Title: Scorched Earth
Author: Jenny Kauer
Author Website: www.goldseven.de
Author e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction. No monetary profit has been gained from its production and no copyright infringement is intended. The Star Wars characters and events used in this fan fiction are the property of George Lucas. This fanfic may not be republished in any way, shape or form without the consent of the author.
Summary: The Rebels’ victory at Yavin was only the beginning. While the Empire recovers from the shock of defeat, the Rebels, among them Samica and Rhun, must make the best of the situation. Obstacles are many, some of them expected, some of them unexpected, but they also have a new ally: Josh Caller, Samica’s former wingman, begins to question his loyalties even as Samica has her own questioned by her new squadron commander, Lieutenant Colonel Salm.
For Frauke “Caller”—I hope you’ll find the time to read at least some of this. I’m certain you’ll enjoy the way your character turned out.
‘Dammit, ISD-EH-17, where are you? I can’t shake him!’
‘I’ve got one on me too! You’re not the only one, Eighteen!’
‘My engines are out!’
‘Hang on, Eighteen, I’m coming around as fast as I can . . .’
ISD-EH-17 let out a curse mirroring his wingman’s as he saw the red icon representing him vanishing from his HUD, firing as soon as he was in range of the Y-wing that had vaped ISD-EH-18. The wishbone was too slow to evade his TIE fighter’s fire and blew up in a short, brilliant explosion.
ISD-EH-18’s voice came in over comm again. ‘Damn it, Caller, you couldn’t have hurried a bit more, could you?’
‘No, I couldn’t,’ Flight Officer Josh Caller replied. ‘Shut up, Eighteen. You’re dead.’
The Y-wing behind him fired once again, but Caller used the greater manoeuvrability of his nimbler craft to jink out of the way, breaking hard to starboard in order to eventually end up behind the Rebel ship. Their mission objective, a Rebel escort frigate, continued firing at the TIE bombers that were about to torp it, and it didn’t look good. There had been six of the bombers, as well as six TIE fighters, and all that was left of them were three bombers and his own solitary TIE. Five Y-wings continued to wreak havoc among the Imperial fighters.
This was Caller’s third attempt at the mission, and he’d come much further than the last two times, but it still wasn’t far enough. He supposed that Flight Officer Minton, his wingman, was hopping mad right now—at himself, not at Caller. They’d been forced to separate at an early stage during the exercise, in order to save anything, and they’d been too far away when Minton had been ‘killed.’ Still, Minton had died the sim death for the third time in a row, whereas Caller had managed to survive two of the three runs—so far.
He was just about to kill another Y-wing and fly on to the frigate to protect the bombers when two red dots winked out from his HUD in rapid succession, and his computer informed him that with only one bomber remaining, the mission objectives could no longer be completed.
The starfield projection died, and the simulator cockpit popped open. Caller sighed and drew himself out of the seat, stretching his long limbs. He’d spent the better part of the afternoon in the simulator room, because he hated failing at something, but this time, he supposed he’d have to sleep over it in order to come up with a solution.
Across from him, Minton also left his sim cockpit, looking as annoyed as Caller felt.
‘You know what?’ Caller said. ‘Next time, I’ll take a bomber. I couldn’t possibly be as stupid as those computer generated bomber pilots. Maybe it’ll work that way.’
Minton shrugged. He was a short, sandy-haired fellow with a sturdy build that fitted much better into the cramped TIE fighter cockpit than his own one hundred ninety-something centimetres, Caller reflected enviously.
‘Probably. But I’m not staying in here any longer, Caller, just so you know it. This is my free time, in case you hadn’t noticed.’
Tell me something I don’t know, Caller thought sourly, but told himself to be fair. It had been very collegial of Minton to agree to help him here, because the younger man certainly didn’t have to.
‘Yes, I know. Thanks.’
Minton shrugged again. ‘You’re welcome. If you like, I’ll try the bomber approach with you tomorrow, after shift.’
‘Yeah, that’d be great.’
‘Tomorrow, then,’ Minton said and trudged off towards the dressing room.
Caller sat down on the cockpit’s edge once again and replayed the last run once more. If the bombers didn’t wait for the Y-wings to shoot them, they had a chance, he thought. The simulated pilots had waited a few rounds and battled with the Y-wings—to absolutely no avail—and by the time they were ready to tackle the frigate, their number had already been so much reduced that they couldn’t hope to bring down the frigate anymore. It wouldn’t be easy firing torps at it with Y-wings trying to shoot you from behind, but it was possible—and as opposed to TIE fighters, a bomber could sustain one or two laser blasts before being destroyed. He’d try that approach tomorrow.
He rubbed his eyes and went for the canteen before going to bed. He had only been on ISD Emperor’s Hammer for half a year, but that had been enough for everyone of his squadron to have noticed the amounts of food he could stow away, but he didn’t really mind their jokes. He came from a world with 1.3 gravity, and he supposed they were only jealous that they couldn’t eat as much as he could without putting on weight. He would, on a Star Destroyer with standard 1.0 gravity, if he didn’t spend as much time working out, but he needed his regular meals, especially if he was under pressure, which he’d been for the past six standard months.
The mess wasn’t full at this time, and he quickly got himself something to eat and found a place at one of the tables, together with several others of his squadron. They were in an exuberant mood, laughing and slapping the back of Flight Officer Berks, an amiable Balmorran on his first tour of duty.
‘So, Berks, are you staying on Hammer or will you ask for transfer?’ one of the pilots asked as Caller came closer. He was Lieutenant Tausec, who was Caller’s age.
‘I think I’ll be staying. You folks never were annoying enough to scare me away!’ Berks answered.
Caller put his tray down on the table, and Flight Officer Frindge, another pilot from his flight group, greeted him with a wide grin. ‘Hey, Caller! Berks has just made Lieutenant! Commander Vantarel just told him!’
Caller did his best to put on a cheerful expression. ‘That’s great, Berks—congratulations.’
‘I hope I’m next,’ Frindge chattered on, not noticing his squad mate’s reservation, but Caller saw Tausec’s face, and the lieutenant grimaced as if he wanted to stop the flight officer’s enthusiasm. ‘Commander Vantarel was really pleased with my last few missions, and I’ve been a TIE pilot for almost a year, after all. Caller, you’re just into your first year, aren’t you?’
Caller’s mouth twisted, and he pushed the tray away, his appetite vanished. ‘Eighteen months. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in our room.’ He got up abruptly and left.
Frindge stared after him, incredulously. ‘Eighteen months? But why—?’
‘Damned if I know.’ Tausec turned away from the door through which Caller had gone. ‘He hasn’t told anyone. It’s certainly not for lack of talent, and I’m not going to speculate.’
Caller was glad to find the room empty. He shared it with Frindge, Berks, and another flight officer named Greftring. No, he corrected himself, not with Berks anymore—now that the Balmorran had moved up the food chain, he’d be given single quarters.
It wasn’t that he begrudged the younger man his promotion, but it brought up his own irritation and the fears that went with it. He’d been a TIE fighter pilot for one and a half years now. He’d finished ninth in his Academy grade and been posted on a Star Destroyer, and he’d been absolutely certain to make Lieutenant before the end of his first tour of duty. Most above-average pilots did; at the very latest, they were promoted to Lieutenant after their first year.
Towards the end of that first year, however, his whole life had been turned upside down. First, the Resolve, the Victory-Star Destroyer he’d been serving on, had been destroyed in a sabotage act that had supposedly been initiated by Lieutenant Samica Trey, his then-wing, and when he’d thought that everything was going smoothly again, he’d been called upon by COMPNOR to play bait in a game designed to catch Trey on the space station Gherro.
Thinking of ISB Commander Karranek still gave him the creeps, and he’d hated playing along in that scheme. It hadn’t succeeded, either; Trey had got away. He didn’t think it had been his fault, but by now he supposed that Karranek thought so. He’d been transferred to Hammer immediately afterwards, and despite Commander Yenko’s reassurance that nothing that had happened on Gherro would affect his career, he had found by now that something had happened to his career. For the first few weeks, he’d been shadowed by COMPNOR agents. He wasn’t supposed to have noticed, of course, but after Resolve’s demise, he’d become more than a little paranoid. He knew they were reading his mail, and they were probably responsible for the fact that, after eighteen months in the Empire’s service, he hadn’t come close to a promotion. He’d liked Yenko, and he’d hoped that the commander would be able to protect him from Karranek’s vengefulness, but it seemed that COMPNOR in general and the ISB in particular were much more powerful than the Navy, and if you had been unwise enough to tread on their toes once in your life, it would follow you around for the rest of your life. What made it all so unfair was that he hadn’t done any of this on purpose.
He’d tried to make up for it by working harder than anyone else, spending hours in the simulator in order to get even better, never giving any superior officer the slightest reason to be anything but content with his performance, and it was more and more frustrating to see that he could do whatever he wanted without seeing any kind of result. Some of the pilots in his squadron didn’t even know. They had known him from the day he came aboard, six months ago, but they hadn’t known he’d already been a TIE pilot for a full year then. Commander Vantarel knew, of course, but Caller didn’t have any idea about what was going on in his commanding officer’s mind. If he’d been on better terms with the commander, he might even have considered asking carefully, but as it was, there was nothing at all that he could do.
Caller pretended to be asleep when the celebrating party entered the room. Berks was with them; as long as the promotion wasn’t official—which would be the case when he also had the appropriate rank insignia—he was still a flight officer, and as such, he would remain in the same old room with his three flight officer roommates.
Caller didn’t want to think about what would happen if he got stuck with his present rank and had to watch generations of flight officers being promoted past him.
‘Are you all set, Eighteen?’
‘All in the green, Seventeen. Let’s show the computer what real bomber pilots are capable of.’
Yes, let’s, Caller thought as he initiated the programme and they found themselves in the middle of a dogfight. They had known they would, of course, but that didn’t make it that much better.
‘Watch it, Seventeen, that wishbone over there doesn’t like your nose.’ He set the engine power to full and made sure he was on lasers, not on torps.
‘Fine with me, I don’t like his.’ Minton started firing at the Y-wing, which broke out with some effort. Caller grimaced. He hadn’t flown bombers very often, but they were much slower than a regular TIE fighter, weighed down by an impressive weapons arsenal as well as their heavier hull shielding. They were as close as the Empire got to having shielded starfighters, but their lack of speed also meant that Y-wings could evade them—wishbones, who were usually too sluggish to evade anything—and it also reminded him that fighting off wishbones wasn’t going to get them anywhere.
‘Eighteen, forget the Y-wings. If one’s stupid enough to pass by your scopes, fine, but we’re not chasing them. We’re going for the frigate full throttle.’
‘Understood, Seventeen,’ Minton answered with an undertone of disappointment. Caller shook his head with a grin. Give Minton a few Y-wings and a couple of fully charged laser cannons, and he’s happy.
He heard Minton curse when one of the bombers accompanying them didn’t see incoming enemy fire quickly enough and was vaped, but he stayed on course, with Minton directly behind him. Only two bombers had to survive in order to be able to destroy the frigate, but there were only five left already, and half of the Y-wing squad had turned away from the battle against the TIE fighters to worry about the newcomers.
‘Eighteen, let’s get over to that frigate,’ Caller said. ‘That way, if they want to shoot at us, they have to shoot at their own capital ship.’
Minton acknowledged, and Caller raced straight at a pair of the Y-wings that were trying to intercept them, seeing a green light on his HUD that told them they were being targeted by laser cannons. He decided that these were stupid enough to pass by his scopes, and his finger curled around the trigger.
He fired at the wishbones, then broke out an instant later, just as red laser fire from the Rebel ships raced towards his fighter. He managed to dodge most of it, but one blast hit his port solar panel. For an instant, he expected his fighter to dissolve in an explosion, but then he remembered that he was in a bomber, which could take a lot more pounding than a TIE.
‘You all right, Seventeen?’ Minton asked. Behind him, two Imperial bombers were hit by Y-wing fire and blew up.
Caller quickly checked his display, but there was nothing seriously wrong with his fighter. He was beginning to like the thing. ‘Yes, I’m all right,’ he answered, again firing at the Y-wing before him. The greater hull strength was also true for his opponent, but Caller saw he’d already hit the craft once.
He fired again, his laser cannons linked to dual fire, and at the same time, his wingman fired at the same ship. The Y-wing tried to break out but didn’t make it; it spun out of sight and exploded half a klick further onwards. The wingman had raced past them and was turning around to remain behind them.
‘Now we’ve got him where we want him,’ Caller said with a wolfish grin.
‘Er—we want them in our prime target cone?’
‘We want them to fire at their own ships,’ Caller answered as the Nebulon-B escort frigate Equality appeared before them, barely five klicks away. The third TIE bomber was still with them.
Caller switched over to torps and prepared to get a lock on the frigate—which wasn’t too difficult, considering its size—when Minton shouted, ‘They’re trying to get a lock on me!’
The same instant, the telltale yellow light flashed on Caller’s own HUD as well as the Y-wings behind them attempted to get torpedo locks on them, and he had an idea. Another Y-wing had joined the pair pursuing them, evening out the odds.
‘Stay on target, and fire on my mark,’ he said, relaying the order to the computer generated third TIE bomber as well.
‘Seventeen, I know this is just a sim, but I really hate dying . . .’ Minton began, but Caller cut him off.
‘Some fancy flying, Eighteen, and nobody’s going to die except for a couple of Rebels,’ he answered. The yellow light on his HUD turned to red, accompanied by a shrill wail of alarm. The same instant, the yellow brackets on his own HUD turned red, indicating he had the frigate locked. ‘Mark!’ he barked and shot off his two proton torpedoes, then channelled all energy into the engines. ‘To the frigate, full throttle!’
To his satisfaction, all three of the Y-wings had also fired two torps at the three bombers. Now if they only could hold them off until they reached the frigate.
‘Sithspawn, Caller—they’re too fast,’ Minton ground out between clenched teeth, and Caller saw his wingman was lagging behind.
‘All energy into engine power, Eighteen!’ he shouted, bringing up the two missiles behind him on his HUD. The distance marker was measuring down quickly, but at nearly the same rate, the frigate approached. Before him, six explosions rocked the frigate as his and Minton’s proton torpedo salvos hit along with the third TIE’s.
Three point five klicks—two point seven klicks—two point one klicks—one point five—oh point nine—
‘Break!’ he shouted to Minton, who had lost his nerve a bit earlier than Caller had hoped, swerving by too soon, so one of the torpedoes on his heel shot past him as well as the frigate. The computer-generated bomber didn’t even manage to break out in time but was caught by the proton torpedoes fired at it. Caller, however, managed to get the moment exactly right, at the very last instant jerking his stick back so he shot over the stern bulk of the frigate. The torpedoes didn’t copy the manoeuvre; both of them slammed squarely into the Rebel ship, as did the remaining torp that hadn’t been able to keep up with Minton.
Caller fought a feeling of triumph that threatened to overwhelm him; the frigate was damaged, but it was still flying. ‘Another pass,’ he told Minton.
‘Whatever you say, Seventeen,’ his wingman replied, sounding a little dazed.
The escort frigate’s shields were down after nine torp hits; more than a single run by three ships could have achieved normally. A few more hits would do the job, maybe two or three, Caller supposed. He knew he couldn’t count on any further backing from the Rebels, as they weren’t normally programmed to be stupid in Imperial sim exercises; they wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
‘One more run will do the trick, Eighteen,’ he said. Three Y-wings were still behind them; they would be between them and the frigate once the bombers chose to turn around again in order to make another run. ‘But let’s try to take out one or two of those wishbones first.’
‘I’m with you, Seventeen,’ Minton answered.
Caller flew a bit further before he began to recharge his laser cannons once again. Which had been all but drained during the flight towards the frigate. The Y-wings tried once more to fire at them with torps—now that the frigate was safely behind them, they didn’t run any risk of hitting their own people once again—but they both managed to shake the locks from the Rebel ships. I never thought bombers were this fine to handle, Caller thought. As a proper Imperial TIE fighter pilot, he’d always looked down on the sluggish craft, but they were holding their own rather well against Y-wings. Of course, they were only fighting against Y-wings, not the faster X-wings, but the bombers were more than a match for them. And Caller had to admit it felt good to be hit by enemy fire and not die instantly.
‘We’re going around again,’ he told Minton. ‘Watch out for those wishbones.’
Both bombers flew a tight arc to come around, and the Y-wings made no attempt to change their path, continuing towards them in a head-on run, now caught between their own frigate and the Imperial ships. The frigate couldn’t help them, since it would have been just as likely to hit their own.
Caller found his lasers were fully charged once more and fired at the foremost Y-wing, which had been hit before already. It didn’t take more than three hits to vape the Rebel fighter.
Minton disabled another one, but the third wishbone scored a hit on Caller’s wingman, and he heard him curse as his bomber winked out from the HUD.
‘You’re doing that on purpose,’ a disembodied voice accused Caller.
‘Eighteen,’ Caller replied, but he was grinning, ‘you’re dead. Belt up.’
‘So you get all the fame?’
