Title: No Son of Mine
Author: Jenny Kauer
Author e-mail: email@example.com
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. No monetary profit has been gained from its production and no copyright infringement is intended. The Star Wars characters, and events used in this fan fiction are the property of George Lucas. This fanfic may not be republished in any way, shape or form without the consent of the author.
Summary: Rhun and Sam must travel to Rhun’s homeworld Garon II, which is connected to unpleasant memories for both of them. Samica realises there are some Imperials that won’t fit any category, and Rhun makes a very interesting discovery.
This episode features more heavily on Rhun than the last ones, and we get to see some more of Rhun’s smuggler friend Grant Dyson, but there’s also Samica’s new squadron commander, a certain Lieutenant Colonel Salm . . .
Author’s note. In my last stories, I apologised for not being a native speaker; however, I’d been under the impression that I knew how to tell American and British English apart. You’ll have noticed I was wrong. I intended for Sam to sound British (proper Imperial) and for most of the others to sound more or less American, but I didn’t quite succeed, I suppose. That’s the problem when you spend a year in England reading American Star Wars novels—I mixed it all up. Sorry! :o)
For Guido (the one and only Rhun—and merciless beta reader)
They say that time is a healer
And now my wounds are not the same
I rang that bell with my heart in my mouth
I had to hear what he’d say
He sat me down to talk to me
He looked me straight in the eye
And he said,
You’re no son, you’re no son of mine
You’re no son, you’re no son of mine
You walked out, you left us behind
And you’re no son, you’re no son of mine
(Genesis, No Son of Mine)
It wasn’t her fault.
He’d tried to tell her that so often in the last seven years that he thought she must surely have understood by now, but whenever he tried to brush the topic again with her afterwards, he found to his dismay that she had forgotten all he had said in their last conversation. All the excuses, even her forgiveness he’d received on occasion, had just vanished into thin air.
Which was hardly surprising, considering the fact that all these conversations had taken place in his dreams.
Rhun van Leuken sat up in bed, running a hand over his face as if to brush away the remnants of the dream. Seven years since he had run from home, and he still dreamed about his mother. Riga van Leuken never rebuked him, was never angry, which was what hurt most. She just sat there, hearing out everything he had to say, sometimes nodding, but mostly motionless, silent. He had never, in all these years, dreamed about his father, as if his guilt of his son’s running away was beyond doubt, and it had never occurred to him to beg his father’s pardon for anything that had passed.
Rhun flopped back on his pillow again, folding his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. This had been the third time in just one week that he’d dreamed about his mother again, and it was beginning to get at him. He’d have tried to contact her years ago, if that had been possible, but even for other Rebels, it was difficult to contact their family if they lived on worlds that were controlled by the Empire. It didn’t even take a stormtrooper sergeant in the family to further complicate the matter, but that happened to be Rhun’s chief problem.
He supposed he’d never forgiven his father for being what he was—or maybe he could have forgiven him that if his father had accepted the fact that his sons did not want to become what he was. When he’d run from home, seven years ago, his greatest qualms had had to do with his mother and maybe the baby brother he’d never had the chance to get to know, whereas he always thought his father had got what he deserved. He couldn’t write home to explain things, he knew, because Gorn van Leuken would never forgive him for throwing his lot in with the Rebel Alliance—if he read the letter at all.
A glance at the chrono at his bed told him it was nearly time to get up anyway, so he sat up with a sigh, then padded over to the refreshing unit to wash and dress.
The large common room at Yavin base was still rather empty, the sun only barely visible beyond the nearest line of Massassi trees. The euphoria following the Alliance’s tremendous victory in the battle of Yavin four weeks ago had died down, followed by preparations to abandon the base before the Empire came down on them. They had won a battle, but the Empire was still strong. It might not be capable of destroying the planet anymore, but it wouldn’t take more than a systems fleet to destroy Yavin base.
He sketched a salute to Captain Candela, his superior in Intel, Intentions, who was also up early—or maybe late, depending on one’s viewpoint—and sat down at one of the tables, eating his breakfast (which, by Alliance standards, was extraordinary—there must have been a supply ship that night), almost regretting he hadn’t just stayed in bed. He was even too tired to appreciate the improved quality of the food. He had two hours before the start of his shift, but he couldn’t think of anything useful to do with that time, so he just remained sitting after he’d finished, brooding over the dreams again.
When someone tapped him on the shoulder, Rhun almost thought he had fallen asleep once more at the table, but was relieved to find he was still in a reasonable sitting position. Samica stood next to him, bending down to eye him concernedly, and he put up a hardly convincing smile.
‘What’s the matter?’ she wanted to know.
Rhun rubbed his eyes. ‘Didn’t sleep well.’
‘For how many nights in a row?’
His face screwed up in concentration. ‘About six?’
‘You look like it.’ Samica sat down next to him and drew her tray towards her. ‘Anything you’d like to talk about?’
‘Nah . . . think I’ll wait until I get gastric ulcer.’ He stretched, picking up his caf cup, and found it was cold. He shook himself. ‘Your big day today?’
She snorted a short laugh. ‘Big day? Well, that’s one way to look at it.’
Rhun cocked his head and took his turn to look at her searchingly. ‘Anything you’d like to talk about?’
Samica raked her hands through her short, dark brown hair. ‘Maybe I’m a bit nervous about the new squadron. I don’t really know myself. I’m going to miss Dutch, I think.’
She had recovered from the shock of seeing her former squadron commander panic in the Death Star’s trench, but Rhun assumed it would take longer than this to get over the deaths of her entire squadron over Yavin. At least she was back to her old view of Dutch before the battle. Rhun supposed anyone could have panicked with three TIE fighters behind him and no space to manoeuvre—even if it hadn’t been Darth Vader in one of the TIEs.
That Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith and one of the most feared servants of the Emperor, had partaken in the battle had come as an aftershock to the Rebels, and the fact that he had come very close to being killed by Han Solo in the last minutes of the battle but then had reportedly got away had spoiled some of the euphoria, even if it had by now been confirmed that Grand Moff Tarkin and a number of other high-ranking Imperial military leaders had perished in the destruction of the battle station.
But the Alliance’s victory had been paid for in blood. Thirty-four pilots had died that day, and of Gold Squadron, only Samica had survived the battle, owing to luck as much as skill on her part. Rhun was glad she had come over the shock she’d carried around the first few days after the battle, and even though she still hardly talked about it, she was ready again to face another squadron, another commander.
‘Hey, Sam . . . you might even end up as exec, captain that you are.’
‘I know. Still, it’s all been so rushed. That was a field promotion if ever there was one.’
‘Yes, and it’s up to you to show them all you deserve it.’ Rhun gave her a brief hug.
Samica smiled, her brown eyes warming as she relaxed a little. ‘You always find the right thing to say, don’t you?’
‘Part of my job,’ he replied, also smiling.
She drew a deep breath and nodded. ‘You’re right. It’s not like I was likely to get stuck with another Imperial-type commander. Rebels seem to make a habit of promoting only nice people.’
Rhun grinned. It was an open secret that she thought a great deal about Commander Willard, but if he thought about the only superior Imperial officer of hers that he had ever had the pleasure of meeting, Captain Kolaff of VSD Resolve, he could understand full well why she had taken to the Alliance so quickly. It wasn’t as idyllic as her remark might have made it seem, but for the most part, the Rebel Alliance did not believe in bullying.
‘When are your new squad mates due to arrive?’
Samica glanced at her chrono. ‘In three hours. I wonder if I’m going to be the only female again. I’ve been told most women seem to like X-wings better than Y-wings.’
‘Why didn’t you want to move up to an X-wing squad? You could have stayed with Wedge. At least you know him.’
Samica shrugged. ‘Two reasons. One, somehow I think I owe the Y-wings one. Even if there’s going to be no new Gold Squadron ever again, it would have felt like betraying a friend.’
‘And the second?’
‘The prospects were joining X-wing squadron Grey and staying with Wedge . . . or joining Y-wing squadron Blue and staying here on Yavin.’
Rhun feigned surprise. ‘Why would you want to stay on Yavin? I thought you didn’t like the climate?’
Her smile got broader. ‘Some things are worth putting up with Yavin for,’ she replied.
So he had her back on her feet again. Fine. He was very good at sorting out other people’s lives, he reflected, but he’d failed time and again in sorting out his own.
Despite Rhun’s excellent job three hours earlier, Samica was more than a bit apprehensive when, just before noon, eight Y-wings with blue markings came into the hangar of Yavin base. For the past weeks, the hangar had been painfully empty, apart from two X-wings and her own Y-wing; now, it seemed right once more, if it hadn’t been for the colour designation of the newcomers. Instead of the gold stripe running along the cockpit of her ship from nose to entry hatch, they bore blue markings, which looked almost shabby to her compared to what she was used to. Samica noted that there had to be three vacancies; but it was not unlikely that they would be filled within the next few weeks. High Command had been very worried about leaving Yavin unprotected at all, and if a squadron intended for detachment to the moon was not complete yet, it would have to go short-staffed.
Commander Willard was with her, as well as General Dodonna and several aides. Samica stayed in the background. Her presence was not even required at this time; but she supposed it would make a very bad impression if she weren’t here to welcome her new squadron. The general would do most of the talking anyway.
Eight canopies popped open, and eight people clambered out, looking around the hangar with interest. A quick glance told Samica most were human males—again—but there was one Mon Calamari. She had once flown with one of the quiet amphibians, and even if she had never talked too much to Plancal, she had found him rather likeable. She hoped the rest of his people were anything like that.
One of the pilots now came towards their group; a very tall, very lean man in his mid-thirties with a shaggy-looking black beard and matching black hair. He walked slightly stooped, with very long strides, and Samica saw General Dodonna cast a glance at Commander Willard and raise an eyebrow.
The tall man stopped before the general and saluted, and they all returned the salute.
‘Captain Brock Cromarty reporting, sirs.’
General Dodonna signalled for him to stand at ease and shook the tall captain’s hand. ‘Welcome, Captain Cromarty. You’ll forgive me my surprise . . . I hadn’t reckoned for someone your stature to report to us here.’
Cromarty might have smiled, Samica wasn’t sure underneath that beard. ‘The colonel was delayed, sir, so he sent me ahead to take care of things here. He wants me to act as his exec . . . but I’m certain he’s told you about that.’
‘About that particular fact, yes, but I hadn’t heard he had so urgent business to attend to.’
‘A matter of formality, sir. It was a bit of a surprise for him to be recalled to active duty on so short notice; you know he likes to get things done properly.’
‘Indeed, he does. Incidentally, Captain, this is Captain Samica Trey, a survivor of the Battle of Yavin. She’ll also be in Blue Squadron.’ The general stepped aside a little.
Samica saluted, and Cromarty returned it. ‘I’ve heard about you. I look forward to flying with you, Captain.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ Samica replied, hoping she hadn’t blushed. She was not at all sorry for the fact that Blue Squadron already had an executive officer. It wasn’t that she shied away from responsibility, but she liked to take things a bit more slowly, and she liked to know what was expected of her. To have the opportunity to watch an experienced XO at his work and grow into a leading position rather than be pushed into it was more to her liking, and she supposed she would get along rather well with Cromarty—if the colonel were anything like that, he should be no problem. Obviously a reactivated old warhorse, by the sound of him, she thought. There were many retired pilots who had been dug out to go on active duty again, if only for a short time, until the Alliance had compensated for the losses it had suffered at Yavin. Maybe Cromarty was the colonel’s designated successor once things had settled down, and he was free to return to his paperwork or teaching or whatever he’d been doing before High Command recalled him.
A blond young man around Samica’s age or maybe a bit older came up behind the tall captain. ‘Where’re we supposed to . . . oh.’ He registered the presence of a commander and a general then and remembered to salute, if slightly sloppily.
Captain Cromarty turned to General Dodonna again with what Samica now recognised as a crooked grin. ‘As Flight Officer Haaland here points out, we’ve been in our cockpits for four standard days and we’d really appreciate somewhere to store our stuff and transform into human beings again . . . or Calamari and Shistavanen beings.’
Dodonna nodded. ‘Of course, Captain. Captain Trey, I’m certain you’ll be able to show your new squad mates to the pilots’ wing. There aren’t any nametags on the walls yet, but this is the room assignment I got from Supply today. You can still change arrangements if necessary.’ He gave Cromarty a datapad, and the exec nodded and saluted, Samica following suit.
When Dodonna and Willard had dismissed them, Samica led the eight pilots towards their quarters. As Cromarty had already said to General Dodonna, they were all human, apart from one Shistavanen and one Mon Calamari. Most of them seemed tired after the long jump—something Samica couldn’t fault them for—and talked little.
‘We have single quarters for lieutenants and up,’ she told Cromarty, ‘the rest have to share.’ She cocked her head to look up at him. ‘No other female pilots again, I suppose?’
Cromarty looked puzzled for a moment. ‘Well, now that you say it, no.’ Samica had difficulty to keep up with his long strides, even if the tall human was not hurrying. ‘But we’re still two pilots short, so there’s still a chance you won’t be all that alone. That bother you?’
‘Not really,’ she replied, but didn’t offer any more. She wasn’t really used to female colleagues, but she wasn’t going to advertise her Imperial background first thing. They’d find out soon enough.
The first time Samica got to know some of her new squad mates was that evening, after they had all slept or showered or whatever it had taken them to settle in. They were in the pilots’ lounge, sitting at one of the long tables. Most of the pilots had not known each other before, but some of them seemed to be comfortable already, at ease among the others and not at all worried to chat away happily. Samica was not one of them She preferred to listen.
Blue Two was the young flight officer she had seen in the hangar. His name was Dave Haaland, and he seemed hardly disturbed at having overlooked a general and a commander first thing on Yavin. He was also the one who kept the conversation going, easily establishing a friendly sort of atmosphere. Samica envied him that talent, if she was honest, but knew she was not going to make a fool of herself in trying to copy that ease.
Blue Three was Bent Colding, a large, gentle-looking young man with a homely face and short blond hair. He seemed to know Dave from their previous squadron; at least he chuckled good-naturedly from time to time at some of the jokes Dave told, some of them at his expense, but none so mean Cromarty saw reason to intervene.
Blue Four’s slot was still vacant, and Blue Five was Captain Cromarty, who also chose to listen to the conversation rather than take much part in it. Most of it was concerned with Dave trying to convince the others that Coronet City, Corellia, was the most boring place in the galaxy.
‘I tell you, you haven’t been to the right places,’ Deon Cargill said. He was Blue Seven, the only Lieutenant in the group, and he was struggling to remain aloof and not box Dave around the ears—it hadn’t taken more than three words from the strong-muscled man with his pronounced Corellian accent for the others to guess which city he came from. Samica strongly suspected Dave had known that as well—before he brought up the topic. ‘Anyway, I’m not arguing with an idiot who’s got no idea what he’s talking about!’
‘Well, looks like you were,’ said a short, wiry youth with curly brown hair from the end of the table. Alden Rincon was Blue Twelve, a year older than Samica, but with less combat experience. ‘Arguing, I mean.’
Cargill looked at the younger man, then seemed to realise he was. ‘Where are you from, anyway?’ he asked Dave.
Dave grinned broadly. ‘Coronet City,’ he said proudly. ‘East End.’
Alden grinned, Cargill snorted, and Samica shook her head. Teddie, the Gold Squadron jester, had found a worthy successor—maybe a bit worse.
Shirk Rowl bared sharp teeth. The Shistavanen wolfman, Blue Eight, was the first of his species Samica had ever seen up close, and he hadn’t offered much about himself so far. ‘Now I’d really like to know about the Coronet City East End.’
A gravelly voice spoke up from the end of the table, opposite Alden. ‘I thought you had made a joke, Dave.’
Some of the pilots grinned at that, and Samica saw Cromarty lean slightly forward in his chair, to come to Lawal’s rescue should he need it. The salmon-coloured Mon Calamari, who was designated as Blue Eleven, looked almost exactly like Samica’s old squad mate Plancal—to her, at least—but he was even less certain of his mostly human environment. It was the first time he had spoken up at all, obviously puzzled about human behaviour, but Dave eased the situation with a shrug. ‘Well, sort of.’ He stretched his legs and leaned over to the Mon Cal conspiratorially. ‘You see, Lawal, it’s one of my principles to annoy one superior officer a day.’ He winked. ‘That was a joke,’ he added, more for Captain Cromarty’s benefit than Lawal’s, since the shaggy eyebrows had drawn together ominously.
The Mon Calamari nodded gravely. ‘I see.’
Gordon Dowd, a freckle-faced, red-haired pilot around Samica’s age, turned to Alden with an exasperated sigh. ‘How did that lunatic get into StarCom at all?’ he asked in a stage whisper, too loudly for Dave to miss.
Dave grinned smugly. ‘I had friends in high places,’ he replied. ‘Admiral Pimple used to tell me, “Y’know, Davy, better you than that spoilsport from Danforra base, what was his name? Dood . . . Dord . . . something like that.”’
‘We haven’t got any admirals in the Alliance,’ Gordon interrupted, then got Dave’s joke and realised he’d made a complete fool of himself. He sat back in his chair, arms folded like a sullen child, and grumbled, ‘Idiot.’
Alden leaned forward, addressing the exec. ‘Well, Cap, where’re you from?’ he asked in an attempt to draw Cromarty into the conversation.
Cargill looked at the captain expectantly. ‘Corellia?’
‘Not quite.’ Cromarty seemed intent on keeping his part in tonight’s entertainment to an absolute minimum. ‘Selonia.’
Dave looked up sharply, with the expression of a predator after sighting a very delicious dinner, but Cromarty must have smelled the joke coming and cut the younger man off before he could crack it. ‘Yes, Dave, that’s right, I don’t have a tail. I’m from Selonia, not Selonian.’
Dave put up a ruefully comical expression that made Samica smile in spite of herself. ‘Well, Cap, it was a good one, you’ll have to grant me that.’
‘All right, all right.’ Cromarty got up. ‘’Scuse me, people. I’ve got a mountain of paperwork to do before I go to bed. Captain?’
Samica looked up. ‘Yes?’
‘Try to keep them from each other’s throats.’ But he grinned.
When the exec had gone, Shirk Rowl turned to Samica. ‘You survived the battle of Yavin?’ the Shistavanen asked her, and six other heads turned to her as well. She resisted the urge to squirm.
‘Yes.’ She toyed with the cup in her hand. ‘I used to be in Gold Squadron.’
‘Must have been terrible, being the only survivor,’ Dave said. She was infinitely grateful he refrained from joking this time. Maybe he wasn’t a bad sort after all.
‘But you still stick to Y-wings?’ Bent wanted to know, one of the few occasions he’d spoken that evening.
‘There’s nothing wrong with Y-wings,’ Samica replied, almost defensively. ‘The losses of X- and Y-wings were equally high. The Imp pilots were awfully good, and our ships couldn’t manoeuvre in the trench.’ She broke off when she realised that those had been Pops’ last words, almost exactly. She wished she wouldn’t remember them so clearly.
‘Anyway, it’s good to be with a squadron again,’ she continued more briskly. ‘By the way, has anyone met our CO yet?’
There was a collective shaking of heads around the table. ‘I know he used to have a desk job during the last few years but was reactivated after Yavin,’ Cargill said. ‘But I haven’t met him. He’s a colonel, too. Captain Cromarty has been very reluctant to volunteer too much about him.’
Dave snorted. ‘The Captain is very reluctant to volunteer anything about any topic.’
Samica shrugged. ‘I can’t really fault him. It’s not exactly good manners to tell your squadron too much about their future CO in his absence.’
‘I know Cromarty used to be the colonel’s aide,’ Rowl fell in. ‘I hope he hasn’t got rusty . . . either of them.’
‘StarCom’s too desperate at the moment to employ squadron commanders who aren’t up to the job,’ Alden said.
Gordon raised an eyebrow. ‘Who tells you they aren’t desperate enough to employ squadron commanders who aren’t?’
Samica decided she didn’t like the direction in which the conversation was heading, and she found it was her place to do something against it. ‘Well, here we are,’ she said. ‘Speculating. I suppose that’s exactly what Captain Cromarty tried to prevent. I for one think StarCom knows what they’re doing, and we can’t do a lot at the moment anyway.’
‘Right.’ Dave yawned hugely, then got up. ‘And since there’s so little we can do right now, I might just as well catch up on some sleep. Nothing like four days in hyperspace if you want a crick in your neck.’
‘Or dry out.’ Lawal rose as well. ‘I’ll rehydrate some more. That’s why I wanted to go to such a humid world: no restrictions on showering.’ He looked at his fellow pilots’ faces, and added, ‘That was a joke.’
Samica grinned. So much like Plancal. ‘I’ll go to bed as well. I’ll see you all in the morning for a sim run, I suppose.’ She followed the Calamari and Dave out of the lounge, hearing some groaning behind her at the mention of work the next day.
Dave said good-night and left them at the entrance to the pilots’ wing, as Samica’s room was further down the corridor, as were the showers, Lawal’s destination.
‘See you tomorrow, Officer Lawal,’ Samica told the Mon Cal.
‘Good night, sir,’ the Calamari replied. Samica had been called ‘sir’ for long enough not to find it odd at once, but when she did, he realised that he was addressing her as ‘sir’ because he hadn’t realised she was a woman. Her initial reaction would have been alienation only months ago, but when she thought about it, she didn’t know how to tell male and female Calamari apart either.
‘Um—Lawal,’ she said, deciding to tell him now, without witnesses, before the squadron found out. ‘I suppose you didn’t know . . . I’m a woman.’ This sounded so silly.
The brown specks on his domed forehead stood out more clearly than they had before, apparently the Calamari equivalent of blushing. ‘I’m—I’m terribly sorry, Captain. I—beg your pardon. I thought I knew how to tell male and female humans apart, but—’
‘No offence taken,’ Samica assured him. ‘Don’t worry, Flight Officer. Good night.’
Several minutes later, alone in her quarters, she had to stifle a highly un-captainish giggle as she realised the Calamari had probably been told that female humans were short, had long hair and considerable breasts. He might have realised her voice was higher than a man’s would have been, but for a Calamari who wasn’t used to humans, all human voices must sound rather high. Poor Lawal hadn’t stood a chance.
‘How was your first contact, then?’ Rhun wanted to know two days later, when they finally found time together again and had dinner in the common room. Their respective shifts hardly left them much opportunity to spend more than a few minutes together each day.
‘All right,’ Samica replied. ‘The usual mix of pranksters and fighter jocks, I guess.’
Rhun eyed her closely. ‘I can’t remember hearing anything like that about your old squadron,’ he observed, avoiding the word ‘Gold’ on purpose.
She shrugged. ‘I don’t know. Maybe it was because they had known each other for so long. No, I really think these’re all right.’ She looked up again. ‘Stop worrying about me, Rhun. You look like you’ve had more carefree days yourself.’
Rhun made a face. He hadn’t slept well in ten days, and it wasn’t just those dreams. He’d had them before, but this time, they scared him. He’d never felt such an urgent need to go back to Garon II—his mind refused to think of it as ‘home’—in seven years, and he didn’t know what to do. He could hardly ask Commander Willard for leave to visit his family because he didn’t sleep well.
He longed to tell Samica what bothered him, but he couldn’t think of a way to explain to her what scared him about the dreams. It was something he couldn’t pinpoint himself, much less elaborate on. As soon as he tried to come up with a definition of what he was feeling at the moment, even if only for himself, it sounded nothing but stupid, and as much as he would have liked to tell her, he didn’t want to sound like an idiot.
So Rhun just shrugged. Shrugging had been his most effective way of dealing with things like these in the past, and it would have to do now as well. ‘Looks like we’ve all got our own personal demons that haunt us.’ He squeezed her hand. ‘But I’m taking care of them, don’t worry. Your squadron CO is due to arrive tomorrow?’
Samica nodded, still reluctant to let the issue lie, but Rhun hadn’t volunteered anything about his particular demons. Probably some Intel thing, she supposed. Not another Death Star. But at least she was fairly certain it wasn’t anything to do with her.
‘Yes, at fourteen hundred. Wonder what he’s like, Colonel Salm.’
Lieutenant Colonel Horton Salm arrived in a shuttle the next day at fourteen hundred sharp, as if even the shuttle pilot had been caught in the colonel’s desire for arriving perfectly on time. Captain Cromarty had lined up with General Dodonna to welcome him, but the rest of Blue Squadron didn’t meet their new CO before the briefing set for fifteen hundred.
When the colonel entered the briefing theatre, all conversation stopped immediately, and any comments on the man himself were at once cut off by the look on his face.
Horton Salm was a very small man, but made up for his lack of height with a stocky to thickset build. Everyone would have looked right through him in a crowd. Unfortunately, his near-bald head added to a less than hologenic appearance, and it was obvious he was aware of that and determined to step on any comments on the part of his pilots hard. Still, Samica thought, it wasn’t as if Y-wing pilots had ever been picked for their beauty.
Captain Cromarty was in front of the assembly with the colonel, and maybe it was the contrast of those two standing side by side that made for a rather comical picture, the tall, thin, scruffy captain towering over the small, broad, balding colonel.
Salm cleared his throat as if to silence conversation, though there hadn’t been any since he’d entered. ‘Gentlebeings, I am Lieutenant Colonel Horton Salm. You are now part of Y-wing squadron Blue, and together with X-wing squadron Green, it will be our job to keep this base safe until we have the means to evacuate. Unfortunately, there are very few operations we will have to partake in’—some of the pilots let out small sighs at this, some of disappointment, but more of relief—‘but in the meantime, Captain Cromarty and I will make sure that Blue Squadron remains sharp. I suppose most of you know how to maintain your ships and perform standard repairs, but some will not. This is one of the things that have been neglected by many of your commanders in the past, and I feel responsible for remedying it.’ A new set of groans was cut short at once by a sharp stare at those responsible. ‘Before we start to work on this, however, I shall want an interview with each of you in my office. Captain Cromarty will assign each of you a time for this.’ He raised his eyebrows and let his gaze wander through the front rows of the briefing room searchingly. ‘Any further questions?’
Deon Cargill raised a hand, and the others twisted around to see who had the stomach to ask a question after the less than cordial welcome.
