This is a story that evolved during role-playing during the last two and a half years. It's more coherent than role-playing, however, with the irrelevant bits kicked out. Our well-known friends Antilles, Darklighter, Celchu and Skywalker make very short appearances here in the second part, but I'm certain you'll like Samica Trey and Rhun van Leukenas much as I do.
Let me point out that I'm not a native speaker - but don't worry, apart from Rhun ("Roon fun Loykin") nobody important is pronounced in a German fashion!
If you want to comment, congratulate, or complain (I'd prefer the first two *g*), contact me under email@example.com
The Path of Rebellion
by Jenny Kauer
She had been twelve when her father had taken her and her mother on a trip to a vacation world in the Core, and it had been the first time she had seen and touched trees that actually grew free and animals that lived completely on their own, and she had walked over grass that had not been planted there for decoration, but simply grew wild. It had also been the first time that she had seen hyperspace, and neither grass nor birds nor trees had been able to surpass the amazement she’d felt during the five-hour flight through the Core. That day, young Samica had decided that she would be a pilot, and nobody, not her father, not her friends, not the men who’d almost thrown her out when she sent in her application for the Imperial Space Academy, had been able to prevent her from putting her decision into action.
She could tell that her father had been proud after all – she had graduated with honours, and instead of joining the Imperial Survey Corps, which had been her destination from the start, she was offered a posting as a TIE fighter pilot. Jonos Trey, a bureaucrat in the Department of Transport, had dragged her around posh restaurants and there had been young men at the door who had never been interested in her while she was still at school, and their interest couldn’t have sprung from her hardly fashionable shaven head. She had hated it all and been glad when she could turn her back on Imperial Centre following her one-week leave after graduation.
Now, after not quite a year, her world had shattered so completely and so suddenly she still didn’t know how it could have happened. She had betrayed the Navy, had deserted from the Empire while the Star Destroyer she had served on was under attack, had left her flight group to die under enemy fire, and she had killed her Captain. She did not have anywhere to go to, and so she had agreed to accompany Rhun van Leuken to the Alliance on the assumption that they would be slightly more lenient than the Empire would be. Maybe the fact that she had helped him and Doctor Blissex escape would induce the Rebels to believe her she was not a spy. She had considered, briefly, to hyper-jump back to some Imperial world once she knew where the Rebel base was located, but although that would have been expected of her, she could not have begun to explain to her superiors why she had killed Captain Kolaff.
The chrono on the control console indicated that they would leave hyperspace in two and a half hours. She knew she should probably try to get some sleep, but although she was more tired than she had ever been in her life, sleep wouldn’t come. Van Leuken had seen to her wounds after they had been safely in hyperspace, and they had all rid themselves of their bulky stormtrooper armour, so she now sat there in her completely torn and scorched Imperial uniform, for lack of anything else to wear.
The hatch to the passenger compartment hissed open, and Rhun let himself fall into the co-pilot’s seat. He looked hardly any better than she did, his eyes tired.
‘I’ll stay here for the rest of the trip, Lieutenant,’ he said. ‘You can go aft and get some sleep if you want.’
Samica shook her head. ‘I don’t think I can sleep. And I prefer to sit here.’ She turned to look out of the viewport again.
‘You’re in pain?’
It was a statement rather than a question. There had been a medpak in the shuttle, but they had used up all of the painkillers in it hours ago.
‘It’s not too bad, actually,’ she replied, and it hadn’t even been a lie. She guessed she was too tired to feel anything right now – or maybe too scared.
‘There’s a medical frigate at the base,’ Rhun said. ‘My guess is that they won’t ask you anything until you’re better.’
She threw him a sceptical look. ‘Oh, yes. I’d forgotten you are all philanthropists.’
Rhun sighed. ‘Listen, Lieutenant, I know they must have told you all kinds of garbage about the Rebellion, but most of it isn’t true.’
‘That we’re a bunch of disorganized smugglers who don’t know what to do with their time, that it’s our aim to bring disorder to the galaxy, that we murder innocents and civilians, that we shoot defecting Imperials and that we eat small children, among other things.’
‘You’re telling me what I want to hear.’
‘I’m telling you the truth. Tell me, Lieutenant, how many Rebels have you met in your life?’
‘More than enough.’
‘No, no. I mean met them face to face and talked to them, not on holo or something.’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Two.’
He nodded. ‘What were they like?’
She shook her head. ‘That’s something completely different.’
‘How can you know that? You just said you’d met only two. I assume that none of those two ever did anything you thought was wrong. How can you say that these two were the exception rather than the rule?’
‘I haven’t been exactly lucky with assumptions about rules and exceptions lately, van Leuken.’
‘You’re talking about Kolaff.’
‘He’s the rule.’
‘Now why should I believe you? Are you saying that all Imperial officers have personality problems somehow?’
‘What I’m saying is that Captain Kolaff impersonated everything the Empire stands for – injustice, cruelty, corruption, and lust for power. What we do – what the Alliance does – is to protect the galaxy from the Empire, so that everyone can hope to live in peace someday, not just a couple of humans on a couple of worlds in the Core.’
Samica frowned. ‘Justice. Peace. Equality. What’s that to you? What has the Empire done to you that was so terrible?’
Rhun shook his head. ‘That doesn’t matter. Many of us have suffered some kind of injustice, but some are just idealistic. The Empire is corrupt, Lieutenant, and if we can’t change it, we’ll do our best to destroy it. This war has nothing to do with the population, and if there’s a danger of harming civilians when we plan a mission, we don’t do it. We don’t blow up hospitals to make our point. That’s what terrorists do, but that’s not our way.’
Samica didn’t answer, just turning towards the viewport again, and Rhun sighed. To be honest, he hadn’t expected to be able to wipe out a lifetime of indoctrination within minutes. Still, he strongly suspected she’d come around. He could remember the way he had felt when he realized that his world had changed forever, and that he would not be going home again, but he suspected that it had been easier for him, since he’d never liked the Empire much.
He thought about the people she’d meet when they reached the base and grinned. Oh yes, she’d come around.
Samica saw the star lines fade to spots of light against the blackness of space again as she brought the shuttle out of hyperspace. They were in Suolriep sector, far away from any inhabited system as far as she could tell, and ahead of them, she could see a scattering of ships still too far away to identify. The shuttle’s sensors were still out of order, but she thought she saw the characteristic shape of a Nebulon-B escort frigate. The others seemed to be bulk cruisers and transports, maybe with a Carrack-class cruiser in between.
Two smaller ships came towards them, and she felt queasiness in her stomach as she saw them. Y-wings. Moments later, her com crackled to life.
‘Imperial shuttle, this is Gold Leader. You are entering Alliance space. We have a laser lock on you. Do not attempt to offer resistance or you will be destroyed.’
Rhun hit the com key. ‘‘Morning, Gold Leader. This is Agent Rhun van Leuken, Alliance IntelOps, from Operation Pickup. The operation was a success. Sorry if we gave you a scare. But there was no other transport available.’
There was a pause, then the pilot’s voice came in again. ‘We’ll have to confirm that, Agent van Leuken. Please stand by.’
‘While we’re at it, could we dock with Redemption? We’ve got two wounded, Commander.’
‘I’ll check.’ The two Y-wings did not leave them, in case there was something wrong, but then there came another voice.
‘Agent van Leuken, this is Captain Decomes. Is Sergeant Haynes with you?’
Rhun looked down briefly. ‘No, sir,’ he said, subdued. ‘He’s not with us anymore. But we’ve got Doctor Blissex.’
‘Who’s we, Agent?’
Rhun threw Samica a reassuring look. ‘An officer aboard Resolve, sir. Lieutenant Trey. She helped Blissex and me to escape.’
There was a long pause on the other end, and the feeling in Samica’s stomach got worse.
Finally, the captain spoke again. ‘Very well, Agent, you have docking clearance with Redemption. And welcome back.’
‘Thanks, sir,’ Rhun replied and cut the link. ‘Don’t worry,’ he told Samica.
She took a deep, steadying breath and nodded, preparing for the docking manoeuvre, wondering why there was no hangar in the frigate where she could land more conveniently. When she got closer to the ship, she realized that the former Imperial escort frigate had been heavily modified, and that it bore the markings of a medical ship. The hangar bay had obviously made room for more infirmary space.
Samica docked at the Nebulon-B frigate, then opened the hatch. Blissex had joined them in the front of the ship, looking slightly better after his ordeal. He patted Samica’s shoulder encouragingly. ‘You’ll be fine, Lieutenant. And thank you.’
Samica gave the old man a half-smile, but then saw the two Rebel soldiers standing outside the airlock. They were dressed in what looked like civilian trousers and shirts, but wore blast vests and helmets. Both of them had blasters, and one of them addressed her.
‘I am Corporal Tarrett.’ He kept his tone absolutely neutral. ‘We’ll be your guards until the commander decides that we won’t be needed anymore.’
‘I’m under arrest?’
‘No, ma’am. This is just a precaution. You’re free to go where you want as long as you stay on this ship . . . and you’ll have to accept the fact that there’ll always be a guard around somewhere when you leave your quarters.’
She saw van Leuken wink at her, and nodded. ‘Very well. I’m ready.’
‘Follow me, please, ma’am,’ the corporal said.
Another man stood at the airlock, a tall, lanky man in a kind of uniform with a small rank insignia plate on his chest, which displayed one black dot. He’d been watching the exchange between the Imperial lieutenant and the corporal, but now turned towards Rhun.
‘Commander Willard is ready to debrief you, Agent,’ he said, ‘after you’ve seen a medical droid.’
Rhun rolled his eyes. ‘That’s not necessary, Lieutenant Rover. I’m fine.’
Lieutenant Rover looked him up and down. ‘Yes, I can see that. The Commander is absolutely adamant on this, Agent van Leuken.’
Rhun’s shoulders slumped dejectedly. ‘All right, all right, I’m going.’ Now it was Samica’s turn to smile, and she vaguely wondered if he was pulling off this little show to put her at ease.
Corporal Tarrett nodded at her, and she followed the Rebel soldier through the corridor to a small room that she recognised as a surgery. A small part of her anxiety left her. If they were going to treat her injuries, they’d probably not stand her against a wall afterwards.
Rhun left Commander Willard’s office two and a half hours later, in comparatively high spirits. Even though Lieutenant Trey’s role in this remained still unclear and despite the loss of Sergeant Haynes, the commander had been impressed with his performance in the mission, which had gone wrong almost from the start but still been a success where its objectives were concerned. Praise from the detached Suolriep Sector HQ commander was as rare as rain on Tattooine, and it felt even better because Rhun knew how much he’d earned it.
Haynes’ death still hurt. He hadn’t known the Sarge for all that long, but it had been more than a year, in which the old agent had been his teacher in most things that were concerned with operations and practical training. He’d liked the old man a great deal, and he still reproached himself for his failure to save him.
Now, however, he was going to see the other old man whom he liked a great deal. Dyson was not in his room, where he’d spent the past weeks recovering from a tropical fever, so Rhun went to look for him in the recreation room aboard Redemption. There were not many patients here at the moment; Suolriep hadn’t seen much action for a while. The large common room was occupied by a few patients and two medics. There was a man standing at the viewport along one bulkhead, who had been looking out into space, but turned at the sound of the door opening, and grinned broadly as he saw Rhun, slightly surprising the young man by giving him a rib-cracking bear hug.
Captain Grant Dyson was a tall man approaching fifty, with thinning hair that had once been blond but was now greying. He was also developing the beginnings of a paunch, but that added to his overall image of the fun-loving businessman in the Corellian tradition. He slapped Rhun on the shoulder and then held him at arm’s length to scrutinize him, and the young man laughed.
‘Don’t say I’ve grown,’ he said. ‘I’m fairly sure I haven’t.’
Dyson shook his head. ‘I was just worried about you, kid. After you were overdue for more than three days . . .’
‘Hey,’ Rhun said. ‘You were the one who taught me to take care of myself, remember?’
‘Must have done something right there. What about something to eat? That’s the reason I’m still on Redemption. I could have left days ago, but the food is better.’
Rhun laughed again. ‘Sure. I could use something to eat as well. First Imperial prison food and then two days on survival rations . . . Though I must say that the stuff you get in an Imp detention cell is better than what we’ve got on Liberty.’
Dyson’s face became serious again. ‘Atmos is overdue as well,’ he said. ‘He was supposed to arrive two weeks ago with new supplies.’
‘So that’s why you were waiting here,’ Rhun said softly.
‘Yes, but no sign of Bunny. I dearly hope the old pirate hasn’t gotten himself into trouble.’
‘Maybe just got delayed,’ Rhun guessed, although he knew Atmos. If anyone stuck to his flight plan, he would. ‘A lot of things can happen, and it needn’t always be the worst.’
Dyson drew a deep breath. ‘You’re right, kid. What about that plan of ours about having something to eat?’
‘Just go ahead,’ Rhun answered. ‘I could eat a bantha.’
Samica awoke in a small room that had a definite medical touch to it, with monitors on the walls and a button to call for assistance beside her bed. It smelled of sick bay, of disinfectants and cleaners. She was alone, although there was a thermal food container on a small table beside the bed.
She sat up carefully, and saw that she was wearing some sort of tunic and loose-fitting trousers. Her torso and leg were bandaged. Glancing around, she saw that what was left of her uniform lay on a stool by the table, with her chrono on top. Her eyes widened as she realized she had slept for almost twenty-four hours.
The plate contained something that was warm and smelled of stew. It wasn’t very exciting, but she was hungry enough to be glad about anything to eat. When she was finished, she sat back, remembering what van Leuken had told her about her not being interrogated before she was better. It seemed that he had been right. She was feeling a lot better, only an occasional sting in her chest reminding her of the wounds she’d carried from Resolve. That, however, probably meant that the close season would be over very soon.
The door opened, and a 1B medical droid wheeled in. ‘How are you feeling, ma’am?’ he asked in a gentle voice.
‘Better. Can I get up?’
The droid scanned her thoroughly, then he replied, ‘Yes, you may. But I advise you to take it easy for the time being, ma’am. You are not yet fully recovered.’
‘When are they going to interrogate me?’ Samica asked.
‘That I cannot tell you, ma’am. I am only a medical droid. Do you need anything?’
‘No, it’s all right. Is there something like a common room or a holo library or something near?’
‘Yes, ma’am. Down the corridor, to your right.’
He paused, as if he waited for something else, then left her. It hadn’t waited for a thank you, had it?
Samica waited for a while, then left the room, walking towards the common room. After a couple of steps, she heard someone fall in behind her. Well, she was used to security goons following her around. At least this one had been decent enough to introduce himself to her.
She entered the common room. It was empty except for a furry bipedal sitting in a chair and reading. It did not look up as Samica came in. There was a small collection of datacards with books – unremarkable stuff, for the most part, but Samica found an adventure novel she had once read when she was a child, which was good enough for her. There was a simulator in a corner as well, where you had to finish a racecourse on a speeder bike. Samica did not feel up to it at the moment, but made a note to have some fun on that when she was better. She’d always loved things like those. She took the reader over to a couch and began to read.
Nobody came for her that day, nor the next. Corporal Tarrett or one of his people was always with her whenever she left her room, but most of the time, she forgot they were there. She could have done all sorts of things without them even knowing, she supposed; security was rather lax here, it appeared.
After Samica had been on Redemption for three days, she saw a young human take a ride on the speeder bike simulator. There were several people in the room this time, and he had quite an audience. She noted that it was an obstacle course, like one of the illegal races that were held everywhere in the galaxy, and that he was quite good. There was applause from the little crowd of people and aliens surrounding the young man, and he was asked to give an encore, but he shook his head, grinning and a bit flushed.
Samica waited for the crowd to dissolve, then sat down on the seat, which was modelled exactly on a real speeder bike. It was not the military Aratech version she had trained on at the Academy, but the controls were close enough. She reached down to press the start button, and immediately, the screen before her sprang to life, making her believe that she was racing through a jungle course at breathtaking speed. A computer generated adversary appeared next to her, trying to get her off the track, and she veered to the side, avoiding a fallen tree trunk that had suddenly appeared in her path. Her opponent had kicked off his thrusters to fly over the obstacle, but that had cost him time; Samica was in his path before he was on her level again, and he had to break hard in order to prevent a collision. You can always tell when your opponent is computer generated, she thought with a wolfish grin as she tackled the next one in front of her. The course now opened in a wide canyon that gave her a good look at the field. She could see four riders ahead of her, one almost directly before her speeder. When she saw movement next to her from the corner of her eye, she realized that there were boulders coming down from the slopes around her. She zigzagged around the boulders, but close enough to shave milliseconds off her time. The speeder in front of her swept too wide around one of the obstacles, and she was beside him, losing him centimetre by centimetre. A large rock rolled directly towards them, and she waited for the last possible second to break. He’d chosen the safer side and veered off earlier, falling in behind her. Three to go. Ahead, she saw something blue – the canyon was filling with water. The boulders lying in the middle were still sticking out, thus providing the repulsorlift engines with some substance to work on, but you had to take the road with the most rocks, and everyone tried to take the same track. Samica saw one come too far off the track and hit the water when the repulsors collapsed. Two to go. The opponent ahead of her let himself fall back now, trying to take her out by force rather than betting on his own speed. When he was directly in front of her speeder, he braked hard, but she’d expected him to and broke to the left, where another path of boulders took her over the water, although this one was slightly longer. He kicked off again, but she could see that the water section was almost over. Wait until we get to dry land, buddy. She didn’t have to wait long. The canyon closed in around them, forming a long, narrow, dimly lit cave, where it was virtually impossible to draw up next to one another. Still, this was the kind of flying she liked: saving time by taking the bends slightly tighter than the others, relying on her TIE fighter pilot reflexes to warn her off course changes in time. When the course brightened again, the canyon opening, she could see her two opponents not further than ten metres away.
Suddenly, she felt the ground shake and saw that they were heading towards a stampeding herd of some animals that looked like a cross between a bantha and a nerf. They didn’t leave out a thing, did they? Still, this was fun, more so than anything she had done for weeks. She leaned over to sweep around the herd, having to dodge rocks that were falling from the canyon walls, loosened by the thundering hooves of the panicked animals below. The speeder that was currently in first place suddenly lurched after its driver had tried to get too high. Repulsors didn’t work too well on animal backs. The speeder rolled, then went down and was trodden underfoot. There was only one speeder bike remaining, and they were entering the home stretch. The last obstacles were poles extending out of the ground and retracting again in irregular intervals. She decided to take the straight way forward, several times breaking barely in time to avoid the poles. Her opponent did the same, but he was obviously designed to know the track, and Samica could not catch up on him. They retained that constellation to the finish line, and she sat back, breathing hard, when her score scrolled over the screen. The bonus points for finishing second had propelled her to rank number two in the computer’s reckoning.
She became aware of applause around her, and turned. There were half a dozen humans and aliens standing by the speeder bike simulator, all cheering.
‘Hey, that was excellent! But you’re a pilot, certainly, aren’t you?’ a man asked.
She was surprised that he would automatically assume she was a pilot, but then she remembered that one of the Y-wing pilots that had attacked Resolve had also been female. Maybe female pilots were not as rare here as in the Empire.
‘Ah – yes,’ she replied.
‘Thought so. Not Gold Squadron, are you?’
‘No.’ She didn’t know what to say, she could hardly tell him it had been Alpha.
They seemed to realize she was not very inclined to talk, and with some more backslapping, left her alone.
Samica sat down on the couch again, then saw two young women come over to her, both her age or a bit older. One had brown hair much like her own, but she wore it in a long ponytail. The other had long blond curls and was stunningly beautiful, but she looked no less friendly. In fact, she reminded Samica a bit of her school friend Tass. The two of them had always been an unlikely pair – outgoing, pretty Tass who was the object of every boy’s desire in their grade, and reserved, silent Samica who couldn’t even be persuaded to wear make-up.
‘Have you been practising with that thing when nobody was looking, or was that really your first time?’ the brown-haired woman asked. ‘You don’t mind us joining you, do you?’
‘No, that’s fine,’ Samica replied, and the two sat down.
‘I’m Mandy,’ the blonde said, ‘and this is Cora. That was quite good, you know. Hey, the guy who was on the machine before you has been training for weeks to get that far!’
Samica smiled slightly. ‘No, that was the first time. I’m Samica. – But you can call me Sam,’ she added. It seemed natural.
‘You’re new, aren’t you?’ Cora asked. ‘I haven’t seen you on the base before.’
Samica hesitated. ‘Yes.’
‘Well, it’s not too difficult to find one’s way around here,’ Cora said, apparently not noticing Samica’s hesitation. ‘You’ve been injured?’
‘It’s much better than a couple of days ago. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have tried this.’ She nodded over to the speeder bike with a grin.
Mandy leaned forward, legs crossed. ‘Okay, Sam, where are you from? You’ve got a funny accent. Core?’
‘Yes . . .’
‘Right, don’t say. Let me guess. Not Alderaan, is it? It’s . . . Ralltiir, right?’
‘Close,’ Samica replied. ‘It’s Imperial Centre.’
Cora raised her eyebrows. ‘We don’t have many of those,’ she said. ‘But don’t worry, you’ll get rid of that accent of yours before you know it.’
Samica shook her head, smiling. ‘You work on Redemption?’ she asked.
‘Yes, although Mandy practises her sport everywhere, right, girl?’
Mandy elbowed her in the side. ‘Says the one whose last date with the food processor was two months ago,’ she countered.
‘That was the cook, dummy, not the food processor.’
‘Even less interesting. Cora, I keep telling you, you sell yourself way too short . . .’
Samica laughed, feeling reminded almost eerily of Tass. She hadn’t been aware of how much she’d missed her friend, a woman to talk to and to be silly with from time to time. She allowed herself to relax as they talked about inconsequential things, told anecdotes and made small talk, but Samica noted they didn’t talk about anything that had to do with the Rebellion or the Empire, and she wondered vaguely whether the two had known who she was before they joined her. Oddly enough, though, Samica didn’t mind. It was good to talk to somebody, and it was good to just be Sam, not an officer, not an Imperial, not a defector, not a pilot for a while. Just Sam.
That night, there was a knock on Samica’s door. Van Leuken didn’t even wait for her to answer it but came in immediately. He looked well again, apart from a few bruises still visible on his face and hands, but they did not seem to worry him.
‘How’re you?’ he asked.
She nodded. ‘Fine. What about your shoulder?’
He looked a bit puzzled at first. ‘Oh, that. Not as bad as the medical droid that treated it.’
‘You know, I’ve been wondering about that,’ Samica said. ‘Now that you say it . . . Your droids are very . . .’ She searched for the right way to put it. ‘They can be as annoying as humans. I mean, do they get memory wipes at all?’
‘How would you like to get a memory wipe?’ Rhun countered.
‘I’m not a droid.’
Rhun shrugged. ‘No, but there are many in the Alliance who see droids as something like people. I’ve even heard about friendships between droids and animates. They consider it a good thing if a droid develops a personality, and they would never wipe its memory.’
Samica shook her head. ‘Sorry, but that’s beyond me.’
‘Well, my best friend is not a droid either.’ Rhun looked around the small room. ‘Have you been out?’
‘Yes.’ She grinned. ‘I’ve been taking some sim time with a speeder bike.’
‘The one in the common room? Was it good?’
‘I made some friends with my performance. There . . . there are quite a few female pilots in the Alliance, aren’t there?’
Rhun carefully hid a smile. ‘Yes, you could say that. It’s still more males than females, but if you’re good, you’re in. That’s the way it works here.’
‘Males?’ Samica echoed, frowning. ‘Are you saying you’ve got . . . aliens as well? Wookiees and stuff?’
‘Well, first, we prefer the term ‚nonhuman‘, since it’s slightly less discriminating. Second, a Wookiee wouldn’t fit into a fighter cockpit anyway. Third, I’d rather not talk about a Wookiee as ‚stuff‘ – you never know if there’s one listening. And last, like I said, if you’re good, you’re in, no matter if you are a human male or a Rodian female. You know what, Lieutenant? That’s the reason why the Empire can’t win.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘About seven percent of the known galaxy’s inhabitants are human. I’m talking about intelligent life here. There are a lot of species that I personally consider smarter than us, like the Calamaris or Ithorians, but that doesn’t matter. The human race is made up by about 51 percent male and 49 percent female. Now, if you follow this through, not quite four percent of all the people in the galaxy stand a chance of being reasonably happy within the Empire. Don’t you think that’s a wee bit too little for one nation to build their ideology on?’
Samica tried to find a point against his, but she couldn’t find the fault in his reasoning. ‘But the Old Republic failed because power was divided between too many. It could just not be governed anymore. One nation has to take the responsibility.’
‘Responsibility? Lieutenant, the Emperor doesn’t give a damn about most beings under his rule. A republic works when everybody takes responsibility. The Old Republic got corrupted at the end, and that’s why Palpatine could take control in the first place.’
‘I’ve heard a different version,’ Samica said, feeling cornered, and he backed off.
‘I know. And I don’t expect you to go ahead and believe everything I say. All I’m asking is that you think about it.’
She sighed. ‘All right. I’ll think about it.’
Samica was reading a book in her room the following day when there was another knock on the door.
‘Come,’ she said, for once not expecting anything important.
The door opened, and Corporal Tarrett entered, with another Rebel trooper behind him, and Samica felt her stomach do a slow, queasy roll.
‘Lieutenant Trey? Commander Willard is awaiting you. Would you please follow me?’
Samica nodded and stood slowly. She suddenly wished she had something different to wear than her sick bay clothes, but that could not be helped now.
Tarrett led her through the medical frigate to a door near the ship’s bridge. The lieutenant who had met them at the shuttle – his name had been Rover, she remembered – stood before it, and made room for them as they entered.
The office was tiny, cramped, and in a chaos. Stacks of data discs piled on the desk, and a man looked up from behind them as the door opened. Samica had never thought about how a Rebel officer should look like, but she was still mildly surprised not to see a pirate with a mechanic leg and an eye patch, but a small man of medium build in his sixties, with grey hair turning white, a tanned face and sad brown eyes which nonetheless looked as if they missed little. Like all military personnel she’d seen so far, he was wearing clothes that looked rather civilian, but with a rank insignia plate on his chest, this one bearing three black dots arrayed in a triangle. Samica filed away three for commander, one for lieutenant.
There was another lieutenant in the room, standing near the back, with short, spiky red hair and a broad face. Next to him was a medical droid. The dark, lanky officer who had shown her in completed the little tribunal as he entered behind her and closed the door.
Samica remained standing in front of the commander’s desk, meeting his eyes levelly.
‘Lieutenant,’ he addressed her. ‘Have a seat.’
She sat, her back ramrod straight, and waited.
Willard consulted the datapad in front of him for a while. ‘First, Lieutenant, I would like you to tell me your full name and rank.’
‘Trey, Samica, Lieutenant Junior Grade.’
‘Date and place of birth?’
‘14-VI-4160, Imperial City, Imperial Centre.’
He looked at the screen before him again. ‘Your education?’
‘Imperial Naval Academy at Prefsbelt IV, 4176-4178.’
‘And after that?’
‘TIE pilot on Garon II, eight standard months, then posting on VSD Resolve as lieutenant, two months.’
‘You were promoted to lieutenant at the age of eighteen after having served on Garon II for eight months?’
‘That is correct, sir.’
‘That is highly unusual, especially in the Empire, especially for a woman, Lieutenant.’
‘My commanding officer on Garon II did not much care about his people’s gender, sir.’
‘You’re that good?’
He leaned back slightly in his chair, folding his hands on the desk in front of him, watching her closely. ‘Lieutenant Trey, there are a lot of gaps in the story as I have heard it so far. Would you fill them in?’
She began to feel uncomfortable. ‘I’ll try, sir.’
The commander leaned forward on the desk again. ‘What made you defect?’
That was the question she had been dreading, that van Leuken had asked her before, and she could still not answer it now. ‘I – don’t know, sir. It just – happened.’
‘Nothing ‚just happens‘, Lieutenant.’
‘I don’t know myself, sir. I’d tell you if I did.’
He glanced down at the datapad again. ‘What can you tell me about a Lieutenant Sören Hide?’
Samica bit her lower lip. ‘He served on Resolve as well, sir. He was executed for being a Rebel spy two weeks ago.’
‘Was he a Rebel spy?’
‘I don’t know, sir.’
‘How well did you know Hide?’
‘I only was on Resolve for two months, sir –’
He shook his head. ‘Answer my question, Lieutenant.’
She made herself calm a bit. ‘He was in my squadron, and we sometimes ate in the mess together. We spent some free time together on a handful of occasions. I – I watched as he was executed.’
‘Who executed him?’
She could not keep the anger out of her voice. ‘Captain Kolaff, sir.’
Commander Willard watched her for a few beats, and she forced herself not to back down.
‘Very well, Lieutenant Trey,’ the commander said finally. ‘That’s all I need to know from you for the time being. Would you be willing to submit yourself to a lies detector for further questioning?’
‘Do you think that’s necessary, sir?’
‘Answer my question.’
She inhaled deeply. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Would you also be willing to be subject to a truth serum?’
She returned his gaze. ‘Yes, sir.’
The commander nodded to the tall, dark lieutenant that had seen her in. ‘That will be all for the moment.’ He turned to the lieutenant. ‘Helman, would you see the lieutenant back to her quarters?’
‘Aye, sir,’ Lieutenant Rover replied, and Samica got up to follow the officer from the room. She was not sure what Commander Willard had made of her, but she supposed this could have been worse.
An hour later, Rhun entered Commander Willard’s temporary office aboard Redemption. The commander returned his salute absent-mindedly, brooding over a file, which Rhun suspected to be Trey’s Imperial one that Intentions had managed to procure. He hadn’t been allowed to see it, of course, but he could tell that Willard was still trying to figure it all out. Rhun had not exactly been that much of a help, since he had no proof for his assumption that she could be trusted.
The commander told him to sit down, then put down the datapad from which he had been reading. ‘Well, Agent, I have to say that I’m inclined to believe her, but what worries me is that she does not seem to know why she did what she did.’
‘I know, sir, but that doesn’t mean she wants to fool us. If she had a well made-up excuse for everything she’s done, I would worry a lot more.’
‘True.’ Willard pursed his lips. ‘But I would expect from an IntelOps agent that he can explain his judgment slightly more precisely.’
Rhun scratched his temple. ‘I’d say she’s totally confused at the moment, sir. I mean, her entire view of the world has just collapsed, and she doesn’t know what will become of her.’ He paused. ‘Speaking of which – what will become of her?’
‘I can’t say yet. If she’s serious, I’d very much like her to join us, but the way it looks now, that’s not very likely.’
‘I’m not sure, sir. I still think she might, after all, she can’t go back to the Empire after she’s killed the captain.’
Willard shook his head. ‘I don’t want her to join the Rebellion in order to take revenge, van Leuken. And I don’t think she will. Maybe we’ll have to drop her off on some neutral world, that’s not my concern. My concern is that she doesn’t return to the Empire afterwards.’
‘I can’t imagine she will, sir. I think she has been entirely honest with both of us so far – as far as she can. And I’m absolutely certain that this is not a trick the Empire is playing on us, with or without her knowledge.’
The commander eyed the young agent thoughtfully. ‘That makes sense, van Leuken, but I would still prefer less speculation and more certainties.’
‘You won’t get any certainties before you give her a chance, sir.’
‘Maybe,’ Willard answered. ‘Not yet, though.’ He heaved a sigh and massaged his eyes. ‘There is something else, Agent.’
Rhun frowned. ‘Anything wrong, sir?’
‘You’re a friend of Captain Dyson’s, aren’t you?’
‘I’ve worked for him for quite a while, yes.’ Rhun cocked his head, not sure whether he liked where this was heading.
‘I have bad news for you, Agent. I’ve just had it confirmed that Captain Atmos’ ship, the Bunny, was shot down by Imperials almost three standard weeks ago, with five fugitives aboard. There were no survivors.’
Rhun felt his throat tighten. He’d worked for Atmos as well as for Dyson, not as closely as with the Corellian, but Atmos had been the first Captain to employ a sixteen-year-old who’d just run from home, and through him, he’d ended up with Dyson.
‘I – I’ll tell the Captain,’ he finally said, and Willard nodded. ‘Thanks, Agent van Leuken. I thought it might be better if he heard it from you.’ He stood, and Rhun got up as well. ‘That will be all, Agent.’
Rhun went back to the common room aboard the medical frigate. Dyson was there, looking out of the viewport again, waiting. The smile that started to spread across his face vanished as soon as he saw the younger man’s expression, and he frowned.
‘What’s happened, kid?’ he asked.
‘Atmos is dead, Cap,’ Rhun said softly.
Abruptly, Dyson turned back to the viewport, crossed his arms, and leaned his forehead against the transparisteel.
‘The Imps?’ he finally asked, hoarsely.
‘Yes,’ Rhun replied. ‘Commander Willard just told me. He thought it was better coming from me.’
‘It’s never good coming from anybody.’
Rhun did not answer, knowing there was no answer. He sat down on a seat in the bulkhead next to Dyson, hanging his head. Dyson remained standing where he was, still staring out of the viewport, as if a part of him still thought his old friend might come into view any minute. They stayed that way for a while, and Rhun was glad that the room was mercifully quiet at this time.
The silence was broken abruptly by a furious roar outside the room, followed by an anguished scream and more voices in a hurry. Rhun was on his feet immediately, running to the exit to see what was happening, and most of the people in the common room followed as well.
Outside, there was a small gathering of people, humans and nonhumans alike, all trying to restrain a Wookiee, who was doing his best to break free, and tried to get to a small, pale man in a tattered Imperial uniform that was being shielded from the Wookiee by several medics. Rhun felt his stomach lurch as he saw that the man was missing an arm.
‘What’s happening here?’ he asked a medic who was watching the Wookiee being sedated by a medical droid. It was a while before the two metre tall nonhuman finally began to sway and sagged down, still trying to strike at the Imperial, who was shaking all over.
‘Our people kidnapped a freighter carrying Wookiee slaves from Kashyyyk,’ the medic explained. ‘We thought we’d done all we could to bring the pilot out without the Wookiees noticing, but this one obviously found out where we were taking him. They’ve been treated worse than animals. I can hardly fault him for trying to take the little piece of scum apart.’ He jerked his head into the direction of the Imp, who was now being carried away by medics.
Rhun followed his glance, but then he noticed Samica standing near the bulkhead. Her face was almost as pale as the Imperial’s – Odd I don’t think of her as one – and she retreated as far backwards as she could when the Wookiee was carried past her.
He went over to her through the crowd, which was dissolving fast now. She didn’t notice him until he was directly beside her, still shaken by what she had just witnessed.
‘How can you let them run loose in here?’ she asked, and he realized that she had it all wrong again. But this time, he was not going to let her stick to her Imperial point of view.
‘Well, I know it’s a risk, letting Imp prisoners walk free around the ship without handcuffs,’ he replied. ‘But you have to admit it’s much more convenient for you as well.’
Samica stared at him for a couple of seconds, then she snorted when she realized what he was talking about. ‘You know what I’m saying,’ she said sharply. ‘That . . . thing could have killed all of us!’
Rhun shook his head in frustration. ‘Have you ever wondered if he had a reason for attacking that man?’
‘Do animals need reasons for attacking? Perhaps it was hungry.’
‘That’s not an animal, Lieutenant. He can’t speak Basic, but most Wookiees understand it, even if their vocal cords aren’t designed for speaking anything but their own language.’
Samica rolled her eyes. ‘You’re trying to tell me that that thing’s as intelligent as you and me?’
Rhun scowled. ‘More intelligent than you, Lieutenant. He knows an intelligent being when he sees one. Apart from that, that Imp has kidnapped him from his wife and family, stuffed him into a freighter hold like a piece of cargo and shipped him off for work somewhere. Stars, if anyone did that with me and I got a chance of getting at him – and if I could rip off anyone’s arm – I would.’ He looked at her sharply. ‘You have killed people for less, Lieutenant.’
She started to make an angry reply, then stopped herself, her mouth clicking shut, and turned to haste back down the corridor.
‘Your little Imperial friend?’ a voice asked behind Rhun, and he turned to see Dyson, who had joined him outside the common room.
‘Hardly,’ Rhun growled, folding his arms as he watched her retreating back. ‘I may owe her my life, but she’s about as stiff-necked as they come.’
He turned to Dyson again and caught him wiping a smug grin from his face just in time. ‘And anyway, I prefer a woman I don’t mistake for a man the first time I see her,’ the young man added.
‘Oh, I’m certain you do, kid,’ Dyson replied, and Rhun scowled again. It couldn’t possibly be that obvious that his experience with women boiled down to a thirteen-year-old drug addict he’d once kissed when he was sixteen, and a Twi’lek contact in a space station bar. It was not that he hadn’t been interested, he had just always felt that he had too little time to enter a serious relationship with a woman, and something that wasn’t serious wouldn’t do. Now, however, he began to wonder if he would ever have the amount of time he wanted. Anyway, he was most definitely not interested in a former Imp who could not go to the ‘fresher unless someone ordered her to.
He glanced at his chrono. ‘I have to get back to Liberty,’ he said, ending the conversation. ‘There’s a shuttle going over in half an hour.’ He glanced at the smuggler, who had sobered again, and he could tell how relieved Dyson had been that his mind had been taken from his best friend’s death for a while. ‘When are you leaving Redemption?’
‘As soon as the medics say I can. The sooner, the better.’
Rhun nodded, patting the older man’s shoulder. ‘I’ll see you then. Before you head off, preferably. I’ll be on Redemption quite often in the next few days anyway, I suppose.’
‘Take care, kid.’
Samica left Commander Willard’s office for the second time two days later. This time, the commander had asked her outright if she was willing to cooperate, but she hadn’t been able to tell him either yes or no. She had been surprised to find that, during the interview, neither a lies detector nor a truth serum had been used on her. Over the past few days, she had come to believe the Rebels were nowhere as bad as the Empire had made her think, where organization was concerned, but she was still very reluctant to accept the fact that everything she’d held true in her life had been wrong. She had heard all kinds of stories from other Rebels aboard the medical frigate, mostly from people from outback worlds, where the Empire ruled far more firmly than in the Core. It was obvious that those who had told the stories had believed them, and that most listeners had believed them too, and Samica could not help but remember the things she’d seen aboard Resolve, although she also remembered Captain Fel. But the stories fit in with many things she had tried to forget for entirely too long. She could understand a man who had lost his family in an assault which the Army had led against a building in which it suspected Rebels, could understand how that man had joined the Rebellion afterwards, although neither he nor his family had never had anything to do with the Rebels. But she had also seen the other side of it, could imagine how a stormtrooper – or a pilot – could believe what his superiors told him for years, without ever suspecting he was doing anything wrong, clinging to what he or she wanted to believe. She remembered people like Caller, or Arras or Doyle, who had never suspected anything was wrong with what they did. If it hadn’t been for the Bunny, and for Hide’s execution, she would have stuck to her old and convenient views, would have left this place as soon as she could. But the past weeks could not be undone, and they had left their mark on her, whether she liked it or not.
She entered the canteen of the medical ship, although the thought of what awaited her there was enough to dispel her appetite. Whatever ethical qualms she might have, the food on Rebel ships was enough to make you rethink any notions about defecting very, very carefully.
The canteen was as crowded as always. Samica had tried, over the past week, to find out whether there was any time of day where there were less people eating there, but hadn’t succeeded. At least she hadn’t seen Corporal Tarrett since morning. She doubted Willard trusted her completely, but at least he seemed convinced that she was not going to try anything foolish.
The commander had been one of the reasons why Samica felt slightly more comfortable with the Rebels than she had thought possible days ago. She had expected either a fanatic or a softie, and had been totally surprised that Willard was neither.
She got something to eat from the food processor, then looked for a free seat somewhere. Before she found one, she spotted a familiar face in the mess – Rhun van Leuken, who waved at her across the room and motioned for her to join him. She noted that he was sitting near a table with some Wookiees, and wondered vaguely if that could have been his intention, but then went across the canteen to sit with him.
‘Hey, Lieutenant,’ he said when she took a seat. ‘You look fit enough to fly again.’
She snorted. ‘Fly what?’
He shrugged. ‘I told you we needed pilots. Just ask Commander Willard.’
Samica looked into her food for a while, then said, ‘Van Leuken . . . I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry? What for?’
‘I behaved like an idiot.’
‘Yes, you did,’ he replied cheerfully. ‘That means you’re learning.’
She looked over at the Wookiees, and noticed, amazed, that they were using cutlery, growling softly to one another, in what sounded a lot more like language than what she had heard from the Wookiee in the corridor two days ago.
‘Can you understand what they’re saying?’ she asked Rhun.
He shook his head. ‘No, but I would imagine they’re talking about their comrade, who’s under arrest.’
‘The one that attacked the Imperial pilot? It – he’s under arrest?’
Rhun shrugged. ‘Sure. He attacked someone, and injured him, so they’ll have to determine if he’s to be accused. Maybe he won’t be, though, because of the state he was in. But he as well as the Imp will get a fair hearing.’
Samica nodded absent-mindedly, concerning herself with her dinner. It tasted of absolutely nothing.
‘Good, isn’t it?’ Rhun asked her with an evil grin.
She made a face. ‘It’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.’
‘It’s the best the Alliance has to offer,’ Rhun scolded her with a hurt expression. ‘You should see the food aboard the other ships. Redemption always gets the best, so people can recover.’
Her expression was one of sheer horror. ‘You’re joking.’
‘Oh no, I’m serious. Go ask anyone you like. You won’t get anything better around here.’
Samica contemplated her dinner again. ‘And I was actually thinking about defecting,’ she said.
Rhun leaned over the table, their banter forgotten. ‘Are you serious?’ he asked.
She hesitated. ‘I don’t know . . . sometimes I think you, Commander Willard, everyone expects me to. Sometimes I think I expect me to. I know there are some things seriously wrong within the Empire, and they should be altered, but I don’t know if that justifies war.’
‘We didn’t start this war, Lieutenant,’ Rhun said softly.
‘Of course you did. On Ghorman.’
‘That’s the official version. Do you want to know what really happened on Ghorman?’
Samica took a while to answer. ‘Yes,’ she finally said.
‘There was a demonstration at the spaceport,’ Rhun told her. ‘People were demonstrating for lower taxes or something. There were quite a few dissidents there, but you couldn’t have called them Rebels. There were strikes everywhere on Ghorman, and finally, the Emperor sent someone to have a look at the situation. The people heard about it, and moved their sit-in to the landing platform of the spaceport. That was when the Imperial commander decided to set his ship down there anyway.’
Samica grimaced, but didn’t say anything.
‘That commander was not even put on trial for killing or wounding four hundred people. Instead, he was promoted. You know who I’m talking about.’
‘But we were told Grand Moff Tarkin had successfully put down an outbreak of violence,’ Samica said. Something told her this was her line, although Rhun’s version sounded more true to her than she dared to admit.
‘We’ve still got the footage,’ Rhun said. ‘We keep several holos here that were never shown on any Imperial channel. I can ask Commander Willard if you may see it. But I have to warn you; it’s not a pretty sight.’
She didn’t answer, and Rhun continued. ‘After that, the Rebel Alliance was founded. There had been several groups of Rebels before that, but now they realized they had to throw their lot in together if they wanted to change anything. They declared Rebellion – openly – and gave the Empire the chance to meet some of their demands. Instead, they were all declared outlaws – although, thus far, they hadn’t done anything – and were forced to go underground. We’re not trying to destroy the Empire, but we’ll do everything it takes to prevent things like Ghorman from repeating themselves.’
‘I hadn’t realized that you are so well organized,’ Samica said.
‘No, of course you wouldn’t. The Empire tries very hard to make us appear like a bunch of anarchists. But maybe they’ll have to rethink their strategy on this, because the Alliance is growing, and so are our opportunities. I’m certain that the more senior officers, at least some, are aware of the danger we pose, and I’m certain the Emperor is.’ He grinned. ‘So I’m not telling you anything new.’
He was, but she found that everything he said made sense. Still, there was the one thing she’d thought about time and time again for days now, the one thing for which she couldn’t find a solution.
‘You know, van Leuken, when I gave my oath to the Empire, I meant it. I may even have been idealistic. To break a word I gave freely was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done.’
‘Yes, but would you have given it if you’d known that it would force you to do things you thought wrong? Of course they won’t let you swear that you’ll kill innocents or torture people, so they lied to you. You have absolutely no obligation to keep an oath you gave to someone who wasn’t honest with you.’
‘I can’t believe Captain Fel knew what was happening elsewhere in the Empire,’ she said, almost desperate.
He shook his head sadly. ‘Lieutenant, if you reach the rank of Captain in any military, you’re bound to see a lot of things, and either you recognise something, or you choose to ignore them. No Imperial officer past the rank of Lieutenant or so can possibly be ignorant about things like Ghorman. Maybe there are some who, like you, try to convince themselves these things are not the rule. But I assure you, ignoring can get pretty tough when you’ve done it for a while and you still pride yourself on something like a conscience.’
‘Are you trying to tell me all Imperials are evil?’
‘I’m trying to tell you that Imperials have become very adept at looking away when they see something that doesn’t fit in with their point of view.’
‘I’m not very comfortable with shooting at people I might know from the Academy, van Leuken. But I doubt you’ve ever faced that problem.’
Rhun met her eyes squarely. ‘I have faced that problem, Lieutenant. My father is a stormtrooper sergeant.’
Samica averted her eyes and did not answer.
‘Don’t believe you’re the only one who has difficulty with some things,’ he went on sharply. ‘That’s what it’s all about. Stop looking away. Stop complaining. Make a difference.’
Samica bit her lip. ‘I don’t think I’m ready for this, van Leuken.’
He got up from the table. ‘Yes, and I can tell you why that is, Lieutenant. You’re a coward and a hanger-on. Just take a good look at those Wookiees. They’ve just broken free from slavery, but you’re not even trying.’ With that, he turned and left the canteen, leaving her staring after him, mouth agape.
Commander Willard massaged his chin and looked about the room, wondering if he’d forgotten anything. Lieutenant Riece waited patiently, shifting the boxes of datacards in his arms slightly for better balance. That was the problem about leaving your command ship temporarily, Willard thought, and he’d better get back soon. This shipping of data discs from ship to ship was highly uneconomical, but transmitting was not an option, since in the Alliance as well as the Empire, there was classified data that was not supposed to be made public. And there was an Equipment section aboard Endurance, and Stars only knew what the lunatics there would do with some of the data. Not that he didn’t find amusing some of the things they pulled from time to time, even though he would never let it show, but most of the time, the enthusiasm of Equipment personnel with new toys could be truly annoying.
‘That’s all, Jerrel,’ he told the red-haired young man. ‘I’d like you to be back at twelve hundred hours, so we can go over the report from Juruz Sector once again. And tell Lieutenant Rover to stay on Liberty tomorrow, to handle everything that might arise. I’ll be back the day after tomorrow.’
‘Aye, sir,’ Riece replied, considering an attempt to salute despite the boxes in his arms, but Willard shook his head. ‘That’s all right, Lieutenant. You can go.’
As Riece tried to elbow the button next to the door, it opened from the outside, and Willard saw the sentry standing there next to the young Imperial lieutenant. He nodded towards Riece to go, then turned to the sentry. ‘What is it, Sergeant? Lieutenant?’
‘Sir, Lieutenant Trey asks to have a word with you. I told her you were probably busy . . .’
The commander looked at the woman, then nodded. ‘Very well, Lieutenant. Come in.’ He stepped back from the door to let her enter, the sergeant following behind.
‘Thank you, sir,’ she said and took the chair he offered her.
‘Well, Lieutenant Trey,’ Willard said. ‘What have you come to see me for?’
She drew a deep breath, suddenly reminding him of a child that had rehearsed a poem and now recited it to her teacher. But her eyes were not those of a child, they were as serious as he’d ever seen them.
‘Agent van Leuken told me you needed pilots, sir. If you have a ship for me, I’ll fly.’
Commander Willard watched her for a couple of seconds, carefully hiding his surprise. He had not expected her to do this, much less so soon. Mentally, he shook his head, remembering van Leuken’s conviction he’d bring her around. Apparently, he had. And in record time, it seemed. The young man was turning out to be full of surprises.
