It opens to a work station. We could make it if we´re lucky.“
„And if we´re not, and there´s another explosion while we´re on the catwalk, we drop down there and are fried,“ Rhun continued. „Great plan.“
She was about to make an angry remark when there was another explosion, this one from the turbolift shaft behind them, which resulted in a deafening noise and the sound of something sizzling. Samica turned back to the others with a grimace.
„I don´t think we have a choice,“ she said.
Rhun pulled up his shirt and pressed it before his face, and Blissex followed suit. „I think you´re right,“ the young rebel said. „Doctor, you ready?“
Blissex nodded, his face drenched in sweat. Rhun carefully put a foot on the staircase.
„I hope you´ve got sturdy footwear,“ he murmured as he descended down the steps carefully. Samica followed after Blissex, squinting against the heat rising up from the inferno below. She made herself look in front of her, but the wavering heat constantly reminded her of what would happen if she lost her footing. Rhun was almost across, Blissex swaying slightly. She reached out to steady him and gave him an encouraging nod, and he resumed the way. When she had just another meter to go, there was another tremor running through Resolve, and she gasped, her arms flailing for balance as the walkway shook under her feet, her cap tumbling into the fire below. Rhun managed to grab one of her arms, and pulled her over to the ledge. „You okay?“ he asked.
Samica nodded jerkily, feeling her heart race. „Yes, I´m fine. That was close.“ She let her breath out slowly and ran a head through her short, sweat-matted hair. „The terminal,“ she reminded him. She shuddered as she saw a smoldering corpse lie at the side of the ledge. There were two more by the outer catwalk leading around the work station. She supposed there must have been more people in here than those three, and guessed the others must have died even more quickly.
Rhun went over to the computer console and sat down in front of it. Samica handed him her code cylinder, and he set to work.
„I´ve got a technical readout here, but it doesn´t tell us anything about damage,“ he said after a while. „I guess the damage reports are being updated every few seconds anyway right now, but I could use a valid version.“ He typed in a string of commands, all of which yielded a „no access - classified data“, but he did not stop typing, until finally the screen read, „access granted“, and Rhun hurried to get them what they wanted.
„Emperor´s black bones,“ he whispered as he read. Samica and Blissex leaned in. „What is it?“
Rhun looked at them in dismay. „The Captain has ordered to rig the engines to self-destruct!“
Samica grimaced, but it came as no surprise to her. She hadn´t expected Kolaff to do anything else. „Damage status?“ she asked.
Rhun pointed to the top of the message, and she read the damage report. The Destroyer´s deflector screens were down completely, the weapons systems had all but failed, and power was down to 67 percent. Crew casualties 54 percent. Samica felt a lump in her throat as she read that the ship´s starfighter complement had been reduced to 23 percent. She hadn´t allowed herself to think about Caller and Arras and Doyle until now. They didn´t deserve to die like this. It was hardly her fault, but as Caller´s wingman, she was responsible for his life at all times. Samica still wasn´t ready to accept the fact that she had deserted, and she now realized that by breaking allegiance to Kolaff, she had broken allegiance to everyone aboard this ship.
Samica looked at Rhun and heaved a sigh. „How long until the ship self-destructs?“
„Three hours,“ he answered. „But Doctor Blissex has just said that he can manipulate the mechanism to go off earlier than that. That should provide us with all the diversion we need.“
She looked up sharply. „Go off earlier?“ she asked. „What for?“
Rhun returned her gaze. „That´s a Rebel fleet out there,“ he said. „If we can take out the Star Destroyer before it can hurt the Alliance even further, we have to do it. The Star Destroyer is going to blow no matter what, Lieutenant. If you´ve got any second thoughts about this, I´d like to know now.“
Samica bit her lower lip, unable to find anything to say. He was right, of course, Kolaff had already sentenced the whole ship to death, and she supposed that they couldn´t expect any quarter from the rebels, even if any Imperial asked for it. Still, so far, she hadn´t killed any of her former comrades - Oh, comrades, are they? You never thought of them as that when you were on the same side, Sam - and she didn´t have any particular desire to change that.
Rhun took the decision out of her hands. „The engine core then, Doctor?“ he asked.
Blissex nodded. „It´s not far from here, but we have to hurry. The self-destruct may be set for three hours, but I doubt the ship will last that long.“
„If the self-destruct was set to take out the engine, we´ll meet with resistance in that area,“ Samica argued.
„Most likely.“ Rhun got up from the terminal and shouldered his blaster rifle. „Let´s go.“
When they passed through the blast door that would take them on their way to the engine core, there was the sound of an explosion from the sublight engine behind them, and Samica and Blissex were knocked to the floor by its force. Shaking her head against the ringing in her ears, Samica shouted, „Van Leuken! The blast door!“
„What?“ he shouted back.
Rhun was at the door in seconds, hammering at the control panel. The abused door groaned on its servos, but it did him the favour to close. Shaken, he leaned against it to catch his breath, only to jump away from it immediately.
„Sithspit, that thing´s hot!“
„Which is why we should get out of here as quickly as possible,“ Samica stated.
Blissex had scrambled to his feet again. „Follow me, my friends.“
„Wait,“ Samica said.
Rhun turned around. „Lieutenant, you´ve got to make up your mind. If you´re not going to help us...“
She cut him short, opening another equipment storage hatch in the bulkhead. „There´s bound to be atmosphere loss in several areas here. 54 percent crew casualties don´t result from an exploding sublight engine. We´d better take these.“ She held out three breath masks. „That way, we can still survive long enough to react if we enter such an area. I´d prefer a full space suit, but if this is all we´ve got...“ She shrugged.