‘When will the remaining slots be filled?’ Cargill asked, and Samica winced inwardly as she noticed, with inbred Imperial training, that he had forgotten to say ‘sir’.
Colonel Salm’s eyebrows knitted together in annoyance. ‘We will get new pilots when StarCom can spare them, Lieutenant Cargill,’ he answered with unperturbed correctness, which caused several others to wince as well. Samica could almost hear their minds working as lots of mental notes were made around the room about how to address the colonel and stay out of trouble.
‘That will be all, then, Gentlebeings. Captain Trey?’
She resisted the urge to jerk upright. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘I’ll await you in my office at 15.30.’
Well, Sam, welcome back.
Colonel Salm had a datapad before him, which he had been studying carefully when she entered. Samica doubted he did that for the first time. His office was as small as most of the other rooms on Yavin base, very tidy and immaculate, which was probably due to the fact that he had just moved in today, but somehow she doubted it would look much different after it had been his for a year. She had never been in it while it had been Dutch’s office, because her former commander had never thought a lot of facing his pilots across a desk, and had probably used it exclusively as his bedroom.
Salm gestured to the chair in front of his desk. ‘Have a seat, Captain.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ she replied, and sat.
He remained standing, glancing at the datapad. ‘It says here, Captain, that you defected from the Empire half a year ago. Is that true?’
‘That’s correct, sir.’
Samica hesitated for a second. She had been forced to think about that question in detail several months ago, when Commander Willard as well as Rhun had wanted to know the same, but back then, she hadn’t been able to tell them. The truth was that she didn’t know. She had hoped that, after Yavin, she would never have her loyalty questioned again, but it seemed that she had been wrong.
‘I found out some things that were seriously wrong with the Empire, sir. Among other things, I watched as a friend of mine was executed.’ She had settled on that as the main reason for her defecting, even if Sören Hide had not quite been a ‘friend’, but it came closest to what she actually felt—even if she couldn’t phrase it more accurately.
Salm studied the file again. ‘You were the sole survivor from Gold Squadron?’
Samica met his gaze. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘You must be an exceptional pilot, then.’ Neither the colonel’s face nor his voice betrayed any emotion, which made her nervous.
‘I suppose I am, sir.’ Samica deeply despised talking about her own abilities—even preferring to point out the things that weren’t so good, rather than self-adulation—but she supposed the colonel wouldn’t approve of false modesty in this case.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘You suppose?’
She took a deep breath. ‘I never went down into that trench, sir.’
Her eyes went slightly off-focus as the scenes flashed past her mind’s eye once again. ‘By the time the first attempt had failed, my torpedo launcher was out, and there was only one more Y-wing left besides mine. Commander Dreis decided we’d have to rely on speed, so the X-wings took the next run.’
‘So you flew cover.’
‘Well, we tried, sir.’
‘The X-wings were too fast for us, and we couldn’t do anything to help them during their attack run, sir. All we could do was to keep the other TIEs off them.’
Salm nodded, slightly absent-mindedly. ‘One more question, Captain . . . have you ever regretted joining the Rebellion?’
Samica frowned. ‘Why would I, sir?’
‘That’s what I want to hear from you,’ he replied.
‘No, sir. Never.’
Salm nodded, apparently satisfied with her answer. ‘Well, that will be all for the time being, Captain. Incidentally, as Blue Nine, you will be responsible for the third flight group. I trust that, as a former Imperial pilot, you know how to maintain a starfighter.’
‘I’m better at flying, sir, but I’ll do my best to work up to it,’ she replied.
The colonel eyed her for a few seconds, then nodded. ‘Well, that’ll suffice.’ He sat down behind his desk. ‘Dismissed, Captain.’
Samica soon found that, in order to satisfy Colonel Salm’s demands, she would have to do a lot about her maintenance skills, but at least that was not her alone.
Most of the squadron were rather capable mechanics, but with the possible exception of Lieutenant Cargill, nobody lived up to Salm’s expectations. Lawal was worst off. His reflexes served him well enough in a fighter cockpit, but his large, fin-like hands were not meant to fuel up a Y-wing in hurry, much less with a glowering superior officer behind him. That his flying skills also fell short of Salm’s expectations didn’t help to lift his reputation in the commander’s eyes.
Much as Salm’s style differed from anything Samica had ever encountered in the Rebel Alliance, she didn’t find it too bad, certainly not as much as some of the other pilots, who were obviously not used to a CO that tolerated no mistakes . . . no more than once. Bent was one of the unlucky ones who got picked on more than the others, and even Dave was a lot more careful in his choice of words when Salm was around than the first few days had made the squadron expect. Cromarty retained a carefully neutral position, never taking sides against either the colonel or his squad mates, which meant he avoided pilot gatherings after hours most of the time.
Samica had to grant Salm’s methods one thing: they were efficient. She knew, if she was honest, that she had never worked so hard under Dutch, and she finally found the excuse to do something about her limited knowledge about her snubfighter’s interior. Salm was right: they did have lots of competent techs and mechanics here on Yavin base, but it was always possible to end up in a situation that forced you to repair your fighter without qualified help—so you’d better make sure you were qualified yourself.
An X-wing squad had joined them on Yavin 4 three weeks after the battle, and apart from patrolling duty, the other missions—recon, escort, or raids—were left to them, since Salm insisted his squadron wasn’t ready yet. The sympathetic glances that Blue Squadron got from the X-wing jocks in the pilots’ lounge did nothing to lift their spirits.
After three weeks of rigorous training, Blue Squadron finally saw action for the first time. The nine pilots assembled in the briefing room, still two short of a full squadron, and conversation stopped at once as soon as Salm entered.
The colonel went to the holotank in the centre of the room and activated it. The holographic projection of a star system sprang to life.
‘This is the Conovex system,’ Salm began without preamble. ‘The third planet is called Conovex-Gamma, an inhabitable cold rock. C-G itself has a number of moons . . . five, to be precise.’ The image zoomed in on one satellite orbiting the planet. ‘This is our objective, Gentlebeings. C-G 2. It’s about as little charming as its name. It’s a type-three atmosphere world, unbreathable, and the temperatures range between minus twenty and minus forty degrees . . . in summer.’
Samica exchanged a glance with Cargill, who was sitting next to her. The lieutenant only shrugged.
‘C-G 2 also houses an Alliance deep-space listening post,’ Colonel Salm continued. ‘However, High Command assumes that the Empire has become suspicious of Rebel activity in the Conovex system, and has ordered to evacuate the outpost.’ He pressed a button on the holotank, and a group of green icons appeared, one of them a stylised Y-wing. ‘Transport group Erevon, consisting of three StarGazer class transports, will dock with the outpost airlock and evacuate the crew. We are told to expect Imperial scout ships if we are lucky, with the possibility of an Imperial task group on the way to reach C-G 2 before we do. It’s our job to prevent the Imperials from destroying the facility, and see to it that the transports make hyperspace safely. Mission will start at five hundred tomorrow, so I’d advise you to catch enough sleep before we start. We’ll only be in hyperspace for three and a half hours. Questions?’
There was a collective shaking of heads around the briefing room, and Salm dismissed them.
They still had thirteen hours before the mission, and Samica went down to the hangar once again. Marvyn Tibbs, the squadron’s chief mechanic, had finally got round to repainting her Y-wing—a job that had been low-priority, what with the squadron grounded anyway—and he’d dropped a hint to her that he had a surprise waiting for her. She supposed it had to do with the wistful face she’d made when she told him that her fighter could no longer keep its gold stripe. Tibbs had worked for Gold Squadron as well, and he’d got along very well with Dutch.
She was not the only pilot who had chosen to give her ship another once-over. Cargill, Lawal, and Alden were also making systems checks and hunting for anything in need of repair.
Tibbs came over from where he’d been working on the other end of the hangar when he saw her. ‘Finished your ship, Cap,’ he said. With a grin, he added, ‘I think you’ll like it.’
Samica followed him to her fighter. On first glance, it looked like any other Blue Squadron Y-wing, but when she looked closer, she saw he had left a narrow gold line along the edge of the blue, no wider than her fingernail.
The middle-aged mechanic beamed at her. ‘D’you like it?’ he asked.
Samica traced the line with a forefinger. ‘Yes, it’s great,’ she said softly.
He nodded vigorously. ‘Thought so. It’s a pity, really, that Gold Squadron’s not going to be revived . . . so you’ll take a part of it wherever you go. And, well . . . the colonel doesn’t need to know.’
‘I don’t need to know what?’ came a voice from behind her ship, and Samica froze. Salm couldn’t possibly have picked a worse moment for appearing.
Tibbs also gaped at the short colonel, but quickly caught himself and sketched a salute. ‘Ah, g’evening, sir. Just talkin’ to Captain Trey about her . . . uh . . . kills.’
Salm’s eyes narrowed, and Samica’s stomach sank. There was another thing Dutch had simply accepted, but she didn’t know how Salm would react to that particular bit of nonconformity.
Not that she didn’t have other problems. Salm noticed the gold line along her cockpit almost as quickly as he would have spotted luminescent paint.
He looked up at her—she was taller than he by ten centimetres. ‘What is that supposed to be, Captain?’
Tibbs started to reply, but she cut him off. ‘A reminder of my old squadron, sir.’
He snorted. ‘Do you live in the past or in the present, Captain Trey?’
‘In the present, sir. But sometimes the past is worth remembering.’
‘Who is responsible for this?’
‘I am, sir,’ she answered before Tibbs could say anything. It might have been his idea, but it had been what she’d wanted. And assuming responsibility was the only thing that might get her out of this.
Without another word to her, Salm turned to the mechanic. ‘See to it that the ship is painted according to regulations by tomorrow morning, five hundred.’
‘Will do, sir,’ Tibbs replied, his face gone unreadable. Both the mechanic and Samica looked after the colonel as he stalked away, but when he was out of earshot, he turned to her. ‘Really, ma’am, that wasn’t necessary. That was my idea to leave that line, not yours.’
Samica shrugged. ‘It wouldn’t have changed a thing, for better or worse,’ she replied. ‘But thanks anyway. It really was a good idea.’
He scratched his ear and looked at the Y-wing unhappily. ‘Looks like I’ll be on night shift again,’ he began, then cut her off before she could say anything. ‘And don’t even think about helping me, ma’am. Won’t take me all that long, and you need your sleep. Think of it as a thank you for getting me out of that mess.’
Samica nodded reluctantly. It wasn’t all that unheard of for a captain to help a humble mechanic patch her ship together, but in this case, she knew that this particular humble mechanic was right.
‘All right then, Tib. Again, thank you.’ He nodded and went to get blue paint.
Marvyn Tibbs whistled as he went to work again. No way Colonel Salm was going to notice a faint scratch in the finish, through which some gold still showed . . . and if he did, he could hardly say something against it. These things happened to Y-wings all the time, after all.
Maybe . . . maybe he’d arrange so it might just remind the attentive observer of a Gold Seven.
‘Blue Squadron, this is Blue Leader. Report in.’
‘Blue Two, standing by.’
‘Blue Three, ready.’
‘Blue Five, standing by.’
‘Blue Seven, all set.’ There was the slightest of pauses before Cargill’s response; he had waited for a Blue Six that wasn’t there.
‘Blue Eight, ready.’ Shirk Rowl’s voice was surprisingly high for someone who looked like a predator.
Samica reached over to key her com. ‘Blue Nine standing by.’
‘Blue Ten, standing by.’
Lawal’s low voice. ‘Blue Eleven, ready.’
And finally, Alden. ‘Blue Twelve, I’m ready.’
‘Ten, you’re out of line. Close it up. Three, why are your shields down?’
‘Uh, sorry, sir. I forgot—’
‘No use asking my pardon, Three; if there had been hostiles here, you’d be dead.’
Samica suppressed a sigh. It would have to be Bent to forget about something like that and sink even lower in the colonel’s opinion. They had dropped out of hyperspace fifteen klicks away from C-G 2, together with the three StarGazer transports, and so far, according to her scopes, there was nothing to indicate Imperial presence. From his socket behind her cockpit, Imp whistled something.
I’LL KEEP SCANNING THE AREA, the astromech’s translation showed up on her display.
‘No focused search until we’re given permission,’ Samica reminded the droid. ‘It would be a dead giveaway if anybody’s looking for us.’
Imp beeped an acknowledgement, and Samica corrected her course slightly to remain between Cargill and Bent. Her flight group was the only one that was complete, so the squadron could not maintain the usual triple diamond formation.
The transports veered off towards the moon, while the Y-wings maintained their patrol around the area. A quick glance at the other ships’ tactical status told her that Bent’s shields were almost up by now. She quickly called up the four ships belonging to her flight group—Gordon’s, Lawal’s, and Alden’s—and was pleased to find they all had their shields up and were maintaining a tight formation.
‘This is Five. Distance to the listening post: thirteen point three klicks,’ came Cromarty’s voice over comm.
‘Blue Leader here; I read you,’ Salm replied. ‘Scan for enemy ships.’
The four outermost starfighters—Salm forward, Cargill to port, Rowl to starboard, and Alden aft—started scanning into their respective directions, so as to avoid blind spots in their scanning pattern. Samica couldn’t do much but keep her own eyes open, since it would only have muddled the others’ readings if the rest tried to scan as well.
‘Contact!’ Cargill suddenly barked. ‘Four hostiles at point oh-nine. Distance sixteen klicks.’
‘Which type, Seven?’ Salm demanded.
‘I can’t get a clear reading on ’em yet, Chief,’ Cargill answered. ‘They’re heading in our direction.’
‘My sensors make them TIE scouts, Lead,’ Alden said.
‘Transport group Erevon, this is Blue Leader. We have sighted enemy ships, three TIE scouts. Stay on course; we deal with them. One and Two flight, we’ll take them; Nine, Three flight stays with the freighters.’
‘Acknowledged, Blue Leader,’ Samica replied. She had the distinct feeling that Salm preferred that sort of address to the more casual ‘Lead’ or ‘Chief’ that was common with Rebel pilots. Most of her former Imperial commanders would have; and Salm was as intent on correct address as any Imperial. ‘Three flight, this is Nine. Scanning mode; we don’t know if that’s the only surprise waiting for us here.’
Salm and the other five fighters flew towards the TIE scouts. They shouldn’t have any trouble with them, as TIE scouts were equipped with shields and a hyperdrive, but hardly any weapons worth mentioning. At any rate, four of them would be no match for six Y-wings.
Meanwhile, her flight group easily caught up with the three transports. They were only four klicks distant from the moon C-G 2, and were hailed by the listening post.
‘This is listening post 12-4, Y-wing fighters, come in.’
Samica keyed her comm. ‘This is Blue Nine, Alliance StarCom. We’re here to help you evacuate. There are four Imperial scout ships in the area, so I suppose they’ve just noticed you’re here.’
‘Uh—I hate to say it, Blue Nine, but they’ve known that for days.’ The listening post’s comm officer’s voice was somewhere between relief and anxiety. ‘We’ve had four scout ships around here five days ago. To be honest, we hadn’t thought you’d be here before the Imps were . . . with reinforcements.’
Samica swore, then commed the colonel. ‘Blue Leader, this is Blue Nine. We’re likely to get company soon. The Empire’s known about this outpost for five days.’
Only static answered. Samica felt her stomach sink. Four scout ships couldn’t possibly have— ‘Blue Leader, come in!’
‘They can’t hear you from here, ma’am,’ the comm officer said. ‘Why do you think we waited until now to tell you? There’s a high concentration of heavy metals here on the moon, blocking communication.’
Samica thought for a moment. ‘Blue Twelve, get clear and inform the colonel. Erevon group?’
‘We read you, Nine,’ one of the transports replied.
‘Be ready to start your docking manoeuvre. We’ll stay near you, but we’ll get away far enough to be able to pick up something.’
Alden took the shortest route out of the moon’s distortion field, and several minutes later, he reported, ‘Twelve here. The transports are to start the evacuation immediately. The others are almost done with the scouts back there; just ten minutes or so.’
‘Good work, Twelve. Get back into formation; Three flight, keep scanning.’
Alden returned into formation, and Samica set her sensors for focussed search forward. They were six klicks out from the moon, out of the interference, and her tactical told her that Salm and the other five fighters were almost thirty klicks away. At least she could see that they hadn’t lost anyone; one red dot denoting a single remaining TIE scout was all that was left of the Imperial ships.
She still could not guess what the presence of four scout ships in-system meant. TIE scouts had a hyperdrive and were capable of operating without a carrier ship, but if they had been here as early as five days ago, that could mean almost anything. It might be another group of scouts, who hadn’t heard about the search results of the first group, or even the vanguard of a large-scale attack . . .
‘Sithspit,’ Alden’s almost reverent voice interrupted her thoughts.
‘What is it, Twelve?’ she snapped.
He seemed to catch himself. ‘Impstar Deuce at eleven klicks, ma’am!’
She, too, cursed. ‘Blue Leader, this is Nine. Imperial II-class Star Destroyer at eleven klicks, position . . . two point four. We need assistance immediately!’
‘Twelve TIE fighters at eleven klicks,’ Lawal’s gravelly voice reported. Even Samica, who did not know very much about how Calamari communicated emotions, heard the fear in it.
‘Blue Nine,’ came a transmission from the moon below, ‘this is Erevon One. We are starting with our docking operation.’
Then Salm’s voice cut in. ‘Three flight, this is Blue Leader. We’re on our way. Draw them away from the transports!’
‘I copy, sir.’ Samica inhaled sharply. ‘Three flight, we’ll keep them occupied until the others get here. Erevon group . . . hurry up.’ The Star Destroyer had exited hyperspace at approximately the same place where they had come in-system half an hour ago, and it wouldn’t be more than a few minutes before Salm could join her group, but those minutes were going to be tough.
The four Y-wings of Three flight sped towards the incoming squadron of TIEs, both in combat formation. Samica bit her lip. The Rebel ships might be fewer in number, but at this distance, they had at least one advantage over the Imperial fighters: they could use their proton torpedo launchers at five klicks while the TIEs had to close the distance to less than two klicks before they could fire. There was one problem with that, however: to hit a TIE fighter with a missile weapon was next to impossible.
‘Three flight, target one of the TIEs each, and fire on my mark,’ she said, switching over to proton torpedoes and waiting for the distance to reach five klicks.
‘Ah—Nine, those are eyeballs, not dupes,’ Gordon Dowd said. ‘We can’t hit them; they’ll be alerted by their missile warning systems.’
‘I’m aware of that, Ten.’ The distance marker indicated five klicks. ‘Mark!’
Four proton torpedoes shot towards the TIEs, but as Gordon had foretold, the fighters targeted broke out immediately, shaking the missiles without too much effort—apart from the fact that they had had to break formation.
‘Now what was that supposed to—’ Gordon began, but Samica cut him off in mid-sentence.
‘Shut off your targeting systems and eyeball the next four,’ she ordered. ‘Fire on my mark.’ It would take a fair amount of luck to hit a TIE fighter that way, but at least, a non-targeted missile would not warn the pilot in any way. Gawky had used that trick to shoot down a TIE fighter trailing her in the battle of Yavin—Gawky, who’d survived all the TIEs, but then had been caught in the explosion of the Death Star. This one’s for you, Gawk, she thought fiercely as she carefully took aim at the foremost TIE without warning off his missile alert.
‘Mark!’ she shouted, and another salvo of torpedoes, this one utterly unexpected by the TIEs, who had waited for their warning systems to react, raced towards the Imperial fighters. Two blew up immediately, Samica saw, hit by her torpedo as well as Alden’s. The other two raced through the ranks without inflicting damage, since the non-targeted torps had no mark they could follow, but it had been enough for the TIEs to break formation and scatter.
‘Three flight, engage,’ Samica said, veering off to pursue a pair of fighters that were still on course for the freighters the Y-wings had to protect, Gordon right behind her. Switching over to laser fire once again, she left the configuration of her deflector shields to Imp, which had handled these things very efficiently in the past. She assigned one of the two fighters to Gordon and targeted the other one, when a red streak flashed past her ship, passed the first TIE and off into space.
‘Whoops, I was still on torps,’ Gordon remarked.
‘Ten thousand Alliance credits wasted, Ten,’ she answered, and fired. The TIE avoided her fire, but chose to break out and abandon his course for the time being, which had been what she’d wanted. The other, apparently unperturbed at having been targeted by a torpedo, stayed on a direct course for the transport group at the moon.
‘We separate, Ten,’ Samica told Gordon.
‘I copy,’ his reply came back, very tersely, and he started after the TIE. Samica brought her Y-wing around to head for the first fighter when Imp screamed a warning at her, and she barely managed to evade a green laser beam going past her ship. Dead centre of her rear sensor screen, she saw a red dot, a TIE that had peeled off from the others to cover the squad mate she was chasing after. Samica swore again. She knew it was no use asking any of the others for help; they were busy enough as it was, and most likely, she was not the only one engaging two enemies at once. Still, being sandwiched between two TIE fighters was not her idea of favourable odds.
She knew her best chance to get out of this was to take the one behind her first, but that meant she had to let the other get away, at least temporarily.
‘Imp, calculate his speed and tell me when he can be in firing range of the freighters,’ she said. At the same time, she jinked to present less of a target to the attacker behind her.
Imp whistled, and she read his answer on her screen. TWO MINUTES, TWENTY-FIVE SECONDS, the droid answered. Samica nodded. Even if she came to the freighters’ rescue a bit later than that, they’d be able to withstand laser fire for a minute or so, and she wouldn’t be of any help to them if she let herself be shot down by two TIEs now.
She let the one in front of her go and brought her snubfighter around in the direction of attack in as tight a circle as the heavy craft could manage. The TIE pursuing her got off a quick, hurried shot at her, which pounded off her shields, but fortunately for her, Imp had put all deflector strength aft, and they held. Her attacker hadn’t been able to compensate for her sudden change of direction, and was suddenly next to her, while she flew a ‘scissors’ manoeuvre to force him in front. He reversed hard, denying her the initiative, and then came around once again, but she throttled her speed and ended up behind him. His rear was before her lasers for no more than two seconds, but that was enough, and she fired. The laser beams hit him squarely in the ball-shaped cockpit, and the TIE spun out of control, blowing up several seconds later.
One down, one to go.
While she picked up speed again to catch the other TIE that was now heading directly for the transports, she took the luxury to check the overall situation. Lawal had been forced to retreat from the fight, his fighter heavily damaged, but the TIEs had had more important things to do than finish him off, as two of them were now heading for her. Gordon and Alden were still locked in dogfights with three more TIEs, so she could not expect any immediate help from them, either. She saw that both their ships had sustained damage.
The TIEs were still more than three klicks away, so she decided to go after her initial target first, hoping one of the others would be able to help her soon enough. Her prey had almost reached the transports.
The TIE pilot had seen her coming, fired into the freighters a few times, then broke off his attack to deal with her first. They raced towards one another head-on, but Samica couldn’t fire; he was directly in front of the Erevon group, and she couldn’t afford to miss. Already, one of the larger ships had taken enough damage to reduce its shields to almost zero.
The Imperial was under no such restrictions, though, and began to fire as soon as she was in range. Quickly, Samica made sure that Imp had focused her shields forward—which he had—then jinked, but stayed on a collision course, to force him to break first. If he didn’t—she would survive a head-on collision with a TIE fighter; he would not.
Two of the laser blasts hit her, one bouncing off her deflectors, the other slamming right into them and frying them. Imp let out a shrill wail, and she ground her teeth. No way the Imperial would take the chance and risk collision . . . but if he did, she’d have to react really fast.
Luckily for her, the TIE pilot was not suicidal, but he did manage to fire into her ship once more before he broke.
The shot missed her cockpit, but it hit the starboard engine squarely, and Samica gasped as her ship lurched, fighting to get the Y-wing under control once more. There was a mournful hoot from the astromech’s socket behind her.
STARBOARD ENGINE GONE, the droid reported. I COULD TRY TO GET CONTROL BACK, BUT WE’D NEED TIME FOR THAT. Which was about the last thing in the world they had.
‘Try,’ Samica said, voice tight. Her attacker was flying a loop to come around and finish her off, and she tried to propel her limping ship into a shooting position, but he had no difficulty evading her. She was a sitting Hutt down here, and they both knew it.
The TIE was returning for another pass when suddenly Imp gave a series of high-pitched whistles and bleeps, and Samica saw the Imperial ship breaking off the attack, facing a pair of Y-wings that had come up from behind him, a more immediate threat than the crippled ship hanging in space before him. Colonel Salm dropped in front of the TIE fighter while Dave seemed to pick him off almost effortlessly.
‘Hope you didn’t break a sweat, Nine?’ Dave asked.
In fact, Samica had. ‘Blue Leader,’ she said, ‘there are two more TIEs heading for the freighters.’
‘Five and Seven are dealing with them,’ Salm replied. ‘What’s your status, Nine?’
‘My starboard engine is damaged, sir. My astromech is working on it.’
‘Stay out of it as long as you can’t manoeuvre,’ Salm ordered her. ‘That was a good move with the proton torpedoes, Nine.’
Samica felt a grin spread across her face at the colonel’s approval. ‘Good timing is everything, Blue Leader,’ she answered, referring to his timely arrival as well as to the proton torpedo manoeuvre earlier.
‘Blue group, this is Erevon One. Docking operation is almost complete. Give us a few more minutes to patch up the damage that TIE inflicted.’
‘Blue Leader copies, Erevon One. Blue Squadron, regroup.’
The ten Y-wings regrouped near Samica’s ship, which, Imp proclaimed, would be spaceworthy again in a matter of minutes, at least in a limited way.
They all knew, however, that a Star Destroyer had more than one squadron of TIE fighters aboard. ‘Blue Leader,’ came in Cromarty, ‘we’ve got twelve more TIE fighters at ten klicks, as well as twelve bombers.’
A full squad of dupes at ten klicks—that meant they’d be in missile range after just five klicks, and this time, they had easy targets in the docking transports, as well as an escort. The Rebels only had one chance, really—getting away from here before the Imperials came in range.
‘Erevon One,’ Salm said. ‘Can you make hyperspace with that sort of damage?’