‘What has caused this sudden change of attitude, Lieutenant?’ he asked.
‘I’ve seen that the Rebellion is not what I thought it was, sir. I’ve seen that the Empire is not what I thought it was. I’ve looked away for too long.’
Willard watched her for a few more beats, then nodded slowly. ‘Very well. You’ll understand that I can’t let you go ahead right now and let you fly with a squadron. There are a few formalities that have to be observed. And you’ll have to convince me.’
‘I will, sir.’
‘Well, then you will be transferred to Liberty, to see where we’ll put you. You have experience with starfighters?’
‘Only TIEs, sir, but also with transports, shuttles and the like.’
The commander nodded again. ‘You will soon see that Rebel pilots have to be more than pilots, but also mechanics, interstellar taxi drivers, and sometimes agents, among other things you’ll find out.’
‘I’d also like to work with van Leuken again, if the opportunity arises, sir,’ she said, and he thought she blushed just a little as she said it. Well, that was a motive, too. And perhaps a stronger one than blind idealism.
‘That opportunity might arise, Lieutenant. There’s a shuttle going over to Liberty in two hours. I suppose you don’t need much time to pack.’
‘No, sir.’ She smiled slightly.
‘I thought as much.’ He stood, and she followed suit. ‘You may go, Lieutenant.’
She nodded, and he realized that she was saluting. He returned the salute and watched her go. Someone else who is turning out to be full of surprises, he thought.
When the lieutenant and the sergeant had left, he keyed his comlink.
‘Riece,’ a voice said.
‘Willard here. Jerrel, you can tell Lieutenant Rover I’ll be back on Liberty tonight.’
Samica returned to her small room on Redemption, looking around it for a long time. She had something to do before she went over to the command ship, something very important.
Her olive green Imperial uniform lay on the stool by the bed, and she went over to it and picked it up. Carefully, she took off the rank insignia plate from the left breast and put it in her pocket, then carried the uniform over to a garbage chute in the bulkhead, stuffing it in.
She went into the tiny refreshing unit adjacent to her room, and took out the rank insignia. Two red squares above two blue ones, her rank in the Empire, the rank she would probably have kept until she was forty. It wasn’t the fact of not being likely to be promoted that had bothered her, it was the fact of not being respected that had hurt her most. But that was over now.
Slowly, almost ceremoniously, Samica opened her hand and let the small plastisteel square fall into the ‘fresher, then flushed it down.
For three days, there had been nothing else outside the viewport, not a planet, not a star that was close enough to stick out in any way among the myriads of others, not even a gas cloud, nothing at all to take his mind off his desperate situation. He wished he had gone against regulations just this once and installed an entertainment programme on his ship’s computer – a game of Quadrant, for example, even if he would have had to play against himself. As it was, all he had done for the last three days had been to calculate how long his survival rations would last, how long until the life support systems failed, how long until someone came across him by pure chance. He had begun to update his calculations every few hours, especially the ones about the survival rations. His squad mates had made jokes about the amounts of food he could eat (without notable consequences for his girth) more than once, but he had never wondered if he might ever find himself in a situation like this, where he was actually faced with the danger of starving. He’d been compelled to think about dying – being shot down, or going EV and dying of exposure – when he joined the Navy, and come to terms with the possibility that he might not survive his first tour of duty. At first, the thought of starving in a TIE fighter cockpit had seemed annoying rather than terrifying, but now, after three days in a fighter whose consumables were meant to last for two, he found himself turning to considerations like these more and more often.
He still could not believe what had happened three days ago, when a small Rebel fleet had awaited them at their hyper jump point, attacked Resolve, and destroyed the ship. He didn’t know how many pilots had survived of the Star Destroyer’s wing of TIEs, but he was certain it could not have been more than half a dozen. He’d started out with another pilot from Beta Squadron, but then his fuel had threatened to run out, and he’d been forced to stay behind forty hours ago. Instead of going on, he’d channelled all remaining energy into life support, knowing he’d hold on much longer that way.
He’d come to the conclusion his only hope was to reach Gherro, a neutral station near which Resolve had exited hyperspace, which was usually patrolled by customs craft, sometimes larger Imperial ships. But in the vastness of space, ‘near’ was an elastic term. At some point, one of the TIEs patrolling the area was bound to find him – the question was whether he would live long enough to see that happen. He was afraid to fall asleep, afraid that he might miss the station appearing on his screen at last, and he couldn’t rule out the possibility that he had passed near it when he’d finally fallen asleep ten hours ago. His hope rested on the transmitter he’d set to full power, hoping someone would pick up his signal soon.
When a red dot appeared on his rear screen, he thought at first he’d only imagined it, that his imagination was playing tricks on him, but then the dot split into four, and he identified them as TIE fighters. He suddenly realized his hands were shaking. He was safe.
‘Unidentified TIE fighter, this is HT-124. Identify yourself.’
‘This is VSD-R-168, from VSD Resolve. The ship blew up three days ago.’
‘VSD-R-168, form up with us. We’ll get you back to the station.’
Flight Officer Josh Caller heaved a heartfelt sigh of relief. ‘Thanks, HT-124.’
An hour later, Caller emerged from the shower aboard the Nebulon-B frigate Leveller, shaven and feeling much more alive than he had minutes ago. His knees still felt weak after three days in the cockpit, but he supposed that something to eat would take care of most of the physical discomfort he was currently feeling.
He was lucky; he was finishing the last of an extended dinner when two lieutenants approached his table in the officers’ mess to escort him to the ship’s commander.
Commander Yenko was a tall, thin, aristocratic-looking man with equally thin greying hair and pale blue eyes. He stood with his hands folded at the small of his back, alternatingly studying the young flight officer standing at attention before him and the screen of his computer beside him. Caller supposed that it held his file. There was a COMPNOR officer at Yenko’s side, with a datapad in his hand, as well as an aide in a naval lieutenant’s uniform. Finally, the commander cleared his throat.
‘Now, Officer, you seem to be about the last of the lucky ones who managed to escape from the disaster that destroyed Resolve.’ He spoke with the clipped accent of a native from Imperial Centre.
Caller chose not to answer; the commander was stating the obvious.
Yenko sat down in his chair, folding long legs and contemplating him. ‘Is there anything you can tell us about the events that led to the destruction of Resolve?’
Caller frowned. ‘No, sir.’
Yenko pursed his lips. ‘I thought you might be able to shed some light on the affair about Lieutenant Samica Trey. After all, you were her wingman.’
The young man shifted nervously. He had heard about Trey’s defection when they had already been battling against enemy Y-wings, after she had not appeared in the hangar. He still didn’t know what to make of it, and he had not thought about her for the past twenty-four hours. His stomach had been a far more secure topic.
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you anything, sir,’ he said, slowly. ‘I heard about it, of course, but I can’t tell you why.’
‘Well, Officer, we’re currently trying to figure out whether she was responsible for the destruction of the ship.’
Caller’s eyes widened. ‘I don’t know, sir, but I wouldn’t have thought she could do such a thing.’
The commander watched him. ‘You never noticed anything out of the ordinary?’
‘No, sir. Well – I know she sometimes–’ He caught himself. What was he doing here? He was speculating wildly, and moreover, he was speculating about someone who, up until seventy-two hours ago, had been his superior officer.
‘She sometimes what, Officer?’ Yenko prompted.
Caller drew a deep breath. If she was a traitor, then he had to tell them. ‘She sometimes talked to Lieutenant Hide, who was later executed for being a Rebel spy, sir.’
The commander nodded. Apparently, this had not been new to him. ‘How did you get along with Trey, Flight Officer?’
Caller resisted the urge to shuffle his feet. ‘I don’t understand your question, sir.’
‘Of course you understand my question. Answer it.’
‘Well – I didn’t have much to do with her, apart from shifts. She – was usually rather friendly.’
Yenko and the COMP exchanged a glance. ‘I see. Thank you, Flight Officer.’ He shut off the screen. ‘You will remain on Leveller for the time being, Officer. You may spend your free time on the station if you wish. I will put in a request to StarCom that you can temporarily fly for us, before they transfer you somewhere else. Dismissed.’
Caller saluted and left the commander’s office, not happy about the prospect of staying on a frigate, which was a regress when compared to the posting on a Star Destroyer, but at least it would only be for a while.
The shuttle set down in the most crowded hangar Samica had ever seen. The light cruiser had not been designed with a carrier ship in mind, but the Rebels had obviously not cared; every inch of the hangar was cramped with ships, and Samica suspected that they had to follow a very strict flight plan in order to leave it at all. There was a medium sized transport waiting next to another shuttle, and in between were six Y-wings. It was the first time she saw one of those (in working order) up close, and she found she had not missed much. In addition to being ungainly-looking, they were also so battered that there were no two that looked the same. One thing they had in common, though: along the nose of each, a golden stripe had been painted in a curve running from the tip to the sides of the cockpit. There appeared to be no other starfighters here, and Samica felt a faint sense of disappointment. She’d half hoped that she might be allowed to fly an X-wing, because she recalled how easily she had shot down Y-wings, or wishbones, as they were called in derogatory Imperial pilot jargon, in simulators. She could see two pilots in the hangar, clad in bright orange flight suits. The colour seemed strange to Samica, who was used to sombre black, but then, she figured, the colour made sense. As opposed to TIE fighters, Rebel ships had ejection seats, and if you had to leave your fighter, it was virtually impossible to find you again in a black suit.
She got up as the hatch hissed open, leaving the small shuttle. She was no longer wearing the loose-fitting sick bay clothes, but had been given a Rebel pilot’s ground uniform. It consisted of a grey jacket and a matching pair of many-pocketed trousers, looking more like a mechanic’s coverall than a uniform, but Samica remembered Willard’s words about the different kinds of work pilots had to perform here, and supposed it was better that way. On her right breast, there was a small rectangular rank insignia plate displaying one blue dot for a lieutenant of Starfighter Command. She had not yet been allocated to a squadron – she was to be tested first, and she guessed that not only her skills, but also her loyalty would be examined closely. Well, she was ready.
Samica looked behind her and saw a short blond woman in an officer’s jacket approach, two blue dots on her rank insignia plate denoting her as a StarCom captain. She looked about ten years older than Samica, with a sturdy build and a firm handshake, she noted.
‘I’m Captain Jevarra. Commander Willard has asked me to look after you a bit until you’ve settled in . . . and to see what you can do in a cockpit.’ She eyed the taller woman. ‘I don’t suppose you have experience with X- or Y-wings?’
‘No, s– I mean, ma’am,’ Samica corrected herself hastily, which the older woman commented with a faint smile.
‘Well, then I guess we’ll have to start from scratch,’ Jevarra said. ‘I’ll see you in the simulator room at seventeen hundred. Until then, get settled in and try to find your way around. That shouldn’t be too difficult around here. The sleeping quarters, the canteen and the briefing room are all on level two, the hangar and the sim room on three.’
‘And there’s something else,’ the captain went on. ‘I don’t know about you, but most former Imps do not like to make their former employer too public. Around here, most won’t know, unless you tell them. Superior officers will probably know, but they don’t much care where their people come from, as long as they’re good. So don’t worry about that.’
‘Thank you, ma’am,’ Samica said. ‘I’m certain I’ll manage.’
Jevarra nodded. ‘Seventeen hundred then, Lieutenant.’
‘How are you getting on?’
Samica looked up from the table in the canteen as Rhun approached. There was only a very small officers’ mess aboard Liberty, which was frequented mostly by senior officers, so most other people ate in the enlisted canteen. Samica was more comfortable with it as well, since it was a lot more anonymous, and the food was the same everywhere anyway.
She nodded. ‘It’s getting better and better.’ Her first simulator run with a Rebel starfighter had gone so well that she had almost been as surprised as Captain Jevarra. The captain had chosen to test her in the cockpit of an X-wing first, since the controls were very similar to those of a skyhopper, a craft Samica was sufficiently familiar with, and she had been amazed at how agile the X-wing was despite its heavy armament and deflector shields. She had also found out that her experience in dogfights against X-wings (even if they had been simulated) gave her many clues as to how to handle the craft best, and likewise, she could guess at the TIE fighter pilot’s reactions and calculate their speed, which gave her a good edge. She wondered if it had ever occurred to Imperial StarCom how utterly predictable those standard manoeuvres were, and how dangerous predictability could become. One more thing she learned: she still had a long way to go if she was to shake off her ideas about standard manoeuvres. As soon as Jevarra presented her with problems that could not be solved by the book, she began to make mistakes, one of which finally got her ‘killed’, but only after hours of sim-training.
He nodded to the datapad in her hand. ‘What are you reading?’
‘ ‚On Starfighter Combat‘ by Adar Tallon. Although they’ve been very worried about me reading anything except ‚young adult‘ stuff.’
Rhun shrugged. ‘Precautions.’
‘I know.’ She shut off the datapad and put it away. ‘Any news from you?’
He hesitated. ‘I’m working for Intentions at the moment, decrypting, encrypting, that sort of thing. Not very interesting.’
‘No new missions?’
‘You know that’s classified, Lieutenant.’
She nodded. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to be curious. I’ve probably made a bad impression just now.’
He didn’t answer, and she wondered – once again – if he had more official motives for spending his time with her than the infinite pleasure of her company. In the week she’d spent on Liberty, she’d seen him almost daily. It was not that she minded, but she would have preferred it if he could have told her he was something like her watchdog.
‘Never mind,’ Rhun murmured finally.
Stars, how he hated this. He’d come to the conclusion that he liked her, and he thoroughly disliked spying on her. He couldn’t even tell her that Willard had told him he might send them on a mission together, to make absolutely sure where her loyalties lay. It was time to start trusting her. But that was Commander Willard’s decision, not his; and as long as the commander thought she needed someone to look after her, that was his job. So far, though, neither he nor the two covert Intel agents who were watching her at all times had found anything to report, and Rhun would have been surprised if they had.
He asked her about her latest sim training sessions, about Mandy, who’d also talked to her infrequently, and about half a dozen other inconsequential things.
Soon, it would be time to talk about more consequential matters.
Caller looked up from maintenance works on his TIE fighter, seeing the COMPNOR officer he’d already met coming towards him, and his stomach sank. He’d already told them all he knew about Lieutenant Trey – which was little more than her surname – and he’d hoped they’d finally leave him alone. For almost a week, they had, but it seemed they’d come up with yet another stupid question he’d not be able to answer. His respect for COMPNOR had never run very deep, but after this, it was down to about nothing.
He suppressed a sigh. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Commander Yenko wants to talk to you. Follow me, please.’
Caller felt his eyebrows rise. The last interviews had been held without the commander, and he couldn’t begin to imagine what was the matter now. He’d flown with the station’s TIE pilots for the past week, as well as the dozen pilots who’d survived the destruction of Resolve. Two had been from his squadron, Lieutenant Downlead and Captain Rellis, the others were from the other squadrons. Yenko had split them up, and Caller still wondered why. There had been no word yet where he would be transferred after this.
The COMP led him to Commander Yenko’s office – which Caller would have found without help, but never mind – and he felt his uneasiness increase when he saw another COMPNOR officer beside Yenko, this one wearing commander’s insignia on his white uniform.
Caller bobbed his head in a precision salute that would have done Carrida proud. ‘Flight Officer Josh Caller reporting as ordered, sir.’
Yenko returned the salute. ‘At ease, Officer. This is ISB Commander Karranek,’ he introduced the other man, and Caller felt his stomach arrive at ground level. The Imperial Security Bureau was the intelligence branch of COMPNOR, and although they were not normally considered as competent as Imperial Intelligence, they were far more visible than ImpIntel, and feared far worse. An officer, either Navy or Army, hoped never to meet an ISB official, for usually those who did met with an untimely end, either to their career or sometimes worse. He felt his heart beat in his throat as he saluted the ISB commander as well.
Karranek cleared his throat. He was a broad, heavy-set man in his fifties, with a red face and snow-white hair. He was toying with a stylus, a datapad before him.
‘Officer Caller, first of all, I want to make it clear that everything that will pass within this room is absolutely classified. None of anything we will discuss here is ever to be made public in any way. Is that clear, Officer?’
Caller moistened dry lips with his tongue. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Good. You are aware that a Lieutenant Samica Trey has defected from the Emperor’s service approximately ten standard days ago?’
‘We have reason to believe that she has joined the Rebels, after she was in close contact with a known Rebel agent. Another agent has recently been detected . . . on this station, Officer.’
Caller swallowed hard. He can’t be referring to me, he thought, I’ve never done anything against the Empire in my life! To his relief, the commander continued, ‘It’s a technician in one of the civilian docking bay levels of Gherro space station, by the name of Troen Marty. We have been able to intercept encrypted messages that he has been sending to his employers . . . and he has been seen talking to Imperial personnel, trying to poison their minds with his Rebel propaganda. The Rebel Alliance is spreading across the galaxy like cancer, Officer. And you could be an instrument in curing at least this station.’
Caller made no reply, but his mind was racing. He still didn’t know what exactly Karranek was talking about, and he thoroughly disliked the commander’s pompous words. At least this did not seem to be one of the occasions he’d put his foot in it.
‘We know that Marty reports to his superiors regularly, and we also know that they have tried once before to kidnap previously loyal officers from under our noses, but this time, we’ll be in the better position. Instead of arresting the man at once, you are going to act as bait for Marty, and when the Rebels send someone to investigate, we’ll either capture them or follow them to one of their hidden bases. The fact that you were the wingman of someone who now has defected to them will give us even more credibility.’
He looked at Caller measuringly, and the young man shifted uncomfortably. ‘Sir, I’ve never worked with Intel – or the ISB,’ he added hastily as he saw a shadow of dislike cross Karranek’s face. ‘I’m just a pilot, and–’
‘Do you mean to say you refuse to be of service to the Emperor in this, Flight Officer?’ the ISB commander wanted to know. He hadn’t raised his voice, but his tone made Caller’s hair stand on end.
‘No – I mean, I am doing everything I can for the Empire, sir, but I don’t think I’ll be a good choice for bait, as you said – I’ve never . . .’
Commander Yenko spoke for the first time. ‘All that will be expected of you will be to make a few derogatory remarks about the Empire in the canteen when Marty’s nearby. None of this will affect your career, you will be transferred after this, where nobody knows you. It won’t even find its way into your file, Officer.’ His tone betrayed no emotion whatsoever, and Caller wondered if the frigate commander was too happy with the ISB’s plan.
‘Sir, I really don’t think I’m the right man for what you have planned. I’m not an undercover agent, sir.’
The red-faced man bent forward. ‘You question my judgment, Flight Officer?’
‘No, sir, I mean . . .’ Caller took a deep breath to steady himself. ‘I’m not a good liar, sir. Marty may get suspicious.’
‘And I say you are going to do it, Caller. I have other means as well, which you might not be so happy about.’
Caller was torn between fear and anger now, and he noted Yenko’s expression had changed to one of disgust. Not very reassuring that the commander didn’t seem to be too powerful on his own ship when COMPNOR was present.
‘You’ve got a mother and sister back home on Yaemon, don’t you, Caller?’ Karranek continued. ‘It would be a sad thing indeed if something happened to them, wouldn’t it?’
‘That will be quite enough, sir,’ Commander Yenko murmured, with an undertone of barely contained fury in the polite words, and Karranek finally took the hint and backed off.
‘I hope I have made myself clear, Flight Officer. In case I haven’t, this is not a proposal, it’s an order you’ll obey. Declining is not an option. Is that understood?’ The pudgy commander looked at Caller as if he almost hoped that he would refuse.
‘Yes, sir,’ Caller said between his teeth.
Karranek concerned himself with his datapad and stylus once more. ‘Dismissed, Officer.’
Caller jerked a salute, face rigid, and turned to leave the office. From the corner of his eye, he saw Commander Yenko’s face, who looked as if he’d just been forced to eat bantha poodoo.
‘Not a starfighter mission?’
Samica stared at Rhun incredulously. ‘I don’t have much experience with intel work, van Leuken. What am I saying – I have no experience. Surely Willard must know that!’
Rhun shrugged. ‘Well, obviously he thinks you’re up to it, Lieutenant. Apart from that, I’ll be doing most of the intel stuff. You fly the transport and get us safely home again.’
Samica shut her mouth again, remembering Willard’s words about interstellar taxi drivers. If she hoped they would trust her some day, she supposed she’d better not complain. At least she wasn’t ordered to interrogate prisoners this time, which was certainly worth something.
‘But I may know what this is all about this time?’ she asked.
Rhun smiled. ‘Yes, you may. But I think the commander is going to brief us in person. And don’t worry, he’s not going to dump you in Support Services. We need pilots – starfighter pilots – too badly. My guess is he wants to see whether you can do other things besides flying.’
‘Well, my old squadron commander once told me to put in a request for transfer into Intelligence,’ Samica said. ‘But I don’t think he was serious.’
‘You didn’t seem so bad when we escaped from Resolve,’ Rhun said.
‘What does that have to do with Intel?’
‘A lot. Unlike pilots, we’re not trained to do things in the same way again and again. We don’t have a ‚book‘. Instead, we must be able to assess situations in a heartbeat, react to them without much time to think about our decisions, and be creative.’ He grinned. ‘You displayed some of that – quite a lot, actually, considering you’re an Imp pilot.’
‘Oh, thanks – if that was a compliment.’
‘When do we start?’
Rhun scratched his head. ‘I’m not sure. At least, what we’ll be doing this time doesn’t have as close a time window as my last mission.’
‘What do you mean?’
Rhun snorted. ‘You don’t think Sergeant Haynes and I would have tried to get aboard a Star Destroyer if we hadn’t been absolutely desperate, do you?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t really know a lot about how you work . . . if you can choose the circumstances.’
‘Well, I don’t know how we work if we can choose the circumstances. Because that never happens. We just have to make the most of what we’re given.’
‘Have you ever tried to make the odds your own?’
Rhun smiled ruefully. ‘Welcome to the Rebellion, ma’am,’ he said.
Samica hadn’t realized that Commander Willard’s office on Redemption had only been a temporary one. Here, on his command ship, it looked more like a place to work in, with slightly more space and slightly less chaos. The red-haired lieutenant named Riece was present for the briefing, as well as the commander; only Rhun was late.
When he finally entered the office, out of breath and looking a bit flushed, Riece grinned, remarking, ‘You never look very eager to be on a mission, do you, Agent?’
Rhun threw him an angry look, but Willard cut off any remark he might have made in return. ‘That’s enough, Lieutenant, Agent.’ He turned towards Samica and Rhun, who’d sat down at the commander’s gesture. ‘Lieutenant Trey, I don’t doubt you’re surprised that your first mission for the Alliance is not from your special area of expertise, but I have a reason for choosing you to accompany Agent van Leuken and not one of my Intel people. You have heard of the neutral space station Gherro?’
She considered. ‘Yes, sir. I believe it was in the area Resolve was patrolling.’
‘That’s correct, Lieutenant. It is also the place where the surviving TIE pilots of Resolve have found refuge . . . on an escort frigate called Leveller.’
She wasn’t comfortable with the direction in which this was heading, but she waited.
Willard brought up a holo of the station, a disc-shaped construction orbiting the fourth planet in the Gherro system. ‘We have been informed of a possible defector among these pilots, Lieutenant. You will meet with a contact, our systems agent, on the station, who is currently working there as a technician – Agent van Leuken knows the details – and who will be able to tell you who the defector is. Next, you will contact the defector – this part will be the responsibility of the systems agent, although I want you to work with him in this, both of you – and find out whether he is serious. If he is, you will bring him back with you. You will also bring our man along. Lieutenant, how well did you know the other pilots on the Star Destroyer?’
‘Those from my own squadron, fairly well, sir, but I don’t know about the others. I do think it’s possible that someone has drawn the same conclusions from Captain Kolaff’s behaviour I have.’
‘Do you know them all from sight?’
‘From sight, yes. I’m certain.’
‘Good. You will not show yourself too openly then, Lieutenant, since the same will be true for them. If you’re in public, disguise yourself. You will be flying a YT-1300 light freighter which will be disguised as a merchant ship hauling supplies and spare parts. Have you flown one of those?’
‘No sir, but I’ll get some sim time with one, if there’s still time.’
Willard nodded, acknowledging. ‘Very good. You’ll start tomorrow at sixteen hundred hours. Agent van Leuken has all the coordinates. By the way, Agent van Leuken will be in command in this mission, despite his junior rank, apart from everything that’s immediately concerned with flying.’ He watched her reaction as he said this, but she was comfortable with the situation and could understand the measure. In her experience, Intel existed somewhere outside the normal rank system anyway.
‘Any further questions?’ the commander asked.
‘None, sir,’ Samica said, but Rhun was frowning. ‘Sir, I don’t understand why the SystemsOps agent hasn’t already evaluated the defector. I just find it odd that three people get involved in this.’
‘The agent does not have a transport available, so we have to send someone anyway. Besides, as the Talz say, eight eyes see more than four. The danger of being detected is too great for him to start investigating on his own without a chance to get away if things get too hot. That’s why you will take him back with you in the first place – he’s been there for longer than I ever intended him to, and it’s too risky to leave him on Gherro. Is your question answered, Agent?’
‘The ship will be waiting for you in the hangar tomorrow,’ Willard continued. ‘Lieutenant Trey, you can ask Captain Jevarra if she can help you with a YT-1300 sim programme. Dismissed, then.’
Samica stood and saluted, feeling her face blush as she realized she was doing it in the Imperial way again, and hastened to copy Rhun’s touching his forehead with the fingers of his right hand.
Commander Willard did not comment on this, only returned the salute.
Troen Marty whirled, hasted to make sure that there was nobody around in the small workshop, and then turned to glare at the Shistavanen wolf woman who had entered behind him.
‘What’re you doing here?’ he snarled. ‘I told you not to see me again. It’s way too dangerous.’
‘It’s going to be even more dangerous,’ she answered, her voice a low growl. ‘Haven’t you noticed the whole place is swarming with stormies?’
Marty barked a laugh. ‘That’s what it’s like on a space station with an Imp frigate docking. Go back to your ship. You should have been outta here days ago.’
She shook her head vigorously, her bluish-grey fur bristling. ‘It’s different this time, Troen. We need to talk. Do you know anywhere to go where nobody can listen in?’
‘Rysta, I keep tellin’ you, we mustn’t let anyone see us together.’ There was more anxiety in the urgency in his voice now.
‘Call it a hunter’s instinct if you want, Troen, but there’s something wrong here. I’ve seen a couple of ISB people on the way to the mess. We do need to talk.’
‘All right,’ he finally said, heaving a sigh. ‘Get down to the equipment cache 14 next to hangar five, I’ll join you there in half an hour. Just don’t let anyone see you.’
Rysta showed a disconcerting mass of pointed teeth. ‘Nobody sees me if I don’t want them to. Take care.’ Then she was gone.
Marty went back to work on the astromech droid he’d been repairing, still muttering to himself. That stupid wolf woman was driving him crazy with her hunter’s instincts. She had been around far longer this time than he was comfortable with, should have been on her way back to the Alliance yesterday, at the very latest. What’s that to me? he thought, exasperated. She’d better not stick that cute little snout of hers into too many matters that are too dangerous for her. A low profile, that’s what we want here. Still, he had to admit, if only to himself, that those instincts had served her quite well most of the time – both of them, actually. She’d been running supplies – the more special supplies required by an undercover agent – to Gherro for almost two standard years, and despite his initial resolution not to have anything to do with her in order to protect both her and him, it had become more and more difficult as he got to know her better. He hadn’t dared to admit to anyone, not even his superiors, that he’d fallen in love with a Shistavanen.
He wondered if she could have been right, that something was wrong. The Empire had left Gherro alone for a while, but he feared that its neutral status would not hold much longer. He had never liked the Nebulon-B frigate looming over the place like a hawk-bat ready to strike at a granite slug. He knew that the administrator would do all he could to prevent the station from being taken under Imperial control, but there was only so much you could do when trying to take on the Empire. Stars knew even the administrator had a couple of businesses going the Empire would love to learn about. He supposed the man had plans ready for the event of the station being taken by the Empire, but he’d found him very reluctant to deal with anybody, not even the Alliance. So Marty had settled for listening, and watching, and he’d heard and seen signs that the administrator was prepared for an insurrection. The stupid fool. If he’d joined forces with the Rebels, he might just have been able to succeed, but as it was, Marty doubted he would come out of this alive. He knew he did not want to be around when Gherro tried to take on an Imperial frigate.
And then there was the ever-present fear someone could have become suspicious about Marty himself. He’d been afraid of that after he had started to take on another activity besides spying – trying to sound out whether anyone on the station was sympathetic towards the Alliance. IntelOps had decided that he would leave Gherro in a couple of weeks, before anyone could get suspicious, and post him somewhere else. Marty hoped Rysta would run supplies to his new posting as well. Maybe he’d even get a desk job, after all, he was forty-seven years old, and he’d played spy for the Alliance for four years. He was getting too old for this kind of nonsense.
He laid down his hydrospanners and absent-mindedly patted the astromech on its domed head. Time to go.
Rhun whistled as he entered Liberty’s hangar the following day, seeing which craft they would be flying to Gherro. The YT-1300 Corellian freighter Jumper was one of the better ships of that kind, not as heavily modified as most and, consequently, far more reliable and easier to handle and maintain. She was painted white, which was also unusual for a YT, and Rhun wondered, not for the first time, if some agent on some predatory attack had liberated Star Destroyer paint and not known what to do with it, until someone thought of painting a transport with it. The paint was not all that fresh in all places, either, some parts having been exchanged over the years and repainted in a slightly different white, if they had been repainted at all. Some had been left the way they had been – grey, usually – thus giving the freighter some sort of patchwork appearance.
Samica entered the hangar behind him, and her face made it clear that she did not share his positive impression at seeing their means of transport. He noted that she, like him, was wearing civilian clothing, a pair of black trousers and a many-pocketed waistcoat over a cream-coloured turtleneck jumper. He’d never seen her out of uniform before, and found the civilian clothes looked rather favourable on her.
‘I hope that thing is more reliable than it looks,’ she remarked as she joined him at the freighter.
‘She’s one of our best,’ Rhun replied. ‘No, wait, the best exploded last week for some unknown reason, so she is the best.’ He gave her a broad grin.
Samica raised an eyebrow. ‘Reassuring,’ she murmured.
Rhun laughed. ‘I was kidding. You practised with the sim programme?’
She nodded. ‘Ready, Agent?’ she asked.
‘Here we go, Lieutenant,’ he replied.
He followed her into the cockpit, which, as in every YT-1300, was located not in the front or even the middle of the ship, but on its side. She sat down in the pilot’s seat and ran a systems check, then initiated the takeoff procedure. Rhun saw all the lamps wink green, and Samica keyed the com.
‘Freighter Jumper. We’re ready to start.’
‘You’ve got clearance, Jumper,’ the voice of the hangar bay officer came back. ‘Good luck.’
The freighter lifted on repulsors, swaying slightly. Rhun cast Samica a worried glance. ‘You sure you can fly this thing?’ he asked.
‘You can do it if you insist,’ she said, concentrating on flying the ship through the containment field without touching any of the other craft standing in the hangar. She did it slowly, much more slowly than he was used to from watching Dyson, but the old smuggler had flown his Noble Cause for about twenty standard years. He thought he heard her murmur something like, ‘Which idiot would ever think of constructing a cockpit at the side of a ship?’, but she got them out without difficulty.
‘No, I think you’ll manage,’ Rhun finally said when they had left Liberty.
She snorted, but didn’t reply. The freighter slowly left the little fleet behind and steered towards the hyper jump point. He saw her punch in numbers and calculate their hyper route, then she pulled the lever, the stars elongating into bright lines. Thirty-two hours in hyperspace to their destination.
Troen Marty went along the corridor on hangar deck five, whistling slightly off key. He didn’t feel like it at all, but nobody suspected a happy worker, as long as he didn’t look too happy. His anxiety had grown over the past half hour, and by now he was ready to leave with Rysta on the spot if she had been right and his cover had been blown. Squeezing past a group of TIE fighter pilots strutting along the corridor as if they owned the place, he slipped into the equipment locker room near the hangar entrance and switched on the light.
There was nobody in.
Frowning, his anxiety getting worse, he looked around the tiny storage compartment, which was hardly large enough to take up two humanoids, but definitely not enough for anyone to hide in. Rysta was not here.
Muffling an oath, Marty left the compartment again, feeling the urge to go looking for her but facing two problems: first, he had no idea where she might be – and second, he was simply not allowed to get involved. To hell with that, he thought as he went back along the corridor. If she got caught, it’s my damn right to get involved. When he got back to his room, he was relieved to find his roommate, a slow, boring electronics specialist from Esseles, was not in. Rummaging through his locker, he took out a boot, prying off the sole and taking out a small, flat object. He’d kept the computer spike for an absolute emergency, and this was an emergency. With it, he left the room, heading for the least frequently used computer terminal on the station. It had cost him weeks to find out where that was, and he headed down to the lower levels of the station.
The terminal was empty, and with luck, it would remain that way for the next few minutes. He doubted he’d have any longer.
Marty inserted the spike, then hacked himself into the system. He’d cracked it a year ago, just in case, and with the computer spike, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to detect his intrusion. Still, his forehead was dripping with sweat when he finally was granted access into the station’s security files. Quickly, he called up the most recent entries, but didn’t find anything on the capture of a Shistavanen spy.
‘So this idiot tells me repairs would take two days. I mean, how stupid do those mechanic types think we are?’
‘I say they could all use a little kick in the, well, you know what I mean.’
At the sound of voices in the corridor, Marty hurried to leave the system, then saw two men in Imperial uniform round the corner. Both of them eyed the man in the technician’s coveralls suspiciously, and Marty wiped his hands demonstratively on his thighs. ‘Well, it’s working again, sirs,’ he said. ‘Was probably just a little glitch.’ He got up from the chair.
‘Ah – yes,’ one of the two, a captain by his rank insignia, said. ‘Good work.’
Marty sketched a salute and turned to go.
‘Wait a minute!’
Marty fought the instinct to run and made himself turn slowly. ‘Sir?’
‘You’ve forgotten something.’ Emperor’s black bones, not the spike! But that was what the Imperial officer was holding out to him. He didn’t seem to have realized what it was – and what that meant – yet, but Marty felt his heart race.
‘Thanks, sir.’ He grabbed the now useless spike and turned to go down the corridor, his urge to bolt so great now that he seemed to be walking in slow motion.
He’d just turned around a corner when there was another shout from the two officers. ‘Hey, you! Wait!’
This time, Marty gave in to his panic and ran. He could hear the officers give pursuit behind him and cursed again. Blast! And all of this for absolutely nothing! Then he remembered Rysta talking about having overheard ISB people talking on their way to the mess. What if she’d gone back there to find out more before she came to report to him? She definitely had pluck, but he would have preferred her to go directly to the equipment closet.
Passing next to a turbolift, he skidded to a halt and jumped in, punching the key that would take him to level five and the mess. He didn’t have much time, but he had to find out where Rysta was. Through the closing doors, he could just see the faces of the two naval officers, and remembered to punch every single number along the way to level five. At least they’d have no way of knowing now where he’d leave the turbolift.
Level five was one of the parts of the station Troen Marty normally tried to avoid when he didn’t have official business there. The presence of so many olive uniforms always made him queasy. His stomach felt worse and worse the closer he came to the officers’ mess, which was far too crowded for his taste, far too crowded to be normal. When he reached the door, he saw white between the olive. Stormtroopers.
He knew he should have gone back there and then, but he couldn’t leave Rysta. Maybe it wasn’t her, he kept telling himself, there was another reason for the commotion, and he could get back to her ship and escape before the two officers caught up with them. Maybe she’d just been delayed, was now waiting by the storage room . . .
By the wall next to the entrance of the mess, an officer got up from where he’d been squatting on the floor. ‘No, it’s dead,’ Marty heard him say. ‘It can’t have been here on its own. Search the station for its owner!’
Marty was not listening anymore. With an anguished cry, he elbowed his way through the crowd to where Rysta lay.
She must have put up a hell of a fight; he could see several people around him with serious-looking wounds. Rysta lay half-leaning against the wall, her beautiful fur matted with blood and scorched by blaster shots, too many for her to possibly have survived it. Numbly, as if through a haze of pain, Marty felt his arms being grabbed from behind, heard people shouting and bellowing orders. Then a blunt object hit his head, and darkness engulfed him.
‘We’ll proceed as planned, Commander. At least we did get out of him that he got word to the Rebels about Caller’s apparent defection and how they contact him.’ Commander Karranek snorted derisively. ‘Zoneball team. I’d thought that would be beyond the stupidity even of Rebels.’
Commander Yenko, sitting in his chair, frowned as he watched the red-faced ISB officer pace his office. ‘It appears that it has worked for them so far,’ he pointed out. ‘In addition, they’ll notice that something’s wrong. I can’t shake the feeling, Commander, that it was completely unnecessary to execute Marty. He will be missed. If you carry through your plan, it will not gain you anything.’
Commander Karranek stopped his pacing and turned angry eyes on Yenko. ‘Oh, suddenly it was all my plan, was it, Commander? Let me tell you something: If your people hadn’t intervened, this wouldn’t have happened. Marty would still be alive and happily ignorant, and would be able to lead us directly to the Rebellion. But no, your bunch of incompetents steps in and arrests him!’
Yenko raised his voice. ‘My ‚bunch of incompetents‘ did their duty, sir! The man was positively begging to be arrested! Certainly you don’t think he would have continued to be happily ignorant about your plan if we had let him get away from what happened yesterday!’
Karranek glared a the taller man. ‘Your people should have known I had my own plans with Marty.’
Yenko’s eyebrows rose. ‘Need I remind you that all of this was supposed to be classified, sir?’
The pudgy ISB official’s face took on an even deeper shade of red, contrasting sharply with his white uniform. ‘Don’t you use that tone with me, Commander! My report to COMPNOR will not be very favourable, I can assure you!’
Yenko did his best to remain calm. ‘With all due respect, sir,’ – not that he felt much respect for Karranek – ‘I was doing my duty here, and so was every man on this ship and on the station. If the ISB’s plans have been thwarted, it is not my responsibility. What happened yesterday was unfortunate, but there was no way for me to prevent it.’
Karranek stared at the station commander for a couple of seconds, jaw working, but then he turned on his heel and left Yenko’s office without any further word.
Commander Yenko drew a hand over his face and let out a sigh. If only the ISB would stop getting in the way of people who were doing their best to serve the Empire, this whole Rebellion business would be over within months.
‘What are you doing?’
Samica turned in the pilot’s seat and saw Rhun enter the cockpit. ‘What does it look like to you?’ she asked. They had half an hour to go before the ship would leave hyperspace, and she’d been sitting there for most of the trip.
‘I don’t know. Meditating?’
She shrugged. ‘I just like sitting here and looking out.’
‘There’s nothing to see,’ he pointed out.
‘Yes, but it’s so beautiful, don’t you think?’
He sat down in the seat next to her. ‘I don’t know. I find it a bit unnerving, but maybe that’s because I’m not a pilot.’
‘I don’t think it’s unnerving. I always find it very comforting.’
‘What’s comforting about the idea that we’re light years away from anything?’
‘I used to have a holo of a swirling galaxy above my bed at home and always looked at that before I went to sleep. Sometimes when I’m worried about something, I remember that nothing that can possibly happen will affect the universe in any significant way. I think that’s a very consoling idea.’
Rhun considered. ‘I don’t know,’ he said again. ‘I wouldn’t want to remind myself that nothing I do will change anything.’
‘Well, it will change things, in your own small way, maybe even in this galaxy. But there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in the universe, and that makes it so irrelevant again.’ She had turned to look out of the viewport once more, chin propped on her hand.
For a while, they sat in silence, and he watched her profile against the transparisteel, her dark brown eyes and eyebrows, as well as the brown hair framing her face, in sharp contrast to her pale skin, her generous, curving mouth somewhat easing the severeness and determination the eyes conveyed. He wondered if she knew she was good-looking. Probably not beautiful – in his opinion, that meant you had to be aware of it, and act like it, which she didn’t – but during her years in Imperial service, she must have tried so hard to act like a man in order to gain respect from those around her that she’d forgotten certain aspects about herself. Still, he thought, there had been certain aspects of her personality that the Empire hadn’t succeeded in stamping out.
It had never occurred to him, until now, that it was possible to take certain typically Imperial points of view over into the Rebellion. Hers were still very much Imperial – her sticking to standard procedures, her fears about situations she could not control, her prejudices against droids and nonhumans, but also her ideas about right and wrong, which were not too far away from his own. He had never realized Imperial propaganda could make people go against their own beliefs. When hers had first collided with what the Empire told her, the collision had been thorough indeed, making her stick to what she thought was right rather than twist the rest to fit her points of view.
He had seen the less favourable side of the Empire early, had seen the corruption in the Army, had seen that his father took part in it and so, consequently, he’d rejected everything that had to do with it. His older brother, Jon, had been like him, and he’d hated their father for sending him to the Army training camp. Jon had not been in the Army for long. One day, when Rhun had been fourteen, his mother had received a very short note that said Jon had died in an accident in the camp, in the line of duty. Their father had never talked about it, and Rhun never knew what exactly had happened. Very few knew he’d had an elder brother, except Commander Willard. It was Jon’s death that had convinced Rhun, nearly ten years ago, that he would never become an Imperial.
‘Do you miss home?’ he suddenly asked.
Samica turned to look at him again. ‘Sometimes. I don’t think I ever missed it in the last three years, except perhaps for the very first time at the Academy. But since it’s become clear I can never go back . . .’ She didn’t finish the sentence, but even so, Rhun knew what she meant.
‘Sometimes ‚home‘ seems so far away to me that I can’t imagine it ever belonged to my life,’ he said. ‘I’ve been away from my home world for eight standard years. I’ve got a little brother who was a baby when I left. He must be something like a real person by now, and I don’t even know him.’ He didn’t mention Jon.
‘Do they know where you are?’ Samica asked.
‘Sithspit, no. My father would have fits.’ Rhun tried to sound indifferent, but he didn’t know if he’d fooled her.
‘Mine, too,’ she said softly. ‘They wouldn’t understand. Dad was so proud when I got my commission, even if it got me a ground-based posting.’
‘Where was that?’
‘Nothing you’ll have heard about. Garon II. The middle of nowhere.’
Rhun stared at her, eyes wide, then he shook his head. ‘You’re right, the galaxy is small,’ he said. ‘I’m from Garon II.’
Now it was her turn to stare at him. Then she snorted a laugh. ‘Seems to be the place where people learn that the Empire’s rotten,’ she said.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘You never told me that you’d had second thoughts about the Empire before Kolaff,’ he said.
Samica grimaced. ‘Nothing I like to remember.’ She considered saying more, then shook her head.
For a few seconds, Rhun waited for her to continue, then shrugged. ‘We’re almost there,’ he said, changing the subject. ‘You’re not watching the stars because you’re worried about the mission, are you?’
‘No, just out of habit.’ She stretched in her chair. ‘Let’s bring this pile of junk down, shall we?’
Rhun wagged a finger at her. ‘Careful, Lieutenant. You’re talking about the best pile of junk in the Rebel Alliance.’
They left the transport two hours later, after Samica had set it down on one of Gherro Space Station’s landing pads. Their false IDs had held against inspection by the frigate as well as the space station itself, and Samica had wrapped a scarf around her face to conceal her features. Both of them wore blasters hidden under their jackets or waistcoats, respectively.
‘First, we find our contact so he can tell us who our defector is,’ Rhun reminded her. ‘Your task will be to give a first evaluation of him, whether you think he’s trustworthy. Then we decide how we proceed.’
‘Why didn’t the contact tell us the defector’s name in his message?’ Samica wanted to know.
‘Because he doesn’t send any explicit messages. He uses a number of tight-burst signals that won’t tell a casual observer anything, but which the Alliance can decode to mean something that has been previously agreed on.’
‘You mean he sends ‚Nice weather today‘ and the Alliance knows there’s a defector.’
‘Something like that.’
Samica looked out of the entry ramp. ‘How do we find him?’
Rhun grinned. ‘Need to know, Lieutenant.’
She raised an eyebrow. ‘And I suppose I don’t need to know?’
‘Not yet, at least. Come on.’
She followed him down the ramp and out of the docking bay. The interior of the station looked a lot like Kwenn, like most Imperial stations, actually; only this time they had used one of the civilian docking bays. Samica didn’t know about the standards elsewhere on Gherro, but the military installations she had seen in other places had been considerably more comfortable. Still, it was an Imperial facility, and for the first time in her life, Samica found that she wished for a more anonymous, even dirtier place. Rhun did not seem to care, walking with confidence in his stride, and she wondered if he was feeling the confidence or just pretending. At least he seemed to know what he was doing, and she put away her worries.
Purposefully, he led the way to a turbolift and they descended to the lower levels, stopping at a public message terminal. Rhun keyed in several words, then sent it the message, and turned back to Samica.
‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘Shall we get something to drink?’
‘What did you send?’ she inquired.
‘Something our man will understand and join us as soon as he can.’ He kept his voice low, although there were very few people around here, most of them technicians, mechanics or other workers, as well as several work droids. ‘Now we’ll have to wait a while, and I’d like to do that in some place that offers something to eat.’
She nodded. ‘Good idea. I’m looking forward to eating something edible for a change.’
He grinned. ‘That’s what I like about this job,’ he said. ‘Plenty of opportunities to get out.’
There was a workers’ and personnel cantina on this level, and nobody took much notice of two apparent spacers joining the techs snatching a bite to eat and something to drink between shifts.
They ordered food and drinks from a serving droid and, for a while, concerned themselves with their meal, when Samica saw someone enter the cantina and look around him searchingly. Her first idea that this might be their contact was followed by her stomach turning to ice when she got a clearer look at the man and nearly spat out her food.
Rhun looked at her with concern. ‘What?’ he asked in a low voice.
She pulled her scarf deeper over her face and looked down on the table.
‘Downlead,’ she whispered.
‘Downwhat?’ Rhun asked.
‘He was in my squadron. Worst example of an ‚exception‘, if you know what I mean.’
‘Your average Imp?’ Rhun suggested, not looking into the direction of the man.
‘Exactly. He’s an officer, van Leuken. What’s he doing here?’
‘Damned if I know,’ he murmured between his teeth. ‘He couldn’t be our defector, then?’
‘Not in your or my lifetime,’ she said, disgust in her voice, and he felt a queasiness in his stomach. This was not going as planned.
‘Has he seen us?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know. Maybe not. He’s – yes, he’s leaving again.’
Rhun bit his lip and let his breath out slowly. ‘All right, Lieutenant, we’ll have to tread very, very carefully here. This may or may not have been a coincidence, but I’d rather not take any chances. Maybe you should stay on the ship when our contact and I meet with the defector.’
Samica nodded, then asked, ‘Will we be staying here?’
‘For the time being, yes,’ Rhun replied. ‘I don’t like it, but we can’t leave our contact hanging in the air. And I suppose we are much safer in here than anywhere else on the station.’
She didn’t share his opinion, but didn’t protest. He knew more about situations like these, and if he thought their mission was still worth pursuing, she was willing to trust him.
She didn’t want to think about the fact that, on his last mission, he’d tried to infiltrate a Victory-class Star Destroyer for lack of a better plan.
‘No use,’ Rhun murmured.
They had been waiting in the cantina for the better part of three hours, and they both knew they could not risk staying here for much longer. He paid their bill, then they both got up from the table and left the cantina, subdued and worried. Rhun had been told their contact would meet them no later than two hours after he’d sent the message saying ‘There’s a slot free for one male and one female in the station’s zoneball team’, and by now, he was certain that something had gone seriously wrong here. When they walked towards the turbolift that would take them back to the landing pad levels, a short, blond man in blue technician’s coveralls came towards them, frowned, then asked, ‘Don’t I know you?’
Rhun eyed the man cautiously. ‘From our last zoneball match?’ he asked.
A broad smile appeared on the tech’s face. ‘Yes, of course!’ he said. ‘And you gave us a proper beating, too! Can I treat you to a drink?’