Rhun cast her a sidelong glance as he took the mask from her. „Sorry, Lieutenant. I seem to´ve misjudged you.“
She gave him a curt nod. „We must be going.“
Blissex led them through small access corridors and cooling vents, and although there were working sections along their way, they didn´t meet anything more animate than an MSE cleaning droid. Rhun kept looking for cameras, his trained eye considering every little glow panel to be likely to be one, but was rather certain that there were none in these shafts. He would have been almost glad to see a surveillance camera, for he could not really believe they were indeed so lucky not to encounter a single Imp along the way, and the feeling grew stronger the further they proceeded towards the engine core.
There were no more explosions from the outside. From time to time, something blew inside the ship, but either the fighting in space had stopped, or the combatants were catching their breaths. Rhun desperately hoped for the latter. If the fighting was over and Resolve was still around, that meant that her attacker was finished - and even if the attacker was not a Rebel fleet, Rhun still felt sympathetic towards anyone who undertook the danger of attacking a Star Destroyer.
Trey had been right with her assumption that they would need breath masks; there had been several atmosphere leaks in some of the areas they had passed, and they had been glad about their masks. Still, Rhun couldn´t shake the feeling that they had forgotten about something important, something unpleasant.
They arrived at a hatch at the end of a narrow maintenance shaft. „This will lead us to the engine core,“ Blissex explained. „Be careful, the area behind this door is rather large.“
Samica, who was in front, opened the hatch and peered out.
„What´s out there?“ Rhun asked.
„There are three techs at the control console,“ she replied. „Nobody else I can see.“
„Make sure,“ Rhun urged her. Something was not right here.
She watched the area behind the hatch carefully for about half a minute. „From this angle, it looks clear,“ she said. She turned to look at the others, then set her blaster for stun.
Rhun followed her example, although he knew that, theoretically, it wouldn´t make any difference if the techs were shot by them now or killed in the explosion of Resolve later. Still, he shared her opinion on this.
They took out the workers without giving them the chance to sound alarm and squeezed through the hatch. Rhun paused for a few seconds. He didn´t know how he had expected an engine core to look like, but the sheer size of this was overwhelming.
The way they had come from ended on a ledge overlooking a shaft at least fifty meters in diameter that ran upwards and downwards for as far as he could see. There was a huge column in the middle of the shaft, also extending out of sight below and above. Across the shaft, which was connected to the ledge they were standing on, a portion of the column was spared out, and between the two ends, a column of light crackled and whirred in all colours Rhun could imagine and quite a few he could not have imagined.
The control station was arrayed in a circle around the power column in the centre of the shaft. There was another walkway leading across the abyss to the far end of the enormous room, and another to their right. On other levels, there were also ledges, some of them connected to catwalks, some not, and Rhun realized they could be retracted.
They crossed the bridge to the work station cautiously, but without any real difficulty, and reached the control console in the centre.
„How long will it take you to change the self-destruct command?“ Rhun asked the engineer.
The old man wiped sweat from his brow. „Fifteen minutes, maybe a bit more.“
„Lieutenant, maybe you should stand guard so nobody surprises us here,“ the young rebel suggested. Samica hesitated for a second. She didn´t much care to be ordered around by a rebel, who was, as far as she had been able to tell, not even an officer. But then she took his words for what they had been: a suggestion, and nodded. She wouldn´t be of any use with computers anyway, she mused.
Samica took position on the edge of the circular walk, so she could get a good view of all the doors opening into the engine control core shaft, and Rhun and Blissex took seats in front of the computer console.
„It might be a good idea to get an update on the ship´s overall status,“ Rhun said as he entered the programme. There was no need to use the lieutenant´s code cylinder this time; the technicians hadn´t even had the time to shut off their computers. Blissex was sweating as he typed in commands.
Suddenly Rhun whistled. „The son of a jumpin´- “ he murmured.
Both Samica and Blissex turned their attention to him at once. „Who?“ Samica asked.
„The Captain,“ Rhun said. „Time until the Alliance fleet will come in range again: Two hours five minutes two seconds. Time until the ship self-destructs: Two hours five minutes two seconds.“
Samica nodded slowly. „Of course,“ she said. „Kolaff knows he can´t survive, so he has decided to take the enemy out with him. That´s Imperial standard procedure in a situation like this one.“
„You never consider giving up, do you?“ Rhun murmured.
Samica did not reply to his comment, but asked the engineer, „How long until you´re done?“
„Almost done,“ the doctor muttered. „Just give me two minutes.“
Samica returned to her position overlooking the room. Still nobody in sight.
„Doesn´t it strike you as odd that we´ve met with so little resistance so far?“ Rhun suddenly asked beside her. He must have joined her without her noticing.
„This is a ship under attack,“ she answered. „More than 50 percent of the crew are dead. And don´t forget, we´ve been using areas that were almost completely useless.“ She turned towards him. „What exactly are you trying to tell me? Do you think I tipped anyone off to our presence?“
Rhun raised opened hands. „I´m not trying to say anything, Lieutenant. I´m just worried that nobody seems to have noticed either your defection or our escape. I mean, this is the Empire. Normally, they try to prevent these things at all costs.“
„I can only guess they have more important things to worry about right now,“ Samica said. „Anyway, why bother? For all they know, we die when Resolve dies. No use, really, to expend anyone chasing us through the Star Destroyer when they can be of more help in other areas.“
„What made you set me free?“ Rhun asked suddenly.
Samica looked at him in surprise. It was a legitimate question, she supposed, but she found that she wasn´t ready to answer it.
She was given a reprieve when they heard Blissex gasp behind them in horror. Before they joined the old man by the console, Rhun shot her a glance that warned her the matter was not settled yet where he was concerned.