There was a slight pause. ‘I . . . suppose so, sir,’ the communications officer finally answered.
‘The evacuation is complete?’ Salm demanded.
‘Blue Squadron, Erevon group, fly to the hyper mark and jump out immediately. Blue Five, you’re in charge. Blue Nine, Erevon One, I’ll stay with you until we can make the jump, and I’ll make sure you all make it to hyperspace.’
‘Copy, Blue Leader,’ Cromarty said, a little reluctantly, and nine Y-wings and two transports moved out of the moon’s gravity shadow to jump into hyperspace. They’d have to make a micro-jump, since the Star Destroyer was still blocking the regular jump point.
‘Imp?’ Samica called back to her astromech. ‘How’s it look?’
NEARLY DONE, Imp replied. The TIE bombers had closed the distance to seven klicks; the TIE fighters were already at six. Ahead, Captain Cromarty and his charges disappeared from view as the ships jumped into hyperspace. Colonel Salm was hovering next to her and the transport when Erevon One reported, ‘We’re ready to jump out, sir.’
‘Jump out, Erevon One,’ the colonel answered, and the transport started to get away from the moon. It was obvious that the ship was damaged from its decreased speed; if it hadn’t started right then, there wouldn’t have been any chance for it to get away from the bombers before they were in firing range. Even so, there wasn’t going to be much of a time margin. Samica willed Imp to hurry up, although she knew the little droid was working as fast as he could.
‘How much longer, Nine?’ Salm asked her, urgency creeping into his voice as well. The same instant, Imp whistled, and Samica read one word on her screen: FINISHED!
‘Ready, sir,’ she answered, and tested the fighter’s responses. There was a lot left to be desired, but the Y-wing would fly, and the hyperdrive indicated readiness. Still down to maybe sixty percent her usual speed, she moved out, Colonel Salm shadowing her. Despite the danger from the bombers, she couldn’t help but adjust her opinion of the man. Neither he nor Captain Cromarty seemed rusty in the least, and Colonel Salm, much as he might be a little poison-dwarf at times, wasn’t above getting his fingers dirty, if that would get his people out in one piece.
GOT THE COORDINATES, Imp reported, and Samica keyed her comm. There was a yellow light flashing on her HUD already, indicating somebody attempting to target her with missiles. ‘Nine is ready, sir,’ she said, bringing her ship around to shake the lock and reaching for the hyperspace lever. Ahead of her, she saw a red line streak past—one of the bombers had already fired at the remaining transport. Clenching her fist around the lever, she watched the streak on its course towards Erevon One, dead on target, and saw the freighter explode, unable to shake the missile with its crippled sublight drive.
‘Go!’ Salm barked, and she obeyed, pulling the lever towards her and letting out a sigh of relief as the stars turned into lines. The yellow light on her HUD died, and the green status lamps indicated that her ship wasn’t going to come apart in hyperspace either.
Samica allowed herself to slump against her seat and rubbed sweat from her face. Mission accomplished—mostly. It was going to be interesting, landing in the hangar with only one functional sublight engine.
Blue Squadron landed in the hangar at Yavin 4 four hours later, but Samica’s landing manoeuvre looked nowhere as bad as Lawal’s did. The Mon Calamari had been injured during the mission, and that in addition to the damage to his fighter caused several techs to dive for cover when he set his Y-wing down less than elegantly, but at least in one piece.
Samica almost welcomed the hot, humid air greeting her when she opened her cockpit. For four standard months, Yavin 4 had been her home, and she supposed she was going to miss it once the base was evacuated.
‘Well, ma’am, you don’t ever bring a ship back intact, do you?’ Tibbs asked her when he got his first good look at her starfighter. Ray Tinkler, his colleague, was helping Lawal out of his cockpit, and somebody had already called for the medics.
Samica looked over to the Calamari’s ship. ‘How bad is it?’ she asked.
He realised she was talking about the pilot, not about her ship. ‘I don’t think it’s too serious,’ the tech said. ‘After all, he was still able to land that thing . . . sort of.’ He spread his hands at her glare. ‘Sorry, Captain. No, I really think it’s only minor injuries. You met with resistance, then?’
She nodded. ‘You could call it that. Lost one of the freighters, too.’ Erevon group had not jumped to Yavin; they were too large to land here, so they had gone on to a deep-space Rebel base, where the surviving personnel would be allocated to new posts.
It was then that she noticed another ship in the hangar, a Gallofree Yards medium transport. Like all Gallofrees, it looked like a giant space louse, but there the similarity ended, as they weren’t as well protected as those animals tended to be. The more surprising that it seemed to be here without a starfighter escort. Whoever flew that thing had to be either very bold or very stupid. As if in answer to that thought, she saw someone emerge from the transport’s entry ramp, a large, middle-aged man in a spacer’s jacket, accompanied by a slim, blond woman similarly dressed. She recognised the spacer as Captain Grant Dyson, a Corellian freighter captain who was a close friend of Rhun’s, and the woman as his co-pilot, Lieutenant Firia de Boeck.
‘Debriefing’s in half an hour,’ she heard Captain Cromarty call to her, and she nodded. There was still time to see how Lawal was doing, then.
Commander Willard looked up from his paperwork when Lieutenant Riece entered. ‘Agent van Leuken is here, sir. And he’s right on time, I might add.’
Willard raised an eyebrow at the aide. ‘Tell him to come in, please, Jerrel.’
The red-haired lieutenant stood aside for the young Intel agent to enter. Van Leuken looked as if he hadn’t slept in days, Willard thought, but returned the salute the agent offered.
‘Agent Rhun van Leuken reporting as ordered, sir.’
‘Sit down, please, Agent. You’ve talked to Captain Dyson lately, I suppose?’
Rhun looked puzzled. ‘Very shortly, sir. We didn’t have time for more than a few words after he arrived and reported to you.’
‘You don’t know where he’s going, then?’
The commander sat back and studied the young man. ‘When he reported here, half an hour ago, he requested your presence on his next trip.’
Rhun blinked. ‘He didn’t tell me, sir.’ Then he asked, ‘Where’s he going?’
Willard sighed. ‘That’s why I supposed you had asked him to come along. Garon II.’
The hazel eyes widened slightly. ‘No, sir, I didn’t know—and I don’t think I’d have asked him to come if I’d known,’ Rhun said. ‘Did he mention why he’d like me to come along?’
‘Would you like to come along, Agent?’
Rhun hesitated. A month ago, he’d have said no without thinking, but he strongly supposed Dyson had asked for his presence to do him a favour. They really hadn’t talked very long when the smuggler had arrived, but it had been long enough for Dyson to notice something was wrong with him, and to coax out of him that it had to do with his family. He wanted to go—no, he needed to go.
‘What is he doing on Garon II?’ he asked instead.
‘He’ll be stopping there briefly to pick up fugitives before going on to an Alliance Safe World,’ the commander explained. ‘He won’t be on Garon II for more than a few days. As you’re aware, he knows Gerion pretty well, but I think it couldn’t hurt to have someone else who knows his way around.’
‘What sort of fugitives will he be collecting?’
‘We don’t know that yet. Refugees, dissidents. That’s one of the things he’ll—you’ll—have to find out when you get there. Or do you have an idea, Agent?’
‘No, sir, I don’t,’ Rhun said truthfully. He’d come into contact with the Rebellion long after he’d left Garon II, so he didn’t know any possible Rebels on his homeworld—which probably made it safe enough to come with Dyson. Furthermore, he strongly doubted anyone in Gerion would remember a sixteen-year-old who had cleared out one or two computer stores seven years ago.
‘There’s another reason why I’d consider sending you,’ Commander Willard went on. ‘The Freedom needs a starfighter escort, and I was thinking about sending Captain Trey, together with Lieutenant Cargill. That way, we give her the chance to prove that she’s loyal to the Alliance while we have you to ensure she is, if we haven’t been totally wrong about her.’
Rhun nodded, but then something else came to his mind. ‘Sir, you’re aware that she spent half a year on Garon II as well?’ Well, she’ll be out of her mind with joy at the news that she’ll be going back. She had never told him in detail, but she had once indicated that something had happened there to give her second thoughts about the Empire.
‘Yes, I am, but that shouldn’t be a problem. You are not going into Gerion Spaceport with Freedom and a Y-wing escort anyway. It may be less obvious than an X-wing escort, but they still have “Rebel” written all over them. The fighters will remain on Garon III—the smugglers’ moon will be a perfect hiding place—and you’ll shuttle over to Garon II aboard Freedom.’ Willard leaned forward. ‘But you haven’t answered my question yet, Agent. Will you go?’
Rhun put up a wry half-smile that didn’t go very well with the dark circles under his eyes. ‘I don’t really have much of a choice if you order me to, sir, do I?’ he said.
Samica returned from the sickbay late that evening, after the debriefing—Salm had once again emphasised Three flight’s performance against the TIE squadron—and after paying a visit to Lawal. Alden had accompanied her, and they had been relieved to find that the Mon Cal would be fit to fly again within the week. Gordon hadn’t joined them; he had been in a huff since their return from C-G 2, and so far, Samica had not been able to find out why.
‘Cap? A word with you?’
Samica turned at the sound of Gordon’s voice. The pilot leaned against the wall of one of the corridors that led to the pilots’ wing, arms crossed, still looking miffed, and she suppressed a sigh as she stopped. ‘What is it, Flight Officer?’
‘Maybe I’m just a flight officer and you’re a captain, but that’s still no reason to treat the rest of us like a—a piece of equipment.’
Samica blinked in confusion. ‘What?’
‘You know what I’m talking about. Is it common use for officers in the Empire, ordering their subordinates to do things without explaining?’
Samica’s eyes narrowed, but she made herself remain polite. ‘Whatever’s common use in the Empire is not your concern. What’s that about giving orders without explaining?’
‘“Turn off your targeting computers, and fire on my mark,”’ he mimicked her. ‘I thought you were trying to play Luke Skywalker.’
‘There was no time to explain more fully, and that’s why we’re a military organisation and not a discussion group,’ she replied. ‘And it seemed to have worked perfectly well for Alden.’
‘Well, of course, Alden,’ Gordon said disdainfully. ‘But Alden’s such a wonderful pilot, isn’t he? Always on level pegging with the Captain’s dazzling ideas.’
Samica’s voice was cool. ‘Sometimes it’s necessary to just obey an order even if you don’t understand it at the time.’
‘You’re skirting dangerously close to Imperial thinking, Captain,’ Gordon said, distaste in his voice.
‘And you’re skirting dangerously close to insubordination, Flight Officer,’ was Samica’s reply. ‘And let me tell you one thing. I don’t care who told you that I used to be an Imperial, but you don’t know anything about Imperial thinking.’ With that, she went past him and to her quarters. She supposed that he was having trouble with the idea of having to report to an officer who was one year his junior, but she decided not to report him for now. If he came around, fine. She was not going to run to the colonel to complain about a petulant wingman.
More trouble came the next day, this time in the guise of Colonel Salm. Samica was in the hangar once again, helping Imp and Tibbs repairing the starboard engine, when the colonel joined them, and the look on his face boded ill. At first, Samica feared he’d seen the scratch Tibbs had made in the blue paint on her fighter—it had taken her until this morning to even notice it, although she’d looked at every inch of her Y-wing to hunt for more elements in need of repair—but it soon turned out that something else had provoked the colonel’s anger.
He stopped before them, and both Samica and the tech came to attention. Samica was painfully aware of how dirty her suit was, but she told herself she was a fool if she thought that would bother him. It would have been worse if he deemed her too arrogant to get her hands dirty.
Salm fixed her with that stare she knew by now, even if she’d seen it used mostly on Bent and Lawal, and she fidgeted. She didn’t have any idea what she had done to antagonise him, but doubtlessly, he knew full well the kind of effect his silence had on her.
‘Well, Captain, it seems as if you were too good for us,’ Salm finally said.
‘I—don’t understand, sir,’ she answered.
‘You’re leaving for Garon II in two days, Captain. Some Intel affair, I believe. I do hope you’ll be back before the squadron gets too crippled to be efficient any longer.’
‘I still don’t understand,’ Samica said. ‘I’m being sent to Garon II?’
‘You and Lieutenant Cargill. You’d better get your ship back in working order until then; we can’t afford to spare even more.’ With that, he turned and walked out, leaving them looking at each other with raised eyebrows.
‘What was that about?’ Tibbs wanted to know.
Samica returned to her work on the engine. ‘I do hope we’ll get the new pilots soon,’ she said. ‘Colonel Salm’s good humour seems to rise and fall with the number of pilots he has available.’ But she was more worried than she cared to admit. She was not very eager to return to Garon II, and she could not really see the reason why she was sent there.
She was about to put the plating back on the engine when her comlink beeped. She thumbed the button. ‘Trey,’ she said.
‘Lieutenant Rover here. I’ve been trying to contact you over your terminal all morning, Captain.’
‘I haven’t been in my room since morning,’ she replied. ‘What is it?’
‘Commander Willard wants to see you, at sixteen hundred, Captain.’
She glanced at her chrono. Fourteen thirty. ‘Thank you, Lieutenant,’ she answered. ‘You don’t know what it’s about, do you?’
‘I’m certain the commander will tell you, ma’am.’
The commander did tell her; she, Lieutenant Cargill and Rhun were to accompany Captain Dyson to the Tergon sector, where Dyson would collect refugees from Garon II. She had a feeling that was not all there was to it—why her, of all the pilots on Yavin? But it was a good prospect; she could get away from here for a while, and she would be with Rhun, even if she wouldn’t be flying with the Gallofree freighter Freedom but in her Y-wing. They hadn’t seen a lot of each other in the past few weeks, mostly because she had always participated in extra training sessions assigned by Salm.
Samica returned to the hangar after the briefing, to continue repairing her fighter if it was to be in working order again by the end of the next day. She told herself, now that she knew what the mission was about, that Salm’s annoyance had most likely not been directed at her but at Commander Willard, who dared strip down his squadron even further.
Even before Freedom left, however, Salm had reason to rejoice (though he had no doubt known about it before anyone else had): a new pilot arrived along with a supply shipment to Yavin 4. His name was Lieutenant Geremi Bergen, a lanky blond man in his mid- to late twenties, who spent most of the first evening complaining about the food. For the better part of an hour, Dave tried to stir up his interest in other matters, but for some reason, the young Corellian’s attempts seemed to irritate Bergen even more. Cromarty went to bed even earlier than usual, and Samica followed suit, tomorrow’s mission in mind. Gordon Dowd had refrained from further troubleshooting since the last mission, and she was glad that at least the other two pilots in her flight group were easy to get along with.
Still, she reminded herself, that was not going to be one of her problems in the next few days.
Samica and Lieutenant Cargill left early the following morning, before any of their squad mates were in the common room. Rhun was already in the hangar, helping Dyson and Lieutenant de Boeck with the medium transport Freedom. When Samica joined them there, however, she found out that nobody called the ship that.
‘So you’ll be Eggshell’s escort,’ Dyson greeted her.
Samica raised a hand in greeting. ‘Why Eggshell?’ she wanted to know. ‘I thought the ship was called Freedom.’
‘You ever flown one of those?’
‘Consider yourself lucky, then.’
‘What happened to your freighter?’ Samica wondered.
‘The Noble Cause? She’s not big enough for this kind of mission. And then, she’s my private ship, and the Alliance usually gives me another one when I do a run for them. No worries, the Cause is safely in a spaceport one of my friends runs.’
‘Never thought I’d see a Rebel without a Cause,’ she quipped.
‘You won’t,’ Dyson answered. ‘I may do jobs for you people from time to time, but no starry-eyed idealistic Rebel will get me to join up.’ He hoisted a crate up into the hatch, and Samica thought she heard the clanging of bottles.
‘Supply run, huh?’ she asked the smuggler.
‘Life insurance,’ Dyson answered. When he noticed her grin, he snorted. ‘Not what you think, Captain. I can do perfectly well without Corellian brandy for a while. But if you run into a customs party, and present them with some obvious, nice, Class One infraction, none of those officious paper-pushers will look any further than that. They’ll fine you a couple creds, tops, and forget about it.’
‘Especially if they include themselves on your pay list for failing to mention said Class One infraction to their superiors,’ Rhun added, who had joined them without her noticing.
Samica looked up at the hatch through which the crate had vanished. ‘That works?’ she asked, dubiously.
‘Every time.’ Dyson heaved up another crate. ‘I’ve built my life on that particular piece of philosophy.’
‘I can’t imagine customs officers on Garon II are really that sloppy,’ Samica said.
Dyson favoured her with a look that said, I know a lot more about how the galaxy works than you, kid, but he shrugged. ‘They’re the same everywhere, really.’
Rhun squeezed her shoulder. ‘Ready?’ he asked her. She noticed that he looked less tired than he had for days, as if the prospect of going to Garon II had worked miracles.
‘Ready,’ she acknowledged, then looked around for Lieutenant Cargill, who had just made certain his astromech unit was secured snugly in its socket. ‘Lieutenant, are you ready to start?’
‘Yep,’ Cargill replied, then looked up at the transport, then at Dyson. ‘I don’t envy you that space slug,’ he stated.
Dyson immediately put up the expression he normally reserved for people who offended his Noble Cause. ‘Careful, flyboy,’ he told the fellow Corellian. ‘You don’t want me to get started on the Y-wing jokes I heard at the X-wing pilots’ table last night.’
Cargill grinned. ‘I’ll behave.’
A Mon Calamari appeared in the hatch. His skin was lighter in colour than Samica was used to, and the darker spots on his head were smaller than Lawal’s, too.
‘We’re ready for take-off, Captain,’ he told Dyson.
‘We’re coming, Qelmam.’ The smuggler gestured at Samica and Cargill. ‘This is Qelmam, our astrogator. He’s a real wizard when it comes to shaving off parsecs along any space route.’
The Calamari inclined his head. ‘Pleased to meet you.’
Rhun embraced Samica. ‘See you on Garon II,’ he said.
‘Have a nice trip.’ She gave him a quick kiss. ‘And think about me once in a while when you have something warm to eat or go to the ’fresher.’
As much as Samica loved hyperspace, she preferred it from the cockpit of a ship that had a bunk, a food processor, and a ’fresher somewhere. She could live with a couple of hours in her Y-wing cockpit, even a day, but everything that went beyond that was hardly a pleasure. She had never given any thought to this particular inconvenience before she joined the Rebellion, since hyper-capable ships in the Empire were usually larger than fighter-scale.
The journey to the Colonies took them three and a half days, and she was infinitely glad to have Imp, with whom she could play a few games of Quadrant to pass the time. The rest of the trip she spent sleeping or reading or eating the hardly exciting survival rations, but they weren’t too much of a step backward when compared to the usual Alliance food.
She’d fallen asleep again when an alarm sounded, but she recognised the signal as the tone that indicated they were coming out of hyperspace. A glance at her chrono told her they were on time as well.
Garon III was not a sight to inspire spacers to write any poems to their loved ones. The moon was grubby, run-down, and avoided by anyone who had no urgent business there. Those who had were usually not very law-abiding, smugglers, pirates, even slavers. The atmosphere contained several gases that tended to be rather unbecoming for human and humanoid lungs, so the moon’s main facility was a climate- and atmosphere-controlled station on the moon’s otherwise uninhabited surface. The Imperial garrison on the nearest moon, Garon II, had been called into being for the purpose of watching the pirates’ moon, and it had succeeded brilliantly—in watching. Samica had been stationed here until a year ago, and she hadn’t seen a lot of action. The little they had done about the smugglers had been restricted to times when COMPNOR or some other official had been stopping for a visit, and it had been restricted to Garon II itself. Today, Samica supposed that Commander Tonkin really hadn’t had the means to do anything about the smugglers, and much as she hoped it wasn’t true, she had wondered if Tonkin had made profit from them. Rhun had told her about how the Empire ruled Garon II, and it hadn’t fitted in with her old points of view at all.
But then, very little Rhun had been telling her over the months she’d known him had fitted in with anything she’d held true while she was still in Imperial service.
There were two more ships directly beside her: Cargill’s Y-wing and the Gallofree transport.
‘Good to see you’re still with us,’ came Dyson’s voice from the transport. ‘Let me do the talking. We’ll land here first, then we’ll decide how to go about the next bit.’
Cargill sent a response to her, but he sent it on a private channel the Eggshell couldn’t overhear. ‘What exactly does he mean, “we’ll decide how to go about the next bit”? I thought we’d had our plans laid out by Commander Willard?’
She responded on the same channel. ‘Just trying to scare us . . . I hope.’
‘Oh boy,’ was Cargill’s answer.
There weren’t any landing formalities to speak of, and half an hour later, they set down on landing pad 231, which was large enough to accommodate two Y-wings and the transport. Samica gingerly climbed out of her cockpit and stretched carefully. Vaguely, she wondered how older people like Salm were able to put up with this. At the moment, she felt like an old woman herself.
Across the landing pad, she saw Cargill leave his fighter with similar awkwardness. Eggshell’s entry hatch opened as well, and Rhun came out, the grin on his face not quite hiding his concern for her.
‘What first?’ he asked. ‘Something to eat?’
‘A shower,’ murmured Samica, casting a glance over at the shower rooms adjoining the landing pad, as well as ’freshers and a workshop. ‘On second thought, something to eat,’ she amended when she saw they were in as sorry a state as the rest of this facility.
Dyson, Cargill, de Boeck, and Qelmam had joined them. Dyson had set his hands on his hips and was looking around the bay. ‘This place is sure going to rack and ruin,’ he observed.
‘Which brings us to the question when we’ll be leaving it,’ de Boeck answered.
‘One or two of us have to stay here to guard the Y-wings,’ Dyson replied. ‘Qelmam, I think you’d better stay here.’
The Mon Cal nodded. ‘I don’t want to set foot on an Imperial world anyway,’ he said. ‘That’s fine with me.’
‘You’re not exactly a crack shot, Qelmam.’ De Boeck was looking at the others questioningly. ‘In a place like this, it might be a good idea to have one who could defend the ships if necessary.’
Cargill shrugged. ‘I’ll stay, then.’
Dyson nodded, as if that would have been his choice as well. ‘All right. Orders of the day. Firia, Rhun, and Captain Trey will come with me to Garon II. We’ll find out where the fugitives are, bring them to a safe house in Gerion, and get them out aboard Eggshell the following night. Lieutenant Cargill, we’ll agree on a time when we’ll flee from Garon II spaceport. It’s possible we’re being followed, so you’ll be ready in-system when we have to make a quick escape. Give us some diversion, then hop off into hyperspace, we’ll be right behind you and on our way to the Safe World.’
Cargill grinned. ‘A pleasure. As long as you get that crate into hyperspace in time.’
Dyson only said, ‘There’s this Y-wing pilot coming into a cantina with his wishbone under his arm . . .’
Cargill stretched out his hands. ‘Peace!’ he said, and Dyson stopped as if he’d never started.
De Boeck checked her chrono. ‘How much time do we allow for the rescue mission?’
Dyson thought about this. ‘Half a day to reach Gerion, that makes it tomorrow morning. We’ll allow for two days of getting the fugitives to the safe house; that should be more than enough. That’s sixty hours from now until we lift off from Gerion.’
‘So I’ll take off from here six hours before that—well, seven—to be able to help you with that diversion,’ Cargill said. ‘Sounds fine to me.’
‘What about the trip from Garon II onwards?’ de Boeck asked. ‘We’ll have to take the Y-wings aboard Eggshell this time. A six-day jump is too long.’
‘Yes,’ said Samica and Cargill in unison.
Dyson nodded. ‘We’ll micro-jump to Garon III again to take in the Y-wings, then we head on. We can kick you out again just before we reach our destination,’ he amiably continued to the two pilots. ‘Qelmam, can you see to it we’ve got the micro-jump coordinates by the time we need them?’
‘Of course,’ the Calamari replied. ‘You could have them tonight if you like.’
‘In two days will do,’ Samica said.
‘Right,’ Dyson said. ‘Here we go.’
It was odd to see Gerion again after so many years.
The colours were hardly spectacular—a grey and ochre city in a landscape of muddy green and more ochre, steppes and fields and more steppes, some farmland in between, with patches of more brown than ochre in places, which Rhun knew to be hills.
Rhun couldn’t even remember what it had looked like from above. He didn’t really recall what he’d been doing when he’d got away from here with Dyson, seven years ago, but he was almost certain he hadn’t been interested in looking out of the viewport. He’d only been glad to be leaving, and in his youthful naïveté, he’d scornfully decided he was never coming back.
He felt Samica squeeze his hand beside him, in the freighter’s other passenger seat, and supposed she had her own demons to contend with.
‘Looks familiar,’ she said.
‘I don’t know,’ Rhun replied. ‘I don’t really remember how it used to look. But I guess you’ve seen it from above a couple of times.’
She nodded, and he saw she was staring at the garrison, the white hexagon sticking out from the rest of the city as if it didn’t belong there. As a matter of fact, it belonged to Gerion more than to any other town on any other planet where the same construction had been planted. Gerion had only been founded some thirty years ago, and the Imperial garrison was almost as old. The architectural clash could have been worse. Which wasn’t very flattering to the rest of Garon II’s architecture: utterly and bleakly functional, sometimes looking as if structures that had been intended to be makeshift had lasted for so long that people had become used to them and nobody had really thought about replacing them. As a relatively new colony world, Garon II had taken to the Empire quickly, almost logically. There had never been many nonhumans on the planet, no native races, very few alien colonists, so the city looked as if it was taken from a propaganda holo—simple, hard-working humans living in peace under a regime that let them live in peace.
Rhun knew the truth was far from it.
Gerion was no different from most big cities in the galaxy, at least where the human areas were concerned. To be sure, there were those hard-working, simple people who would never even consider thinking about supporting the Rebel Alliance because their own lives were so perfectly normal. But there was the usual share of corruption, and bribing, and organised crime, and poverty in those areas you normally didn’t see in the propaganda holos. The sector Moff was far away on the sector capital world Tergon, and Garon II was too unimportant to bother with anyway, so it was very unlikely anything was going to happen in that regard. Which, in a way, suited Eggshell’s crew fine.