‘I’ll recommend you for a post-sim-mortem hero of the Empire medal.’
‘Least you can do.’
The two remaining Y-wings had shot past Caller, and he saw that one of them had become far too slow to keep up with him any longer. Just one more pass at the frigate, and be done with this stupid exercise, he told himself.
The Y-wing was a little more than one klick behind him when he finally had turned his ship around, but by then, Caller had already taken aim at the frigate. His HUD winked yellow, and it would only be a matter of seconds before it turned red—
Just in time, he managed to break away from the fire of the Y-wing that had come up on the other side of the frigate and was now firing at him, thus breaking the lock.
Caller grimaced. The Rebel ship in front of him was not going to give him the time for another run if he tried to deal with it first, so he decided he’d rely on his fighter’s increased hull strength.
He didn’t really made an attempt to jink out of the enemy ship’s fire, just allowing for enough movement to avoid a direct hit, at the same time watching his HUD, where the targeting brackets had turned yellow again. Intent on his course towards the frigate, he ground his teeth as a laser blast shot past him from the Y-wing behind him, missing his bomber by no more than three or four metres. Just a few more seconds, come on . . .
His HUD winked red, and Caller fired at once, then swerving sharply to get out of the Y-wings’ crossfire. One more blast hit him, frying his instrumentation, but that didn’t matter, as in that instant, to starboard, the frigate Equality broke apart, shaken by more explosions as his two torps hit it. Another laser blast slammed into his ship, and he barely had time to read the words MISSION ACCOMPLISHED on his screen before he hit the ABORT button. He did not intend to let his triumph be marred by getting shot down in the last possible moment.
The canopy popped open above him, and he jumped out of the simulator, grinning. From another sim cockpit, Minton re-emerged, although his grin was a bit more subdued.
‘Well, you did it,’ he said.
Caller shook his head. ‘We. Without your hits, I would have had to do another run, and I’m not certain I would have survived that.’
Minton sniffed. ‘Small consolation.’
Caller shrugged. ‘Okay, since I’ve had more kills than you today, it’s my shout in the canteen. How’s that sound?’
His wingman’s smile got a lot wider. ‘Much better.’
‘You know, that was quite extraordinary, Officer Caller.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
Captain Dacasca thoughtfully massaged his chin as he viewed some of the scenes from the previous day’s simulator run again, and Commander Vantarel actually looked content with his charge. They were in the Commander’s office, and the Captain’s presence made Caller slightly nervous.
‘Your experience with bombers so far shows you handle them rather well, Officer,’ Vantarel said.
Caller wasn’t sure whether an answer was expected of him, so he chose to remain silent.
‘Officer Caller, I am aware that you seem to be less than content with your present situation,’ Captain Dacasca remarked. Caller froze. That was the most direct statement he had ever heard from the Captain—or the commander—on his position, and he began to suspect that the Captain’s hands were bound as much as Commander Yenko’s had been.
‘I never said that, sir,’ he finally said.
‘No, of course you haven’t. Officer Caller—’ the Captain paused to consult a datapad— ‘I have been asked to transfer you to another posting.’
Caller wanted nothing more than to ask who had put in that request, but he knew he was in no position to ask such a question, so he remained standing at attention.
‘You’ll be transferred to Yaemon Base, to serve under General Davall. I have asked Commander Vantarel to write up a report for you about your time here, and I am certain that General Davall will be pleased to have you.’
Caller didn’t answer. It was very uncommon for a TIE pilot to be stationed on his own homeworld, and he couldn’t begin to guess why he of all people was given that privilege, especially if he was correct in his assumption that it was again COMPNOR’s influence that had got him there. He couldn’t imagine it had anything to do with kind-heartedness.
At least the Captain’s as well as the commander’s statements sounded genuinely honest, so he said, ‘Thank you, sir.’
Dacasca gave him a long, searching glance, then nodded at the tall flight officer. ‘See to it that you get this unfortunate affair over and done with, Flight Officer Caller.’
‘I will, sir.’
The Captain glanced at his datapad again. ‘We’ll be docking with a space platform in the Expansion in four days’ time,’ he said. ‘From there, you will catch a shuttle that will bring you to Yaemon. I assume you don’t mind to serve with a TIE bomber squadron there?’
‘No, sir, not at all.’
‘Very well, Officer Caller. You’re dismissed, then.’
Caller saluted, first to the Captain, then to the commander, both of whom returned the gesture, then he turned about and left the commander’s office.
He still didn’t have the slightest idea what was happening here, but at least it would be nice to see his mother and sister again. He’d seen then way too little the past few years; against tradition, he hadn’t been given leave after his first year as a TIE pilot, and the last time he’d really seen them for a longer time had been before he went off to the Academy, three and a half years ago. Whatever the Navy or COMPNOR had planned for him, he wasn’t going to let them down.
I’m all calm. I’m one with the living Force surrounding me. I can reach out to it, touch it, use it. Tranquillity is power, aggression is the way to the Dark Side . . .
Rhun sat on his bed, legs crossed, eyes closed, as he went through the exercises old Per had taught him while they were still on Cheldiria. He’d waited for a time when both his roommates were out and he knew they wouldn’t be back very soon. Apart from the fact that he didn’t want anybody to know what he’d only recently found out about himself—that he could learn how to use the Force—he would have felt infinitely stupid if anybody caught him like this. He hadn’t come very far with actually using the Force consciously, if he was honest, but he was working on developing something like a feel for it, so he could at least notice when he was using it without his noticing again, as he had done in the past a couple of times, and to prevent it from using him instead.
I’m all calm, he told himself again, as he’d found those were the words that helped him focus best. He brought to his mind the other words Per had taught him, some of the few things the not-quite-Jedi had been able to teach him. There is no emotion; there is peace. There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. There is no passion; there is serenity. There is no chaos; there is harmony. There is no death; there is the Force . . . There is no emotion; there is peace. There is no ignorance; there is knowledge. There is no passion—There’s a knock on the door. Oh bugger.
Rhun opened his eyes and looked at the door in annoyance. Whoever was there couldn’t have known, of course, but it was annoying anyway. But then, he doubted he would have come very far today.
He went over to the door and opened. Samica was outside, looking tired, and he felt his irritation vanish.
‘What’s the matter?’ he wanted to know.
She sighed and came in when he made room for her. Her face still looked slightly discoloured, after more than three weeks, but at least it was hardly noticeable unless you looked very closely. Surgeon Commander Sedgers, the base’s doctor, had kept both of them in the sickbay for two days—Rhun, because she hadn’t trusted him to take it easy without her having an eye on him and making sure he did; Sam, because she’d virtually turned her inside out to find what exactly the Imps had done to her when she’d been tortured on Garon II. The medics had searched for a homing device, a virus, a substance that indicated she’d been ‘reprogrammed’ or anything else that might have explained why the Imperials had just let her go, but they hadn’t been able to find anything.
Rhun knew that her squadron hadn’t exactly welcomed her with open arms, least of all Colonel Salm. The commanding officer of Blue Squadron had made her responsible for returning without her wingman and with her Y-wing so badly in need of repair that it wouldn’t be flying for two weeks. It had come as a small consolation for her that Imp could be repaired—Rhun knew that she viewed the little astromech droid almost as a personal friend by now—but that had been all that could have been considered positive about her return.
There wasn’t much support from her squad mates, either. Her more than three standard weeks’ absence from the squadron, just after it had been formed, hadn’t done a lot to prevent her from becoming the odd man out, and with what else had happened to her during her absence, it was hardly surprising nobody dared to side with her, especially with the way the colonel felt about her.
Samica sat down on the chair before the computer terminal in the room and stared at the floor. ‘They’re avoiding me,’ she said. ‘Every one of them. Even Dave hasn’t talked to me since we came back from that mission. They don’t even want to hear any explanation! They’ve all decided I’ve gone over to the Imps again. Salm even wanted to remove me from the squadron; he told me to my face. I assume I owe it to Commander Willard that I’m still part of the squadron, but I don’t even feel as if I were, with my Y-wing undergoing repairs and no substitute ship to fly with!’ She paused to draw a breath. ‘Why are you and Willard the only ones who believe me?’
Rhun shrugged unhappily. ‘There are a couple of others. Captain Dyson trusted you, or he wouldn’t have taken you to the Safe World. And when Surgeon Commander Sedgers found nothing out of the ordinary, I believe she told Salm so.’
Samica grimaced. ‘She told him she hadn’t found anything, but for Salm, that doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing there. He told me he was sorry, but I was a risk, the way he saw it right now. He said I might not even have noticed yet, I might be a sleeper, a time-bomb ready to go off any moment . . . Sometimes I think Willard is almost happy I can’t fly anyway at the moment, so he can’t ground me for other reasons.’
Rhun sighed, at a loss of how to help her. ‘I told Willard that I didn’t think you were a threat,’ he said.
She finally smiled weakly. ‘Thank you, Rhun. But Willard must know you’re biased in that matter.’
‘I wouldn’t have told him he could trust you if I hadn’t meant it,’ Rhun defended himself. ‘I know you’re having a hard time right now, but that’ll pass. As soon as you’ve convinced them—by your actions—that you haven’t been turned, with or without your knowledge, they’ll trust you again. All of them, I mean, not just from the ones who’ve always done that.’
‘That assumes they give me the chance to convince them,’ Samica said.
‘They won’t have a choice. Even if it weren’t for your sake—and no matter what you think, there must be a couple of people in your squadron who don’t think you’re a spy—pilots don’t grow on trees, and if they don’t want to lose a very good one, they’ll have to start trusting you again when the Empire finally decides to clear Yavin Base of Rebels.’
Samica couldn’t quite suppress a shudder at that thought. ‘They’re taking an awfully long time, aren’t they?’
Rhun nodded. ‘High Command has difficulty getting enough ships together to evacuate,’ he said. ‘And the Empire’s probably still licking its wounds, but they won’t leave us in peace for much longer. Anyway—’ he got up to put an arm around her shoulders—‘I suggest we go and get something to eat. I’m starving. By the way, have you met Doctor Blissex already?’
‘Doctor Blissex is on the base?’
‘Yes, I’ve seen him in the mess this morning. He was in a hurry and a bit distracted, but I think that’s the usual way with him.’
She smiled wryly. ‘Probably, but I don’t think I really can tell. I’ve met him in a very unusual situation, after all.’
Rhun nodded towards the door. ‘Come on, let’s get your mind onto other things. And then, you’d probably best keep to your pilot colleagues, not to grounddogs like me.’
‘I never called you that,’ she protested.
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Oh? Do I detect a hint that you really don’t know where your loyalties lie?’
The smile finally reached her eyes. ‘I always know where my loyalties lie.’
Samica wiped her hands on her flight suit and put the hull plate back over the primary sensor array, then climbed into her cockpit to see if the connection between the array and the HUD was established again. The backup engine was running to feed the ship with enough power to check the system, but the text on the screen told her she still wasn’t there. The weapons had gone back on-line, but the ship insisted it still couldn’t ‘see’.
Samica sighed and climbed back to the front of the fighter, wishing she had Imp to help her. He knew the ship best, and what to do if something didn’t work. But unfortunately, Imp was still in the droid repair workshop, completely dismantled, looking all too much like a friend on his deathbed. Samica could hold her own when it came to repairing a starfighter—just so—but she would have been completely at a loss how to patch her astromech together, and Tibbs and Tinkler had enough to do as it was, so Imp ranged further down on their priority list. Samica hadn’t bothered to ask whether Salm had ordered the mechanics not to repair her R2 unit too quickly, so he could keep her grounded for yet a while longer.
She removed the hull plating again. It was odd, she thought, that seeing the foremost part of a Y-wing in a dismantled state seemed so strange to her; after all, Y-wings were almost never completely assembled. The whole main body of the ship was completely open, the easier to be accessed when there was something broken, and only the more sensitive parts, like the front and long-range sensor arrays, the laser barrels and the ion fission chambers that were located in the two ‘wings’, were covered. A Y-wing with partial coverings looked perfectly normal to her, but one with all the plating removed looked naked. She shook her head and began to work on the sensor array again.
Across the hangar, Dave was also busy working on his ship, as was Bent, who was also desperately in need to show the colonel that he was capable of performing better than he had let on so far. Captain Cromarty’s flight group, composed of Shirk Rowl, the Shistavanen wolfman, and Geremi Bergen, the new pilot from Alderaan that Samica had hardly spoken to, completed by Gordon Dowd (usually her wingman), had left for a patrol two hours ago and was due back any minute. Towards the exit of the hangar, Samica could see Colonel Salm going over some problem with Lawal, the quiet Mon Calamari. Samica sighed again. As much as she wanted to be angry with Salm for wanting her to leave his squadron, she couldn’t really fault the man. Salm was careful, intent on top performance by his pilots, but the same degree of perfection he expected of his people, he also demanded of himself. And if a pilot honestly approached him with a problem, the way Lawal obviously had, the colonel would take the time to help him.
There was the noise of repulsors outside as Cromarty’s flight group returned from their patrol. Samica turned around to see the four Y-wings enter the hangar, first Cromarty’s, then Rowl’s, with Dowd following after Bergen, when she noticed that Dowd didn’t set his ship down. The other fighters landed more or less elegantly in their docking spaces, but Dowd remained hovering above his, just beside her, landing gear extended, his ship wavering as he tried to hold it right there. She frowned. There was no reason why he shouldn’t land; already, Colonel Salm was running towards them. Samica saw Dave turn away to hide a grin; she shook her head irritably. Salm running might be a droll picture, but Dowd seemed to be losing control over his fighter, the ion cannon on top of his cockpit scraping against the ceiling of the hangar.
Salm had activated his comlink. ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, Officer Dowd?’ Samica heard him shout into the device over the whining of the repulsors. There was a pause, then the Colonel shouted again, ‘What are you talking about? Your landing gear is extended! Get down here before you make the temple collapse!’
The colonel’s order seemed to have calmed Dowd; seconds later, he brought his Y-wing down on his landing space. Marvyn Tibbs was running towards his ship, and Salm had taken position at foot of the ladder now extending from the cockpit.
Gordon Dowd emerged, drenched in sweat, looking under the fighter to see the landing gear extended in a perfectly normal way after he’d jumped down. ‘I don’t understand this, sir! There was an error message on my screen, saying the landing gear was malfunctioning!’
Tibbs had climbed up into the cockpit, and Samica saw Salm looking up at it. ‘What is it, Tibbs?’ he demanded.
Tibbs looked at the cockpit interior for a minute or two before he switched off the engine. The hangar suddenly seemed very quiet.
‘This is weird, sir,’ the tech said. ‘The damage control system really thought the landing gear was failing.’
‘How could that happen?’ Salm asked, his voice ominous.
Tibbs hesitated. ‘I don’t really know, sir—maybe a failure in the hydraulics—’
‘How likely is that, after a routine patrol?’ Salm wanted to know.
Tibbs looked at the colonel, then at the other pilots in the hangar. ‘Not very likely, sir,’ he admitted.
‘So the landing gear has been tampered with.’ The colonel suddenly reminded Samica a lot of her former Imperial CO, Commander Norden, who had also been able to look remarkably like a rancour.
Salm turned around to Cromarty, Bergen, Dave, Rowl, Lawal, Bent, and her. She could feel her face heat as the colonel’s gaze remained on her for slightly longer than on any of the others.
‘Is anyone of you responsible for this?’ he snarled.
A collective shaking of heads answered him.
He waited for a few seconds, again watching each of them in turn (except perhaps Cromarty), and this time, all the others must have noticed who his main suspect was. ‘If any of you tampered with Flight Officer Dowd’s Y-wing, I want you to tell me straight away. I swear to you I’m going to find out anyway, and if I find out that any of you lied to me, Stars help you.’ It didn’t take a lot of imagination to realise he meant it.
Nobody made a sound, and Salm barked at them, ‘Get back to work!’
They all scrambled back to the places they’d been when the show had started. Samica had begun digging into the sensor capsule again when she became aware of somebody standing beside her, and looked up.
Gordon Dowd was watching her, his usual scowl replaced by an expression of outright hatred.
Samica forced herself to eye him levelly. ‘What do you want?’ she asked.
‘I know you did that,’ he replied between his teeth. ‘And I’ll make certain the colonel hears about it.’
She put down a cable she’d removed. ‘Flight Officer Dowd, if you really think I’d reprogram your damage control system to indicate a landing gear malfunction—even if I had the slightest idea how to go about something like that—you’re even more stupid than I thought.’ She knew she shouldn’t have said the last bit, but she really hadn’t been able to restrain herself any more where Dowd was concerned.
The red-haired flight officer stared at her, his jaw working, then he turned around, but she could hear him mutter something that sounded like ‘Imperial slut’.
‘What did you just say?’ she gasped.
He didn’t answer, didn’t even look back at her, and that moment, there was nothing she’d have loved more than to put his face out of joint, and reason cut in just a little too late. She jumped down from her ship, grabbing Dowd’s flight suit and jerking him around to face her, her left fist clenched, ready to beat his nose to a pulp, when she finally came to her senses.