Blissex was staring at the screen in front of him incredulously. „This is impossible!“ he said when they bent over him to see what the matter was. Neither of them could see what was wrong, mostly because neither of them could make any use of the strings of numbers and codes displayed there.
„Anything wrong, Doctor?“ Rhun asked.
„There´s another self-destruct sequence that has been added to the previous one,“ Blissex replied.
„Do you know it?“ Samica asked him.
Blissex looked at them mournfully. „Of course I know it. I´ve designed it myself. It can´t be altered. There is no way for me to circumvent it.“
Rhun frowned. „What made you build in such a thing into a ship you designed?“
„I never revealed it to the builders, so I thought it would never be used. There is only one being in the galaxy other than me who knows about the sequence...“ Blissex´ voice almost failed him. „It´s... it´s my daughter,“ he finished lamely.
Rhun wanted to say something to comfort the old engineer, but he didn´t have the chance. Just as Blissex spoke, there was a voice over intercom, a voice that filled Samica´s veins with ice.
„So you have decided to turn your back on the Empire, Trey? What a pity. Maybe you would have had a brilliant career ahead of you as a rebel or pirate... But as you´ll certainly understand, I can´t allow that.“
Kolaff´s voice faded, and in the bulkheads around the giant room, three blast doors opened, stormtroopers appearing in the openings, two in each, with reinforcements waiting behind them.
Rhun stared at Samica in disbelief, then at the stormtroopers, but had his blaster rifle up immediately and fired at the troopers in the door directly across from them - the ones that were blocking their escape. Split seconds later, the Imperials started firing. Rhun dodged a blast that slammed into the console behind him, next to Blissex´ hand, shouting, „Doctor! Under the console!“ He hit one of the troopers in the opening and saw another fall under Samica´s fire. As glad as he was she had realized what he was doing, and was doing her best to help him, he didn´t like the implications of what he had just heard. Even if she didn´t have anything to do with their being discovered, he had the strong impression that the Resolve´s Captain was a complete lunatic, and he was decidedly uncomfortable with that.
A blaster shot grazed his arm, and another sizzled into the chair he had been ducking behind only milliseconds earlier. Blissex had crawled under the console and was covering his head, but other than that, he appeared unhurt.
„We have to get across!“ Rhun shouted at Samica, who nodded. She, too, looked unharmed. The two of them had taken out three of the soldiers in the opening, but there were still two standing, two more firing from above. Another four that had been in the opening behind them were crossing the bridge, and would be here soon if they didn´t do anything.
Rhun rounded the work platform, using the console for cover, and began firing at the stormtroopers coming towards them across the bridge, from the direction from which they had entered themselves several minutes ago. His first shot took out one of them, the man tumbling from the narrow gangway, but the other three were still advancing, and Rhun ducked under the computer console briefly before firing again.
„Doctor!“ he called back. „Can you get the bridge to retract from where you are?“
„I - I´ll try,“ he heard the feeble reply.
Rhun dodged again, blaster bolts slamming into the console, sending sparks flying around him. Another glancing shot sent a short, searing pain through his left shoulder, but he ground his teeth and returned fire, killing another attacker. The shooting from the other side where Trey stood had become considerably less, and the next moment, the bridge in front of him began to move. One of the troopers lost his balance, and seemed to hang there for several seconds, flailing, before he fell, the other´s blaster bolt went wide, Rhun´s catching him in the leg. The Imp stumbled, managing to catch himself, but Rhun fired again before he got his bearings, and the trooper tumbled down.
The young Rebel took a few seconds to catch his breath, then crawled back around the platform. The opening across the room was free, but there were still two troopers firing from the one above it, slowly taking apart the console under which Blissex was hiding.
Trey lay next to the edge of the platform, motionless.
„Sithspit,“ Rhun hissed as he returned the fire from the platform above. From here, there wasn´t anything he could do for her, except trying to free their way to escape. If he´d been alone, he would just have bet on luck and tried to sprint across, but that was out of the question - even if Trey had been able to, there still was Blissex.
He hurried back around the work station to use the column for cover and fired once more. At least he now had the distinct advantage of cover, whereas the stormies had only the doorframe to hide behind, which, from this angle, was worth close to nothing.
Suddenly, a blast from behind him struck the column, and he whirled to see four more stormtroopers appearing in the doorway. The bridge was still retracted, but there had to be a control panel on the far side as well as on theirs. Biting back another curse, Rhun jumped back around the platform to rejoin Blissex. The two attackers above them opened fire immediately. A blast from Rhun killed one of them, but the other got off a shot at the computer console, which finally blew. Blissex screamed, covering his face, as sparks and splinters flew. Rhun felt some of them bite into his side and ducked back behind one of the seats, which had been reduced to little more than twisted plastisteel.
„When I say, ‚go‘,“ Rhun told the engineer, „we pick up Trey and run for the exit. The boys behind us have to shoot around the power core, so we should be reasonably safe.“
He heard Blissex snort something that, under other circumstances, he would have taken for a laugh, then Rhun aimed a shot at the stormtrooper still defending the doorway above the one in front of them. „Go!“ he screamed, not waiting to see whether he had incapacitated the man or not, but jumping out from his cover, grabbing the young woman and running for it. He heard Blissex´ laboured breath behind him, and saw red blaster bolts whizzing past them as they ran. It was only twenty meters to the door, and to safety, but to Rhun, it seemed like a mile. It felt like it, too. As soon as they were through the door, past the bodies of five stormtroopers, Rhun put Samica down and hammered at the control panel that locked the blast door back into the engine control room. When the door had closed, he averted his eyes, held his blaster rifle against the panel and fired into it.