It was not until the entry hatch opened and Rhun saw and smelled Gerion spaceport again that he realised he was actually back. The customs officer checking their ship had been utterly disinterested, hadn’t even noticed Dyson’s camouflage brandy, just inspected their forged IDs, gave them a datapad containing spacer information and wished them a good day, which didn’t sound as if he really cared whether they had a good day or were overrun by a speeder once they were around the next corner.
‘You all right, kid?’ Dyson asked him quietly when they headed for the exit into town.
‘Yeah,’ Rhun replied, equally softly. ‘Where’re we going?’
‘The “Stardust,”’ de Boeck supplied. ‘A spacer’s bar at the edge of the starport. After that, Grant and I go collecting the refugees, while you can take some time on your own, if you like.’
The ‘Stardust’ was rather cosy, surprisingly clean, and from the bartender’s welcome, Dyson and de Boeck were frequent patrons there. There were terminals showing what was up in Gerion that week, and Samica watched them with interest. Rhun found himself returning to them time and again, too. He was torn between wanting some time on his own and pretending to be leading a normal life where you went to the holocinema, bought your food in a store, and went for a walk in the park.
Suddenly he noticed a look of dismay cross Samica’s face, and he quickly looked up at the screen to see what had upset her, half expecting to see something that might remind her of her time here as a pilot, but all the text on the screen said was, ‘Last showing today: Win or Die with Garik Loran, the once-famous boy actor who was reportedly shot by Rebels three standard months ago. 16.30 at the Galaxy, admission five credits.’
‘What is it?’ Rhun asked Samica.
She shook her head. ‘I hadn’t known Garik Loran had died,’ she said.
He frowned. ‘Did you know him?’
She looked at him as if she was wondering whether he was pulling her leg. ‘You’re telling me you’ve never heard about Garik Loran?’
‘Did I miss something?’
Samica shook her head. ‘He is—was—a famous actor on Imperial Centre. I guess everywhere. You could have gone into any Year Seven at any school in Imperial City a couple of years ago, and every girl there would have been able to quote The Black Bantha forwards and backwards.’
Rhun grinned at her. ‘You as well?’
‘I always thought he was a little young . . . but well, he was really rather cute. My friend Tass had her whole room covered up in holos of him.’
‘I’d have liked to see your room when you were twelve,’ he said.
‘You would have had to duck to avoid banging against a TIE fighter or Star Destroyer model at every step,’ she said with a smile.
Rhun thought for a moment. ‘Well, I was just thinking I would like to catch up on some free time I haven’t had since I was sixteen. What about seeing Win or Die? We could hold hands.’
Samica grinned. ‘Sure. But I have to warn you . . . it’s an Imperial holodrama.’
Dyson made a face. ‘I’ll see both of you tomorrow night, then. I’d really love to wish you a good time, but I’ve seen the thing.’
They left the holocinema at eighteen hundred, after ninety minutes of the most disgusting Imperial propaganda Rhun had ever seen—and Rhun had worked in Intentions and decoded all sorts of recruitment holos. The ending had been a scream—the poor boy dying in the Emperor’s arms, shot in the back by his reactionary father who was a supporter of the Republic. The Emperor seemed to have shed centuries in that drama. Rhun resolved to buy the movie on data slug and show it to some of his Intel colleagues; they had little to laugh about.
‘Did you like it?’ Samica asked.
Rhun took a long time in answering. ‘The actor was very cute,’ he finally said.
Samica laughed. They had both had difficulty not collapsing on the floor during the holodrama, and the worst thing was that they had been the only ones. The rest of the audience had left the holocinema rather teary-eyed. ‘Still, I can’t really believe he was shot by Rebels who thought he was dangerous,’ Samica remarked as they walked along the brightly lit street. They had booked a room in a small, inexpensive hotel before going to see the movie.
‘That sounds like another kind of propaganda,’ she went on. It had become cold as well as dark; the wind had been cool all day, and Gerion in autumn was rather chilly. The streets were emptying fast.
‘Hmmm,’ Rhun said.
She stopped and looked at him. ‘What is it?’
He let out a sigh and looked up into the dark grey sky. ‘I don’t know. I suppose it’s rather silly thinking about that drama, but it . . . damn, it brings back a lot. Not only that people see this crap and believe it, but . . .’ He broke off and looked at her. ‘Sam . . . would you mind if I went for a little walk on my own? It’s really not that I don’t want you around, but I’d like to be alone right now.’
Samica hesitated, but then she nodded. ‘No, it’s okay.’ She kissed him on the cheek. ‘Don’t run into trouble, all right?’
He stroked her hair. ‘I promise.’
For a while, he simply roamed about the streets, sticking to the more busy areas of the town—there were memories about side streets he didn’t want to dwell on. He recognised some of the shops, but most were new; he had never been much of a shopper anyway.
When he finally went into the direction of less crowded living blocks, it wasn’t really totally by coincidence. He knew that what he was about to do was the height of stupidity, but he kept telling himself that there was no way his father could be home at this time. He’d usually come home after twenty hundred, and there was a scene in Rhun’s head about dinner on the table, and his mother home with his brother Ren, which turned out to be irresistible. He was almost surprised at how eager he was to see his mother again—his scorched earth policy of seven years earlier seemed to have evaporated into nothing.
The tall block looked as it always had, and his heart was beating in his mouth as he looked at the door buzzers on the wall, and found the one labelled van Leuken.
He stood back from the building and looked up; the climbing plant with the leaves that stank like rotten eggs when you pinched them had grown well past the ninth floor, so he had to count the windows from the bottom, but he found the right one without difficulty. There was even the same old decoration in the dining room window that his aunt had once sent their father as a birthday present and that his mother had only put up there because it was so ugly. The windows were dark, every one of them. Even when Rhun went around the building and looked from the other side, it was obvious that there was nobody at home. His heart still beating hard, he buzzed, but nothing happened.
It surprised him how disappointed he was, and he stuck around the entrance for a while longer, until the door opened and an elderly man came out. Rhun had never seen him before, and the man hardly gave him a second glance when Rhun slipped inside.
The lift was new; at least Rhun hadn’t seen it. When he reached the ninth floor, he wondered for the first time just what he was doing here. He could hardly break in, after all.
He had stood before the door buzzer for a while when the door to the flat next to his parents’ opened and a middle-aged woman looked at him suspiciously. He didn’t know her; they had to have moved in after he’d left. And she’d probably been watching him from behind her door.
‘Good evening,’ he said in the friendliest way possible, which was what she had least expected. ‘You don’t happen to know if the van Leukens are home, do you?’
‘What do you want?’ she asked, still suspicious.
‘I was just in town and thought I’d drop by for a visit to Mrs van Leuken, but there seems to be nobody here.’
She put her hands on her hips. ‘You can’t have seen her for a while if you look for her here,’ she stated.
Rhun felt his stomach sink. ‘What do you mean?’
‘She moved out. Weeks ago, with the little boy. And if you ask me, I’d have done that years ago.’
‘She moved out?’ Rhun managed. ‘Do you know where?’
‘No, just that the man was hopping mad when he found she was gone. I wonder how she put up with him for so long. I’ve been living here for three years now, and I haven’t seen him sober once.’
Rhun swallowed. It didn’t take much imagination to guess who ‘he’ was. His father had taken to drinking after Jon, his older brother, had died, but he hadn’t known it had become so bad. The idea that his running away might be responsible only made it worse.
He murmured a ‘thank you,’ then turned and took the lift down. He wandered aimlessly through the quarter and was just about to head back for the hotel when he heard his comlink beep.
‘Rhun? This is Dyson. I’ve got some news you might want to know about.’
Rhun just waited.
‘I’ve seen the list of the fugitives. There’s one Riga van Leuken-Deering among them.’
The house was small, inconspicuous-looking and right on the edge of the town, an hour’s walk away from the starport area. Rhun pulled his jacket tighter around himself. It was nearly midnight; he had called Sam via comlink earlier and told her he wouldn’t be back for a while. She hadn’t asked why, only wished him goodnight. He was glad she hadn’t made him explain.
It was so much more difficult to sound the door buzzer here than it had been two hours before, even if the name on the tag next to it said only Kjaer. A man in his thirties opened the door but eyed him carefully.
‘Dyson’s friend?’ he asked.
Rhun nodded, and the man let him in and carefully closed the door behind him.
‘Name’s Kilis Kjaer,’ he introduced himself. ‘Dyson’s left already. He brought the people here; I’ll be coming with you when we get them away from here tomorrow.’ He looked at the younger man. ‘Dyson told me you wanted to talk to one of the people here?’
Rhun nodded again. ‘Mrs Riga van Leuken.’
‘The one with the boy?’
‘She’s in the third room on the left, but I’m not sure if she’s still awake.’
‘She won’t mind,’ Rhun answered.
Kjaer shrugged. ‘Well, go ahead, then. But be quiet; the others will want to sleep.’
Rhun nodded yet again and went up to the door Kjaer had indicated. As this was not a regular apartment block, there were no buzzers at the doors, so he knocked, waited, then knocked again, slightly stronger this time, when there was no reply at first.
There was movement at the other side of the door, and Rhun heard a voice he hadn’t heard for too long, saying something he couldn’t understand. Then the door opened.
A small boy of seven stood before him, looking a little sleepy. The blond hair was a shade lighter than Rhun’s own and the brown eyes a shade darker, but he was still so unmistakably van Leuken that Rhun felt a lump rise in his throat.
‘What is it?’ came his mother’s voice from the back of the room. ‘Kjaer, is anything wrong?’
‘Mommy,’ the boy said, staring at Rhun, who was still unable to get out a sound, ‘there’s a man at the door who looks like the holo of Jon in the living-room back home.’
She then appeared in the doorframe, a questioning look on her face, drawing a robe around her. Afterwards, he couldn’t remember how he’d ended up in her arms, as he couldn’t recall either of them moving, but he supposed they must have stayed that way for an eternity, holding on to each other. What he did remember were Ren’s confused questions what was up, and who he was anyway, but he only became really aware of them after a while. He found his face and her robe were wet with tears he didn’t remember shedding, and when he finally had the stomach to look into his mother’s face, he found she was crying, too.
Her hair was down, and he brushed a strand of it out of her face. ‘I’m sorry,’ he managed to whisper.
She shook her head vehemently and drew him into her arms again. ‘It’s all right,’ she said hoarsely. ‘It’s all right.’
Rhun finally remembered his brother, who had stopped repeating his questions a while ago and had returned to the cot where he’d been sleeping on the floor. As soon as the boy saw he had been noticed again, he asked, for the twenty-oddth time, ‘Who is that, Mom?’
Riga van Leuken released her older son a bit without quite letting him go. ‘That’s your brother Rhun,’ she replied.
Ren frowned. ‘I don’t have a brother Rhun.’
‘Yes, you have,’ his mother said. ‘I told you about him, remember? He’s been away for a while.’ Rhun noticed that she managed to say this without sounding accusing.
‘Where’ve you been, then?’ Ren wanted to know.
Rhun smiled. ‘All sorts of places. I’ll tell you sometime.’
‘Can’t you tell me now?’
Rhun shook his head. ‘Later.’
‘What are you doing here?’ his mother now asked. ‘You haven’t been in Gerion, have you?’
‘I joined the Rebellion,’ he said softly. ‘Six years ago. I would have tried to contact you before now, but that wasn’t possible . . . you know why.’
‘He’s lost it completely, Rhun,’ she told him, almost in a whisper. ‘You know he started drinking after what happened to Jon, but it got worse when . . . Nobody was even allowed to mention your name in his presence. He’d completely lose his mind, especially when we heard the police were looking for you.’
Rhun swallowed. ‘You knew that?’
She shrugged. ‘I saw the newsfeed; Gorn wouldn’t have told me about it for the life of him. But when he realised you had strayed from the straight and narrow, in his eyes anyway . . .’ His mother shook her head. ‘The last to notice seem to be his superiors in the Army. I can’t imagine he’s any different there than he was at home, but they don’t seem to care. But I haven’t seen him sober for weeks. I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I always thought I couldn’t do this to Ren, running away, I mean, so I tried to tolerate it, but when he began to—’ she broke off. ‘I found I could do this to Ren after all. I’d heard that a friend of mine, Dreisene—you remember her?’
‘Dreisene had taken part in a couple of anti-Imperial protests, and she had to hide from the police. When she found I’d left Gorn, she put me up here with Kjaer, and since Ren and I both knew we’d have to leave Garon II anyway . . .’ she shrugged.
‘We’re having an adventure,’ Ren proclaimed.
Riga nodded tiredly. ‘Yes, love, that’s right. But you must have had even more of an adventure.’ She looked at Rhun again.
Rhun shrugged. ‘Well, not too much of an adventure, really. I’m working in Intentions. That means decrypting and encrypting messages most of the time.’ He couldn’t have said why he was lying to her. Maybe he was just too worried to scare her again with what he was really doing.
‘Will you be coming with us tomorrow?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Yes, at least for a while. I’ve got to go back sooner or later, but I’ll sure visit you. I promise, Mom.’
‘Where exactly have you been?’ Riga wanted to know again.
Rhun hugged her. ‘Sorry, I can’t say. Some of my superiors would give me a good hiding when they knew what I’ve told you already.’
His mother shook her head affectionately. ‘My pacifist son talking about his superiors. You’ve changed, Rhun.’
‘The Rebellion is different, Mom,’ he answered.
Ren piped up again. ‘Daddy says the Rebels are evil.’
‘I bet Daddy says a lot of things, and some of them are lies,’ Rhun replied.
Ren’s face screwed up in concentration as he thought about this, then he decided, if a little worriedly, ‘So Daddy’s evil, then?’
Rhun shook his head sadly. ‘No, Ren, Daddy isn’t evil. He just believes other people’s lies. You know the Emperor?’
‘Yes, I’ve seen him on holo. He looks funny.’
‘He’s evil. He lies to people so they do what he wants even if they don’t want it. He can make you do things you don’t want to do, and that’s why he’s evil. But he’s also the Emperor, and I and some people besides me try to . . . er . . . make him go away so other people can rule.’ Well, it really is rather easy, so why in the galaxy do so few people understand it?
‘Where are we going tomorrow?’ Ren wanted to know, obviously of the opinion that the topic had been exhausted.
‘You’ll like it,’ Rhun answered, also looking at his mother. ‘It’s a Safe World. I can’t tell you where it is, but it’s warmer than here, and there are no Imperials, of course . . . and I’ll be able to see you. It won’t be very often, but I promise I’ll see you as often as I get permission.’ To Ren, he added, ‘There’ll be lots of other kids to play with, and not just boring humans, but also Rodians, and Calamaris, and Wookiees . . .’
‘Fishheads,’ Ren chimed in.
Rhun raised an eyebrow. ‘They don’t really like being called fishheads,’ he told the boy, ruffling his hair. ‘How would you like to be called a scarecrow, huh?’ Ren yelped, trying to squirm out of his brother’s grasp. Rhun noticed his mother’s worried look, quite unexpected, and let go of the boy. ‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘He’s got two broken ribs,’ Riga answered. ‘They’re healing, but they’re still sore. That was why I decided I couldn’t stay with Gorn any longer.’
Rhun became serious again in an instant. ‘This time tomorrow, you’ll be out of here, and you needn’t ever come back,’ he said. ‘I swear it.’
When Rhun finally went back, it was four hours after midnight, but he was too elated to feel any tiredness. He hadn’t dared imagine that the reunion with his mother might turn out like this, and now he was looking forward to the long hyper jump to the Safe World Cheldiria.
He couldn’t wait to tell Sam, couldn’t wait to tell her everything. He chuckled again as he recalled the look on her face when she had seen they had a room with a double bed—doubtlessly the friendly old woman at the reception had meant to be nice. The truth was that they hadn’t come exactly very far since that first kiss just after the battle of Yavin, but he didn’t mind right now. He didn’t mind anything right now.
Silently, he opened the door to their room and crept inside. Without turning on the light, he undressed quietly and slipped into bed, reaching over to her.
It was then that he noticed she was not there. The bed hadn’t even been touched.
Samica had taken a stroll around a small park before heading back to the hotel. She was not bothered too much by the cold, and the opportunity to spend time not cooped up in a ship or another room was too good to be wasted. She had never cared much for open spaces—on Imperial Centre, you could spend your whole life in the giant building complexes without ever having to face the rain and cold outside—but she’d felt like it that night.
The park covered only a small space between two blocks of flats, but she always enjoyed grass and trees, at least as long as it crossed her path in a civilised fashion, not like the jungle on Yavin 4. There were lamps all around the area, and the bright windows from the adjacent houses gave her the feeling of cosiness she’d felt too rarely after going to the Imperial Academy, really.
‘Excuse me, Miss, how old are you?’
Samica turned around in surprise and saw two people, a man and a woman, in the uniform of the city militia. It was the man that had addressed her.
‘Pardon?’ she said.
‘Sorry for the inconvenience, Miss, but we have to check this area after nineteen hundred hours. How old are you?’
‘Can I see your identification, please?’
‘Uh—sure,’ Samica replied and produced the card from her pocket.
‘You see, this park is a frequent haunt for all kinds of juvenile delinquents,’ the officer went on as she handed him the card. ‘So it’s been closed for everyone underage after nineteen hundred. You’re not from Garon II?’
‘No, from Balmorra.’ That, at least, was what her ID said.
‘Right. Just a sec, Miss . . .’ he put the card into the slot of his reader, hesitated, then slid it through again.
‘It can’t read it,’ he said.
‘Try mine,’ his colleague offered, and she tried the same procedure with her device, but it, too, insisted the card was unreadable.
Samica felt her stomach go cold. Her ID had worked at the spaceport—or had it? Had the disinterested customs officer really checked all of them? Now that she thought about it, she didn’t think he had.
‘That’s odd,’ she said, feigning surprise. ‘It certainly worked this afternoon at the holocinema. The man there wanted to see my ID as well. Do I really look that young?’ If this wasn’t so damn dangerous, it would almost be a laugh, she thought as she watched the female officer try again. She’d thought of herself as an officer for more than a year, first as a member of the galaxy’s finest Navy (the Imperial), then as one of the better pilots in another Navy that was finer than she’d thought (the Rebels). She was very unlikely to forget her age, but it had never really mattered in the past fourteen months.
‘Well, Miss, I’m afraid we’ll have to check this.’ The officer suddenly looked a lot less polite than he had a minute ago, and Samica noticed that his colleague had her hand on her blaster. It would have to be her to find the only dutiful officer on all Garon II. They knew her ID was a fake, and Stars only knew what would happen next. For an instant, she considered bolting, but that was not a good idea. There was no cover in a hundred metres, and it was dark, and she was in a place she didn’t know.
She could only try to come up with a good story and try to talk her way out of it.
Blast, talking her way out of anything didn’t really sound like Samica Trey.
Samica had realised things were going Really Bad when they took her up to the garrison in an enclosed militia speeder.
She hadn’t dared ask what was wrong with her ID, but somehow they must have figured out she was not a ‘juvenile delinquent.’ They’d taken her comlink as well as the fake ID, so there was nothing she could do to contact Rhun or Dyson, and there was no thinking about bolting now. The two militia officers had handed her over to an Imperial Army trooper when they reached the garrison, and she was unarmed. All things considered, being unarmed was probably the best thing that could have happened to her tonight, for if they’d found a weapon on her, she’d have been in even greater trouble—which didn’t mean she wasn’t already in up to her ears.
She now sat in a cell in the garrison complex, and according to her chrono, she had been for over an hour, alone with her fears and what-ifs. Yes, of course she should have gone straight back to the hotel, yes, she could have handled the ID control more easily and thus got away, but she hadn’t, and the worst thing about it was that Rhun and Dyson were now in danger of being discovered as well, and she had no way of letting them know. Had Rhun felt this way before he was interrogated aboard Resolve? If he had, she apologised silently, even if it had not been her fault that he had ended up there in the detention level—or had it?
Her thoughts went round in circles, and there was only one thing she told herself again and again: she would not, no matter what, betray Rhun or the Alliance. Samica tried not to think about how many Rebels awaiting interrogation had told themselves that.
When the door opened, a captain in an ISB uniform entered, and Samica’s heart sank even further. She’d always despised the ISB and even looked down on them while she was in the Imperial Navy, but from this side of the story, she couldn’t have come off worse. The Imperial Security Bureau was not known for its delicacy in handling Intelligence matters, which made it the Armed Services’ laughing stock, but it was feared by Rebels—for a good reason.
Behind the ISB officer, two stormtroopers entered the room, and behind them, she heard a familiar whirring and bit her lip when she saw the round, shiny black orb of an interrogator droid.
The ISB captain remained standing before her, forcing her to look up to him, which she didn’t.
‘Well, look at what an ID check in a park can get you,’ he said. ‘Such a miserably forged ID. Did you botch that yourself or did your Rebel friends manage that?’
She didn’t answer.
‘You want to make it interesting? Fine with me, we can take all night if you insist. Or all week, until you’ve told me what you want to know. What’s your name? Your real name?’
She finally did look at him. ‘Lou Ryder.’ That was the name her fake ID had given.
He shook his head. ‘Such obstinacy. Let’s jog your memory a bit, shall we?’ He turned to the interrogator droid. ‘OV600.’
The droid whirred towards her, and she closed her eyes. She remembered that Rhun had talked under the influence of the truth drug, remembered how hard he’d struggled and how little it had availed him. Still, the thought of him helped her focus. She would not tell them he was here. There was a stinging sensation in the side of her neck, then the black sphere retreated from her field of vision. She waited for the dizziness she thought must accompany the truth serum—she’d seen its effects on Rhun and on Blissex—and was surprised when she felt none.
‘Now,’ the captain went on after he’d waited for the drug to take effect; at least so Samica supposed, because she still felt nothing out of the ordinary. ‘Let’s try again, shall we? What’s your name?’
‘I’ve already told you, Lou Ry—’ She broke off in a gasp of pain as fire exploded along the skin of her neck, and she doubled over, panting with pain.
‘Well, didn’t your mother tell you that you mustn’t lie?’ she heard the officer’s voice as if through a red haze.
Samica made no reply, her hands gripping the hand rests on the bench she sat on, forcing herself to clamp down on it. She found that she could, if only by force, and made herself clench her teeth against the pain. It seemed to ease off slightly.
There was a new kind of pain as the interrogator gripped her face and forced her to look into his eyes. ‘Your name,’ he demanded.
‘Trey,’ she mouthed.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that,’ was the answer.
‘Trey,’ she repeated, gasping as he let go of her face.
He leaned back, crossing his arms comfortably. ‘See, Lieutenant Trey, that wasn’t so difficult, now was it? All you have to do is tell me, and it won’t hurt. Oh, by the way—’ he stopped to inspect his fingernails, ‘you may have noticed we do know a bit about you already. So save yourself and us the time to lengthen this conversation unnecessarily. I’m sure that’s in your best interest as well.’
Commander Gilles Tonkin tiredly drew a hand over his face and pushed away another stack of datacards that went to his ‘done’ pile without ever having been as much as looked at. Twenty-one hundred hours. Well, the day was still young then.
When he’d been transferred here, he had thought the posting was as good as a funeral, all expenses paid, at that. Not too bad an outlook for a dead man, but a rather bleak perspective for a bright young officer who had just made commander, in the known galaxy’s best navy, at that.
Well, so he had been a bit less than the bright young officer presented by the recruitment machinery, and he’d once or twice made a bad impression with what the examination board had referred to as insubordination. Stranded on Garon II, he’d had two options: do what the Navy expected him to do, which was play dead, or make the most of it. So he’d stayed here . . . the only one who had stayed for longer than two years, longer than ten years. There seemed to be two ways off Garon II: make your peace with the Navy, and be promoted, or blow it completely, and be stationed on an ice rock in the Outer Rim. Tonkin had managed to tread the middle path, staying out of trouble without ever excelling at his job, and they’d left him in command of the TIE squadron at the base. Officially. Unofficially, he practically controlled the whole garrison—Army General Infesen asked his advice on everything that was concerned with actual leadership, and Tonkin supposed that the pale-looking grounddog was very much content with the situation. Infesen had about as much charisma as a Jawa under a general anaesthetic.
And during all this time, Tonkin had been cooking his own little soup, as the Garonic saying went. As most other officers never lasted very long on Garon II—whatever path they took afterwards—he had little trouble controlling them, and Garon II was unimportant enough that they let him. He did not resent the Empire. He left it in peace, and it left him in peace, and right now, that was a situation that worked very well for all concerned. There had been a few problems in the past, especially four weeks ago, when there had been a pro-Rebel demonstration in Gerion. The idiots had actually believed in that propaganda rubbish that Grand Moff Tarkin had blown up Alderaan and then been blasted out of the sky by a single X-wing starfighter. It should be mentioned that Grand Moff Tarkin was supposed to have been aboard a battle station as large as a moon at the time.
The ISB hadn’t been able to find out how the insurgents had been able to call such a demonstration into being without their knowledge (although Tonkin had a few ideas in that regard), and it had been a while until he had the situation safely in his grasp again.
There were rather profitable lines of business to get into in this system, and even if Tonkin had never got exactly rich, he was well content with what he had made out of a position that had looked so hopeless in the beginning. The problem with that was that they left you with an awful lot of paperwork that he could trust very few people with.
An admittance bell chimed, and Tonkin looked up in surprise. He hadn’t thought there was anyone but him still working in the garrison.
‘Come in,’ he said, and Captain Tore Eriksson entered the office. Now here was a bright young officer if ever there was one. Eriksson was one of the pilots that had to have landed here by accident, but Tonkin was glad to have him. An excellent pilot, efficient, loyal, but with a mind of his own, exactly the type of leadership potential Tonkin liked in an officer. He wouldn’t dream about drawing the young man into his own affairs—there were limitations to everything, after all—but as his exec, he was about everything he could have hoped for.
‘I didn’t realise there was someone else working overtime tonight,’ he greeted the captain.
Eriksson made a face. ‘We’re not the only ones, Commander. The Army idiots down there have made a prisoner.’
‘You remember Flight Officer—I mean, Lieutenant Trey, sir?’