He didn’t even make any attempt at resistance, his dark brown eyes seeming to dare her to hit him.
She clenched her hands into fists and forced herself back under control, yanked her right hand out of his flight suit, then climbed back onto her fighter to return to her task. She wasn’t going to give the little bastard the satisfaction to actually give him a reason and run off to the colonel to complain about her. Dowd remained standing before her ship for a few seconds, then he turned and left.
From the corner of her eye, Samica could see Dave, who had watched the exchange, but the blond-haired Corellian quickly ducked his head when he saw she was watching.
Eating in the mess that night was like running the gauntlet. The story about what had happened in the hangar had spread among the Blue Squadron pilots like wildfire, and there seemed to be no doubt among any of them as to who the culprit was. Rhun was not there, and rather than facing her squadron, no matter what he had said about not keeping with the grounddogs, Samica decided to search for an empty table she had to herself, but before she could quietly slip past the other pilots, Bergen addressed her.
‘Hey, Captain, good job there in the hangar,’ he said. ‘Pity it didn’t work all the way, right?’
She rolled her eyes. ‘Lieutenant, you’re one of the poor souls who believe that rubbish, too?’ she asked, forcing herself to sound casual.
‘Rubbish, Captain? That’s what I’d have done if I was in your place.’
‘In my place? You mean, if you’d been accused of being a danger to the squadron and trying to make your squad mates trust you?’
Bergen’s eyes narrowed. ‘One might think you actually believe what you’re saying.’
‘Think about that one, Lieutenant. I just might.’
‘The colonel’s going to sack you, Captain,’ Dowd cut in disdainfully. ‘I told him what happened in the hangar, and that you attacked me. There are witnesses for that.’
‘You won’t fond a single witness testifying that I actually hit you, because I didn’t,’ Samica said, but she kicked herself for losing control that afternoon. She hadn’t done anything, but she knew how stupid she had been to let herself be pushed to the brink.
Bergen gripped Dowd’s shoulder and sniffed. ‘Come on, Gordon, that’s enough. She’ll get whatever she deserves, don’t worry.’
‘Yeah, Gordon, let her be,’ Dave said. Alden looked away.
Samica turned around abruptly and went to get something to eat and look for a table where she’d be left alone.
The appearances of the mess had changed somewhat over the past few weeks, as there were new faces about weekly. While it was a problem to have a Rebel base that everyone knew about, it also meant that whoever wanted to join the Rebels knew where to look, which had been totally different before Yavin. Samica knew that some Rebels had had to search for months, even years, before they finally found them. Some already knew someone who was with them, which was the easiest way to join, but since Yavin had been in a couple of unofficial newsfeeds recently, there were several people arriving who thought they’d join. Much as High Command was glad about the additional support, Counterintelligence had a tough time in making certain all of those who came here actually wanted to join. Most of the new arrivals were not even allowed to stay; they were taken to safe places where it could be determined whether they were they were serious or not.
Samica sat down at a table at the back, eating her dinner, but she hardly paid attention to what she was eating, but that wouldn’t have mattered anyway, since food on Rebel bases tended to be less than thrilling. She was almost finished and prepared to return to her quarters—thank heavens she didn’t have to share with any of them, at least—when somebody joined her at the table, and she mentally steeled herself for yet another accuse before she turned her head.
To her surprise, the one who had joined her was an old man with a white beard and a bald head, looking mildly out of place here among pilots and warriors.
‘Lieutenant Trey, if I remember correctly?’ he asked.
‘Doctor Blissex!’ she exclaimed in surprise. ‘Rhun had told me you were on the base, but I must have forgotten.’
‘It occurred to me I’d never found the time to thank you for saving my life half a year ago,’ the scientist remarked.
Samica waved it off. ‘I suppose all three of us saved each other’s lives so often aboard Resolve so nobody has to feel guilty,’ she said. ‘But it’s good to see you’ve weathered the experience rather well.’
He nodded. ‘You as well, from what I hear. Oh, forgive me, you were promoted to Captain, weren’t you?’ he asked, looking at her rank insignia.
She managed not to let her resentment at her squadron show. ‘Yes, a Brevet Captain, that’s right. No reason to feel sorry, Doctor, you’re outside the chain of command, and nobody can expect you to keep track of everything.’ She put up an almost convincing smile.
‘That’s good to hear. Agent van Leuken is well, I hope?’
‘Well again, yes,’ she replied. ‘He was injured on a mission three weeks ago, but he’s fine again.’
The doctor nodded. ‘Good. And it’s certainly a good thing that you’ve decided to join the Alliance, Captain.’
Samica decided to change the subject. ‘Have you heard from your daughter?’
The old man shook his head sadly. ‘Nothing after that message Agent van Leuken intercepted, the one addressed to her husband,’ he said, subdued. ‘At least it was enough to prove to an old fool like me that she really would stop at nothing to get her hands on me and hand me over to Imperial justice.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Samica said quietly.
‘You and Agent van Leuken were the ones who told me not to trust her,’ Blissex answered. ‘If it hadn’t been for the two of you, I would have been captured, and my daughter would have won.’
‘Not me,’ Samica said. ‘It was Rhun’s doing, you know that. You simply . . . picked me up along the way.’
Blissex smiled. ‘I’m not going to argue with you about what you did for me,’ he said. ‘Captain—I’m sorry I have to leave you, but duty is calling.’
‘What are you doing on Yavin 4?’ Samica asked. ‘I’m surprised they even let you come here, with the Imps likely to attack soon.’
‘I’m working on something with General Dodonna,’ Blissex answered. ‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you any more at the moment.’
Samica nodded. ‘That’s all right, Doctor. When you’re an Intel agent’s friend, you learn which questions to ask and which not to.’
Blissex smiled again. ‘So I assume. Good night, Captain.’
‘You too, Doctor,’ she answered, then watched him leave the canteen, then heaved another sigh, but a more relieved one this time. It was good to be able to talk to a few people who didn’t mistrust her.
‘You’re aware that your situation doesn’t look at all good, Captain,’ Commander Willard stated.
For the first time since those very first interviews just after her defection, there was a guard present in the commander’s office. Samica hadn’t commented on this. She was infinitely grateful the commander had chosen to hear her out, alone, without any other people present, even if she suspected that Salm would have loved to be present right now.
‘I’m aware of that, sir. But I still have to point out all of this is a chain of coincidences. If I really were an Imperial spy, why would I go for the landing gear of a Y-wing? Sir, you have to admit all of this makes no sense.’
‘Do you know who was responsible for that particular point, Captain?’ Willard asked.
‘No, sir. Maybe it was just a very bad joke.’
‘It would have to be a very bad joke that could have brought the hangar roof down, Captain Trey.’
‘I agree, sir.’
Commander Willard rubbed his eyes. He looked tired, Samica thought, and she almost grimaced at the thought that, with evacuation immediate, the commander must have a hundred things on his mind that made his life complicated enough without one of the pilots being unofficially accused of conspiracy. But then she told herself to stop feeling responsible for that, as well. She had hardly asked to be subject to that sort of accusation, after all.
‘You said you had been in the hangar for several hours by the time the accident happened?’ Willard asked.
‘And you saw nothing out of the ordinary?’
Willard let out a sigh. ‘Captain, I don’t mean to be prejudiced, but this a question I’m afraid I'll have to ask. You’ve never got along very well with Flight Officer Dowd, have you?’
‘No, sir,’ Samica admitted. ‘But even if I’d tried to do something to harm him, I really wouldn’t have had an idea how to reprogram the computer the way it happened to Dowd’s ship. Surely Colonel Salm must know that.’
‘Colonel Salm thinks you might have help from one of the techs.’ Willard’s face didn’t reveal whether he thought that might be the case or not.
Samica forced herself to answer to that question truthfully. ‘Of course I might, and they would probably have helped me. I’m certain you and Colonel Salm are aware that Tibbs as well as Tinkler have both known me for a bit longer than any of my new squadron. But I didn’t.’
Commander Willard watched her for a few more heartbeats, then he nodded and closed the datapad before him. ‘Very well, Captain. I may have to hear certain things from you once again before this matter is settled, but you’re dismissed for now.’
She saluted, and left the commander’s office. Without Willard, she thought, she would probably be on her way to the Safe World again—but not to the refugee settlements this time, if Salm had any say in it, but to the prisoner camps.
The Green and Blue of Yaemon’s equatorial region greeted Josh Caller as the troop transport shuttle entered atmosphere.
The City of Yaemon, the planet’s capital, was located seven hundred kilometres south of the equator, adjacent to a stretch of lush green forests, on the shore of the Zori Sea. South of the city, there were endless stretches of fields, the planet’s granary, which supplied the world as well as some of the other settlements in the system, such as Fe Kizaemon, one of the world’s two moons. The equatorial region of Yaemon was fertile and productive, home to several million people, whereas the northernmost reaches of the planet were only sparsely inhabited, due to cold winters and much seismic activity.
As the shuttle descended down towards the city, Caller realised he hadn’t been home for entirely too long. He’d seen several human settlements across the galaxy in the past three and a half years, and he liked space, but he’d always loved Yaemon. The colony world had been settled by humans around a century ago, mostly by Corellian emigrants, and it still was evident from the city’s architecture. In between the inevitable blocks of skyscrapers, there were large patches of green, parks and gardens or simply lawns, which somewhat alleviated the urban appeal. The buildings consisted of as much duracrete as transparisteel, thus giving the town the appearance of belonging into the landscape—much more than other cities, at least. Caller had never been on Imperial Centre, but he thought it was absolutely grotesque to plaster a whole world with a single city.
The white hexagon of the garrison looked even more out of place today than Caller remembered. He’d seen the things on a dozen worlds, but here, it looked strange, incongruous. He shook his head. He supposed he’d changed a lot since he’d last seen Yaemon, and his mother and sister, and wondered if they’d changed. He’d never wondered about that before. He knew that Lana had finished school by now and had taken up studying philosophy and biology at the Yaemon City Institute of Education, and must have changed a lot from fifteen to nineteen, but somehow he’d always assumed that when he came home, everything would be as he’d left it.
When the shuttle set down, the first thing Caller did was report to General Davall. The garrison commander asked him all sorts of questions, but it didn’t take a genius to realise that COMPNOR had been here before Caller had, from the way things looked. For about the twentieth time in the past six months, Caller wished COMPNOR or the ISB or whoever was responsible for his current situation would just tell him what he’d done wrong, but he knew that was very unlikely to happen. The general obviously didn’t quite know what to make of his new pilot, but Caller hoped that it would turn out right here, on Yaemon. He had reason to hope it would. Three years ago, it had been his father’s name that had opened doors for him, and they couldn’t possibly have forgotten so soon. His father, Byron Caller, had been an executive in YaeMonitoring ltd, a local company that produced security systems and also supplied the Empire with them. Five years ago, there had been a hostage crisis at the company, which had ended with several administrators of YaeMonitoring shot by Rebels, as well as all thirteen terrorists. Caller’s father had been among the dead. He knew that he owed his place at the Academy to Imperials who thought they had something to atone for, but he’d been determined to earn the right to stay by his own actions, not because he was someone’s favourite. He’d succeeded, and he still hoped that he would have something of a bonus here on which to work on.
He would serve with the local bomber squadron—which, as he learned, was infrequently called upon to assist in operations in the sector—but he had a two days’ leave before he had to report back, and he intended to make use of it. He’d commed his mother when they entered the system, so she knew he was coming, and he was looking forward to coming home.
His mother’s house was located near the centre of the town, but it was surrounded by the lawns that were so typical for Yaemon City. The complex housed six apartments, and Caller felt himself grin as he saw Mother’s speeder was there, as was another one, looking slightly older. Of course, Lana would by now have a piloting licence of her own.
His mother and Lana had both seen him coming across the lawn, of course, and awaited him at the door, with a lot of hugging and backslapping and kissing.
‘I didn’t know when exactly you would be coming,’ his mother said, apologetically, as they went in. ‘So it’ll take a while before dinner’s ready.’
‘Doesn’t matter, Mother,’ Caller said, grinning. ‘Doesn’t matter at all.’
‘So, what’s been happening in this part of the galaxy?’ Caller asked. He and Lana were walking through the town the day after his arrival, after a dinner the previous night and a breakfast that morning that had reminded him about just how much he’d left behind, and he couldn’t have felt more at peace with the universe.
Lana shrugged. ‘They’ve cut down on traffic going through the Corellian trade route, so Yaemon gets a bit less than a couple of years ago, and several smaller companies here are going bankrupt because they were seized by the state—to help the war efforts. But I don’t think that’s what you want to hear.’
He cast her a sidelong glance. ‘I certainly didn’t expect to hear it,’ he answered. ‘I didn’t know you were interested in politics.’
‘Couldn’t help it, with a brother who’s an Imperial starfighter pilot,’ she said. ‘You’re a star around here, Jo. Certainly among the kids from school. They didn’t believe me at first when I told them you’d made StarCom.’
Caller laughed. ‘I didn’t believe it at first when I read I’d made StarCom,’ he said. ‘Anyway, it's good to be here.’
Lana eyed him cautiously. ‘Jo, I’ve been wondering . . . I’ve looked into Navy tradition a bit, and—well, I couldn’t help wondering why you haven’t been promoted to Lieutenant yet.’
Caller nearly groaned, but he realised he wouldn’t have the chance to discuss the topic with anyone he trusted again, so he replied, ‘I don’t know why. Things like these happen.’
‘Yeah, to washouts, and either you’ve exaggerated a lot in your letters, which would surprise me, or there’s something wrong with someone’s opinion of you.’
‘Probably the latter. I don’t know, I think I stepped on somebody’s toes. Wouldn’t be the first time, would it?’
‘Not like this, Jo. Yes, you do put your foot in it every now and then, but not so badly that they should treat you like that.’
Caller shrugged. ‘Maybe things will change now I’m here.’
‘Maybe.’ But she sounded doubtful.
He stopped and looked directly at her—he had to look down to do it, as with most people; his sister was fairly tall for a woman, but nowhere as tall as he. ‘So, what else do you know?’ he asked.
Lana avoided his eyes. ‘What do you mean?’ she asked defensively.
‘You’ve changed, Lana. And you know more than you’re letting on.’
‘I’m just worried about you, that’s all.’ She turned around, indicating she thought the debate was over. ‘Let’s have something to drink, shall we?’
Caller was unwilling to let the issue lie like this, but reluctantly, he nodded. ‘All right. What about the “Nutshell”?’
‘No, not that,’ she said, and he thought for a moment her response had come a bit to quickly to sound casual. ‘There’s a new place over by the Zori embankment; they make the best pancakes you’ve ever seen.’
‘You’ve convinced me,’ Caller replied with a grin, but he still wondered whatever had happened to the ‘Nutshell’ that she didn’t go there any more. It had been their most frequent haunt while they were at school, and had been for generations of students—or was it that she didn’t want to go there with him?
In any case, he decided he was going to find out.
The ‘Nutshell’ was the definite place to be for everyone between fifteen and twenty-five. Caller had spent most of his free time here while he’d been at school (and a couple of hours during which he was supposed to have been at school), but now, he felt like a traitor as he entered the small café.
It was the evening after he’d taken that walk with Lana, and as soon as she’d been home, she’d received a comm call which had caused her to leave again in a hurry, and Caller had heard her say ‘See you at the “Nutshell”, then.’ He hadn’t really meant to eavesdrop, but now that he’d heard anyway, he’d decided to see what had happened to the place. He’d left the house half an hour after his sister had left.
It looked as it always had, and Caller sat down somewhere in the centre of the room, ordering a glass of lum. He didn’t know any of the faces here; most of the clients were his age or slightly younger, probably a lot of students.
For a while, he sat in silence, sipping his beer, catching up on the latest developments in pop music, and was a little surprised that he didn’t know any of the pieces played here. He hadn’t exactly been living on the surface of some uninhabited moon in the last three years, at least he thought so, but he’d have expected to hear a couple of the songs that he and his squad mates had sometimes listened to when they were off-duty. He wouldn’t have thought it possible that you could listen to pop music for an hour without hearing a single track from The Emperor’s New Clothes, but when he finally thought he recognised one, it sounded very odd, and he thought the lyrics were different. He’d thought he knew the T.E.N.C. hit Totally Patriotic (and thought it was blatantly stupid), but in this version, it didn’t sound very patriotic at all. Now that he thought about it, the lyrics of the other songs played here were just a bit seditious, too. Caller wasn’t quite sure whether this had been the case three years ago, but he was suddenly glad that he’d decided not to wear his ground uniform.
The door to a room at the back of the café opened, and Caller wanted to shrink in his chair as he saw two people come out, two people he knew very well indeed. One was Lana, the other their cousin Franco. He saw Lana hide something under her coat, and Franco eyed the rest of the room. Many people here seemed to know him, there were several hands raised in greeting as he went past them; then his eyes met Caller’s. It was very hard to shrink, even in a full café, when you were over one hundred and ninety centimetres tall.