‘Sure,’ Rhun replied. ‘But why don’t we go up one level?’ It wouldn’t be such a good idea, he supposed, to go back into the cantina they’d just left.
The tech agreed, and they went up to another bar on another level, talking about a smashball match that had never taken place, but Rhun felt his gut ease somewhat. They had another drink there – Rhun had switched from lomin-ale to fruit juice two hours ago – and talked about insignificant matters, until at some point the tech casually reached into his breast pocket and slipped them a data disc. Rhun took it, and put it into his pocket, never leaving their topic of discussion. He noted that Samica was watching the room from the corner of her eye from time to time, and remembered the former colleague of hers she’d seen earlier. He was rather eager to get away from here, and after half an hour, he asked the tech, ‘When do we meet again?’
The man shrugged. ‘Tomorrow, if you like, same time, same place.’
‘Tomorrow, then,’ Rhun agreed, and they told him good-bye and left.
They returned to the ship, and Rhun inserted the disc into his datapad. It was not coded, which he thought very careless, but there were a few words slipped in into mathematical formulae, reading, ‘F.O. Caller, second level bar, 12.30.’
He looked up from the datapad at Samica, who had waited for him to find the message.
‘Do you know someone named Caller?’
A surprised look crossed her face. ‘Flight Officer Caller was my wingman. He’s the defector?’
‘You think it’s possible?’ he asked.
She considered. ‘I guess it is. He always was a decent sort, and an excellent pilot. He – ‘ she stopped herself, then continued, ‘He was forced to do something he can’t have liked. Maybe that was enough of a reason for him to consider defecting.’
Rhun nodded, brooding over the file. ‘This is strange,’ he said.
‘The contact told us to meet him again tomorrow morning. That means we won’t get to contact Caller today if we want to wait for him. And I’m not very eager to hang around this place any longer than I have to.’
‘Me, neither,’ Samica agreed. ‘But I don’t think we have a choice, do we?’
Rhun massaged his chin. ‘I could try to meet with Caller today. I won’t give him any reason to suspect who I am, but maybe I can get something out of him. For a first impression. You have any suggestions about a topic that could get him to talk?’
Samica considered. ‘Following orders even if it’s against your own concept of honour,’ she said. He looked at her searchingly, but she didn’t meet his eyes.
Rhun drew a deep breath. ‘All right, then. I’ll go upstairs and see what I can do.’
Rhun walked up to level two of the station, trying to convince himself that everything was going as planned. He was not happy with the fact that the tech did not seem to feel any urgency in contacting Caller, but he supposed that the spy had to keep a low profile in a place like this. Samica had described Caller, and Rhun was quite certain that he would not be able to miss the man. Nearly two metres. A miracle he even fit into a cockpit.
The bar was a far-stretching place, brightly lit by glow panels along the walls and the ceiling, frequented by Imperial officers as well as the more wealthy of the station’s visitors, it seemed. Rhun checked his chrono. 12.35. Caller would be here already.
He glanced across the room and noted there were no nonhumans here at all, though the place was well visited. As in the lower levels, serving droids were taking orders, mostly drinks. This bar was considerably cleaner than the canteen below, however.
Finally, Rhun found what he’d been looking for: a very tall young man with short black hair sitting alone at a table near one side, staring into a half-empty glass in front of him. He wore an Imperial uniform with a flight officer’s rank insignia, and when he came closer, he also noticed the small mole under the pilot’s left eye. Unless Caller had a clone, this was their man.
He had hoped he would find him with other people, which would have made it a lot easier to listen in to a conversation and maybe join in later, but he had already come to terms with the fact that, on this mission, nothing worked as he would have wished.
He went up to the Imperial pilot’s table. ‘Excuse me, sir, I am looking for someone called Denet Marler.’
The pilot looked up at him; even though Rhun was standing, ‚up‘ wasn’t very far. ‘I’ve never heard of him.’ His voice was surprisingly gentle for a man his size, his accent sounding like some Colony world’s Rhun couldn’t place.
‘He was supposed to be here,’ Rhun continued, putting up a puzzled look.
‘Maybe he’ll come anyway. I don’t know many of the people here, I’m not permanently on Gherro.’
‘Do you mind if I wait for him here?’ Rhun asked.
The other man shook his head. ‘No, go ahead . . . I didn’t catch your name.’
‘Oh.’ Rhun stretched out his hand. ‘Haaris. Roman Haaris.’
‘Josh Caller, Flight Officer.’
Rhun whistled. ‘StarCom, are you? I’ve heard it say that’s the place to go if you want to come very far.’
Caller just shrugged.
‘Well, further than hauling supplies for a place like this, anyway, right?’ Rhun added.
‘I guess.’ Caller took a swallow from his glass.
Rhun knew better than to get the man to talk if he was as reluctant as this, so he made up small-talk stories about fictitious supply runs to get him to loosen up. He couldn’t shake the impression that Caller was distinctly unhappy about something and afraid to say as much as he would have liked. Well, that’s what he would feel like if he wanted to defect but didn’t know whom to trust.
Samica had left the ship only briefly, keeping in mind the possibility of being recognised, and bought a few supplies to restock their ship. She hadn’t seen any familiar faces along the way, for which she was grateful. She didn’t know what Downlead had been doing in the cantina, but she did not want to know how he would react if he saw her again, and on different sides, at that. She had never felt very comfortable thinking she was his friend; she didn’t want to find out what it was like to be his enemy.
When she was about to enter the hangar bay where the Jumper was docked, a faint clatter followed by a shuffling sound from out of the docking bay caused her to stop short, draw up against the bulkhead, and stand there motionlessly, listening. When she heard another, very faint clinking sound, she was certain that someone was in the bay – it might just be a cleaner or something else that was non-threatening, but it might as well be someone who had become suspicious. Samica felt her heart in her throat. Whoever was in there, she mustn’t let him know she was here.
Cautiously, centimetre by centimetre, she leaned around the corner to glance into the hangar bay, ready to retreat any second.
Half-hidden by the landing gear, she saw someone standing under the ship and doing something on its belly. She could see a pair of legs in a mechanic’s coverall, and several loose hull plates on the ground, along with a number of tools. Whatever that person was doing, it was not a standard maintenance job.
She had two options: face him and hope that she could force him to undo whatever modifications he was making, thereby showing herself, or wait until he was finished, and hope Rhun could cope with whatever surprise would await them. She remembered the young agent’s skill with all things technical and decided to wait.
The mechanic was working quickly. After hardly more than five minutes, he fastened the hull plating again and bent down to pack together his tools, thus giving her a first look at his face, and she froze.
Now, what was he doing here, modifying the Jumper without their consent?
Samica did not wait for him to notice her, but quietly went back into the corridor, slipping behind a door opening into a refreshing station at the end. She had to contact Rhun, and she’d have to get to the upper levels to do that. She stayed there for several minutes until she was certain that the man had left the docking bay, then went out again and returned to the ship. A quick survey yielded no result as to what exactly he’d been doing there; the hull looked as it always had, and she wondered what he could have done in this portion of the ship. As far as she knew, there was nothing vital in that section, not the engines, not environmental control, not the deflector shields, not the weapons systems. She had to get back and warn Rhun.
When she left the docking bay, she thought she saw someone hasten away from the corridor, but when she looked, there was nobody there. A sense of impending danger mounting, she hurried for the turbolifts.
Level two was far better frequented than the lower levels, and there was a high proportion of officers here. Samica had wrapped her scarf around her face again and tried not to look too closely at people in olive green. When she was just about entering the bar, she bumped right into somebody. Muttering an excuse, she tried to squeeze past but noted that the man made no move to let her pass. When she looked into his face, her heart sank as she realized it was their ‘contact’ – if he was that.
He smiled broadly. ‘Well, if it isn’t our zoneball expert! What are you doing here?’
Samica silently scolded herself for not noticing him sooner. ‘Actually, I’m quite in a hurry,’ she said and tried to slip past him, but he blocked her path.
‘Too busy to spend some time with your old zoneball buddy? Come on, I thought better of you.’
No more need to pretend that this was all a coincidence. He was here because he knew she was going to warn Rhun, and was trying to prevent her from doing just that.
‘You and I both know I’m not your zoneball buddy,’ she said, her voice low. ‘And you’re going to let me pass.’
His smile never wavered. ‘Oh no, sweetheart, I’m afraid I can’t let you. Because I’ve somewhere to go, and you’re coming with me.’
Samica’s hand crept towards the blaster hidden under her waistcoat when she felt something press against her ribs. He’d had the same idea, but he’d had it seconds earlier.
Still smiling, he propelled her away from the bar’s door when a patron came out and nodded in the direction of the turbolift. Samica caught a quick glance of the bar, though she wasn’t sure if she’d seen Rhun, but then the tech poked her again with the blaster, and she involuntarily made a step forward. ‘And I strongly advise you to do what you’re told,’ he told her. ‘This thing’s set for kill.’
Samica bit her lip and complied. She’d think of something . . . but she’d better do it fast.
‘And what do you do for a living?’
Rhun shrugged. ‘Haul cargo, fly errands, that sort of thing.’
Caller cocked his head to one side. ‘For the Empire?’
‘Of course for the Empire – they pay best.’ Rhun leaned back in his chair, hooking his thumbs into his belt, about to make up a few none-too-exciting stories about previous jobs he had supposedly done, when he saw the door to the corridor open and saw Samica with the tech in the doorway, saw her glance about the room for help, then being pushed away. He looked back at Caller, who, apparently, had not noticed that Rhun’s attention had strayed.
‘Hey, that’s Marler,’ he said, getting up from the table. ‘Gone right past the bar. Perhaps he’s been waiting somewhere else . . . anyway, it was nice to meet you, Officer Caller.’
He saw Caller nod as he went towards the exit, his reaction just as sparse as anything he’d seen from the pilot since he’d entered.
This mission still would not do him the favour and go as planned.
Samica had given the tech her blaster before he had the chance to search her for it, which he’d obviously been looking forward to, and all the while, her mind raced as she tried to come up with something that would get her out of this. She didn’t have the slightest idea where her captor was taking her, only that they were heading for the lower levels again. At least that probably meant he was not going to take her to the station commander, and all things considered, her situation could be worse, but even if she somehow managed to escape, she still had to warn van Leuken, and that might be the end of both of them. What would Commander Willard expect her to do? Try to get away on her own, and leave van Leuken behind? Or risk getting herself killed in the attempt to take him with her? She did remember the sergeant who had boarded Resolve together with Rhun, and he’d ordered the young man to leave without him.
The tech finally stopped before a door in the bulkhead, looked around himself, then typed a code into the control panel and shoved her inside. The room was small, but more spacious than a tech’s quarters should have been, but then, Samica had long ago stopped to believe he was a tech – or their contact.
He closed the door behind them and leaned against the bulkhead, arms crossed, his face conveying smugness and - what? anticipation? – then smiled at her, an ugly, leering smile. He kept his blaster trained on her, openly now. Samica remained standing near the door, even if it was closed. She knew the look on his face, and she felt the fear and frustration rise within her, the same she’d felt half a year ago when a COMPNOR commissioner who’d been visiting Garon II had grabbed her when she’d returned from a patrol, who’d thought she must be delighted at the thought of him having some fun with her. Captain Lockhart had let her go, incredulous, when she’d slapped him across the face. Somehow, she doubted it would be so easy with the man she was now facing.
‘Now what?’ she finally said, putting up more courage than she currently felt.
He gave her that disconcerting grin again. ‘I make sure you stay out of trouble,’ he replied. ‘Any ideas how we can pass the time?’
‘You could start by telling me who you are,’ she said. She had to keep him talking, so maybe he’d let down his guard.
The man snorted a laugh. ‘Oh, clever. And I was actually beginning to think you were an Intel agent. But you’re not, aren’t you?’
She didn’t reply.
‘Well, I knew the Rebellion was hopelessly under equipped, but to send little girls . . . Well, I’m not complaining.’ He took a step towards her, and she drew back involuntarily. He laughed and stretched out a hand, and Samica felt her stomach lurch. ‘Hey, don’t be sh . . .’
That moment, the door opened, and the Imperial agent whirled, his blaster aimed at whoever had managed to crack his door code. At once, Samica threw herself against him, smacking her elbow into his ribs with all her strength. At the Academy, her weaponless training sessions had been disasters, but this time, she put all her fury and all her fear in her thrust, knocking the wind out of him. He got off a shot, which slammed into the bulkhead, then he crashed down against a table. She hit him again, and again, then a blue stun bolt hit him and he slumped, motionless.
Samica remained kneeling on the floor and took a few minutes to catch her breath and force the fury down, then turned. Rhun van Leuken was standing in the door, now closed again, and looking down on her. She finally scrambled to her feet again.
‘If you’re ever going to get mad at me, please tell me beforehand,’ Rhun said, scratching his ear with the blaster muzzle.
She drew a deep, steadying breath. ‘We’ve been set up,’ she informed him.
‘So I gather,’ Rhun replied.
‘How did you know where to find me?’
‘I saw you leave with that man, and you didn’t look very happy to me. So I followed you here.’ He bent down and took the tech’s holdout blaster, then also relieved him of the one he’d taken from Samica.
She looked him in the eyes. ‘Thank you.’
‘Anytime. We need to get back to . . .’ He broke off as he heard noises coming towards them from outside the room – clattering noises.
‘Sithspit,’ he hissed as he listened. ‘They must have heard the shooting.’ He looked about the room as if he could find the solution there, but there was no second exit, not even a ventilation shaft large enough for them to hide in.
‘The closet?’ Samica suggested with a nod towards a locker standing at the end of the room.
Rhun grimaced. ‘We wouldn’t fit in there – not if we want to hide him as well,’ he answered. Then his face lit up with a grin. ‘But here’s what we’ll do.’
The stormtrooper sergeant looked over the private’s shoulder. ‘Hurry up, GS-3422. This is taking way too long.’
‘Got it, sir,’ the soldier replied and sat back from the door, which slid open once the code was cracked. The other three troopers entered the room with their blasters ready.
‘Two dead, sir,’ the foremost stormtrooper reported when he surveyed the two figures lying on the ground. ‘Our agent and the woman. The male reb–’
Before he could finish, there was blaster fire from above their heads, and then the woman on the ground rolled away and brought up a weapon as well. The sergeant and one of his people had the presence of mind to return fire, the rest was too surprised to react.
Rhun jumped down from the locker and sat down next to Samica, who lay curled up on her side, her hand pressed against her hip. ‘Let me see,’ he said, gently taking her hand away.
She bit back a moan as he examined the wound. It looked more serious than most of what they’d carried from Resolve, and had to hurt a lot, but, like all blaster wounds, was not bleeding.
‘I haven’t brought a medpak,’ he said, apologizing, when he was finished. ‘I’ll have to treat this as soon as we get to the ship. Do you think you can manage that long?’
Samica nodded jerkily, teeth clenched against the pain. He rummaged through the locker and took out a clean sheet, which he tore into strips, making a makeshift bandage, which he wrapped tightly around her waist. Then he helped her up, and she nodded again. ‘It’s fine, I’ll manage.’
Rhun looked around the room and made a face. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said softly. ‘It’s obvious we can’t do any more good in here, even if Caller wants to defect, which I doubt.’ She looked at him in alarm and some disappointment, but he shook his head. ‘We’re not too far away from our docking bay. With luck, we’ll be well away from here before they send someone to find out what happened to the last search party.’
Rhun made sure there was nobody on the corridor when they left the room, then they headed down to the next emergency staircase, not wishing to rely on the turbolift, which would probably be guarded or monitored with two Rebels on the loose. Still, Rhun had hope that the Imperials had not realized they actually were on the loose, but were waiting for the stormtroopers to report in. They probably had no more than a few minutes, but it wouldn’t take them much longer to reach the Jumper and get away from here. He had no idea how many stormies there were on the base, but this was not an Imperial station, even if it served the Empire.
They had made three or four levels on the staircase when there was a crackle in the station’s speakers, and a voice blared out, ‘Attention, all personnel on Gherro. This is the administrator. Code White has occurred. I repeat, Code White.’ Then the intercom was silent once again.
Samica looked at Rhun, her face worried. ‘What does that mean?’
‘Damned if I know,’ he replied, checking the power cell on his blaster. ‘My guess is that the administrator has been doing his own thing here and the Empire’s found out about it.’
‘Couldn’t have been better,’ Samica said. ‘There’s nothing like a little commotion to cover one’s escape.’
Rhun grinned. ‘Hey, you do catch on pretty quickly.’
They left the stairs on the docking bay level, and saw that there was a hodgepodge mix of people, human and nonhuman, milling around, trying to get to their ships or organizing into armed groups of four or five.
Samica grabbed a young man armed with a heavy blaster rifle. ‘The Empire?’ she demanded. Whatever was happening here, that was likely to be the cause of it.
He nodded. ‘They’re trying to take over the station. If you don’t want them to see anything they rather shouldn’t, you’d better get out of here.’ He suited action to words at once and ran towards one of the docking bays.
Samica nodded to Rhun, and they followed the man’s example. They passed several bays on their way to the Jumper, one of which was crawling with stormtroopers rushing out from a troop transport. Just as they ran past, they heard an amplified voice from out of the bay, telling all people aboard the station to surrender, but the corridors were so thick with people, fugitives and fighters alike, that it would take the Imperials some time to break through. Behind them, they heard blaster fire and screams, then a deafening blast from an explosive charge or heavier artillery. Samica did not care to find out, she fought to keep Rhun’s pace. She soon noticed he could have run far faster than she could, at least in her present condition; soon, however, they both had to make frequent use of their elbows to gain any ground at all.
They reached the docking bay near the end where the Jumper stood, with far fewer people around now, most of whom had clustered further back with the bigger ships. They found the bay still locked, and Rhun keyed in their code to open the blast door into the bay, then closed it again behind them.
‘Drop your weapons and hold up your hands where I can see them,’ they heard a voice from behind them, near the ship, which made Samica’s gut go ice-cold.
Malcolm Downlead slowly walked towards them from where he had been waiting by the Jumper’s entry ramp, and Samica dropped her blaster pistol as she saw Rhun doing the same. She remembered the holdout blaster he’d liberated earlier and noted that he didn’t cast it down. Downlead didn’t seem to notice.
Rhun raised his hands halfway, stepping away from Samica. ‘I don’t believe we’ve met,’ he told the Imperial, his voice guarded.
Downlead shook his head, feigning disappointment. ‘Tsk, Trey – I would have thought you’d told your new friends about your old ones.’
‘I didn’t see any reason to,’ she retorted. ‘Apart from you being one of my reasons for defecting, that is, of course.’
‘Such harsh words,’ Downlead said. ‘Am I supposed to feel guilty now?’
Samica made a face. ‘Actually, I owe you one. Without you, it would have taken me much longer to find out what a heap of crap the Empire is.’
Downlead chuckled. ‘You can pay me back right now,’ he said. ‘You’re worth quite a lot now, you know. And don’t count on my not shooting you. The bounty’s dead or alive.’
Before Samica or Downlead had the opportunity to make a reply, Rhun had his holdout blaster out, pushing her away as he fired at the Imperial. Samica yelped as she felt a stabbing pain from the wound in her side, but managed to catch hold of her own blaster pistol on the floor, shooting as well, seeing Downlead go down with a blaster wound across his stomach.
She looked up at Rhun, who appeared to be unhurt.
‘Nice shooting, Agent,’ she said weakly as she got to her feet, stifling a moan.
‘Nice diversion, Lieutenant,’ he replied.
They found the ship empty as they entered, and Rhun threw Samica a worried glance. ‘Do you think you’re up to bringing us out?’ he asked. ‘There’ll most likely be several ships patrolling the area, if not a full-fledged blockade by now.’
‘The sooner we start, the better,’ she replied between her teeth as she ran pre-flight checks. All lights showed up in the green, and she lit up the engines.
‘No use asking permission for take-off, I guess,’ she murmured as the ship lifted from the ground and she steered it towards the containment field, which kept the atmosphere in, but was no obstacle for them.
‘I guess not.’
Samica waited for the deflector shields to reach 75 percent, then took off from the landing pad. At once, her sensors showed her an ongoing dogfight already in progress, with several freighters engaged in one-on-ones with TIE fighters from the frigate, Leveller herself firing at the smaller ships with disconcerting accuracy.
‘Hold on tight,’ she told Rhun, then broke hard to port when two TIE fighters peeled off from the furball and came towards her. She throttled speed and saw one of them breaking as he foresaw the manoeuvre, but the other shot past her, and she grazed him with her lasers. The TIE pilot lost control over his ship and spun for several seconds before he regained control again, then another blast from the Jumper caused the fighter to explode in a short, brilliant flash.
Samica picked up speed again to dodge the other TIE’s fire, all the while trying to draw him away from the station and the frigate, which was also firing into their direction, thick green laser clusters from the ship’s turbolaser batteries going wide, more slender laser beams from the anti-starfighter guns missing more narrowly. Samica was relieved to find that the Jumper, despite her size, was far more agile than the Lambda-class shuttle she’d last flown. She was still not as fast as the TIE pursuing her, but she could take a lot more punishment, even though Samica knew he would gnaw away at her shields fairly quickly if she let him. She was not going to make hyperspace with a TIE fighter on her tail, that much was clear.
‘Van Leuken!’ she shouted. ‘We need the coordinates!’
He hurried to type them in, grabbing the console in front of him to steady himself when the freighter was rocked by a laser hit. She caught his worried look and gave him a tight smile, then brought the ship around in a turn to starboard when the TIE was almost immediately behind her, at the same time boosting the engine’s power with power from the lasers. The TIE almost collided with her, but the Jumper picked up speed quickly enough to escape more serious damage. Samica saw their attacker spin off into space, trailing sparks, one solar panel hanging at an impossible angle.
She surveyed the area around them and found another two TIE fighters coming towards them, still four klicks away, but gaining. She set the engines to full throttle and glanced over at Rhun.
‘Yep,’ he replied, sitting back from the nav computer. ‘Let’s go.’
Samica reached for the lever and Jumper entered hyperspace.
‘Do you think Caller would try to betray you willingly?’ Rhun asked as he took the synthflesh paste out of the medpak. They were in the freighter’s tiny sick bay, fifteen minutes into hyperspace.
Samica bit her lip, partly because of the pain, partly to avoid answering his question. He applied the synthflesh to her wound, and she flinched.
‘I don’t know,’ she finally said, hoarsely. ‘You think he was part of the plan to capture us?’
Rhun bandaged the wound quickly. ‘He seemed very strange,’ he said. ‘Very quiet. As if he had to play along in a game he didn’t like. But he didn’t try to give me any warning either, as far as I could tell. I’m still figuring it all out, but they must have found our man on the station and replaced him with that Imp agent. Caller was probably just the bait. I don’t think he ever entertained any serious thoughts about defecting.’ He gave her a painkiller and sat back from the bed, wiping his hands on a towel.
Samica lay back, feeling bone-weary. ‘At least whatever the tech was doing with our ship hasn’t been too bad,’ she murmured. ‘But then, he wasn’t really a tech.’
Rhun looked at her, alarmed. ‘What are you talking about?’
She squinted, the painkiller taking effect.
‘Lieutenant . . . I need you to tell me what you saw that tech do.’
Samica pulled herself together visibly. ‘He was doing something to the underside,’ she said. ‘Removing hull plates. Then putting them back on again. Don’t know what he was doing.’
Rhun grimaced. ‘Can you bring us out of hyperspace right now?’ he asked, forcing himself not to shout at her.
She blinked. ‘What is it?’
‘Can you?’ he insisted.
Samica bit her lip and nodded, getting up with difficulty. He supported her as she limped back into the cockpit, then he prepared a stim-shot. ‘Sorry, Lieutenant, but I need you to be awake right now. My guess is that we’ve picked up a transmitter, and we need to get rid of that before we return to the base. Okay?’
She nodded once more, sitting down in the pilot’s seat, and he gave her the injection. ‘Sorry, this is going to hit you like a Cracian Thumper.’
Samica made a face as she found it did, then shook herself, feeling her head clear somewhat, raking her fingers through her short hair.
‘Yes. You always settle your debts so quickly?’
He was puzzled at first, then remembered their first encounter and gave her a fleeting smile.
Despite her lingering dizziness and the throbbing in her side, Samica programmed the computer to abort the jump, which was safer and less demanding on the ship than simply bringing them out again. The lines outside the viewport faded into dots again.
‘Where are we?’ Rhun asked.
She consulted the chart. ‘Near the edge of the Srillkris system,’ she replied. ‘Nothing in a radius of ten light years, according to the chart.’
Rhun nodded and stood. ‘Good. I’m suiting up and going out to see if there’s really a transmitter installed into the ship. Can you remember where the tech made the modifications?’
‘Just under the cockpit, near the landing gear.’
‘Okay, Lieutenant. Keep an eye on me, please. I don’t like working in space and if the cable gives, I need you to pull me back in.’
Samica looked at him a bit sheepishly, her pupils dilated, but she looked awake. ‘I think it’s time you called me Samica,’ she said.
He gave her a crooked smile. ‘All right – Samica.’
‘I hope the cable is not the oldest thing in this ship.’
Commander Yenko decided it was best not to answer. Karranek’s face was the colour of a driburr plant about to explode as he read the message and threw the datapad on the ground, plastisteel casing and small electronic parts flying in all directions.
‘Your people should have shot them down,’ he continued, surveying the wreckage. ‘We knew that Trey had seen our man plant the transmitter.’
Again, Yenko chose to remain silent. He could have pointed out he’d been following Karranek’s orders in letting the freighter escape, sacrificing two TIE fighter pilots in the process in order to make it believable, but something told him it was not what the ISB commander wanted to hear.
‘Any word on the other pilot . . . Downlead?’ Yenko asked.
‘He’s in for another week in bacta, but the medics say he’ll make it. The emissions from the freighter very nearly killed him, though. I am putting in a request to StarCom for his transfer.’ Abruptly, Karranek turned, facing Yenko. ‘I’m leaving aboard Hammer tomorrow, Commander. See to an appropriate escort.’ Then he left the office.
Yenko resisted the urge to heave a relieved sigh when the door slid shut behind the other man. Captain Dacasca of ISD Emperor’s Hammer was not going to be amused to have been called upon to assist in the annihilation of a Rebel base, only to find that the transmitter that was to lead him there had been found somewhere in wild space. But that was not Yenko’s problem. He would have to oversee the repairs to Gherro Space Station and make sure it remained loyal to the Empire this time.
A buzzing sound interrupted his thoughts, and he keyed a button on his desk. ‘Yes?’
‘Officer Caller is here, sir.’
‘Send him in.’
The TIE fighter pilot entered, saluting. ‘Flight Officer Caller reporting, sir.’
‘At ease, Officer. I have good news for you.’ He handed the young man a datapad. ‘Your orders. As of now, you’re being transferred to ISD Emperor’s Hammer. You’ll be serving under Captain Omarn Dacasca, who wants to see you in two hours. As I promised, he won’t hear anything about what you’ve been called to do during your time here.’
Caller nodded, keeping his eyes fixed on some imaginary point behind the commander’s head. ‘Thank you, sir.’
‘That’ll be all, Officer Caller. Good luck. Dismissed.’
Caller saluted and went out, and this time, Yenko did sigh. It seemed he was left with a lot of clearing work from Karranek’s stay, and he wasn’t only thinking about the mess on the floor.
He thumbed the com key again. ‘Lieutenant, Yenko here. Send a detail of cleaning droids in here. And get me a large pot of caf.’
‘ . . . so we found the tracking device and disabled it. I am fairly certain that it was the only one, sir.’ Rhun sat back a bit, hoping the report hadn’t sounded as bad to the commander as it had to him. Second mission, second disaster. He still couldn’t believe they’d escaped with their lives twice.
Commander Willard watched the two sitting before his desk and turned to Lieutenant Trey. ‘Do you have anything to add, Lieutenant?’ he asked her.
‘No, sir. That’s pretty much it.’ She looked terrible, Rhun thought, but at the same time, he’d hoped she would add something about the more heroic feats he’d accomplished during the mission. He hadn’t wanted to elaborate on those himself, but he had pointed out how well she’d done in getting them out of the dogfight around the station. Apparently, she hadn’t taken the hint. To be honest, he hadn’t really expected her to. Maybe such recommendations weren’t standard procedure in the Empire – plus the fact that she did look rather pale. She’d slept in her bunk through most of the hyper jump, which worried him. The wound hadn’t looked that serious. Willard had commanded both their presence during the debriefing when Rhun had told him that he’d found a transmitter installed into the Jumper, and even now, a dozen techs was taking the ship apart – figuratively – to hunt for more.
Willard looked at the notes he’d made during the interview, then nodded at Samica. ‘Lieutenant, go get checked out in sick bay. Ask Corporal Tarrett to accompany you there. Agent van Leuken, I’d like you to stay here for some more minutes.’
Samica nodded weakly and stood, swaying slightly. She saluted, then she left the office.
When she was gone, the commander asked, ‘Do you think she had anything to do with this?’
Rhun shook his head. ‘If this is a set-up, it’s the most elaborate I’ve ever come across. And she’s about the worst liar I’ve ever met. She has nothing to do with the failure of the mission.’
Willard glanced at his notes again and nodded. ‘Thank you, van Leuken. By the way, Captain Candela could use you in Intentions. Report to him in the next twelve hours. Dismissed, then.’
Rhun swallowed. This was it. He’d screwed up, and was dumped in Intentions again. Decoding encrypted messages for Stars knew how long. And all because of a narrow-minded former Imp who couldn’t have said, ‚By the way, Commander, Agent van Leuken did a brilliant job of getting us off that station.‘
‘Yes, sir,’ he said softly, saluting, then trudged out. Lieutenant Riece was on duty outside the commander’s office, but mercifully, he must have had a hunch that Rhun wasn’t in the mood for any banter right now.
‘Well, Lieutenant, I’m afraid I have good news and bad news.’
Samica looked up when a human doctor, not a medical droid, entered the part of the sick bay room aboard Liberty where she lay. She held a data pad and a medical scanner.
‘Bad news first,’ Samica said, trying to sit up, then deciding against it. She’d been here for two days, with a massive infection, and was only just beginning to feel herself again. She hadn’t seen Rhun since their return to base.
‘You didn’t know you were allergic to synthflesh, did you, Lieutenant?’ the doctor said as she took a seat next to Samica’s bed. ‘There was nothing to indicate that in your medical files.’
Samica threw her a puzzled look. ‘I’m not allergic to synthflesh,’ she said, confused. ‘I’ve never been. What could have caused that?’
‘You belong to approximately 0.2 percent of humans who experience allergic reactions to zyolene, an agent in most synthflesh varieties.’ The doctor looked at her searchingly. ‘But you said you never experienced this before?’
‘No, I’m certain.’
The older woman grimaced. ‘You haven’t always worked for the Alliance, have you, Lieutenant?’
‘What does that have to do with that?’
‘Synthflesh types used by other groups do not contain zyolene, but a substitute called Phetarin. The Empire holds a monopoly on that, however.’
Samica closed her eyes for a moment. ‘That means I can’t use any Alliance synthflesh at all.’
‘I’m afraid not. I first thought you might be allergic to bacta, which is also a component of synthflesh, but I checked that, and you’re not.’
‘Was that the good news?’
‘No, the good news is this.’ The doctor handed Samica the datapad. ‘You’re being transferred as soon as we turn you loose again. Another four days so we can make sure you’re fit to fly, and you’re back on duty. That’s good news, isn’t it?’
‘It is.’ Samica took the datapad. ‘Do you know where I’m being transferred?’
‘I’ll leave you that,’ the doctor answered with a nod towards the pad. ‘It contains your orders. In the meantime . . . try and get some sleep.’ She gave Samica a nod and left the small room, drawing back a curtain that separated it from other compartments.
Samica brought up the file containing her orders, and whistled as she read what it said. She would be moved to Y-wing squadron Gold and was asked to report to Commander Jon Vander in five days’ time.
The escort frigate Defiance had only recently joined the small Rebel fleet gathered in Suolriep sector, having been liberated from the Empire in a coup several weeks back. Unlike Redemption, it still had a starfighter hangar, and thus had been chosen as Gold Squadron’s base of operations. Previously, they had been forced to scatter their snubfighters about two different cruisers, a fact that hadn’t made anybody very happy, or so Samica had been able to gather. She remembered the way the Y-wings had been cramped in between freighters and shuttles on Liberty.
Defiance’s hangar was far from crowded, considering the fact that it had been designed to house two squadrons of TIE fighters, not Y-wing squadron. There were only seven fighters, all painted with the distinctive gold stripe along their noses, so Samica supposed that a flight of them had to be out, on a patrol or maybe on a mission. She couldn’t see any clues as to the designations of the ships. X-wings used stripes for com code designations, four green stripes for Green Four, for example, but Y-wings obviously didn’t.
There were several techs in the hangar, as well as two people in bright orange Rebel flight suits. A deck officer stood at the shuttle ramp as Samica left the transport.
‘Welcome aboard, ma’am,’ he greeted her.
‘Thanks, Officer,’ she replied. ‘I’m to report to Commander Vander. Can you tell me where to find him?’
‘Well, you’re lucky, Lieutenant,’ the deck officer replied. ‘See the dark-haired pilot over there? That’s him.’
Samica nodded her thanks and went over to the two pilots, one of whom was leaving now, a blond-haired young man, leaving the commander and an astromech droid. The CO of Gold Squadron was of average height, not much taller than Samica, with black hair and a strong build. He didn’t look much older than thirty.
‘Commander Vander?’ she asked when she reached him, but to her surprise, he didn’t react at once, but patted the astromech on the top before turning to her. ‘That’s right, Blooper, and if they don’t do a good job on the power converters this time, bite ‘em.’ The droid wheeled away, bleeping to itself, and the commander faced her, eyeing her speculatively. ‘Lieutenant Trey?’ he asked.
She started to salute, but he surprised her by simply taking her hand and shaking it. ‘Welcome to Gold Squadron. I’m Commander Vander, but my people usually call me Dutch. Or Chief, whatever sounds appropriate.’ He spoke with a pronounced Corellian accent.
‘Lieutenant Samica Trey.’
‘Well, Samica, you’ll see things run a bit differently here than you’re probably used to. By the way, in case you’re worried, nobody will know where you come from unless you choose to tell them, except my XO. We’re currently down three pilots, well, two, now, and I’ve decided to team you up with Gold Five – Pops, my XO. I hope you don’t share the dislike of most of your people against Alderaanians?’
She shook her head. ‘No, sir.’
‘Just leave the ‚sir‘ aside. Makes me feel older. You’ll be Gold Seven, and when we’re on a mission, that’s as good as your name, but you probably know that. Well, what else? Let me see – I’ll get Pops to show you round the ship, the most important places, mess, briefing room, quarters. We don’t have single quarters available at the moment, so you’ll share with Pops. You’ll meet the others soon enough, but you’ll usually find them in the mess or in the hangar.’ He considered. ‘That’s all I can think of right now. When you’ve got any further questions, just ask me.’
‘Well . . . the first problem’s going to be that I’ve never seen a Y-wing from the inside,’ Samica confessed.
‘You’ve–’ He broke off, shaking his head. ‘Willard, that cunning old devil. All right, so we’ll put you through a couple of sims. What have you flown?’
‘TIE fighters, shuttles, and a YT-1300, and X-wings in sims.’
‘Good. You’ll see that Y-wings combine about the best features of most of those: they’re as tough as a freighter, but with as much firepower as a TIE fighter. And don’t let any X-wing jock tell you otherwise.’ He winked at her, then keyed something into his comlink. ‘Dutch here. Can you spare an hour or two to show the new kid around? – Thanks.’
He put the device away. ‘Pops is coming down to show you where everything is. I’ll see you in the simulator tomorrow, Samica.’
‘Sam,’ she corrected him, much to her own surprise.
‘Sam, then,’ he agreed.
‚Pops‘ was really Davish Krail, an aging pilot from Alderaan, with receding hair and a stocky build. Like Dutch, he wore an orange flight suit, even though he hadn’t been on duty just then. As soon as the older man had joined them, the commander left for the mess.
‘You haven’t flown one of those?’ Pops asked Samica with a nod towards the Y-wings.
‘Not yet. I’ve spent the last five days in sick bay.’
‘I’ve heard. Well, if you like, we could see if the sim room is free, and get in some practice time for you. You haven’t got a flight suit yet, either, have you?’
She shook her head.
‘So we’ll see the quartermaster first, after you’ve stored your stuff in our room. – I hope you don’t mind sharing your quarters with an Alderaanian.’
‘Comman– I mean, Dutch was worried about that too, but no, I don’t mind.’
‘Fine,’ Pops said. ‘You wouldn’t believe how often I’d heard jokes about pacifists who ought to stay at home instead of fighting the Empire.’
‘I’ve heard one of them,’ Samica said with a shrug. ‘It was directed at a fellow cadet of mine while I was at the Academy. An Alderaanian called Tycho Celchu. The one who’d pulled the joke never did it again, though; he had to be carried to the sick bay.’
‘Irritable pacifist, was our Celchu?’ Pops grinned.
‘Might have been just one stupid joke too many.’
‘I can’t fault him. By the way, Sam, this is your ship.’
Pops had stopped before one Y-wing near the exit of the hangar. It looked like most of the other snubfighters, maybe a bit more battered than some, with a nasty-looking laser burn along the cockpit. Several parts looked as if they’d been very recently replaced, and a bucket of paint standing next to the Y-wing indicated that more cosmetic work was still in progress.
‘It’ll need a new paint job as well as a new viewport,’ Pops explained. ‘But these ships are the toughest starfighters in the galaxy. Some of them have been in use during the Clone Wars. Not this one, though.’ He patted the ship’s hull. ‘The R2 unit is new; it was part of this frigate when we . . . ah . . . liberated it. This is R2-R5.’
A little R2 unit came wheeling towards them, whistling. Its barrel-like body was painted black with grey, the domed head was white with black stripes. It whistled again.
Samica felt a bit stupid, but said, ‘Hello, R2-R5.’ To her relief, Pops did not seem to find this strange. The astromech droid let out a series of whistles and bleeps.
‘He says hi,’ Pops translated. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll understand them soon enough. And in the cockpit, whatever he says is being translated and shows up on your screen. Astromechs are a tremendous help in a snubfighter. They bother about shields and perform systems checks, and they can be programmed to play against you in a match of Quadrant or Trident.’ He grinned. ‘If Dutch asks, I never said that. But those long hyper jumps can be awfully boring.’
‘What kinds of missions will we be flying?’ Samica wanted to know.
‘All kinds of things, that’s the advantage of Y-wings. They’re among first choice for various functions. Raids, escort duty, starfighter combat, reconnaissance . . . although High Command relies on X-wings for most missions that require speed these days. Still, we’ve got a lot more Y- than X-wings, so be prepared to do about everything you can imagine.’
He led her to a turbolift, which took them up one level to the pilots’ quarters, mess, briefing room and ready station. The room she would share with Pops was small and sparse, with two bunks in the bulkheads, two lockers, and a small table with a data terminal and a chair before it. There was a door leading to a tiny refresher station, which they shared with the adjacent cabin.
Pops waited while she stored her flight bag in her locker. When she was finished and was about to close it again, she saw a flimsi picture hanging on the inside of the door, and she gave it a closer look. It showed a young woman with long reddish-brown hair and freckles, laughing into the imager. There was a small house behind her, a farmhouse maybe, with fields and trees visible in the background.
Pops had leaned in to see what was taking her so long, then reached over to take the picture out. ‘I’ll take that,’ he said, his voice tight.
‘From my . . . predecessor?’ Samica said softly.
Pops nodded. ‘Most of the time, Y-wings last longer than the ones who fly them.’ He folded the picture and laid it into his own locker. ‘Come on,’ he said, briskly. ‘Let’s get you a flight suit.’
That evening, after Pops had shown her most of the places she needed to know, he went through a sim run with her. He had been rather impressed, which surprised Samica, because she felt she could have done a lot better. She supposed she would have to get used to the rather sluggish Y-wings and rely more on her shields than on speed.
After the simulator run, Pops took her to the cantina at the same level, which served as the pilots’ lounge.
There were seven people seated at a long table in the room, eating or drinking, all of whom turned around when she and Pops entered. Pops had already told her that most pilots in the Alliance’s Starfighter Command were human males, and this was true for Gold Squadron as well, as Samica saw only one nonhuman among the six men at the table; there were no women at all. This was rather unusual, or so Pops had told her, as female pilots were not quite as rare here as in the Empire, but that fact didn’t bother her. It had never been any different in her life.
They looked different from Imperial pilots, however. Some of them wore their hair far longer than Imperial regulations would have allowed, and they all appeared to be less conscious about rank and privilege than she’d experienced with any pilots she had ever served with.
Several of them had been engaged in a heated discussion, which broke off abruptly as they entered. One short, very young-looking man, still in his teens, with a thick mop of dark brown hair and twinkling brown eyes, turned to Pops with an exasperated sigh.
‘Pops, we told you to keep her away from the mess! We’re not finished!’
Samica felt a queasy feeling return at the idea that Rebel pilots might be as unhappy about female company as Imperials, but another young man with short blond hair and a merry face, hardly older than the one who had first spoken, finished, ‘Yes, you can’t expect us to come up with a proper welcome committee at only a day’s notice!’
Pops turned to Samica with a grin. ‘You’re lucky. Stars know what that would have looked like.’ To the others, he said, ‘Let’s see some manners, guys. There’s a lady present.’
‘Hardly,’ Samica murmured, which was taken up with grins from the others.
The teenaged pilot stood, holding out his hand. ‘I’m Teddie, and Pops is right, you are lucky. Our last idea was to bring in a group of dancing Wookiees for a welcome and send them into your quarters when you were asleep, but I doubt we’d have survived Pops’ retaliation strike.’
‘I never retaliate,’ Pops said with dignity. ‘That’s below a pacifist.’
‘Go tell it to a stormtrooper, Pop. Or to Dutch. You’re as vindictive as a Hutt whose tail got stepped on.’ The friendly-faced blond pilot nodded towards Samica. ‘I’m Jay. I’m not normally that nasty, however, that’s just Teddie’s bad influence.’
Another pilot, dark-skinned, around thirty, who was sitting with Teddie and Jay, introduced himself as well. ‘Perrard, but everyone calls me Perry.’
‘He’s our stand-in Corellian,’ Teddie chimed in.
‘I’m Samica Trey,’ Samica introduced herself. ‘You can call me Sam, though. Why stand-in?’
‘Because he’s from Saccoria, not a proper Corellian,’ Teddie explained.
‘I never said I was,’ Perry defended himself. ‘You keep harping on that.’
‘Now that we’ve had the kids’ club, you’ll want to meet the adults,’ someone else said, a tall, gangling young man with wavy brown hair and a sardonic grin, who could not be that much older than Teddie or Jay. ‘Lieutenant Gwarn Lepira, Gold Four.’
‘I told you not to lie anymore,’ Teddie rebuked him. To Samica, he finished, ‘He’s called Gawky, but he simply tries to ignore it.’
Gold Four rolled his eyes with all the indignation of two years’ seniority. ‘All right, but I can always try.’
An older pilot in his forties raised a hand in greeting. ‘Ryle Torson, Gold Three. If you need any souping up done on your ship, I’m your man.’
‘And if you want a hyper breakdown because of a complete systems failure due to those modifications, he’s also your man,’ a young man with curly blond hair added. ‘My name’s Tiree, Gold Two. I’m Dutch’s wingman.’ She remembered him; it was the pilot she’d seen with Dutch in the hangar that morning.
‘This is Plancal,’ Tiree introduced the last pilot at the table, who hadn’t added anything to the conversation so far. He was not human, but had a large salmon-coloured head with huge bulbous eyes on the sides. His hands were equally large and resembled fins. Samica had never met a Mon Calamari, but she had seen enough holos to recognise him as a member of the water-loving, peaceful amphibian race of the world that bore the same name as its people, which had been discovered and enslaved by the Empire a decade ago. Samica knew that, in certain circles on Imperial Centre, it had been the latest rage to keep a Calamari slave.
Plancal nodded towards Samica, and she wondered whether he understood Basic at all, then he surprised her by saying, ‘Welcome to Gold Squadron, Sam.’ His voice was very low and gravelly, but perfectly understandable.
‘Now that you’ve had the pleasure, I do hope you’re not thinking about quitting again,’ Pops said quietly as they sat down at the table, but he was smiling.
‘No, certainly not.’ Samica was a bit uncomfortable with being the centre of attention, but she was fairly certain that what she’d just seen was nothing more than high jinks she simply wasn’t used to. They had sat down at the end of the table, opposite Tiree and the Mon Cal, and she was grateful for that. Teddie and his lot were going to take some getting used to.
‘You’ve flown combat missions before, Sam?’ Tiree wanted to know.
‘Yes, a couple. Not in wishbones yet, though.’
Tiree stopped short for a second, and she saw Gawky turn as well. Blast, so she’d managed to put her foot in it first thing.
Tiree leaned across the table. His voice was low, but he didn’t seem to be too offended. ‘Hey, Sam . . . I’d not call them that if I were you. At least I’d never let Dutch hear it. You’ll think differently about them once you’ve flown a few missions.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Samica said, sure she’d blushed beet-red. ‘I don’t know what I’ve been thinking.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Pops interrupted. ‘I’m sure you didn’t want to step on anyone’s toes.’
‘You’re from Coruscant?’ Gawky asked, leaning in.
‘Yes. Is it that obvious?’
‘You talk like a Throneworlder. I’ve got an aunt in Imperial City. I don’t think she likes me a lot right now.’ He grinned.
‘Proper Imperial. You’ve been to the Academy?’
‘Now how did you know that?’ Samica asked.
‘You wouldn’t have learned TIE pilots’ slang anywhere else. But you haven’t shot down any of ours, have you?’
Before Samica could reply, Pops intervened. ‘Leave her, Gawk,’ he said, a hint of annoyance creeping into his voice. ‘Even if she did, the better she’s changed sides. For today, you’ve made it amply clear what a smart-ass you are, thank you very much.’
Gawky drew back with a wink.
Before turning in that night, Samica paid another visit to her ship in the hangar. It was clear that many of the pilots she’d met today had a very personal relationship to their snubfighters, more so than she was used to, and she found that she liked the notion. She doubted she’d go as far as giving her ship – or her astromech – a name, but her life depended on her equipment, and she supposed she’d better treat it well.
When she entered the hangar, she saw that a shuttle had landed in it, and that several techs were working on her Y-wing. For them, it was probably not evening – everyone aboard a space ship had their own schedule and thus their own idea of when evening or morning was, and these techs were probably beginning their morning shift. She helped them for a while, familiarizing herself with the interior of the starfighter, when she saw a familiar figure walk across the hangar towards the shuttle. He looked over at their group for a moment, then looked away and hurried towards the transport. It was Rhun, and she was certain that he’d seen her.
‘Rhun!’ she called to him, and he stopped, turning slowly. She didn’t have the impression that he was very happy to see her.
‘Yes?’ he said curtly.
‘I haven’t seen you for a while,’ she said in a conversational tone. ‘What have you been doing?’
He grimaced and turned away. ‘You don’t want to know.’
Samica frowned. ‘If I didn’t want to know, I wouldn’t have asked.’
‘Then maybe I don’t want you to know.’
‘Top secret?’ she guessed.
Rhun gave a short laugh that didn’t sound amused in the least. ‘I’m running errands,’ he said. ‘Delivering data. The most interesting thing I’ve done this week. The rest was sitting in front of the computer for hours.’
Samica threw him a puzzled look. ‘Aren’t you in IntelOps anymore?’ she asked.
‘Because I screwed up last mission and Commander Willard has decided I’m not capable. Well, I guess he’s right. I haven’t done anything right on that mission, have I?’ He looked at his chrono. ‘Sorry, I must be going.’ Without any further word, he turned and entered the shuttle.
Samica looked after him, speechless, with a lump in her throat she couldn’t quite explain.