Tonkin nodded. He remembered the kid—straight from the Academy, with the typical fuzz on her head from hair that was allowed to grow again after graduation, all knees and hardly any breasts, but a very good pilot, and already with the markings of an excellent officer. It hadn’t really come as a surprise to Tonkin to hear, some time after she’d left, that she had defected to the Rebellion. Any sane woman would, if he was honest, and he had known Trey to be a very sane young woman. The way she had stood up against COMPNOR Captain Lockhart had been impressive, but it had also told Tonkin that Trey was someone not to be taken lightly.
Lockhart had been on Garon II not quite a year ago, sent by the sector Moff for a routine loyalty check. Tonkin remembered the little snoop—Lockhart had sure given him a run for his credits; satisfying him had been more difficult than with most others. Once, the captain had caught Trey coming from a patrol and had thought it might be a good laugh to intimidate a very young female flight officer. When he had begun to get pushy, she’d slapped him across the face. Tonkin really couldn’t fault her, not as a man, because the old goat had positively been begging to be slapped (since the day he’d been born, most likely), but as her commanding officer, he’d found himself pestered by Lockhart to punish her, insisting that she’d tried to seduce him (the very idea of Flight Officer Trey seducing anyone was downright ridiculous).
He’d tried to talk her into seeing reason. Tonkin was not above an inquiry from COMPNOR, and Lockhart threatened to inform his superiors about certain other things he’d seen here in the garrison. She’d finally backed off—Lockhart got his way, and she got an entry into her file about insubordination and indecency. He would have liked to keep her on Garon II, primarily because he wanted to protect her; but after her encounter with Lockhart, she’d insisted on going, thinking that Imperial officers behaved more honourably elsewhere. And look where that belief had got her.
He couldn’t think of anything that might bring her back to Garon II, much less as a Rebel.
‘What the hell’s she doing here?’
‘I can’t say, sir, but the ISB’s got a tough time in finding out.’
‘Yes, sir. Baridan’s been on the lookout, it seems.’
Commander Tonkin carefully eyed his exec. He, too, had served with Trey. ‘So why exactly are you telling me this, Tore?’
‘Well . . . just thought I’d let you know, sir.’ The red-haired, muscular captain saluted and left.
Tonkin scratched his chin. Damn, corruption and smuggling was one charge, high treason was another. The first two might get him off with a dishonourable discharge; the second would get him nothing short of execution. Blast, he had liked Trey, but if she was a Rebel, she had to be kept in check. Again, corruption that everyone knew about was one thing . . . anarchy that would plunge the galaxy into chaos was the other.
Then again, nobody would have to know. He’d be able to pull this one off, he knew, and nobody over at Sector Command would ever know. And what was most important of all—he’d clashed with Baridan before, and he couldn’t risk his position being questioned.
But still, if he helped her, that was high treason, and he was not sure whether he could live with that.
Heck, he’d lived with other things.
And nobody, not even a Rebel, deserved being interrogated by an ISB twit.
The detention block was empty apart from some MSE droids hurrying along the corridors, scurrying out of the commander’s path as he went to Trey’s cell. He thought he could hear her screams through the durasteel walls.
Tonkin inserted his code cylinder into the slot in the door and keyed in his code. The door slid open, and he put his hand on his hips as he looked inside.
Captain Baridan turned at the sound of the door, and his angry expression changed to one of surprise when he saw who had entered. Trey sat on the bench, slumped against the wall, the left side of her face from her hairline down to her shoulder a swollen, angry red mess.
‘Just what do you think you’re doing here, Captain Baridan?’ Commander Tonkin demanded, and the ISB officer turned to him grudgingly. Trey didn’t move.
‘With all due respect, sir, this is an ISB affair, and you have no business here.’
‘I do have business here every time one of you idiots endangers the New Order through your own stupidity,’ Tonkin spat. ‘Come out of there!’
Baridan stuck out his chin. ‘You’re aware I answer only to COMPNOR, sir, not the Imperial Armed Forces.’
‘The hell I am,’ Tonkin replied. ‘Move your butt out here!’
The captain hesitated, but he came out onto the corridor. The commander closed the door behind him. ‘Now, can you tell me what you’re using that stupid OV600 for?’ he demanded.
‘I don’t have to account to you for anything like that,’ Baridan replied stubbornly.
Tonkin snorted. ‘Tell me, Captain, what have you got out of her so far?’
The ISB captain glared. ‘I’m working on it.’
Tonkin crossed his arms over his chest and nodded. ‘She’s not talking at all, is she? That’s the problem with OV600. As soon as the victim realises that lying will cause her pain, she can simply try to keep quiet, right?’
‘There are ways around that. By morning we’ll have all the information she can give us.’
Tonkin shook his head. ‘You seem to forget that the point in this little game is information, not your personal fun. —Oh, that wasn’t meant to be an insult,’ he added, wondering how far he could push the little slime. ‘And the best thing we could get out of her is the location of the Rebel hideout, isn’t it?
‘Accordingly, we’d have to make her betray the Rebellion. You still with me?’
The captain nodded, his eyes blazing.
‘So you really think she’s going to do that? Listen, Captain, if you want her to betray the Rebellion, you have to be a bit more clever than that.’
Baridan crossed his arms as well and looked up at the taller commander. ‘So what do you suggest we do?’ he asked, sounding as if the words were ground out of him.
Tonkin produced an injector from his pocket. ‘Set her free—with a homing device that’ll tell us where she is.’
Suspicion began to show on the ISB man’s face. ‘Where did you get that?’
Tonkin snorted a laugh. ‘I’ve been in touch with every branch here on Garon II, Army and Navy, Intel and COMPNOR. One thing a good commanding officer should do: know his resources. She won’t have any idea, and she’ll lead us right to them.’ He leaned over to the younger man and added, ‘That might be my ticket off this world—and yours.’
‘You would tell them it was my idea?’ Baridan asked dubiously. These ISB jerks were so easy to twist around your finger.
Tonkin shrugged. ‘I get the fame, you get a promotion, and I could put in a good word for you with COMPNOR. That looks a bit more promising than your approach, doesn’t it? If you torture her to death, she won’t be of any more use to us.’
‘But she’s not here on her own,’ Baridan objected. ‘She’s been trying to tell me she is, but she’s lying.’
Tonkin grunted. ‘No doubt. But even if she is, and there are other Rebels here, what do you think will be worth more in the eyes of COMPNOR? A handful of lowly Rebels or a full base of them?’
The captain was not convinced yet. ‘A hawk-bat in hand is worth two on a skyhook.’
Tonkin nodded. ‘Yes, but worth less than several hundred on a skyhook—and they’re a relatively safe catch as well.’ He decided to play his last trump card. Sometimes you had to sink to their level to make a point. ‘And think of it—that way, we’d make her betray the Rebellion after all, even if she doesn’t know.’
He was rewarded by a rare grin of Baridan’s, one that made his stomach churn. ‘You should join the ISB, Commander.’
‘Maybe next time, Captain,’ Tonkin answered.
Samica never knew how she made it back. She knew even less why they’d let her go in the first place, only that it was still dark outside when her head cleared enough for her to become aware of her surroundings again, to find she was lying on the ground in some side street, shivering with cold and pain from her face. It took her three attempts to get up, and several minutes, leaning against the wall, before she thought she could walk. Her knees were shaking so much that she had to lean against the walls for support, and hopelessness gripped her again when she realised she had no idea where she was, or how she could get back to the hotel. It was almost morning, and the thought that someone might find her and, with the best of intentions, call the police, scared her.
She sat down for a few more minutes, trying to calm down, but it was hard to calm down when you had absolutely no idea what had happened. She couldn’t imagine how she had got here, and what the Imps were trying to achieve. She glanced around, but as far as she could tell, there was nobody following her. Which didn’t necessarily mean anything.
She was not even sure what she had told them. She was pretty certain that she had tried to protect Rhun, but the last few hours were little more than a haze. Somewhere in between, she thought she had heard Commander Tonkin’s voice, but she doubted her brain was up to wondering about that as well, so she forced herself to worry about the most immediate necessity: how to get away from here—wherever ‘here’ was.
Samica got up again, and staggered back into a direction that looked to her like the area where their hotel had been. She had to walk for a long time, but at least she was lucky in one respect; whenever she encountered anyone, they cast her just one glance and hurried to be somewhere else. She supposed they probably thought she was on drugs. Which wasn’t too far from the truth.
Somehow, after what seemed an eternity, she made it back to an area she recognised, and even found the hotel again. There was nobody at the reception yet, but after a few attempts, she finally managed to remember the code that opened the door, and she quietly let herself into their small apartment. She was normally very good with numbers.
In the darkness she could make out Rhun lying on the bed, fully dressed, which puzzled her, but she tried to tiptoe around the bed and let him sleep. No such luck. Her foot banged against the bedside locker, and the sound made him jerk upright.
‘Sam!’ he said. ‘You gave me a scare! Where’ve you been? I’ve been looking for you, but . . .’ He let his voice trail off when she didn’t answer and came over to her. ‘What’s happened?’
Samica still didn’t reply. It was dark, but he was sitting to her left, and he gasped as he saw her face.
‘Emperor’s black bones,’ he breathed, gently turning her head around to look at her, careful to touch only her right cheek.
‘Where have you been?’ he whispered again.
‘Ran into an ID control,’ she got out.
‘It didn’t hold,’ he guessed.
She just shook her head.
‘Who did this to you?’ he asked her gently.
‘ISB,’ she answered.
Rhun swallowed. ‘Sam . . . you’ve got to tell me what they did. I know you’d never tell them anything, but . . .’
‘They let me go,’ she whispered. ‘Rhun—I don’t know what happened, I can’t—’
He gently eased her down and stroked her forehead. ‘It’s okay,’ he murmured. ‘I’ve got a medpak here somewhere. Try to get some sleep. It’s all right. You can tell me later. Okay?’
She nodded shakily, and he kissed her temple. ‘It’ll be all right,’ he repeated. ‘We’ll get you checked out, don’t worry.’
He went to fetch the medpak and gave her a painkiller, then searched her clothes for bugs, even scanned her with the bioscanner in the ’pak to hunt for microchips that might have been injected. It didn’t yield any result other than the drug that was wearing off, which it classified as unknown, but Rhun knew that the result was not conclusive—the scanner would only find the more obvious things.
As Rhun sat beside the bed and watched her, asleep now, he wondered what they’d do about this. Samica getting picked up and tortured by the ISB only made things a lot more complicated than they were already, and a lot more dangerous.
He thought about the possibilities. It was possible, of course, but very unlikely, that Sam had returned to the Empire. Rhun couldn’t imagine she had. Which left only two other possible scenarios: they’d let her go, or she’d escaped. He could not really imagine her escaping in her present condition, especially without being able to tell, so that left only one thing: they’d let her go, and Rhun could think of many reasons why the ISB might do something like that. He didn’t like any of them. Most probably, they were either following her or tracking her with a device—his small mediscanner hadn’t found anything, but that didn’t mean there was nothing there. They’d have to get her to Eggshell and scan her more thoroughly there, or leave her behind—which Rhun was not going to do. He knew it was probably not worth the risk, but he just couldn’t leave her, and he was willing to go against prudence in this case and follow his inner voice telling him to sit this one out.
Rhun went over to the window, carefully peering out into the darkness, searching for signs anyone had followed Sam here. Outside, it was completely quiet, the sort of silence just before dawn, and it didn’t feel as if they were being watched. Still, when Rhun went back into the room, he took his blaster from his pack and laid it next to him. His feelings could usually be trusted, but it couldn’t hurt to be cautious.
He’d have to tell Dyson, and, eventually, Commander Willard, and he could only guess at the sorts of complications that would cause. He wasn’t even thinking about the implications of Imperials knowing she was here.
Rhun glanced at his chrono. Nearly six hundred. Dyson was not going to like it, but he’d understand being woken at this time, considering the circumstances.
‘We can’t call off the operation now. We’ve brought them all here, and bringing them back again would be just as dangerous as bringing them out on the Eggshell,’ Dyson’s voice floated into her consciousness.
‘The risk is too great.’ Lieutenant de Boeck.
‘It’s no use speculating,’ Rhun answered. ‘We don’t even know what happened.’
Dyson spoke again. ‘We can only hope she hasn’t led the Imps straight here.’
‘They’d be here already. And what do you think I should have done? Chase her out again?’
Samica made herself open her eyes—her right eye, anyway—and look up. She still felt dizzy, and there still was the pain in her face, but not as bad as last night. She noticed that Rhun must have taken her boots and jacket off. Outside, it was light already.
Rhun noticed she was awake and sat down on the bed, with a glance at Dyson to silence him. ‘How are you?’ he asked.
Instead of answering his question, she looked up at Dyson and de Boeck. ‘I don’t think they found out about the hotel,’ she said, a bit slurred, since the left side of her mouth felt a few sizes too big for her face.
De Boeck shook her head, but there was also compassion in her face for the younger woman. ‘That doesn’t mean anything, Captain,’ she said. ‘Don’t get me wrong, please—I’m glad you made it back here, but I’d feel a lot better if I knew just why they let you go.’
Samica turned towards Rhun. ‘Could it be Commander Tonkin just let me go?’ she asked, almost wishing for him to tell her yes, of course, he’d simply let her walk out like that because he was such a nice person.
Rhun looked at her unhappily. ‘I know he was your former commander, and of course you know him better than I do, but somehow I find that hard to believe,’ he answered.
‘So what are we going to do?’ Samica asked weakly.
‘We’ll get you back to the Eggshell. Under the circumstances, we can’t risk including you tonight. Someone may recognise you. The medical facilities there are better, too, so maybe we’ll find out more about what happened to you.’ Rhun paused. ‘Can you remember anything about last night?’
Samica looked down at her hands and forced herself to remember. ‘He asked me my name, but I think they knew that already. They might have done a retinal scan and compared it to the criminal records or something . . . maybe the Navy records, even. I don’t know.’
‘Who interrogated you?’ Rhun asked. ‘Tonkin?’
She carefully shook her head. ‘No, an ISB captain. I can’t remember much about him. Tonkin was there at some time, I think, but . . . all of that’s really hazy.’
‘Can you recall what they gave you?’ he asked softly.
‘I don’t know. It seemed to react when I was lying, so I tried not to answer at all, but when they asked if I was alone here . . .’ She broke off and bit her lower lip.
Rhun exchanged a glance with Dyson. ‘Do they know who you’re here with?’
‘No, but they know I’m not alone.’
Rhun turned to Samica again. ‘Do they know why we’re here?’ He wanted to know.
‘I don’t think so.’
He looked up again at Dyson and de Boeck. ‘We’ll have to take the chance, Cap,’ he said to the Corellian. ‘There’s really no other way we could get out of this without endangering the fugitives. You’ll stay on Eggshell, Sam, and we’ll come after.’
She only nodded, not feeling in any mood to protest.
Dyson brooded for a while, until, finally, he nodded as well. ‘Firia, I think it’d be best if you took her to the freighter and stayed there with her.’ He wasn’t saying ‘have an eye on her’, but they all knew that it was what he meant. ‘Rhun, I’ll need your help tonight.’
The young man nodded. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘Originally, Firia was supposed to lead one of the groups of refugees to the spaceport, but now you’ll have to do that. But you know the area at least as well, don’t you?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Very well. We’ll separate them into three groups. One goes with me, one with Kjaer, and one with you. We’ve got fourteen, so you’ll take four. We meet at the ship at twenty-one hundred. See to it you’re there in time, because we won’t be able to wait long.’
Rhun asked, ‘You’ve done this kind of thing before, haven’t you?’
Dyson shrugged, then nodded.
‘I thought you always said the Rebellion paid so poorly,’ Rhun remarked with a grin.
‘A soft spot of mine. But don’t tell Commander Willard, or he’ll have me do it for nothing next time.’
It was almost dark already by 17.30, the time Rhun was on his way back to the safe house in Gerion to collect the second group of refugees. Kjaer had already left with his group; Dyson had to be leaving even now. Neither Kjaer nor Rhun knew who exactly was in each group, or which way the others would be taking, so that, if one of them got caught, they couldn’t reveal anything about the others.
They weren’t supposed to face any problems until they came to the spaceport, which was very difficult to enter without being ID-checked, so they had separated as far as possible, in time as well as place, so that, if one of the groups was caught, the others would be far enough away to avoid being detected as well. Dyson would have preferred to leave in the dead of night, but there were two children among the refugees, who had no business out in town so late, thus making it even harder to go unnoticed.
Some of the refugees were politically prosecuted, for sympathising with the Rebels, mostly. Rhun had learned many had started sympathising after the news about Alderaan and the Death Star, and Rebel fractions and resistance organisations had mushroomed everywhere in the galaxy. There weren’t too many on Garon II, but the destruction of Alderaan had not passed unnoticed and unquestioned here, either.
Sam was back on Eggshell with Firia de Boeck, but scanning her with the transport’s equipment hadn’t yielded anything, no foreign bodies or anything else. Rhun desperately wanted to believe that nothing was wrong with her, but he could also understand Dyson’s suspicion where she was concerned. To make sure she couldn’t endanger the mission, she didn’t know where the fugitives would be taken, but Rhun could tell Dyson was not very comfortable with the knowledge that the Empire might have bugged her or something like that. He couldn’t have put the captain at ease with the reassurance that he thought it would be all right, after all. But Rhun was certain, at least, that she hadn’t tried to lie to him.
He reached Kjaer’s house and buzzed. There was a male voice from the inside, asking, ‘Who’s there?’
‘Time to get ready,’ Rhun answered; that was the agreed-on password.
The door opened, and Rhun slipped inside. The man who had opened him was heavy-set, around thirty, with brown hair and an untidy brown beard. Behind him, there was a young woman maybe a bit older than Rhun, and his mother and Ren.
The man nodded at Rhun. ‘We’re going?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ Rhun agreed. ‘Kjaer’s left already?’
The woman nodded. ‘Around fifteen minutes ago; later than expected.’
‘It’ll be better if we wait for half an hour or so, then,’ Rhun decided. ‘We’ve got enough time, and we don’t want to run into them.’
‘Where are we going?’ Ren wanted to know.
Rhun shook his head, but he was grinning. ‘I told you yesterday, you’re going to like it. I can’t say how it’s called, but we’re going to the spaceport first. Then we take a ship to that place. Have you ever been off Garon II?’
‘No. But we went over to the seaside last summer, didn’t we, Mommy?’
The man had listened to the exchange, looking at the child, and then at Rhun, then asked, ‘Are you related, anyhow?’
Rhun grinned more widely. ‘Yep. But sorry, I didn’t remember to introduce myself. I’m Rhun.’ His first name would have to do; if anyone got caught, the name van Leuken would certainly mean something to some people over at the garrison.
The couple then introduced themselves as Trenc and Kiriali. They’d been staying with Kjaer for almost a month, after the Army had broken up a demonstration against the Empire following disconcerting rumours that the Empire was responsible for the destruction of Alderaan.
‘We only barely got away before the others were taken into custody,’ Kiriali said. ‘Before that, I’d taken the whole thing as something like an exciting activity, something to do with your time when your life got too boring, but I never realised how serious it was, and how serious the Empire took the affair.’
‘What happened to those who were taken into custody?’ Rhun asked.
Trenc shrugged. ‘Some got off with imprisonment, but I don’t know about one or two others, the more radical among us. The place was swarming with ISB and COMPNOR for two weeks, and we haven’t been out a lot lately. We knew they were looking for those who got away, and Kjaer told us he knew how to get away from here.’
‘Will you join the Rebellion or just live away from it all?’ Rhun’s mother now asked.
Kiriali pursed her lips. ‘If it’s true what they say—that the Empire is responsible for blowing up Alderaan—they have to be stopped. I don’t know what I can do yet, but I’m certain the Rebels need all sorts of people for all sorts of jobs.’ Rhun nodded. ‘So maybe I’ll wait and watch until I decide how I can help the Rebellion. I’m not a pilot or a soldier, but I suppose there are lots of things everyone can do.’
‘Not voting for them in the next elections, for starters,’ Trenc quipped.
‘I’ll join the Rebellion,’ Ren declared. ‘I’m going to be a pilot, and I’ll make the evil Emperor go away.’
‘First, young man, you’ll have to wait a bit before you’re able to reach the controls of a fighter anyway,’ Rhun damped his brother’s enthusiasm, ‘and I really don’t want to disappoint you, but flying does not run in the family, I’m afraid.’
‘I hope this war is over by the time he’s old enough to be of any help,’ Trenc muttered.
Rhun nodded. ‘So do I.’ He glanced at his wrist chrono. It was nearly eighteen hundred. ‘I think we’d better get going,’ he said to the others. ‘The first part shouldn’t be too difficult.’
They made their way along the blocks of flats, in and out of circles of light from the buildings. The four fugitives were travelling very light; the young couple had one backpack between them, and so did Rhun’s mother, for herself and for Ren. Rhun had offered to carry it for her; she’d looked at him as if he were a very young boy who’d said something very stupid. It was good to be home again.
As Rhun had hoped, the first part of the trip was relatively safe. If they had been carrying trunks or larger pieces of baggage, somebody might have become suspicious, but as it was, there were few people around anyway, and the few that were hardly took any notice. After half an hour, a slow, steady drizzle set in, further discouraging people to linger on the streets for longer than absolutely necessary. Rhun usually wasn’t very fond of rain, but tonight, he was grateful for it.
They had almost reached the edge of town and were approaching the starport area when Rhun suddenly stopped, stretching out a hand behind him to bring Trenc to a halt as well. Ahead in the street, around one corner, there had been voices, voices that sounded commanding. Voices he didn’t want to hear in a moment like this.
‘What is it?’ Ren whispered behind him; at least he had somehow realised speaking aloud would not be a very good idea.
Rhun silenced him with a gesture, then carefully leaned around the corner to look into the street. There were three men, one militia, two customs officers, some fifty metres away. One of them was speaking into a comlink. One more militia officer was standing fifteen metres away from the corner, but with his back to them, and he called back to the others, ‘Yes, but if they were seen on the Starport Road, we can cut them off this way.’
‘Come back here,’ one of the others called. ‘We’ll seal off this quarter; let the Starport Police worry with them.’
‘What if they’re not going to the starport at all?’ the one before them said. ‘The route would take them to the garrison. It could be another of those would-be-rebel sabotage assaults.’
‘The garrison can look after itself,’ the second speaker answered. ‘Come back here, that’s an order!’
Reluctantly, the first militia man started to go, but cast one more glance into their direction. Rhun jerked back behind the building, but too late.
‘Hey!’ the officer called at them, starting to jog into their direction. In the semidarkness, Rhun saw Trenc and his mother cast him a frightened glance, but he put on a reassuring look (he hoped) and stepped forward, Ren at his side. The officer came to a stop behind him, his hand on his belt.
‘How long have you been listening?’ he demanded.
Rhun put on a puzzled expression, sufficiently worried for someone who had never had trouble with any armed forces in his life. ‘Listening? I wasn’t listening, sir.’
The officer eyed him, then Ren, then the other three people behind him. The man’s colleagues were also approaching now. ‘May I see your ID, please?’ he said.
Rhun fervently hoped it would hold better than Sam’s had the night before, but he gave it to the officer, who ran it through his reader. To his relief, it seemed to work. ‘What’s happened?’ he asked, at the same time willing Ren to be quiet. So far, the boy hadn’t opened his mouth once.
‘Yours as well,’ was the officer’s reply, addressed to his mother, who hesitated. They were rescued by one of the customs officers, who had arrived at the corner now. ‘What is it?’ he asked his colleague, his tone indicating patience running out quickly.
‘These were lurking behind the building, sir, so I thought I’d better check what they were up to.’
‘Lurking?’ the other man repeated doubtfully, looking at the group before him.
‘Yes, sir. This man here . . .’ he glanced at Rhun’s forged ID, ‘Haaris . . . he was acting guilty, if you ask me, sir.’
The customs officer bent down to Ren. ‘What’s your name, boy?’
Rhun’s stomach sank. He should have spent more time going over situations like this with the kid. Come on, Ren, make up something, I know you can do it!
Ren hesitated. ‘Ren,’ he finally said.
‘Ren, and what else?’
Ren hesitated even longer, but when he answered, he didn’t even look at Rhun. ‘Ren Haaris,’ he finished, even refraining from grinning.
‘And what are you doing up so late, Ren?’
Rhun knew that the officer hoped to catch the child unawares, so it wouldn’t do if he answered instead. Ren, make something up, but keep it simple . . .
‘We were visiting family,’ Ren replied. ‘We had a—a family reunion.’ He seemed to remember something, turning around to his mother. ‘And Uncle gave me a giant cuddly toy, and Mommy is carrying it, do you want to see it? Can he, Mom?’
The customs officer laughed in an avuncular way and straightened again. ‘No, that won’t be necessary. Just see you get the boy into bed, ma’am, won’t you?’
Riga nodded, replying, ‘Yes, sir, of course. He really ought to be sleeping.’
Ren even remembered to protest, and Rhun couldn’t help but admire his brother’s presence of mind. ‘Sorry if we caused any trouble,’ he told the customs officer, but the man waved it off. ‘Good evening,’ he said, then turned around to his colleague, the friendliness gone from his voice. ‘Drunkards and children always tell the truth,’ he told him. ‘His ID was all right?’
‘Yes, sir,’ the other man said grudgingly.
The officer gave Rhun a nod to indicate they could go, and Rhun didn’t plan to wait until he had time to change his mind. As soon as they were out of sight as well as earshot of the group, he stopped in a deserted courtyard and pulled out his comlink to contact Dyson. The smuggler answered promptly.
‘Rhun here,’ Rhun said quietly. ‘Cap, did you run into any patrols along your way?’
There was a short pause at the other end. ‘Yes, once, but we thought we’d lost them successfully.’
Rhun nodded. ‘They’re still looking for you. They are not sure if you are on your way to the garrison or the spaceport, but they must have realised you were up to something. You don’t have any kids with you, do you?’
‘No, Kjaer’s got the other one. Why?’
‘Less conspicuous. Where are you now?’
‘About to enter the spaceport.’ Dyson paused, thinking. ‘We were delayed with losing those folks. Are you at the port already?’
‘But you didn’t attract any attention?’