Franco turned to Lana, who also saw her brother, and a look between anger and fear crossed her face. Then she quickly came over to him, jerked her head into the direction of the exit, and went out with Franco. Caller hurried to pay his drink and come after them.
Lana was waiting for him outside the door. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ she hissed.
Caller took a step back and scowled. ‘What do you think I’m doing? I can go wherever I want around here, can’t I?’
‘No, you can’t,’ he answered between her teeth. ‘Stars, you’re lucky nobody knew who you were. If you’d worn your uniform—’
‘Then what?’ Caller challenged her.
Franco looked up at his cousin. He was a lot smaller, and as opposed to Caller and his sister, he was tow-headed, but with the same blue eyes as both of them.
‘Hi, Jo,’ he said dryly. ‘You’ll have noticed that the “Nutshell” has changed a bit.’
‘Yes, I have,’ Caller replied. ‘And what have the two of you been doing?’
‘Viewing this,’ Lana answered, and to Franco’s horrified gasp, she showed her brother what she’d hidden under her coat. It was a data disc.
‘What’s this?’ Caller wanted to know.
‘Come with us, and we’ll show you,’ Lana answered. Without seeming to notice her cousin’s dismay, she started to walk down the road. ‘Are you coming?’ she asked.
Franco finally found his voice again. ‘Lana, you can’t!’ he hissed, but Caller heard it anyway. ‘When he tells them . . .’
She turned back to look at her brother. ‘You won’t,’ she answered.
Caller was by then not so sure he even wanted to see it. ‘Listen, I really don’t care what you’re doing back there, and what else is happening, and I won’t tell anyone, if that’s what you’re afraid of, so I guess I'll just go home and forget about it, okay?’
‘No,’ Lana said simply. ‘I want you to see this. Can we go to your place, Franco?’
‘This is absolute madness, Lana, and you know it.’
Franco drew a deep breath. ‘Yeah.’
Franco’s flat was the very image of the archetypal bachelor pad. There were things strewn all over the floor and the table, as well as the bed—clothes, dishes, datacards, flimsi sheets with notes scribbled on them, and some remains of fast food meals. Franco didn’t seem to be bothered about the mess in the least, but resignedly let them in. Caller saw holos on the wall, some of them sound slug covers. Most of them were band names Caller had never heard, or if he’d heard about them, he’d read their names on the index lists.
‘Take a pew,’ Franco told them, then took the data disc from Lana. ‘Are you really sure he ought to see this?’
Lana made room on the bed for Caller and her (this involved pushing the various objects on it down to the floor) and nodded.
Franco inhaled deeply. ‘All right.’ He inserted the disc into the holoprojector in on corner of the room.
Lana turned to Caller. ‘I’m sorry, Jo,’ she said. ‘You’ll understand in a minute.’ She nodded to Franco to start the holo.
Caller frowned, mystified, and beginning to become more and more uneasy. He really didn’t want to see whatever he was about to see.
The image was black, was followed by static, the kind you might see on a holo many times copied and recopied. Then there was the image of a young man grinning into the imager; behind him, there was a starfield visible and a blue-white planet. The date at the bottom of the holo dated it back three months. It was a typical recording of a holiday tour.
The image remained much the same for almost a minute, then it flickered, as if the person holding the recording device was pushed from somewhere, and when it stabilised again, it focused no longer on the young man by the viewport, but on the scene behind the transparisteel itself. The planet suddenly seemed to glow, and within seconds, it disintegrated, shards racing across space into all directions. The camera wavered once more, then the recording stopped.
Caller looked at Lana. ‘Now what was that supposed to be?’ he wanted to know.
Lana met his gaze. ‘What you just saw was what really happened to Alderaan three months ago.’
Caller laughed, but he didn’t find it very convincing. ‘So you believe in that nonsense? Alderaan was destroyed because there was a plague that could have decimated the whole galaxy, which would have killed billions, humans and aliens alike. Most of the people on Alderaan were already dead or dying when this happened, and it certainly wasn’t blown into bits in one fell swoop. It took the Fleet—also some Alderaanian vessels—days to keep the thing under control, after it had become clear that nothing could be done and after the Emperor had seen to it that everyone that could be rescued was brought off-planet.’
Lana shook her head. ‘You don’t really believe in that propaganda crap, Jo, do you?’ she asked.
Caller gesticulated towards the holoprojector. ‘If that’s propaganda crap, what’s this? It’s one of the worst fakes I’ve ever seen. Every hobby holo producer could have done this in less than three hours’ time. Really, Lana, Franco—why do you believe that kind of balderdash?’
‘I don’t think you’ve seen it all,’ Franco said tonelessly. ‘Here, have a look at this.’ He pressed the replay key, and the holo started playing once again. This time, Franco paused it just before the explosion, highlighting a section of space next to the planet.
‘So you think the Starfleet destroyed Alderaan?’ he said. ‘Look at this.’
Caller bent forward to see better, noticing a sliver of grey there. ‘Alderaan’s moon,’ he said.
Lana shook her head. ‘No, Alderaan’s moon is more red than grey. You know what this is? This thing here is what destroyed Alderaan. They call it the Death Star. Somehow fitting, isn’t it?’
Caller snorted. ‘Death Star. That sounds like a fairytale monster.’
‘It’s true,’ Franco maintained. ‘The whole affair was so big they had to come up with a giant web of lies to account for it all. The Death Star was destroyed two weeks later by the Rebel Alliance, in the battle of Yavin, near their headquarters, and Tarkin was killed with it, as were a range of other high-ranking Imps, like Motti, Tagge, Yularen . . . how likely is it all of these people died in shuttle crashes all over the galaxy, for heaven’s sake?’
Caller shook his head. ‘They all died in the same crash, in the Yavin system. And don’t you see that your version is absolutely silly? How could the Rebels destroy something that can blast a planet out of the sky with one shot?’
‘They did,’ Lana said.
Caller turned to her. ‘So you’ve become one of them,’ he said, tonelessly. ‘My own sister. After what happened to Father.’
‘What happened to Father didn’t have anything to do with the Rebels,’ Lana said.
Caller shook his head again, incredulous. ‘You should listen to yourself! Do you even have any idea of what you are doing here? Listening to indexed music is one thing, but this—if you circulate these, that’s treason!’
‘I know,’ Lana said simply. ‘But it’s the truth, and the truth has to be told.’
‘Dammit, Lana—you know I’d have to report both of you, instantly, or I’ll be guilty of treason as well!’
‘Sue me,’ she said defiantly.
Caller sobered a bit. ‘You know I can’t,’ he said.
‘Why?’ Franco now took over. ‘Because we’re family? Or because you know, somewhere, that this is not a propaganda holo, but the truth?’
‘I know this is not the truth,’ Caller said evenly. ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with this. And if you don’t want to get me into trouble, you’d best stop getting involved in this childish kind of activity.’ He got up. ‘I’ll find the exit myself, thanks. See you later.’ He left the room, and seconds later, Lana and Franco heard the door slam shut.
Franco raised an eyebrow at his cousin. ‘I don’t think that was a good idea, bringing him here,’ he said.
Lana chewed her lower lip. ‘Maybe not, but he won’t report us. I’m certain. And maybe we’ll get him to rethink things. The Empire hasn’t been very kind to him, and that might be our chance to win him over.’ She paused. ‘And sometimes I think it may be my fault that the Empire’s not exactly friendly with him.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Do you remember the swoop at the “Nutshell” a few months ago?’
Franco looked at her uneasily. ‘Yes, why?’
‘They got my name. I wasn’t careful enough, and they knew I was involved in getting those Deeply Religious tracks. I’m only hoping they don’t know about some of the other things that I’m involved in.’
He shrugged unhappily. ‘I don’t think that’ll be too dangerous, getting caught with sound slugs from an indexed band.’
‘Not for me, but maybe they decided to take a closer look at Josh?’
Franco grimaced. ‘Maybe, but it’s no use speculating. Either way—even if that had repercussions on Josh’s career, would you stop doing it?’
‘I don’t know,’ Lana said, once again gnawing at her lower lip. ‘I would stop doing it if I really thought he was in danger from what we’re doing. But maybe we’ll get him to quit.’
Franco shook his head. ‘What do you plan to do once you’ve won him over?’
‘I don’t know. Just get him out of there. At the moment, he’s working for criminals and murderers on a mass scale, and I’m certain he’ll see that some day and quit.’
‘That’ll take more than a holo,’ Franco guessed.
‘Yes. But he’s not a criminal, so he won’t be working for them much longer.’
Franco looked doubtful. ‘That sounds a bit starry-eyed to me.’ He heaved a sigh. ‘But there’s still the thing about next week’s plan. Have you got the leaflet layout ready?’
She tipped her forehead with her finger. ‘It’s all in here. I won’t do the actual leaflets until just before the action, or someone might find them before we start spreading them, but I can do them in a matter of one or two hours, don’t worry.’
‘You’ve contacted those other onworld groups you said you would?’
Lana nodded. ‘Yes. Emperor Day’s going to be a bit of a party.’
Samica jerked awake at a loud knock on her door.
She quickly switched on the light and looked at the chrono beside her, finding it was four in the morning. Bewildered, she grabbed her flight suit, half-expecting that Yavin was attacked when her sleep-muddled mind registered that there should have been an alarm.
Then the knock came again, sounding as if whoever was outside was knocking with something hard, and she heard a voice outside, ‘Open the door at once, Captain!’
Even more bewildered, Samica hastily pulled on her flight suit and opened the door. Her stomach went cold as she saw the two Rebel troopers standing outside, a man and a woman. Both were armed, and the woman, a corporal she didn’t know, demanded, ‘Why did that take so long, Captain?’
Samica fastened her suit. ‘What—?’ she began, but the first trooper cut her off.
‘Ma’am, you’re under arrest, by the order of Lieutenant Colonel Salm. Skilsay,’ she addressed her partner, ‘Search her room. Excuse me, ma’am,’ she said to Samica once more as she began to search her for weapons or whatever they hoped to find. Meanwhile, the other trooper was busy searching through her locker. Samica still was too confused to have any idea about what was going on here.
‘Uh—Corporal, may I ask what you’re looking for?’ she wanted to know when she finally found her voice again.
The corporal, a well-muscled woman in her twenties, gave Samica a look that told her the trooper didn’t much care about telling her anything, but Samica was still a superior officer, so the woman said resentfully, ‘Colonel Salm has ordered to arrest you for conspiracy with the enemy.’
Samica almost asked, ‘Why now?’, but then decided that would not have been very wise, so she didn’t reply at all. But all the while, that was a valid question. Why had Salm decided to act now, not the day before yesterday, when he would have been more than happy to?
Her question was answered by the second trooper, who gave a sound of triumph and produced something from her locker, from inside one of her boots, it appeared. He looked at the object closely—Samica saw it was a datacard—then nodded to the corporal. ‘Here we are,’ he said. ‘The number on the card is the one the colonel gave us.’
‘Wait a moment,’ Samica said in disbelief. ‘How did that get there?’ It was then that she noticed how stupid her words sounded, and she shut her mouth again.
The corporal took the card from the other trooper and favoured Samica with a glance that said, That’s what they all say. ‘Captain Trey, you’re under arrest for conspiracy and espionage against the Rebel Alliance,’ she said formally. ‘Your hands, Captain.’
Samica watched numbly, almost detached, as they handcuffed her and led her from her quarters. This was absolutely insane! Whatever it was the troopers had found, she certainly hadn’t put it into her boot. That meant that someone must have entered her room while she slept and hidden it there—something she found hard to believe, because she usually was a light sleeper, which made it even more unlikely that anybody at all would believe her she was innocent. She doubted even Willard would be able to help her right now, if he even wanted to help her. From how things stood, there was neat evidence she’d stolen a datacard with—what?
The two troopers marched her through the base, to one of the lower levels she recognised as the brig. Well, where else. Gradually, it began to sink in that the situation had turned from bad to worse, and that the Rebels, as much as they might differ from the Empire, had one thing in common with them: they couldn’t afford to have their affairs mucked up by spies, so traitors on either side were usually executed.
Her only hope was that the Rebels were more careful in gathering proof before they executed anyone, but another voice in her head answered that thought: What do you think how much more they need in the way of proof? Captured by Imps, let go for no apparent reason, trouble with your commander and your squadron, as well as an obviously very important datacard in your boot, of all places—how much more do you suppose it takes?
They stopped before a room in the lowest level of the Massassi temple, and the corporal unlocked it. Beyond was a bare room, the only furnishing being a chair in the middle and a glow panel in the ceiling. As in most places in the temple that didn’t hold vital or sensitive equipment or weren’t used frequently, the walls were covered with the purple moss that was as much part of Yavin 4 as Massassi trees and woolamanders. The troopers ushered her in, then left her there. The door slammed shut behind her, and Samica was alone.
She remained standing between the chair and the door, hands still bound behind her back, and she supposed there was a camera somewhere in here as well, but she didn’t look for it. Instead, she crossed to the wall, and leaned against it, staring up at the moss-covered ceiling. Just one standard month ago, she’d been locked into a similar room, on Garon II, and she regretted she’d ever taken that walk that had ended her up at the garrison in Gerion and thus started all of this. She remembered the rising panic of that day, and she refused to let it claim her again. Whatever Colonel Salm thought, nobody was going to torture her—or would they? Maybe they had other methods, ways she hadn’t thought about? Who told her that the Rebellion really was the exact opposite of the Empire in all ways? They, too, had a war to fight, and couldn’t afford to be overly squeamish. The Empire had always insisted Rebels were just as drastic in their measures, sometimes, as other radicals were. So far, she’d been on the right side of Rebel regulations all the time, but could she really rely on things staying that way? But no, Commander Willard had had enough reason to try her very thoroughly when she’d defected half a year ago, and he hadn’t. But Salm was not Willard. Salm would happily hand her over to an interrogation droid just to—
The door opened, and in came Commander Willard, closely followed by Colonel Salm and two agents in Intel uniforms, one human and one Devaronian. Counterintelligence. Samica knew them both from sight, but not their names. There were several Counterintel agents on every Rebel base, the more on an important base like this one, some of them known (the Security agents), some of them undercover (the Retrieval branch, which dealt with Imperial spies). The fact that these two were present now proclaimed them Security, as Retrieval personnel never revealed themselves to fellow Rebels—or Imperials. Only few people knew who the Retrieval agents on any given base were—usually their immediate superiors in Counterintelligence.
Behind the two Counterintel agents walked another nonhuman in Intel uniform, stooping as he entered the room. He was over two metres tall, with a long neck and slate-grey skin that looked like clay rather than flesh and a ridge of bony armour that ran from his hairless forehead down his spine. The rank insignia on his uniform identified him as a captain. He took position near the back of the room, folding his arms, which ended in claws, and watching. His unblinking eyes were an unreadable pitch-black.
Samica turned to look at the two senior officers, but her initial relief at Commander Willard’s presence quickly dissolved as she saw the commander’s expression. Salm’s brown eyes were blazing with barely contained fury, but Samica wasn’t sure which was worse: the colonel’s resentment or the utter lack of expression on Commander Willard’s face.
Behind the tall nonhuman, two troopers filed into the room, closing the door and remaining standing before it, their hands on their blasters.
‘Sit down, Captain,’ Salm ordered her in a voice that left no room for disobedience. Samica sat down on the chair in the middle of the room while Salm and Willard remained standing on either side of her. That way, she had to look up at both of them, even at the colonel, which was no doubt what had been intended.
Salm clasped his hands before him. ‘Captain Trey,’ he addressed her, ‘you stand accused upon the following specifications. One, you demonstrably spied on Doctor Walex Blissex, and stole the plans for a secret project he is currently devising with General Dodonna, which have been found in your possession.
‘Two, you sabotaged Flight Officer Gordon Dowd’s Y-wing to cause damage to morale as well as the base itself.
‘Three, you are accused of collaboration with the enemy, as you were in Imperial hands during your trip to Garon II, from which you escaped apparently effortlessly, without any valid explanation for this behaviour on the Imperials’ part. You were the only Y-wing pilot to survive the Battle of Yavin, in an inferior ship, which could only have occurred because of a silent agreement. There are hints that you have been in contact with COMPNOR before you allegedly defected. During your first mission with the Alliance, you chose not to tell your squadron commander, Commander Vander, about the existence of Skiprays, which caused the death of half a dozen pilots. I might add that this mission involved protecting the sector HQ from a Star Destroyer that just happened to stumble upon the HQ’s hiding place—a mere two months after you had arrived at the fleet, Captain.
‘Four, you have been infiltrating Alliance Military Intelligence through your relationship with Agent Rhun van Leuken, to gather information and have access to certain locations, namely the comm room, where you have been seen three days ago.
‘Five, the premeditated murder of the crew of the light freighter Bunny, which you shot down six standard months ago.
‘Is there anything you have to say to these charges?’
Samica became aware that she was gaping at Colonel Salm, incredulous at the sheer mass of accusations he’d brought forth. White-faced, she turned around to Commander Willard, and felt her stomach sink even further when she saw that his expression hadn’t changed a bit. Of course it hadn’t. Even though Salm outranked Willard, this was as much the commander’s affair as it was the colonel’s, and of course Willard had known the charges before the StarCom officer had faced her with them.