The next day, Dutch tested her in the simulator, along with the rest of the squadron. Whether it was because the exercises he gave her were that much harder than what she’d done with Pops the previous day, or whether she was still worried about Rhun’s behaviour last night, Samica did more poorly than she’d ever had in her entire life. Dutch looked at her results, then at the ones she’d scored yesterday, then at the ones he’d obviously got from Captain Jevarra from Samica’s X-wing sessions, and shook his head.
‘I don’t understand this. Sorry, Sam, but that was about the worst sim run any of my pilots has ever flown. Are you sure you’re all right?’
Samica shrugged unhappily. ‘I don’t know, s– Dutch. I’ve been wondering . . . ‘ She looked up at him. ‘In debriefings . . . do you want your people to be short and precise, or do you want them to elaborate?’
Dutch knitted his dark brows. ‘I can’t imagine you’ve been worrying about debriefings, Sam.’
‘Maybe I have. How do you want them to be?’
Dutch shook his head. ‘Well, I certainly don’t want to hear ballads on a mission, but I like it when people evaluate their actions. Helps me to find out how they assess their own achievements . . . or their squad mates’. Does that answer your question?’
‘I think so, sir. Thank you.’
‘I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what this is all about.’
‘Maybe later, sir.’
‘Sam, I told you – drop the ‚sir‘.’
There was only one shuttle going over to Liberty that day, and Samica had to hurry to catch it, half an hour after her disastrous sim run. One more lesson she’d learned. And here she’d thought that, at not quite nineteen, she’d learned all she could. Hah.
A female trooper Samica had never met was on duty before Commander Willard’s office today, and she told her the commander was busy.
‘It’s important,’ Samica said. ‘Please ask the commander if he can spare ten minutes, Sergeant.’
The sergeant cast her a measuring glance, then spoke into her comlink. ‘Sir, Lieutenant Trey is here and needs to talk to you. – Yes, I told her so, but she insists it’s urgent. – Yes, sir.’
She clipped the comlink to her belt again. ‘Ten minutes,’ she said.
‘Thanks, Sergeant,’ Samica said as she entered Willard’s office.
The commander took a while before he put down his work and returned her salute. ‘This had better be important, Lieutenant,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry, sir, but I’ve made a mistake a week ago, and I need to correct it.’
‘What are you talking about?’
She drew a deep breath. ‘I ask you to transfer Agent van Leuken back into IntelOps, sir.’
He frowned at her. ‘What makes you say that? He hasn’t sent you, has he?’
‘No, sir, he doesn’t even know I’m here. I think you’ve misjudged him.’
Commander Willard folded his hands on the desk. ‘I have?’
‘I should have told you that without him, we wouldn’t have left Gherro alive. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d have been captured by the Imps. He was not responsible in any way for the failure of the mission. I didn’t tell you because I . . . I didn’t realize that any evaluation was called for during the debriefing.’
Willard made no reply, only watching her intently. At least he seemed less annoyed with the disturbance than he had when she entered.
‘I’ve made a mistake, sir, and if van Leuken was transferred because of that, I ask you to cancel his transfer. I didn’t mean to question your judgment, but I didn’t give you all the information you needed.’
Willard considered for a couple of seconds, then he nodded. ‘Very well, Lieutenant. Thank you for offering a new perspective on the matter.’
She gathered up all her courage to ask one more question. ‘What will happen to van Leuken?’
‘I’ll see.’ He nodded to her. ‘Dismissed, Lieutenant.’
She saluted and left, heading down to the hangar once more, when she came across Rhun, who was just leaving the canteen.
He frowned when he saw her aboard Liberty, and this time, he stopped.
‘What are you doing here?’ he asked. He looked tired, but maybe he was only downcast.
She shrugged. ‘I’m on my way back to Defiance. My shuttle’s leaving in ten minutes, so I haven’t got long.’
He looked at her for a couple of seconds, then sighed. ‘When will you stop thinking in Imperial standard procedures?’
She smiled slightly. ‘Maybe I already have.’
His face was puzzled and perhaps a little hopeful, but then he frowned again, and she touched him lightly on the shoulder. ‘See you later.’
Half an hour later, Samica returned to Defiance and was surprised to find none of the Gold Squadron pilots in the mess or in the hangar. There was a message on the com terminal in the room she shared with Pops, saying the whole squadron was to assemble in the briefing room – at 1300 hours.
Which had been half an hour ago.
Her stomach sinking, she hurried for the briefing room, hoping faintly that Dutch didn’t go on first impressions. If he did, her career in Gold Squadron was probably over.
The briefing room was on the small side, with only twenty seats, and nine heads, eight human and one Calamari, turned as she tried to slip in unnoticed.
‘ . . . to stay close to your wingman,’ Dutch was saying. ‘Secondly, we have to make sure all are accounted for.’ He waved off Samica’s salute. ‘Sit down, Sam. You can tell me later.’
She swallowed and sat down next to Tiree. Dutch was obviously speaking about that morning’s simulator run, and she mentally kicked herself. She and Dutch had even talked about debriefings before she went off on her own and left the ship without her commander’s leave.
After the briefing, Dutch waited for all the others to leave before he asked Samica, ‘Now what was this all about?’
She sighed. ‘I had to talk to Commander Willard. A week ago, I went on a mission with an IntelOps agent. It went wrong, and it was really nobody’s fault, but he was dumped in Intentions because I had failed to tell the commander it was he who got us out. I hadn’t realized that, so I had to sort that out. I’m sorry; I know I should have asked your permission first.’
He made no reply, only watched her, and she began to shift uncomfortably.
‘And what do you suggest I should do now?’
‘I don’t know.’ She swallowed the ‚sir‘ just in time.
Dutch scratched his neck. ‘Awright, get in some more sim time. I have a distinct feeling that after your little excursion, it’s going to be better than the one this morning. And don’t forget to ponder your wrongdoings.’
At least now she was certain he was pulling her leg. ‘Constantly.’
‘Not as constantly as to screw up the way you did last time, please. I’ll join you in two hours and see how you’re doing.’
‘Thank you,’ she said, seriously now, but he waved it off.
‘You’re settling in, I can see that, but don’t you try to pull those stints on me when you’re fully established. Understood?’
He jerked his head towards the exit. ‘Off you go.’
Dutch was more impressed with her results this time, and she found Rhun had been the reason for her poor performance earlier. She still couldn’t be sure that Commander Willard was going to give him his old posting back, but she didn’t doubt that he was willing to re-assess the situation once more.
She also found that with Y-wings, her approach had been wrong at first. She had thought of them as starfighters like TIEs or even X-wings, and by her definition, starfighters were agile, and so the craft had seemed horribly sluggish to her. This time, she’d forced herself to think of them as larger craft – like shuttles or freighters, to which they compared very favourably, as their shields were almost as strong, but they were much more nimble. Until she was as used to the ships as she had been to TIE fighters, it seemed a good idea to look at them in a different light, and it was obvious it worked.
Dutch viewed her results and nodded appreciatively. ‘Not bad, Sam, not bad at all. Well, I suppose we can take you on your first patrol tomorrow. Your ship’s finished, or so the techs tell me; I want you to go over it once again with your astromech, to make sure everything’s all right. You can ask the help of one of the others to help you if you’re not certain yet how a Y-wing should look like when it’s in working order. I wouldn’t advise you to ask Ryle, however.’
‘Is he really that bad with modifications?’
‘No, he’s that quick with them. StarCom is not exactly happy about all the modifications that are being done to the ships without their consent. And most of them are completely useless.’
Samica stretched slightly. ‘I’ll see to that after I’ve had something to eat,’ she said.
Dutch consulted his chrono. ‘You’ll fly a patrol with Tiree and me at 900 hours tomorrow, so you’ve got plenty of time. Try and get some sleep, though. There have been pilots who did that during missions.’
She noticed his use of the past tense and grinned.
There were five pilots in the mess when Samica entered: Pops, Tiree, Teddie, Perry, and Jay. She knew that Ryle and Gawky were on a patrol together, Plancal was probably ‚re-hydrating‘, which meant he spent hours in the shower. She got some food from the processor and took her tray over to where Pops and Tiree sat.
Tiree grinned. ‘Now what was all this about in the briefing room?’
Samica shrugged. ‘I hadn’t realized there was a briefing.’
Pops gave her an apologetic look. ‘I’m sorry, but Dutch asked me not to remind you. You know, you have to make sure you look at your messages regularly, Sam.’
She nodded. ‘It was an exception.’
‘I bet the others you were a spy,’ Teddie said cheerfully.
Samica snorted. ‘Yes, so I went to Commander Willard’s office to tell him in person. I hope you didn’t bet too much, Teddie.’
‘Just one drink. But we’ve still got no proof you aren’t, do we?’
She started to say something in return when the door flew open, and in came Rhun van Leuken, grinning as hugely as she’d ever seen him, with a kitbag over his shoulder. He went across the lounge to her table, bent over her, kissed her cheek, turned around, called, ‘Thank you!’, and was gone. Samica stared at the door through which he’d vanished and became aware of her squad mates’ laughter.
‘All right,’ she heard Teddie say. ‘You’re not a spy. I know what the next bets are going to be about.’
She turned back to her food, not knowing whether she should let the grin allow to spread across her face or if the wanted the ground to swallow her.
Pops patted her shoulder. ‘Whatever you’ve been doing, the time wasn’t wasted, it seems,’ he chuckled.
Samica was glad it hadn’t been.
Captain Noell Roos stood with his hands folded behind his back, the favoured pose of most senior Naval officers, conveying a certain air of nonchalance and competence, or so Roos hoped. Right now, the pose was a necessity to remind him and his bridge crew of what he was rather than anything else, however. The face visible in the holotank was glaring at him, and the worst thing about the whole situation was that he absolutely deserved being glared at.
Roos swallowed hard and cleared his throat. ‘Admiral Leszek, I assume full responsibility for this. I’d like to point out, however . . .’
‘Hah!’ the admiral spat out. ‘You assume responsibility. Of course you do. Captain Roos, your stupid personal vendetta has cost us the capture of two Rebel corvettes and gained us nothing but a vaped bloody freighter!’
Roos stood stock-still, feeling the atmosphere of feverish activity on the bridge around him. They were pretending they didn’t notice anything of what was happening between their captain and the admiral, but Roos was certain Leszek had chosen both the moment and the setting for his dressing-down with equal care.
‘I thought that the Rebel officers were trying to get away on that freighter, sir, that’s why I ordered pursuit of the ship rather than the corvettes.’
‘Captain, how many starfighters have you got at your disposal?’
‘One wing, sir.’
‘And how many other craft have you got aboard that bloody ISD of yours?’
Roos swallowed again. ‘Five Skipray blast boats and four assault shuttles, sir. But I remind you I was told to keep the Skiprays’ existence secret for now . . .’
‘Then why in the Emperor’s name did you order your entire contingent of TIE fighters – seventy-two, unless I am mistaken – to pursue one freighter?’
‘Admiral, I didn’t order them to–’
‘No, you didn’t, you didn’t give any orders at all concerning the other ships, so absorbed were you in shooting down a single ship. Captain, you will stay in orbit around Ghorman until an Imperial committee has settled this matter. You will not attempt to move anywhere. Is that understood?’
Without any further word from the admiral’s image, the ship-to-ship transmission flickered out. Captain Roos remained standing in front of the holotank for a while, then turned abruptly.
‘Lieutenant Commander Juros, you have the bridge.’
‘Aye, sir,’ Juros replied, then the Captain went out, the bridge blast doors sliding shut behind him. There was an almost audible collective sigh of relief running through the bridge of ISD Relentless.
Lieutenant Commander Juros, Executive Officer of the Star Destroyer, sat down on the Captain’s chair, chin rested on his steepled hands. He had spent the last seven standard months hunting for some phantom Rebels the Captain deemed responsible for the death of his wife in the explosion of a factory in the Ghorman system a standard year ago. When Roos had finally found the freighter he’d been chasing for all this time, the man had almost forgotten about the two corvettes that were with his prey. When he had realized at last that he was about to let a good catch escape, the Captain had very nearly panicked, had managed to destroy the freighter, but the two capital ships had made hyperspace before he got his starfighter tactics sorted out.
He keyed a code into the com terminal at his side. ‘Lieutenant Nawroth, please.’
After a while, he got a reply. ‘Nawroth here.’
‘I’d like a word with you, Lieutenant. Would you please come to my office at 1900 hours?’
‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’
Samica awoke with a start at a clicking sound outside the door.
The room was in total darkness, and as she listened, the only thing she could hear was Pops snoring softly in the other bunk. She had become used to it and hardly heard it anymore, but there had been something else, like somebody worrying with the door control panel. This struck her as odd; if anyone had a reason for disturbing them, he could just have buzzed.
The light switch was by the door so she couldn’t reach it from the bed, and she didn’t have a glow rod ready, either. For a while, she lay there wondering whether a clicking sound warranted her getting up and having a look, but the noise did not come again, and she dozed off once more.
She jerked upright several minutes later as a deafening noise sounded in the cabin, patting around for her flight suit in a fighter pilot’s reflex, when she realized the noise was music.
The door was open, a slender beam of light from the corridor outside illuminating two giant figures that had moved into the room, swaying about as if on wheels, turning and rocking to the music blasting from a speaker somewhere in the corridor.
Pops had jumped out of bed, holding a blaster pistol and shouting for lights. Outside, several people had run together, and one of them hit the light switch. Samica, who had given up fishing for her flight suit, stared at the scene that presented itself to them.
The figures that had entered where about two metres tall, but they were metal and cloth rather than flesh and blood. They were two astromech droids with poles fixed to them, extending nearly to the ceiling of the room, from which hung something that looked like carpets held together by a lot of engine tape. All the while, the music kept blaring, sounding like a mix between a drummer taking out a mortal grudge on his instruments, and a herd of banthas in mating season.
Pops, Samica and five crew members standing outside the door stared for a couple of seconds before someone thought to turn down the music, then Pops ordered the droids to stop. They did so, dutifully stopping their turning and rocking, and the poles-and-carpet constructions mounted on top of them swayed some more before they, too, stood still.
Pops, clad in shorts and a shirt, was standing before the two apparitions, apparently wondering if a shouting bout was called for, then he looked at the five people outside, who were fighting to keep the corners of their mouths under control, and decided that they probably didn’t have anything to do with this.
‘All right, the party’s over,’ he growled. ‘You!’ He turned to the two droids. ‘What idiot dressed you up like this?’
There was a sheepish hoot from under one of the taped-together carpets.
Pops took off the construction, and Samica followed suit with the other droid, revealing her own astromech as well as Bolts, Pops’ R2 unit.
‘At least he was smart enough not to take his and Jay’s for this,’ Pops mumbled.
‘Who?’ Samica asked.
‘Who else? Teddie, of course. I really wouldn’t have thought he’d actually follow through with his silly ‚dancing Wookiees‘ thing.’ Pops shook his head. ‘Bolts, I want you to listen carefully now. If ever Teddie approaches you again, closer than, oh, five metres, you have my permission to get very, very nasty. Got that?’
The little droid whistled happily, then hooting plaintively, probably complaining about his mistreatment.
Samica had sat down on her bed again. ‘How often does this happen?’ she asked, yawning.
‘Never again,’ Pops said, in a tone that augured badly.
‘What are you going to do?’
‘I’ll figure something out. Just don’t tell Dutch. I think that in this case more drastic measures are justified.’
There was a briefing scheduled for the following day, concerning an escort mission for a convoy of transports carrying supplies for a new base in the Yavin system. It was the first actual mission Samica would be flying for the Alliance, and Dutch wanted her as his wing for the trip.
When they left the briefing room, she could hear Teddie and Jay’s hardly stifled laughter, but she could also see Pops’ expression turning into a vicious grin when they weren’t watching. Mentally, Samica shook her head. She wasn’t used to old-timers like Pops displaying the same sort of juvenile humour teenagers did, but maybe it didn’t have to do with age. Samica was ten standard days short of her nineteenth lifeday, and she wouldn’t have dreamed about dressing up R2 units as dancing Wookiees even if she’d been fifteen.
Lieutenant Commander Juros looked up from his dinner, which he preferred eating in his own quarters, when the door buzzer sounded.
He pressed the admittance key. ‘Yes?’
‘Lieutenant Nawroth, Commander.’
‘Come.’ The Executive Officer of ISD Relentless finished the last of his nerf steak and sat back from the table, shoving the plate out of the way.
The door opened, and a small, wiry man in a spotless white COMPNOR uniform entered.
‘Lieutenant Nawroth. Have a seat.’ Juros gestured to the seat in front of his desk. ‘Drink?’
Nawroth raised an eyebrow. ‘Very well.’
Juros keyed a button, and a droid whirred in, pouring a brownish-yellow liquid for both of them. Nawroth picked up his glass. ‘Corellian brandy?’
The COMPNOR officer took a sip and nodded appreciatively. ‘Well, Commander, you do have taste. I am certain, however, that you didn’t invite me here to have a drink with you.’
‘That’s true, Lieutenant.’ Juros sat back in his chair, crossing his legs. ‘Actually, I was wondering what will happen to Captain Roos after today’s rather . . . spectacular show.’
Nawroth hid a sardonic smile behind his glass of brandy. ‘And I don’t suppose you could have waited to hear about it along with everyone else on the ship?’
‘Call me curious, Lieutenant.’
The commissioner pondered the other man’s words for several seconds, then he said, ‘He’ll be given another chance. Not in the Core, of course.’
Juros frowned. ‘Why so lenient?’
‘You don’t seem to approve of the admiralty’s lenience,’ Nawroth observed.
‘Lieutenant, I am a patriot, and as such, I am convinced that incompetence has no business on the bridge of one of the Emperor’s Star Destroyers.’
Juros hesitated for a few beats, but he knew he’d gone too far already to go back now. ‘What I’m saying is that there are better choices for a Star Destroyer commander than Captain Roos.’
‘Lieutenant, I’m not an ambitious man. I’m glad to serve the Empire, and I would be more than honoured to serve it under a competent Captain. But we have seen today that Captain Roos is not competent in the least, and I say he should be replaced.’
‘You are talking mutiny, Commander.’
Juros leaned forward across the table to look the COMPNOR officer in the eyes. ‘When the Emperor made himself ruler of the galaxy to counteract spreading corruption, was that mutiny?’
Lieutenant Nawroth stroked his chin. ‘I think I’m beginning to see your point.’
Samica climbed up the ladder that led into the cockpit of her Y-wing. R2-R5 was being lowered into the droid socket in the back of the fighter, and he whistled something. She looked at the screen in her cockpit where the translation scrolled over the display.
IT’S GOOD TO BE DOING SOMETHING USEFUL, the astromech remarked.
‘Indeed,’ Samica replied, putting on her flight helmet. It was open-faced, as opposed to the Imperial ones, and a stained grey; she hadn’t decided on a design for it yet.
Flicking switches on the console before her, she saw all the lamps glow green, and seconds later, the engines began to hum.
‘This is Gold Leader,’ she heard Dutch’s voice come in over com, heavily distorted, much more so than in an Imperial ship. ‘Report status.’
‘Gold Two, standing by.’
‘Gold Three, ready to burn.’
‘Gold Four, ready.’
‘This is Five, I’m ready.’
Samica keyed her com. ‘Gold Seven, all in the green.’
‘Gold Eight is ready,’ Jay said.
‘Nine standing by.’ That was Teddie’s voice.
Then Plancal’s gravelly voice, unmistakable even through com distortion: ‘Gold Eleven, two lit and in the green.’
‘Twelve standing by,’ Perry reported.
‘All right, golden boys . . . and girl. Here we go.’ Dutch’s Y-wing lifted off, and Samica followed against normal order, since she would be Dutch’s wing on this mission. Ten Y-wings flew towards the hyper jump point and entered hyperspace, towards their destination.
The jump was short by normal standards, but for Samica, ten hours seemed like a lot, considering she sat in a cockpit that would let her stretch her legs from time to time, but little else besides. She had never minded long hyper jumps, but she was used to having a chance of stretching her limbs from time to time.
When they had been in hyperspace for about two hours, there was a message from her astromech.
ARE YOU BORED?
‘Why?’ she asked, puzzled.
POPS GAVE ME THIS BEFORE WE STARTED, the droid replied. IT COULD HELP US PASS THE TIME.
Before Samica could ask, the game board of Quadrant, a game commonly played especially in the Empire but apparently also elsewhere, appeared on the screen before her, and she grinned when she saw he’d given her the Rebels.
ESCORT FRIGATE ONE TO BLOCK ALPHA THREE.
‘You knew I was going to move my Carrack-class cruiser there, didn’t you?’
NEVER. I DON’T CHEAT.
She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. ‘All right. Carrack-class cruiser two to block delta three.’
THIS IS GOING TO BE FUN.
‘Don’t count on it. I’m good at this, you know.’
They had played three matches, one won by the droid, two by her, when she realized she was enjoying herself with something she’d always considered a basic commodity.
They exited hyperspace at a planet too small and barren for the Empire to bother with, but for the Alliance, it was a collecting point for larger convoys and their escorts.
There were several bulk freighters here, carrying equipment and larger parts for the new base, as well as medical supplies. R2-R5 identified the transports as Pelican One through Six.
They teamed up with the freighters, Pops and Ryle taking theirs alone, the others escorting their ships by pairs. The one Samica and Dutch were escorting was designated Pelican Three, and the transponder code said it contained spare parts. The convoy moved towards another hyper point on the other side of the planet, and to her, the bulk freighters were almost unbearably slow. She didn’t want to know what would happen if they were attacked.
‘Gold Leader to Pelican group,’ Dutch said over com, on an open frequency. ‘We’ll enter hyperspace separately, with ten minutes in between, so we’ll clear the hyper point on the other side before the next ships arrive. Each transport will coordinate the jump with its escort. Five?’
‘Yes, Lead,’ Pops’ voice came back.
‘You go first, with Pelican One, then the others, in the order of the freighters’ designation. I want you to go in fifteen minutes.’
‘Copy that, Lead.’
‘Pelican Three, Gold Leader.’
‘Pelican Three, we copy.’
‘My R2 unit will transmit the jump coordinates as soon as Group Two is away.’
‘Affirmative, Gold Leader.’
Samica kept an eye on her sensors. Her Y-wing was the BTL-S3 model, which had a rotating ion cannon and a gunner’s station behind her pilot’s seat, which normally remained empty, but its sensors were weaker than the BTL-A4’s, a reconnaissance ship for only one pilot, without the gunner. They were also weaker than a TIE’s, and that was what worried her most, and she seriously doubted that the bulk freighters were any better in that regard.
Suddenly, she heard R5 hoot, but when she looked at her display, there was no translation.
‘What is it, R5?’
NOTHING. THIS IS WONDERFUL.
‘What do you mean?’
Before the droid had a chance to reply, there was a transmission from Pelican Four, the transport escorted by Teddie and Jay.
‘Gold Leader, this is Pelican Four. Could you be so kind as to translate what your pilots are saying?’
‘Gold Leader here. I don’t understand.’
‘Well, I don’t know about you, but none of the personnel aboard this ship speaks any Wookiee.’
There was a short pause from Dutch. ‘I’m sorry, Pelican Four, I still don’t see . . .’ He switched over to squadron frequency. ‘Gold Nine?’
He was answered by a furious roar that made Samica flinch.
‘Gold Nine, you’re in for some serious trouble if you don’t stop your childish game right now,’ Dutch warned.
Another roar answered him.
Pops’ voice broke in. ‘Kids.’
‘What did you say, Five?’
‘Lead? Do you read me?’ Teddie suddenly asked, his voice plaintive.
‘Loud and clear, Nine. Glad to find you’ve grown up. Now would you please see to that coordinating job of yours with your freighter?’
‘Yes, Lead,’ Teddie replied in a very small voice.
‘There’s a good boy,’ Pops said, the grin evident from the sound of his voice.
‘I can’t shake the feeling I don’t have a clue what’s going on here, Five,’ Dutch said, somewhere between annoyance, curiosity and amusement.
‘Let’s just say Nine did some growing up today, Chief,’ Pops replied.
Samica heard R5 warble something and read, PROGRAMMED THEIR ASTROMECHS TO REPLACE THEIR TRANSMISSIONS BY WOOKIEE AS SOON AS WE WERE OUT OF HYPERSPACE. I LIKE THAT. I GUESS BOLTS AND I ARE AVENGED.
She just shook her head and, at Dutch’s signal, followed the commander into hyperspace.
CARE FOR A RETURN GAME?
Samica laughed. ‘Just go ahead.’
The most remarkable planet in the Yavin system was Yavin Four, a gas giant glowing red before Samica when they came out of hyperspace nine hours later. It wouldn’t have been that long a jump for a starfighter, but the slow freighters dictated the speed for all the convoy, and she could not wait to use her legs again. At the far side of the planet Yavin lay one of its moons, which was habitable even if it had been deserted for decades. It was an ideal spot for a Rebel base, most emissions being swallowed by the gas giant, which hampered transmissions and made detection difficult. They would briefly stop on-planet before heading back to Suolriep, to refuel and stretch.
The Rebel base lay on the tree-covered main continent of the moon, and the freighters landed on a large bare patch before an enormous stone construction. Samica had seen several of those during their approach, and she could see now that they were buildings entirely built of stone, which ascended in terraces tapering towards the top. The starfighters were guided to one of the buildings, which was large enough to house a hangar for more than three squadrons of starfighters.
When the canopy on her Y-wing popped open, the first thing Samica felt was oppressive heat beating down on her, but worse than that was the humidity. She had spent most of her life on air-conditioned rooms, whether in Imperial Centre, at the Academy or in starships, and she was not used to any harsh climate at all. There was a cacophony of sounds, most of them from animals, birds or the like, when the engines of the fighters died, and the air smelled of decaying vegetation.
She took off her helmet – she found her hair soaked with sweat within minutes – and stiffly climbed down to the ground. To her amazement, it was not duracrete, but solid stone. How did they get all this in here?
She stretched with a moan and walked over to Pops. ‘Quite the place,’ she remarked.
He ran a hand through equally sweaty hair. ‘You can say that.’ Leaning in conspiratorially, he asked her, ‘What did you think of a pacifist’s retaliation strike?’
She shook her head and gently punched him in the shoulder. ‘Little boys, the whole lot of you.’
‘Hey, you’re not going to turn me in, are you?’
‘Wouldn’t want to provoke another retaliation strike.’ She grinned. ‘Pacifist. Hah.’
R5 had been lifted from his socket and came towards them, chirping happily.
Pops grinned. ‘Had a good time, did you?’
She shook her head affectionately. ‘Let’s get something to eat, if they’ve got anything here. And if I don’t find a refresher anytime soon, this will come to an unhappy end.’
They returned to Suolriep sector HQ the following day, after another six hours in the cockpit, but at least they’d had the opportunity to exercise their muscles in between. There was another ship at the gathering point, another cruiser called Steadfast.
Two days later, Samica returned from a joint training mission with X-wing Squadron Blue, a unit that had arrived aboard Steadfast. She was still a bit miffed by the whole exercise – X-wing pilots didn’t hold Y-wings in very high esteem and frequently extended this opinion to the ones who flew them – but her anger vanished when she saw Rhun sitting in the pilots’ lounge aboard Defiance. The lounge was not reserved for pilots, despite its name, but was simply a canteen that happened to be next to the fighter hangar, so it was naturally taken over by the pilots, and it was unusual for anyone else to enter it regularly – unusual, but not unheard of.
‘Rhun!’ she said, smiling. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘I heard you were due back, and since I’ve got some free time now, I thought I’d come over.’
Samica sat down with him after she’d paid a visit to the food processor. ‘You’re back in IntelOps?’ She couldn’t quite keep from smiling.
Rhun nodded. ‘How did you know?’
‘Just a hunch.’
He shrugged. ‘Well, not all of the time. I sort of keep commuting between Ops and Intentions. You haven’t done so badly yourself, from what I hear.’
Samica frowned. ‘What would you have heard?’
‘Well, you’ve seen the new base. That means they’ve started trusting you.’
‘And now let me guess to whom I owe that,’ Samica said.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ Rhun replied, and now it was his turn to grin.
Captain Roos looked at his new orders for a long time, torn between relief that he had survived this incident and despair at the nature of his new posting. To be dumped in the Outer Rim Territories after a post in the Core was as good as a dishonourable discharge. He might have survived this, physically, but his career would not.
Slowly, he got up from his chair and walked to the turbolifts that would take him to the bridge. At least he still had his command; they hadn’t taken Relentless away from him. He was still the Captain of a Star Destroyer of the Imperial class, the most prestigious slot to be had in the Imperial Navy, and if he did exceptionally well in his new hunting grounds, he might even return to favour. The possibility was not likely, but it was there.
His bridge crew did their best not to let their curiosity show as the blast doors slid open to admit the Captain. Roos walked over to his chair and sat down.
‘Lieutenant Camaro,’ he said.
His astrogator looked up from his console. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Set coordinates for Suolriep sector.’
‘I say we just space her,’ Teddie proposed.
The Gold Squadron pilots were sitting in the lounge, after a sim run led by Pops, except Dutch and Tiree, who were flying a patrol. In the three weeks she’d been flying with the squadron, Samica had trained in the simulator far more often than any of the others, and natural talent combined with what Teddie called ‚Imperial work-craziness‘, along with her first-hand knowledge on the enemies’ tactics and limitations, had soon propelled her to one of the squadrons top-notch pilots, at least in simulations. She had yet to see actual combat, but her experience with Imperial procedure had served her so well so far she’d even helped Pops concoct several sim runs.
This one, however, was commonly referred to as the Pops Crusher in Gold Squadron, since it was considered to be the most demanding task. It entailed guarding a Rebel space platform being attacked by a wing of TIEs, with some extra spice added by the fact that the computer was programmed to file away every possible solution any Rebel pilot had ever come up with, so that if you barely succeeded, it was no use trying the same approach again. Samica had cracked the Imperial’s tactics in her first attempt, thus scoring the highest-ever results in the exercise, breaking Dutch’s record by a mere fifteen points.
Samica gave Teddie a smile. ‘Try,’ she said. ‘You in a Y-wing, me in a TIE.’
He scratched his nose. ‘Me in an X-wing, you in a turbolift. And I suppose I’d still get vaped. No, thanks.’
Pops patted her shoulder. ‘Just stay near me in our next mission, kid,’ he said.
She snorted. ‘Don’t try to tell me you need me to look after you,’ she said.
‘Well, in my old age . . . but look who’s here,’ Pops finished as the doors opened and in came Dutch, briefly raising a hand in greeting before getting some caf from the processor.
Jay leaned over the table. ‘Wanna bet he’s not going to bed anytime soon?’ he said with a huge grin.
Dutch came over to their table, taking a seat next to Pops. The caf in his mug looked strong enough to dissolve duracrete. He sipped from the hot beverage, then noticed the others’ expectant looks, and glanced into his mug suspiciously.
‘You didn’t doctor my caf, did you?’
Jay shook his head. ‘Wouldn’t dream about it.’
Dutch drank once more, then set down the mug when the rest of his squadron kept up their loony grinning. ‘What’s up?’ he asked, annoyance creeping into his voice.
‘Sorry, old friend, I think you’d better hear it from me.’ Pops managed to put on the looks of someone bearing tragic news of intergalactic implications. ‘Sam’s just overtaken you in the Crusher.’
Dutch drained his mug and put it down. ‘I have somewhere to be.’ Then he trudged out, and when Samica saw him the next morning, he was wearing a smug grin – and dark circles under his eyes that bespoke some serious lack of sleep.
The data scrolling over the screen of Ensign Berutta, junior communications officer aboard ISD Relentless, would have meant little to nothing to someone unfamiliar with the abbreviations and codes used in com messages, but Jocelyn Berutta was used to decoding the strings of numbers and letters denoting data gathered from the numerous probe droids Relentless had sent out through space, on the Captain’s orders. She only knew he was acting on the assumption that there was a Rebel base somewhere in Suolriep sector, and the probes were sending in new data every half hour. Most of it simply said that there was nothing to indicate the presence of anything, several others she double-checked with her astro charts to find the emissions picked up by the probe droids came from confirmed settlements and even pirate outposts the Empire knew about but hadn’t acted against yet. Berutta was of the opinion that these pirates should have been Relentless’ true objective, but then, she could understand, to some degree at least, that Roos hoped to be the one to discover and eliminate a Rebel base, rather than letting that honour fall to anybody else.
So she had gone further a step, without asking the Captain, but she was confident her procedure would yield better results than what would have normally been expected of her. Instead of evaluating the data in the order it came in, she picked the ones from middle-of-nowhere first, since she suspected that the Rebels would not be so stupid to hide in any system or near any world known to the Empire. She had done so for five days, with no results so far, and was beginning to worry about the Captain noticing her rather individual style of data gathering. Lieutenant Czerwinski, the senior communications officer and her immediate superior, hadn’t been very interested in her ideas, but as far as she’d been able to tell, he had not forbidden her way of doing things either, so she’d done it anyway. Still, she hoped that there would be something to report soon, because if Captain Roos found nothing in his new hunting grounds, he’d hold the com officers responsible, and if the most junior com officer was also a woman, she didn’t need a lot of imagination to find out who’d be picked as scape goat.
More numbers scrolled past, and she hunted for the combination that would tell her one of the probes had found a presence somewhere between uninhabited systems. She knew it was there, and it would be her that would find it.
Rhun sat back from the terminal and yawned. Two hours to go before the end of today’s shift; after that, he’d go over to Liberty to see Samica. He still felt a bit uncomfortable among the pilots, who reminded him of the idiots in Equipment on a particularly bad day, but the two of them had agreed that it was easier for him to break free, because the pilots were normally not allowed to leave the ship on a regular basis.
They’d agreed. That sounded as if anything serious had happened, which was not the case. They were on first-name terms with each other, but he wouldn’t have dared to call her ‚Sam‘ the way her squad mates did. At least she’d offered him to call her by her given name before she’d joined the squadron, but she was still an officer.
She still puzzled him, even if he was rather impressed with the way she’d settled in. He liked seeing her, and he was pretty sure that was also true the other way round, but he was still not sure if he was in love with her. Or if she was in love with him, for that matter. Maybe he was even attracted to her because she posed such an enigma to him. But in all fairness to her, she’d come a long way from the stiff Imperial officer he’d met aboard VSD Resolve. Gold Squadron had managed to work wonders – from what he’d heard from Jay, she even talked to her R2 unit.
He set back to work, analysing data from the various Alliance listening posts scattered across space, when he heard a shrill siren wail, and jumped to his feet. Around him, other Intentions people also got up, and he saw red lights flash in the corridor. This was not a drill.
The ship’s intercom crackled to life. ‘Attention, all personnel. Battle stations. An Imperial Star Destroyer has exited hyperspace twenty kilometres distant. Repeat, battle stations, all personnel.’
Rhun saw Captain Candela enter the room, his expression grim, but less disconcerted than he would have expected. Outside, he could see several troopers run towards the turbolift. Rhun knew they were usually detached to help in the damage control centre, but Intel wouldn’t be called upon unless things got really desperate.
Candela stood in the middle of the room, catching everyone’s eye to make sure they were all paying attention and nobody was going to panic. ‘We stay here, out of the way, people,’ he said.
Rhun sat down again, wondering if three Carrack-class cruisers and two frigates stood a chance of surviving an encounter with a Star Destroyer . . . or its TIE fighter complement.
In the hangar, more sirens were wailing, and the red emergency lights illuminated the frantic bustle of activity around the Y-wings. Samica jumped rather than climbed up the ladder and let herself drop into the cockpit. R5 had already started the engines, and she pulled on her helmet and keyed the com, then checked the systems.
WE’RE READY TO GO, R5 reported.
‘Good.’ Samica retracted the ladder and made sure that the techs had cleared her ship, then she heard Dutch’s voice.
‘Control, Gold Leader. Gold Squadron is ready to launch.’
‘You have clearance.’
‘All right, this is it. Gold Squadron, launch.’ Samica saw Dutch’s ship clear the hangar, followed by Tiree’s, who would act as Dutch’s wingman once again. Ryle and Gawky were next, then Pops steered his fighter out, and she followed her wingman. Several kilometres away, she saw Blue Squadron launch from Steadfast. As soon as she was out, she scanned for enemy ships.
Tiree had had the same idea. ‘Lead, Gold Two. Twenty-four eyeballs coming in from twelve o’clock. Distance five klicks.’
Samica could see them; twenty-four red blips, two squadrons’ worth of TIE fighters.
‘This is Gold Leader. Blue Leader?’
‘I read you, Gold Leader.’ Samica knew that the X-wing squadron’s commander, an Alderaanian called Fregess, was only a few years older than Dutch, and in all fairness to him, he’d never joined his pilots’ jokes about Y-wings . . . not while any Y-wing pilot was listening, at any rate.
‘You can leave Beta Squadron to us. Gold Squadron, save your proton torpedoes for now. Break by pairs; engage at will.’
Samica stayed behind and to starboard of Pops’ Y-wing, picking one of the TIE fighters as her target. They were still in formation, but they would break soon. The Star Destroyer Relentless was hanging back, content for now to launch its starfighters, since even for an ISD, three cruisers and two frigates might prove too formidable an opponent.
But the Alliance fleet did not intend to enter a trial of strength with an ISD. ‘Blue Squadron, Gold Squadron, this is Liberty. Keep the enemy fighters off the capital ships until we can make hyperspace. It should be a matter of no more than ten minutes.’ Samica knew that it was top priority in the Alliance to get all ships out, avoiding hostilities at all costs, even if the enemy was in smaller numbers and/or firepower. Three cruisers and two Nebulon-B frigates pitched against one Imperial-class Star Destroyer were not impossible odds, but the Rebel Alliance could not afford the losses such a battle would inevitably have resulted in.
‘Gold Leader copies. You’ve heard it, people. Good hunting.’
Samica saw Pops before her fire into the cloud of TIE fighters before her, and she followed his example, not waiting to see the result, for Pops broke hard to port, and she mimicked his manoeuvre, staying with him. The TIEs had fired as well, but her shields had held.
HIT, R5 informed her. She bit her lip without noticing, evading a stray laser blow from over her, then heard Pops’ voice over com.
‘Five here. Seven, trap, I’m going in first.’
‘I copy, Five.’ She saw Pops break and dive, and throttled speed to get behind the enemy fighter that dropped in behind him, then fired. Her shot hit the TIE but did not destroy it, and the Imperial got off a shot at Pops. She saw sparks from his fighter, then the TIE broke off pursuit and climbed, and she stayed behind him, although he was gaining on her slower ship. For a split second, her HUD winked green, and she pressed the fire button, the TIE exploding before her.
She quickly checked the tactical chart. ‘Five? Do you copy?’
‘I copy, Seven. I’ve got severe damage to all weapons systems.’
‘Five, this is Lead. Jump to the rendezvous point right now. That’s an order. You can’t do any good out here.’
‘Copy, Lead. Sorry.’
Pops’ starfighter turned, trailing smoke, which immediately evaporated into vacuum. He seemed to have taken more damage to his ship than just to the weapons systems. Two TIE fighters turned from the dogfight to give pursuit.
‘This is Gold Seven,’ Samica said. ‘I could use some help here.’ She tucked herself in behind the Imperials, hit one of them, and the other broke off the chase, diving. She followed on his tail, towards the medical frigate Redemption, which was two klicks away, but that was still too close for her taste.
Suddenly, she saw the TIE before her blow up, and through the debris came Teddie’s Y-wing.
‘You need help, Seven? Out of pocket?’
She didn’t deign to reply, but turned around to find the TIE she’d damaged earlier. ‘You with me, Nine?’
‘Sure,’ was Teddie’s answer. ‘Wouldn’t want you to run into trouble.’
With Pops’ Y-wing disappearing into hyperspace, Samica teamed up with Teddie and Jay. Jay had some damage to his sensors, but otherwise, he looked to be in working order.
GOLD FOUR AND FIVE OUT OF THE BATTLE, BUT ALIVE, her astromech reported. SEVEN TIE FIGHTERS VAPED, FOUR DAMAGED.
Samica nodded. This could have been worse.
She brought her snubfighter around when Ryle’s voice cut in, ‘Lead, I’ve got two hostiles at three klicks! They’re not eyeballs!’
‘This is Twelve! I’m hit!’
Samica was trying to shake off a TIE at her back at Perry’s panicked cry, and she cursed, jinking randomly, dodging its fire, when the green icon that had been Perry’s Y-wing disappeared from her screen.
‘Lead, Two. They’ve got missiles! I can’t get a clear reading on them, they’re nothing I’ve seen before!’
Samica fired at a TIE trying to slip through their defence towards the capital ships, then there was a transmission on fleet frequency.
‘Gold Squadron, Blue Squadron, this is Liberty. We’re being targeted by missiles!’
‘All right people, this is Gold Leader. Blue Squadron, cover us while we take these newcomers. Seven?’
‘Can you identify the ships?’
Samica shook her head, although Dutch couldn’t see that. ‘Negative, Lead. They’re too large for fighters.’ She dodged another shot from the TIE behind her, this one missing more narrowly. Then suddenly the fighter spun out of control, outwardly undamaged, but the pilot killed by a precision shot.
‘Thanks, Blue Eight,’ Samica said as an X-wing with blue markings drew up behind her.
‘Happy to oblige,’ he replied.
‘This is Eleven,’ said a low, gravelly voice. ‘I can’t shake him.’
‘Seven, team up with Eleven.’
‘I’m on it, Eleven.’ Samica had found Plancal on the tactical, a TIE sticking to his tail. The Mon Calamari pilot was climbing clear of the capital ships to lure his attacker away with him, but that also brought him further away from the friendlies. Samica joined him on a straighter course than Plancal could fly, who was jinking and breaking in order to shake off pursuit, then she had the TIE in her laser range and fired, causing him to blow up in a brilliant flash.
‘Nice shooting, Seven.’ Plancal turned around to rejoin the battle, which had stretched over a larger area now, although the Alliance pilots were trying to keep the larger craft out of this. The X-wings, Samica grudgingly admitted, were a tremendous help against the Imperial fighters. They had lost two pilots, but the remaining ten were taking apart the TIE fighters very effectively. She glanced at the display once more. The two missile-carrying ships were being attacked by Dutch, Tiree and Ryle, but she saw Liberty’s shields were down to twenty percent.
She was well out of range, and she viewed the technical readout R5 gave her on the unknown craft. They were probably twice as large as a Y-wing, but with an odd shape, streamlined, with two sets of stabilizer foils, one extending sideways, the other up and down. She suddenly realized she’d seen the design before. They were–
‘Skiprays,’ she whispered, her blood running cold.
‘What was that, Seven?’
‘That’s two Skipray blast boats over there. They’ve got torpedo and concussion missile launchers, as well as lasers and very powerful ion cannons.’ She reeled off everything she knew about the ships, hoping faintly she could make up for forgetting to tell them about the blast boats sooner.
‘You knew of their existence?’ Dutch’s voice was strained, but she thought she could hear the undertone of a threat.
‘Yes, sir,’ she replied, lapsing into her accustomed way of speaking to a superior officer once again. ‘I – I’m sorry, but I must have forgot–’
‘That can’t be helped now. Get over here, Seven.’ She bit her lip and armed her proton torpedo launchers; the only thing that would really be of any use against a Skipray. Skiprays were far smaller than capital ships, but larger than a starfighter, packing enough firepower to be a serious threat even to a bigger starship, but with strong shields and a reinforced hull that helped them withstand a starfighter’s laser fire very effectively. Samica had learned about their existence briefly, just before her defection, when they were first commissioned, but she hadn’t thought that it might be important to mention them to the Alliance. Obviously, though, the Rebels hadn’t known they existed.
‘This is Liberty,’ a report from the command ship cut in. ‘Our shields are at seven percent.’
‘Redemption is ready to jump out.’
‘Get out of here, Redemption,’ came the reply from Liberty. ‘See you at the rendezvous point.’
‘Good luck,’ Redemption replied, then the medical frigate was gone. Samica tasted something metallic in her mouth and found her lip was bleeding. Rhun was on Liberty.
‘Lead, this is Eight. Twelve fresh eyeballs wanting to join the fray. Distance sixteen klicks.’
‘Take Twelve with you and help the X-wings keep them off us. Seven, I want you to help us here.’
‘Lead,’ Jay’s voice cut in, sombre. ‘Twelve’s gone.’
Samica heard Dutch curse. At length, the commander said, ‘Okay, Two, Three, we’re going to intercept those newcomers. Are you with me, Blue Leader?’
‘‘Course,’ the Alderaanian replied.
‘Okay,’ Dutch continued. ‘Seven, you take Eight, Nine and Eleven and keep these boys here off Liberty!’
‘Understood, Lead,’ Samica replied. ‘Eight, Nine, keep those TIEs occupied while Eleven and I worry about the blast boats.’ She forced the thought of Rhun away for now. She’d be of more use to him if she kept her wits together.
Captain Roos stood behind his tactical officer’s station, watching the battle with a growing sensation of triumph. Here was his chance to show he was a good tactician, that under normal circumstances, he was capable of bringing the Rebels to ground.
‘Status report on the cruiser?’ he asked the tac officer.
‘Shields down, hull at 66 percent,’ the lieutenant replied. Roos refrained from gleefully rubbing his hands. His two Skiprays were going to take out a Rebel cruiser all on their own, and even if he was most likely to lose them afterwards, that was a very low price to pay for what he was going to accomplish. There was little hope of destroying the whole Rebel fleet – they were fleeing even now, not intending to battle with a Star Destroyer – but this was his victory, and maybe his return to favour.
‘A word with you, Captain.’
Roos looked around with annoyance on his face. Lieutenant Commander Juros was standing behind him, with Lieutenant Nawroth at his side. Roos hid his disgust. The little ferret, he thought, that’s like him, to seek support from COMPNOR. Birds of a feather.
‘What is it, Commander?’ he asked, deliberately ignoring the COMP.
‘Sir, I’d advise you to capture one of the ships intact.’ Juros’ face looked pinched. ‘We’d gain more from captured Rebels than from dead ones.’
‘You’d advise me. That’s very kind of you, Commander. I acknowledge your advice.’ Roos turned to the tac station once again.
‘Sir, maybe I was expressing myself imprecisely,’ Juros continued, and Roos turned to glower at his exec, then stared at the blaster pistol in the commander’s hand. ‘Captain Roos, you are under arrest, for incompetence and cowardice in the face of the enemy.’
Captain Roos stared at Juros, then at the COMPNOR officer, then suddenly laughed, an incredulous snort, which was all he could think of now. ‘Commander, you’re pushing this decidedly too far. Stop this nonsense and go back to your sta–’ He was cut short by Juros setting the blaster for ‚kill‘ with a barely audible clicking sound.
‘I am serious, Mr. Roos. Now if you would be so kind as to accompany Lieutenant Nawroth to your quarters?’
Roos retained his goggle-eyed stare, then flushed bright red. ‘Now, listen here, you overbearing little son of a–’
Juros pulled the trigger.
‘Use your torps, Eleven. No use against those boys otherwise.’ Samica brought her fighter around and down on the two Skiprays. This had better work. Liberty didn’t have much more time.
‘Acknowledged, Seven,’ Plancal replied. Teddie and Jay covering them, they dove towards Liberty and the two blast boats, which had just turned around for another strafing run on the cruiser. She targeted one of the two Skiprays and assigned the other to Plancal, then waited for her HUD to turn red. R5 gave a high-pitched, piercing tone indicating a missile lock, and fired two torpedoes.
HIT, the astromech informed her, and she saw the Skipray’s hull was down to thirty percent. Blast, these birds are tougher than I expected, she thought as she armed her torpedo launchers for another pass, checking the tactical for her Calamari wingman. He, too, had fired two torps, and both blast boats were severely damaged.
‘Another go, Eleven,’ she said, then brought her Y-wing around in a tight circle, Plancal remaining directly behind her. She was slightly surprised at the ease with which he copied her manoeuvre, and found she was still far from acknowledging nonhumans as equals. Maybe she ought to start doing that soon.
‘Seven, two eyeballs incoming.’ Teddie’s voice sounded strained. ‘Sorry, couldn’t keep them off you.’
Samica stifled a curse. ‘I’ll bother with them. Finish off those Skiprays, Eleven.’