‘Not too much. Ren helped us out.’ With a grin, he ruffled his brother’s hair, and the boy grinned.
‘Hug him from me. Well . . . let’s both go in right now. We’ve only got an hour left before the cavalry arrives.’
‘Right,’ Rhun replied. ‘I’m out.’ He shut off the comlink and turned to the others. ‘We can reach the ship in half an hour,’ he told them. ‘Let’s move.’
‘Who’s the cavalry?’ Ren wanted to know.
‘A fighter pilot who’s going to help us if we are followed from the spaceport,’ Rhun replied. ‘By the way, Ren . . . you acted like a real pro back there. You sure you’re not going to be in Intelligence when you’re older? How did you think of that so quickly?’
The boy shrugged. ‘I’m not sure. I thought that’s what you would have said.’
‘Pretty much,’ Rhun admitted.
‘What do you do in Intelligence?’ Ren asked as they got going again.
‘Same thing you did back there, really. Sneak around places you’re not supposed to be and get out again.’
Ren shook his head. ‘No. I want to be a pilot. That pilot who will help us, what sort of ship does he have? A TIE fighter?’
‘No, Ren, only the Empire has TIE fighters.’ He took him by the hand. ‘And now I want you to be real quiet, okay? We don’t want anyone to see us, and in the spaceport, we can’t just talk our way out the way we did just now. They’ll want to see your IDs, and they mustn’t see Mom’s.’
‘Because of our surname.’
Riga touched her older son’s arm and asked him quietly, ‘You don’t think it would be better to call it off for tonight? With some local militia people on alert . . .’
Rhun shook his head. ‘We’re almost there, and we won’t get a chance like this again. We’ll be able to lift off as soon as we’re there, with Dyson so close, and be out of here. There are guards at the starport, but the area is large, and it’s dark. As soon as we’re in, we’re almost safe.’
‘How do we get in, then?’
‘We’re almost there.’
Rhun led them to a massive three-storey building looking over the edge of the spaceport. The whole area was fenced off by three-metre duracrete wall; even if it was a civilian facility, there were enough smugglers and pirates in the system to warrant tighter defences than at normal spaceports. There were gates in the wall at five hundred metre intervals, but they were all guarded by customs points.
‘How are we supposed to get past the guards?’ the young woman, Kiriali, asked.
‘We don’t,’ Rhun said, looking up at the building. There was a dull stomping sound from inside, as if from music. The back wall had no windows, but as they stood there, something moved on top of the building. Then a durarope ladder was lowered down to the ground.
‘Who’s up there?’ Trenc asked, aghast, but he kept his voice low. ‘Why are they helping us?’
‘This is the “Stardust”,’ Rhun answered, equally softly. ‘We’re getting help from here.’ He knew that Dyson knew the owner, who did the smuggler a favour from time to time. It paid to have acquaintances in all sorts of places, it seemed.
Kiriali made sure the ladder was secure, then grasped the rope and climbed up. Rhun carefully cast a look around. There was nobody to be seen, and he knew Dyson´s ‘acquaintance’ had an even better lookout from up there, and would warn them when anyone approached.
Trenc was next, then Rhun told Ren to climb. ‘You’re not scared, are you?’ he asked him softly.
Ren shook his head, but he didn’t look convinced.
‘I’m directly behind you, Ren,’ his mother reassured him. ‘You can’t fall. Just look up, not down.’
‘Okay,’ Ren said, still uncertain, but he closed his hands around the first rung and started to climb. Riga stayed close behind him.
They were halfway up when there was a low whistle from the roof, and Rhun froze when he heard the crunch of boots behind him, half expecting to see a customs officer—or worse—when he turned, but suppressed a relieved sigh when he saw that the man approaching them was dressed in civilian clothing and walking very shakily. Before he was closer than two metres, Rhun could smell the booze. From the corner of his eye, he saw that both his mother and Ren had frozen on the spot.
The man, somewhere around thirty, did not do Rhun the favour to just go past him, but stopped before him, swaying slightly. Rhun made sure he stood before the end of the ladder so the drunk couldn’t see it.
‘Tell ya, I showed ’em,’ the man blabbered.
‘You sure did,’ Rhun agreed, then turning away to make him lose interest. No such luck. The drunk eyed him, then remarked, ‘You were there?’
‘You bet I was,’ Rhun confirmed. ‘Really impressive.’ From above, he could hear what sounded like a moan from Ren; the boy wouldn’t be able to keep quiet up there much longer.
‘But I didn’t see you there,’ the man went on, and Rhun turned his face away in disgust. The man’s breath would have been enough to make you drunk yourself.
‘I was near the back,’ Rhun answered, then turned the drunkard by the shoulder. ‘But I bet they haven’t had enough, right? There—go back and show them what’s what.’
The man gave Rhun a long, searching look, and Rhun heard Ren whimper up on the ladder. ‘Go on,’ he encouraged him. ‘I’ll come after. If you show them again, I’ll buy you another drink.’
‘Corellian?’ the man asked.
‘Sure, whatever you like. Come on.’
Rhun heaved another sigh when the drunk finally wobbled away, still muttering to himself, then he looked up. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked softly.
‘Come on, Ren,’ he heard his mother’s voice. ‘It’s only a few more metres.’
Rhun began to climb up himself, after another careful look around, but then he saw someone coming down from the roof to help Ren: Trenc. As quickly as he could, he followed them up, then crouched on the flat roof and looked around. Ren was sitting near the edge of the surface, in his mother’s arms, Trenc standing by, with Kiriali helping another figure to pull up the ladder. It was a burly man, in his forties, with balding brown hair. Rhun recognised him as the bartender of the ‘Stardust’. It did pay to have friends in all sorts of places.
‘Gotta get down from here quick,’ the man said, pulling the ladder up the rest of the way and storing it in its hiding place in a small shed on the roof. There was a small window some five metres away, through which Rhun could see light.
‘Are the others here already?’ Rhun asked.
The bartender grunted. ‘Kjaer came through here an hour ago, but I haven’t seen Dyson. He’d told me he’d be here by twenty hundred, but that was an hour and a half ago.’
‘He got delayed,’ Rhun answered. ‘He’ll be here in a moment. Or maybe he knows another way in. Which way from here?’
The burly man indicated the window. ‘In there,’ he said. ‘There’s a ladder that leads down to the gents’ room—sorry about the inconvenience,’ he added to Rhun’s mother and Kiriali.
Kiriali raised an eyebrow. ‘As long as I don’t bump into someone when I climb down there,’ she said.
The barman shook his head. ‘I put up a sign saying “Out of order.” Make sure nobody sees you coming out of there, though. But that shouldn’t be too difficult, what with the sign and all.’
‘Thank you,’ Rhun said. ‘Thanks for everything.’
‘That’s all right,’ the man replied. ‘Just remind me to get suspicious the next time Dyson asks me to return a favour.’
‘Do we have to climb again?’ Ren asked in a very small voice.
‘Yes, I’m afraid so,’ Rhun answered, squeezing his brother’s shoulder. ‘But it’s only down this time, and it’s only one level, not three.’ He looked at the others. ‘Ready?’
‘Let’s go,’ Kiriali said. Rhun remembered she had already indicated she might want to join the Alliance. She had said she didn’t know how to fight, but she had a lot of courage and determination. A good person to have around.
‘Okay, let’s go, then,’ he said.
‘I’ll wait for Dyson,’ the barman offered. ‘They won’t miss me downstairs; it’s not very full today.’
Rhun nodded, then hurried to follow the others down into the building.
They didn’t have any trouble getting down and out of the bar, and Rhun made sure nobody saw them, not only on their way from the ’freshers, but also when they left the ‘Stardust’. A child Ren’s age was bound to attract attention at this time, and attention was the last thing they needed. As soon as they left the building, there would be fewer people, but the people they were likely to run into out there were best avoided.
The place in front of the ‘Stardust’ was empty. The rain had increased in strength, puddles reflecting navigation lights, which suited Rhun fine. They had to cover about a mile to the place where Eggshell was docked, and they crossed from one shadow to the next, keeping close to buildings and sheds.
‘Rhun,’ Ren suddenly said, tucking his sleeve. ‘It’s not far anymore, is it? I’m so tired . . . and my side hurts.’
Rhun remembered the boy’s injured ribs. ‘Come on, Ren,’ he said, bending down to pick him up. ‘I’ll carry you for a while. But not the whole trip, okay?’
‘Okay,’ Ren agreed, looking a lot happier.
Shifting his brother’s weight (a bit more than he’d expected, actually) he looked around another corner, then considered retreating again when he saw an Imperial customs officer walking across the pad. But the man had already seen them, so he guessed attack was the best means of defence—figuratively speaking—and walked out, pretending to be intent on his way. It was good luck, Rhun thought, that it was Dyson who had been seen by the militia and not Kjaer, in whose group there had also been one child; at the moment, Ren’s presence might make them an unusual sight at this time of night, but also very unlikely candidates for anything untoward—he hoped.
The officer cast them only a cursory glance, then hurried on, doubtlessly wishing to get out of the rain, when he stopped and looked at them again. Rhun’s heart sank. The officer came towards them, eyeing especially Trenc and his mother, who were carrying their packs.
‘You’re out late,’ the Imperial observed.
‘We got a bit delayed shopping in town,’ Rhun replied.
‘And now we’re looking for our landing pad,’ Ren added. He seemed to have developed a taste for playing Intel agent, but right now, Rhun would have preferred him to keep quiet.
‘Which is your ship?’ the officer asked.
To Rhun’s relief, Ren kept shut. ‘The Easy Rider,’ he replied, looking around. ‘But I think I know where she is again. Over there, if I remember correctly. These hangars and stuff all look the same in the dark, don’t they?’
‘Now, I always say we should have a more thoroughly organised landing area,’ the official replied, without making any move to go away. ‘Like the military spaceport over at the garrison. Impossible losing one’s way over there. But the New Order is slow to catch hold in as out-of-the-way a place as this, unfortunately.’ Rhun nodded, getting ready to go, when the Imperial offered, ‘Well, I’ll see you over to your ship. Easy Going, was it?’
‘Ah—Rider,’ Rhun amended, cursing inwardly. He’d have to be really lucky if there was a ship of that name here, but maybe the man wouldn’t check that—and at least it would draw him away from where the Eggshell stood. But it would draw them away, too. If his reckoning was correct, they couldn’t have much more time left than maybe fifteen minutes.
They followed the Imp across the landing pad to the place where Rhun had said their ship was when Ren said sleepily, ‘The evil Emperor lied to him, too, didn’t he?’
Rhun’s blood froze, and the officer turned. ‘What did the boy say?’
Rhun’s mind raced. ‘Oh, that was a line from a holodrama we saw today,’ he said. ‘“With the genial Emperor lies the hope of the galaxy.” It’s from Win or Die. He’s absolutely crazy about that holo, wants to join the Navy when he’s grown.’
The Imperial seemed pleased. ‘Oh, that’s good. We always need bright kids like you.’ He was just about to resume the way when a look that Rhun didn’t like at all crossed his face. ‘When did you say you saw the movie?’
‘Uh—today,’ Rhun said. ‘This afternoon.’
‘The movie was dropped yesterday. He didn’t say anything about the genial Emperor at all, did he?’
The customs officer had his blaster out in an instant, but before Rhun could get rid of Ren, Trenc was there, grappling the Imperial from behind, his arm tight around the surprised man’s throat. He got off a shot, but it went wide; nonetheless, it had to have been heard or seen by somebody. Trenc fought to struggle the resisting officer down, and Rhun, who had finally put down his brother, came to his help. The Imperial gave a strangled sound, trying to cry for help, when Trenc got his hold on the man’s throat, and the Imperial slumped down.
Ren stared at the form on the ground. ‘Is he dead?’ he whispered, between fascination and utter horror.
‘I don’t know,’ Rhun answered truthfully, picked the boy up again and turned to the others. ‘Come on, this way, quick! If they see us running towards the Eggshell, we’re dead!’ He didn’t wait for a reply, only turned to make sure everybody was following him, then kept running along one of the hangar halls, on a roundabout course that would eventually lead them towards the freighter.
They hunched down behind a building when they saw a group of several militia men jogging across the field, glowrods in their hands, but they ran past without noticing them. Rhun was up again the instant they had turned a corner, running on. Ren seemed to be getting heavier every minute, but in his condition, the boy wouldn't be able to keep their pace.
Across the pad where Eggshell was docked, Rhun paused again, waiting for the others to catch up, and carefully glanced about him. They seemed to have succeeded in leading the police to the wrong area. He took out his comlink and cracked it two times, hoping de Boeck would be there to pick up his signal.
She was; an instant later, a double crack came back, indicating all was clear. Then the ramp opened on the Eggshell; the lights remained out, so nobody would see unless he looked that way directly.
Rhun nodded to the three others, then they all ran across the landing pad into the waiting freighter. Kjaer was standing at the ramp when they hurried up.
‘Is that all?’ he asked when Rhun, Ren, their mother, Kiriali and Trenc had entered the ship.
‘Yep,’ Rhun answered. ‘We’re all here. We can start if you’re ready.’
Kjaer’s face fell. ‘Dyson was not with you, then?’
Rhun stared at him, his stomach knotting. ‘You mean, he’s not here?’
‘Sithspit,’ Kjaer hissed. He closed the ramp, then keyed his comlink. ‘This is Kjaer. Do you copy?’
Rhun didn’t need his expression to tell that there had been no answer; the silence had been enough.
‘Are you all in?’ they heard Lieutenant de Boeck’s voice over the ship’s intercom. ‘We’ve got clearance for take-off.’
Rhun ran into the cockpit, after he’d handed Ren to his mother again. ‘We can’t lift off now,’ he panted. ‘Dyson’s missing.’
‘I thought he was with you?’ de Boeck said, turning in her chair. Samica was in the cockpit as well, as were several other refugees.
‘So did Kjaer,’ Rhun replied.
De Boeck shook her head. ‘We can’t stay, van Leuken. They’ll close the spaceport, and there’s Cargill waiting upstairs. They’ll get all of us if we don’t take off now.’
Rhun’s jaw was working as his mind raced. According to the chrono on the ship’s command console, they had six minutes left. Too little to go look for Dyson even without Imps looking for them, and with the Imps alerted to their presence, it could only be a matter of minutes before the starport was closed and all ships searched.
‘We can’t help him, Rhun,’ Samica said gently. Rhun looked up at her as if he saw her for the first time. Her face looked still puffy and discoloured, but her eyes were clear.
‘But I can’t leave him here,’ he said, helplessly, remembering another time, another ship, where he’d been forced to leave a man behind who’d been more than just a superior. From Samica’s expression, she was thinking the same. ‘And I must have led them straight into him . . .’
‘There’s nothing we can do.’ De Boeck’s voice was tight, but Rhun could already feel the engines working under him as the co-pilot prepared the ship for takeoff.
When Eggshell cleared the landing pad, Rhun pressed his face against the cool transparisteel viewport and looked out into the blackness, at the quickly receding lights of Gerion. Leaving Sergeant Haynes aboard the Star Destroyer Resolve had been one of the most terrible moments of his life, and he knew he simply could not leave Dyson behind now. I’ll get you out of there, Cap, he told himself as they entered atmosphere. I don’t care what it takes and against what orders I have to go to do it, but I will get you out of there.
The whisky had never tasted particularly good; after the fourth glass, it tasted of the dishwater that was probably the basis of the brew anyway. It was a good thing, van Leuken reflected, that it numbed his taste sufficiently so he didn’t care a lot. He couldn’t have said he drank the stuff because he liked it. He drank it because . . . ah, to hell with it. He drained the rest and considered ordering another glass, but then decided against it, rising a bit unsteadily and leaving the bar. The barman never tried to remind him to pay; he’d wait until the next time. There was always a next time.
Night shifts were rotten, but night shifts in rainy weather were a pain. Good thing that rain around Gerion was rare enough, but that didn’t make it any better. Van Leuken could think of about a hundred better things to do than scanning the spaceport for fugitives all night when the authorities knew all along they’d gotten away by ship. Then there had been the group that was supposed to have been seen around 21.30 but had vanished into thin air, and they’d been stuck searching the whole city for five people. The ones they’d been looking for had probably been inside the whole night, while his squad had been soaking outside. Very few people would believe how much water could get into stormtrooper armour if he told them.
Outside, the rain had stopped. It had stopped the instant the shift had ended, of course. Van Leuken steadied himself on the corner of the building, then began to walk home.
Home. That sounded as if it was a place he’d like to be, but he hadn’t liked it for years, and had begun to hate it four weeks ago. He’d spent most of his free time in bars, anywhere, just to avoid getting back to that place.
Twenty-five years ago, Gorn van Leuken had seen the future as bright and promising, a hopeful young colonist arriving on a newly colonised world, with a heavily pregnant, beautiful young wife and dreams about owning a small farm, an uncomplicated, simple life. His eldest son, Jon, had been born on Garon II, and Rhun had come two years later. Then Senator Palpatine had become Emperor, and Gerion had needed people for the armed forces.
Fighting for the New Order after the chaos of the Republic had been all Gorn had ever wanted. He’d become a corporal in the Army after two years of service, sergeant after another five, and he’d been happy. His two boys would follow in his footsteps, and he could look forward to a fine pension after retirement.
Then Jon had reached sixteen, and everything had changed. He’d said he didn’t want to become a soldier, wanted to study astrophysics on Tergon. They’d had violent rows in those days, but finally he’d gotten the boy to be realistic. His grades hadn’t really been good enough for studying, and after a while, he’d stopped discussing and joined the Army.
Gorn had hoped Jon would get used to it, but he never had. His father had counted on the Army putting an end to his daydreaming and woolgathering. He’d been wrong. After two months, Jon had asked him to get him out of the Army on a discharge, anything, but Gorn had refused, told the boy to pull himself together and prove himself. Two days later, Gorn had been called over to the shooting range. Jon had put a gun in his mouth.
He had never told Riga or Rhun. They hadn’t seen his body, and Jon’s suicide had been declared an accident for the files, doubtlessly because of his own position in the Army. But Gorn van Leuken knew, and couldn’t forget the sight, and his only comfort had been alcohol—and the hope that Rhun would make him forget.
Rhun was made of different stuff. Jon had always been soft, but Gorn knew that Rhun would make a better soldier than his brother had, would be better suited to the drill. When Rhun had started having his rebellious ideas, just before his sixteenth birthday, they’d had much the same arguments he’d had with Jon two years earlier, but with Rhun, they had been much fiercer. As with Jon, however, he’d convinced him to go—or so he’d thought at the time.
The morning after Rhun’s sixteenth birthday, he learned that his son had never arrived at the garrison, but had run away from the gathering point. Now Riga had been furious, making him responsible for the boy’s behaviour. Gorn had heard about his son three times after that. The first time, he’d heard that he’d been seen breaking into a store in Gerion, but they had never caught him. Some years later, he’d seen Rhun’s face on a wanted holo; he’d gone off and joined the Rebels. And half a year ago, he’d heard, incredulously, that his son was in part responsible for blowing up a Victory-class Star Destroyer.
He hadn’t told Riga either of this news. In fact, he hadn’t told her much after Rhun had run away. The family had survived Jon’s loss, barely, but it hadn’t survived Rhun’s. Riga had actually tried to side with the brat after what he’d done, and she’d poisoned Ren against his father, too—Ren, who had been a few months old when Rhun ran off to become a petty criminal.
Life hadn’t been the same afterwards, even if he tried to pretend it was. When he’d been told his son was now a Rebel, he had been about to be promoted to sergeant major, something he’d worked hard to achieve, but the investigation committee that followed as a consequence had suspended the promotion indefinitely. He’d never heard from them again.
His drinking had become a proper stinging then, and thinking of that Rebel who bore his name made him more and more furious as the news trickled in. He knew that Riga had tried to estrange Ren, too, and he’d lost it a couple of times when they had arguments about Ren’s future. Damn it, the boy wanted to be a pilot, the first of his children ever to want anything he approved of, so how could she tell him he mustn’t? Gorn remembered he’d been completely plastered when they’d had that particular argument, and afterwards, he’d been sorry that he’d hit her, and hit Ren, but by then, it had been too late for that. When he’d come back from work that night, she’d been gone, and Ren with her, without as much as a note on the kitchen console. All that was left of his high hopes was an empty flat that awaited him every night, and no sign of his wife or child.
Gorn van Leuken hated this flat.
‘Rhun, this is insane.’
They were sitting aboard Eggshell on Garon III, de Boeck, Cargill, Qelmam, Kjaer, Samica, and Rhun. No Imperial ship had tried to follow them, and the ease with which they’d made it off Garon II almost seemed like a bad joke at the thought that they’d had to leave the Captain behind.
Rhun only continued staring at his folded hands in front of him. ‘I you won’t help me, that’s all right, but you can’t keep me from going.’
‘Yes, I can,’ Firia de Boeck said.
‘Yep. You can’t fly down yourself.’
Rhun looked up sharply, realising she was right. He did need the help of someone to get down to Garon II again, and it didn’t surprise him when Samica spoke.
‘I still think it’s dangerous, but I’ll come with you.’
Rhun was certain that was what de Boeck had intended, and she’d intended to have him back off to protect Sam, but here she’d been wrong. He shook his head and looked at the pilot. ‘No, Sam, you can’t go back there. Even if you were completely well again—which I’m pretty sure you aren’t—it would be madness for you to return to Gerion.’
‘You’ll let it drop, then?’ de Boeck asked.
‘No. I only said it was too dangerous for Sam. I’ll go.’
‘I’ll find a way, dammit! Lieutenant, I know it’s unlikely to find Dyson again, but I won’t go back unless I’ve tried!’
Cargill scratched his head. ‘What does our flight plan say? Is it really that tight?’
‘We’re not talking about the flight plan,’ Qelmam told the Corellian. ‘Apart from the fact that the odds for finding Dyson are nearly nonexistent, it would mean getting ourselves into danger.’
Rhun glowered at the Mon Calamari. ‘What we’re talking about is Captain Dyson, and we can still find him if we’d only try. He doesn’t necessarily have to be in enemy hands now. If anyone can wiggle out of that, he can. He was only a few minutes behind us, maybe he only got delayed.’ He looked de Boeck in the eyes. ‘Come on, Lieutenant, you know there’s a good chance he’s still at large.’
‘If he’s at large, he’ll get out without our help.’
‘Not without mine. I’m going. If he’s all right, fine, if he isn’t, I won’t forgive myself for not trying.’
De Boeck sighed, raking a hand through her blond hair. ‘Damn, you sound like my conscience, Rhun,’ she said.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ he said moderately.
The lieutenant briskly sat back from the table and put her hands flat on the table’s surface. ‘All right. Qelmam, we’ll hire some ship from the station here. You’re in command until I’m back—or Dyson’s back,’ she amended. ‘If Rhun and I are not back in six days, you get out of here.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ the astrogator answered unhappily.
Rhun turned to Samica before she could say anything. ‘Sorry, Sam, but you really have to stay here. Who’s going to get us out of trouble and shoot us a way away from Garon III when we get back, huh?’
She briefly rested her head on his shoulder. ‘It’s not being left behind with the women and children,’ she said with a bitter smile. ‘You think I’m a danger, don’t you?’
Rhun shook his head. ‘No, I don’t. I want you to stay out of trouble, and there isn’t a lot you could do anyway.’
‘I’d be with you,’ she said.
‘I’ve got a little brother who’d be happy if he could bombard you with questions,’ Rhun said with a wry grin. ‘And I’ll be back in less than six days.’
She squeezed him briefly. ‘Take care of yourself, okay?’
He returned the hug, then let her go. ‘Always do.’
‘Remind me to put this ship on my list of things for which to give you a trouncing, van Leuken,’ de Boeck said as she manoeuvred the Sunbeam-class inter-system transport into Garon II’s atmosphere.
Rhun didn’t reply; he couldn’t have said he had more important things to do—he couldn’t do anything in this miserable rust bucket that passed for a ship for the Rodian who had lent it to them—but he was occupied with looking out of the bubble-like viewport and praying the ship would hold together. The reason why they had chosen the Sunbeam was that its emissions were low enough to enter atmosphere without being detected by the starport authorities, but the Rodian had failed to mention that this was not due to superior stealth technology, but a very, very poor sublight engine. Rhun had been positive that the thing would make the trip to Garon II; that had been before the emergency environmental control, the starboard stabiliser wing and the comm system had collapsed. Within ten minutes.
At least he could now convince himself that de Boeck was a good enough pilot to bring them down in one piece (or at least two fairly large ones). Furthermore, she seemed to be experienced in making failed systems work again, hotwiring, kicking or simply begging if nothing else helped. So far, it seemed to work.
De Boeck flew the freighter down towards the planet, then skimming the surface at a hundred metres to further evade enemy detection systems. After several kilometres, she brought the ship down in a hilly patch, sufficiently overgrown to camouflage the ship from casual observers.
Rhun and de Boeck had laid their plans carefully. They had landed twenty kilometres outside Gerion, in no-man’s-land nobody was very likely to enter, and in order to be able to reach the town, they had brought a speeder in the hold of their freighter. The speeder had been courtesy of the Rodian, after Rhun had pointed out that the ship itself was not worth half the price he’d demanded, even if they’d wanted to buy it. De Boeck had still been forced to spend a lot of money on the equipment, but she hadn’t tried to make Rhun feel guilty. He did so anyway. He had very little money, not nearly enough to cover the expenses.
Almost two days had passed since their departure aboard Eggshell (the Sunbeam had been very slow), and they entered the city without difficulty. They both had agreed they’d check the ‘Stardust’ first, since the owner might have seen something or even be hiding Dyson.
It was late afternoon, and the bar had just begun to fill, but they caught the barman in a quiet moment.
The burly man was surprised and maybe a little frightened to see them. ‘What are you doing here?’ he hissed. ‘I thought you’d left two days ago!’
‘We wanted to,’ Rhun answered, ‘but Dyson wasn’t with us. Did you see him, after you helped us?’
‘No, haven’t seen him since,’ the man replied. ‘I gave up waiting about an hour later. I thought I’d heard shooting further off, but I’m not sure.’
‘Damn,’ de Boeck murmured. ‘You didn’t hear anything afterwards?’