‘Captain, if there is anything you can say in your defence, this would be the right moment to voice it.’
Samica looked back at Salm again and forced herself to calm down. What she needed now was rationality, or it wouldn’t help her a single bit.
She inhaled deeply. ‘Sir, I don’t know where to begin telling you that none of this is true.’ She paused, then added, ‘Except the killing of the Bunny, but I was following orders at the time, orders I despised and regretted afterwards. I swear that from the day I defected from the Empire, I have never consciously done anything that would have damaged the Alliance in any way.’
Salm turned back towards the Devaronian Security agent, taking the datacard that the agent held out to him. The colonel brandished it before her. ‘You still claim that you’ve never seen this thing before?’
‘I haven’t, sir,’ she said evenly. ‘Not before the private found it in my room. I can’t explain how it got there, sir.’
‘You don’t know what it contains?’
‘But you do admit to having talked to Doctor Blissex last night?’
‘Yes, sir, and I also admit that he did mention some project that he was working on, together with General Dodonna. But when he told me it was classified matter, I didn’t ask any further questions.’
‘No need to ask any further questions, right, Trey? You then sneaked into the doctor’s quarters, purloining the data disc, knowing, from your previous experience with the scientist, that it was unlikely that Blissex had taken any security measures!’
Samica felt her face heat. ‘No, sir. I swear I never stole anything from Doctor Blissex.’
Salm scowled. ‘If you didn’t put the disc in your boot, who did?’
‘I don’t know that, sir.’
‘Any idea who would profit from your being accused?’
‘I can’t think of anyone.’
Salm watched her closely for a couple of heartbeats, then asked, ‘What happened the day you were captured on Garon II?’
‘I told you already, sir—’
He leaned closer. ‘Then tell me again, Trey.’
Willard cleared his throat, speaking for the first time. ‘Recount what you’ve told us before, Captain.’
She once again inhaled deeply to gather her thoughts, then told them again what had happened—the faked ID that hadn’t held up to inspection, the ride back to the garrison, the interrogation by the ISB captain, the drug that had made her flesh break out in a rash whenever she lied. By now, she had told the story often enough for it to have lost a lot of the terror that had accompanied it at first, when the experience had still been fresh, but the next part hadn’t become any clearer—the intervention of Commander Tonkin and her release.
Salm listened dispassionately, as he had done the first time, then asked, ‘Can you explain to me, Captain Trey, why a StarCom commander like Tonkin had knowledge about the goings-on in the ISB section on the base, much less the authority to let you go, when he should have been in another branch entirely?’
Samica started to reply, but then she stopped herself. ‘I don’t know, sir,’ she said quietly.
‘Could it be that you reported to your Imperial ISB superior on Garon II and trumped up the story about your former commander to make your apparent release more believable?’
‘No, sir! I can’t explain why they let me go, but I swear I didn’t invent it!’
‘You swear a lot, Captain,’ Salm observed coolly. ‘How is it possible, if you were not in league with the Empire, that you could have survived the Death Star attack?’
‘I can’t explain, sir—’
‘Something else you can’t explain?’
Samica drew a deep, calming breath. ‘Sir, I suppose you must have noted that I’m somewhere above average as a pilot, and I was lucky in that battle as well, as the most efficient TIE fighters went after the ships that flew attack runs, which I didn’t.’
‘Yet you were in a Y-wing, Captain. Unless I am mistaken, the Y-wings were supposed to carry through the attacks. Why didn’t you?’
‘My proton torpedo launcher was hit early in the battle, so I would have been useless in the trench. And by the time the first attempt had failed—’ she stepped down on her emotions firmly as she recounted the battle again— ‘there were too few Y-wings left to carry through another attack.’
‘Was the damaged torpedo launcher examined at the time?’
She shook her head. ‘No, sir.’
Salm changed the topic again. ‘What did you do in the comm room three days ago?’
Samica shook her head, bewildered. ‘I wasn’t in the comm room, sir.’
‘You were seen there.’
‘That’s of no concern to you, Trey! You’re not the one asking the questions! You maintain that you were not in the comm room?’
Samica swallowed, feeling her heart race and forcing herself to relax once more. ‘No, sir, I wasn’t.’
‘And you deny you shot down the Bunny?’
‘I never denied I shot it down, sir. I did that and I regret it.’
Salm snorted a short, humourless laugh. ‘You regret it. And what about that “accident” in the hangar, two days ago? I assume you had nothing to do with that either?’
She found it more and more difficult to stick to reason. ‘No, sir, I didn’t.’
‘What about that link to COMPNOR that’s indicated in your Imperial file, Trey?’
If Salm was asking her all these questions in wild disorder to throw her off guard, he was close to succeeding. It took her a couple of seconds to return to that topic. ‘Sir, I don’t understand.’
‘There’s an entry in your file about insubordination, put there by some COMPNOR officer called Captain Lockhart.’
Samica could not quite restrain her anger at the mention of that name. ‘This so-called “insubordination” only meant that I refused to let him touch me, sir. That was in my first year as a TIE pilot. He came to Gerion base and caught me after a patrol. He—it seems he wanted to—have his –way with me, sir.’ She realised her face was heating again. Something else to hate the man for.
From the corner of her eye, she could see Commander Willard exchange glances with the nonhuman Intel captain, but was forced to concentrate on Salm again at the colonel’s next question.
‘When you . . . defected to the Rebellion, you specified that it was due to Intel Ops Agent Rhun van Leuken’s efforts that you decided to change sides. How long have you been letting van Leuken go on believing you had a relationship with him?’
Samica stared at the short colonel. ‘What?’ she whispered.
‘You understand my question, Trey. Answer it.’
‘I—don’t understand the question, sir,’ she answered, still taken aback. On the penalty scale, this probably ranked lowest, but to her, it was the lowest blow the colonel had dealt her so far.
Salm heaved a sigh, as if he was explaining the workings of an ion fission chamber to a particularly thick four-year-old. ‘There are more than enough eyewitnesses who confirm that you maintain the appearance of a working relationship with van Leuken in public, yet it appears that there is not much going beyond that. Both your medical records indicate nothing in that direction.’ Samica’s face heated again. ‘The whole situation gives the impression that you are keeping him hanging to extract information from him.’
Samica shook her head in disbelief. ‘Agent van Leuken hasn’t told you that like this, has he?’ she whispered.
‘Answer my question, Trey,’ Salm demanded.
‘Sir—both Rhun—I mean, Agent van Leuken and I are very busy,’ she finally managed to answer, ‘and anyway, I don’t think that anyone should be able to judge whether we have a—a relationship or not!’ She instantly regretted having been carried away, but the damage had been done. That was probably just what Salm had intended. He had got her to let her guard down, and he must have known that topic would be most likely to accomplish that.
‘Have you ever tried to extract information from an Intel member?’ Salm wanted to know.
She shook her head, numbly.
Salm looked over her head at Commander Willard. The greying Intel commander hadn’t moved throughout the exchange. ‘Any further questions, Commander?’ the colonel asked.
‘No, I believe you have been very thorough indeed, Colonel.’ He looked at the nonhuman again, who almost imperceptibly inclined his head, and Willard continued, ‘Captain Trey, until you are either cleared of charges or your guilt has been proven, you are suspended from duty. You will not be imprisoned, but you will not meet with anyone and you will only speak to others with permission. Furthermore, you will report to me or to Colonel Salm every hour. If you should fail to do so more than once, this will be treated as a violation of the trust placed in you, resulting in imprisonment. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Samica said quietly.
‘You may return to your quarters, then, Captain. Captain Pakkpekkat, Colonel Salm, would you please follow me to my office?’ As she got up from the chair and the two Rebel guards removed her handcuffs, Samica got another look at Commander Willard’s face, and what she saw there was deep disappointment.
‘It’s hard to tell, sir.’
Captain Pakkpekkat’s black eyes were fixed on the table in the commander’s office. The Hortek had been called to be present during the interrogation because of his species’ telepathic skills, to determine whether Captain Trey had been lying, but Salm as well as Willard knew that the evidence gathered from the Captain was not conclusive, as his talent was chancy and did not work as well on humans as on members of his own species.
Colonel Salm crossed his arms over his chest. ‘I still say she is playing us for fools. She is glib, I’ll grant her that, but all these things are just too condemning. Certainly you can’t deny that the evidence is overwhelming, Commander Willard.’
Willard pursed his lips. ‘Perhaps a bit too much so. I find it still hard to believe she has managed to lie to me for more than half a year.’
Salm cast the commander a genuinely sympathetic glance. ‘I can understand that you make her innocence an almost personal matter, Commander, but I ask you not to let that cloud your judgment. All these pieces of evidence cannot be coincidences.’
Willard looked back at the Hortek. ‘So, what is your evaluation, Captain?’
Pakkpekkat raised his head slowly. ‘She seemed very composed in the beginning, but that could have stemmed from innocence as well as excellent Intel training. There was one point that I am certain she was not lying, and that was when you addressed that IntelOps agent, Colonel. At least her affection for him seems to be genuine. As for the rest—my impression is that she was telling the truth, but I also have to admit I don’t know her at all, and if she were a trained Imperial agent, she would be adept at pretending in this way.’
Salm sat back from the table with an exasperated sigh. ‘So we are no wiser than before. –Not meaning to offend you, Captain,’ he added.
‘No offence taken,’ Pakkpekkat answered.
‘The question still is, if she was telling the truth, who would profit from making her seem guilty of espionage?’ Willard asked. ‘Colonel?’
Salm snorted. ‘Nobody, which makes it so unlikely she was framed. She’s guilty, if you ask me. Yes, she’s a good pilot, but she’s not worth the risk.’
Willard raised his voice almost imperceptibly. ‘We’re talking capital charges here, Colonel. If she’s found guilty, she’ll be executed, and I don’t intend to take such a decision lightly. If I have to hand her over to a firing squad, I want proof she’s guilty, not just evidence.’
Pakkpekkat nodded thoughtfully. ‘My thought entirely, sir. The evidence is not conclusive, no matter how vast it might seem at the moment. Justice must be served here.’
‘She’ll break and confess,’ Salm said.
Willard wished he could share the colonel’s conviction, but he made himself nod tiredly. ‘Let’s all hope this matter will resolve itself as neatly as that.’ He got up from his chair. ‘Anyway, Gentlebeings, this is enough for tonight. Or this morning. Captain, I’d like your report by thirteen hundred.’
The Hortek inclined his head. ‘That’ll be done, sir.’
‘Good. Colonel, I’ll have to steal a few of your pilots once again; maybe they’ll be able to shed a bit more light into this.’
Salm rose. ‘That can’t be helped, Commander. I’ll see to it that they are available.’
‘Thank you. I’ll write up a report for General Dodonna; if you don’t have anything better to do, I suggest you catch up on some sleep.’ He nodded to the two officers, who saluted—or in Salm’s case, nodded respectfully—and left his office.
Commander Willard sat down on his chair again and replayed the recording of the interrogation. He still was very reluctant to accept that Trey had been fooling him for more than six months, but it looked as if he would have to consider the possibility from now on.
Willard was just about writing that report to General Dodonna when he thought of something different. Before he started on that, he might just as well talk to the Retrieval agent who’d found out about Trey once more. He keyed his comm.
‘Rover,’ his senior aide’s voice answered.
‘Helman, tell Lieutenant Bergen to report to me at eight hundred, please.’
Samica was back in her room by seven thirty, feeling miserable and still a little dazed. The locker door was still standing ajar, and in a sudden fit of temper, she kicked it shut with enough force to cause a small dent in the surface. Then she flopped onto her bed and allowed herself the rare luxury of crying into her pillow for several minutes.
She had no idea where she should start proving she was innocent. It didn’t seem as if Colonel Salm was at all interested in obtaining proof she was. Willard still presented an enigma to her, and she feared that the commander had dropped her also. She desperately wanted to talk to Rhun, but she didn’t dare ask whether she was allowed to. He was probably asleep at the moment—he’d been on night shift for the last few days—and she was afraid of what she would find when she saw him again. She could not really believe that Salm had talked to him, and that he had said that she might only be playing with him, but she still wasn’t sure he wanted to see her.
Finally sitting up again, Samica looked at her chrono. Twenty minutes until she had to report. That meant that it would be impossible for her to do anything troublesome, which must have been the intention, but it also meant that she would not get a lot of sleep. She supposed that was also part of the exercise, to throw her further off her guard and make her betray herself.
She set her chrono alarm function to go off at a five minutes to every full hour and decided that there was enough time to go to the mess and eat something before it got more crowded there. Rebel bases were small, and within hours, everybody would know that she was under not-quite-arrest.
She opened her door and found a trooper standing guard outside. ‘Where are you going, ma’am?’ she asked.
‘To the canteen.’
The trooper nodded, and Samica went down the corridor. At least the guard didn’t follow her.
Samica was lucky; at this time, few people were eating in the canteen, and she got herself something to eat and wolfed it down without too much relish. When she was just about finished, her chrono beeped quietly, and she shut it off and left the mess. She took the stairs up to Commander Willard’s office, not down to the pilots’ quarters, where Colonel Salm’s was.
When she came to Willard’s office, she saw the commander’s two aides, Lieutenants Rover and Riece, talking before the office in low tones. They stopped their conversation when they saw her approach.
‘I’m to report to Commander Willard,’ she began, and Riece nodded, a look of understanding on his face.
‘It’s been noted, Captain.’
‘That’s enough?’ she asked.
Riece nodded. ‘Yes, that’s enough.’
Samica inclined her head and turned to go back to her quarters. She looked up when someone encountered her in the corridor—Flight Officer Geremi Bergen. Her squad mate didn’t favour her with a single glance.
‘To the Emperor!’
‘To the Emperor,’ several hundred voices answered the General’s toast, then Josh Caller allowed himself to relax as the official part of today’s gathering of officers (this included flight officers) was over. As was usual for Emperor Day, the most important feast day in the Imperial calendar, all officers were expected to be present on the mess to drink to the Emperor’s health and to the good he’d brought to the galaxy. Today, however, Caller kept replaying in his mind the scenes he’d seen in Franco’s place.
Whatever he’d said to Franco and Lana a week ago, he had been disturbed by what he’d seen. The fact that his sister and cousin took part in some scheme against the Emperor had at first upset him, but then he’d forced himself to think about it. These were two people he’d spent most of his childhood and youth with, people he liked, respected and trusted, and he found it very hard to convince himself that both of them were absolutely wrong.
Then there’d been the holo. His stomach still felt queasy at the thought that something like that might actually have happened, but then he had remembered the very first explanation that he’d heard about Alderaan, that it had been obliterated in an asteroid collision, and how quickly that version had been rescinded without ever popping up again. He remembered his own brief clash with COMPNOR and Commander Karranek’s willingness to punish his family if he didn’t play along. As much as he hated admitting it, he wouldn’t put a thing like the destruction of an entire planet past some people in the Empire, at least. He only wondered if there were a few black nerfs between the white ones or if it rather was the other way round.
‘Can I read it when you’re finished, Caller?’ a voice interrupted his thoughts.
‘Huh?’ Caller looked up at Lieutenant Emrys, his wingman in the bomber squadron. Emrys was only eighteen, made lieutenant a month ago, a very serious young man with a sardonic sense of humour.
‘Sorry,’ Emrys said. ‘I assumed you were developing some new tactics.’
‘Uh—no, sir,’ Caller replied. ‘Just thinking.’ It wasn’t all that strange to call someone younger than himself “sir” (he’d once called a woman “sir” who’d been two years his junior) but it was hard not to think about the fact that Caller should by now have had those two red and two blue squares himself.
Emrys’ eyes narrowed as he contemplated Caller. In the week they’d been serving together, Caller had noticed his uneasiness when he was concerned. Of course, as a superior officer, Emrys knew that Caller was way overdue for a promotion, just as, as a superior officer, the younger man was aware that it was his duty to make sure the chemistry was right, but Caller strongly suspected that Emrys was at a loss how to talk to a junior officer who was actually three years older than he—and much more experienced, at that.
‘All right, Caller,’ he said more softly. ‘Try to have some fun tonight, okay? It’s not Emperor Day every day, after all.’
‘Will do, sir,’ Caller said in a sufficiently humorous voice for Emrys to be content, and the lieutenant left him alone.
He turned back to his caf—it might be an informal evening, but that did not include drinking alcohol—and suppressed a sigh. He usually didn’t mind social functions, but tonight, he would have given about everything to be excused from it.
‘Frothing disease to the Emperor,’ came the whispered reply, and Franco opened to let Lana in. His younger cousin was grinning from ear to ear.
‘That was the most ingenious thing you ever did, coming up with that password,’ she said, then nodded at the five other young people sitting in the room.
Franco grinned back. ‘Have you got the leaflets?’