‘Yes, ma’am,’ she heard the Mon Cal’s reply, then she veered off sharply, on an intercept course towards the two TIE fighters approaching her, and she saw one of them was already damaged. She concentrated on the undamaged fighter, firing at him in a head-on run. R5 shrieked as laser blasts pounded her snubfighter, and the deflector shield display flashed white a couple of times, but her astromech had rearranged all shield energy to the front deflectors.
HIT, R5 reported. If he had been human, she supposed, he would have wiped sweat from his forehead.
Her shields down to 10 percent, she broke hard to port to intercept the other TIE fighter before he could trouble Plancal. She emerged directly behind him, and guessed his manoeuvrability was hampered by the hits he’d taken earlier, so that speed was no longer his advantage. She got off a shot at him that caused him to break into a spin, ending him up directly in front of her lasers once again. This time, his ship exploded.
‘Eleven, status,’ she demanded.
‘One Skipray destroyed, the other still operational, Seven. He’s going in again. I’ve got damage to stabilizers.’
‘I’m on him. Cover me, Eleven.’
She came down on the blast boat, torpedo launchers armed, when she realized with horror that it was no longer firing proton torpedoes, but blue ion bolts at Liberty. The Skipray was between her and the cruiser, and without a clear lock, it would have been suicidal to fire, since she would most likely have hit the command ship instead. She altered her angle of attack, to have the enemy ship clear of Liberty, when she heard the cruiser’s com officer’s voice, close to panic:
‘This is Liberty, our systems are failing! Repeat, systems failure due to ion dam–’ Then the transmission broke off abruptly.
Rhun saw the lights go out, immediately followed by the emergency lighting coming online, and jumped to his feet in a reflex to do something, anything, although there was little that could be done on a ship disabled by ion cannons. He saw the other Intentions people in the room look around as panicked as he himself probably did. With systems gone, there were no weapons available for Liberty, no deflectors, no sublight or hyperdrive engines, no communications systems and, once the backup failed, no life support. Although Rhun knew that the Imperials would probably try to pick them up before that.
‘Shut up!’ Captain Candela’s voice cut through the murmur, as he tried to listen to a headset comlink. The others quieted, some of them sitting down again, waiting. The computers in this room were running on backup; the information stored in them was too vital for the Alliance to risk losing it in a situation like this.
Candela’s face was set. ‘All right, listen. The bridge has visual contact to the other ships, and it looks like Defiance is coming around to pick us up. Albeiro, Vilav, Allen, Sarance. You’re going up to the airlock, to help the guys up there. Lanslow, Bania, van Leuken, you’re staying here with me, to purge the intel data from the computers, just in case. Don’t erase them yet, though; download them on data discs, and when this ship gets entered, destroy them. Set to work, then.’
Rhun complied, glad to have something to do, instead of sitting and waiting what would happen. He wondered if it was possible to get used to situations like these, but then, he decided he didn’t want to ever get used to them.
‘Both Skiprays are out, Lead,’ Samica reported.
‘Good work, Seven. We could use some help against the second wave here.’
Samica glanced at the situation on her tactical display. Liberty’s systems had failed, and Defiance was attempting to dock with the command ship in order to rescue the crew; Redemption, Steadfast and Endurance had entered hyperspace, and all that remained of the Alliance fleet, apart from the two cruisers and several freighters entering hyperspace even now, were Gold and Blue Squadron – or what was left of them. Pops and Gawky had left the area, Perry was dead, and Plancal’s ship was damaged. Dutch, Tiree and Ryle, as well as Teddie and Jay, were still operational, and her own shields were rebuilding, thanks to R5’s efforts.
Losses in the X-wing squadron had also been high – Blue Two, Five, Six and Ten were gone, Blue Three having jumped into hyperspace with massive damage to her fighter. Of the second wave of TIEs, seven were still flying, the remnants of the first wave had been destroyed by Teddie and Jay. Another squadron was launching from the Star Destroyer, and the Imperial ship herself . . .
‘Chief,’ Samica said over com. ‘Relentless is closing in. Distance only fifteen klicks.’
‘Closing in for the kill,’ she heard someone murmur, either Teddie or Jay.
‘Lead here. Cut it, all of you. Eleven, what’s your status?’
‘Operational, Chief,’ Plancal’s low voice came back.
‘Stay with Seven. Lead out.’
‘I copy, Lead.’ Samica formed up with the Calamari, closing the distance to where Dutch, Ryle and Tiree were battling the remainder of the second wave, Jay and Teddie a klick ahead of them.
‘Scratch one eyeball,’ Jay proclaimed as one of the TIEs exploded under his laser fire.
‘That’s more like it,’ Dutch replied, vaping another that had tried to break out of the dogfight to head for the capital ships. Samica dodged fire from a pair of enemy fighters that were coming towards her and Plancal, returning fire at the same time, and heard R5 indicate another hit. An X-wing raced past her, a TIE fighter on his tail, and she brought her ship around to pursue the pair. The Imperial fighter before her was so intent on his prey that he never realized she was there, not before she hit him squarely in his ‚prime target cone‘, causing his ship to explode spectacularly.
‘Whew, thanks, Gold Seven,’ the X-wing pilot came in.
‘Never thought I’d see the day,’ she grinned. ‘A pleasure, Blue Eight. I hate debts.’
Suddenly, her astromech began to wail.
TWO MORE SKIPRAYS AT SEVEN KLICKS, he reported.
Dutch had seen them as well. ‘Seven, Eleven, you did pretty well on the last ones. Have you got any torps left?’
‘Five left here, Lead,’ Samica replied. ‘Eleven’s got four left.’
‘Jump to it, then, guys.’
‘Copy, Lead.’ With Plancal directly behind her, she left the furball around the rest of Gold and Blue Squadron and flew towards the two Skipray blast boats that were trying to circumvent the Alliance fleet’s starfighter defence, coming around in a large loop – fortunately, it was also large enough to have taken them out of the range of Relentless’ covering fire. A Star Destroyer’s turbolaser cannons might not be first choice in bringing down something the scale of a snubfighter, but to fight next to one of the giant vessels was not very comforting either. Besides, even a blind hawk-bat might find a granite slug from time to time. And if one of the turbolaser batteries were to hit a fighter by pure chance, there wouldn’t be enough left of it to send home.
‘Arm your torpedo launchers,’ Samica ordered her wingman. ‘Fire on my mark.’
Her HUD turned red the instant the Skiprays started firing on them, and Samica shouted, ‘Mark!’, launching two torpedoes, then broke hard to starboard, into the direction of attack. R5 informed her that her missiles had damaged one of the enemy ships, but she could see that this time, the blast boat’s lasers had eaten through her front deflector screens, inflicting minor damage to the ship’s structure.
‘Eleven, status,’ she said.
There was no response.
Her stomach sinking, Samica searched for Plancal on the tactical chart, but her wingman had vanished from it.
‘Lead, this is Seven,’ she said through clenched teeth. ‘Eleven is gone. Resuming the attack.’
‘I copy, Seven,’ Dutch’s reply came back.
Samica brought the tactical up again, and realized the Skiprays were splitting up to shake pursuit. ‘Seven. I could use some help here,’ she said as she climbed towards the Skipray Plancal had fired on but apparently missed, since it appeared unharmed. She had only three torpedoes left. With luck, that would be enough to finish one of the enemy ships, but not both of them. And they would be in striking distance of Defiance and Liberty within several hundred metres.
She targeted the ship in front of her with two torps again – she’d have to finish this fast – when R5 shrieked, a laser blast slamming into her Y-wing from behind, and she gasped as sparks flew from the console on her right, burning her arm. A TIE fighter had peeled off from the battle behind her and was trying to keep her off the blast boat.
‘I see it, I see it! Stop screaming at me and give me a damage report!’ she yelled at her astromech, trying to stay on target for one shot at the Skipray before her but deciding against it when another laser beam shot past her entirely too close for comfort.
SHIELDS DOWN, R5 answered after a while. ION CANNON’S OUT. SENSOR DAMAGE AS WELL, BUT I THINK I CAN REPAIR THAT.
‘Then do so,’ she ground out. Until now, she’d been in control, but with two blast boats firing at the capital ships before her and a TIE fighter taking her apart from behind, this was getting worse and worse.
There could be no thinking about further pursuing her initial quarry; without shields, it was all she could do to simply stay alive. She jinked and bucked wildly, the TIE right behind her, when suddenly, she saw four red laser beams missing her ship by mere metres, and then the TIE blew up in a bright flash, an X-wing coming through the debris. ‘Whoops, sorry, Gold Seven,’ the pilot said, Blue Twelve, according to her tactical. ‘Don’t take it personal.’
She let out a long, slow breath. ‘Thanks, Blue Twelve . . . I think.’ When she had regained composure, she added, ‘We’ve got to hurry. If they take out Defiance as well . . .’ She didn’t finish her sentence, not wanting to think about what would happen if they did.
‘Roger, Gold Seven. Leave me the intact one, you finish off the other one.’
Samica wasn’t in a mood to protest. Several minutes ago, she would have been appalled at the thought of leaving all the work to an X-wing jock, but in this case, she knew this particular X-wing jock was right; she’d done more than her share in this battle – how many enemies had she shot down today? Four? Seven? Ten? – and her shields were at a meagre twelve percent, not enough to take on a fully operational Skipray and still hope to get away with it.
Rhun was working feverishly, feeling tremors run through the two ships in shortening intervals. Defiance had docked with Liberty a minute ago, and the first of the cruiser’s crew had been evacuated from the ship, but he and the other four Intentions agents would not be allowed to leave before the last of the sensitive data had been erased from Liberty’s memory files.
‘Finished?’ Candela asked.
‘Two minutes, sir,’ Rhun replied. The captain had finished his portion of the work five minutes ago and then joined one of the others, who hadn’t been so efficient. Ritchett Bania was almost done as well, and Rhun wanted nothing so much as to get out of here.
He was inserting his last datacard when another blast hit the ship, and he was knocked from his chair. The emergency lighting flickered and died, and so did the computer screens.
‘Sithspit!’ he heard Candela curse, then a glow rod came to life. Candela considered for a few heartbeats, then bellowed, ‘All right, that’s it! Get the datacards and move it out!’ Rhun hastened to obey, gathering up the cards and followed the others out of the room, which was now in almost complete darkness. Candela joined them at the door, looking back in to make sure there was nobody left inside.
‘What about the remaining data in the computers?’ Lanslow asked.
Candela produced a remote control ignition stick from one of his pockets. ‘What remaining data?’
‘Gold Leader, this is Defiance. Shields are down to fifty percent. Why is this taking so long?’
The frigate had stopped firing at the enemy blast boats seconds ago for fear of hitting their own, and Samica could tell they didn’t like leaving all the work to the X- and Y-wings.
‘This is Gold Three, we’re working on it, Defiance.’ Samica saw Ryle’s Y-wing fly a graceful arc to intercept the blast boat as it came around for another pass, and she saw the other one in missile range. She was facing the other ship’s flank, but she remembered it had been damaged before, so she switched her torpedo launcher to single fire and targeted the Skipray. R5 indicated a lock, and she fired.
The proton torpedo slammed into the other craft’s flank and detonated, the Skipray blowing up in a spectacular explosion. Momentum, however, carried it dangerously close to Liberty, leaving a black mark in the cruiser’s hull.
‘How much longer, Defiance?’ she heard Dutch ask. ‘I don’t think we can hold off another squadron of them.’
‘Five, maybe ten minutes,’ was the reply from the frigate, and Samica nearly groaned. She saw the others had finished off the third wave, but two more green dots had winked out from her tactical chart, among them Blue Leader. Jay as well as Tiree had suffered damage to their ships. Tiree’s fighter, especially, looked as if it was going to come apart any second, and she doubted he’d make hyperspace with that.
‘Lead,’ she heard Teddie over com, sounding more tired than she’d ever heard him. ‘I really hate to say it, but there’s another squadron coming as well as another Skipthingummy . . . and the ISD is at eleven klicks.’
‘Hurry it up, Defiance,’ Dutch told the frigate. ‘Nine, we’ll see to our skipping friend. Three, you’re in command against those TIEs.’
‘Copy, Gold Leader.’
Samica set her jaw and armed her lasers.
‘Sir, it looks as if they’re going to escape.’
Lieutenant Commander Juros bent over the tac officer and stared at the display. There were no more than eleven Rebel starfighters left, but so far, these two squadrons had torn to pieces four Skiprays as well as three squadrons of TIE fighters. He was not going to admit that the sudden change in command had anything to do with his pilots’ poor performance, but he knew there were others that were going to suspect just that. His own anxiety did nothing to instil confidence in his bridge crew . . . or in his fighter pilots. Lieutenant Nawroth had assured him that he would support Juros’ cause before any examination board, but he knew he’d have to be able to present to them some proof of his competence, or they’d not only strip him of the command he’d just assumed, but of his head as well.
‘How long until we’re in turbolaser range?’ he asked.
‘Seven point sixteen minutes, sir.’ His engineer sounded as if he was about to wet his trousers, and Juros scowled in disgust.
‘Estimates about how long they’ll need for their docking manoeuvre?’
The tac officer cleared his throat. ‘Approximately the same amount of time, I’d say, sir. In any case, it’s going to be a close call.’
Juros exchanged a glance with Nawroth – at least, that was what he had intended, but he felt his gut freeze when the commissioner didn’t meet his eyes.
‘Give me a link to the starfighters and the Skiprays,’ he said at length.
There was an explosion somewhere near, and Rhun flailed around for balance. Their only source of light was Captain Candela’s glow rod; apart from that, the whole ship was dark. He managed to catch himself on a doorway to his left, but bumped his head in the process. Cursing, he shook himself to clear his head once again, then looked around. The captain as well as one of the others had lost their footing. Something smelled of burning plastic, and further down the corridor, he saw a faint glow of something slowly sizzling.
Candela scrambled to his feet again, looking up. Rhun knew what the captain was thinking: until now, the Empire had intended to make prisoners, and had settled for trying to disable Liberty. That seemed to have changed this moment, for even as they were getting up and ran for the airlock once again, there was another hit shaking the cruiser, making it clear the Imperials were attacking in earnest now. That, however, also meant that the Imperials knew that their time was running out, and the docking operation was almost complete.
‘Hurry it up,’ Candela shouted. ‘Looks like all they’re still waiting for to get away from here is us.’
The corridors of the command ship were almost deserted by now, most of the ship’s personnel having been evacuated already. Situations like these had been practised time after time, and the evacuation had been carried out with as much discipline as anyone could have hoped for.
Commander Willard was standing at the airlock, with his two aides, Lieutenant Riece and Lieutenant Rover, at his side. Both of them looked distinctly unhappy, and Rhun thought he knew the scene that must have passed here. He supposed that, if he’d been the commander’s aide and his superior officer had refused flatly to leave the ship as early as possible, he’d have looked just like those two.
‘Are you the last ones?’ Willard asked.
Candela nodded. ‘Yes, sir. And if you don’t leave this ship right now, I swear I’ll carry you through this airlock, with all due respect, Commander!’
Willard gave him a quick nod, herding the three Intel agents through the airlock, then following after, to his aides’ relief. Candela remained behind, pulling the remote control from his pocket.
When Willard saw what the captain was doing, he shouted to Lieutenant Riece, ‘Jerrel, tell the bridge to close the airlock on my command and detach!’
The red-haired aide nodded, hurrying to establish a com link to the frigate’s bridge, and Candela paused with the device, then gave the commander a nod.
‘Now,’ Willard said, and the Intel officer pressed the button, then jumped through the hatch, which hissed closed behind him. A tremor ran through Liberty as well as Defiance when the charges in the computer control room on Liberty detonated, then the frigate drifted free of the cruiser.
Rhun sagged against the bulkhead in relief, which, as he soon realized, had been premature. There was another explosion outside, telling him they weren’t out of this yet. Until Defiance could take up speed again after the docking manoeuvre, the frigate was a sitting duck, and there was something out there that could do a lot of damage to a cruiser . . . or a frigate.
He didn’t know if he should be glad about the fact he’d done all he could, or whether he would have been better off with something useful to do.
Those with something useful to do were finding themselves running out of resources.
Dutch and Teddie had shot down the fifth Skipray – Samica fervently hoped that it had been the last – and then joined her, Ryle, Jay and Tiree, as well as the remaining five Blue Squadron pilots, who were engaged in battle against another squadron of TIE fighters. Despite Ryle’s orders, Tiree had not withdrawn, trusting on pure luck to hold his damaged fighter together, knowing full well he couldn’t punch out in this battle, with nobody to pick him up afterwards except a Star Destroyer. Of the twelve TIEs, seven were still flying,
‘Gold and Blue Squadrons, this is the commander,’ they finally heard Willard’s voice. ‘Docking operation is complete. Disengage and get out of here. Good work.’
‘You’ve heard it, people,’ Dutch said over com. ‘Just don’t forget about the disengaging bit. Gold Two?’
‘I’m sending you coordinates for a micro-jump. I’m coming after you to pick you up there, in case your ship breaks down.’
‘Thanks, Chief.’ The relief was evident from the tone of Tiree’s voice.
Samica fired at one of the remaining TIEs, at the same time dodging fire from one behind her. Disengaging meant, basically, that they’d have to finish off all hostiles before they could make any attempt to get away from here, since entering hyperspace left a ship vulnerable to enemy fire. She saw Ryle shoot down another TIE fighter, then take some more pounding from an already damaged Imperial ship, before Dutch could scratch it off him. Two klicks distant, she saw Defiance vanish into hyperspace, and felt relief flooding her. The headquarters’ command crew was safe, and, most likely, Rhun was with them. She hit one TIE that had been pursuing Tiree, when Teddie’s voice came in, ‘Lead, another twelve eyeballs approaching. The Impstar’s at three point four klicks.’
Dutch and two of the X-wings had shot down the last two TIE fighters, and the squadron commander bellowed, ‘All right, people, jump out!’
Samica turned her ship into the direction of their destination. ‘Ready, R5?’ she shouted.
He answered with a series of high-pitched bleeps for which she didn’t need a translation; she recognised it as his affirmative, and she reached for the hyperspace lever. Beside her, she saw Teddie’s and Tiree’s snubfighters race past, then vanish, followed by Dutch and Blue Eleven. A turbolaser beam as broad as her Y-wing passed her, going wide, then the stars elongated into lines as she entered hyperspace, towards the fourth moon of Yavin.
COMPNOR Colonel Wullf Yularen listened to Lieutenant Nawroth’s report impassively, stroking his white moustache, while the junior officer recounted the events in Suolriep sector. A rather embarrassing encounter, too. Nawroth’s report had sealed Lieutenant Commander Juros’ fate; the man was not going to be given another command. Indeed, COMPNOR had decided he was too dangerous a man to be left running around loose, since the Imperial Navy had no use for an officer whose ambition caused him to bite off more than he could chew. If Relentless had brought the Rebels to ground, Colonel Yularen might have been lenient; Captain Roos had been expendable, and if Juros had been slightly more sophisticated in assuming command of the Star Destroyer, nobody would have bothered. As it was, however, the commander had made the Navy as well as COMPNOR look like fools, and since he couldn’t punish COMPNOR or the Navy, he’d have to punish Juros.
When Nawroth had finished his report, Yularen gestured for him to leave, and turned his chair to face the viewport of the Star Destroyer Eradicator. An unfortunate business, this, but it was not his intention to let it get into his way. His task was to ensure absolute loyalty to the Emperor in his subjects, and he knew he was one of the best. This puny Rebellion might be annoying, but there was nothing to instil loyalty like a well-built up bogeyman on whom to project all one’s fears and hatred. He was almost disappointed that the Rebellion seemed to be coming to an end.
He brought up his latest orders again. They were not very specific, only talked about his next assignment: he would be briefing Grand Moff Tarkin himself, who was currently in charge of a secret project near a penal colony world called Despayre. His sources, which were among the finest in the Empire, had informed him of the apparent disappearance of the planet several days earlier – information that corresponded to the rumours that Tarkin’s project was concerned with the construction of a new super weapon. The fact that the Emperor appointed a supervisor at all for his apparently most trusted subject came as something like a surprise, but Yularen was determined to find out whether there was a reason for any distrust on the Emperor’s part or if this was nothing more than the usual Imperial paranoia.
Colonel Wullf Yularen still doubted that the rumours he’d heard had anything to do with reality, but even if his favourite bogeyman, the Rebel Alliance, was going to perish, he couldn’t deny he was itching with curiosity to see this new project of Tarkin’s.
The huge red sphere of the gas giant Yavin greeted ten snubfighters dropping out of hyperspace in the Yavin system, some of them looking as if they were going to come apart every moment. Five X-wings and five Y-wings formed up in something like a formation, although there was hardly one wing pair still left intact, steering towards one of the planet’s moons in what might have reminded a casual observer of a funeral procession, if there had been any casual observers.
And Samica was glad there weren’t. They were five minutes’ real space flight from the Rebel base on the fourth moon of Yavin, and she’d half feared the Empire had tracked them here, even if Dutch had taken all possible precautions. They had made a micro-jump out from the base at Suolriep to another part of the system, where Tiree had been forced to leave his Y-wing behind. The ship had somehow sustained the micro-jump and even the re-entry into real space, but after that, it would have been suicide to trust in it making the jump to Yavin. Dutch had taken his wingman into his Y-wing, which was a two-man fighter, before continuing here.
The jump had taken twenty-two hours, and Samica had slept during most of it. R5, her R2 unit, hadn’t made any suggestion about playing another match of Quadrant; if she hadn’t known he was only a droid, she’d have sworn he could feel her exhaustion and emptiness after the terrible twenty minutes before their escape to hyperspace like a human being. But then, she suspected he could just have looked at the losses that battle had resulted in and been able to generate a droid’s equivalent of emptiness. Eight pilots dead, three starfighters so badly damaged that they wouldn’t be flying for quite a while, one more Y-wing lost, and above all, the loss of the command ship Liberty, if not of her crew.
Or so Samica hoped. She hadn’t allowed herself to think about Rhun, but had simply told herself he’d got out of Liberty before they’d had to abandon the cruiser. Likewise, she’d hoped Pops had safely reached Yavin when his badly damaged Y-wing had left the battle almost before it had begun.
Samica had never fought in an all-out battle like this one where there had been so much at stake. She’d fought smugglers over Garon II, but that had not been the same. She had absolutely no idea how many enemy ships she’d shot down during those twenty minutes, but she didn’t really care. During the battle, she had not even wasted any thought on the fact that she hadn’t seen any combat to write home about so far, she’d just done what she’d been trained to do for two and a half standard years: kill the enemy. There had been moments when she’d suddenly realized this was real, this was not a simulator run, and if she got killed, there would be no canopy popping open over her and no commander to tell her how stupid she’d been. Those realizations had not lasted long enough to unnerve her, however; she’d been so absorbed that there hadn’t been any place for fear.
It was not until now, almost a standard day after the battle, that she was able to reflect on anything that had happened yesterday. Perry’s and Plancal’s deaths hurt, even more so because she felt responsible for both of them to some degree – Perry because she should have told Commander Willard or Dutch about the existence of Skiprays, but her neglect had meant none of them had been prepared for the blast boats; and Plancal had been shot down while he was acting as her wing. She’d known his ship had been damaged, and she could have ordered him to retreat.
Another part of her knew that she probably could not have prevented the pilots’ deaths, that Plancal had not told her how badly damaged his fighter had been, and Perry might not have made it against the Skipray even if he’d known what he was facing. Dutch would probably not hold her responsible for either of them, but she supposed he would have quite a few questions about the Skiprays – as would Commander Willard. The thought of another interview with the commander left her with a queasy feeling to her stomach – not because she was afraid of any consequences such an interview might have, but because she was still fighting for his trust as well as his respect, and yesterday hadn’t done much for either of those, she guessed.
They were flying over the dense jungle that was Yavin 4, and Samica saw that it was night on the side of the moon where the Rebel base was located. Several areas of the tree-covered continent were lost in fog, or maybe rain, she wasn’t sure which.
‘This is Yavin base,’ she suddenly heard a voice over her com. ‘Incoming ships, please transmit your code.’
‘This is Gold Leader,’ Dutch replied, tiredly. ‘Transmitting code.’
There was a pause, then the ground control came back in. ‘Is Blue Leader not with you?’
‘Blue Leader’s not coming,’ Dutch answered. ‘But I’m sure we can settle that after we’ve had some caf.’
‘Sure, Gold Leader. You’ve got landing clearance in the main hangar.’
‘Thanks, control.’ Dutch steered his Y-wing into one of the huge stone buildings, one of which was large enough to house a hangar for three starfighter squadrons, and the remnants of his own squadron followed him, after them the X-wings.
Samica sighed with relief when she saw three snubfighters standing there already, two Y- and one X-wing, one of which she recognised as Pops’. She set her ship down next to Jay’s, then opened the canopy. The hangar was lit by glow panels along the ceilings and walls, keeping out the darkness, but not the smell of a rainy tropical night. The air was even more oppressive than it had been the last time she’d been on the moon, only that it smelled different. The lights in the hangar were attracting all sorts of insects, some of them as large as her hand, all fluttering wings as they threw themselves against the glow panels.
Samica took off her helmet and ran a hand through sweat-drenched brown hair. She took a few seconds before she felt up to tackling the task of getting down the ladder, which, she soon found, had been a good idea; her knees threatened to buck as soon as she climbed to the floor.
Pops was standing at Dutch’s ship, slapping the commander’s back, but without too much enthusiasm. Samica heard a tootle behind her and saw R5 wheeling towards her, looking inexplicably awake. She took the time to pat his domed head and gave him a fleeting smile. ‘Good work up there, ‘Five,’ she said, and he whistled happily.
‘Now look who’s developing a soft spot for droids,’ she heard someone chuckle, and turned to Pops, who’d come over after he’d welcomed Dutch.
‘I never said I wouldn’t,’ she replied.
‘Not expressly, no.’ The old pilot squeezed her shoulder, and she winced. She’d almost forgotten about the burns on her arm, and Pops threw her a searching look. ‘D’you need a medic?’ he asked.
‘It can wait,’ she answered. ‘Just a few second-degree burns or something. What I could use now is a shower and something to eat. In that order. The capital ships aren’t here, are they?’
‘No, Redemption and Defiance won’t be here for another standard day. They’re not going to stay anyway, just shuttle down the personnel that’s staying on Yavin. If I heard correctly, Commander Willard will join us here.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Three hours; unlike you, I came here directly. I heard you took the long way round.’
‘You don’t know anything about the crew on Liberty, do you?’ Samica asked, and he shook his head.
‘No. I know that she had to be left behind and they tried to get the crew out, but I don’t know if they got everyone. But don’t worry, Sam; they usually do.’
She nodded, not caring if he knew the reason for her concern. She was almost certain he did; he’d seen her and Rhun together often enough, and he seemed to be one of those people who always felt what was going on inside you. Apart from that, from what she’d been able to gather during her time with the Rebellion, there were no restrictions on relationships between personnel in the Alliance, and so far, nobody had taken exception to her seeing a non-commissioned Intel agent.
Pops nodded towards the other pilots, who were following Dutch out of the hangar. ‘Well, come on, then,’ he said encouragingly. ‘You’re lucky, Sam. There’s separate refreshing rooms in the pilots’ wing, and it looks like you’ve got the ladies all to yourself.’
Samica came to the canteen for a bite to eat before going to sleep two hours later, after a shower and a visit to sick bay. This synthflesh allergy was turning out to be very annoying, she decided – under normal circumstances, a few second degree burns wouldn’t have taken more than a day or so to heal, but as it was it looked as if she’d be forced to let her arm heal naturally.
The temple – called Massassi temple for some reason Samica hadn’t been able to find out – was huge, with more stairs and halls and rooms than she could hope to sort out anytime soon. She suspected she’d have to start finding her way around the more important places first of all, and the canteen seemed to be a good place to start, but she didn’t plan to stay for long. Even though she’d slept in the cockpit during the hyper jump, such naps didn’t do much to render you awake afterwards.
There were no pilots in the canteen except Dutch, who sat alone at a table in the large stone room, with a steaming cup before him. Samica got some food from a food processor, which looked out of place in the ancient stone temple, and joined the commander. The brew in his cup looked as if you could have stuck your spoon in and it would have remained standing.
Dutch nodded to her in greeting when she sat down, and she indicated his caf.
‘You know, Chief, my mother always used to have a good home remedy against tiredness. It’s even better than caf.’
He raised his head and watched her through dark-circled eyes. ‘And what might that be?’ he asked.
‘It’s called s-l-e-e-p. Me mum swears by it.’
He blinked, then got the joke and snorted dutifully.
‘I’m serious, Chief.’
He sat back from the table, stretching, tendons popping. ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’ He glowered at her from under dark eyebrows. ‘Still, that’s not a tone you should use with your commanding officer.’
‘Sorry, Chief. Just worrying.’
He took a sip from the caf and said, ‘Anyway, Sam, I was quite impressed with you up there.’ He motioned towards the ceiling, as if the battlefield hadn’t been light years away from Yavin. ‘Even if you gave me quite the headache when you told me you’d known about those Skiprays.’
‘I know.’ Samica looked down at her hands. ‘Perry could still be alive if I had–’
‘Stop it.’ Dutch’s voice was sharper than she’d ever heard it, and she looked up, eyes wide.
Dutch leaned forward. ‘Sam, listen. You’ve made a mistake, and you and I both know this is something I’ll have to report to Commander Willard. But you’re not perfect, Sam. Nobody is, and nobody can expect you to be. Yes, you should have remembered it, and yes, you should have told someone, and yes, Perry’s dead. Yes, he might still be alive if he’d known about Skiprays. And maybe he wouldn’t. You can’t change it, Sam. You can do your best to prevent it from happening again, and I’m pretty sure you will, but you can’t turn back the time. Don’t let it get at you. It’s war, Sam. People die. Stars know I don’t want them to, and I’m doing all I can to keep my people alive, but if I accused myself for every pilot who died under my command, I could just as well hang myself.’ He stopped, drew a hand over his face, and sighed. ‘Sorry,’ he murmured, reaching out to pat her arm when he saw her staring at him. ‘Didn’t mean to distress you. You probably never heard such words from an Imp commander, did you?’
She could only shake her head, dumbstruck.
‘Sorry,’ he said again. ‘But these three dots’ – he indicated his rank insignia – ‘don’t mean I’m something like a god. What I’m trying to tell you is that you’ll make mistakes, and bad ones, too, and you mustn’t let them keep you from your duty. If you go into a stupor every time you make one, that won’t help anyone.’
‘Why are you telling me this?’ she asked softly.
He took some time before answering. ‘Because I suspect strongly that if you keep performing like you did back in Suolriep, StarCom’s going to dump a helluva lot responsibility on you. You’ve got leadership abilities, Sam, and you’re a good pilot. Those’re the qualities that’ll end you up in a command position pretty soon. And if you don’t start coming to terms with the fact that you’ll lose people, and lose some friends too, and that you’ll have to fall on your feet again, you won’t make in the biz for very long.’ Dutch rubbed his face. ‘Enough rambling. I think I’ll try that remedy of your mother’s. And I guess you should too.’
Sam nodded, and watched him leave the canteen, wondering if his ‚rambling‘ had been directed at her . . . or at himself.
Rhun opened his eyes when there was a tremor running through Defiance that told him they were leaving hyperspace.
He’d slept on blankets in the corridor, as well as most of the other Rebels who had been rescued from Liberty. The frigate was designed for about a thousand crew members; with the refugees, that number had doubled, and Rhun was glad that he’d be able to leave this anthill in a few hours. He’d be staying on Yavin, along with Commander Willard and Captain Candela and his lot, as well as several hundred others, Intelligence and Army personnel for the most part. He knew that the base commander was General Jan Dodonna, something of a legend of wartime stories that went back to the Clone Wars. Squadrons Gold and Blue would also be staying on the jungle moon, but Rhun supposed that, after the battle in Suolriep sector, High Command would have to detach another squadron to Yavin.
He had seen the tentative list of those who’d died in that attack – several people on the cruiser who had been unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and eight pilots, especially the X-wing pilots, who’d taken the brunt of the assault when they battled the enemy TIE fighters. Rhun had been relieved to find Gold Seven was not among the dead; as far as Defiance’s sensors had been able to tell, she’d made hyperspace.
He got up and stretched, then folded his blankets and put them on a pile in the corner. They were not really his blankets, of course – what little he’d possessed was now in the hands of the Imps. There hadn’t been much he’d been able to salvage in the past few years, after all, he’d been cooped up in Rebel ships and on Rebel bases most of the time, places not noted for the possibility to go shopping anywhere near, but the loss of his sound slugs hurt. He’d gathered a few recordings of Deeply Religious concerts and one Red Shift Limit album, and it hurt even more because the Imps were not going to keep them anyway, since both bands were indexed and the possession of their albums carried penalties in most Imperial communities.
Rhun had finished clearing up his portion of the floor when someone tapped his shoulder, and he turned to see Cora standing next to him.
‘Thought I’d say you goodbye . . . and good luck,’ she said.
‘You’re not coming with us?’ he asked.
She shook her head. ‘As soon as we’ve dropped you ground dogs, we’re out of here. There won’t be many ops from this base, or so I’m told. Mandy and I are bound for the action.’
Rhun smiled. ‘Yeah, right, I can imagine . . . especially in Mandy’s case. It’s hard to imagine her chatting up the birds and bugs after she’s through with all the male personnel on the base.’
Mandy had come up during their exchange. ‘Careful, Rhun,’ she said. ‘I heard that.’
‘You were meant to.’ He extended his hand to her, grinning. ‘Good luck . . . and good hunting.’
‘Thanks, and you.’
Rhun felt himself blush. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
Mandy winked. ‘I think you know. Just keep up that innocent look with those puppy eyes of yours, and she’ll go for it. Just don’t you think you can fool me – sly one.’
Rhun turned to Cora. ‘What’s she talkin’ about?’
Cora grinned and squeezed his arm. ‘We must be going.’
He saw them disappear down the corridor, and shook his head. Mandy liked playing the dumb blonde, primarily because nobody would ever suspect a dumb blonde of being an Intelligence agent, but he knew that there was a very sharp mind working underneath all those curls.
He went to the mess to get something to eat before going down to the base, then started towards his quarters to pack his stuff until he remembered there was no stuff to pack – and no quarters around here either. He only hoped he’d get his hands on some new sound slugs soon.
Rhun had been prepared for warm, sticky air, but he hadn’t realized it would be quite this bad. The shuttle had set down in the large main hangar in the great Massassi temple, and even if it was evening now, the sun shining through the foliage outside all day had warmed the hangar as well. Rhun wondered how they kept all the equipment dry in this environment. He could see that moss and mould had been scraped off most of the walls, but work was obviously still in progress, and the plants that had taken over the ancient Massassi structures centuries or even millennia ago seemed very reluctant to yield their dominion to the Rebels, growing back slowly, but persistently.
Rhun had grown up on Garon II, a world with a moderate to cool climate and rather little rain, resulting in many prairies and some patches of woodland in more rainy areas in the mountainous ranges, and he felt distinctly uncomfortable in this humid climate. He was relieved to find that it was better in the temple itself, slightly cooler and less humid. The further he went from the hangar, the more the walls were overgrown with moss; apparently, the Rebel scouts who had prepared the temple for use as a base had concentrated on cleaning away any plants from those parts of the building which were meant to house technical equipment and had left the others alone. Rhun thought this was fitting – despite the fact that the place was now full of people, he felt as if he was disturbing the peace of a place that had lain in silence for an eternity. Nobody knew why the Massassi, who had once built and lived in these structures, had disappeared, but Rhun could almost feel their presence, watching. Not that he was going to share these thoughts with anyone else. He’d long since discovered that people looked at him very strangely when he tried to tell them things like these.
He found the mess after some time, and saw that it was rather full; apparently, most of the people who’d arrived aboard Defiance had had the same idea as he: eating, catching up on some stories, and see who had made it. Rhun steered towards a speck of orange in one corner, where several pilots sat. He recognised the commander, Dutch, as well as Pops, Teddie and Jay, and Dutch’s wingman, Tiree.
One didn’t sit, however – Teddie was standing on a table, bending over, arms flailing at his sides, and most of the others were grinning or laughing. Then Rhun saw Samica, turned halfway away from the table, her expression between embarrassment and anger.
Then she saw him, and her face lit up at once. She was on her feet immediately, coming over to greet him, and against his first impulse to hug her, Rhun settled for clapping her on the shoulder when he saw that her right arm was bandaged.
She smiled at him, eyes shining. ‘It’s good to see you,’ she said softly.
‘You, too.’ He glanced at her arm. ‘Are you all right?’
She chuckled. ‘I promised I’d hit you the next time you said that, remember?’
‘Okay . . . so, how’s your arm?’
‘I’m all right.’ She grinned, then grimaced with a look back at Teddie. ‘Apart from those idiots, that is.’
‘Why? What’s he doing up there anyway?’
‘Kindly demonstrating the Emperor trying to bite his own behind.’
Rhun scratched his head. ‘What for?’
She sighed. ‘For letting me go and join the Rebels.’
‘Agent van Leuken!’ Teddie called through his legs, then straightened and jumped down from the table. ‘Great to have you back. Sam was so stressed out when Liberty got hit that she took it out on the TIE fighters. Shot down six of them, and two Skiprays! Whew!’
Samica had whirled to stare at him. ‘What did you just say?’
Teddie shrugged. ‘You made ace in your first combat mission. Nearly double ace, actually. I don’t know if the Skiprays count double, I’ll have to check that . . .’
Her voice became icy. ‘And how did you get at the number of my kills?’
Teddie frowned, finally beginning to suspect that she was furious. ‘I asked that imp of yours. Your astromech, I mean. Why, was it anything I said?’
‘Teddie,’ Dutch cut in, sharply. ‘Leave her alone.’
Samica hadn’t listened to the commander. ‘And why precisely has my imp told you about my kills in the first place?’
Teddie was looking around among the others for help, then said, ‘I don’t know – I asked him, and he told me. Was there anything wrong with that?’
Jay spoke up now. ‘Sam, he’s right. Why would you keep your kills secret? They’ll go on your ship anyway. And I’ve certainly never heard about someone who scraped together eight kills on his first mission . . . or on her first mission.’
She looked at them in disgust. ‘I don’t want them to go on my ship.’ She watched their expressions, waiting for reactions, and when no one answered, she repeated, ‘None of them.’ Then she went out.
Rhun followed her from the mess, and to his relief, she waited in the corridor for him to catch up.
‘I don’t understand you,’ he said. ‘You’re a Rebel now, and that’s the way the Rebels do it.’
‘Would you want to paint a little stormtrooper on your blaster every time you shoot one with it?’ she asked.
‘That’s something completely different, Samica. It’s a tradition–’
‘It’s exactly the same. It’s one of the things I found most disgusting in the Empire, and I’m not going to do it here. I don’t want to be a little scratch on a TIE fighter entry hatch one day. Do you?’
‘Whatever you or I want, it’s not going to change age-old fighter pilot traditions,’ Rhun said softly.
‘So it’s not going to. But I decide if I want to play this macabre little game, and I decide that I don’t. If they think I’m crazy, that’s fine, but I’m not going to be proud of killing. Proud of saving a cruiser, saving a wingman, even if I have to kill for it, yes. But not of the killing itself.’
Yes, and that’s one of the more important reasons why I think I love you, Rhun thought, but he didn’t say it aloud. They’d reached the entrance hall of the great temple, and Rhun could feel the cooling night air outside. Night on Yavin 4 was not necessarily dark; even after sundown, the red gas giant remained in the sky in most nights, lending a ruddy glow to the jungle and the temples. The jungle sounds had quieted, and all that could be heard was the slow, steady drizzle of rain dropping through the leaves.
Samica sat down against the wall, drew up her knees, and looked out over the jungle.
‘During your time with the Empire . . . did you ever shoot down a Rebel ship?’ Rhun asked at length.
She didn’t move, didn’t look up at him, and he wondered whether she’d heard his question. Then, finally, she said, ‘Yes. One.’
‘And you didn’t make a mark on your entry hatch,’ he guessed.
Finally, she twisted around to look up at him. ‘I think I may always have been a Rebel . . . and it just took me such a long time to find out.’
Samica went to the hangar once again before going to bed. Despite the fact that she was now on a base with a discernible day and night cycle, activity on the Rebel base never fully slept, and there were still people in the hangar, but they did not pay her any heed, after she’d waved off an inquiry by one of the techs.
Her Y-wing looked decidedly better, apart from the new scorch mark on the side of the cockpit. The ion cannon had been repaired, and an upgraded sensor package was being installed. She patted the hull over her head, then looked around for her astromech.
She found him with several other R2 and R4 units near a workshop at the end of the hangar, and he whistled happily when she went over to them, then hooted when his optical sensors registered her expression. He wheeled towards her and let out a series of whistles.
‘If you’re apologizing for what you told Teddie, forget it,’ she said sharply. ‘How could you stab me in the back that way? I’m not interested in my kills!’
The R2 unit bowed down and warbled something that sounded like a whimper.
Samica remained standing before him, arms folded in front of her chest. ‘You won’t broadcast my kills to anyone, is that understood?’
R5 hooted plaintively, and she sighed.
‘All right,’ she said, relenting. ‘So you didn’t know. But you know now. And if anyone asks you about my number of kills, you tell them it’s not their business. And if anyone wants to paint any kill markers on my Y-wing, you tell them to come to me. Got that?’
The astromech whistled, straightening again.
She shook her head, her mouth curving into a faint smile, and reached down to pat his domed head. ‘Glad you see my point. Well then, see you tomorrow – Imp.’
Imp let out a happy whistle and wheeled around to rejoin the others.
There was something flapping.
Samica sat up in bed and reached for the light switch, looking around the room. Pops was not in; he was on an escort mission with Dutch, since Dutch’s wingman, Tiree, was still without a ship, and she could see nothing unusual. Her and Pops’ quarters were about as small as the ones they’d shared on Defiance, with two bunks in the walls, a small space between them and a table hewn from the stone at one end. She could not see anything that could have caused the sound that had woken her up, and it seemed that it hadn’t come from the door, which probably ruled out Teddie.
She’d just switched off the light once more and prepared to go to sleep again when she felt something moving, touching her left hand, but when she tried to flick it away, she felt a sharp pain between her thumb and forefinger. She shook her hand and could feel something clinging to it, something that refused to let itself be shaken off, something that was rather heavy. Samica managed to hit the light switch again and saw an iridescent blue beetle the size of her fist cling to her hand, and she yelped as she tried to jerk it off, but the insect clung to her flesh. Heart beating wildly, she grabbed it with her free hand and jerked it away, hitting the opposite wall with a clattering sound, falling on its back, little legs flailing around, and she took up her boot and hit the beetle with it. There was a sickening crack when the boot shattered its shell, but it stopped flailing.
She felt her heart racing and forced herself to calm down – this hadn’t been anything but an insect, after all – when she felt something warm trickle on her bare foot and she saw it had bitten a chunk the size of a fingernail out of her left hand, which was bleeding heavily. Drawing a deep breath to steady herself, she sat down on the bed, saw that there was blood on her blanket as well, and pressed it against her hand to stop the bleeding.
The little room was quiet once again, but Samica still searched it for more of the small creatures, listening for the flapping of wings against stone – which was, as she now realized, what had woken her from her sleep in the first place – but there was nothing to be seen or heard. She took the blanket away from her hand to inspect it, but the wound immediately started bleeding again. Samica cursed softly. She was left-handed, and she could just imagine the others’ comments when she was put on light duty because she’d been attacked by a ferocious killer beetle.
She waited for a couple of minutes before taking the blanket away a second time, and this time, her hand had stopped bleeding. She wrapped some more cloth around it, then lay back down again, but she left the light on.
Samica was drifting back to sleep when there was a shout from the adjacent room, and she jerked upright as she heard a blaster being fired. She was in her flight suit within seconds, and opened the door to look out.
There were other doors being opened in the pilots’ wing, and she saw that the door to the next room stood ajar – the doors here in the temple were the ancient, unpowered sort – and Ryle was pressing a hand against his cheek, a smoking blaster in his hand, an unidentifiable smouldering mass on the floor. Gawky stood on his bed, pulling on his boots even if he wore little else, while Ryle searched for more attackers, blaster ready.
‘Come on, you little suckers,’ Samica heard him mutter. ‘Let’s see how brave you are!’
‘What’s happened, Ry?’ Jay asked, his voice sleepy, but he, too, was armed with a blaster. ‘What was that?’ He pointed to the mass on the ground.
‘Beetles,’ Samica answered for him, and Jay looked at her quizzically.
‘Beetles,’ he repeated.
‘Yes, carnivorous ones.’ She turned to Ryle, who had looked up at her and now saw the bloodstained cloth wrapped around her left hand.
‘So you’ve had the pleasure as well,’ he said, then lowered his blaster, but did not yet put it away. He grimaced as he gingerly touched his right cheek where the creature had bitten him. ‘Blast, I guess that spoils my chances for the Mister Gold Squadron contest.’
Samica looked around the corridor, where most Blue and Gold Squadron pilots had assembled by now. ‘We’d better take a careful look around our rooms,’ she said. ‘And someone ought to tell General Dodonna about this. I think these beetles justify waking him.’
‘I’ll go,’ a young X-wing pilot called John D. offered.
Gawky came down from the bed, looking a bit more confident with his boots on to face any attacking beetles. ‘What makes you believe you can order people around anyway?’ he asked Samica, but she was by now used to that kind of questions.
‘The fact that my equals were busy hunting for killer beetles or hiding from them standing on the bed like squeamish little girls,’ she answered.
‘Fair enough,’ Gawky replied, then busied himself with pulling on his flight suit.
Dutch and Pops returned to base early the following morning, and Samica and Teddie were working on their ships when their two Y-wings set down in the hangar.
General Dodonna had ordered search parties composed of most of the personnel on Yavin base to look for the beetles’ hiding place later that morning, and Samica had decided it was no use to go back to sleep again, joining Imp in working on her snubfighter instead. Teddie obviously hadn’t been able to sleep either, helping his R4 unit, Patches, to adjust the laser configuration on his ship. He’d grinned broadly when he realized his nickname for her R2 had stuck, but she thought it was fitting. Most astromechs – all droids, actually – in use by the Empire were painted black or white, hardly as colourful as the Rebel astromechs (although not normally the red, green and yellow Patches was painted in), and Imp hadn’t been redesigned when the Rebels had taken him over, so Teddie’s joke hadn’t been all that far-fetched.
‘How was the mission?’ Samica asked Pops when the old pilot climbed out of his cockpit beside her and stretched with a groan.
‘As boring as can be,’ Dutch answered for him. ‘Which is probably for the best, come to think about it.’
Teddie had joined them as well, but was now watching Pops’ back with horrified interest.
‘Pops,’ he said, ‘there’s something crawling up your suit. I think it’s one of those killer beetles that attacked the base last night . . .’
‘Oh, that,’ Pops replied without looking. ‘That’s probably just the visitor my Wookiee’s expecting.’
Dutch furrowed his brow. ‘Your what?’
‘The teeny-tiny Wookiee living in the pocket on my left sleeve. He told me he expected a killer beetle to visit him later this morning.’ Pops’ voice or face never indicated he was anything but serious.
‘Um – Pops,’ Samica cut in. ‘Teddie’s not joking for once. There were carnivorous beetles, and there is one of them crawling up your back.’
Immediately, Pops turned, saw the insect, and hastily beat it off, stepping on it with a crunch, crushing the creature. ‘Blast, you were right,’ he said with a sidelong glance at Teddie.
The youth set his hands on his hips. ‘What did Sam do so that you believed her and not me?’ he asked, indignant.
‘A lifetime of painstaking, scrupulous honesty,’ Pops replied. ‘Think about that one, Ted.’
Teddie scratched his ear. ‘ Not worth the trouble,’ he decided.
Dutch shook his head. ‘What was this about killer beetles?’ he asked.