„That ought to keep them out for a while,“ he murmured, then had to steady himself against the bulkhead. Blissex had slumped down as well, still breathing hard. From the other side of the door, Rhun could hear blaster shots against the durasteel, and although he knew that it was virtually impossible to force a blast door with a blaster rifle, it didn´t make things much more reassuring.
He sat down beside Samica and felt for a pulse, relieved to find one. Her uniform was scorched in several places, and when Rhun scanned her, he found a fairly serious wound just under her left collarbone and another, lighter blaster wound in her thigh. He brought out the medpak he´d taken from the storage shed in the detention block and began to bandage the wound in her chest, applying synthflesh and a stimulant.
„How bad is it?“ Blissex asked him after he had rested a while. The blasting on the other side of the door had finally stopped.
„Could have been worse,“ Rhun answered. „The shot missed the lung. I think she just passed out from the shock.“ He finished tending to her injuries and looked over at the engineer. „What about you?“
Blissex shook his head. „Only a few cuts and bruises,“ he answered. „Just add to the others. But your shoulder looks bad.“
Rhun got his first good look at his shoulder wound. „It´s not very deep, and isn´t bleeding,“ he replied. „I can manage.“
He returned his attention to Samica as she moaned, the stimulant taking effect. „You with us again?“ he asked.
She grimaced, then tried to sit up. „You got us out?“ she said with some effort.
„Yeah. You missed the best bit.“ He took an injector from the medpak. „What about a round of painkillers? My shout.“
„Sounds like a good idea,“ she said weakly. He gave her the injection, and she grimaced again. „Where are we?“ she finally asked.
Rhun began to bandage his shoulder with what little was left of the medpak. „On the other side of the engine control room. Doctor, do you know where next?“
„We ought to be able to reach the hangar via the lower levels from here,“ Blissex replied. „I think I can find us a way without patrols.“
Rhun looked at Samica, hoping he succeeded in not sounding accusing. „There´s another thing,“ he said. „Your Captain sounded like he knew where we were. Do you have any idea how?“
He hadn´t succeeded. „If you want to imply I somehow told him -“
Rhun shook his head. „I´m not implying anything. I´m just worried. How could he have known where we would be?“ „Maybe there were cameras still working in some of the sections we passed,“ Samica
replied. „I don´t know. Maybe he´s psychic.“
„He´s a lunatic, if you ask me,“ Rhun said. „And I don´t think he likes you a lot right now.“
„I don´t think he ever liked me.“ Samica got up a bit wobbly. „Let´s go.“
„Wait,“ Rhun said. „It may not be the most creative of ideas, but I think we might be better off dressing up as stormtroopers. Let´s take the least damaged armour parts from the guys over there.“
Blissex made a disgusted face. „I don´t like it.“
„I´d prefer an Alliance space suit too, but when on Kashyyyk, dress up as the Wookiees do.“
Samica doubted Wookiees ever dressed, but she didn´t argue with his plan. He was right, she guessed, dressed as stormtroopers, there was no way anyone could suspect them just by looking at them.
Blissex led the way to a small access hatch in the corridor which opened into a small, cramped passage. „This way is used mainly by droids,“ he explained, his voice sounding tinny through the helmet. „There are no vital installations in this part of the ship, so there won´t be many people around here.“
When they had travelled for several minutes, they saw that he had been right. They met several droids, and two technicians, who didn´t take much notice of three stormtroopers in battered armour. When they reached another work station, Rhun refilled their depleted stocks with two more medpaks and some spare power packs, then administered some painkillers to Blissex and to himself. He also found a concussion grenade, which he put into one of the containers on his belt. There was a computer terminal as well, and Rhun decided that they could spare a few minutes so he could get another look at the damage reports.
Even though the attacking force had retreated an hour ago, damage to the Star Destroyer had been so severe that consequential damage had by now killed 65 percent of the crew.
But that was not the most interesting message Rhun found.
„Lieutenant, he said, „would you look at this?“
Samica frowned, coming closer, and read a message Kolaff had sent to flight control ten minutes ago. It ordered a Lieutenant Klito to ready a command shuttle for departure, slightly more than half an hour from now, to fly the Captain to safety.
„I always thought a good Imperial Captain was supposed to go down with his ship,“ Rhun remarked to Samica.
„That´s what I was told.“ She folded her arms. „I don´t believe it. Following standard procedure, you either evacuate, in which case the Captain should stay until the last possible moment... or you decide to fight to the death, in which case the Captain is not allowed to leave at all, if he is worth his blues and reds.“
„Which tells us your Kolaff isn´t.“ Rhun looked at Blissex. „Doctor, is there a chance we can reach the hangar before the shuttle takes off?“
„Yes. There is a vent that should be broad enough for all of us leading along the bottom of the ship. The hangar is fifteen, maybe twenty minutes away. Come.“
Rhun quickly shut off the terminal, and they were on their way again.
The vent was narrow, and they had to crawl in several places, but as Blissex had promised, it was passable for them even in the bulky stormtrooper armour.
Samica had to force herself to go on. The last three hours had been the most grueling in her entire life, and starting them in an already exhausted state hadn´t helped. There was a breathing system in her helmet, but even so, the air felt sticky and hot, and the breastplate chafed against the wound in her chest. There were moments when she was almost grateful for the pain and the exhaustion, for they took her mind away from things she didn´t want to think about, but now, drawing closer to the hangar, she found her thoughts returning to the question she had tried to avoid for the past three hours. What would she do when they reached the hangar? Should she join them when they took a shuttle away from here? If she did, where was she supposed to go? The last transmissions of Resolve would sooner or later be picked up from someone, and her desertion would be one of the topics. She knew she would never again be able to return to civilisation, to Imperial Center, to her parents - to nobody in the galaxy she knew. Desertion was a capital crime in the Empire, especially in a time of war, and there was no doubt that they were in the middle of an act of war. Someone who successfully attacked a Victory-class Star Destroyer could not be an unimportant firebrand, this was something larger.