Lana put down her backpack and pulled out a sheet of flimsi. It showed a pretty well-reconstructed image of the Death Star over the heading, ‘Is this what shall bring peace to the galaxy?’ Under it, there was an article that read,
‘Twenty years ago, the Old Republic failed and became stuck in its self-created swamp of corruption and helplessness. The threat of disorder in the galaxy caused humans and nonhumans alike to flock to the banners of a new leader who promised he would lead us into a golden age of peace and justice.
‘Citizens of Yaemon! We put our trust in the wrong man, if he is a man at all: peace is mocked by the atrocities committed in the name of justice. While we live in what we mistake for peace, others in the galaxy have been obliterated by an imperious Grand Moff and his “Tarkin Doctrine”. It was he who ordered the cold-blooded murder of two billion people on Alderaan, people who wanted only to live in peace and had destroyed all their weapons.
‘Citizens of Yaemon! The Imperial Peace has failed! The day of reckoning has come, of reckoning of Yaemonite youth against the most revolting form of tyranny this nation has ever endured. In the name of the galaxy, we demand back from the Emperor our personal freedom, the most precious possession of all free beings, of which he cheated all of us in the most disgraceful manner.
‘Citizens of Yaemon! Our nation is on the brink of Rebellion against Imperial slavery, with every confidence in freedom and honour! The White Nebula will not let you come to rest!’
At the bottom of the sheet, there was a small white swirl on a background of space black, with the caption, ‘Signed, The White Nebula.’ Under this, there was the request to make as many copies of this leaflet as possible and distribute them.
Franco looked at it, and nodded to Lana. ‘Yes, that’s great.’ He handed it to the other five, who also examined it and shot Lana appreciative glances.
One of the others (there were three more men and two women sitting on Franco’s bed and other makeshift seats) remarked, ‘Now I know what you took all those Rhetoric classes for, Lana.’
She nodded. ‘Some of this I took from a leaflet that was published several hundred years ago by another group of student rebels who were stirring up attention towards the crimes of some tyrant. Anyway, I liked it, so I took it over.’
Franco nodded. ‘It’s terrific,’ he said again. ‘All right, people, hurry up. We’ll distribute these in the institute—the classrooms, the ’freshers, the staff rooms, the hall, everywhere. Thanks to Lana’s connections, the same will happen in about ten or twelve other learning institutes across the planet. So, by tomorrow, nobody on Yaemon can still try to look away from what’s happening.’
Alex, a dark-haired man in his early twenties who studied together with Lana, got up. ‘Let’s go, then,’ he said.
Lana picked up her bag with the leaflets, and the seven of them left Franco’s flat. It was already dark outside. They had picked this time because it was night or evening in all the cities with major universities or institutes on Yaemon, so their plan would be carried out everywhere on the planet simultaneously.
‘The night’s the friend of the free,’ Lana murmured.
It took them half an hour to reach the institute. The oldest university on the planet, the Yaemon City Institute of Learning was also the biggest with over a hundred thousand students and nearly two thousand teachers. It was also a hotbed for secret resistance against the Empire, although very few people outside the small resistance groups knew this. Altogether, there were probably around a thousand students who frequently met to discuss politics in a way that could have ended them in jail if they were lucky, or shot of they weren’t. They all knew, that there was something else that could happen to people found guilty of conspiring against the Empire, and that was being disappeared. Everybody knew about someone else who had been disappeared, but nobody knew what happened to those who were. Lana decided that this was not the right moment to think about it.
‘What happened to that resistance group you talked about?’ Franco asked her quietly as they looked at the main building. ‘The ones a few hundred years back?’
Lana did not look at him. ‘They were executed for treason,’ she said.
‘Charming,’ he murmured, to cover his own anxiety, most likely.
Lana looked back at the others. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘This is it.’
‘Couldn’t have gone more smoothly,’ Franco remarked to the others when they met again in the hall. Alex, who worked as an assistant to a professor, had managed to procure the main key to the building, and with that, it had been possible to get at the access codes to most of the rest of the institute from the caretaker’s office. They had left the leaflets in all sorts of places, except for the libraries, for which they had not got the access codes, but that hardly mattered. They had not encountered anyone in the buildings. There were probably a few here even now, candidates for their final examinations who were allowed to study this late, but nobody had seen them spreading their pamphlets. By morning, all Yaemon would know.
They were about to leave the institute again through the entrance through which they’d come in when they heard noise and shouting outside, much more than was to be expected at the end of Emperor Day. Franco leaned around the doorpost to look outside and quickly drew back again, his face gone white.
‘Back!’ he hissed. ‘There’s a demonstration of some sort, and there are stormies there, too!’
At once, Alex slammed the door shut again, but they could already hear footsteps clattering up the stairs to the institute.
‘We separate,’ Curt, one of the others, said. ‘Let’s try to lose them in here—I don’t think they’ve ever seen an institute from the inside.’
The others nodded, and they all ran off in twos or threes, Lana with Alex. When they ran around the next corner, they heard the door broken open behind them and someone shouting, ‘Stop! In the name of the Emperor!’
They didn’t, but continued running. Trying to shake pursuit through the inner hall, they continued through one of the side corridors, when Alex suddenly whispered, ‘Sithspit!’
Lana turned around him. ‘What is it?’ she panted.
‘We’re leading them right through a trail of our leaflets,’ he answered between his teeth, and this time, it was Lana’s turn to go pale.
General Davall briskly strode into the conference room where all of his leading officers and tacticians were assembled. He ignored their salutes and snapped at ISB Colonel Woden, ‘What’s going on in the city, Colonel?’
Woden recovered from the general’s rudeness and answered, ‘According to my people down there, sir, there has been a demonstration that started almost simultaneously at the civilian spaceport, at the main detention centre and at the ministry hall. Estimates say that at least five hundred to a thousand people are taking part in the protests.’
‘Why has the situation not been brought under control?’ Davall demanded, turning to Army Commander Vilnus.
‘Sir, by the time my people were called upon, the dissenters had already occupied the spaceport and the ministry hall. Many of them are armed with blasters, some even with grenades. It can’t be excluded they also have access to detonite.’
‘It seems this was a concerted action by several Rebel groups on Yaemon,’ Woden took over again. ‘Some are not even from Yaemon City. We’re up against open rebellion, sir, and we must act now.’
Davall brooded over a holomap of the city for several seconds. Some areas of the city showed up an angry red, areas where uprisings had broken out most fiercely.
‘Commander Vilnus,’ he finally said, his voice strained, ‘you’re responsible for those dissidents leaving the spaceport!’
Franco sprinted across the inner yard of the institute, Curt directly behind him, two stormtroopers on their heels. He didn’t know where any of the others was, or what exactly was happening outside. There was a nasty idea that was forming in his mind, however: could it be that one of the resistance groups Lana had contacted had not been as peaceful as they had thought, or had contacted others that had brought militant rebels into the play? He couldn’t believe this was all a coincidence, there had been many Emperor Days he remembered ending with one or two peaceful demonstrations, but nothing that justified the stormtrooper presence they’d seen outside.
‘Through there!’ Curt whispered as they dashed past a window that led out onto a side street. Franco skidded back and tried to open the window, but it was closed. With a curse, he broke the transpariplast open with his elbow, then clambered through, helping to pull Curt through as well. With luck, the stormtroopers would be much too clumsy in their armour to climb after them.
When Curt was through, Franco hastened on. This street was empty, but he didn’t know how long that would remain the case. ‘Where now?’ he asked Curt.
The older student hesitated. ‘Let’s try to get home,’ he said. Franco nodded, but that moment, he ducked instinctively as a blaster bolt whined past them and slammed into a building on their right. The stormtroopers might not be able to climb after them, but their fire range was more than two hundred metres. Franco and Curt ran again.
For the first few hundred metres, they were lucky, but after that, they heard in the street crossing their path before them the shouts and paroles of the demonstration. There were screams, too. Behind them, they heard the clatter of pursuing troopers, who had gone around through the main entrance.
Franco drew a deep breath and looked at Curt. They had only one chance: try to lose them by mingling with the demonstrators. They briefly nodded to each other, then ran off into two different directions, both into the stream of people. The screaming and shouting came from Franco’s left, and he ran away from it, but running became difficult in this crowd. He saw that most of the people were about his own age, and that some of them were armed with stones, others with clubs or even smaller blaster pistols.
‘What’s going on here?’ he asked a man beside him, who had a bleeding gash across his forehead and was clutching a brick.
‘Birthday celebration for the Emperor,’ the man answered grimly. ‘And believe me, if they slaughter us like those poor souls of Alderaan, then people will finally stop ignoring the things that happen in the Empire!’
Franco snorted. ‘Do you really believe that? Violence is not the answer! Do you really think the Imperial HoloNews will report something like this?’
‘Like hell, violence is the answer,’ the man retorted, then elbowed his way through the crowd, leaving Franco hanging back. He saw he was already brandishing his brick at the stormtroopers appearing behind them, still more than a hundred metres away.
For a small moment, Franco’s brain tried to insist that the troopers couldn’t fire into the crowd, they simply couldn’t. Then, when the first blaster bolts—red for ‘kill’, not blue for ‘stun’—began cutting through the throng, he remembered what the leaflet they’d only distributed this night had said about atrocities committed by the Empire, and realised, maybe for the first time, how true it was.
The alarm cut through the whole garrison, the sound designed to wake up the dead, and Caller jumped out of bed, grabbing his flight suit and pulling it on in a matter of minutes. He ran to the ready room immediately, where he met most of his squad mates already, all of whom wore the same bewildered expressions. ‘What’s happened?’ Caller wanted to know. ‘Are we under attack?’
It was Emrys who answered. ‘Yes, but not as you think.’ He paused and pointed to a portable holoprojector in the corner. Caller saw pictures of crowds of people, and stones and grenades thrown at stormtroopers, who shot back at the demonstrators. It was a scene he’d seen several times before, but then he recognised the area where they were fighting: it was the High Street of Yaemon City. The reports from other cities on Yaemon showed similar pictures of smoking buildings and angry demonstrators, apparently, all Yaemon had joined the revolt.
‘Uprising in Yaemon?’ he whispered.
Emrys nodded gloomily. ‘I’m not sure yet what that means for us, but I’m certain we’ll be told soon.’
Caller felt his guts freeze as he realised what that meant for him.
Alex sat hunched behind a locker for coats in the corridor, Lana crouching beside him, as they heard the footsteps clank past. He turned towards his friend and let out a sigh. ‘Whew,’ he whispered. ‘That was close.’
Lana carefully raised her head to look over the corridor and the classroom beyond, into which the stormtroopers had disappeared. ‘We’d better wait here until they’re gone,’ she whispered back. ‘Then we leave through a side entrance. You’ve still got the key?’
Alex nodded, patting his breast pocket in which he kept his chip.
‘Do you think the others got out?’ Lana asked him quietly.
Alex nodded with conviction. ‘If they hadn’t, we’d seen something of them. We’ve been running around in here for long enough, after all. No, I’m certain they’ve left the institute minutes ago.’
Lana ducked her head again as the stormtroopers came clanking out again, and they sat waiting for a few minutes as they heard the footsteps disappear in the distance.
She nodded to him and got up, casting glances left and right, but there was nobody to be seen. She signalled for him to follow her and started to walk towards the corridor that would take them to the back door to which Alex had the key.
‘Stop!’ someone shouted, and Lana froze. Before her stood the caretaker, several leaflets in his hand Lana instantly recognised, taking in their flushed faces and the now-empty bag Lana still had on her back. For a split second, she considered running, but the caretaker knew Alex, and he also knew her. She suddenly felt strangely calm as the small, balding man told them in an excited voice, ‘You’re under arrest!’
His initial shout had brought back the stormtroopers, and Lana could hear them coming back for them.
Neither she nor Alex made a move. They’d lost, and they knew it.
‘Gentlemen,’ Commander Cerrevant told the twenty-four pilots assembled in the briefing room, ‘the insurgents have occupied the spaceport in one of their earlier actions, as well as these areas.’ The commander highlighted several patches in the holomap in front of the assembly. ‘We haven’t been given combat order yet, but when it comes, the bomber squadron will attack the spaceport from above with non-nuclear charges. You will all be given two bombs each. This will not happen if the Army there is successful in putting down the insurrection, but from the way the situation looks right now, that’s not very likely to happen. The TIE fighters will act as backup and support the bombers with laser fire should it be necessary. Main targets are here, here, and here.’ He indicated the spaceport, the ministry hall, and the detention centre.
‘Into your fighters, then, Gentlemen,’ Commander Cerrevant concluded the briefing. ‘Power up your engines, but don’t lift off before I give you permission.’
Caller jogged to the hangar together with the others in a daze, his mouth dry with shock. He was going to bomb his own hometown. He was going to kill hundreds of civilians, some of which he probably knew.
This couldn’t be happening.
‘Sir, a transmission from Commander Vilnus,’ an aide reported.
‘Put him through at once!’ Davall barked.
On his own holographic screen in the conference room, the commander’s face appeared from the inside of a Mobile Command Base vehicle. It was strained and a little pale.
‘General, the insurgents have seized control of the command centre of the starport. I’ve lost more than twenty men under their fire. They have one E-Web blaster, I can’t begin to imagine where they got it—’
‘Stop blabbering, Commander!’ Davall snarled at him. ‘Can you get the situation back under control or not?’
‘Sir, I’ve tried all I could, but—’
‘A simple yes or no will do, Commander!’
Vilnus’ voice was small. ‘I don’t think so, sir.’
General Davall’s jaw worked for several seconds, then he told the Army officer, ‘Retreat from the starport area immediately, Commander!’ He cut the connection before Vilnus could make a reply, then he opened a link to StarCom Commander Cerrevant. He had hoped, prayed it wouldn’t come to this, but he had no choice.
Then General Davall made the most difficult decision in his entire career.
‘Squadron Beta, we have clearance for take-off! Repeat, Beta Squadron, combat order!’
Josh Caller reacted as if he was sleepwalking, catching the bomber when he was flung clear of the hangar by a crane. He took his place in formation, behind and to starboard of Lieutenant Emrys’ fighter, waiting for reflexes to take over, but they wouldn’t come. He’d never flown a bombing run before. This was not even starfighter combat, in which his instincts would have taken over soon without effort, but this was an absolute nightmare. He’d seen the uneasiness in the other pilots’ faces before they’d put on their helmets, and he’d seen the same disbelief there. And none of them was from Yaemon.
It was dark down there, only the street lights glowing in the night, but there was a target winking on his tactical screen: the town centre and the ministry hall, close to one of the most densely-populated areas in Yaemon. It was Caller’s target, as well as Emrys’, and he knew that, when he bombed it, collateral damage would also affect other parts of the town.
The distance marker quickly scrolled down to four klicks, and he heard the commander’s voice over the comm, ‘Targets locked in. Beta Squadron, fire on my command.’
Caller found himself keying his comm. ‘Beta One, this is Beta Eight. I’ve got a—weapons malfunction with my launcher system. Aborting the run.’
‘Negative, Eight,’ the commander’s voice came back, sharply. ‘According to my readouts, you’re not experiencing any malfunction.’
Caller stared at his screen, as if the solution would pop up there, but nothing did. He didn’t reply; he was certain the commander didn’t expect him to. He shut off the targeting mark.
‘Fire,’ the order came over comm, and Caller saw eleven bombs streak out into the darkness and explode several seconds later. Most of them hit their marks accurately, but one or two also caused explosions in nearby living areas. Caller waited for some comment, anything, from the commander. But there came nothing. Civilian casualties were regrettable but couldn’t be avoided.
He adjusted his target to port before he fired, hoping to hit the crater that Emrys had just torn into the city, so he would not do any further damage. His bomb also detonated, and in the light of flames, Caller saw with relief that it had gone off in the same crater Emrys’ explosion had left.
‘Eight, you were off the mark!’ Lieutenant Emrys’ voice cut into his numbness, but he found he wasn’t able to answer.
‘Flight Officer, I’m relaying those target specifications to you again. Do you copy?’
A minute later, new numbers scrolled across Caller’s tactical screen, and he fed them into the targeting computer, then slowly pressed the ‘erase’ button again.
They were high enough over the city that a millimetre would make a lot of a difference in what he hit, Caller knew. There was the spaceport, already smoking, flames leaking out of the buildings, and right next to it, so close from here that he could have covered both of them with the same finger, was the base.
Caller never quite knew why he did what he did, but he dropped his second bomb.
He felt a brief surge of deep satisfaction as an explosion rocked the garrison, destroying most of the southern part of it, and leaving black scorch marks on the white duracrete walls.
Almost dispassionately, he heard the comm chatter wash over him from the commander and Emrys, as well as a few others, and heard himself say something about the wrong coordinates. He found he was still watching everything as if half-expecting to wake up from this nightmare at any minute.
Commander Cerrevant’s voice entered his thoughts. ‘Flight Officer Caller, consider yourself to be under arrest. Head back to base at once, until I can deal with what you—’
The commander broke off when someone else shouted, ‘Return fire from the starport, sir! They must have got a ground-based laser cannon working!’