‘Piranha-beetles,’ a tech supplied from behind them, wiping his hands on a piece of cloth. ‘They’ve been seen here on occasion, but they’ve never attacked anyone so far. But it looks like they’ve finally found out Rebels are edible. You find them out in the jungle, and if you see a swarm of them, you’d better run, for all the good it’s gonna do.’ He flung the grimy cloth over his shoulder. ‘They can pick a local piiruu cat to the bone within seconds.’ He indicated the length of his arm. ‘And we’re talking pretty large cats here.’
Dutch threw Pops a concerned look. ‘Not quite the peaceful place we all hoped it would be, is it?’ he asked.
‘Better beetles than Imps, if you ask me,’ the tech answered. ‘But the search parties are about to start to go looking for the little killers.’
‘Not me,’ Pops yawned. ‘If they’re going to pick my bones clean, that’s fine with me as long as they don’t wake me.’ He trudged off towards the hangar exit and the sleeping quarters.
The sun had only gone up two hours ago, but that had been sufficient to heat the jungle up to something like a sauna. Last night’s humidity still lingered, and in combination with the heat, it made breathing difficult, let alone fighting through the dense undergrowth in Yavin 4’s tropical forests.
Rhun was wearing heavy boots, the best thing available against the piranha-beetles, and his feet felt like lead. Looking over at Samica, he saw she’d rolled her flight suit down and knotted the sleeves around her waist, wearing only a light, short-sleeved shirt. A backpack was strapped to her shoulders, which carried supplies as well as basic equipment. Her left hand was bandaged where the piranha-beetle had bitten her that morning. There were two others in their search party, a human Intel agent called Lorrs and Vel Thri’ark, a Bothan. The small, furry nonhuman looked distinctly unhappy, even more so than his human fellow searchers, but they needed him; Bothans were famous for their tracking abilities and their silence when stalking something. Or that was what Rhun had heard about them; at the moment, Thri’ark was no less noisy than the other three, perhaps a bit demonstratively so.
They had searched their portion of jungle for two hours but had not quite covered half the ground they still had to search. Rhun exchanged a glance with Samica, and she turned to the others.
‘We’ll have some minutes’ rest,’ she decided; as senior officer among the three of them, she was in charge of the small party.
‘About time,’ Thri’ark grumbled, putting down his sensor pack. ‘I think I’m allergic to something here.’
Lorrs paused with his water bottle at his lips to glower at the Bothan. ‘So am I,’ he said. ‘Maybe we’d better split up.’
Samica threw the slender, dark-skinned agent a sharp look. ‘Nobody’s going to split up,’ she said before the Bothan could make a reply. ‘Rhun, what’s our direction?’
Rhun looked at his compass. ‘Still on course,’ he answered. ‘According to the chart, there’s a river crossing after a hundred metres or so.’
Thri’ark looked up from his water bottle sharply. ‘We don’t have to swim, do we?’
‘I don’t know,’ Rhun replied. ‘It doesn’t say how deep the water is. The river’s not too wide, though.’
‘But you can swim, can’t you, Thri’ark?’ Lorrs asked the Bothan.
The nonhuman’s silver-grey fur rippled in a pattern that conveyed disgust even for someone not familiar with Bothan body language, and he bared sharp teeth. ‘I hate getting wet.’
‘Well, I’m not too wild about swimming in a place like this either, but I don’t think we’ve got much of a choice.’ Rhun took another deep swallow from his water bottle. He only had one left, and he felt he could easily have drained this one in one draught.
Samica brushed her hair out of her face. The strands had grown long enough again to bother her, she realized, for the first time since the Academy, and she supposed she’d have to have them cut again. She remembered her mother’s shock at her shaven head when she’d come home to Imperial Centre after her graduation, and she recalled her own regret when they’d cut her shoulder-length hair three years ago, but she found short hair was much more comfortable, especially under a helmet – or in this climate. She caught Rhun’s weary grin as she looked over to him; he’d obviously guessed what she’d been thinking, and he demonstratively ran a hand through his own short hair.
‘Ready to go on?’ Samica asked the others, her eyes lingering on Thri’ark.
‘Yep,’ Rhun answered and came to his feet, Lorrs following with slightly less enthusiasm. Thri’ark stood with a moan and shook his water bottle; it seemed to be empty.
Rhun rolled up his sleeves and brought up their map on his datapad once again. Lorrs, who was also a weapons specialist, was armed with a flame projector carbine, since General Dodonna had apparently did not trust all his people to be able to shoot down single piranha-beetles the way Ryle had – and if they were to meet more than single beetles, a blaster would not do them much good.
Ahead of them, the ferns were becoming thicker, flourishing in the shade of towering Massassi trees named after the long-vanished Massassi race, which dominated the view, swallowing much of the light and, fortunately, the heat. Rhun saw several mucous salamanders flow out of their path, while their distant relations, the tree-dwelling woolamanders, were chittering in the trees above, warning their kind of intruders. Rhun heard a distant rushing and turned to the others. ‘I think I can hear the river,’ he said, pointing through the foliage ahead.
Samica nodded. Rhun guessed she was even less comfortable in this jungle than Thri’ark – at least there were trees on Bothawui, as opposed to Imperial Centre, where you had to line up in a queue for hours to see the holoprojection of one in the Galactic Museum. Or so Rhun had been able to gather.
The young woman brushed tiny insects off her arms. ‘Thri’ark,’ she said. ‘Can you hear anything?’
The Bothan pulled himself together visibly and looked around, also consulting the data his sensor array was transmitting to him. ‘Nothing that sounds like piranha-beetles,’ he answered, then continued, grumbling, ‘Even if I knew what those should sound like.’
Rhun set his bag down on the ground, exasperated. ‘None of us does,’ he said, finally fed up with the furry nonhuman’s attitude. ‘And we’re all sweaty and sticky and thirsty and Stars know what, but we’re not complaining!’
Thri’ark’s fur rippled wildly. ‘Then maybe you think you can do without me?’
‘Sithspit, yes, you’ve finally got it!’ Lorrs said, gesticulating with his flame projector. ‘Thanks for finally getting the point across to the little bastard, Rhun!’
Samica stepped in between the Bothan and the other two. ‘That’s enough, all of you,’ she said sharply. ‘Rhun’s right, we’d all prefer to be at the base right now, and Thri’ark’s right, we can’t do without him.’ The pleased grin spreading over the Bothan’s face was cut short by her next remark. ‘None of us is expendable. And now pull yourself together so we can get this over with.’
Thri’ark opened his mouth to make a reply when they all heard a high-pitched shriek from the river, followed by a wailing sound like a cacophony of musical instruments that was cut short seconds later, and four heads jerked into that direction.
Samica had her blaster drawn – it was a good thing, she reflected, that she had learned to shoot right-handed at the Academy – and motioned for Lorrs to bring his flame carbine up. Rhun had also drawn his heavy blaster pistol. He knew it would probably not be very useful, but he felt a bit more secure with it in his hand.
Carefully, the four of them went on through the fern, Samica first, then Lorrs, Rhun behind him, with Thri’ark bringing up the rear. After a minute, the shrieks stopped, and it was quiet again. Rhun uneasily realized even the birds and woolamanders were silent. They pressed on to the river’s edge, with the rushing of water growing louder, until they stood before it – a stream about five metres across, flowing languidly, swirling up brownish-purple dust from its bed. There was a clearing to their right, and Rhun was the first to see what they’d been looking for.
‘Emperor’s black bones,’ he breathed.
By the water’s edge lay something gleaming stark white through the fern and shrubs, and they finally realized they were looking at a large mammal’s bones. It might have been one of the local herbivores called runyips by the Rebels, and any doubt that it had been alive minutes earlier were wiped away at the sight of a few lumps of raw, bleeding flesh still hanging from the bones.
‘I guess we’ve heard what piranha-beetles sound like,’ Lorrs murmured.
Rhun nodded. ‘And we can only hope they’ve had enough now,’ he added.
Suddenly, the comlink at Samica’s belt beeped, and she picked it up and pressed the answer button. ‘Team Six,’ she said.
‘This is Team Five,’ a voice answered, sounding distorted through the interference from the vegetation. ‘We may have found something and could use some help.’
‘Have you found another carcass?’ Samica asked.
‘Carcass?’ the voice at the other end repeated. ‘No, we’ve found a crashed vehicle or something. Maybe even a starship. Our position is 65-5-14.’
Samica glanced over at Rhun, who nodded. ‘Got it,’ he said.
‘We’re on our way,’ she told the other group, and cut the link.
Rhun was holding the datapad displaying the map slightly sideways. ‘Good news,’ he said. ‘We don’t have to cross the river to get there. It should take us something like half an hour.’
Samica took another swallow of water from her bottle, and the others followed her example. ‘All right,’ she finally said when she put it away. ‘Let’s move.’
The Massassi trees had given way again to smaller shrubs and bushes, and they’d followed the winding course of the river to their destination. The water was teeming with life, and Rhun was glad that they didn’t have to get into it but could stay on their side of the stream. Once or twice, a large, streamlined shape had broken through the surface only to submerge again seconds later, snatching a smaller fish or jellylike mucous salamander, which were able to live in the water as well as on land.
After half an hour, they saw a gleaming surface through the trees and bushes, and Samica brought out her comlink again.
‘Group Five, this is Six. Can you hear me?’
Rhun, Lorrs, and Thri’ark all turned to look at her, expressions tight, when there was no reply.
Samica bit her lower lip and tried another channel. ‘Team Five, Six here. Do you read?’
‘All right,’ Samica said softly. ‘It looks as if we’re on our own.’ She spoke into her comlink once more. ‘This is Team Six. Can anyone hear me?’ Again, there was no reply, and she sighed as she clipped the comlink to her belt.
‘We are on our own,’ she said. ‘There’s too much interference. The other teams must be too far away to hear us.’
‘Wouldn’t it be possible that Team Five is still around somewhere, but that they can’t hear us because of the interference?’ Lorrs asked.
‘Possible, but not very likely,’ Samica answered. ‘I doubt they would have gone that far when they asked for help and knew it was coming. Plus the fact that if we were able to pick them up half an hour ago, and we’ve been moving towards them since then, we should be able to pick them up now . . . which means they’re probably not alive anymore.’
Rhun wiped his forehead and looked around in the undergrowth. He didn’t like this a bit, but usually, those situations didn’t care whether he liked them or not.
‘We’d better wait for reinforcements,’ Thri’ark proposed, sitting down on a fallen tree.
Rhun sighed. ‘Haven’t you been listening?’ he asked. ‘There won’t be any. And we ought to have a look at whatever’s going on here. This crash site or whatever it is may or may not have something to do with those beetles, but it’s our job to find out.’
Samica nodded. ‘My thoughts entirely. Lorrs?’
The dark-skinned human made a face but inclined his head. Thri’ark snorted. ‘What makes you think we’re going to survive what four other equally under equipped Rebels didn’t?’ he asked saucily.
‘We’ve got a Superbothan with us,’ Lorrs murmured, and Thri’ark was on his feet at once. Samica reached out and grabbed a handful of his fur before he could jump at the Intel agent, and the Bothan yelped. ‘That’s enough, Thri’ark, Lorrs,’ she said. ‘Rhun, can you put up a distress signal beacon here?’
‘I guess I can,’ Rhun replied. ‘But it could be hours before anyone who picks it up can react to it.’
‘Then we’d better do it now,’ Samica answered. She drew her blaster and looked at Lorrs. ‘You’re coming with me, you as well, Thri’ark. We’ll see what’s crashed there. Can you pick up anything with your package?’
The Bothan briefly considered to keep up his sulking, but then brought up the sensor data. ‘Seems to be a shuttle of some sort,’ he said after a moment. ‘There’s a power source still in it. And I can pick up something alive in there.’
Samica exchanged a glance with the others. ‘Let’s go.’ Rhun hurried to get the beacon installed, and the other three began to fight their way through to the ship.
They had to cover about twenty metres to the shuttle, and as she came closer, Samica saw that the craft must have been there for years. It was overgrown with vines and lianas, and the rust had eaten into the hull in some places that had cracked, probably during the crash landing. It had been a bulky craft, unarmed, the sort of landing shuttle used by civilian mining companies and other corporations. There was an inscription on the hull barely visible through the plants, displaying the Imperial Aurebesh letters, which meant that it could not be all that old.
Suddenly, she heard Thri’ark’s horrified gasp behind her, and she turned quickly. The Bothan was staring into the shrubs to their right, and she paled as well when she saw what had terrified him.
The skeleton half-hidden under the vegetation was definitely human, and several shreds of clothing still hanging from the bones made it all too clear this had been one of the hapless searchers in Team Five. His equipment lay scattered around him, but there was no trace of the other three.
Thri’ark had turned to the right, staring into the dense jungle, nostrils flaring as he stared, motionless.
‘What is it, Thri’ark?’ Samica asked softly, but he made no reply, just remained standing there in horror. Then he bolted.
‘Wait!’ Lorrs screamed as the furry nonhuman dashed past him through the undergrowth, away from the shuttle, but into unknown territory, and he looked at Samica. She cursed. It was obvious Thri’ark was not going to listen to reason in his present condition, but she could not let him run off on his own either. She and Lorrs exchanged a nod, and they ran after him.
It was not difficult to follow his path, and, luckily, it would not be difficult to retrace it afterwards. His flight had ripped vines off the trees and torn gaps into the dense foliage, and Samica and Lorrs could simply follow the trail of destruction the Bothan had left in his wake. Lorrs was several metres ahead of her, and she guessed they’d run a good two hundred metres from where Rhun was. If they didn’t find Thri’ark within the next two minutes, she decided, they would return to the shuttle without him. Suddenly, she felt her foot getting entangled in one of the tougher vines, and she went sprawling, spitting out a mouthful of leaves, but when she tried to scramble to her feet again, her blood froze at the sound of the same high-pitched scream she’d heard just before they’d found the runyip skeleton.
She saw Lorrs stopping short ahead on a clearing in the trees, bringing up his flame carbine, but the next minute, a dark, sapphire cloud was over him, all around him, and he barely had time to scream before it was over.
Samica ducked instinctively, pressing her forehead against her arm, as much against the sight as the sounds, but it didn’t take more than half a minute before the swarm was finished with its victim, buzzing away far above her head.
Shaking, she lifted her head again, staring at the spot where she’d last seen Lorrs, fighting the urge to gag when she saw a white gleam through the green. Not trusting her legs, she remained lying where she was, waiting for her heart to stop racing and her stomach to calm. After a while, she felt a painful throbbing in her right foot and realized she must have sprained it when she fell.
‘Samica!’ she suddenly heard someone call behind her. Rhun’s voice.
‘I’m here,’ she called back and struggled to her feet, forcing herself not to glance at Lorrs’ carcass.
He came through the trees, blaster in hand, worry on his face. ‘What’s happened? I heard you all shouting, and then there was this shrieking again–’ He broke off, his face going white, when he saw the cleanly picked bones at the end of the clearing.
‘Lorrs?’ he whispered.
Samica nodded jerkily.
‘Are you hurt?’ Rhun asked, looking at her.
‘I think I hurt my foot when I stumbled, but otherwise, I’m okay. If those beetles had got me, you wouldn’t have had to ask.’
‘What about Thri’ark?’ he asked. ‘He as well?’
‘I don’t know,’ Samica said weakly. ‘He suddenly panicked when we found that dead Rebel, and he bolted into the forest. Lorrs and I tried to run after him, but then these beetles came. I don’t think we’ll find him again.’
‘Let’s at least try,’ Rhun said. ‘Can you walk?’
She nodded, putting some weight on her foot. It still hurt, but at least it was not broken. Rhun had walked over to where Lorrs lay – or what was left of him – and she heard him choke when he saw the body. It had been different with the runyip and even the Rebel from Team Five – they had known what a swarm of piranha-beetles was capable of, and had been shocked to see it with their own eyes, but to see a man who only minutes ago had been alive reduced to a heap of bones on the forest floor was something else. Samica did not join him there; she had seen enough.
Rhun rejoined her minutes later, carrying the flame carbine from Lorrs. The weapon’s casing was dented all over, as if the beetles had tried to eat through it as well before they had decided it was not worth the effort.
‘Do you know how to use one of those?’ Samica asked Rhun.
He shrugged. ‘There’s a first time for everything, and one of us has to use it.’
Samica drew a sharp breath. ‘Well, then. Let’s try to find Thri’ark.’ They started to make their way through the jungle, following the Bothan’s trail, until suddenly Rhun stopped and pointed to three more skeletons to their left.
‘We’ve found the rest of team Five,’ he said, his voice hoarse.
‘Did you get the distress signal going?’ Samica asked.
‘Yes, and by now, I’m convinced that we’re pretty much in distress.’ Rhun took out his water bottle and had a few more swallows. ‘Okay,’ he said when he put it away again. ‘How long do we give Thri’ark?’
Samica glanced at her chrono. ‘Half an hour,’ she replied. ‘If we haven’t found him by then, I don’t think we’re ever going to.’
They set off again, while the sun overhead reached its zenith. The jungle quieted during the hottest hours of the long Yavin 4 day, and Rhun felt sweat drenching his clothes and hair. Small stinging insects settled on them no matter how often they brushed them off, and he found his thoughts returning to the shower back at the base more frequently. After a while, they suddenly stood at the river’s edge again, which had apparently wound its way around to cross their path again. The open strip left behind by Thri’ark ended at the bank, near a pattern of intricate labyrinthine nests built into the embankment by tiny crabs. Rhun looked through the vines and branches to the other side, but could not see the trail going on there.
‘He must have jumped straight in,’ he stated, incredulous.
Samica sat down on the water’s edge, longing to follow the Bothan’s example but remembering the predators they’d seen in the water earlier. ‘So, that was it,’ she said tiredly.
Rhun slumped down beside her and brought out his water bottle once more. It began to feel alarmingly light for his taste, but it didn’t seem a good idea to him to refill it from the river – not without a thorough scan first, which was impossible without Thri’ark’s sensor package.
Samica also produced several survival ration bars from one of her flight suit’s pockets and took a bite off one. ‘We’ll go back after we’ve rested,’ she said, ‘to have a look at that shuttle. Just make sure you have that flame projection carbine ready at all times.’
Rhun nodded, chewing on his own survival rations, clapping his hand against the weapon’s barrel.
Samica leaned back against a tree and looked up into the branches above, high above her head.
‘So this is what I would have done if I hadn’t been drafted into StarCom,’ she said softly.
‘What do you mean?’ Rhun asked.
‘I always wanted to join the Survey Corps. Discover new planets. Lead exciting expeditions.’ She grimaced.
Rhun raised his eyebrows. ‘D’you regret it?’ he wanted to know.
Samica snorted. ‘A couple of months ago, yes. Desperately. But I don’t think I ever will again.’
‘Nor me,’ Rhun agreed. ‘I hate to say it, but . . . we’d better get started again. I could fall asleep here without even noticing.’
Samica stood, stretching. ‘You’re right. Let’s get back to that shuttle. With luck, there’s even a rescue team on its way.’
They stood by the shuttle once again more than an hour later, and Rhun wished they had brought two life scanners. He remembered Thri’ark mentioning something alive in that shuttle, but at least that probably did not indicate the presence of piranha-beetles, since they would not produce enough warmth for the scanner to pick up . . . or so he hoped.
He readied the flame carbine and nodded to Samica. ‘I’m going in first. I doubt there are any of those beetles in there, but I have a feeling this moon doesn’t like us.’
‘I can assure you the feeling is mutual,’ Samica murmured and drew her blaster pistol, then produced a glow rod from another of her suit’s many pockets. Rhun found the entrance hatch at the craft’s side open and made room for Samica to shine her light inside. There was a rustle from the shuttle’s interior, followed by cooing sounds, and they exchanged glances. Apart from rusty equipment and mouldy passenger seats, they hadn’t been able to see anything alive, but the sounds told them it was there.
‘Not piranha-beetles,’ Rhun said. ‘The question is, is whatever’s in there better or worse than piranha-beetles?’
‘Can’t be any worse,’ Samica replied, and he shrugged.
‘You’re probably right.’ He put one foot in the opening, tested the balance, and drew himself up into the shuttle, then quickly made way for Samica to follow him. She stood next to him, illuminating the small chamber with her glow rod, balancing herself against the bulkhead. The shuttle had crashed into the ground and ended up slightly askew, so the floor sloped downwards to their left. They stood in a cargo/passenger compartment, with two seats faced away from them, the upholstery spilling from the outer material in several places, and a console with lockers to their right. There were transparisteel shards everywhere, crunching under their boots. The vines and moss had found their way into the ship, covering much of the seats and a portion of the bulkhead. When the sheen from Samica’s glow rod wandered past the seats, they heard the cooing sound again.
Samica carefully went closer, going around the chair as far as she could, blaster ready, Rhun directly behind her, until they could get a good look into the chair.
In the seat were several short-furred animals, not longer than her forearm, with long, sleek bodies and round faces with pointed ears. They were covered with black, some with purplish fur. There was one larger animal among them, and it was hissing when it saw them.
Rhun lowered his flame carbine. ‘Piiruu cats,’ he said. ‘That must be her litter.’
Samica sighed in relief. ‘So that was the life form Thri’ark picked up.’
‘Most likely.’ Rhun squatted down beside the seat and watched the female, which was still eyeing him warily, ears twitching, with the kittens squirming around her. ‘I bet she would have bolted at once if it hadn’t been for the little ones.’
Samica looked around the compartment, kneeling before the lockers, looking at one of the transparisteel shards. ‘NavGap,’ she said.
‘It says NavGap on here. That’s a mining company. Research, too, as far as I know. I wonder what they were doing on Yavin?’ She looked over to Rhun and hid a smile when she saw he had taken out one of his food rations and offered it to the female piiruu cat on his open hand. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Making friends,’ he answered. ‘Did you never have a pet as a child? A pittin or something?’
‘My friend Tass always had pittins. Until her father decided they were reproducing too quickly for the small flat they lived in at the time. My parents never allowed me to keep a pet.’
‘Pity,’ he said. ‘I’ve heard children learn to take responsibility when they have pets.’ The piiruu cat was sniffing at Rhun’s hand suspiciously, but there was also curiosity. The kittens had started cooing again. Rhun moved his hand a little closer to one of the kittens, which looked more curious and less afraid than its siblings, then drew his hand back with a curse.
‘What is it?’ Samica asked at once.
Rhun inspected his hand, then put his finger his mouth. ‘She bit me,’ he said.
Samica laughed softly. ‘If I were a piiruu cat living in abundance like these, and anyone tried to offer me survival rations, I’d bite him too.’ She came over to him to look over his shoulder. ‘Bad?’ she asked.
Rhun sucked at his finger once more. ‘No,’ he grumbled. ‘Don’t you think I’m going to make that offer to you again,’ he told the cat, who seemed to be very pleased with herself.
Samica shook her head, walking over to the hatch that led into the cockpit, and after a while, Rhun followed suit. The hatch was slightly ajar, and together, they managed to break it open all the way. Samica muffled a curse when the wound on her left hand started bleeding again from the exertion, but at least, this time, it stopped after a few minutes.
‘I wonder what NavGap was doing here,’ she said. ‘Maybe they were mining Corusca jewels, but they’re normally found on Yavin itself, not on one of its moons.’
‘Corusca jewels?’ Rhun asked.
‘Coruscant was named for them before it became Imperial Centre. They’re jewels from the gas giant, and they’re really priceless. They don’t exist anywhere else in the galaxy but on Yavin.’
‘And these NavGap folks would launch an expedition to Yavin 4 because of them?’ Rhun asked, doubtfully.
‘Well, I can’t imagine what else they would have wanted here.’ Samica looked at the ship’s instruments. ‘Maybe there’s still data in these banks that our people can recover,’ she said. ‘Although I doubt it after all this time. Fragments, maybe.’
‘What’s this?’ Rhun suddenly asked, opening a locker in the cockpit. In it hung two white suits.
‘Space suits, I suppose,’ Samica replied after a short glance.
‘Without grav boots?’
‘Hmmm.’ She sat down near the co-pilot’s seat to have a look at something she’d found there.
Rhun sighed, leaning against the pilot’s seat and wiping his brow. In here, it was even hotter than outside, probably because of all that metal. ‘Pity all the supplies must have gone bad by now . . . or eaten by piiruu cats,’ he murmured, taking another swallow from his water bottle. There were maybe two or three left. He supposed that reinforcements were well on their way by now, but they probably wouldn’t reach them for another two or three hours.
‘Rhun, would you take a look at this?’ he heard Samica ask from behind the co-pilot’s seat, and he went around the cockpit to join her.
‘What is it?’
She held up something that looked like a cage, slightly less than a metre in diameter, made of a tight grille, but with a large hole ripped into the front.
‘It was ripped open?’ Rhun asked.
Samica stood, inspecting the cage more closely. ‘I’d say it was chewed open,’ she corrected.
Rhun frowned. ‘Chewed?’ he repeated, leaning on the seat in front of him.
‘Look. There’s small dents all over the wire, see? You know what I think?’
‘I think they tried to get out piranha-beetles.’
Rhun frowned. ‘Why would they do such a thing?’
‘That’s the question.’ Samica put the cage back. ‘Anyway, I think I can put together what must have happened here. They tried to bring out a couple of the beetles – for whatever reason – but didn’t count on the strength of their mandibles. When they were still in the moon’s atmosphere, the insects chewed their way out, and the first thing they did was to eat their captors. The shuttle, naturally, spun out of control, and crashed here.’ She thought that over again and nodded. ‘The bones would be gone after all this time in the jungle – plenty of scavengers to take care of them.’
‘Which leaves us with only one, albeit important, question,’ Rhun said. ‘What did they want the beetles for in the first place?’
‘Let’s try to find out.’ While Rhun sat down before the memory banks to see whether he could coax some information out of them, Samica went back into the cargo hold, keeping respectful distance between herself and the piiruu cats in the chair. She was not very comfortable with animals, especially wild ones, and these had sufficiently demonstrated they were indeed wild. There were several more cargo lockers in the compartment, and she began to break them open. It was not too difficult a task, since the years of humidity had eaten away at the materials, and the doors that simply refused to open could be forced with some effort. It took her about half an hour to open them all. Most of them had been storage rooms, containing food that had decomposed nearly completely over the years, but the last ones were more interesting. They contained small, transparent jars that looked like medicine vials from a medpak. There were several different substances, some of them labelled with numbers and scientific-sounding words, which didn’t mean anything to Samica. One of them was labelled in plain Basic, however; it said, ‚Blue Serum‘.
‘Have you been able to find out anything?’ Samica called to the front of the shuttle.
Rhun didn’t answer.
‘Rhun?’ she called again, getting to her feet.
‘Uh – no,’ Rhun finally answered, sounding infinitely tired.
She was in the cockpit in an instant. Rhun lay slumped in the pilot’s seat, eyes half-closed, and there were red blotches around his mouth and nose.
‘Rhun!’ she said, her voice urgent, shaking him gently. ‘What is it? A heatstroke?’
He moaned, his eyelids fluttering as he tried to look up at her. ‘Head hurts,’ he murmured.
She took the medpak he’d brought with him on his belt, taking out the small diagnosis unit and scanned him with it. She’d never seen the effects of a heatstroke, but if it was one, the unit would also give her instructions how to treat it – on a basic level. The little display blinked as it ran checks, then there were four words on the screen which caused her stomach to knot together: VIRUS DETECTED, TYPE UNKNOWN.
For a few seconds, she simply stared at the display in horror, then she bit her lip. Was she imagining things, or did her forehead feel warmer than it ought to? She looked back at Rhun, who stifled a cough, and managed to open his eyes. ‘I’ll be all right,’ he got out.
She gently touched his shoulder. ‘I need to get help,’ she said. ‘Should I leave you here, or do you think you’d be better outside?’
‘Here,’ Rhun replied, stifling another cough. Then he weakly pointed to the console. ‘Power cell,’ he gasped. ‘Link it to the – comlink. Creative.’
She frowned, looking at him in desperation. ‘What?’ she whispered.
‘Like in Equipment,’ he said. ‘On Star Destroyer. Got out Blissex. Amplify comlink range.’ He squinted up at her, and she finally got it.
‘Okay. I’ll get us out of here, Rhun. Don’t worry.’
He nodded weakly, coughing, and she felt her eyes sting as she saw blood bubbling from his nose. She gave him an antibiotic before she went to work, which was all she could do, and hoped she’d be able to copy the trick with which he’d powered the detention cell doors aboard Resolve, a lifetime ago. There was one dose of antibiotics left, which she injected herself, then she hurried to kneel in front of the console to remove the power cell. She remembered that Thri’ark had said it was still working, but she supposed she would need a cable to link the comlink and the power cell together. She wished she could have used the homing beacon to call for help, but it could not be used for explicit transmissions, and apart from the fact that she had to tell the base that there was a virus around, she needed to ask for medical assistance as well. She desperately hoped they had the necessary medical means available on the base to treat Rhun’s illness. Redemption had left Yavin two weeks ago.
She got the power cell out – it was the one that powered the emergency systems, not the main power cell, but if it worked, it would be enough for her purpose – then took it out of the ship to be able to start transmitting as soon as she got it working. She stumbled on her way to the entry hatch, shaking and sweating all over, but she tried to push away the thought of anything that was not immediately concerned with her task. Outside, the sun was beating down with terrible intensity, and she had a close look at the cell. There was a power outlet at one side that she supposed could be used for what she had in mind, but she was going to need two things for that: a cable and engine tape. The latter was not a problem; in the backpack she carried, there was an entire roll of it, but she’d have to hurry to find a cable that would fit.
Suddenly, she remembered that the comlink could be linked into her datapad and the datapad itself could be linked to another power source, so she would not even be needing the engine tape for insulation, and she hurried to find a cable that fit with the device. It was not too difficult. Datapads were standardized everywhere in the galaxy, and she soon found a cable that would suffice. She briefly looked in on Rhun before returning outside.
Rhun lay in the seat with his eyes closed, his face underneath the nose caked with blood, but his laboured breathing told her he was still alive. He seemed to be unconscious, so she rejected her initial idea of giving him water, but she wet a piece of cloth and wiped away the blood, then cleaned it again and laid it on his forehead, which was searing to the touch. Then she went out to enhance her comlink range.
The trees seemed to be moving when she looked up at them, and she steadied herself against a trunk, which seemed to give way until she found she was swaying. Hurriedly, praying that it would work, she linked the datapad to the power cell and then inserted her comlink. She chose an open frequency.
‘This is Lieutenant Trey from Team Six,’ she said. ‘Base, do you read me?’
There was a short pause and a lot of interference, then she almost groaned with relief when someone answered, ‘This is Yavin base. Where are you?’
‘65-5-14,’ she answered, remembering the numbers Team Five had given her that morning.
‘What the hell are you using to call?!’ she heard the voice on the other end.
‘Home-made transmitter,’ she replied. ‘Base, we need a medevac here. Agent van Leuken is seriously ill, there’s some sort of virus.’
‘I’ll see to that. Does it have anything to do with the beetles?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, feeling her head throb. ‘Just suit up when you get here–’
‘Lieutenant,’ another voice cut in. ‘This is Commander Willard. Is there anything else you can tell us about that virus?’
‘I don’t know, sir. The Imps have been here, but some years ago, I think, and a piiruu cat’s bitten Rhun, and he’s dying . . .’
‘Hold out, Lieutenant. We’ll be with you in fifteen minutes. Is there a landing point anywhere near?’
She suppressed a cough. ‘Bit northeast of here, sir. There’s a clearing. Ten minutes on foot.’
‘All right. We’ll get you out of there. Willard out.’
Samica switched off the comlink and sat there for several seconds, shaking. Despite the sun burning down on her, she was cold, and there was a splitting pain in her temples. With knees that threatened to buck at every step, she made it back into the shuttle to Rhun, sitting down in the co-pilot’s chair. Rhun lay as she’d left him, still breathing with difficulty. She thought his breathing had become even more erratic than it had been when she’d last seen him, and she tried to get up again to cool his forehead once more, but found her legs wouldn’t bear her anymore. There were black clouds hovering on the edge of her field of vision, and she tried to keep herself awake, clinging to consciousness with all the strength left to her. Fifteen minutes, she told herself desperately. Only fifteen minutes.
Samica was still conscious when the medevac shuttle arrived, and she actually managed to leave the cockpit with the medics’ support. The whole evacuation team wore sealed suits, some of them taking the time to take a few samples of the blue serum. Rhun had to be carried out on a stretcher, and she doubted that he knew anything that was going on around him. The medevac had landed on the clearing where Lorrs had died. Samica felt a faint surprise when she saw Commander Willard standing at the shuttle, equally suited up; the commander patted her on the shoulder when the medics half-carried her inside.
‘Don’t worry, Lieutenant,’ he told her. ‘They’ll get you back on your feet again. And Agent van Leuken as well.’
She only nodded, her throat hurting too much for her to speak, feeling unconsciousness threatening to overwhelm her for the third time during the past ten minutes, and this time, she didn’t resist it anymore.
‘ . . . been touch and go with him for the first twenty-four hours, but he’s stable now, sir. She’s slightly better off . . . Well, in fact, I think she’s coming to.’
Samica tried to open her eyes and immediately squeezed them shut again when bright lights blinded her. The throbbing in her head had eased slightly, but she still felt too weak to move. The voice she’d heard when she regained consciousness had been female, and she thought she recognised it as the doctor’s who had already treated her injuries aboard Liberty.
She could hear someone sitting down beside her bed, then Commander Willard’s voice: ‘Can you hear me, Lieutenant Trey?’
She blinked, and this time, she made herself keep her eyes open. Her vision was still blurred, but she could see his face against a glow panel on the ceiling. She tried to raise her arm to block out the light when she felt a slight stinging in her left wrist, an intravenous line or something like it, and she gave up her plan.
‘Yes, sir,’ she croaked.
He reached out to touch her arm. ‘It’s good to have you with us again, Lieutenant. It’s all right. You’ll recover.’
‘Rhun?’ she managed.
The ghost of a smile touched his face. ‘Agent van Leuken will recover as well. His condition was more serious than yours, but he’s stable now.’ He turned his head to look behind him, and she followed his glance, fighting a moment of vertigo when her body protested against the sudden movement. There was another bed beside hers, and she saw Rhun, attached to a sickening number of tubes, the medical indicator lamps above his head showing up yellow to orange, and there was a slow but steady beeping measuring his cardiac sounds. He was unconscious, looking very pale, and the commander seemed to have noticed the fear returning to her face. ‘He’ll make it,’ he repeated. ‘Don’t worry, Lieutenant, you need your energy for more important things right now.’
She relaxed again, then noticed that Willard was not wearing a sealed suit. ‘Infection?’ she asked.
Willard shook his head. ‘Only through blood contact,’ he replied. ‘You were lucky, even if that sounds cynical. You remember the blue serum you found?’
‘It’s derived from the piranha-beetles, which was why the Empire was interested in them in the first place. Obviously NavGap was experimenting with that substance as a remedy against close to everything. The infection you contracted was one of those against which the blue serum actually worked; the virus must have spilled from one of the vials on the floor. The piiruu cats had contracted it, but through their contact with the serum, which was spread widely throughout the shuttle, they didn’t fall ill. Another theory is that they are immune for some reason; our xenobiologists are still investigating that. You were given the serum as soon as we knew what we had on our hands. You probably got the infection through the wound in your hand, Agent van Leuken from the cats.’
The doctor approached the bed, and Samica saw it was indeed the one she knew from Liberty. ‘If you’re trying to do what the virus didn’t, you’re on the right track, Commander,’ she said disapprovingly. ‘I doubt she got half of what you just told her.’
‘I’m sorry, Commander Sedgers.’ Willard got up from his chair again. ‘Just see you get well, Lieutenant.’
Samica twisted around to look up at him. ‘Sir . . . thank you,’ she whispered.
The commander nodded, squeezing her shoulder, then he left the room.
Surgeon Commander Sedgers stood beside her bed. ‘Try to get some sleep, Lieutenant. I’m willing to bet the commander’s just slowed your recovery by years.’
Samica nodded weakly, closing her eyes again. She was going to survive, and Rhun would too. That was the gist of what Willard had told her, and all that really mattered to her.
If Commander Sedgers had been worried about her charge during Commander Willard’s visit, she had more opportunity two days later, when most of Gold Squadron assembled in the medical station. Samica had been transferred from the intensive care unit to a normal sick bay the previous day; Rhun was still back in intensive, as his condition had been much more serious than hers. She knew that he had received the blue serum treatment just in time, since all the Rebel medics had been able to do before they found out about the serum was to slow the course of the illness through the use of bacta. Samica was feeling a lot better than she had a day ago; otherwise, her squad mates would probably not have been allowed anywhere near her at all. Especially Teddie was in his usual high spirits.
‘We won’t be bothered by the beetles again; one of the search parties found a nest of them, and smoked them out. The techs also found out they don’t like a particular subsonic sound, which now secures the base. So, knowing you weren’t going to see them again, I brought you this.’ He opened his hand and she nearly recoiled when she saw it contained one of the fist-sized insects.
‘It’s not alive anymore, is it?’
‘No, I restored it. Quite pretty, isn’t it?’
‘He didn’t manage to restore the one I shot,’ Ryle cut in. ‘We found this one in your room.’
‘I found it,’ Pops said. ‘Not “we”. And it gave me quite a scare. You should have told me there was a dead piranha-beetle lying just before my bed!’
Samica shook her head. ‘Sorry, Pops. I didn’t think of it. And anyway, you were the one who said he was going to sleep like a log and not be disturbed by anything.’
‘Step on a beetle the size of a pittin with your naked foot, and you’re going to be disturbed,’ Pops grumbled.
‘Anyway, Sam, we’re glad you’ll be joining us again shortly,’ Dutch said. ‘We’ve got three new pilots, and I’d like to team you up with one of the newbies. No need to change rooms around, but I think it’d be a waste to have you and Pops fly together where experience is needed so badly.’
Samica felt herself blush. ‘Ah – Dutch, I’m nineteen.’
‘Not the sort of experience I was referring to, Sam.’
She lay back in bed, changing the subject. ‘Have you heard anything about Thri’ark?’
Pops shook his head, his expression sombre. ‘Not a trace of him. There have been several search parties, but even one of those got lost. General Dodonna thinks it’s too dangerous here, which is why all activities are confined to the base and its immediate surroundings. We don’t really know a lot about the animals and plants on this moon, so we’ll just stay out of nature’s way.’
‘Just see to it that you get well, Sam,’ Tiree said. ‘We even got new ships to go with the new pilots. That’s the good thing about being stationed with someone like Dodonna: we get the best treatment available. And there’s another squadron that arrived yesterday. An X-wing squad. So we really, really need you back to tell them what’s what.’
Samica smiled wryly. ‘No worries.’
It was another week before Samica was given the go-ahead to fly again by the medics; Rhun took even longer to recover from the disease. She went to see him a number of times after she’d left sick bay and was on light duty again, and she could tell how much he hated being confined to sick bay, even if he was still too weak to walk. He especially disliked the medical droids and the fuss they supposedly made over him; Samica was under the impression they made exactly the fuss he forced them to make with his reluctance to stay in bed.
The three new Y-wing pilots were a human male called Hol Okand, a dark-skinned young woman from Nar Shaddaa named Kaya, and a green-skinned Twi’lek who called himself Nous and who, in his free time, spent hours with Ryle talking about possible Y-wing modifications.
The canteen had become fuller with the arrival of Red Squadron, an X-wing unit. The commander, Garven Dreis, was a friend of Pops’ and got along with Dutch rather well, so there were less rivalries among the pilots than was common on other bases, but like all X-wing pilots, the newcomers had a lot of confidence in their ships and their own abilities, looking down slightly on their fellow pilots with their slower ships.
Samica, Tiree and Kaya, the new pilot, sat at a table in the cantina and were discussing last night’s simulator run when Samica heard a voice from one of the adjacent tables: ‘Sithspit, the next time I play with you guys, I’ll deal, or I’ll be convinced Rebels do cheat!’
Samica stopped short and turned around. Behind her, the X-wing pilots were sitting, four of them playing Sabacc. Her attention was on one dark-haired young man with a moustache, the one who had just spoken. It took her a while to place the voice and the face – his hair had grown, and she hadn’t seen the moustache – but then she remembered.
‘Darklighter?’ she asked, incredulous.
The four pilots turned their heads at her outburst and Darklighter frowned. ‘Yes. Do I know you?’
‘From the Academy. Prefsbelt IV. I was a year ahead of you.’
He frowned, but then, apparently, he’d visualized her without hair and got it as well. ‘Trey?’
‘That’s right. I’d never thought I’d see any fellow cadets here!’
To her surprise, he didn’t seem very happy to see her. ‘Neither did I,’ he replied, meaningfully. Then he turned back to his three companions – a female Twi’lek, a short, dark-haired young man, and a stout man in his forties – and picked up his Sabacc cards without any further word to her.
Samica stared at his back, without a clue to the reason for his behaviour.
‘Anything wrong, Biggs?’ the dark-haired man asked. His features looked a bit like Teddie’s – if Teddie had been able to look serious, that was. He spoke with the Corellian accent that Samica was by now used to in the Rebellion.
Darklighter turned around to her once again, and she almost flinched at the hatred she saw on his face. ‘Has your conscience gotten the better of you, Trey?’ he asked her. ‘Or are you going to turn this base in to the Imps as well?’
Conversation among the other pilots had stopped, and Samica was still gaping at him in bewilderment. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’
‘You were the one sneaking on those friends of mine at the Academy, weren’t you?’
‘I never sneaked on anyone! Let alone on any friends of yours!’
Tiree watched Samica intently. ‘What do you mean, Darklighter? Are you saying she’s a spy?’
‘I don’t know about her now, but when we were at the Academy, there were several people there who’d formed a Rebel cell. She was not one of them, mind you, but she once bumped into one of their meetings. A few days later, they were all taken into custody and we never saw them again. I was lucky I wasn’t at that particular meeting.’
‘Is that true?’ Tiree asked Samica.
Samica shook her head vehemently. ‘I never realized I had bumped into anything until we were told by Captain Fel that those guys had formed a cell,’ she replied. ‘Sithspit, I didn’t even know what Rebels were at the time!’
Darklighter snorted a laugh. ‘No, of course not. We can only hope you’ve found out by now.’ With that, he turned his back on her once again, with finality this time, and glanced into his cards. ‘Five credits, Wedge.’
The dark-haired young Corellian cast another glance at Samica, then occupied himself with his cards again, and the other two followed their examples. Samica still faced his back, torn between fury and helplessness, but realized that the conversation was over where Biggs Darklighter was concerned. Tiree and Kaya were both watching her.
‘You don’t actually think I might be a spy, do you?’ she asked them.
Kaya made no reply; Samica hadn’t expected her to, after all, the silent woman had only known her for a few days, but Tiree’s silence frightened her.
‘You’re thinking about the Skiprays,’ she said softly.
‘They came to my mind,’ the pilot answered.
‘Tiree, this is insane. Do you actually think I’d try to betray you and then shoot down I don’t know how many enemy ships? Don’t you think the Empire would have been here weeks ago if I’d been a spy?’
He relaxed slightly. ‘Okay, Sam, it doesn’t sound very likely, but what did Darklighter just talk about?’
‘There was a Rebel cell at the Academy where we both learned to fly. I swear I didn’t know about it, but I may have bumped into one of their secret meetings. They used the gym for it, at a time when there should be nobody in, but I desperately needed to catch up on some hand-to-hand combat techniques. I was pathetic.’ She paused, then went on, ‘I never realized what I’d seen there. I thought they were planning something like a large-scale practical joke, the thing you’d try for graduation, since it was a few months before the end of term. I doubt I had anything to do with their being discovered. Maybe someone saw me head for the gym and return minutes later and got suspicious, but I can’t have been the only one who saw them there. And I’d never spy on anyone, Tiree. Never.’ She looked him and Kaya squarely in the eyes at that, and Tiree met her gaze levelly.
‘I believe you,’ he finally said, then looked at Kaya, who appeared to be a bit distressed at the sort of exchange she’d just witnessed. The dark-skinned woman cleared her throat. ‘If you didn’t know they were there, I guess you can’t be blamed,’ she agreed.
Samica looked down at her hands. ‘Thanks, guys,’ she said softly. ‘I suppose I thought I could just come over to the Rebellion and forget everything that’s gone before, but I seem to’ve been wrong.’
Tiree patted her shoulder. ‘I can imagine it’s quite a legacy. But don’t worry, in a few years, nobody will care two hoots about it.’
Samica grimaced. ‘Oh, great. Can I just skip the next few years then?’
It didn’t come as much of a surprise to Samica that Commander Willard wanted to ask her a few questions several days later. It occurred to her that she’d given him more than enough reasons to suspect her motives, but Willard’s demeanour gave her no clue as to what he was thinking when he asked her about her knowledge of the Skiprays and that wretched business at the Academy, and when she left his office, she was no wiser than she’d been when she’d entered it. At least that was all she heard from him for the next weeks, and she supposed that the discomfort she kept causing him was not sufficient to warrant any more serious repercussions.
Rhun was busy again in Intentions. It seemed Cora and Mandy had been right; Yavin was a secret base with little IntelOps activity, but after his illness, he didn’t really mind. He, too, had been asked to report to Commander Willard following his recovery, but all he’d been able to tell the commander was the same he’d been telling him for the past months – that, in his opinion, Samica was sincere, and that her Imperial past was exactly that: past.
Biggs Darklighter seemed to have been convinced that she was not a spy, but he kept avoiding her whenever he could, and that hurt her, since it did not even give her the chance to tell him he was wrong. At least none of it seemed to bother her squad mates overmuch – or Rhun – and she contented herself with that.
After Samica had been on Yavin 4 for two standard months, squadrons Red and Gold were sent to intercept an Imperial supplies convoy bound for the Core. Commander Dreis briefed them, together with Dutch, but the Y-wing pilot seemed content to stay in the background.
‘Gold Squadron will disable the freighters, covered by the X-wings, then stand by while our teams take over the freighters and repair their systems. Both squadrons will patrol the area to make sure there won’t be any unpleasant surprises, then we head home. We expect ten freighters and a TIE squadron as escort, so it should be a piece of cake. Any questions?’
A tall, broad-shouldered X-wing pilot raised a hand. Samica had seen him in the mess but had never considered exchanging more than a few words with him; she didn’t know anything about his piloting qualities, but he certainly thought a lot of them.
‘Only one squadron of TIEs? What do the Y-wings need us for, then?’
There was some sniggering among the X-wing pilots and angry faces among their colleagues, but at least Dreis threw Jal te Gniev a disapproving look. ‘Serious questions?’ he asked without deigning to answer.
Nobody had any, and Samica saw te Gniev bask in his fellow pilots’ laughter as the meeting dissolved, but then Teddie came over to the large man, stopping in front of him. ‘Y’know, Jal, I really don’t understand why you don’t like Y-wings. I mean, you should be flying one.’
Jal looked down at the small youth, frowning. ‘Why?’
‘Well, the BTL-S3 Y-wing is a two-man fighter, and I bet it must be really tight for you in that cramped X-wing cockpit.’
Jal smiled smugly. ‘Well, I manage, thanks. I bet you can comfortably go for a walk in your cockpit.’ His audience commented the joke with dutiful sneers.
Teddie scratched his head. ‘No, I wasn’t referring to that. I mean – how do you get both yourself and your ego into that cockpit?’
Jal’s face took on an interesting shade of crimson, but Teddie dodged his grasp and scooted out of his reach, whooping. Samica turned away to hide her grin from Jal and saw Teddie join Jay and Tiree before the briefing room.
‘I said it!’ Teddie crowed. ‘Ten credits, people!’
Grumbling, the two others counted credit chips in Teddie’s outstretched hand. Samica went over to them and patted Tiree on the shoulder. ‘Hey, it was for a good cause,’ she said.
‘Then why didn’t you do it?’ Jay asked sourly. ‘We wouldn’t have lost any money.’
‘Nah, not Sam,’ Teddie declared.
‘You don’t mean to say I lack the pluck,’ Samica challenged him.
‘Not the pluck,’ Teddie replied. ‘The creativity.’
Samica was ready to admit that he was not too far off the track.