She couldn´t go with van Leuken, either - the rebels had as much reason to stand her against a wall and shoot her as the Imperials did. She was an Imperial officer, and the rebels were not known for their friendliness with her type.
She was jerked out of her worrying by Rhun´s voice, who had stopped by a hatch that would lead them into the last section on their journey to the hangar. „Your code cylinder, Lieutenant?“ he said. „The door´s locked.“
She nodded, preparing to hand him the small device she now kept in one of the containers on her belt, when, suddenly, she stopped short, staring at the cylinder, then groaned.
„What?“ Rhun asked, puzzled.
She didn´t answer, just threw the thing on the floor and stamped on it as hard as she could.
Rhun was studying her as if he was wondering whether she had lost her mind. „Ah - could you explain to me what exactly you´re doing?“
„Don´t you see?“ she said, exasperated, angry at herself, not him. „That´s how Kolaff knew where we were. It must have a transmitter built into it. Or maybe he was able to monitor its position whenever we accessed something with it. Damn, I should have realized this much sooner!“ She brought her foot down on the device several more times, until all that was left of it was a scattering of small metal and plastisteel parts. „The bastard!“
Rhun raised an eyebrow, which, of course, she couldn´t see under the helmet. He hadn´t heard her swear before, but was almost glad she did. He still wasn´t sure what to make of her, but by now, he was fairly certain that they had at least one common enemy: Kolaff.
Of course, it was possible, theoretically at least, that all of this was a charade she and Kolaff were playing to insert her into the Rebellion, but he couldn´t believe it was.
„It appears that we have to find another way to open this hatch,“ he remarked, and set to work to crack the access code. But then, suddenly, he stopped.
„There´s something hissing,“ he said, listening at the hatch.
„That´s an atmosphere leak!“ Samica exclaimed when she, too, listened. „The hatch is not closed tight enough.“
Rhun looked at Blissex, although he couldn´t see the other man´s face through the helmet he wore. „Can we take the risk and open the hatch?“ he asked.
Samica answered for him. „We should fasten the cables on our belts on something here in the corridor. When the hatch is hissing already, that means a lot of atmosphere has already been sucked out of this room here. We just didn´t notice because of the helmets.“ She unwound the cable and tied it to a pipe in the bulkhead that appeared to be locked fast in its place. The others also hooked their cables to holds in the corridor, then they also tied them to each other, in case one of the cables didn´t hold, and each of them clung to some handhold. Then Rhun opened the hatch.
There was an immensely strong pull sucking the remaining air out of the access shaft, and Samica saw something white fly past her into the chamber Rhun had just opened. It was Blissex, and she heard the old man gasp in horror as he was sucked towards space, but then the cable at his belt tightened, and he was left dangling from its end like a child´s balloon. Shakily, he grasped the cable and pulled himself back.
The hatch had opened into a larger corridor leading further along the bowels of the ship, and they were still inside it, but a gaping hole in the bulkhead opened into space. Samica could see debris floating outside against a tapestry of stars. What an odd mix. She helped Rhun pull the scientist back into the ship, looking around her, finally seeing what had caused the damage: Something stuck to the Star Destroyer´s hull, hardly discernible at first glance, because it had molten and melded with the molten durasteel from the bigger ship, like two animals locked together in a deathly embrace. It took her several seconds to realize she was looking at a Y-wing.
Rhun had followed her glance and patted her shoulder. „I knew it was an Alliance fleet,“ he said with relief in his voice, mixed with sorrow for the unknown Rebel pilot who had met her death here. „That´s an Alliance designation. If we can get out of this ship, we´re safe.“ He nodded at her. „Come. The sooner we get away from here, the better.“ She followed him, already feeling the cold get through her armour. Stormtrooper armour was not designed to sustain hard vacuum for longer than a few minutes, and she made towards the end of the corridor, working her way through the vacuum, clinging to metal blocks or pipes or railings. Finally, the three of them had reached the end of the damaged area, with a blast door that looked more or less intact at the end of it. Behind it, the ship´s gravity field was still intact, and the heating system seemed to work as well. They closed the blast door, making use of their cables once more when they opened more hatches and doors out of the corridor in order to let air and pressure back into it from the other sections around them.
When the telltales on their armour showed them that there was enough breathable air in the room, they took off their helmets briefly, catching several deep breaths before going on. Rhun glanced at his chrono. Fifteen minutes until Kolaff´s shuttle would depart.
He got up. He was tired and couldn´t tell anymore where one aching spot in his body ended and the next began, but they were nearly at their destination now.
„All right, Lieutenant, Doctor,“ he said, stretching with a silent moan. „We´re almost there. Let´s get out of here, shall we?“
Rhun carefully edged around the doorway that led into hangar bay 5a, trying to see anything through the smoke filling the room, but even with his stormtrooper helmet, there was little to see. They were one level above the hangar in which Kolaff´s shuttle waited, but Blissex had told them there was a cargo lift in this hangar that could take them down to their destination.
It had seemed a good idea to take a less likely way for their approach, but they hadn´t been prepared for a burning coolant pool in the damaged hangar.