The barman suddenly stared into the air as if trying to figure something out. ‘Wait—I got an odd message yesterday. It asked for a password, but I didn’t know it. There was no sender.’
‘Can you give us the message?’ Rhun asked excitedly.
‘Can’t do much harm, what with the password and all, I guess, can it?’ the man answered. ‘I’ve got it on my terminal. Wait a moment.’ He let his eyes wander across the bar to make sure he could be spared for a minute or two, then went into the small room adjoining the kitchen.
He was back a few minutes later, with a datapad. ‘It’s on here,’ he said as he handed the device to de Boeck.
‘Can I?’ Rhun asked, and took it. He brought up the message. There was nothing but the date, which was yesterday’s, and the recipient, but no address or sender’s name. As soon as he brought it up, two words blinked on the screen: ENTER PASSWORD.
Rhun rubbed his nose, then, on a hunch, typed in, ATMOS. At once, the screen flickered, at a short message appeared.
De Boeck stared at Rhun. ‘What did you do?’
He grinned at her. ‘Read the captain’s mind.’ He bent over the datapad again to read the message, but was more puzzled with it than he’d been with the password. It read,
TO DO LIST:
FILL FOOD PROCESSOR UP
CHECK PORT ENGINE
TALK TO SPACE TRAFFIC CONTROLLER
GET SHIPMENT FROM RENKI
BUILD NEW ASTROGATION UNIT IN
REPAIR ENTRY HATCH
CLEAR UP TERMINAL
BUY FLOWERS FOR LARIS
De Boeck read the message over Rhun’s shoulder, then shot him a questioning look. ‘Any ideas?’ she asked.
‘Not yet,’ he replied quietly. ‘But I’d prefer to do this in private.’
De Boeck nodded. ‘Thanks, Josk,’ she told the barman. ‘We’ll try not to draw you into this any more . . . anyway, for your trouble.’ She gave him a credit chip. Rhun couldn’t see how much it was, but the man grinned as he tucked it into his pocket. ‘Anytime, ma’am. And tell the old pirate he can get me into trouble any day.’
Rhun and de Boeck left the bar and went back to their speeder. The vehicle was enclosed, so they could brood over the message without being watched or eavesdropped on.
De Boeck studied the message once more. ‘Maybe this Renki?’ she asked. ‘He could be the key—or she, whatever it its. Or Laris?’
Rhun shook his head. ‘This is not a real to do list,’ he said. ‘And we’re not supposed to take it as one.’
‘What makes you think so?’ de Boeck asked. ‘Do you know Renki and Laris?’
‘Renki, no. Laris . . . yes.’
‘Who is she, then?’ the lieutenant asked, becoming slightly impatient.
‘His wife,’ Rhun answered.
De Boeck stared at him, her earlier irritation forgotten. ‘His wife? Grant’s married?’
‘Was,’ Rhun amended softly. ‘A long time ago, I think. He’d married her just after he’d bought the Cause. Then he came back from a tour and found she’d died in a speeder crash. He told me about her once when I caught him staring at a holo of her. He keeps it in his bunkroom.’
‘He never told me,’ de Boeck said.
Rhun shrugged. ‘He doesn’t tell many people. I’m certain he would have told you some day.’
She looked at the screen again. ‘So this is not an actual to do list. Um—maybe the first letters read together?’
‘Fctgbrpcbb,’ Rhun said, not sounding very convinced.
‘The last letters,’ de Boeck exclaimed. ‘Perin . . . hills.’
Rhun raised an eyebrow. ‘Sounds good,’ he said. ‘But what is it?’
‘Is there a place called Perin Hills around here?’
Rhun shook his head. ‘None that I know of.’
De Boeck brooded again. ‘But it has to be the last letters,’ she said. ‘That would account for the strange name Renki—he couldn’t find a proper word ending in i.’ She continued staring at the message a moment longer, then suddenly clapped her hand against her forehead and started the speeder engine.
Rhun watched her as she grinned and shook her head. ‘You don’t mind telling me what this means, do you?’
‘It should read “Per in hills,” not Perin Hills,’ she explained. ‘Per is one of Grant’s contacts here on Garon II. Grant normally avoids dealing with him when he can, but it seems he didn’t have a choice.’
‘Why? Who is this Per?’
‘A funny old man living in the hills. He sometimes helps us when we need to hide someone, and he’s some sort of medic. I don’t have any idea how Grant met him, but he’s known him for years. Maybe someone from his group was wounded so they brought him there.’
‘What’s so funny about him?’
‘He’s got a screw loose, if you ask me. But you’ll see for yourself when we get there.’
‘. . . so the stormtrooper tells the TIE pilot, “Don’t worry, sister, mine’s a BlasTech DLT-20A!”’
Laughter ensued around the table, whooping and yelling encouraging the speaker to add another one, but the eight stormtroopers in the ready room fell silent at once when their sergeant entered. Gorn van Leuken’s face was surly as they all scrambled to their feet, reaching for their helmets.
‘We’ve got a hint that might lead to the fugitives that escaped two days ago,’ he told them. ‘G-6585, get the Hoverscout.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the trooper answered, put on his helmet and briskly walked out of the room towards the vehicle hangar.
They arrived at the spaceport fifteen minutes later, the sun already setting behind the hills. Evening had brought out all sorts of people now entering the various bars and clubs around the port, but the one van Leuken was looking for awaited them in a customs checkpoint next to the place called ‘Stardust’. He was a heavy-set man in his forties, now rising as they entered, and van Leuken stood before him. He was glad his helmet concealed his features. Gorn van Leuken loathed spies, but they were part of the way things went here.
‘You’ve something to tell us?’ van Leuken said.
‘Yes, sir. You were looking for a couple of people who escaped you some time ago?’
‘Two of them came to my bar a few hours ago. The third one is still on the planet, by the way it looks. I don’t know where they went, but I’ve got the number of their speeder, and a surveillance holo.’
‘No idea where they went from here?’
‘No, sir. They were careful not to talk in front of me, but I don’t think they suspect me.’
‘Give me the number and the holo; we’ll find them.’ Van Leuken took the datacard the barman gave him, then gestured for the squad to leave. He almost smiled at the informer’s disappointed face as he made no move to reward him for his trouble.
Back in the Hoverscout, van Leuken sat before the comm unit to transmit the data to the base. He looked at it before he sent the transmission; the speeder was a very old model, but one that was not produced on-planet. It shouldn’t be too difficult to trace it.
The holo showed two people, a man and a woman. The woman was slim, with long blond hair, looking at the man, who was bending over a datapad, so that his face wasn’t very well visible. He, too, was blond, slightly darker than the woman—
Sergeant van Leuken sat motionless for several seconds, then he transmitted the speeder’s specifics to the base, but not the holo. His hand paused over the ‘erase’ button, then he removed the holo data.
I’ll get you. And if it’s the last thing I do, I'll get you. I’ll make you pay.
It was a two-hour ride from the city to their destination. De Boeck drove the speeder with as much skill as she had the Sunbeam, with the difference that Rhun didn’t expect the speeder to come apart the way he’d expected the freighter to. Not before next week, at any rate.
The further they drove away from Gerion, the more Rhun wondered who would live so far away from civilisation without considering leaving the planet. Someone who lived so far away from other people had to have something to hide, something serious to boot, and it had to be dangerous to have something to hide so near a city with an Imperial garrison.
De Boeck steered the speeder towards a scattering of hills. Nothing grew here except several very tough weeds and purple moss, and the hillside was strewn with stones. The lieutenant halted the speeder near a long ridge maybe eight metres long and three metres wide, then pulled a cammo net over the vehicle, which would protect it from prying eyes from above.
The sun had gone down by now, and Rhun’s eyes opened wide as she went over to the hill, raising her hand and knocking. He’d never realised there was a door in the hillside. It was covered with the same purple moss as the hill, and in the dark, it blended in perfectly.
Rhun heard footsteps, then a voice said, ‘Password!’
De Boeck rolled her eyes. ‘You never gave me a password.’
‘True.’ The door opened, and when his eyes had adjusted to the warmly lit room beyond, Rhun saw a small, wiry old man with a scant, wispy fringe of white hair framing a wrinkled face. He had a round nose and a beardless chin, and his dark eyes twinkled as he saw de Boeck’s annoyance. Rhun didn’t know how he had imagined a ‘funny old man,’ but he supposed he must have thought of something like a choleric type. He instantly liked the man.
Old Per moved aside for them to enter. ‘Now, now, Lieutenant, how else should I have known it was you?’ he asked with a smile, then turned those dark eyes on Rhun. ‘And you must be—’ he broke off in mid-sentence, mustering him with decidedly more interest than he’d bestowed on de Boeck, and Rhun fought the urge to squirm. Then the oldster chuckled and shook his head. ‘Rhun van Leuken, I assume,’ he said.
‘Ah—yes,’ Rhun said, still bewildered.
‘My name’s Per—but you probably know that. Considering you came here with Lieutenant de Boeck, I assume you also know several things about me.’
‘Not very much,’ Rhun said diplomatically. ‘And what I care most about right now is if Dyson’s here.’
The old man smiled warmly. ‘Oh, yes.’ His face became serious again. ‘They arrived yesterday, in the morning, the captain and four others.’
‘Only four?’ Rhun asked.
Per nodded, causing his hair to bob up and down. ‘Yes. They ran into an Imperial patrol the night you tried to escape. One of the fugitives was killed, the captain and another woman were wounded.’ All mirth had vanished from his voice or face.
‘How’s he?’ Rhun asked.
Per motioned for them to follow him along the narrow corridor. It was not quite two metres in height, around the same width, looking like an old mining tunnel. Rhun remembered there had once been mining projects on Garon II, before the companies discovered that the ores produced here were of so poor quality that they let them be. Most of the tunnels had collapsed since that time, or just abandoned; this one was obviously well kept.
There were doors on the right of the passage, and Per stood before one of them. ‘He’s much better off than the woman,’ he said, ‘but they’ll both recover.’ He knocked at the door. ‘Captain? There’s someone here who wants to see you.’
The door was opened from the inside, and Dyson stood in the doorway. He was bare-chested, with a bandage wrapped around his torso, but he was grinning crookedly as he saw Rhun and his co-pilot.
‘You found us more quickly than I’d expected,’ he said. ‘Come in, come in! You as well, Per.’
The old man shook his head. ‘No, I’ll have to check on Miss Cever. I’m certain you have a lot of things to talk about without me hovering around you.’ Then he closed the door behind him.
Dyson went back to the bed he’d been sitting on when they’d entered. The room contained a small portable heating unit, a chair and a table, and Rhun sat on the foot of the bed while de Boeck took the chair.
‘What happened?’ she asked Dyson.
The Corellian’s mouth twisted into a scowl. ‘We collided with an Imp patrol as we entered the port. We ran back into the city, trying to shake them there and enter the starport through another way, but they shot after us. They got Braij, and wounded his wife, and me as well. It was all we could do to find a hole to creep into and hide there until they weren’t looking for us any more. Cever’s better now, thanks to Per, and I really hoped you’d be careful if you came back for us.’
‘“If?”’ Rhun echoed. ‘It was obvious we’d come back, wasn’t it? I can’t tell you how glad I was I didn’t have to break into the garrison to find you!’
‘If it hadn’t been for Per, you’d have had to,’ Dyson answered. ‘He came to pick us up in the middle of night.’
‘How?’ Rhun wanted to know.
‘He’s got a speeder that’s probably older than he is, but it’s large enough to carry all of us.’
Rhun grinned as he imagined the old man driving an ancient vehicle, but then remembered something that had puzzled him earlier. ‘Did you tell him about me?’ he asked Dyson. ‘When we came in he behaved as if he knew me.’
‘Only that you were coming. Nothing about the pittin in the fridge or the day you found out I was not such a respectable businessman after all.’
De Boeck shook her head. ‘Sometime you’ll have to tell me this “pittin in the fridge” story. This is the second time you’ve mentioned that.’
‘Maybe on our way off Garon II,’ Rhun said, still reluctant to let the matter rest. There had been something about Per, something that fascinated him. Something had been odd about the way he’d looked at him, making Rhun want to talk to the old man before they left. Still, he didn’t want to ask Dyson in front of de Boeck.
‘Per’s a medic?’ he asked the smuggler instead.
‘I don’t think “medic” is the correct word,’ Dyson answered. ‘Maybe “herbalist” is the better term. I’ve never seen him use a medpak, but his herbal remedies are as good as one. He got me back on my feet in no time, and Cever as well—and she was really in a bad way.’
‘Is he a Rebel?’ Rhun asked.
Dyson shrugged carefully. ‘He’s not an Imperial, but I think his mind’s not political enough to call him a Rebel. He helps us, and that’s all I care about.’
Rhun nodded thoughtfully, and de Boeck said, ‘We’re here with a speeder that’s big enough for us all. I’d say we stay here for the night and head off tomorrow. Our ship’s parked an hour’s ride from here, in the hills, and I’d really appreciate a bit of daylight before we take off. We didn’t dare come into Gerion again with the Eggshell, and we couldn’t have landed our current ship here without causing a riot, I suppose. If van Leuken hadn’t assured me it would hold together, I wouldn't have dared to fly it.’
Dyson turned to Rhun with a grin. ‘Little wizard’s been working his tech magic again?’ he asked.
Rhun snorted. ‘With that sort of junk, wizardry wouldn’t have been enough,’ he said. ‘I’ll be happy if we can hand it over to that Rodian again and be gone from here.’
‘Is there anywhere we can sleep tonight?’ de Boeck wanted to know.
‘I guess so. Wait, I’ll come with you and ask Per.’
‘That’s all right, Cap,’ Rhun interrupted him. ‘You need your sleep; we’ll look for him.’
They didn’t have to look far; Per came across the corridor when they left Dyson’s room, a bowl of water and several towels in his hands. As if he’d known we were looking for him, Rhun suddenly thought. What the hell was going on here?
‘Have you got somewhere for us to sleep?’ de Boeck asked him.
Per shrugged apologetically. ‘Only the large room at the end, together with the others,’ he said. ‘There are blankets on the floor, and I’ve got something to eat for you in case you’re hungry.’
Rhun’s stomach was growling, and he nodded vigorously. Per smiled. ‘There’s some soup on the cooking unit in the common room,’ he said. ‘Ah—Rhun, could I ask you to help me before that? It’s only a minute.’
‘Sure,’ Rhun said, following the old man into another room, this one at the end of the corridor. It was very small, and filled with all sorts of stuff, most of them supplies.
‘I ran out of noogga roots today, and my bones are a bit dodgy these days, you know. You don’t mind carrying one of these sacks over to the kitchen, do you?’
‘No, that’s all right,’ Rhun said. ‘Which one is it?’
Per pointed it out to him, and Rhun hoisted it up and took it to a small room Per opened for him. The low ceiling was full of herbs hanging from it, some of them the moss and grasses Rhun had seen outside, some he’d never seen. There was a large cooking unit in one corner, a pot stewing over the fire, with an air vent over it in the wall, and a small stool before it. A table in the centre of the room was covered with more plants and ointments. It looked like a scene straight from a fairytale holo.
‘Where shall I put it?’ Rhun asked, then put the sack down in the corner Per indicated. He went over to the table and looked at the herbs. There was a strange, pungent, but rather pleasant smell in here, and he found it was coming from them.
Rhun wasn’t really surprised when Per sat down on the stool before the cooking unit and waved a hand towards another one next to it, but he hesitated.
‘The roots were just an excuse, weren’t they?’ he asked.
Per nodded. ‘Yes, they were. Sit down, boy. There’s something I’d like to talk about.’
Rhun sat down on the stool, still feeling puzzled, but not really uncomfortable. Per filled two glasses with tjustrel juice, a reddish drink derived from one of the few native berries that thrived all year, and handed Rhun one.
‘You were interested in the herbs?’ the old man asked.
‘Yes, sir. I’ve never seen things like those used. I was trained as field medic, and I’ve only come across pharmaceuticals.’
‘Well, it’s hard enough to come by foodstuffs and other necessities, and pharmaceuticals are almost impossible to get if you haven’t got any connections to the med centre in Gerion—which I haven’t,’ he added with a wink. Rhun grinned.
‘I can’t imagine you have many patients around here,’ he remarked.
‘Oh, every now and then. Dyson and his type tend to bring me a few occasionally. People who can’t risk being treated in the med centre . . . and be noticed.’
‘Why are you living out here?’
‘For the same reason. I don’t want to be noticed. That’s why I came here, and stayed here, when a lot of people would have loved to get their hands on me.’
‘So you are a Rebel, after all.’
Per shrugged and sipped his drink. ‘That depends on your point of view, I suppose. I do not love the Empire, and they wouldn’t be very kind to me if they found me, so I try not to let this happen. I’ve become rather adept at that.’
‘Why do they want you? What did you do?’
The old man laughed, a chuckling sound that made his sparse hair nod once more. ‘I’m here—that’s enough for them if they knew,’ he said, then stood to peer into the pot, stirring it a little. ‘Tell me, boy, what have you heard about the Force?’
Rhun shifted on his stool. ‘A bit. Children’s tales. But there don’t seem to be many in the galaxy now who know more about it.’
‘True, true . . .’ Per tasted the brew, added some spice from a small jar he took from a console on the wall. ‘Very few, that’s for sure. What do you think of it?’
‘I don’t know, really, sir. What do you mean?’
‘Do you think it’s a children’s tale?’
Rhun didn’t answer.
Per turned around to him, chuckling again. ‘I didn’t think you did,’ he said as if Rhun had answered his question. ‘Given what you are.’
Rhun still made no reply. He felt as if the walls were coming down around him, smothering him, but at the same time, he felt strangely excited, as if something inside him had just been allowed to come forth for the first time, something he hadn’t even known existed—or maybe he’d just tried to deny its existence for as long as he could remember.
‘Are you a Jedi Knight?’ he finally asked, almost in a whisper.
Per surprised him with a hearty laugh, that destroyed the awe and at the same time took away much of his own fear. ‘A Jedi Knight, Stars, no! If I’d been, they would have got me no matter where I’d tried to hide. I never was strong enough in the Force for that. I was born on a backwater planet—even more backwater than this one—and they didn’t discover my ability before I was fourteen. By then, I was too old to learn much. I can sense a lot of things, and they succeeded in teaching me some healing skills, but I never was good enough to become a Jedi.’
Rhun found it hard to listen. His entire life suddenly made sense. He’d been so stupid! All the occasions he’d been congratulated for his excellent insight into human nature, his quirks and hunches he’d never talked about, not to anybody, but which he’d never questioned no matter how his intellect had told them he must be wrong—everything finally fell into place. He realised his initial ideas had not been correct—the fascination was less due to the fact that he had powers other people didn’t have, but that he’d had them for so long, even using them, though he wasn’t aware of himself doing that, his reluctance to tell other people how he felt about these abilities he must have guessed he possessed—he had guessed, somewhere inside him, and he’d also been aware that these powers were not the rule.
‘How did you know?’ he asked.
Per smiled. ‘I sense a lot of things, as I told you,’ he said. ‘When you came in here, you were evaluating me. Maybe you don’t do that consciously, and maybe it doesn’t always work for you, but in that instant, you were, and I knew you at once. I don’t think I’d have noticed if you hadn’t been using the Force.’
Rhun swallowed. Hearing these words didn’t make it any easier to come to terms with that. ‘You mean I can learn to fully control the Force? Like a Jedi?’
Per came back to sit on his stool in front of the cooking unit once again. ‘No. You can hone the skills you have, and maybe learn a few new ones, but like I said . . . I only noticed what you were when you were effectively using your powers on me. They are not very strong. Remember, you have lived on an Imperial world for most of your life, and believe me, the Empire has found all the Jedi in hiding. If they overlooked you, you can’t be very strong in the Force. But in a time like this, now that all the Jedi have been hunted down by Palpatine, every little bit of Jedi blood is almost a miracle.’ He paused and studied Rhun’s face. ‘Now I wonder, where did you get it? I don’t suppose you know about any Jedi in your ancestry?’
Rhun shook his head slowly. ‘Nobody I know of. My parents never mentioned anything like it, and my brothers . . .’ He paused, then stared at Per. ‘Could it be my brother’s got it, too?’ Blast, that’s what had happened on their way to the spaceport two days ago! When Ren had said he’d done what he thought Rhun would have done, he’d done what Rhun had told him to!
‘I would suppose so,’ Per answered. ‘But your parents don’t seem to have it?’
Rhun snorted a bitter laugh. ‘Certainly not my father. He doesn’t have any insight at all into people. My mother, maybe, but I . . .’ He broke off. He’d been going to say, ‘I don’t really know her well enough for that’, but he couldn’t say it, even if Per wasn’t quite a stranger any more.
Per only nodded, as if he’d understood anyway. He probably had. ‘Now, my boy, it’s become rather late, and you must be tired. ‘We’ll continue this tomorrow, if you like. I suppose you have a lot to think about now.’
Rhun nodded and stood. ‘You couldn’t teach me how to better control them, could you?’ he asked.
‘Little but the basics,’ Per said. ‘I doubt there are any people around these days who could teach you more. And you can’t stay here.’
‘You can,’ Rhun remarked.
Per shook his head. ‘Your place is elsewhere,’ he answered. ‘This life is fine for a crazy old man stewing his healing potions, but nothing for a young man who has more skills to boast about than a few chancy Force abilities.’
Reluctantly, Rhun let himself be herded towards the door. ‘But I can come back once in a while,’ he said.
Per smiled again. ‘Yes, you can. And I’ll be looking forward to those occasions.’
The next morning dawned brisk and clear, and Rhun found the others were already up. Three of the fugitives had been sleeping in the large common room together with him and Lieutenant de Boeck, the woman named Cever and Dyson had their own sickrooms. Cever, he learned, was well enough to be brought off-planet without any risk; Dyson was acting as if nothing at all had happened to him. Rhun found himself wondering how much of this was due to Per’s Force skills, and whether he would be able to learn any of this. He didn’t really think he could. There were things he knew he had within him, and others that seemed as far away as trying to fly by flapping his arms would have.
To Rhun’s relief, Per didn’t mention anything that had happened the previous evening, and neither did he. He wasn’t ready to talk about that yet, and he didn’t really know what he would do now that he knew he could use the Force. The implications were staggering, and he suddenly looked forward to seeing Ren again. He was certain he wouldn’t tell him straightaway, if he told him at all, but at least he knew now what to look for.
Rhun had a late breakfast and met Dyson in the corridor, helping one of the other women ready their packs to get going. Rhun recognised her as Dreisene, his mother’s friend, and raised a hand in greeting.
‘Where’s Lieutenant de Boeck?’ he asked the smuggler, thereby hoping to cut off any remarks about how much he’d grown.
‘Gone out to get the speeder,’ Dyson answered. ‘She seems to have some trouble getting the crate going.’
Rhun sighed. ‘I’ll go out and help her, then,’ he said. ‘I’ll take one of these, shall I?’ He bent down to pick up one of the packs.
That moment, the door burst open, and Firia de Boeck ran in, her face flushed, but her eyes were cold. ‘Get out of here, all of you!’ she called through the whole dwelling. ‘There’s an Imperial Hoverscout coming this way, and they’re not on a regular patrol if you ask me!’
Dyson looked up sharply. ‘How could they have followed you?’ he said, arming himself with a heavy blaster rifle, handing Rhun another one. The younger man took it and slung it over his shoulder. He normally preferred the smaller pistols, but he could hardly afford to be picky.
‘I don’t know,’ de Boeck replied. ‘My guess is someone tipped them off, and if I find out who, I’ll have his head!’
‘That won’t help.’ Per had appeared in the kitchen doorway, some hastily gathered belongings on his back. ‘Lokrast, Rhun, get out Cever and carry her to the speeder. How long until they can be here?’
‘A few minutes,’ de Boeck answered as Rhun and Lokrast, a middle-aged man who’d been in Dyson’s group of fugitives, ran off to get the injured woman.
‘Blast,’ Dyson cursed. ‘Firia, Genno, Dreisene, quick! We’ve got to get out of here!’
The two remaining fugitives and de Boeck had followed Per out of the passage, all carrying packs, and Dyson hoisted the last pack, hesitating as he saw Rhun and Lokrast disappear into Cever’s sickroom.
‘Grant, come on!’ he heard de Boeck calling from outside, then the unmistakeable whining of blaster bolts. There was a louder thud, and the corridor shook. The Hoverscout was firing its laser cannon.
That jarred him into action, deciding his skills with a blaster were of more use outside, and seeing that Rhun and Lokrast were coming out with Cever, he sprinted forward, into the opening of the old tunnel. Peering around the corner, he saw that Firia had the speeder waiting ten metres to his right, desperately trying to get the thing going, blaster bolts flying from the left from where the Hoverscout was approaching. The Imperial troop transport was almost the size of a starfighter, but more compact in shape, with a laser turret on top which continued firing into the hillside. They were still more than three hundred metres away, but that was almost the maximum range for an Imperial stormtrooper blaster rifle.
A laser blast slammed into the side of the tunnel, and Dyson looked back into the passageway in alarm as he saw the ceiling starting to crumble. But then the two men appeared carrying between them Cever, who was trying to help them, but she couldn’t really do much.
‘Come on!’ he heard de Boeck from the speeder.
The injured woman looked at the three men. ‘Put me down,’ she told Lokrast. ‘I can run over if someone supports me; it’s only a few metres.’
‘Lokrast, get her over there,’ Dyson told the other man. ‘Rhun and I will cover you.’
Lokrast nodded, carefully shifting Cever’s weight over his shoulder and casting them a questioning look. ‘Ready?’ he asked.
‘Go!’ Dyson shouted, firing at the Hoverscout, Rhun kneeling down to do the same. He was glad now that they had the blaster rifles; pistols would have been useless at this range.
The Imperial vehicle had stopped, in a distance of maybe a good one hundred metres, and Rhun saw white-armoured stormtroopers jump out, taking position with inbred accuracy and starting to fire. They were using the Hoverscout for cover from Dyson and Rhun’s blasts, but that also meant they couldn’t all fire simultaneously. Dyson drew back with a curse as a blaster bolt shot past his head into the hillside, resulting in a cloud of dust clouding their vision, but at least this held true for the Imperials as well. They continued firing into the troopers’ direction, until Rhun saw that the two refugees had made it to the speeder. He groaned with relief when he heard the sound of repulsor engines coming to life; de Boeck had got the speeder to work.