They dropped out of hyperspace in the Illura system, whose most remarkable planet was surrounded by an asteroid belt, the other three barren cold rocks or barren searing rocks, respectively. None of the four planets or their seventeen moons was even remotely habitable, which was the reason why the Empire liked to conduct shipment transfers here, where there was no chance of any coincidental passers-by. Today’s raid was far from coincidental, but the Empire had no way of knowing about it; the information that this system was used for supply convoys had been known to the Alliance for several weeks, but High Command had decided to wait for a good catch before striking. That was another difficulty the Rebels faced whenever they attacked an Imperial convoy: they were given every chance only once. The next time, the Empire would either take another route or reinforce the convoy so heavily that another attack was likely to cost more than it gained. The Rebel Alliance might be forced to take on situations that were far from secure, but that usually happened only if they were surprised. If the Alliance was able to choose the rules of engagement, it liked to keep it on the safe side.
Samica stretched her legs and watched her HUD, which showed nothing at all. Everything going as planned so far. Kaya’s ship was behind and slightly to starboard of hers; Gold Squadron’s formation had got slightly messed up with the three new pilots. It would have been the usual arrangement to have One flying with Two, Three with Four, and so on, with the even numbers acting as wings for the uneven lead pilots in their element. Samica’s wingman should thus have been Jay, but for some reason, Dutch had simply decided the new pilots would fill new slots as well, so that Kaya, as number Ten, had ended up being Samica’s wing, and Hol Okand, who was designated as Gold Six, as Pops’, with Nous, the number Twelve, alone in an element, since Gold Squadron was still one pilot short of a full squad. Ahead of her and in a distance, she could see the X-wing squadron maintaining the same loose but exact formation. The faster ships were bringing their s-foils into attack position, resulting in the cross-shape that had given the snubfighter its name. The rivalries between X- and Y-wing pilots, she reflected, were not a bad thing altogether, since it kept the pilots wary. They might get sloppy if among themselves, but no X-wing pilot was going to make a mistake in a Y-wing pilot’s sights – or vice versa.
‘Red and Gold Squad, this is Red Leader,’ Commander Dreis’ voice came in over com. ‘We expect the Imps to arrive here in fifteen minutes. Stay clear of the hyper jump point, but we’ll remain near it so they can’t micro-jump out of the system as soon as they realize it’s us.’
‘Gold Leader acknowledges, Red Leader.’ Dutch switched over to squadron frequency. ‘Now, guys, I’m not having any stupid errors in front of those X-wing jocks. But don’t get overenthusiastic. That’s not worth the trouble. Got me?’
There were acknowledgments from the rest of Gold Squadron, and Samica made sure her shields and laser cannons as well as the ion cannon were charged. Imp would take care of the shields during the attack, for which she was grateful, but she knew she had to have an eye on them as well – a good pilot could not rely on her astromech to do all the unimportant stuff on its own. She was still not as familiar with the deflector system as she would have wished. TIE pilots prided themselves on their ships’ lack of shields, and some of that mentality was still there, especially when she felt an enemy TIE fighter in her rear and remembered again what it meant not to be weighed down by shields and be able to manoeuvre with so much ease. She’d never have admitted it to an X-wing jock, but speed could be a distinct advantage . . . at times.
Samica was jerked out of her thoughts by her HUD exploding with red dots, three, five, eight, then eleven, and the next second, she heard Tiree’s, ‘Contact!’
‘I see ‘em, Gold Two,’ Dreis answered. Then the X-wing commander switched to an open channel. ‘Imperial freighters, we have you under our guns and will open fire if you don’t surrender. Give it up.’
Samica was not surprised not to hear any response. She knew what the Imperials must be thinking: better dead than at the mercy of rebels . . . who, as Rhun had once pointed out to her, ate small children, as everybody knew.
She concentrated on the eleventh ship, which was too large to be another of the freighters . . . but that was not a surprise, either.
‘Gold Leader, this is Gold Seven. We’ve got an escort carrier among the freighters.’
‘I read you, Seven. Take Three Flight and torp it. Five, let’s take care of those freighters.’
‘Copy, Gold Leader.’
‘Gold Leader, this is Red Leader,’ Dreis’ voice came in. ‘Red Squad’s on the carrier as well.’
Samica armed her torpedo launchers but saw they would not be able to destroy the carrier ship before it could launch its TIEs. The KDY ec-72 was capable of carrying an entire TIE wing to battle, but this was the smaller ec-24, which carried no more than two squadrons. One of them was launching even now, and the multiple hangar openings on the craft enabled the Imperial fighters to clear the ship almost simultaneously.
‘This is Red Leader. We’ve got company, people. Gold Seven?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Samica replied.
‘Take care of the carrier before it can launch the second wave.’
‘Gold Seven copies,’ Samica said. ‘Ten, Twelve, arm your torp launchers, and fire on my mark.’ She awaited the other two pilots’ acknowledgments, then waited for her HUD to turn red to indicate a torpedo lock, hoping to finish the first pass fast before the TIE fighters were in range, but when she was about to shout, ‘Mark!’ Kaya’s voice came in, strained. ‘Seven, I’ve got a weapons malfunction of some sort. My targeting system’s jammed.’
Samica cursed, but she ordered Nous to fire his torpedoes all the same, and four missiles streaked towards the escort carrier. The TIEs were at two klicks, and she shouted, ‘Break!’
She broke to port, the other two to starboard, while the X-wings flew straight into the knot of enemy fighters, lasers blazing red, green Imperial lasers returning fire. As soon as she was certain she was out of reach of the TIEs, she brought up the tactical and saw the carrier ship’s shields were down to forty percent, which meant all four torpedoes must have hit their target dead-on. To port, she saw blue ion bolts flashing among the freighters; Gold Squadron had not been idle. Several TIEs that had been able to shake off pursuit were heading towards the freighters and the Rebel bombers attacking them, and Samica wondered what the convoy was transporting to warrant such a heavy escort.
‘This is Seven. Ten, Twelve, report in,’ she said.
‘Twelve standing by for another run.’
‘This is Ten,’ she heard Kaya’s voice. ‘Ready.’
‘What about that weapons malfunction of yours, Ten?’ Samica wanted to know.
The reply came in a very small voice. ‘I forgot to switch over to torps.’
‘All set now?’ Samica asked, not intending to chew the young woman out for this.
‘Yes, ma’am. I’m sorry.’
‘We’ll be going in for another pass, then. Set your torp launchers for linked fire and fire on my mark.’ Samica brought her fighter around again, just in time to see twelve more fighters launch from the Imperial carrier ship, but these were not the round Imperial TIE fighters with the flat solar panels at the sides, but larger ships with double cockpits and the solar panels bent inwards.
‘This is Red Two. We’ve got a squad of dupes coming in from six-thirteen, Lead,’ an X-wing pilot’s voice cut in, Wedge Antilles’, Samica thought. She wondered what the TIE bombers were trying to achieve. They were slow ships, slower even than Y-wings, armed to the teeth, but no match against X-wings. Still, there were twelve of them, all heading towards them, and if she could prevent it, she tried not to get herself caught between a squadron of eyeballs and a squadron of dupes.
‘Gold Ten, Gold Twelve, this is Seven,’ she said. ‘The carrier has to wait. No reason to bring it down quickly when it’s launched its entire fighter complement anyway. Target the TIE bombers; they should be possible targets for your missiles. Single fire, though.’
‘Acknowledged, Seven,’ Nous’ voice came back, and she switched her torpedo launchers back to single fire and targeted one of the TIE bombers. Her HUD winked yellow, then turned red, and Imp let out a shrill tone, indicating a lock. Samica fired at the bomber, which tried to juke and break out, but was too slow to evade the incoming missile. The Imperial ship blew up, and she saw several others also being hit by the X-wings. There were five TIE fighters left and ten X-wings; Gold Squadron, Samica saw, had not suffered any losses so far.
To her surprise, when she was about to target another of the bombers, she found that the heavy Imperial fighters were not returning fire, but veering off towards the freighters, seven of which had been incapacitated by the Y-wing ion cannons. Then Samica finally realized what the bomber’s objective was.
‘Lead, this is Gold Seven. They’re going to try to shoot down the freighters rather than let them fall into our hands. We need your help to take them out quickly!’
‘Copy that, Seven,’ Dutch replied. ‘You’ve heard it, people. Scratching those dupes is top priority.’
Of the nine TIE bombers still flying, six started targeting the freighters, while the remaining three joined the TIE fighters’ struggle against the Rebel ships. Samica broke hard to starboard when Imp’s shrill wail warned her of a missile targeting her, and the lamp flashing yellow atop her HUD winked out again, which meant she’d managed to break the lock. She searched for her attacker on the tactical, found him, and veered around to intercept him, switching back to lasers. She was headed for his flank and managed to get off a quick shot at him, which hit his ship, but did not cause very much damage, since TIE bombers’ hulls were far more reinforced than their fighter counterparts’. But he was slower than her Y-wing, and she had no trouble with tucking herself in behind him, firing a series of laser beams into his cone, which reduced his hull to twelve percent. Just before she could finish him off, Imp warbled a warning as a TIE fighter came in behind her and fired. Out of reflex, she broke into a sharp climb, and the beams missed her – barely.
‘Thanks, Imp,’ she said to her astromech as she broke off pursuit of the TIE bomber and tried to shake the enemy fighter behind her, but he was better then she could have hoped for, refusing to let himself be shaken. She jinked and zigzagged, but he was always behind her, never as close or in as good a position as to get off a good shot at her – she wasn’t going to let him have that if she could do anything about it – but entirely too close for comfort. And still he made no sign of letting her get away.
‘If you want to have this the hard way, that’s fine with me,’ Samica murmured between her teeth and stopped her jinking for a split second, just enough to appeal to his greed and give him an apparent opportunity no fighter pilot could resist, then she throttled her speed so abruptly that he shouldn’t stand any chance to react in time before he overshot.
At least, that was the theory. She hadn’t expected him to have the presence of mind to break, but he did – and into the same direction she’d chosen to get out of his path, too.
With Imp shrieking out his panic, she tore the stick around to avoid direct collision, then felt her Y-wing buck wildly as the TIE fighter slammed into it with such force that she was flung forward against her restraints, shields flashing white and coming up a deep red afterwards. She’d involuntarily closed her eyes, and when she opened them again, her opponent was gone, her shields were down to five percent, and her astromech was expressing his gratitude of the fact that he didn´t have a heart to suffer a stroke.
‘Seven, are you all right?’ Samica heard Teddie over com.
She drew a deep breath. ‘Any reason why I shouldn’t be?’
‘Nothing in particular. Was that a trick or something?’
‘Don’t try this at home, kids,’ she answered, then checked the tactical to see how things had developed.
The bombers had managed to shoot down one of the freighters, but there were only three of them left, as well as three TIE fighters. Red Squadron was still at ten pilots, Gold Squadron had not lost a single ship. The escort carrier was closing the distance to the freighters, doubtlessly to fire at them as well. Again, Samica wondered what might be so important for the Empire to explain this sort of behaviour.
She saw a TIE fighter chasing an X-wing, and brought her Y-wing around to give pursuit, another X-wing joining her.
‘That’s all right, Three, Gold Seven,’ the X-wing pilot’s voice came in over com. Red Five. ‘I don´t need any help here.’ His fighter was damaged, Samica saw, and it was obvious Jal te Gniev couldn’t fly full throttle or she wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the X-wing.
The TIE fighter scored a glancing hit at the X-wing, and Samica heard Biggs Darklighter’s voice from Red Three. ‘It doesn’t look like you didn’t need any help, Five.’ He fired at the TIE, missing barely, and Samica saw there was damage to his fighter, too. She knew it was her job to lead the attack, since none of the two outranked her and she was the only one with a (mostly) intact ship, and with anyone else, she would have done just that. In the present situation, however, she was willing to bet that would not be something Darklighter was going to like, so she decided to go against usual procedure. No standard procedures in the Alliance anyway, she reminded herself.
‘I’m your wing, Red Three,’ she told Darklighter. ‘Let’s pluck him off.’
Darklighter hesitated just a second longer than might still have been considered normal, then he replied, ‘All right, Gold Seven.’ She dropped in behind and to starboard of his fighter, and he accelerated to match the TIE’s speed, probably redirecting energy from the laser cannons or shields to thrusters to do so.
‘Five, when I say “execute”, you break hard to port. Gold Seven, we’ll sandwich the TIE between us, you take him from portside, I from starboard. Got that?’
‘Got it, Three,’ she replied.
‘Execute,’ Darklighter ordered, at the same time breaking to starboard to intercept the TIE fighter, who tried to shake the X-wing and almost managed to – but his evasive manoeuvre brought him directly in front of Samica’s lasers, and her fire hit him dead-on. The fighter spun out of control and blew up several hundred metres further ahead.
‘Wasn’t necessary, but thanks anyway,’ Jal said.
‘Yes it was, and you’re welcome,’ Darklighter replied. ‘Nice shooting, Gold Seven. Where’d you learn to fly?’
‘Let’s say I had an excellent teacher,’ she answered, relieved with his reaction. This might not have been standard procedure, but it had worked fine for all involved.
‘Seven, we need you back here.’ Dutch was two clicks distant, by the escort carrier, which had by now arrived at the freighters and was firing at them. It was not a great danger for the Rebel snubfighters, since its cannons were not accurate enough for hitting anything their scale, but its lasers were quickly gnawing away at the freighters’ hulls, and Samica saw there were only six of them left by now. They had been incapacitated by ion cannons, which meant they were painfully unprotected against their own people’s fire right now. If they had still had communications systems available to them, Samica was almost certain they would have reconsidered surrendering, but they probably didn’t have a clue about what was going on outside the ships.
The X-wings were finishing off the few remaining TIE fighters, while the Y-wings were targeting the escort carrier with wave upon wave of proton torpedoes. The carrier had a very strong hull, and even if her and Nous’ torps had hurt it badly at the beginning of the fighting, it took several combined actions and most of Gold Squadron’s torpedoes to kill the capital ship.
At Red Leader’s signal, the Alliance freighters Rescue II through IX, which had waited just outside the fighting ground, entered the area to take over the Imperial freighters, and the Rebel starfighters waited for the teams to report successful repair of the ships’ systems as well as control of them. All the while, they watched out for enemy ships coming out of hyperspace. It was not unlikely that the Empire had foreseen a raid, since the convoy had been so well defended, but the problems, when they came, did not come out of hyperspace.
Four of the ships had reported complete docking operations when there was a panicked transmission from Rescue III. ‘Red Leader, we have trouble over here. Apparently, the freighter has been set to self-destruct in . . . ninety seconds!’
‘Detach, Rescue III,’ Commander Dreis ordered. ‘If you can’t get your team out in one minute, get clear of the freighter. All other ships, get clear as well!’
‘We’re getting data from our rescue team, sir,’ the pilot of Rescue III said, hurriedly. ‘It´s classified Security One, and coded, but I bet we can unscramble it when we get back to base . . .’
‘Forget it, Rescue III,’ Dreis replied, raising his voice. ‘Detach right now! That’s an order!’
‘Understood, Red Leader. Detaching. We’ve got most of the stuff, I guess. Stand by for retracting the airlock –’
That second, the Imperial bulk freighter exploded, and for two hopeful seconds, it looked as if Rescue III might be able to get clear of the other craft in time.
The third second, however, the explosion caught the airlock, fuelled by the oxygen in it, and chewed its way through to the Alliance freighter. A series of explosions rocked the ship, then it blew up, a brilliant flash for a split second, then the oxygen had burned itself out and all that remained were a few debris parts floating in cold vacuum.
‘Damn,’ Commander Dreis whispered, not caring to switch off the com. Then he composed himself, and asked, ‘Did anyone pick up that transmission?’
‘Negative, Dave,’ Dutch replied, using Dreis’ nickname. ‘They were using an intercom frequency to transmit. Even if we’d known it was coming, it’d taken us several minutes to find the correct frequency. Whatever that encoded data was about, we’ll never find out.’
‘Rescue teams are finished, sir,’ the report came in from one of the Alliance freighters.
‘All right, Red and Gold groups, Rescue group,’ Dreis said, heaving a sigh. ‘Let’s jump out. Piggy?’
‘Yes, Chief,’ Jek ‘Piggy’ Porkins replied, the heavy-set man Samica had seen at a Sabacc game with Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles several weeks before.
‘I want you to jump out last to make sure we’ve got everyone and nobody stays behind.’
‘Will do, Chief.’
‘You’ve heard it, Golds,’ Dutch said. ‘Set coordinates for home.’
Nineteen snubfighters complied, followed by seven Alliance and five former Imperial freighters. As the stars elongated into lines, Samica tried not to wonder about the Imperial convoy’s mission again. Something was up, she was certain of it, and she was not sure if she wanted to know.
Rhun rummaged through his locker until he found the spare blanket he’d remembered seeing there when he had first looked into it. That had been almost three standard months ago, and he recalled his surprise at the existence of such a thing – in fact, for most of the recent months, he’d done without any blankets at night.
Now, however, the temperature had dropped so suddenly it made him wonder whether he might have been transferred to another planet without noticing. It had started at nightfall, and that nightfall had been different from all the others he’d seen here on Yavin 4 – it had been what those who had been here for longer called ‘dark night’, which meant there was no gas giant to be seen in the twilit sky, only profound blackness. Rhun knew that, due to the moon’s orbit around the planet Yavin, the climate was subject to sudden change, and that was what had happened now – and it would remain this way for another several days or even weeks, if the techs who had told him about it were to be believed. For the first few hours, he´d welcomed the reprieve from the oppressive heat, but by now, the cold was too much for his taste. This moon never seemed to behave in a nicely, normal, standard-worldly way.
He returned to his computer terminal and wrapped the blanket around himself. He’d agreed to work on a particularly nasty code after hours today; five of his Intentions colleagues were doing the same, all trying to figure out how the pieces of the code puzzle fit together. They’d snatched the data from secret Imperial transmissions via listening posts in the Core, whose personnel risked everything by their mere presence in the systems, but High Command had information that something big was afoot in the Empire, something that was worth taking some risks. Rhun didn´t know for certain what it was, but he could imagine the data had not been cut into pieces by the Empire but by the Alliance, who didn´t want their own people to find out too much about it yet. Somehow the thought gave him the creeps.
Rhun took another swallow from his caf, for the first time glad it was hot, when someone knocked on his door.
‘Come,’ he said, not looking up from his work.
The door opened, and he finally turned when whoever had entered did not say a word in greeting. It was Ritchett Bania, one of the other Intentions code-slicers who were working overtime to crack the code, but Rhun froze as he saw the other man’s expression.
‘Rick?’ he asked. ‘What’s up?’
‘I need your help on this.’ Bania laid a data disk on Rhun’s table. ‘How are you getting on?’
‘Well, could be worse,’ Rhun answered. ‘I’ve found a few regularities I can work on, but maybe it would be a good idea to compare results. Does Captain Candela know you’re here? I don’t know if he’ll be too happy that we work together on this – it’s probably highly classified.’
‘Candela’s sent me here, but they won’t keep this classified for very long, Rhun,’ Bania answered, producing another disk from the pocket of his jacket and inserted it into Rhun’s computer, then nodded to him. ‘Come on, bring it up.’
Rhun frowned, then complied. There was a string of nonsense numbers and words, but Bania typed in a series of commands, and a minute later, there were two short messages on the screen, one from the Imperial Holonews, one not listed with a source.
The first read,
News have reached us yesterday that, due to an asteroid collision, the detention colony world Despayre was destroyed. By lucky chance, most of the Imperial military personnel were not on the planet during the terrible disaster, but were attending a meeting with Grand Moff Tarkin on his personal ship in orbit around the planet. Most of the inhabitants of the planet were depraved individuals, but our condolences should go out to the families of all the Emperor’s brave and loyal soldiers who died in the catastrophe.
Rhun frowned at Bania. ‘ “Lucky chance”? What kind of bantha droppings is this?’
‘Read the rest,’ Bania answered grimly.
The second message was short, but it made Rhun´s hair stand on end.
It seems your interest in Tarkin’s project was justified. Despayre’s fate was indeed not an accident. A battle station has been seen in orbit around the world just before it disappeared from the charts.
I’ll keep you informed.
‘A battle station that’s capable of destroying a world?’ Rhun whispered.
‘Damned well looks like it,’ Bania replied.
‘But why Despayre? I seriously doubt anyone would consider staging a breakout from there. And if there had been such an attempt, it would have been said in the news article that Tarkin had heroically put it down.’
‘That was just a test, if you ask me,’ Bania said. ‘See what that thing can do, and then . . . boom.’
‘Commander Willard has to hear this,’ Rhun said.
‘Yep. But before we present him with the facts . . . we’ll also present him with a possible solution.’ He gave Rhun the other disk. ‘If I’m not mistaken, then the data we’re trying to crack at the moment is from one of our outposts, a world called Toprawa. And they seem to have something we’d happily kill someone for.’
‘Stop playing your games,’ Rhun told him, getting fed up with this tension-building. ‘What have they got?’
‘In the part I’ve been able to decode,’ Bania said, bringing up the data, ‘it said they’d stolen some highly classified stuff from the Empire. What about yours?’
Rhun shook his head. ‘Nothing so far. Give me two more hours. Or do you have any ideas for successful approaches?’
‘Hmmm . . .’ Bania sat down on the other stool in the cabin, typing in commands, but shook his head. ‘Would have been too easy, trying the same sequence again,’ he said. ‘But I can give you the approaches I tried, so you can pass them by, at least.’
‘All right,’ Rhun replied. ‘Like I said, two hours. But maybe you should tell Commander Willard now anyway. He won’t like it if he finds out you let him wait.’
‘I guess you’re right,’ Bania agreed. ‘And not a word to anyone else about this battle station before we’re given permission.’ Rhun nodded, and Bania left.
Rhun heaved a sigh and went back to work, bypassing the tracks Bania had already tried, all the while bringing up worst-case scenarios in the back of his head. If the Empire had a battle station that could reduce a planet to rubble, that was bad for the Alliance because of two things. One, obviously, all planets known for collaboration with the Rebellion could be destroyed now, and Two, probably worse, they would know. Support for the Alliance was going to go down dramatically if there was a planet killer around, and Rhun supposed that was what Tarkin had had in mind. The man was obsessed with power and inspiring fear, wanting to make the galaxy tremble in terror before him, according to his ‘Tarkin doctrine’, and it looked as if he was on the right track to achieve it.
It took him two and a half hours, even with the preparatory work from Bania, to decode the rest of the message from Toprawa. All it said was,
Send in someone to retrieve the technical readouts!
Rhun stared at the message for a full minute before he hurried to get it out to Commander Willard.
Samica stepped down from the ladder, expecting the whiff of hot, humid air she had by now become used to, even if she still didn´t like it, and was surprised that the starfighter hangar was even colder than her cockpit had been. According to her chrono, which she’d set for Coruscant standard time as well as Yavin 4 local time, it was early afternoon, but outside, it was pitch-black night.
‘What’ve you done to the climate?’ she asked one of the techs that came over to inspect her ship.
The tech, a very young woman with ebony skin, who looked barely out of her teens, shook her head. ‘They call it “dark night”, ma’am. Somehow fitting, I guess. It seems to happen every few months here, but I haven’t seen it either while I’ve been here.’
‘Better than this damp heat,’ Samica decided, pulling off her helmet and put it into her cockpit, along with her flight gloves.
‘Well, I don’t know, ma’am. I grew up on Lorrd, and I don’t like to be cold.’ Samica noted that she had to be wearing warm clothes under her tech’s coveralls.
‘It won’t be for long, I suppose.’ Samica rubbed the back of her head where her hair was plastered to her scalp by the long hours of wearing a helmet. ‘There’s something wrong with the deflector shield display. The shields themselves are fine, but the display keeps messing things up. Could you have a look at that?’
‘I’ll set to work on that immediately, ma’am,’ the tech replied. ‘Your ship was hit, I take it?’
Samica grimaced. ‘You could say that.’
‘Let’s put it that way,’ she heard Pops’ voice from behind her. ‘If it hadn’t been a Y-wing, it wouldn’t have been hit, it would have been junk.’
The dark-skinned youth grinned, white teeth flashing in her agile face. ‘I get it. Some of the sensors might have been fried, but I can repair them, ma’am.’
‘Thanks.’ Samica gave Pops a mock glare. ‘And thank you for blabbing.’
Pops raised both hands in a gesture of innocence. ‘Hey, that was meant to be a compliment,’ he said. ‘Other pilots would have built up that story even more by now, Sam.’
‘Probably.’ She looked over at Dutch, who was conferring with Dreis in low voices. ‘Have you got any idea what that convoy was carrying?’ she asked him.
He folded his arms across his chest and followed her glance. ‘A vague one.’ He kneaded his chin. ‘But I don’t think I should tell you.’
She frowned. ‘You don’t fully trust me either,’ she said.
‘Sam, I’d trust you with my life, and I have, and I’ll do it again, but this one’s something I shouldn’t know about in the first place, and neither should you. I’ll tell you as soon as I can, but not yet. Okay?’
She sighed and grimaced, but this time, it was more of a rueful smile. ‘I don’t have much of a choice, do I?’
‘That’s right.’ Pops put an arm around her and propelled her towards the exit. ‘Now let’s go get ourselves some caf, there’s a good girl.’
Samica shook her head, resigned. ‘I hate it when you say that.’
‘I know. You think I’d say it if you didn’t?’
Pops was not the only one affected by a shadow of some foreknowledge very few on the base shared, which did not mean the others didn’t feel it. You didn’t have to be a Jedi from some children’s fairytale, Samica reflected, to realize that something was going on, from the haunted faces of everyone above the rank of captain on the base, and quite a few Intel personnel below that rank, as well. She had asked Rhun, and the expression on his face had told her he was one of the people who knew more than she did, but she hadn’t pressed the issue. Samica was still very much aware of some people watching her, like Biggs Darklighter and probably several others she didn’t know about, and was doing her best to make a good impression. At least Darklighter had gone from outright scowling whenever he saw her to merely ignoring her, which was something she could live with.
A week after the fighter pilots’ return from the convoy raid, the tension was almost tangible when Samica entered the common room all Alliance personnel on Yavin base shared. The planet was still blocking out the sun, and the temperature had dropped as far as it would get on Yavin 4. It had been dark for ten local days. Storms and rainfalls had worn the Rebels’ nerve out even further; some of the gusts had swept rain from the outside as far as some of the sleeping halls at times.
Samica looked around the large stone room lighted by glow panels, saw Jay, Teddie, and Pops at one of the tables and went over to them. Even Teddie wasn’t in his usual quipping mood; Samica had never seen him so sombre.
She sat down with her tray and began to busy herself with her dinner when she noticed Rhun sitting at a large stone slab that acted as a bar. He had his chin propped on his fist, a glass beside him that didn’t look as if he had touched it at all, and he was staring at the wall, his eyes distant.
She got up and walked over to him, but he never looked up at her, not even when she sat down beside him, giving him a searching look.
‘Rhun?’ she asked, touching his arm.
He flinched, as if he’d realized for the first time that she was even there, then reached for his glass to cover his surprise, but his hands were shaking so much that he knocked it over, and before he could catch it again, it fell over the edge and shattered on the floor. He looked after it as if trying to figure out why exactly it was doing this, then finally looked at Samica.
‘What’s happened?’ she asked, almost in a whisper, without caring for the fact that he was most likely not authorized to tell her anything he knew.
He took so long in answering that she was beginning to wonder whether he’d heard the question at all, but at length, he drew a deep breath.
‘Alderaan’s gone,’ he said.
She narrowed her eyes, puzzlement on her face. ‘What?’
‘Just got it from unofficial sources. The Empire has not released any explanation so far, but they’re going to come up with some stupid story soon enough. Anything to claim they’re not to blame.’
She shook her head vehemently, in an attempt to clear her thoughts. ‘Wait, Rhun, I don’t think I got any of this. Alderaan’s been bombed, and the Empire did it?’ They had both kept their voices so low that none of the other people could overhear their conversation; there weren’t any near them anyway.
‘Not bombed,’ Rhun said. ‘Annihilated. Obliterated. Wiped out. It doesn’t get any better if you say it differently, does it?’
Samica felt an icy shiver down her spine. ‘How?’ was all she managed.
Rhun was still looking at her, but his eyes were focused somewhere beyond her face. He started to make a reply, but then he stopped himself when he realized he should never have said what he just had, not to her.
‘Doesn’t matter,’ he murmured. ‘There’s nothing left anyway. If anything, I really can’t wait to hear how the Empire’s going to explain this away . . . if they even want to explain it away.’
‘But there has to be another explanation,’ Samica said. ‘It would take the entire Starfleet to destroy a planet, and why Alderaan? They don’t even have any weapons! There must have been something else – an asteroid collision, an accident . . .’
Rhun nodded, weary-eyed. ‘Go right ahead believing that if you want to. I don’t doubt there’re countless of others who’ll also be happy about every possible kind of stupid excuse the Empire will come up with, just as long as they don’t have to see the truth.’ He got up from his chair and left, the shards of his glass crunching under the soles of his feet. Samica stared after him in dismay, but decided against running after him. A lot of heads were turned into her or Rhun’s direction as it was. Her squad mates were also watching her, and she turned away.
It’s impossible, a voice in her head kept telling her. She knew all the numbers; she knew what which kind of ship could do, and none of them were capable of reducing a planet to the kind of rubble Rhun had implied. It was impossible for the entire Imperial Starfleet to go against Alderaan, a planet that had been demilitarised decades ago and been peaceful ever since, and pound it to so much space dust. It would have taken several squadrons of capital ships weeks to achieve that degree of destruction, and that could not possibly have passed unnoticed. From a strategic point of view, it was the height of stupidity. Even an institution as powerful as the Empire just could not commit such an act without having to fear retribution, could not hope to get away with it even if the victim had been a lesser world in the Rim, much less the Core world Alderaan. Alderaan might not be a militarily powerful opponent, but it was a political power, and there were a lot of Alderaanian politicians who were opposed to Palpatine’s regime.
Or had been.
All of a sudden, Samica’s thoughts returned from the strategic-political to the sheer horror of it all. If Rhun was right, a planet had been wiped out of existence, a world with some two billion people, with no chance to escape their fate.
Her eyes returned to her squad mates across the room – they had returned to their own quiet conversation once again, but she couldn’t take her eyes off Pops. He had never told her if he’d had any family back on Alderaan.
Samica didn’t know how long she had sat there, trying to sort out her thoughts, but at some point, she must have gone back to her and Pops’ quarters, although she couldn’t quite recall how she’d got there. She was sitting on her bed, staring into the darkness, listening to Pops’ snoring. It was almost midnight, so she supposed she must have stayed in the common room for about an hour, and she felt like a trapped animal. She knew something she wasn’t supposed to know, and she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone – yet she felt she had to tell someone. And the someone who had a right to know was peacefully sleeping across from her, happily ignorant of what had happened to the world he’d grown up on and to all the people he had known.
Suddenly, she heard Pops stir, then the light went on. He looked at her, sitting up as well.
‘Trouble sleeping?’ he asked.
She nodded numbly.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’
What should she say? How could she possibly have told him what she knew?
Pops cocked his head, his usual avuncular smile on his face. ‘It’ll turn out fine, Sam. It’s about that Intel kid, right? Don’t worry, whatever you argued about, you’ll work it out, or else he’s not worth it.’
Samica blinked at him in utter confusion before she realized what he was talking about. He must have drawn his own conclusions about her earlier conversation with Rhun, conclusions which were probably a lot simpler than what actually had been up. Why, he seemed to believe she couldn’t sleep because she was lovesick!
The absurdity of it all finally made her head clear somewhat. Here she was trying to figure out a way to break the news to her former wingman, while he was trying to comfort her.
She shook her head. ‘That’s not it, Pops.’ There was no easy way of breaking the news, so she might just as well get it over with. He had a right to know. ‘The Empire has destroyed Alderaan.’
Pops froze, then relaxed somewhat, but his expression remained intent. ‘Sam, that’s not a very funny joke.’
‘I wouldn’t dream about joking about something like this, Pops. Not to you. It’s true. I just got it from Rhun, he shouldn’t have told me either, but I just couldn’t . . .’ She broke off, saw his face crumple, and he whispered, ‘What do you mean, “destroyed”?’
‘According to Rhun, there’s nothing left. I don’t know how it happened, how it could have happened, but . . .’
She didn’t know how she had expected the old pilot to react, but she bit her lip hard when he abruptly turned his back to her, curled up facing the wall, his shoulders twitching. He didn’t make a sound, but that only made it worse. In that second, Samica finally believed that it was true, that it was not just an exaggerated rumour, because she remembered the conversation she and Pops had had a week earlier, and she realized that he had known it was possible for the Empire to destroy a planet. There was not a trace of incredulity in his reaction, just plain horror that it had been Alderaan.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered, but he didn’t react.
Samica didn’t have to worry about keeping the secret the next day, because for some reason or other, everyone knew it, and talked about it in hushed tones. Before noon, there was a very short announcement over the intercom, summing up what by now everyone knew, and while she heard Commander Willard’s words recounting more or less what Rhun had told her last night, she remembered the old commander had been from Alderaan as well.
Alderaan’s destruction was a severe shock to the Rebel Alliance, not from a military point of view, but from an almost personal one. Despite their despise for war and fighting, the people of Alderaan had been among the Alliance’s staunchest supporters, and had supplied the Rebellion with something at least as important as weapons and technology: faith and courage. Some very fine minds had been involved in the Rebel Alliance almost from the start, had formed the Alliance into something more than just the bunch of dissidents and anarchists the Empire mistook them for. One of these had been Bail Organa, the viceroy of Alderaan, who had been one of the political leaders that had called the Rebellion into being some years ago.
But now Organa was dead, as must be most of his two billion people, all of those who had not been fortunate enough to be away from their home planet when it was obliterated by the Empire. That part of the story was still kept secret; there were speculations, to be sure, about how the Empire had managed to destroy an entire world, but there were no answers. At least Samica was able to find out that what the Imperial freighters had carried on their last mission had been supplies bound for a secret Imperial military project, which had been the reason for the strong escort and the order to destroy the freighters rather than let the Alliance have them. Intel had let nobody near them for days.
It would remain to be seen whether Alderaan’s fate would bring other worlds to knuckle under to the Empire to avoid sharing that same fate, or whether it would serve as a rallying call for other star systems willing to support the Alliance. Whatever it would prove to be in the future, the news had shaken everyone on Yavin base, with the result that most people in the Massassi temple spent as much time as they could before the holoprojector in the common room.
Rhun kept to himself the following days. He knew it had not been a good idea to tell Samica about what had happened to Alderaan, and he didn’t want to tell her about the rest as well – that the Empire controlled a battle station called Death Star, which could destroy worlds with one blast from its superlaser. The Alliance had despatched someone to pick up the technical readouts of the battle station from Toprawa, so they knew what they were up against, but the little the Alliance knew to date was bad enough. The station was supposed to be the size of a moon, many times as powerful as an Imperial Star Destroyer, and nothing short of a Star Destroyer would be able to cause it any damage. With its limited contingent of corvettes and a couple of frigates, the Rebel Alliance could scarcely hope to achieve anything against it unless the technical readouts showed a miraculous flaw. Which was unlikely enough to begin with, even if it hadn’t been for the fact that the Alliance did not have the readouts yet. And with every day that passed, hopes decreased.
He was returning from getting a bit of fresh air when, passing by the freighter hangar, he saw a familiar old YT-1300 freighter he recognised as Grant Dyson’s Noble Cause. The old smuggler stood at the entry hatch with a blond, confident-looking young woman and examined a new dent near the rear cargo compartment.
Rhun quickly came over to them, and Dyson turned at the sound of footsteps and grinned when he saw the younger man.
‘Why, so the Empire still hasn’t managed to get hold of you?’ he quipped.
‘Ill weeds grow apace,’ Rhun replied, equally grinning. ‘Does your arrival mean there’s real food around tonight?’
‘ ’fraid not,’ Dyson answered. ‘Unless you want to try and eat a proton torpedo, that is.’
‘Thanks, but no thanks,’ Rhun said.
The woman had waited out the exchange, but now turned to Rhun with a smile. ‘Since the captain has forgotten about his manners, I’ll have to introduce myself without his help.’ She extended a hand to him. ‘Lieutenant Firia de Boeck. I’m Grant’s new co-pilot.’
‘Rhun van Leuken.’ He took her hand.
‘I know. Grant has told me a lot about you.’
‘He has?’ Rhun threw the smuggler a suspicious glance. ‘I hope he hasn’t told you about the pittin in the fridge.’
‘No, just about that souping-up job you did on the power converters,’ Dyson cut in. ‘Maybe you could repeat it if you have time. The old lady is malfunctioning again.’
‘The old lady should have been given the final jump to a junkyard years ago,’ Rhun observed, looking at the dent at the freighter’s underside. It did not look that serious, a new paint job, probably, and she would be as good as new. The power converters would be another matter entirely, if they looked anything like Dyson had implied.
‘I’ll get round to it as soon as I have the time,’ Rhun promised, ‘but you can imagine we’ve got a lot of work here already as it is.’
‘I’ve heard it.’ Dyson’s face was serious again, and so was de Boeck’s. ‘How’s Commander Willard?’
‘I don’t know. He told the rest of the base five days ago, and he sounded like he always does. Personally, though . . .’ He sighed. ‘I’ve never known the feeling of losing my entire home world, and I hope I’ll never find out.’
‘I’ve got a couple of news he might be interested in,’ Dyson said. ‘They’re beginning to contradict themselves. I’ve heard two versions about what happened to Alderaan so far; one says they destroyed themselves, by accident, with a terrible new weapon Bail Organa was devising. Not very imaginative, and bloody unlikely.’
‘And the other?’ Rhun wanted to know.
‘Alderaan was destroyed because of a terrible virus Bail Organa was experimenting with. Then, of course, there are those who say Grand Moff Tarkin destroyed the planet because he wanted to make it clear he meant to abide by his so-called Tarkin doctrine.’
‘Which he has made amply clear, I should say,’ de Boeck murmured.
Rhun nodded. ‘But you shouldn’t talk about things like these too openly at the moment. Some of them are still classified. Especially everything about that monstrous bit of machinery that caused the whole thing.’
‘The Death Star,’ de Boeck supplied softly.
Rhun threw them both a surprised look. ‘How did you know about it?’
Dyson laughed mirthlessly. ‘If the Alliance could win the smugglers as allies or just listen in on their scuttlebutt every now and then, you’d sure give the Empire a run for its credits, kid,’ he said. ‘But well, it was a bit of luck . . . and a matter of greasing the servos of a couple of Imperial officers.’
Rhun nodded knowingly. ‘Bribing Imperial officers. You know, Captain, it’s a miracle you haven’t been dumped on Kessel yet.’
‘Won’t happen before I run out of brandy to bribe them with. Y’know, kid, these Imperial types know quality when they see it.’
‘One day you’ll run into a teetotaller, and I wish I could see it.’
Lieutenant de Boeck tapped Dyson’s shoulder. ‘Sorry to interrupt the two of you, Grant, but we have some business to attend to. Willard will want to hear some of the things we’ve just told Rhun here without permission, and I think the commander should hear about them as soon as possible.’
Dyson nodded. ‘Be around for a bite of proton torpedo in the canteen later? I won’t be around tomorrow; we’re heading off again in the morning.’
Rhun smiled. ‘Wouldn’t miss it.’
The prospect of dinner with Dyson had lifted Rhun’s spirits already, and that afternoon, the planet Yavin finally moved away from the sun, still looming in the sky like a predator, but at least now some late sunrays could pass the gas giant and warm up Yavin 4. Several Rebels had assembled on the top of the great stone temple, and the canteen was rather empty considering it was dinnertime for those on the base who followed a standard activity cycle.
There were several Y-wing pilots in the hall, but Samica was not among them. Rhun saw neither her nor her wing, Kaya, so it was a safe assumption that they were on a patrol together. Since the base commanders had known there was an Imperial superweapon around, patrols had been doubled, and their range had been tripled.
Rhun saw Dyson at a table near the centre of the room and steered towards him with a tray of food. The smuggler was looking at his plate, but then he greeted him with a wry smile. ‘If I’d known it was this bad, we wouldn’t have brought proton torpedoes,’ he said.
Rhun sat down with a shrug. ‘The pilots will be happy to have them,’ he said. ‘Where’s Lieutenant de Boeck?’
‘She’s gone back to go over some modification ideas with the techs.’
‘Modification ideas? Don’t you think it might be a better idea to repair the Cause before you modify her even further?’
‘Perhaps.’ Dyson looked down again.
‘What’s the matter?’ Rhun asked.
The smuggler drew a deep breath. ‘Just thinking about Atmos again. Commander Willard just told me that it was as stupid a death as you can possibly get. The Imp pilot who shot him down defected only days after that.’
Rhun shook his head. ‘He could have made up his mind a bit sooner,’ he said softly.
‘She,’ Dyson amended.
Rhun froze, staring at the freighter captain. ‘What did you just say?’
‘I know what you’re thinking, but you’d better forget about it. Yes, it was your friend Samica Trey who killed him, but she’s done with that, isn’t she?’
‘How can you say that?’ Rhun asked, aghast. ‘She – she never told me! She killed your friend, and all you’re saying is that I should forget about it?’
‘What should she have done? She didn’t know you knew him. I doubt she even knew whom she killed. Rhun, she’s probably killed dozens of Rebels before she joined herself.’
‘No, she didn’t. If she told me the truth, she’d shot down only one “enemy” ship before she deserted. She said that herself, but she never . . .’ He broke off, ducking his head quickly, and rested his forehead on his hands.
Dyson leaned over the table to pat his shoulder. ‘Rhun, you can’t change her past. I’d have to be blind to miss how much you care for her, and I’d be willing to bet you were her strongest motivation to defect, but you can’t turn her into something she never was. She’s developed remarkably for someone who has grown up with the Empire’s lies, and she’s doing her best to become a proper Rebel, but you can’t rush her into anything. And there was no way she could have known that the only Rebel she ever killed was an acquaintance of yours. If she’d known, she would have told you.’
Rhun raised his head again. ‘I don’t get it,’ he said. ‘Blast, Atmos was more than just an “acquaintance”! He certainly was more to you! I can’t just go to her and say, “Y’know, Samica, you killed the man who gave me a chance and picked me up off the streets, but that doesn’t matter, because you know better now, don’t you?” ’ He drew a hand over his face and stared into his food, which was almost untouched. ‘How can you forgive her for that so easily?’
Dyson sat back with a sigh. ‘Kid, I was Atmos’ friend, and I knew him a lot better than you ever did. Stars know I wish he was still around, but he isn’t. Still, I know he knew people can change, if they’re given a chance. Do you think any of us would have let a sixteen-year-old little rascal work on our hallowed ships if we hadn’t thought he deserved a chance?’ Rhun opened his mouth, but Dyson cut him off. ‘Don’t think it’s easy, Rhun. Neither of us – nor Samica Trey – can change the fact that Atmos has ended a scratch on a TIE fighter hatch –’
‘He didn’t,’ Rhun grumbled, almost against his own will. At Dyson’s questioning look, he added, ‘She thinks it’s a barbaric custom.’
The old smuggler nodded. ‘Maybe she wouldn’t have helped you on that Star Destroyer if it hadn’t been for Atmos’ death,’ he said.
Rhun frowned. ‘That’s beyond me.’
‘Give her that chance, Rhun. I think she deserves it . . . both of you do.’
The blackness of space had remained unrelieved for the duration of the whole patrol, and Samica checked her chrono once more. Thirty minutes to go. Still, even if this had been another uneventful patrol, of which there had been many in her life, this had been one of the more interesting nonetheless. Nobody of them knew what exactly they were looking for, only that it was bad, and probably very, very big.
Kaya was directly behind her, scanning the area to port, while she was scanning to starboard. Both were using their focal sensor mode, by General Dodonna’s orders, to spot any incoming ship at once, even if that meant being spotted as well, which would not have been the case in a passive scanning mode. High Command had decided, however, that any hostile entering the Yavin system knew what to look for anyway, and the sooner the Rebels saw him, the better.
Samica’s chrono had counted down to twelve minutes when there was a blue dot appearing on her front screen. Her initial moment of shock soon gave way to relief when the colour registered. Blue was the designation for neutral, but generally friendly, objects. She quickly brought the ship up on her HUD, seeing it was a heavily modified YT-1300 Corellian light freighter called Millennium Falcon.
‘Millennium Falcon, this is Gold Seven. You are entering Alliance space. Report your destination and business.’
‘This is the Millennium Falcon,’ a male voice answered in a Corellian accent. ‘Our business is to get outta here as quickly as possible after we’ve been paid for this trip, right, Chewie?’ There was another sound over com, one that made Samica flinch: Wookiee. ‘Can we talk to someone responsible around here?’
Samica was just about to make an angry reply when another voice cut in, this one female and a lot more commanding than the male one. ‘Gold Seven, this is Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan. We need landing clearance at once. Is General Dodonna on the base? Or Commander Willard?’
‘Both, ma’am,’ Samica replied without thinking. How do you address a royal princess?
‘See to it that they’re notified immediately, please, Gold Seven,’ the princess went on. ‘I’m beginning to transmit the code.’
‘Right away, ma’am. They’ll be glad to know you’re here.’ She switched to another frequency. ‘Yavin base, this is Gold Seven. Princess Leia Organa is here, on a freighter called Millennium Falcon. They request landing clearance and an audience with General Dodonna.’
‘I copy, Gold Seven.’ The ground controller switched over to an open channel. ‘Millennium Falcon, stand by. I’ll have to check that code.’
‘Yeah, but hurry up, base,’ the male voice answered, the one that had spoken first. ‘I ain’t gonna stick around when the Imperials drop by for a visit.’
‘I’ll discuss that with General Dodonna,’ the princess replied coolly. ‘Ground control, Gold Seven, I ask you to treat this as confidential. As for you, Captain, leave the talking to me, please.’
Samica watched the ship descend towards the moon, feeling the tension that had built within her for the past weeks mount to a new level of intensity. So the princess had managed to escape her homeworld’s fate, but from what she’d heard from the freighter’s captain, the Empire was likely to track them here.
Whatever was going to happen, it would happen soon.
The hangar was busier than Samica had ever seen it, with several military speeders carrying personnel to and from the docking bays. Samica saw the Millennium Falcon standing at the back of the hangar, near her fighter when she set it down, several people surrounding it, among them Commander Willard. She was too far away to hear anything that was being said, but she could see the relief on the commander’s face as he hugged the princess briefly. A motley array of people exited the YT-1300 freighter: a brown-haired man in his thirties with an air of indifference, closely followed by an enormous Wookiee. Both stood aside when another man came out, this one much shorter and very young looking, wearing simple civilian clothes that looked like a farmer’s. Behind him came two droids, one R2 unit and a golden protocol droid, who looked around the hangar with interest. A couple of techs came towards them, exchanged a short word with the princess, then took the R2 unit away with them. The young man – who, on second glance, looked even younger than Samica – had gone over to Tiree’s Y-wing and examined the ship with fascination.
Kaya had climbed down from her cockpit and joined Samica at her snubfighter.
‘Have you got any idea what’s going on here?’ she asked, her voice nervous.
Samica folded her arms across her chest and leaned against her Y-wing’s landing gear, looking over at the small group around Commander Willard and Princess Leia, who were now following the techs with the R2 unit towards the interior of the temple.
‘No,’ she said softly. ‘Not yet. But I bet we’ll soon find out.’
She was surprised at how tiny the princess was. Commander Willard was not a tall man, a centimetre or two shorter than Samica, but he towered over the young woman from Alderaan. Somehow she must have thought someone with royal blood ought to be taller.
‘Come on,’ she told Kaya. ‘Let’s get back to the others. Dutch is bound to be one of the first who is given more information than the rest of us. It’s going to hit the fan pretty soon if you ask me, I want to be informed when that happens.’
Information was slow to trickle down to the less exalted Rebels on Yavin base, but the next day, Samica could tell it had reached Dutch, at least. He was sitting in the canteen, the dark circles under his eyes telling her that he hadn’t slept at all, and he was staring into space. She got some caf from the processor, the strongest available, and sat down next to him.