Rhun retreated again and turned to the others. „I can´t see anything in there. What do you think, Lieutenant? Will there be any stormtroopers?“
„How am I supposed to know?“
Rhun shrugged. „I thought there might be an Imperial standard procedure about how many stormies guard the hangar bay above the one the commander wants to escape from after he has set his ship to self-destruct.“ He then realized how out of place that remark had been. „Sorry, Ma´am. That wasn´t called for.“
„You´re right, it wasn´t.“ Samica tried to peer through the smoke, but saw as little as Rhun. „Our best hope is to simply walk through, I should say. People won´t notice a stormtrooper in the smoke if he appears to be busy.“
Rhun drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. „Very well. And look busy.“ He went out into the hangar.
The hangar was one of the smaller ones in the ship, not large enough to take in a corvette, but several Lambda-class shuttles, none of which were here. They would have been able to see at least the silhouettes, Samica supposed, but the large room seemed to be empty except for a crane with a large piece of cargo dangling from it near the back. They were following Blissex, who knew where the control panel for the lift was, and Samica nearly jumped when a voice cut in through her headset.
„What´s your designation?“
She whirled, trying to see anything in the smoke, finally discerning several figures to their left, less than ten meters away.
She shot Rhun a quick glance. He had handled this one well enough the last time.
„R-6580, R-6581, and R-6582, fourth squadron, second platoon, second company,“ Rhun said, and she wondered if the numbers meant anything to him to come to his mind so effortlessly.
The last time, Rhun´s trick had almost worked with a Navy officer with little knowledge about the Star Destroyer´s stormtrooper contingent. But this time, the man in front of him was a stormtrooper himself, a sergeant at that, whose knowledge about his comrades went considerably further.
„The entire second platoon was wiped out when the hyperdrive exploded two hours ago,“ the stormtrooper replied. „And you don´t look as if you lot saw such an explosion.“
„We´d brought clothes to change,“ Rhun said, then, „Run!“ He suited words to action at once, and the others raced behind him. The stormtroopers began to fire, but the smoke prevented them from getting a clear target, and their shots went wide. Nevertheless, Samica could hear the contingent start to pursue them, and she knew they would have to come this way once again to jump onto the cargo lift. „Wonderful“ she panted to Rhun. „Great work. Got any more of those?“
Rhun didn´t reply, but skidded to a halt before the control panel that would bring the lift up to them. There was a workbank next to it, and he jumped behind it, firing into the smoke. He couldn´t say for certain whether he hit anything, but he thought not.
„Doctor,“ he heard the lieutenant´s voice. „Is there a panel controlling the air vents in here?“
„Oh, yes. It´s the one to the right.“ Blissex pointed. „But that will make us visible, too.“
„That can´t be helped,“ Samica replied. Seconds later, Rhun could hear the whirring of an engine in the bulkhead, and the smoke began to clear. He fired into the stormtroopers as soon as he could see anything of them, then ducked behind the bank. He could hear Trey firing as well. Blissex was operating the lift control panel, muttering as he punched in the numbers.
Rhun fired again. The smoke had cleared enough for him to see that of six attackers, three were already down, but he saw that one of them had realized what they were trying, and was aiming at Blissex and the panel. He shouted a warning to the scientist, and his blast took the trooper in the chest. Samica yelped as a bolt glanced off her armour, but the blast blinded her temporarily. Rhun pushed her back under cover and fired once more, but the two stormtroopers were retreating under the crane for protection.
„Sithspit,“ he cursed. Samica was shooting again, her bolts going wide, far above the troopers´ heads. At first, he was simply puzzled, but then, he realized what she was doing and joined her efforts. The stormtroopers never had a chance to escape the huge box coming down upon them.
Rhun looked over at Samica. „That was efficient,“ he said with an acknowledging nod.
She cast a glance over through the gap in the floor that led into the hangar below. „Yes, and everyone down there must know there´s something wrong up here.“
Rhun thought about this, then got up. „I´ve got an idea.“
Mercifully, she made no reply.
The young agent crawled over to the gap as if he was wounded. „Sir?“ he called down, his voice laboured. „The rebels have escaped through the corridor - I think they´re heading towards hangar 5c - oh damn-“ He broke off. If Samica hadn´t known he had not been hurt recently, she would have believed he was mortally wounded.
There was a voice from the level below. „Your identification?“
Rhun dragged himself to the edge. „Sir - send some help -“ He broke off, his head lolling forward. He had even remembered to die where they couldn´t see him from below.
Silently, he crawled back to where Samica and Blissex waited by the lift panel. Samica thought she could see his grin even through the helmet.
„That better?“ he whispered.
Samica could only shake her head. In Hangar 6a, she heard the unmistakable clatter of stormtroopers in motion. Then a light on the panel told them the lift was coming up.
„That´s bound to be the recon squad,“ Rhun murmured. „We´ve got to silence them quickly.“
„We´ll not silence them at all,“ Samica said. „They´ll get down again and report everybody´s dead here. We only have to make sure they don´t see us.“
He gave her another acknowledging look. „All right,“ he said. “Down!“
Samica ducked behind the workbank. A repulsor humming told her the lift was arriving, then footsteps came from the platform, no more than two or three. Two, probably, since they normally came in pairs.
She felt her heart thumping against her ribcage as the footsteps approached their hiding place, but the troopers concentrated on the bodies, finally, they reported down.
„They´re all dead, Captain.“
There was some sort of reply, then, „Yes, Sir. Understood, Sir.“
Samica waited for the sound of the lift going down again, but it didn´t come. They had been ordered to stand watch. She turned to Rhun. „Now we have to take them out quickly,“ she whispered.