Cerrevant swore. ‘Deal with it, Three, Four. Caller—’
‘Returning to base, sir,’ Caller answered and brought his ship around. He saw the eleven remaining bombers turn towards the new threat from the starport, and he forced himself to look away from the flames that had broken out everywhere in the whole city. At first he considered running, landing his fighter somewhere else and then hiding from the Imperials, but he realised they would find him no matter where he tried to run. He only had one chance: get away by shuttle, and fast. A part of him hoped there was still an operational shuttle somewhere in the base.
There was smoke everywhere and sirens wailing at the base, but Caller spied a landing platform with several intact-looking ships. In the hangar, the frantic activity from all over the base—from all over Yaemon, most likely—was mirrored, and Caller saw technicians hasting about, making final preparations to a Lambda-class shuttle in the same hangar. Either General Davall was going to one of the other towns in Yaemon himself to have a look at the situation there, or, more likely, someone else was being sent there—or maybe someone from the ISB to give report to Imperial Centre, although that was not very likely at this stage. Not before they had more conclusive results to talk about, Caller thought, but it was possible the shuttle was being readied now anyway.
Unfortunately, this hangar was not a starfighter hangar, and there were no cranes that would pull him in again. All he could do was set the ship down on its solar panels. TIE fighters, and TIE bombers, didn’t have landing gear, as they were not supposed to operate far away from a carrier ship or an Imperial base that would take them in by tractor beam.
His landing was much less than elegant. Both solar panels cracked under the strain, but at least, that was all that happened in the way of a catastrophe. It would have been different, Caller thought, if he’d still had one or more bombs aboard. He pulled off his gloves and helmet and climbed out of the hatch, then jumped down from his fighter. There were technicians and Army and Navy personnel running around, either lending a hand or simply standing in the way, and it began to dawn on Caller that this was his lucky day with a capital L. Commander Cerrevant had either forgotten to inform the base what he’d done up there, or they hadn’t reacted yet in the general chaos.
He’d expected COMPNOR or at least a couple of Navy troopers welcoming him with blasters trained on him, but not even the technicians took much notice of him, and he guessed they didn’t know who had caused the damage to the garrison. His brain functioned as if it were not really a part of him, taking the necessary steps without any input from him.
Finally, one tech came running towards his badly battered fighter. ‘Do you need help, sir? Your ship was damaged?’
‘Yes,’ Caller replied, not deciding to which question he had given an answer. ‘I suggest you have a look at the weapons configuration. Something’s not right there.’
‘Straight away, sir,’ the technician answered, and Caller went over to the waiting shuttle.
‘Excuse me, sir?’ a Navy trooper interrupted him as he approached the transport.
‘I’m to be the commander’s pilot,’ Caller said, guessing that the general would choose a commander for either possibility he’d considered. ‘Since my weapons system was damaged, Commander Cerrevant has ordered me back to fly the shuttle.’
For once, his luck held. Maybe it was because he felt so inexplicably calm, or because the trooper was too much in a hurry himself with all the confusion at the base, but the man didn’t report back as he should have, and only waved Caller through.
Caller went into the cockpit and sat down. This was so easy. It should have been more difficult, but it still felt as in a dream. He reached out to the control console and warmed up the engines. Perfectly normal for a shuttle being prepared for departure, and nobody took exception to it now. In a system-based garrison, there was not even a containment field before the hangar that could keep him from leaving. There were the other fighters over the city, but they were several klicks away, and would not be there to stop him before he’d reached atmosphere and could make a micro-jump away from here. He left the comm channel open, so he’d know what was going on elsewhere, and started the repulsors.
‘Shuttle Calacium, what are you doing?’ the comm crackled to life. ‘Is Commander Fyn aboard yet?’
Caller didn’t answer, only steered the shuttle clear of the hangar opening, ignoring the chatter from the comm speaker and the orders to stop. He knew he didn’t have much time. They would alert the TIEs, and they would be after him in a matter of minutes; but by the time they were in firing range, he would be out of here.
The city lay to the right, but he headed into the opposite direction, to gain as much of a head start as possible before they could stop him. His luck still held; by the time the TIEs gave pursuit, he was well on his way towards the planet’s hyper limit.
The hyperspace coordinates in the nav computer told him the jump to Imperial Centre had already been programmed, and he decided to jump out in that direction and then reprogramming the computer for another route.
‘Shuttle Calacium, return to base at once. Repeat, return to the garrison, shuttle Calacium. Otherwise, you’ll be fired at.’
Caller didn’t react. Fourteen klicks to the hyper limit. The TIEs were eighteen klicks behind him and closing, but they wouldn’t be in firing range before he was gone, and Commander Cerrevant knew that, too.
‘Officer Caller, what you’re about to do is desertion. Head back right now, and I can not only save your life, but also your career.’
This finally made Caller hit the comm button to reply. ‘No way, sir. My career’s been flushed down the ’fresher half a year ago, and you’re not going to change that.’ Then he shut off the communication system.
The pursuing TIE fighters had closed the distance to a mere four klicks when the nav computer indicated readiness, and Flight Officer Josh Caller pulled the lever.
He aborted the jump towards Imperial Centre after a few minutes—far enough away that they would never find him—and called up the star systems programmed into the nav computer. The Death Star was destroyed two weeks later by the Rebel Alliance, in the battle of Yavin, near their headquarters . . .
Yavin a well-enough-known star system, as the gas giant yielded a type of jewel that was sometimes mined there, and some of its moons were habitable. It was also very much out of the way, the ideal place for people who wanted to hide from the Empire, people like the Rebels. People like Josh Caller.
He programmed in the jump.
Rain was pouring down when Curt knocked at the door of Franco’s flat, ten days after the revolts that had shaken Yaemon had been put down by the Empire with brutal force. He hadn’t dared contact his friend and fellow conspirator before now, but he’d just received the news on their other conspirators, and he supposed that Franco probably didn’t know yet.
‘Who’s there?’ came a muffled voice from the inside.
‘Frothing disease to the Emperor,’ Curt replied. He knew that sentence could be his death sentence these days, but he didn’t really care.
Franco opened to let Curt in, and the older student was shocked to see his friend dishevelled and pale. His left arm was wrapped in a bandage that looked as if he’d applied it himself, and he was unshaven and tired-looking. Nonetheless, he glanced at Curt with a mixture of relief that he’d made it and anxiety to see him here. ‘Why did you come here?’ he asked.
‘I normally wouldn’t have,’ Curt answered. ‘But I heard about Alex and Lana today.’
Franco whispered, ‘And?’
‘Alex is dead,’ Curt answered tonelessly. ‘He was executed for high treason yesterday. There was a small notice in the HoloNews.’
Franco turned his face away. ‘And Lana?’ he asked.
‘That’s the problem,’ Curt answered weakly. ‘She’s not among those executed or among those sentenced for imprisonment. You know what that means.’
Franco looked back at Curt, his face white. ‘Disappeared,’ he suspected.
Franco sat back down on his bed. Both of them were silent for a while, then finally, Curt asked, ‘What about the Nebula?’
‘The Nebula’s dead,’ Franco said bitterly.
‘No, it's not,’ Curt replied huskily. ‘It’s dead if we let it die, but we won’t. We have to be more careful this time, and I know that most of the leaflets were confiscated before anyone had a chance to read them, but you don’t want Alex to have died for nothing, do you?’
Franco looked up sharply, and Curt continued, ‘We’ll carry on. Someone’s got to tell the people the truth. I’ve talked to the others, they’re on. All we’re waiting for is you, and we’ll start again.’
Franco cocked his head and looked at his friend for a while. ‘You mean it, don’t you?’ he asked.
‘Absolutely,’ Curt answered.
Franco finally nodded. ‘All right. “The White Nebula will not let you come to rest.”’
Samica couldn’t remember ever feeling this tired. They did leave her alone for long intervals, which would have been more than enough for her to get more than her usual amount of sleep, but there was the obligation to report to either Commander Willard or Colonel Salm at every full hour, and that was slowly beginning to take its toll on her. Once she had been told that it was enough to report to Willard’s aides, she had never considered going to Salm again.
There had been several interviews since the day before yesterday, when Samica had been arrested. At times, Samica was beginning to wonder whether she had done all the things Salm accused her of, and simply couldn’t remember because of something the Imps had done to her, but she had tried not to let Salm notice. She was afraid to buck even a little, for fear he would then somehow find proof that supported the other charges as well, and the interrogations had been deadlocked since the first one, really, even if she thought Salm suspected she was beginning to believe in her own guilt herself.
Samica tried to time her meals so that she didn’t meet any of her squadron, and she’d found herself considering to ask for transfer after this. The next thought had usually been that it was not very likely there would be an ‘after this’ for her. Even if they could not prove she was indeed guilty, she knew she was potentially dangerous in their eyes, and if they couldn’t get rid of her in any other way, she would most probably end up on a prison colony world. But the more time passed, and the more she began to contradict herself in minor matters due to her exhaustion, the more she became afraid that her destination was not going to be a prison colony world but the firing squad.
She had not been allowed to talk to Rhun. She knew that he had tried to see her, but the sentry before her room obviously had been under orders not to let him enter. That meant she had hardly talked to anyone for almost three days, apart from Willard, Rover, Riece and the interrogators.
Samica was asleep on her bed, fully dressed in order to save a few minutes of sleep in which she would have had to dress before reporting back, when she heard someone knocking at her door. When she came awake she realised the knocking must have been there for quite a while, but she had somehow built it into her dream, even if she couldn’t remember now what it had been about.
Tiredly, she smoothed her hair down and went to open the door, but curiosity who was visiting her was stronger than the annoyance at having been woken. It couldn’t be one of the troopers that came to fetch her for another interrogation session; they usually knocked only once before they entered. She half-hoped that Rhun had managed to get permission to see her, but when she answered the door, there stood Flight Officer Lawal, his huge orange eyes blinking as she opened.
‘Officer?’ she asked, herself blinking in confusion. Nobody from her squadron had come to visit her, and she hadn’t expected any of them to, much less the quiet Calamari.
‘Captain.’ He spared her the embarrassment of saluting while she was suspended, only nodded to her. ‘May I come in?’
‘Uh—sure,’ she replied, after thinking she was really the wrong person to ask whether he was allowed to do anything where she was concerned. She stood aside to let him in and offered him the chair, closing the door behind him. Lawal nodded his thanks and sat, cocking his large reddish head to look at her from one of his eyes. ‘How are you, Captain?’ he wanted to know. She realised he actually wanted to know.
‘I’ve felt better.’ She sat down on her bed, absently smoothing the blanket a bit as she did so. ‘What brings you here?’
She could not read his Calamari features, but his words let her know he was uneasy. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, if I shouldn’t have come, but I thought you would . . .’
‘No, I didn’t mean that,’ she quickly interrupted him. ‘I’m really glad someone has come to see me. I was only wondering if you—’ She broke off. ‘Never mind what I thought. I suppose I must have assumed everyone who came here must have something on his mind.’
He shook his head a little awkwardly. ‘I’m afraid I don’t, ma’am. All I came here for was . . . well, to tell you . . . not all the people in the squadron think you are a traitor, Captain.’
She smiled tiredly, but sincerely. ‘Lawal, that’s the best reason for coming anyone could have had. Even if it’s just you who think I’m innocent.’
The Mon Cal flicked his eyes. ‘No, ma’am, I’m not the only one. There are several others. Alden Rincon especially seems to think Colonel Salm has been overly harsh in judging you.’
Samica looked at the fellow pilot in surprise. ‘Rincon has said so to you?’
‘I heard him say so to Dave Haaland.’
‘And Haaland?’ Samica asked.
The barbels at Lawal’s mouth quivered slightly, an expression Samica had come to recognise as worry. ‘I think that he thinks the same that I and Alden do, ma’am. But I assume that most are afraid of Colonel Salm.’
‘You mean he could think we’re all a little conspiracy.’
Lawal’s huge eyes blinked. ‘I know, it’s all been very cowardly of us.’
Samica shook her head. ‘No, Officer, it’s good to hear there are some people around who don’t think I go running about, stealing secret material. If only I could bring Colonel Salm to believe it too.’
‘Captain, if it helps, I’ll talk to the others again.’
Samica nodded, smiling at the Mon Calamari pilot once more. ‘Thank you, Lawal. Thank you very much.’
Dave Haaland fished for the hydrospanner under the console where it had slid, drawing his hand back with a muffled oath as he put his fingers into something sticky. Disgusted, he looked at his hand, then sniffed at it, and grunted. Ion flux coolant. Nobody knew how the stuff had got there, but one thing was for sure: it would take him a lot of time before he was likely to get it off his skin. He tried to clean his hand on his flight suit as well as possible, with the result of smearing the stuff all over his left leg, without any notable improvement to his hand. Turning his head, he glared at the cackling astromech unit standing next to him.
‘Laugh it up, rust bucket,’ he told the red and white droid sourly. ‘Why don’t you try and get that hydrospanner out?’
The astromech hooted, then extended a long utility arm and stretched it under the console, returning it with the tool. He handed it to Dave with what someone who didn’t know him could have mistaken for indifference, but Dave, who’d had the questionable pleasure of knowing R4-S6 for almost two years, instantly recognised it as smugness at its most blatant.
‘No oil bath for you until next month, Essix,’ he warned.
The smugness in the droid’s tone did not waver as he hooted a reply.
‘I’ll give you regulations!’ Dave snarled at the droid.
‘Maybe you should consider a memory wipe,’ a deep voice said behind Dave, and the young human turned around to see Lawal standing there. Most of the other pilots were in the hangar as well, after Colonel Salm had once again told them all their repairing and maintenance skills left too much to be desired; several metres away, Bergen, Dowd, and Alden were working.
Dave scowled. ‘That wouldn’t work. He keeps boot discs of his personality somewhere, I haven’t been able to find out where. I’ve tried memory wipes, but apart from the fact he was back to his own self again within the hour, he also remembered that I’d given him that treatment. Didn’t help our relationship along a great deal.’
The Mon Cal was at a loss. ‘Seems to be a problem.’
‘Pretty much.’ Dave put the hydrospanner away, deciding he was fed up for today. ‘What’s the matter, Lawal?’
‘I’ve just been to visit Captain Trey.’
Dave averted his eyes. ‘How’s she?’
‘I promised her I’d ask around in the squadron whether anyone besides me thought she was innocent.’
Dave heaved a sigh. ‘Listen, Lawal, this is absolutely useless, and you know it. If Salm says she’s got to go, then that’s it, and there’s nothing to be done about it.’ He casually glanced around in the hangar to see if Salm was here somewhere to overhear Dave calling him only by his surname.
Lawal’s barbels twitched. ‘You sound very off-hand about somebody of our squadron being executed for treason.’
That brought Dave’s head around sharply. ‘Executed? For tampering with the landing gear?’
‘Landing gear? Haven’t you heard what they talk about in the mess?’
‘No,’ Dave grumbled. ‘I’ve had other problems.’
Lawal blinked. ‘They say she tried to steal highly classified information and is an Imperial spy. The landing gear was only the tip of the iceberg, so to speak. It seems that Colonel Salm hasn’t been able to find proof for her guilt, but we all can safely assume that he’s trying hard.’
‘As well he might,’ they heard someone say crossly. Gordon Dowd and Geremi Bergen, who’d been tinkering with the latter’s laser adjustments, had come over from their own ships to join them by the droid workshop. ‘I say she’s guilty,’ Dowd continued. ‘And even if she’s too slick to provide them with the necessary proof, she’s too dangerous to keep her hanging around.’ Bergen nodded his consent.
Lawal’s barbels quivered more jerkily now. ‘I can’t believe you argue like this. We’re the Rebellion, not the Empire. What you propose to do would be suitable for them, not for us.’
Bergen snorted. ‘What do you know about the Empire?’
Lawal’s eyes moved up and down in their sockets. ‘A lot, Lieutenant Bergen. My people has been enslaved, and I’ve worked for Imps for the past two and a half years. They treat us worse than animals. They’re the ones who kill people without any proof of their guilt, and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to fall so low.’
Alden, who had not joined in their conversation so far, looked up briefly before returning to a dent in his fighter’s hull.
Bergen snorted. ‘We can’t beat the Empire by being nice, Lawal.’
‘Oh yes, we can, and we have to. Our strengths lie elsewhere. We have to make the evil of the Empire known to the rest of the galaxy and make them quit fighting for the Empire and come over to our side.’
Dowd laughed. ‘Lawal, you should listen to yourself talking. You sound as if you could start a cult all by yourself. You could call it “Lawal the Peaceful’s Plea for Humanity.”’
‘Give pleas a chance,’ Bergen snickered.
Lawal blinked his eyes rapidly, a gesture they hadn’t seen so far, and Dave realised he’d never seen a Calamari truly angry. ‘Knock it off, Bergen,’ he told the other pilot coolly. ‘If all the peoples in the galaxy were a bit more like Calamari, we wouldn’t be at war at all.’
‘Yeah, we’d be sitting Hutts for every aggressor that went our way,’ Bergen retorted. ‘Alderaan’s tried that approach, and look where it got us! The Empire’s reduced it to a graveyard, and if we don’t start striking back in earnest soon, we can just as well all go home!’