‘How about some dutchcaf?’ she asked, offering him the cup.
He raised his head to look at her wearily. ‘Is that how it’s called?’
‘At the very least, that’s what it should be called, considering I don’t know anyone else whose stomach is strong enough to bear it.’
Dutch looked into his caf. ‘Thanks, anyway, Sam.’ He raked a hand through his hair and then scratched his chin. ‘Do I really look that bad?’ he asked.
‘Do you want an honest answer or a nice one?’
‘Thought so.’ He took a deep swallow of caf, then sighed appreciatively. ‘That’s better.’
Samica looked around the canteen until she saw Rhun at the other end of the room. She hadn’t talked to him for the last five days, since he’d told her about Alderaan, and got up. ‘Excuse me, Chief,’ she said, and went over to him.
Rhun quickly looked at her as she came towards his table, then turned away, and she frowned.
‘Is anything wrong?’ she wanted to know.
He returned his eyes to her. ‘Has there ever been anything you thought you should have told me about but then didn’t?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she replied, still confused. ‘Like what?’
‘See?’ he observed sadly. ‘That’s what I meant.’
Baffled, she shook her head. ‘Rhun, I haven’t got any idea what you m –’
She was cut short by the shrill wail of the alarm, and a voice blared over the speakers, ‘All starfighter pilots report to the briefing room immediately! Repeat, to all fighter pilots! Report to the briefing room immediately!’
Everywhere in the canteen, people jumped up from their seats, and Samica cast a last distressed glance at Rhun before she hurried out.
She was already dressed in her flight suit; the base had been on alert since the previous evening, and so were most of the others when she entered the briefing theatre. The large room was already crammed to the last seat, so she stood near the side with some of the others who had not found seats, near Kaya and Jay. Dutch was standing at the front and to the side of the room, together with the Princess Leia, and Samica saw the others who had arrived aboard the Millennium Falcon in the room as well. The human pilot, Han Solo, and Chewbacca, his Wookiee co-pilot, were standing near the entrance, the young farm boy, whose name was Luke Skywalker, was sitting in the middle of the room, next to Wedge Antilles, still wearing his white civilian clothes, and the R2 unit was in front of the audience. Samica wondered what the little droid was carrying that was so important.
Conversation in the briefing room died when General Dodonna entered and stood in front of the assembly. The general was an old man in his seventies, with a white beard and white hair, wearing a long coat over his uniform tunic, which made him look more like an intellectual or an armchair historian than a military leader, but everyone in this room knew appearances were deceiving. Dodonna had been a commander back in the Clone Wars, and he still was one of the finest tacticians in the galaxy.
The general waited for the crowd to fall silent, then brought up the holo display of something round, looking like a perfect orb except for an indentation above the equatorial line of the thing. Samica felt her stomach go cold as she realised it had a diameter of one hundred and sixty kilometres.
“Gentlebeings,’ Dodonna began without preamble, ‘you are looking at the greatest battle station ever built – the Death Star.’ He waited for the subsequent murmur to die down before continuing. ‘It is on its way to this moon and will arrive here within the hour, according to our calculations. However, there is hope.’ He punched a button at the display, and the image of the enormous station began to rotate. ‘The battle station is heavily shielded and carries a firepower greater than half the Starfleet. Its defences are designed around a direct large-scale assault. A small one-man fighter should be able to penetrate the outer defence.’
There was a lot of murmuring among the pilots now, and Samica saw the Corellian smuggler roll his eyes heavenward at a remark of his furry co-pilot’s, then make a dismissive gesture with his hand. Dutch voiced what everyone was thinking. ‘Pardon me for asking, sir, but what good are snubfighters going to be against that?’
Dodonna nodded. ‘Well, the Empire doesn’t consider a small one-man fighter to be any threat, or they’d have a tighter defence. An analysis of the plans provided by Princess Leia has demonstrated a weakness in the battle station.’ He punched in another command, and the image began to zoom in on the equatorial line of the massive construction, ending in a trench that ran along it.
‘The approach will not be easy. You are required to manoeuvre straight down this trench and skim the surface to this point.’ The image showed a small opening in the battle station, looking ridiculously small on a craft that size.
‘The target area is only two metres wide. It’s a small thermal exhaust port. The shaft leads directly to the reactor system. A precise hit will start a chain reaction which should destroy the station. The shaft is ray-shielded, so you’ll have to use proton torpedoes.’
The briefing room erupted into talking and muttering, all the pilots letting out their incredulity at such a preposterous task. ‘That’s impossible, even for a computer!’ Wedge exclaimed.
‘It’s not impossible. I used to bull’s-eye womp rats in my T-16 back home. They’re not much bigger than two metres.’ It was the white-clad farm boy that had spoken. Samica wondered what he was doing here in the first place; normally, only pilots were allowed into the briefing room, especially at a time like this. He sounded like any odd hot-shot who thought he was a pilot because he had won a couple of skyhopper races.
Well, I decided I was going to be a pilot after I’d won a couple of skyhopper races.
General Dodonna favoured the young man with a nod. ‘Then man your ships,’ he said solemnly. ‘And may the Force be with you.’
Samica had known the term, even if she’d never heard it used before. She knew the Rebels – some of them, at least – believed in the Force, and even if she didn’t, it didn’t seem strange to hear the words. At the very least, it was the strongest ‘good luck’ she could think of, and if there was such a thing as the Force, they had never needed it as badly as they needed it now.
The pilots left the briefing theatre, most of them silent, those who weren’t only conversing in a whisper. There were almost thirty of them; the Alliance had twenty-seven snubfighters on Yavin, eleven Y-wings and sixteen X-wings. Every single ship that would fly would be joining the attack, the sixteen X-wings forming a single squadron for the occasion. Samica caught up with Jay, Tiree, and Teddie before the briefing room. Dutch was just ahead of them, as were Pops and Ryle. She saw that Dutch’s face was intent and very pale, and she felt a pang of worry. She was certain he had known about the Death Star, had known it was on its way here, and remembered he hadn’t slept last night. Half an hour ago, she’d assumed he’d been up plotting all night, together with the other leaders, but now she began to wonder whether he was just troubled. Or was it afraid?
The hangar was all bustling activity, last-minute checks being run on the starfighters, even some last-minute repairs being performed. Dutch gathered his pilots around his ship before everyone headed off for their own fighters, looking each in the eyes. ‘Make it count, people,’ he said.
Imp greeted her with a series of excited bleeps and whistles as he was tucked into the droid’s socket behind her cockpit, and she leaned over to pat him on his domed head. ‘Yeah, you too, Imp,’ she said softly as she pulled herself in.
Samica put on her helmet and gloves, then let the engines warm up and took the time to make a more thorough systems check. All the lights came up in the green, also, to her relief, the indicator lamps for the shield generators, which had been malfunctioning on her last mission. Everywhere in the hangar, she saw pilots getting into their ships, to her surprise, the young farm boy was among them, wearing a flight suit now. He was climbing into an X-wing cockpit, Red Five, and she remembered that Jal te Gniev was in sick bay – with measles. She could almost imagine the pilot’s face, which was probably so red with anger the measles hardly stuck out anymore.
The freighter called Millennium Falcon was also getting ready for take-off, and she saw the captain and the Wookiee load crates and boxes into the ship’s hold. Commander Willard was there as well, talking to the pilot, who wouldn’t meet his eyes. Samica had heard it say that Han Solo, the captain, had only agreed to take the princess to Yavin 4 in return for a reward, and when he found out that the Rebels on Yavin weren’t exactly rich, he’d made do with some precious metals and spare parts the Alliance badly needed. Samica couldn’t understand why Willard didn’t just send the man to hell for his insolence, but General Dodonna had apparently decided he was to have his reward.
Across the hangar, she saw a pilot fiercely embrace his girlfriend, the technician from Lorrd who had fixed her sensor array, and she felt a painful stab at the thought of Rhun. She almost wished he was here, wishing her good luck, even if he had no business being in the hangar in the middle of pre-battle preparations; the remembrance of their last encounter just half an hour ago was not the sort of good-bye she would have hoped for if given half a chance. But she had not been given that chance, and all she could do was banish the thoughts about him for the time being. Still, one thought she hadn’t allowed herself to follow through began to creep up to her mind: if they failed, then the Death Star would destroy Yavin 4 just as it had Alderaan, and everyone on the moon would die.
Dutch’s voice over headset interrupted her contemplation. ‘Flight control, this is Gold Leader. Ready for take-off.’
‘Hang in there, Gold Squadron. You’re second after the X-wings.’
The sleeker craft began to clear the hangar in pairs, then Gold Leader launched, Tiree as his wing, followed by Ryle and Gawky, then Pops and Hol, Jay and Teddie, then Samica and Kaya, with Nous as the last pilot to leave the hangar. They were expecting resistance not only from the battle station itself but also from its TIE fighter contingent, the size of which could only be guessed at, but had to be as enormous as everything about the monstrosity. Until the time came to make their attack run, the wing pairs would remain that way, with Nous joining Samica and Kaya, but the formation for the attack run itself was supposed to be carried out by three fighters at a time, two wingmen covering for the lead fighter. The first attempt would be led by Dutch, with Pops and Tiree as his wingmen; Gawky, Hol, and Ryle as lead were scheduled to be the next should the first attempt fail. Samica’s flight group was third in line if both went wrong. For the first time in her life, she didn’t know the numbers. The odds were as bad as they could possibly be, and not even one of the Corellians had dared to calculate their chances for success. As General Dodonna had pointed out, their only hope lay in the fact that the Empire was not prepared for such a small-scale assault and would most likely underestimate them, but it was very likely that even the X-wing pilots had to be prepared to make an attack run – if they still had the time.
A red dot appeared on Samica’s sensor screen. It was ridiculous that a battle station the size of a satellite should take up as much space on her sensors as a TIE fighter would have. Seconds later, there was a transmission from the base.
‘Standby alert. Death Star approaching. Estimated time to firing range: fifteen minutes.’
‘This is Gold Leader,’ Dutch said over com. ‘Report in.’
‘Gold Two, standing by.’ Tiree sounded as he always did, something which, if Samica thought about it, could not be said about Dutch.
‘Gold Three, standing by.’ There was anxiety in Ryle’s voice.
‘Gold Four, ready.’ Gawky, like Tiree, didn’t betray any nervousness whatsoever.
‘Gold Five, all in the Green.’ Samica had always envied Pops’ ability to remain calm in the most desperate situations – not that she had ever seen him in a situation quite this desperate.
‘Gold Six standing by.’ Hol Okand sounded reasonably composed.
Samica keyed her com. ‘Gold Seven standing by.’ She hoped her voice had sounded steadier than she felt.
‘Gold Eight standing by.’ She had seen Jay’s face as he climbed into his cockpit, and his tone matched the fear she’s seen there.
‘Gold Nine, ready to burn.’ Teddie might be trying to sound confident, but the slight quiver in his voice was unmistakeable.
‘Gold Ten, I’m ready.’ It surprised Samica that Kaya sounded so serene; the young woman had not said a word since the briefing room.
‘Gold Twelve standing by.’ Nous actually sounded eager to engage the enemy.
The twenty-seven Rebel starfighters headed for the Death Star, the X-wings unfolding their s-foils to form the characteristic X. The Imperial craft had exited hyperspace on the far side of the planet Yavin, so the Rebels had several more minutes to carry through their attack plan. Still, it was several minutes before they reached the station’s outer perimeter.
Red Leader’s voice came in over com. ‘We’re passing through their magnetic field. Hold tight!’
Samica saw the X-wings before her shudder as the fighters entered the magnetic field, and adjusted her controls in order to avoid being jerked around like that. The Y-wings stayed slightly more stable, as their stabilisers were less massive than the X-wings s-foils.
Before them, the Death Star loomed ominously against the blackness of space, and the closer they came, the more they could make out tiny projections that after a while turned out to be turrets and ledges, as well as indentations in the superstructure, which, Samica realized, were hangars.
‘Look at the size of that thing!’ came an incredulous exclamation from Wedge Antilles.
‘Cut the chatter, Red Two,’ Red Leader interrupted the Corellian. ‘Accelerate to attack speed.’
The fighters complied, and soon, the X-wings were drawing away from the slower Y-wings. It was their task to take out as many of the gun towers as they could, to clear the path for the Y-wings while the heavier craft made their attack runs. It was the usual way of operating for both kinds of pilots, one flying cover, the other doing the dirty work.
Samica could see the trench below her, still three kilometres distant, but all too close. It was ten to twenty metres wide, a tight squeeze for a Y-wing – even more so for the wider X-wing.
‘Red Leader,’ Dutch said over the common Alliance frequency, ‘this is Gold Leader.’
‘I copy, Gold Leader.’
‘We’re starting for the target shaft now,’ Dutch went on, and Samica saw him, Tiree, and Pops peel off and head for the exhaust port. It was still a good five minutes’ flight until they would reach their target.
‘We’re in position,’ Dreis answered. ‘I’m going to cut across the axis and try and draw their fire.’ Another usual way of operating for X- and Y-wing pilots; the faster ships drawing fire from the slower ones, in return for leaving the dirty work to them. As if in answer to Red Leader’s remark, the turbolaser emplacements started firing at the Rebels.
Turbolasers, as Samica had found out in practice long after she’d learned it in theory, were close to useless against anything smaller than a corvette. A lucky shot might graze a freighter, but starfighters that could manoeuvre freely were usually safe from the massive but imprecise beams.
Down in the trench, however, the situation was different. With little or no space to dodge fire from as large an emplacement as the turbolaser batteries, the Rebel ships would have to pick the guns off the Death Star surface to enable Dutch and the other two to carry through their attack run. ‘Cover me, Ten,’ she said as she brought her Y-wing down towards the surface, lasers firing at the turbolaser turrets. The X-wings were a click ahead, equally firing at the gun towers.
Kaya followed her, avoiding a green turbolaser beam streaking past her ship, and Nous followed on her tail. Samica saw the laser beam pass his ship by mere metres, and keyed her com. ‘Watch it, Gold Twelve,’ she said. ‘These things do a hell of a lot of damage when they hit.’
‘They’ll have to hit me first,’ Nous replied, causing one turbolaser battery to blow up in a flash, skimming past return fire from the next.
‘Twelve,’ Samica replied sharply. ‘Stop this nonsense! You’re too close to that thing!’
Nous flew another close run across the Death Star surface, taking out another gun tower when a further turbolaser beam streaked by, and he swept aside so it missed his Y-wing, but Kaya couldn’t get clear in time. The beam grazed her ship, but with a turbolaser shot, grazing was enough. Her fighter positively disintegrated, its shreds sweeping over the battle station’s surface, then drifting off into space.
Samica stared at the wreckage in utter horror, then keyed her com to scream at Nous, but she couldn’t think of anything to put her fury into words. Jaw working, she left the com channel open for a couple of seconds, but all Nous would be able to hear was the faint crackle in the line.
‘On me, Twelve,’ she finally said, her voice toneless. This was neither the time nor the place, but Sithspit, it had been such a stupid death!
‘Copy, Seven,’ Nous replied, much sobered.
‘Three,’ she said over com, since Ryle was now in command of Gold Squadron, with Dutch and Pops away. ‘Ten’s gone.’
‘I’ve seen it, Seven. Eight?’
‘Yes, Three,’ Jay responded promptly.
‘If both the Chief’s and my attack run go wrong, you’ll join Sam’s group for the third attempt.’
‘Copy, Three,’ Jay acknowledged, sounding distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of six fighters before him being shot down.
Ahead, the X-wings were also being attacked by turbolaser fire, clearing the path for Dutch and his two wingmen to make their run. Samica glanced at the chrono counting down to the time the Death Star would be in firing range of Yavin 4 – eight minutes. And the others’ approach was so unbearably slow, the distances so vast.
The towers, it seemed, had doubled their efforts to bring down the Rebel ships, now that they had seen it was possible to bring them down, and the starfighter pilots saw themselves showered with huge green blasts from all sides. It took two to three hits of their own to take out one of the towers, and Samica wished she could have used proton torpedoes. But they were not allowed to use any of them, they would still be needed.
She and Nous were taking apart another laser turret when suddenly a huge piece of wreckage flew past, doubtlessly from one of the gun towers further ahead. Samica saw it coming and shouted a warning to Nous, then broke hard to starboard while the giant piece of metal hurled past her ship, crashing into the Death Star surface and taking another turbolaser emplacement with it. The Twi’lek pilot jerked his ship to port, but a protruding piece of slag caught his starboard stabiliser, tearing it off. His Y-wing spun towards the surface, then collided with it, erupting in a blaze of bright flame before it was over.
Shaken, Samica reported to Ryle. ‘This is Seven. Twelve is gone.’
Ryle swore. The same instant, they saw Red Six’s icon wink out as well. Samica remembered the pilot called Piggy by his squad mates, the heavy-set sabacc player, and saw her chrono indicate seven minutes. They had lost three pilots to turbolaser cannons, and it was two more minutes before Dutch would be in position to enter the trench. In just eight minutes, they had lost a tenth of their strength, and there hadn’t even been a single TIE fighter involved in the battle.
Which was not to remain that way.
‘Squad leaders,’ there was a voice from one of the controllers down at Yavin base, ‘We’ve picked up a new group of signals. Enemy fighters coming your way.’
Samica’s belly knotted. She hadn’t really dared hope the Empire would pass over the opportunity to finish them off ship to ship, but the news fighters were on their way was enough to make any pilot nervous. No doubt the ones serving aboard the Death Star would be the best the Empire could get his hand on, if the battle station came into the equation of ground bases and space stations and Star Destroyers at the top, which was to be expected.
Dutch had obviously had similar thoughts. ‘Gold Three,’ he said. ‘You’ve got to keep them off us at all costs! With luck, they don’t know what we’re going for so they don’t realise we pose a threat.’
‘Copy, Chief,’ Ryle replied.
‘Here they come,’ they heard Red Leader, and seconds later, they saw them – one squadron of TIE fighters, five peeling off to intercept the X-wings, the other seven diving towards Gold Squadron.
Samica found one that was coming after Dutch and targeted it with her lasers. He saw her the very last instant, breaking pursuit of his prey, then coming around in a large arc to concern himself with her instead. She fired at him, but he was good; the bolts went wide. While she climbed to get into a better position, she keyed her com. ‘Get clear, Chief,’ she said. ‘I’m on him. You haven’t got any time to waste.’
‘Thanks, Sam,’ he said. ‘Five, Two, it’s rotten business, but we have to let the others do the work. Deflectors forward and aft, speed to full throttle.’
Samica saw the three of them get clear of the fighting, and to her relief, the TIE fighters seemed to think they were running, and left them alone, bothering with their comrades willing to fight – more than willing, actually. Samica managed to cripple the TIE that had followed Dutch, then she heard Hol’s voice.
‘This is Six. Help me, somebody! I can’t shake him!’
She found him on her tactical, then swore as she saw his shields were down completely, his hull strength reduced to forty percent. ‘On my way, Hol,’ she replied. He was half a klick away, and she found the TIE pursuing him. He was spitting green laser fire, never ceasing, and she could see two of the bolts slamming into Hol’s ship. She got off a shot at him, missing, but it should have been enough to show him there was someone chasing him now, which should have made him break off.
Samica realised that the TIE fighter pilots aboard the Death Star were not only good, they were foolhardy. The Imperial fighter before her continued firing at Hol, and despite her laser fire scoring several glancing blows on his solar panels, he stayed doggedly behind the Y-wing. One more shot hit the Rebel ship, and Hol screamed once again, ‘Damn, why is this taking so long?’
‘Punch out!’ Samica shouted.
‘Can’t!’ he screamed back. ‘Canopy’s jammed!’
She cursed and fired at the TIE once more. It should have been so easy, picking off a TIE fighter that as itself pursuing a slower ship, but the pilot in front of her was frighteningly good, managing to evade her fire and at the same time getting off another shot at Hol.
Gold Six exploded in a fireball, and Samica bit her lip hard as she punched the fire button once more, this time destroying the Imperial fighter. She blinked away tears of frustration and glanced at her chrono. Six minutes.
Two X-wings had been destroyed along with Hol’s Y-wing, those of Red Four and Eleven. The remaining Rebel fighters had managed, at least, to buy Dutch and his formation enough time to break free and start towards the trench.
‘This is Gold Nine,’ Teddie said. ‘Nine fresh eyeballs at eleven-two-four.’
‘Copy, Nine,’ Ryle replied. ‘Red Leader, we’re going to need your help with those.’
‘Copy, Gold Three,’ Dreis said. ‘Reds, we’ll take those newcomers. Gold Squadron, finish off the old ones.’
‘Finishing off, sir,’ Ryle acknowledged, even though they were far from finishing anything off. Samica had never seen a dogfight which was so even as this. But all the while, her Imperial standard procedure-trained mind kept nagging at her: Why only nine?
Imp screamed a warning at her, and she dove by reflex, which saved her from being fried in a turbolaser bolt from below. The continuing fire from the guns in combination with the attacking TIE fighters was beginning to make life really complicated, and immediately, there was a TIE fighter on her tail to take her ship apart before she could recover from her shock. He couldn’t have known that in moments of shock, she was quite adept at letting her instincts taking over, and the green laser bolts streaked by her cockpit narrowly but harmlessly.
She skimmed the surface, trying to shake her attacker by terrain-flying, but found that she had no advantage over him there, but fired into several gun towers just before she passed them, which forced him to fly wider circles than she did and let him fall back slowly. Still, he fired at her whenever there was nothing between them, and one of his laser bolts hit the belly of her fighter. She caught the bucking Y-wing, but saw with a sinking feeling her shields were down.
‘Imp?’ she shouted back to her astromech. ‘Can you do something about them?’
He warbled an answer she didn’t have the time to read on her screen, because the attacker was still behind her, gained ground on her, and another laser blast streaked past her, blackening the rear portion of her viewport.
‘This is Gold Seven,’ she said. ‘I can’t shake him!’
‘This is Four, I’m on him, Seven,’ Gawky’s reply came back, and she allowed herself a small sigh of relief. She hadn’t forgotten what had happened to Hol . . . but she also thought Hol had not been as good as she was.
While she concentrated on dodging the Imperial’s fire, she heard Dutch’s voice over common Alliance frequency. ‘Red Leader, this is Gold Leader. We’re starting our attack run.’
You’ll do it, Samica thought fiercely. Come on, just a couple of minutes, and we can get away from here!
‘The exhaust port is marked and locked in,’ Dutch went on.
‘Computer’s locked,’ she heard Tiree. ‘Getting a signal.’
Samica broke hard to port as the TIE behind her fired a new salvo into her direction, and she was grateful that they didn’t know what was happening here. She doubted very much the Imperials were aware of the danger the Y-wings posed . . .
‘The guns . . . they’ve stopped!’ The surprise was evident from Tiree’s tone of voice, and while Samica turned around in a large arc to get closer to Gawky and rescue, she heard Pops:
‘Stabilise your rear deflectors. Watch for enemy fighters.’
Nine fighters. The last squadron had contained only nine TIE fighters.
‘They’re coming in!’ Dutch shouted. ‘Three marks at two ten.’
Samica tore her ship around as Gawky appeared in front of her and the TIE, firing, and the utterly surprised TIE pilot had no time to break in time. Gawky elegantly climbed over her and was behind her the next instant, and she nodded, although he couldn’t see that.
‘Thanks, Four,’ she said. Her shields were at thirteen percent – not something to rely on, but at least they were rebuilding. The chrono was down to four point five minutes.
‘We’ve got to get over to the trench and help them,’ Samica said over com.
‘No good, Seven,’ Ryle answered. ‘It would take us two minutes to get there. They’ll manage alone.’
Samica brought up her tactical and froze when she saw only five icons in the trench – two green and three red. Before she could look up the missing ship, Imp screeched another warning at her, and she had the presence of mind to return fire to the TIE fighter that came towards her head-on. She saw she hit it, but he scored a hit on her snubfighter as well. Her shields flashed white and were gone, and there was a warning light winking on her console. Taking a quick look out of the viewport and seeing there was no immediate danger for her, she decided she had some seconds to get a better overview over the situation and looked at the tactical. Dutch and his remaining wingman were almost in reach of the exhaust port, and the X-wings were battling the second wave successfully, as far as she could tell. Then she brought up the damage report and cursed when she saw what had been hit.
‘Three, this is Seven. My proton torpedo launcher is damaged.’
Before Ryle could answer, they all heard Dutch’s voice, still over Alliance frequency, and Samica bit down on her lower lip as she heard the panic in his voice.
‘It’s no good, I can’t manoeuvre!’
‘Stay on target,’ Pops’ voice answered, sounding as calm as if he was calming a fretting rookie pilot in a simulator run.
‘We’re too close!’
‘Stay on target!’
Samica found she was gripping her stick with such force it hurt. She had never heard Dutch like this, and a part of her mind refused to hear him like this. Their meeting that morning came to her mind, his harried look, his voice when he’d commanded them to report in, his ‘rambling’ on their first morning at Yavin.
‘Loosen up!’ she heard Dutch shout, and she felt tears streak her face once more. She didn’t want to hear any more of this. It couldn’t be Dutch who was panicking like this . . . it couldn’t be the Dutch she knew and admired.
The com was silent for several agonizingly long, slow seconds, then Pops’ voice came in again. He, too, sounded as if he was going to weep.
‘Gold Five to Red Leader. Lost Tiree, lost Dutch.’
‘I copy, Gold Leader,’ Red Leader answered. Samica didn’t know if he’d actually misunderstood just who had just died in that trench, or if he was addressing Pops as Gold Leader now that Dutch was gone, but it didn’t really matter.
Pops’ voice came in again, through a hiss of static, and the sound of explosions from somewhere near, Samica thought. ‘They drop in behind you, you can’t manoeuvre in the trench. Sorry . . . it’s your baby now. So long, Dave . . .’
Then the transmission broke off together with the last green dot vanishing from the trench.
Samica forced herself to focus on her tactical, where the number of green dots had been reduced to a mere twelve.
‘Gold Three, this is Seven. You’ll have to take the next turn. My torp launcher’s out.’ She marvelled at the fact she even got the words out so matter-of-factly.
‘Seven, this is Four.’ Samica closed her eyes for a millisecond; there was only one thing this could mean. ‘Three’s gone.’
Before she could make a reply, another laser bolt streaked past her, and Imp squealed in panic as she managed to avoid it barely in time. Two TIE fighters had broken loose from the X-wings and had gone to easier prey, it seemed.
‘Need help, Seven?’ Jay asked. His Y-wing drew up beside hers, but the TIE fighter before her veered off rather than take on two Y-wings simultaneously. She and Jay gave pursuit, and Samica saw Teddie’s ship fly an arc towards them as well. Three Y-wings to one TIE fighter was approximately what High Command liked to go for when they had a choice, and it was better than most Samica had seen during her six months with the Rebel Alliance.
There were days, however, when even High Command’s preferred odds weren’t enough.
Teddie came towards the TIE fighter head-on, firing into the Imperial ship and destroying it instantly. The manoeuvre of two snubfighters sandwiching an enemy fighter between them and then evading each other was called a ‘Corellian Slip’, and normally, Jay should have dived while Teddie climbed to avoid collision with his wingman.
Jay, too, climbed.
Samica screamed out a useless cry of denial as her two friends slammed into each other, both vanishing in one and the same fireball, with absolutely no chance for either of them to punch out before it was too late. Gawky shook off his stupor before she did; her sole remaining squad mate from Gold Squadron had drawn up on the remaining TIE fighter, firing relentlessly, madly, until he caught him in one solar panel. Samica finally came to his support and her laser blast brought him down.
‘Another squad at five six, Chief,’ she heard one of the X-wing pilots. Biggs Darklighter, Samica thought.
‘Gold Leader?’ Commander Dreis asked.
‘This is Gold Seven,’ Samica replied, her voice weary. ‘Four and I are all that’s left.’ The words came automatically, she wouldn’t let herself think about them in any greater detail. It was something she wasn’t ready to face yet; if she tried, she knew she wouldn’t be of any more use.
‘Copy, Gold Seven,’ Red Leader replied. ‘Red boys, this is Red Leader. Rendezvous at mark six point one.’
Then there was another transmission from the moon below, the voice of General Dodonna. ‘Red Leader, this is Base One. Keep half of your group out of range for the next run.’
‘Copy, Base One,’ Dreis replied. ‘Luke, take Red Two and Three. Hold up there and wait for my signal to start your run.’
Samica felt a vague sense of surprise at the notion that young Skywalker was to make a third attack run if things went bad again, but it made sense, she reflected. Experience hadn’t helped the others, and neither she nor Gawky were able to make a run. Samica might have flown cover even if she had lost her torpedo launcher, but the X-wings were faster than they were and would only be slowed down by them, and speed was all that really mattered now.
Red Leader, with Red Ten and Red Twelve as his wingmen, dove towards the trench, leaving Luke Skywalker, Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles as well as Lieutenant Naatayn, the pilot of Red Nine. They were all that had remained. The chrono at Samica’s console had counted down to three minutes until the Death Star came in firing range of the base.
‘Keep your eyes open for those fighters,’ Red Leader warned his wingmen.
‘There’s too much interference,’ Red Ten replied. Samica realized that, down there in the trench, the ships had to be virtually blind. ‘Red Five, can you see them from where you are?’
Samica saw Red Five’s X-wing climb a bit higher from the Death Star surface in order to get a clearer sensor image. The six TIE fighters Biggs had seen earlier where nearly in firing range of the four X-wings and two Y-wings that had stayed out of the trench for now, but they were not the ones Red Ten had been referring to.
‘No sign of any . . . Wait!’ Now she saw them as well, just as she started firing on the six newcomers, the same three TIEs that had killed Tiree, Pops, and Dutch.
‘Coming in at point three five,’ Skywalker reported, then he broke as well, dodging laser fire from two of the Imperial fighters. Samica had to admit he didn’t fly like someone who sat in an X-wing cockpit for the first time in his life. Doubtlessly the instrumentation had helped, which was very similar to the Incom T-16 skyhopper Skywalker had said he was familiar with, but she supposed he was one of the lucky ones who could claim to be natural born pilots. Hadn’t there been a pilot called Skywalker in the Clone Wars, some twenty years ago?
Samica broke left when an Imperial TIE appeared on her rear sensor screen and looked at her shield display, finding the deflectors were back at seventy percent. ‘Gawk,’ she said. ‘I’m going to draw his fire, you pluck him off me. Got that?’
‘Copy, Seven,’ Gawky replied, tucked himself behind the Imperial and fired. The enemy pilot saw him coming, but too late to do much against it; before he could go evasive, Gawky’s laser bolt had hit his suspension, and his portside solar panel caved in, sending him spinning out of control.
‘Thanks, Four,’ she said with relief in her voice. She had seen too many things today she would not have believed possible under other circumstances.
Gawky had gone on ahead, after the X-wings, who were following into the direction of Red Leader, to be able to start another attack run at a moment’s notice if it should become necessary. Samica dared hope it wouldn’t be. X-wings were more manoeuvrable than Y-wings, and, which was most important of all, they were faster. They stood a good chance of succeeding where the Y-wings hadn’t. The four remaining TIE fighters screamed after them.
‘This is Red Two,’ Wedge said. ‘We’ve got to finish them off before we get to the trench. The last thing Red Leader needs right now is more TIE fighters thrown into the balance.’
‘Right, Two,’ Nine replied. ‘Luke, Biggs, you with us?’
‘Right behind you, Nine.’ Luke had stopped using code names a few minutes ago, and Samica realized there was not much use for them at the moment anyway. If the Rebels won, there would be nothing left of the Imperials to make anything of their actual names . . . and if the Empire won, it would not matter anymore.
The TIE fighter before her was firing at Wedge’s X-wing, and it was hard to keep up with the two faster ships, but at least she didn’t have to jink as wildly as they did. For a split second, her HUD winked green, and she fired, but the TIE had already changed course again, and the bolts went wide. She stayed behind him, doggedly tracking his manoeuvres, then fired on a hunch the second her HUD winked green once more. This time, she hit, and the TIE lost speed rapidly, coming up in front of her within heartbeats. She fired again, and the ship blew up in a short, brilliant flash.
‘Thanks, Seven.’ Wedge stopped his jinking and got off a shot of his own at a TIE pursuing Luke. At the same time, they heard Red Nine: ‘I’m hit!’
Samica brought up the tactical. Red Nine had suffered damage to one stabiliser foil, and it was obvious he had trouble manoeuvring.
‘This is Gold Seven,’ she said. ‘Get clear, Nine. Not much you can do with that sort of damage.’
‘Copy, Seven,’ he acknowledged, regret in his voice, but he knew there was really nothing he could do anymore.
The com chatter from the Death Star trench had become more urgent in the last few seconds, and just as she heard Red Ten’s panicked, ‘I can’t hold them!’, Samica realised there were only two Rebel ships left down there. The three Imperial TIE fighters maintained their exact formation, their discipline giving her the creeps. The next instant, Red Ten was also gone from her tactical display. Red Leader was still down there. He had to be at the exhaust port by now. Just a couple of seconds, and it would be done.
Six Rebel pilots watched the Death Star with intense stares, willing to pull the proton torpedoes into the right direction by their power of will alone, and Red Nine, who was far enough away to be able to see the area, shouted, ‘It’s a hit!’
‘Negative,’ Red Leader’s voice cut in before the words could register. ‘It didn’t go in, just impacted on the surface.’
‘We’ve got to close up to him,’ Darklighter said.
It was Luke who spoke next. ‘Red Leader, we’re right above you. Turn to point . . . oh-five, we’ll cover for you.’
They began to descend towards the surface, the two remaining TIEs trailing them, when Red leader replied, ‘Stay there. I just lost my starboard engine. Get set up for your attack run.’
Luke Skywalker’s reply was cut off by a scream from the commander, then the last green dot in the trench was gone.
‘Five,’ Samica said. ‘We’re going in behind you. Maybe we can pick off those TIEs.’
‘Negative, Seven.’ Young Skywalker’s voice sounded as if he’d matured years in the last ten minutes. ‘We’ll have to rely on speed, and you won’t be able to keep up with us.’
Samica was about to protest they didn’t have to rely on speed if they had two Y-wings guarding their backs and trying to pick off those fiendishly efficient TIEs, but then her glance passed her chrono. One minute five seconds remaining.
‘Copy, Five,’ she said softly.
‘Biggs, Wedge,’ Luke said. ‘Let’s close it up. We’re going in full throttle. That ought to keep those fighters off our backs.’
‘Right with you, boss,’ was Wedge’s reply.
‘Sam,’ Gawky said. ‘Let’s finish off these piss-poor excuses for fighter pilots so at least they won’t have to worry about them.’
‘I’m your wing, Gold Four,’ she replied.
He raced after the TIEs, which, of course, were trying to tuck themselves behind Luke and the other two pilots, as soon as it became clear who was going to make the next run.
‘Four,’ Samica said grimly. ‘Put all power from deflectors to the engines, and let’s go behind them full throttle. No use otherwise.’ She suited action to words immediately, her Y-wing fighter picking up speed while her shields lost power gradually. The distance to the TIE fighters had been one point three klicks, almost out of firing range, but at least now it didn’t get larger.
‘They’re too far away,’ Gawky said, his voice distorted with fury generated by helplessness.
Then she had an idea. ‘Use your torp launcher.’
‘Sam, we were told not to. We’re supposed to keep them in case . . .’
‘Don’t be silly, Gawk! There won’t be another attack run after this! We’re lucky if they even pull this one through, which they won’t unless you torp those fighters!’
There was the slightest of pauses from Gawky, then his voice came back, resigned. ‘You’re the boss, Seven,’ he said.
‘Eyeball him,’ Samica went on. ‘Don’t use your targeting systems, or you’ll warn him off.’
She saw Gawky even out his course ahead of her, taking careful aim without targeting the ship, then a torpedo streaked away after the TIE fighters. None of the two pilots before them had apparently expected them to fire proton torpedoes, and it caught one of them by a solar panel, which was enough. The wing was ripped off the TIE, which spun and exploded seconds later.
‘Great shot, Four!’ Samica cheered. ‘Think you can do a re-run?’
Gawky tried, but this time, the TIE fighter was warned, and it was virtually impossible to get a torpedo lock on a TIE fighter when you were flying a Y-wing. At least the remaining TIE had decided it would be safer to take the attackers in his rear first before going on into the trench, which again demonstrated what sort of TIE pilots were stationed aboard the Death Star.
He came around, and Samica quickly transferred energy back to her shields. They had gone down to forty percent again, which was not enough to risk a head-on run at the Imperial fighter, so she broke out before he started firing on her. The Imp got behind her, but dived out of reach when Gawky tried to trap him from behind. These boys were not to be taken lightly.
Suddenly, they heard a transmission from Red Two.
‘I’m hit!’ Her stomach sinking, Samica saw the three TIEs were back in the trench, where Wedge now spun dangerously close to the surface before he got his fighter under control. ‘I can’t stay with you.’
‘Get clear, Wedge,’ Luke answered. ‘You can’t do any more good back there.’
‘Sorry,’ Wedge said, and Samica thought she could hear the regret in his voice. She didn’t know what she’d have felt if it had been her in that trench; whether she’d have been glad to be sent away from it or felt the same regret as Wedge when he realized there was nothing he could do for his squad mates any longer.
The TIE fighter battling her and Gawky had tried to extricate himself from the dogfight again to pursue Luke and Biggs, and she keyed her com. ‘Wedge, there’s a TIE coming towards you from oh-eleven.’ Then she remembered something else. ‘Red Nine, do you read me?’
There was no response, and when she checked the tactical, she found he had vanished. Nine had apparently been killed by the towers at some point – the detachedness with which she figured this frightened her.
Wedge broke out when the TIE fighter came in range to fire at him, and the laser bolts from the Imperial ship missed the crippled X-wing narrowly. Still, the Corellian had the presence of mind to return fire, something the Imp had obviously not anticipated, and scored a glancing hit, enough to reduce his speed for the two Y-wing fighters to catch up with him. Samica’s shot scored another hit, and he nose-dived radically, then spinning towards the Death Star surface and out of sight.
Samica cast a nervous glance at the chrono. Thirty seconds to go before the Death Star would wipe out Yavin base. Suddenly a new fear gripped her as, for the first time, she imagined the possibility that they might destroy the battle station after it had obliterated Yavin 4. Until now, she had never given any thought to the chance of a partial success, but the prospect was nothing she wanted to think about right now.
She brought up the tactical to look at the situation in the trench, and closed her eyes for a second when she saw Red Three was no longer there. She had not been Biggs Darklighter’s friend, and there had been times when she had felt as if he considered her to be his enemy, but that had been forgotten for the duration of this attack. They all had the same goal, and his death hurt all the more because it meant Skywalker was down there alone now, and there was nothing they could do except wait . . . and maybe pray.
The chrono counted down to zero.
‘The Death Star has cleared the planet,’ they heard a voice from the Massassi base, sounding strangely calm. ‘The Death Star has cleared the planet.’ The green moon of Yavin 4 had materialised behind the gas giant, looking small and vulnerable before the Imperial battle station.
Samica watched the solitary green dot racing along the trench towards a two-metre-wide exhaust port, fervently wishing for it to complete its run in the next few seconds, despite its being followed by three red dots . . . and a blue one. Then one of the red icons winked out from her screen.
Her heart beat in her throat when she heard a yell over com, a yell that had come from the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, which had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. The next instant, the second Imperial ship vanished, and the dot that represented the third flickered a couple of times before it spun away from the trench.
Samica stared, incredulous. The smuggler had actually come back.
‘You’re all clear, kid!’ Han Solo called. ‘Now let’s blow this thing and go home!’
The seconds trickled away like hours, Samica, Gawky, and Wedge watching the battle station, spellbound, until they saw Luke’s X-wing and the YT-1300 freighter shoot out of the trench.
‘Get clear of that thing!’ she shouted, bringing her ship around, seeing Wedge follow her, Gawky lagging behind a bit, and speed away from it. Behind them, the giant Death Star shuddered.
Then it blew.
Over a cacophony of cheers from the base below and the com chatter from the other ships around the station, it exploded in a fireball that made Samica squeeze her eyes shut despite the filters in her viewports as well as her helmet’s visor. For a few seconds, there were two suns blazing in the system, then the Death Star disintegrated into a million little shards.
Gawky was still behind her, and she heard him cheer: ‘We’ve done it, Sam, we’ve d –’
She felt the shockwave from the explosion wash over them, heard Imp let out a shrill wail, saw her shields had been fried, but that didn’t matter. They’d done it.
It was then that Samica realised Gawky had vanished from the plot. He hadn’t had any shields.
Rhun ran to the hangar, as did everyone else on the base. They had all been out on the temple roof, everyone who had had no business in the war room, watching the battle even if they had not been able to make out much. They had heard reports from the tactical centre, had listened as pilot after pilot had been reported shot down, and he had several times mentally kicked himself for the fool he had been. But even if he knew the chance Samica had survived was almost nonexistent, he still clung to the hope she’d somehow made it, mainly because it would have been so unfair. He’d denied her the opportunity even to say good-bye to him, and he knew he wouldn’t be able to face himself if she had died up there. But there was more – something inside him insisted he would somehow have known it if she’d died, and he had told himself time and time again she was good, probably better than most of the others in her squadron. He wouldn’t let himself dwell on the number of equally good pilots who he knew were dead – both squadron commanders, for instance – but as he ran for the hangar level, he forced himself to believe she had survived.
He heard snippets of conversations around him, ‘That Skywalker never flew in combat before’ – ‘Do you know if they also got Red Six?’ – ‘I knew all along that smuggler wasn’t going to sneak away like this’ – ‘Yeah, but he could have made up his mind a bit sooner!’ – ‘I’ve seen them when they came in, two X-wings and one Y-wing’ – ‘That’ll be Gold Leader’ – ‘No, didn’t you hear they shot him down in the trench?’
The hangar was already filled with people, techs, ground personnel, officers, crews, even some people from sick bay. Most of them were clustering around a battered-looking X-wing, which bore the markings of Red Five, and an equally battered-looking Corellian freighter. The only one to stick out of a cheering crowd was Chewbacca the Wookiee, hugging someone clad in orange that had to be Luke Skywalker. Another X-wing was standing next to it, the crowd around it almost as thick as around Skywalker’s ship, but Rhun had only eyes for the single Y-wing standing at the end of the hangar. It was scorched and blackened in several places, most of them new. Rhun couldn’t claim he knew Samica’s ship from sight – and from its bruises – but he did know her astromech droid.
Whoever had emerged from the cockpit was already surrounded by a jubilant throng, but the little R2 unit that was being removed from its socket at the back was grey and black, with a white, black-striped head.
Rhun elbowed his way through the crowd within seconds, saw Samica, and was with her in an instant, pulling her towards him in a fierce embrace. The case containing the life support control systems on her chest buried into his flesh, but he hardly noticed.
She returned the embrace, clinging to him like someone drowning, her face buried against his neck, and he could hear her sobbing. He just stayed that way for he didn’t know how long, holding her tight, while the celebrating crowd surged on, looking for someone who was more inclined to share their exuberance. When she finally stopped sobbing, he took her face into both his hands, carefully, as if he was still afraid she could vanish into thin air, and kissed her.
‘Sam,’ he whispered. ‘I’m so glad you’ve come back.’
Brevet Captain Samica Trey stood at the edge of the great hall, arms crossed, as she watched the Rebels assembled there. The ceremony was over, and the rest of the day would be devoted to feasting and celebrating the Alliance’s greatest victory.
Five days after the battle, she still didn’t feel like celebrating. The nightmares were still there, even if she tried not to carry them into the day. General Dodonna had talked to her to determine her state of mind, and she had found it was almost impossible to ignore the so-called survivor’s guilt that would pop up every now and then. She had known the phenomenon from reports about veterans, but she had never imagined it was something she would fall prey to. Her entire squadron dying around her within ten minutes was still something she could not really believe had happened, and the fact that she had been given a new room at the base – a single one this time, to reflect her new rank – had only augmented the feeling of surrealism that had accompanied her ever since the Battle of Yavin. She still thought she ought to be running across Pops or Teddie at every moment.
She looked over to Luke Skywalker, who was up there on the dais of the large throne room, after Princess Leia had awarded him and Han Solo medals for their bravery. It had been easier for him. She had heard after the battle that Biggs had been a childhood friend of his, but he had still only lost one friend, while the others in his squadron had been people he had only known for a couple of hours. Wedge Antilles had experienced much the same she had, and his thoughts on the matter had helped her a lot in the previous days . . . and vice versa, she supposed.
Solo was another matter entirely. She just could not bring herself to forgive him for turning up when he did, instead of fighting alongside them from the beginning; Wedge had probably had a point when he had pointed out to her, yesterday, that Solo would most likely have been killed just like all the others if he had been in the battle from the first. He would never have had the element of surprise he’d had when he came from out of nowhere, but she still was rather touchy where the Corellian was concerned.
When General Dodonna had put forward his intention to promote her to captain, she had very nearly refused. She guessed the fact that it had been only a promotion on a trial basis was not so much due to her age, but to the fact that she hadn’t acted like a senior officer in the last couple of days. She knew – she hoped – she would grow into it, but at the moment, she felt more lost than she ever had, and worst of all had been the last moments of Dutch’s life. She hadn’t realised how much of a role model he had been for her until he shocked her with his utter panic down there in that trench.
She’d told herself that she mustn’t let those seconds cloud the memory she had of him, but she supposed it would take time until she could believe it.
Someone slipped an arm around her from behind, and she smiled crookedly when she turned to see Rhun. He was in Intel ground uniform for the occasion, something she hadn’t even known he possessed.
‘Thought I’d find you here,’ he said. ‘Too full of self-accusation to be happy with the others, but too full of duty to just leave.’
She felt her smile getting more sincere in spite of herself. ‘Here comes my conscience,’ she replied.
‘Oh, no thanks. I’ve got a full-time job already.’ He brushed a strand of brown hair out of her face. ‘Are you all right?’
She gently punched his shoulder. ‘Yes, I guess I’ll be.’
‘Ouch.’ He grinned as he rubbed his shoulder, then he tapped the second blue dot on her rank insignia. ‘A captain. We should be starting to worry about someone taking exception to a relationship like that.’
‘We’re not in the same department,’ she reminded him.
‘Just as well.’ He looked over into the hall. ‘Think I could persuade you to join us for half an hour or so? Wedge Antilles has asked about you.’ He cocked his head. ‘Should I worry?’
She shook her head with a smile. ‘Not about Wedge. He bet me Dodonna was going to promote me to commander, but that was a bit off, I guess.’
‘What did you bet?’
‘Just a drink.’
‘Would be a nice opportunity to make good that drink, don’t you think?’
Her face became serious again, but she nodded. ‘All right. I join you in a minute. Just go ahead. I’d like a minute on my own if you don’t mind.’
He looked into her eyes for a moment, then he nodded. ‘Okay. See you then, Sam.’ He quickly stroked the back of her neck, then went down the stairs into the great hall to rejoin the others.
Samica leaned against the wall again, the moss-covered stone cool against her back. The hall opened to the jungle, and she looked out over the tall Massassi trees, the familiar sounds of woolamanders, piiruu cats and a dozen different birds echoing over the forest.
The planet Yavin hung over it, red and huge, and she blinked as she looked up at it. She knew it was not really the place where her squad mates had died any longer; the planet’s rotation had taken the moon far beyond that place, but some wreckage bits of the Death Star continued to fall down on the moon. She had wondered if it was only pieces from the Death Star, but then, it did not really matter.
She took up her helmet she’d laid down on the steps beside her. She had worn it during the ceremony, and had not yet taken it back to her fighter. One of the deck officers had offered to paint it for her, and she had accepted his offer, since she’d finally decided on a design.
It was painted black, just like a TIE fighter helmet, but left and right of the middle ridge, the deck officer had painted the Alliance crest in gold, surrounded by eleven golden stars. She traced them with a forefinger, then tucked the helmet under her right arm and got up. Casting one more glance at the gas giant, she went back into the throne room to claim that drink Wedge owed her.