Rhun nodded, then touched Blissex´ shoulder, pointing towards the control panel. He looked at Samica again, held up three fingers, slowly counting down. When he made a fist, they both left their cover, shooting at the two stormtroopers standing by the lift. Both fell by their blaster bolts before they knew what was happening. Rhun saw Blissex point to the panel and then down, and he took the concussion grenade from his belt. He waited for Samica and the engineer, then jumped onto the lift descending to the sixth hangar level.
The hangar was dominated by a waiting Lambda-class shuttle, with a full stormtrooper squad standing at attention by the ramp, which was extended. Three AT-ST scout walkers stood at the far end of the hangar.
The stormtrooper sergeant turned towards the descending lift, but he did not look particularly alarmed at the sight of three troopers in scorched armour. Rhun and Samica did not wait for him to realize there should have been two soldiers, not three, but attacked immediately, Rhun throwing his grenade. The resulting explosion killed four of the troopers on the spot, two more were hit by her fire, and Rhun had his blaster rifle up again the instant he had thrown the charge, firing into the remaining three. Samica marvelled at the young rebel´s skill with a blaster, but at the same time, she saw a tall man in a green uniform enter the hangar through a side door, then stop short and turn to run across the hangar bay. Kolaff. He was not going to let them get away like this, she knew, and she wondered what he had planned next. They hadn´t seen any other shuttle on their way here. Dodging bolts from the stormtroopers, she turned to aim at the running figure, but he was already too far away for her to get a clear target at him.
With only two troopers left by the shuttle, Rhun started to run towards the ramp, and Samica followed on his heel. A blaster bolt slammed into her side, and she gasped, stumbling. She could hear Blissex being hit behind her, and fired at the shuttle´s entry ramp again, then turned around. Blissex had gone down, but he was struggling to get up. There was a blaster wound across his left leg, and she pulled him to his feet again, saw Rhun kill the last man by the shuttle - the pilot, who had been unlucky enough to come to the hatch - and Samica felt a vague sense of relief that it was nobody from her squadron.
Rhun came back to her and Blissex. „Quick!“ he shouted, taking off his helmet. „They may have gotten off a call for reinforcements.“ He got a clear look at them, and a concerned expression crossed his face. „Everything all right?“ he asked.
Samica snorted. „The next time you ask that, I´m going to hit you.“ She reached up and removed her helmet as well; her hair was dripping with sweat. Blissex was limping painfully, clinging to her shoulder, and Rhun helped her support him. „Let´s go,“ he said. He looked at Samica as if he was waiting for her to protest. She was surprised that he had read her so well.
„I don´t suppose I have a choice,“ she said weakly.
„I can´t fly that thing,“ Rhun said, entreating.
The young lieutenant nodded. She had made her choice long ago anyway without really noticing, she supposed. She was helping the wounded engineer into the shuttle when there was a blast from the other end of the hangar, missing them by five meters, slamming into the bulkhead, leaving a meter-wide dent in it.
Samica stared, her face gone white. „That was not a blaster,“ she whispered.
Rhun grabbed her arm, pulling her into the shuttle. „The ramp! How do you close the ramp?“
She swallowed hard, then ran into the cockpit, fell rather than sat down in the pilot´s seat. She was not sure whether a scout walker could take this ship apart, but she didn´t have any shields at the moment. She should have known Kolaff would not give up so easily, and she had to admit he had done the only thing he could have in order to prevent their escape in reaching the walkers and trying to stop them this way. Punching a series of buttons, Samica wondered if Kolaff was so intent on not letting them get away that he was even willing to destroy the shuttle, thereby ending his hope of escaping the dying Star Destroyer, or if there was another shuttle somewhere.
The engines began to hum, but it would be at least a minute before they could start. She could feel the hangar shake as the walker came towards them, another blast from its laser cannon clashing against the shuttle´s armoured hull plating. They would not be able to withstand this kind of punishment much longer. But she could not return fire, not facing the AT-ST, and the shuttle´s cannons were fixed and could not be swivelled.
„You didn´t believe you had me outsmarted, did you, Trey?“ they all heard Captain Kolaff´s voice over the intercom. „You´ve come pretty far, I´ll grant you that. Nonetheless, this round will be won by me.“
She refused to answer him. He had always been obsessed with playing games in which he could exert power, but this was about the height of it, and she was not going to play along.
Kolaff fired his cannons at the shuttle again, and a red lamp inside the cockpit indicated that there was damage to the weapons systems. Not that. She could do without shields, but without the laser cannons, they were dead. The yellow line displaying the laser power was flickering erratically, but finally, the ship moved on its repulsor engines, and she brought it around to face the walker.
Then she pressed the fire button.
The damaged lasers coughed out a bright wave of light that blinded the three fugitives temporarily, fried the shuttle´s sensor systems beyond any immediate repair, made the hangar roof blister and drip molten durasteel, and it took Captain Kolaff´s AT-ST scout walker apart so completely that there was not even enough left of it to hit the ground.
The containment field leading out towards space flickered and died, and Samica barely managed to catch the shuttle as atmosphere was sucked out of the hangar bay and the ship bucked and lurched like a wild nerf. They scraped the bulkhead, leaving a black scorch mark behind, but then they were sucked out of the Resolve, floating free for a second before Samica´s shaking hands regained control again and kicked off the sublight engines, and the Lambda-class shuttle blasted away from the Star Destroyer.
Rhun was standing behind the pilot´s seat, clinging to the top. „We´ve done it,“ he breathed. „We´ve done it.“
„It´s not over yet,“ Samica said between her teeth, pointing out of the front viewport towards flashes of green and red ahead of them. There were still TIE fighters left of the Resolve´s two squadrons, battling with rebel fighters.