‘Run!’ he shouted to Dyson. ‘I’ll give you covering fire!’
Dyson nodded, knowing Rhun would need his cover from the speeder later, as soon as he was there, so he ducked and ran.
Rhun fired, coughing as another dust cloud shot up under a hit. He hardly saw Dyson anymore, but at least he knew what direction the speeder was and what direction the Imperial barrage came from. Another consolation was the fact that the Imps saw about as little as he did.
He fired several more times, again realising a blaster pistol would not only have had too little range, but also too little energy for this kind of firefight.
‘Come on!’ he heard Dyson’s voice from several metres away, took a deep breath and ran.
‘Get around on this side!’ Sergeant van Leuken barked. ‘That way, you won’t hit the hill!’ He suited action to words, his squad following him. He didn’t know how many more Rebels there were in that old mining tunnel, but bringing the hill down was very unlikely to gain them a lot at this stage. Four of them he’d seen running towards the speeder. An earlier blast of one of the Rebels had disabled the laser turret on the Hoverscout, and their blasters hadn’t been able to disable the speeder so far. Dust had impaired their vision, and at this range, their sensor packs and helmet filters hadn’t helped.
The sergeant and his squad took position, aiming at the speeder again, this time at an angle that would keep them from hitting the dusty hillsides again, when a single figure dashed from out of the dust and towards the speeder, a figure the sergeant instantly recognised.
Gorn van Leuken heard himself hiss in disgust. He was going to get away yet again. He was going to make a fool of him the way he’d done for almost ten years. He hadn’t searched the mines all night for nothing, after they’d figured the speeder had gone into the hills. The misbegotten brat had trampled on his way of life and everything he’d ever held dear.
He took aim.
Rhun saw the stormtrooper squad appear outside the dust as he cast a hurried glance over his shoulder, dodging instinctively as a blaster bolt whined past him. His eyes stung from the dust, but for the split second he’d looked back, he’d seen the orange shoulder patch denoting a stormtrooper sergeant, and even if he was aware of the fact that there were hundreds of them over at the garrison, he knew.
Maybe it was this Force thing again, but he couldn’t have said for certain. He didn’t really care. It was just three metres to the speeder, only three lousy metres, when he felt a blazing pain in his back, and then nothing more.
Dyson saw him go down, rolling over a couple of times, and for an instant, he hoped he would get up again, but the when the boy finally came to a halt, he remained lying where he was. Dyson ground out a curse that would have made a fighter pilot blush and jumped out of the speeder, dodging a blast from the stormtroopers that had stayed at the Hoverscout, grabbing the young man and running back to the vehicle, murder in his eyes. Several pairs of hands reached out to pull him and Rhun into the speeder, and Dyson felt the car jerk as Firia coaxed all possible speed out of it. He leaned out of the passenger cell again to fire at the Hoverscout, hoping to hit something that would cripple it sufficiently to keep it from pursuing them. He fired as long as he thought he could hit something, but after a minute, he shifted back into the seat and slammed the hatch shut. Still panting and only now beginning to feel the strain in his injured side, he turned around. Rhun lay on his side on the middle passenger bench, motionless. Dreisene was bending over him and gently peeling off his jacket and the shirt. Dyson felt his insides go ice-cold as he saw the blaster burn across the young man’s back and smelled the sickening odour of burned flesh.
Dreisene felt for a pulse and looked up at Dyson in alarm. ‘He’s not breathing,’ she said, her face pale.
Dyson crawled over to Rhun, but someone gently pushed him out of the way. Per had clambered over the front bench to join them. ‘Let me see,’ he said, his voice sounding strangely calm.
Dyson moved over to make room for the old man, carefully lifting Rhun’s head to ease it into his lap. ‘Do something,’ he said to Per, ‘do something, dammit . . .’
Per made no reply, and Dyson drew a hand over his face as he watched Rhun. ‘Don’t do this to me, kid,’ he said, realising his hand was shaking as he held it before his face. ‘This is so bloody unfair! Hang on, Rhun, come on . . .’
Rhun suddenly drew a gasping breath, laboured and obviously in pain, but the relief Dyson felt surging through him as the boy continued breathing turned into anxiety once more as Rhun gasped again, his hand convulsing around Dyson’s in pain, and the smuggler turned to Per helplessly.
‘Can’t you do something for him?’ he almost snapped at him in his frustration.
Per still didn’t answer, and although Dyson was certain he’d been watching the old man closely, he couldn’t discern anything he was doing. After a while, however, Rhun’s taut body relaxed again, and he gave a small whimper, then he lay still. Dyson made himself calm a little as well, when he saw that the young man’s chest was moving almost imperceptibly.
‘We’ve got to get him to a med station,’ the smuggler said.
‘How do you suppose we should do that, Grant?’ Firia asked from the driver seat. ‘We can’t get him into a hospital, not on Garon II! They’ll be looking for us everywhere after this!’
‘Didn’t you say there was a sickbay aboard your transport, Captain?’ asked Cever, who lay on the bench in the back of the speeder, supported by Lokrast.
De Boeck grimaced. ‘In that miserable crate of a Sunbeam, it’ll take us two days up to Garon III and the Eggshell.’
‘Will he last that long?’ Dyson asked Per anxiously.
Per sat bending over Rhun’s wound, looking up now, nodding slowly. ‘Yes, he will,’ he confirmed, his voice sounding a little dreamy. ‘But we need to get him into medical care, at least temporary. He won’t last much longer.’
‘The means aboard the Sunbeam are very limited, but I think I saw a medpak when we came here,’ de Boeck remembered.
‘He needs bacta treatment,’ Dreisene pointed out.
‘Impossible,’ Genno, the second man among the refugees, shook his head. ‘Only Imperial hospitals have bacta, and they use it only on Armed Forces personnel.’
‘But the Alliance will be able to treat him, certainly?’ Dreisene asked hopefully.
‘The nearest Alliance base is a three days’ jump away,’ Firia said.
‘I may know just the place,’ Dyson said grimly.
‘Have you ever shot down someone?’ Ren asked, sitting on the cockpit ladder as he watched Samica perform a systems check.
She looked up briefly and grimaced, in part because of his question, in part because the starboard sublight engine that had been hit in her last mission still had its troublesome moments. ‘More than once.’
‘Are you good?’
She shrugged. ‘I suppose.’ She realised she had told Colonel Salm the same.
‘Better than a man?’
He finally had her attention. ‘Better than some, yes. Why?’
‘Because women aren’t good pilots.’
She snorted. ‘I see. But men are?’
She returned her attention to her display. ‘Where did you get that kind of nonsense?’
‘From “Galactic Heroes”. The women are always good-looking and have to be rescued.’
‘That’s why I never liked the series when I was small,’ she said. ‘And you could ask your brother some day about this “Men can fly” thing. He would tell you something different. Holoseries aren’t always right.’
‘Can you show me how to fly the Y-wing?’ Ren asked pleadingly.
‘What, after you told me I can’t fly myself?’
‘You could demonstrate it to me,’ Ren said with a grin.
She shook her head, but grinned as well. ‘You’d like that, wouldn't you? When you’re older, maybe. Now . . . if you could do me a favour and get Lieutenant Cargill? He may be able to help me with this engine.’ Pity I fit the cliché in that regard, at least, she thought wistfully. She envied people like Rhun their inborn skill with repairs.
Ren climbed down the ladder, but before he could leave the docking platform where the Eggshell and the two Y-wings stood, Qelmam emerged from the transport.
‘Captain?’ he called, his normally slow Calamari voice betraying urgency. ‘Lieutenant?’
‘What is it?’ Samica asked. Cargill had gone over to one of the bars to have something to eat, tired of the processor food from Eggshell, and she found herself wishing he hadn’t.
‘Transmission from the Sunbeam,’ Qelmam answered. ‘They’re on their way here. Firia says they aren’t followed, but they suppose the Imps’ll come look for us, and if they see Eggshell here, after they didn’t catch us on Garon II . . .’
Samica produced her comlink to recall Cargill, seeing with relief that Ren had stopped at the exit of the docking platform. ‘How long until they are here?’ she wanted to know.
‘The Sunbeam? Ten minutes, the Imps, no idea.’
She nodded. ‘I’ll get Cargill. Get the transport ready for takeoff.’
Samica cursed that blasted sublight engine and hoped it would at least function in more or less the usual way. She supposed she’d have to compensate a lot, but as long as the thing didn’t come apart altogether, she would be fine—mostly, she hoped.
She sent a short message to Cargill, their ‘Emergency—to the fighter at once’ signal, then reached over for her flight helmet that lay on the vacant gunner’s seat behind her. She winced as she put it on. Her face was still sore, and the helmet wouldn’t help much to make the injured places heal.
She saw Cargill sprint to his fighter with long strides, giving her a thumbs-up, and she grinned. When he’d disappeared into his cockpit, she keyed the comm. ‘Ready, Seven?’ she asked. ‘The Sunbeam’s probably not alone.’
‘Let’s kick some Imp butt, Nine,’ Cargill replied.
‘Eggshell, you all set?’ she asked Qelmam, still over comm.
‘Everyone here and strapped in,’ Qelmam replied. ‘I’ll come after you as soon as the Sunbeam has landed. Keep a lookout for trouble up there.’
‘Acknowledged, Eggshell.’ Samica kicked off the repulsor engines that would get them off the platform. ‘In that case, Seven, let’s be about it.’
The ships around Garon III didn’t follow any particular flight plan. There was some sort of traffic control, but that was concerned with intervening only when the ships’ owners around the smuggler’s moon couldn’t work out solutions for themselves. Samica had to admit the system of ‘Comes first, lands first’ worked remarkably well, and the system was not so crowded that ten or more ships were trying to land or take off simultaneously.
There were several ships hanging in orbit, however—bulk freighters and heavy transports that couldn’t land on the moon, and these had to be careful to stay out of the way, but even that worked rather well. When they had cleared the moon’s atmosphere, Samica scanned for the Eggshell and kept an eye on her sensor screens, waiting for red dots to mingle with the blue and purple around the station. Her and Cargill’s Y-wings had been fitted with false transponder codes for the mission, so they would not betray themselves with bright green dots on an Imperial screens. Until anyone found and attacked the Eggshell, they could make themselves virtually invisible up here among all the other ships. Samica, who had fought here before, only on different sides, knew that the pirates were unlikely to aid them against the Imps if push came to shove. Pirates and smugglers tended to mind their own business and usually avoided getting caught up in another faction’s trouble.
She picked up the Sunbeam soon enough; the ancient freighter was headed straight for the docking platform where the medium transport waited, and Samica kept scanning.
‘Sithspit,’ she finally said between her teeth when she picked up six red dots heading towards the pirates’ outpost. Her visual display confirmed they were TIE fighters. Judging by the slightly more colourful curse from Cargill’s cockpit, the Corellian had seen them, too.
‘Eggshell, Seven. Six eyeballs, three point four klicks.’ She kept the transmission as short as possible, to avoid giving the Imps any reason to link the Sunbeam or the Eggshell to the two Y-wings. There was no response from the freighter; this, too, had been coordinated before. Qelmam trusted them to read the situation without his input and react to it.
Her astromech reported that the six TIEs were on a direct course for the Sunbeam, so there was no thinking about waiting any more. Samica brought her Y-wing around on an intercept course, and Cargill followed in her wake. It took the TIE pilots several seconds to realise that there were more enemy ships than just an aging Sunbeam, but by that time, Cargill had vaped one of the fighters, and Samica had disabled another one.
A nagging thought kept hovering at the back of her mind, keeping her imagining acquaintances or even friends in those cockpits. She pushed it away. Few fighter pilots stayed on Garon II for longer than a year, and even if there was someone she knew, that was beside the point now. She’d deserted, and whatever had been she was a Rebel now, and her task was to protect the Sunbeam’s and the Eggshell’s crews and passengers. And protecting those crews was a much more personal objective than wondering about anything else.
The four remaining TIEs had split into two wingpairs, one coming towards the Y-wings, one continuing after the Sunbeam.
‘I’ll keep them off the freighter,’ Samica told Cargill over comm. ‘You worry about the other two.’
‘Copy, Nine,’ Cargill answered and broke off sharply, drawing one of the TIEs behind him. The Imperial pilot’s wingman seemed to have to think about this for a moment before he, too, followed the Y-wing.
Before Samica could fire at the two TIEs before her, they broke off pursuit of the freighter to worry about her first. She reduced speed to stay behind the pair, ending up almost next to the lead man’s wing, who’d had the same idea. She ignored Imp’s frightened bleeps and swerved to port, out of the wingman’s path, kicking in thrusters again to remain behind the lead.
The lead TIE veered off towards a group of bulk freighters that were trying to scramble away from the dogfight, and Samica grimaced. She couldn’t say she was surprised—she’d done the same thing time and time again when she’d been stationed here, trying to shake off pursuit dodging in and out of spaces between ships, trusting her wingman to pick enemy fighters off her. This time, it was her in the TIE sandwich.
She refused to take the bait the TIE before her presented, but broke out to lure them further away from the Sunbeam. Before her, the shape of a bulk freighter materialised, and she tore her stick to the left to evade it. Both TIEs managed to copy her manoeuvre, one slightly closer than the other, spinning slightly before the pilot regained control. More ships had begun to clear the area to leave the combatants to settle the matter among themselves.
Samica cast a glance at her tactical, where the Sunbeam had now disappeared from view, but the red dots had been far enough away from it to be certain the ship had only landed, not been destroyed. She brought her fighter around to pick off the lead man, whose wingman was still further back, coming towards him in a head-on turn.
She ground her teeth as green light splashed past and across her viewport, returning fire, one of her laser bolts hitting the enemy ship, sending him spinning off into space. She contented herself with that, seeing his wingman had by now come into a good firing position, and veered around once more.
‘Seven, what’s your status?’ she asked.
‘Hit, but operational,’ Cargill’s reply came over comm. ‘You don’t look very healthy yourself.’
Samica saw that Imp was busy rebuilding her shields, which the TIE’s fire had reduced to thirty percent, but otherwise, she was unharmed. Apart from that sublight engine, which was beginning to buck more and more often under the battle strain. Samica had always heard that five minutes of dogfighting in space swallowed up as much fuel as a two hours’ sublight flight, and it was obvious that it was equally rough on the hardware.
‘The TIEs?’ she wanted to know.
‘One’s vaped, the other’s got disabled lasers, so I need to pick him off before he can decide to do something stupid.’
‘One here is still operational,’ she replied. ‘Keep an eye on the Eggshell.’
‘Will do,’ he answered, and she concentrated fully on the TIE fighter before her. He was trying to outrun her with his superior speed, jinking all the while, and she tried to get a laser lock on him, but his jinking as much as her erratically bucking fighter made it a lot more difficult than she would have liked. What was more, she realised he was flying a wide arc to come in Cargill’s range again.
‘Watch it, Seven,’ she warned him. ‘He’s coming your way.’
More transports hurried to make way for them when the TIE Samica was after came closer to the station once again, the Y-wing trailing in a distance. She hadn’t managed to lock him down efficiently, and she hadn’t dared use proton torpedoes where so many other ships were in the line of fire.
Her scopes now showed Eggshell lifting off from the station, and she decided it would be best to seemingly ignore the ship for now. Better to keep the TIE occupied than have the pilot realise what they were protecting—
Samica gasped in horror as a TIE came towards her in a kamikaze run, obviously the one Cargill had reportedly disabled earlier, shooting forth out of a cluster of more bulk freighters, gasped again as the Y-wing reacted to her evasive manoeuvre too sluggishly. There was no laser fire, only the fighter’s mass as the ship impacted against hers with shattering force.
Samica half waited for Imp to wail damage reports, but there was not a sound out of the R2 unit, the only sound being a sizzling from her tactical and a blaring of several different alarms. The tactical was black, as were her front and rear sensor screens. The only lights in the cockpit were ready lights glowing red if they glowed at all. Of the TIE, there was nothing left apart from a few pieces of debris floating in vacuum.
‘Sithspit,’ Samica whispered as she tried to make out Cargill or the other TIE outside. With Imp disabled—she desperately hoped he was only disabled—there wasn’t even any hope of repair in the immediate future. She still had drives, and her comm, but no weapons and no shields. And she was as blind as a space slug.
‘Seven?’ she said. ‘Do you read? My sensors’re out, astromech, too. Do you copy?’
‘Copy, Nine,’ Cargill grunted. His voice came over a crackle of static that made it very hard to understand him. ‘I have a problem here. We’re right above you, but don’t worry, I’ve got him occupied.’
Samica stared out of her viewport, but it was virtually impossible to make out a ship some klicks away against the blackness of space without the aid of sensors. Unless it fired.
She saw a trail of green streaking out across the blackness then, although she had to twist around to see it, realising Cargill must have been more heavily damaged than she had thought at first, saw the trail flash, continue, then connect.
‘Seven?’ she inquired.
But when her comm cracked to life, it was Qelmam’s voice she heard, not Cargill’s. The Mon Cal was breaking the comm silence, and she bit her lip as she realised it probably didn’t matter anymore.
‘Seven’s gone, Captain. Get clear of the area here and jump to the rendezvous point; we’ll pick you up there.’
‘I can’t jump out,’ Samica replied. ‘My astromech’s out. Weapons, too.’
Another voice cut in. ‘This is Dyson. Can you still manoeuvre?’
‘He’s coming around for you, but he hasn’t realised we’re here yet. We can pluck him off you.’
Samica exhaled explosively. ‘Hurry up,’ she said between her teeth.
She had no way of knowing where exactly her opponent was, but she heard Qelmam notifying her of his position and distance ever few seconds. She wasn’t sure she liked the numbers. He was gaining far more quickly than he should have, considering she was flying full throttle (without shields or lasers, there was little else she could channel the energy into), and she couldn’t see her own speed on her display either. She had begun to rely on her faithful astromech to notify of everything that was going on around her, and without any way to see her surroundings, she felt more helpless than she ever had in a fighter that was still flying. And all she could do was fly, praying that Dyson would hit at the first attempt. He wouldn’t have much more than that, because the TIE would then go after the more dangerous prey first—which, in this case, was the Eggshell. And if that happened, there was only one way she could at least try to stop the TIE, which was the same way this one’s wingman had surprised her earlier. And she’d survive it as little as he.
A green laser beam flashed past her, and she instinctively broke out into the opposite direction, initiating a series of turns and breaks to shake her attacker. Turning and breaking was difficult with a sublight engine that threatened to give out under the strain at any moment, but she had no other choice. Another green blast streaked by, followed by a red one, and then she groaned with relief when she heard Qelmam, ‘He’s broken off pursuit of you, Nine.’
She twisted in her restraints to see what was going on behind her, watching a series of reddish-orange laser fire from the Eggshell streaming out, and the continuity told her Dyson’s first shot must already have hit the TIE, or it would have outrun the medium transport as easily as he had her. Then the fire from the transport ceased.
‘We’ll take you aboard now, Nine,’ Qelmam’s voice came in again. ‘Follow my instructions; we don’t want you to collide with us.’
Samica allowed herself to close her eyes briefly before she answered, forcing herself not to dwell on what had happened to her wingman . . . again. ‘Thanks, Eggshell,’ she said. ‘Good at least that the rescue mission was a success, Cap. Rhun, are you there?’
There was a slight pause from the transport that made Samica’s stomach knot, then Dyson answered. ‘Rhun can’t hear you right now, Sam,’ he said softly. ‘But I suggest you come aboard before we tell you the rest.’
Dyson sat in the transport’s sizeable sickbay, next to the antigrav bed Rhun lay on. He was lying on his back, clad only in shorts, floating on an antigrav cushion to ease the strain on his back and help him breathe. He was breathing on his own again, and his pulse was slow, but steady. It wasn’t much, but it was an improvement over those agonised hours during the real-space flight from Gerion to the smugglers’ moon. Per hadn’t left the boy’s side, as little as Dyson had, and he hadn’t really dared hope Rhun would live.
He looked at the young man’s face, which looked ashen in the pristine white of the sickbay, and he found himself wondering why sickbays weren’t ever painted a healthier colour, yellow maybe or at least beige. It was rather warm, because Rhun was not covered, and the smuggler had taken off his jacket and hung it over the back of his chair. He didn’t know what exactly Per had done, but he did know that, without him, Rhun would have died in the speeder. He’d suffered severe injuries to his lungs and spine, and Dyson had seen other people die of wounds like those within minutes.
The boy hadn’t regained consciousness during the trip, but maybe it was better that way. They had been in hyperspace for twelve hours, en route to a world called Venithon, which boasted a hospital that would also treat civilian patients. At least that was the version Dyson had told Rhun’s mother and Sam. They did treat civilian patients, but for a price, and Dyson did not intend to tell them this. He’d dealt with Venithon Medical before, and he saw it as a way to repay what Rhun and Firia had risked to get him out again.
Dyson rested his face in his hands and snorted. Not that he wouldn’t have done it otherwise. The smuggler had always been very careful not to appear sentimental, and he kept coming up with explanations like this one again and again, even for himself, so nobody would think him soft, but he liked the boy a great deal more than he’d ever admit. It had been odd to meet his mother, an actual relative of Rhun’s, who obviously cared as well, and Dyson had actually detected some jealousy within himself. He’d always wanted children when he’d been younger, and he’d looked at Rhun as the son he’d never had. There were distinct advantages to picking a son when he was sixteen, no changing nappies, no putting up with adolescent quirks. Very few of those, anyway. It was only when he met the boy’s mother that he realised Rhun had had a life before he’d met Dyson.
She’d been with him for the first ten hours, until Dyson had come to take his turn three hours ago, but they hadn’t talked a lot. He hadn’t known what to talk about with her, and she had just been sitting by his side, on the chair he’d since taken, watching her son.
Dyson leaned forward again to take the boy’s hand in his. It felt cold, despite the warmth in the room, and he stared at the vital signs monitor above Rhun’s head as if he could make it improve his condition.
The hatch that led onto the corridor slid open, and Samica entered. She’d changed out of her flight suit, but she didn’t look as if she’d slept a lot. Rhun moved slightly, drawing a laboured breath and letting it out in a moan.
‘How is he?’ she asked quietly.
‘The same as before . . . which is probably good.’ Dyson chafed the boy’s hand and cleared his throat, then got up from the chair. ‘Sit down if you like, Captain.’
‘You called me Sam yesterday,’ she said.
Dyson shrugged. ‘I shouldn’t have.’
‘I don’t mind.’
‘Okay, then, Sam. You look as if you could use a chair.’
She nodded her thanks and sat, carefully taking Rhun’s hand. ‘How long until we reach Venithon?’ she asked.
‘A couple of hours. Don’t worry about him.’
‘You’re not going to tell me he’s survived worse, are you?’
Dyson shook his head. ‘No, I don’t think so. But he’s going to make it.’
Samica nodded and stroked Rhun’s forehead. The smuggler watched her profile and guessed that there was more on her mind than Rhun.
‘Sam,’ he said firmly, ‘stop feeling responsible for Cargill.’
She looked up sharply enough to tell him he’d been right in his assumption. Then she ducked her head. ‘I know,’ she said weakly. ‘I know I couldn’t have saved him, but he’s the fourth wingman I’ve lost in less than half a year. And before that, Pops was forced to retreat from a fight after he’d been hit. I’ve flown six missions for the Rebel Alliance and I’ve come back without my wingman from half of them. And the ones from which I did come back with my wing were the ones where hardly a shot was fired.’
‘You can’t count Yavin,’ Dyson said.
‘Can’t I? What I’ve been thinking for the last few hours—’ she broke of and inhaled sharply. ‘I’ve been wondering if I’m worth all those people dying for me.’
‘Would you have done the same for them?’
‘I don’t think I can say either yes or no,’ Samica said almost desperately. ‘I’d like to think I would, but how can I know when I’ve never really been faced with a choice like that? I don’t think Gawky would have said he’d die for me before it happened, or Kaya or Nous or Cargill.’ She broke off again, and Dyson could hear her suppressing a sob. He stood behind her and gingerly put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing gently. She certainly didn’t act like it most of the time, but now, he was reminded again of how young she was, propelled into a position she shouldn’t have attained until she was more experienced. He wasn’t thinking she wasn’t up to the job, but he wasn’t sure whether she was up to the consequences.
‘I think I know how you feel,’ he finally told her. ‘But I can’t imagine it’s wrong that you ask yourself these questions. An officer who sends her people to their deaths without worrying about them certainly wouldn’t. I know this sounds like grandpa advice, but you’ve still got a lot to learn. They can’t expect you to be perfect, and I don’t think they do.’
Samica raised her head again. ‘You sound like Dutch,’ she said.
He shrugged. ‘You’re upset, and you’ve had as tough a week as any of us. Let it lie for the time being. High Command hasn’t made you a captain just because you’ve been lucky once, and I can’t imagine they’ve regretted their decision to promote you so quickly. Unless I’m totally wrong, they won’t.’ He patted her shoulder and looked at Rhun once more. ‘And again, don’t worry about him. He’s going to make it.’
Samica bit her lip and nodded, and Dyson leaned against the wall to keep watch again.
The more he told himself Rhun was going to survive, the more he began to believe it.
It was hard to surface again.
For a long time, all Rhun had known was pain, alternating with blackness. At first, there had been long intervals of darkness interrupted by shorter periods of pain, but the balance had begun to shift gradually. To his relief, the pain had eased a bit at times, and he’d become dimly aware of other people around him, mostly speaking in hushed tones, and he thought he ought to have said something to reassure them, but he felt too weak to move. And he hurt. Voices and movement around him seemed to get to him from very far away, somewhere he couldn’t reach. There were times he longed to let go, just give in to it, but something always made him hang on.
Then the sensations changed; he felt as if he was floating upright, not altogether unpleasant if it hadn’t been for the taste in his mouth. At first, he didn’t mind too much. He felt the pain subside gradually, not quite going a