„Fly towards the Alliance ships,“ Rhun shouted. „They´ll cover us.“
She grimaced, wondering if the rebel ships would also cover them if they knew who was aboard this shuttle, but she complied. He hoped he had an idea where to go next, because she didn´t.
„What´s that?“ Rhun suddenly asked, pointing towards another light winking on the control console.
She reached over a hit a key under it. „Incoming message,“ she replied, frowning, then called it up. Rhun sat down in the copilot´s seat and read the top. „From another shuttle... Tatium,“ he said. „It´s from...“ He broke off and looked back at Blissex, who had slumped into the seat behind Samica. „Your daughter has escaped,“ he said softly. „And she talks about her unsuccessful attempt to catch you. It´s addressed to her husband.“
Blissex didn´t reply, only sinking deeper into the seat in defeat. Rhun got up and joined him in the back of the cockpit to have a look at his wounds. In that moment, a voice blared over com. „Shuttle Jugurum, this is VSD-R-45. Shall you be needing an escort, Sir?“
Samica recognized the voice; it was Commander Manago, the CO of the other TIE squadron aboard Resolve. There were three TIEs heading towards them on an intercept course. Without sensors, she could only guess how far away they were, but if she could see them, they must be entirely too close for comfort.
„Affirmative, Commander,“ she replied as curtly as possible. She hoped her voice was distorted enough for him not to notice she wasn´t Kolaff - or his pilot.
Rhun looked up from the wound on Blissex´ leg, worried. „Need help?“ he whispered.
Samica shook her head quickly to cut him off when the com cut in again. „Well, Sir, this is just like the last time we talked in the mess... what did you say about the viper and the hawk-bat?“
Samica cursed, cut off the com and broke out sharply, congratulating the commander on his quick thinking. That was the best way to test whether it was really Kolaff in the shuttle, and the only thing she could now think of was jink. Three TIE fighters gave pursuit, and although none of them was undamaged anymore, they had to be crack pilots to be still remaining after this battle, and an unarmed Lambda-class shuttle against three TIE fighters was a close shave under the best of circumstances, and these were most definetely not the best of circumstances. Green laser bolts twitched by the sides of their craft, and she did her best to change her course randomly every few seconds.
„Alliance task force,“ she suddenly heard Rhun´s voice next to her, using an open channel to transmit. She hadn´t even noticed that he had joined her in the front again. „This is Operation Pickup aboard the shuttle Jugurum. We need assistance immediately. Repeat, there are no Imperials aboard Jugurum!“
He killed the transmission and turned to grin at Samica. „Correct me if I´m wrong,“ he said. She shook her head, but also smiled weakly. Rhun opened the line once more. „VSD Resolve is set for self-destruct in...“ He paused to look at his chrono. „In three minutes. Call off all ships from the Resolve!“
Samica broke hard to port when the first TIE fighter reached the shuttle, firing, the other two directly behind it, one blast hitting the top stabilizer foil. She turned and saw the fighters regroup behind her through the aft viewport. If they got behind her, this would be over within seconds. She drew a circle as tight as the shuttle could manage, but the comparatively large, unwieldy vessel could not manage much. All she had done was denying them the best angle to shoot into the shuttle´s prime target cone, but she was certain they would make the most out of second best. If only I had sensors!
She broke again, again to port. Quickly, she glanced out of the viewport to her left, expecting to see the fighters attacking her flank, but there was no TIE in sight. Instead, she saw a slightly larger craft flash past her field of vision, firing red bolts from twin laser cannons mounted at the nose of a colourfully painted cockpit looking anything but sleek, but the shot hit one of the TIEs, which had not broken off the chase quickly enough. Samica saw one more Y-wing give pursuit, this one with green markings.
„Green Leader to shuttle Jugurum, happy to oblige,“ a male voice crackled in over com.
„Thanks, Green Leader,“ she said, almost too low to be heard.
„You´re welcome,“ another voice said, this one obviously female.
Rhun keyed the com again. „Task force leader, this is shuttle Jugurum, we need a secure channel.“
There was a brief pause, then a low, gravelly, heavily accented voice spoke. „Task force Operation Starfall, Captain Torrie speaking. You can talk, Agent.“
„This is Agent van Leuken from Alliance IntelOps. Operation Pickup was a success, Sir. Awaiting instructions.“
„Wait a minute, Agent. I´ll have to confirm that.“
„Go ahead, Sir. You can talk to the quarry as well, if you like.“ „That won´t be necessary. Torrie out.“
Rhun turned towards Samica again, but she was not looking. She was staring out of the viewport to her left.
„There she goes,“ she said softly.
Rhun twisted in his seat, just in time to see VSD Resolve break apart in a series of explosions, and he bit his lip hard as he thought about Sergeant Haynes.
„Agent van Leuken, your report has been confirmed. You will be recieving coordinates that will bring you back home.“
„Thank you, Captain.“
Samica looked at Rhun, worry in her face. „What will happen to me?“ she asked, her voice low.
He gave her an encouraging smile. „They´ll ask you a lot of questions, but you don´t have anything to worry about, if you tell them the truth. They´ll let you go if you want, drop you off on some world you choose... alternatively, we always need good pilots.“
There was a report from the nav computer telling them it had recieved the coordinates, and Samica reached for the lever that would send them into hyperspace. He seemed to believe what he was saying, and that was good enough for her. She could not think of anywhere else to go anyway.
Samica let out an explosive sigh. „Well, then,“ she said as she pulled the lever and the stars elongated into the bright lines of hyperspace.
Rhun extended his hand to her across the gap between their seats with a crooked grin. „Welcome to the Rebellion, Ma´am,“ he said as she took it.