Lawal had regained his equilibrium. ‘That’s not the way,’ he said, his voice sounding calm once more.
‘It is the way! Do you have the slightest idea how big the Empire’s resources are? We can’t afford being squeamish where they’re concerned! If we’d been able to capture a Death Star, I wouldn’t have had any problems with flying it to Coruscant!’
Dowd now tried to calm his squad mate a little. ‘Well, you’ve got to admit that the Empire’s resources are what make it this strong, and that we can’t yet risk a full-scale war.’
Bergen’s eyes blazed with fury. ‘It’s been full-scale war ever since they destroyed Alderaan.’
Alden spoke up for the first time now. ‘Dave and Lawal are right, Bergen.’ He did not include Dowd, Dave noticed. ‘The Empire tries to discredit us, makes us look like a bunch of terrorists. We can’t sink to that level.’
‘Wait until you lose all your family to the Empire, and you think different about it,’ Bergen said scornfully. ‘But you ninnies don’t have any idea what it’s like, do you?’
Alden was on his feet so quickly that nobody had seen him coming, least of all Bergen, and they didn’t have time to stop the younger man before he swung at his opponent. The Alderaanian screamed as Alden’s fist connected with his nose, but Alden didn’t let up even then. He blocked Bergen’s half-hearted parry and would have hit him again if Dowd and Dave hadn’t grabbed his arms to pull him away.
‘Let me go!’ Alden screamed. ‘I’ll kill him, I swear I’ll kill him—’
Bergen sat on the ground, cowering against the tools console, half-sobbing, his bloody face in his hands.
‘Alden!’ Dave shouted at the young pilot, shaking him. ‘Good Heavens, man, get a grip!’
Certain that Dave could handle Alden alone, Dowd sat down next to Bergen. ‘Lawal, get the medics,’ he told the Calamari.
For a moment, Dave thought Lawal might refuse to be ordered around by Dowd, but then he inclined his head, and went.
Dave shook Alden once more, and this time, the other man seemed to come to his senses. He shook off Dave’s restraining grip, his voice shaking with barely contained rage as he told Bergen, ‘Listen, you little piece of bantha droppings, my family used to live on Poltrena, that mean anything to you? When the Empire found out that there was a Rebel base there, they took one hundred hostages from the population. They took whoever was unlucky enough to be in the city centre that day, even children. They announced over HoloNet that they’d execute one hostage a day until the Rebels came out of hiding. Some of the Rebels were as stiff-necked pigs as you, and it took them a week before they gave up. The Empire shot the other hostages anyway, to prove they meant it, whatever it was they meant. My mother, my father and my twelve-year old sister were murdered by the Empire, and if you ever say anything about me not understanding what it’s like to lose one’s family, I’ll beat you to such a pulp that the xenobiologists can’t determine anymore what species you are. That clear, Lieutenant?’
Bergen nodded jerkily, gasping, and then let himself be taken away by the medics that had arrived by then. Salm had also come; whether Lawal had called him or the man had a sixth sense for trouble, Dave had no idea. ‘What’s happened here?’ the colonel demanded to know.
Gordon Dowd began, ‘Alden suddenly went berserk and beat up Lieutenant Bergen—’ but Dave interrupted him. ‘Excuse me, sir,’ he said to Salm. ‘Alden attacked Bergen because he was provoked. Bergen insulted his family.’
‘He couldn’t insult his family because he didn’t know anything about his family!’ Dowd said hotly.
‘He was present that evening a couple of days ago when Alden said his family was dead!’ Dave retorted.
‘Yes, but he didn’t know why!’ Dowd countered, his freckled face flushing.
Salm had watched them snapping at each other, then looked at Alden, who hadn’t moved since the colonel had entered the scene, and then he cleared his throat. ‘Gentlemen, we’re not in a nursery school. Flight Officer Rincon, what happened?’
Alden heaved a deep sigh that seemed strangely out of place after the outburst they had just seen from him. ‘Sir, I’m sorry I attacked Lieutenant Bergen this way. I know I should have been in control.’
Salm crossed his arms. ‘I will see all three of you, as well as Officer Lawal and Lieutenant Bergen, in my office at sixteen hundred. Officer Rincon, I do hope you have your temper in check once again.’
Alden swallowed. ‘Yes, sir.’
Salm nodded at them. ‘Carry on.’ Then he turned and left.
Dave watched Dowd and Alden return to their ships and sat down on the edge of the console. Even Essix was silent for now. He remembered again what Lawal had told him about Captain Trey earlier, and he knew it was time to do something. From the way it looked, he was the only one who had the means to do anything at all, but he needed help for that, and he knew where he would get it.
Rhun had again found a few hours in which he was certain he would not be disturbed by his roommates, and had decided to practise the use of the Force once more. Both his colleagues he shared his quarters with had gone outside to catch a bit of air. The gas giant had completed another circle around its sun, and on Yavin 4 there had once again begun the phenomenon referred to as ‘dark night’ by those who had been here for longer than four months. Rhun had witnessed it once before; this night, caused by the moon’s orbit around Yavin, which was itself orbiting the system’s star, could last for days or even weeks. The last time it happened, it had been just before they had heard about the destruction of Alderaan. Most people on the base regarded it with uneasiness, some even thought it was an evil omen. The darkness had only started a few hours ago, which meant the temperature had dropped to very pleasant proportions. He knew that it would not remain this way for very long, and it would soon begin to become very cold, but for the moment, it helped him concentrate.
There was little else he could do at the moment. He had tried to see Sam, but they wouldn’t let him go near her. He supposed that was probably for his own protection, as they still insisted she had been spying on him for more than half a year. He’d told Commander Willard how ridiculous he thought the idea, but he had found that Willard was by now inclined to believe Colonel Salm rather than him. Something else for which to get more proficient in the ways of the Force—if he was able to explain how he knew what he knew, maybe Willard would believe him. He didn’t want anyone to know that he could control the Force a very tiny bit, but if that was the only way he could save Sam, he would tell the commander.
He had begun by rehearsing the Codex Per had taught him, and had then tried to stretch his awareness consciously. He knew that he could do this, and had done so automatically at many points in his life, but he hoped that he would one day be able to control it. Just as he thought he actually had felt someone near, his concentration was broken again by a knock on the door. Small consolation that he’d been right about someone approaching.
He opened the door and was surprised to see one of Sam’s squad mates there—a mischievous-looking young Corellian called Dave Haaland. That was, he was normally mischievous-looking. Now, he was wearing a hangdog look.
‘Rhun van Leuken, right?’ he asked.
‘Uh—yes, sir,’ Rhun answered. ‘What’s the matter?’
Dave shook his head. ‘I’m not a “sir,”’ he told Rhun. ‘You can call me Dave.’
Rhun shrugged. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Rhun.’ He wanted to extend his hand to the other man, but Dave grinned wryly.
‘I wouldn’t do that if I were you,’ he said and opened his hand. ‘I put my hand into ion flux coolant today.’
‘Yuck,’ Rhun said. ‘I’m afraid I don’t know a way to make the stuff come off either . . .’
‘I haven’t come because of that,’ Dave waved him off. ‘Can we talk here?’
Rhun closed the door, bewildered. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘What’s up?’
Dave looked at his hands and absent-mindedly rubbed at them. ‘It’s because of Samica Trey,’ he said. ‘You’re her friend, aren’t you?’
Rhun almost grinned, as this was pretty obvious for anyone who had ever been to the mess, but at the moment, he didn’t really feel like grinning. ‘Have you heard anything?’ he wanted to know.
‘It’s not so much anything I heard,’ Dave replied. ‘Lawal—the Mon Cal—came to me today. He told me that Captain Trey would probably be executed if Salm managed to prove she was guilty.’
Rhun swallowed, but he nodded. ‘I know,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ve tried everything to make Commander Willard believe me, but I’m not even allowed to see her.’
‘Well—’ Dave hesitated, then he continued, ‘I think I may be responsible for getting her into this.’
‘You may be what?’ Rhun said, incredulous, then with an undertone of threat in his voice, he asked, ‘How?’
Dave didn’t look at the Intel agent. ‘Salm became suspicious of her after he thought she had tampered with Gordon Dowd’s landing gear, but she didn’t do it.’
‘Well, I know that because I—I did it.’
‘Why didn’t you tell Salm?’ Rhun asked sharply.
‘Blast, I was afraid! Have you ever seen Colonel Salm hitting the roof?’
‘No,’ Rhun answered.
‘Well, I have,’ Dave said. ‘And believe me, I don’t ever want to again. I thought if I didn’t tell him it had been my doing, he would forget about it. It never occurred to me that he might blame the captain for it, much less that he’d come off with more charges to get rid of her!’
‘It’s not that easy,’ Rhun said. ‘I’m certain that Colonel Salm himself is absolutely convinced that Sam’s guilty of everything he’s accused her of, and he won’t shoot her if he can’t prove it, which he won’t, because she didn’t do it. He didn’t trump these things up to get rid of her. But there must be somebody who tried to frame her, who put that data card into her boot—’ He stopped himself as he realised that this was classified information Dave probably didn’t know.
Dave frowned. ‘In her boot?’ he asked.
Rhun hesitated, then decided he couldn’t do anything wrong if he told Dave a bit more. ‘Some very important data card was found in her boot, and she insists she’d never seen it before. So someone else must have done it, for whatever reason.’
Dave chewed his lip. ‘I take it that was not a practical joke,’ he said.
Rhun shook his head. ‘No way,’ he said. ‘Whoever put the device there had stolen it himself, for the sole purpose of not only getting her removed from the squadron, but probably having her executed as well. He must have known that the data on it was vital and highly classified, and he still stole it.’
‘Could it be he didn’t steal it at all? That he is someone working with that data?’
Rhun shook his head again. ‘No, that’s impossible. As far as I know, there are just two people who have access to the data, and none of them would try something like that.’
‘So someone actually committed a crime to have her tried for treason,’ Dave summed up their contemplations.
Rhun leaned forward. ‘Do you have any idea who?’
Dave shrugged unhappily. ‘There are a couple of people who don’t like her,’ he said. ‘Apart from the colonel, I mean. There’s Gordon Dowd and Geremi Bergen. Then there’s the Shistavanen, who hates all Imperials, and ex-Imperials, but I don’t think he would go as far as going this far.’
‘And the other two? Do you think they would?’
Dave scratched his head. ‘I’m not sure. I don’t like either of them, so I wouldn’t put anything past them on principle. But if I think about it . . . yes, I think they would.’
Rhun got up. ‘I’ll go to Commander Willard,’ he said. ‘Thanks, Dave.’ He finally grinned and extended his hand to the Corellian. ‘If I ever need a private investigator again, I’ll talk to you.’
Dave’s grin was equally broad as he took Rhun’s hand. Rhun mentally kicked himself as he remembered the ion flux coolant.
Rhun stood before Commander Willard’s office half an hour later, his right hand still glowing pink from his efforts to get the coolant off. He’d at least managed to remove enough of it so he wouldn’t smear it anywhere else, but the stuff was still visible on his skin. He was willing to take any bet that Dave had done that on purpose. That called for revenge—although he’d wait for that until things had settled down a bit.
There was a sentry before the commander’s office, and Rhun nodded to him. ‘Sergeant, I need to talk to Commander Willard immediately.’
The sergeant shook his head. ‘I’m sorry, Agent, that won’t be possible.’
Rhun frowned. ‘It’s really urgent, sergeant. It's about Captain Samica Trey. Surely the commander knows—’
The trooper interrupted him, ‘Commander Willard can’t talk to you about that matter, Agent. And he’s not in anyway.’
‘Where is he?’ Rhun wanted to know.
‘I’m afraid I can’t tell you, Agent,’ the trooper repeated.
‘Sergeant, it's possible that life or death depend on me seeing the commander right now!’
‘Agent van Leuken,’ someone said behind him, and Rhun turned around. Lieutenant Rover, the commander’s dark-haired aide, had approached without him noticing. ‘If this is about Captain Trey, you’re wasting your time.’
Rhun froze. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Commander Willard is not involved in the investigation anymore.’
‘Not involved anymore?’ Rhun repeated incredulously. ‘But why?’
‘Colonel Salm convinced General Dodonna that he was prejudiced.’ Rover carefully hid his own thoughts on the matter, but it was not difficult at all for Rhun to realise how furious the lieutenant was. I’ll have to learn to do this consciously.
‘Sir,’ Rhun said, ‘please, I must know where he is now.’
Rover hesitated for a few seconds, then he nodded. ‘All right, but you never heard it from me. As far as I know, he’s up in the war room.’
Rhun remembered to thank the lieutenant, then he was on his way to the upper levels of the base.
He found Willard together with Lieutenant Riece and General Dodonna on their way from the tactical war room, and began to wonder what the hell he was doing here. If Dodonna had removed Willard from the board of inquiry himself, then the old man would know immediately what Rhun was here for, and he would not let Rhun plead his case. Well, so he’d have to come up with another reason for coming.
He stopped before the three officers and saluted. ‘General,’ he said respectfully, then he turned to Commander Willard. ‘Sir, Captain Candela sends me. There’s some problem with an Imperial code we’re working on.’
Willard looked at Rhun for a moment or two, then he turned to the general and his aide. ‘General, if you’ll excuse me,’ he said. ‘Jerrel, go to my office and see if Helman’s there already. I need to talk to both of you about the evacuation plans again.’ Riece understood at once and winked at Rhun when he had his back to Dodonna. The general looked a bit suspicious, but he nodded to Willard and left the commander with the Intel agent.
Willard shook his head. ‘Agent van Leuken, your persistence does you credit, but I’m afraid I can’t help you.’
‘You’ll have to,’ Rhun said urgently. ‘I may have found who really stole that data from Doctor Blissex.’
‘Haven’t you been listening, Agent? I’m no longer in charge of the case anymore. If you have something new that’s of consequence, you’ll have to go to Colonel Salm.’
‘Colonel Salm wouldn’t believe me,’ Rhun said. ‘Commander—I’ve talked to . . . one of Sam’s, I mean, Captain Trey’s squadron, and he may have found the real culprit . . .’
‘No, Agent, I don’t want to hear it. You can’t just run around here and make accusations. If you have something to tell Colonel Salm about, you’ll have to go to him, and if you don’t, you’d better let it rest.’
‘Sir,’ Rhun said desperately, ‘you have to help me. You don’t think Captain Trey’s guilty either, do you? And both Bergen and Dowd would have been capable of framing her like this—’
He broke off as Willard stiffened, and then said carefully, ‘Sir?’
Willard didn’t answer, only crossed his arms, kneading his chin with his right hand, then he finally said to Rhun, ‘Agent, I really regret I can’t do anything for you. The matter has been taken out of my hands. I do hope you are not going to attempt anything foolish, like breaking into any personnel lists or something like that. If you do, I really hope you won’t let yourself be caught, because you’d be in big trouble.’ With that, the commander turned around, leaving Rhun standing in the corridor, staring after him.
It took Rhun several minutes to realise just what kind of carte blanche Commander Willard had just given him.
Captain Brock Cromarty suppressed a yawn and stretched his long legs as far as he could in the Y-wing cockpit. Why hadn’t Wookiees constructed any starships, he thought as he once more scanned the area for ships. Patrol duty was slightly more eventful these days than it had been for the last few months—at least it was more important, with a slightly bigger chance that anything happened during your turn. There were several large ships arriving over Yavin 4 every day now, freighters and transports, but also one or two Carrack-class cruisers and one frigate. Evacuation would not start for another week or so, until they had enough ships here to leave nobody behind unprotected, but it was certainly drawing nearer. They also kept their eyes open for Imperial ships and, of course, new arrivals. This last group was at least potentially dangerous, and Cromarty was always glad when one shift was over without any of them.
Then Shirk Rowl’s voice came to him over comm, ending that hope. ‘Captain, one contact at three-sixteen, thirteen klicks. Scopes make it . . . a Lambda-class shuttle.’
‘I copy, Eight. Target him.’ Cromarty switched over to open frequency. ‘Imperial shuttle, this is Captain Brock Cromarty, Alliance StarCom. We have you under our guns. Do not attempt to resist, or you will be shot down. Power down your shields, and you won’t be harmed.’
There was a short pause from the other end, then the shuttle’s reply came back. ‘I copy, Captain.’ Cromarty’s scopes indicated that the shuttle indeed powered down its shields and made no move back towards the hyper mark. It bore an Imperial transponder code, so it could not have been a hijacked vessel belonging to an independent operator.
‘Imperial shuttle, state your business,’ the captain demanded. ‘How many passengers are aboard?’
‘Only myself, sir. My name is Josh Caller. I want to join.’
Cromarty blinked. ‘You defected?’
Colonel Salm is going to love this, Cromarty thought wryly, then he addressed the defector again. ‘All right, Mr Caller, form up with my wingman, Blue Eight. He’ll escort you down to the base. Any attempt to flee or attack on your side will immediately mean that you’ll be destroyed. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, sir,’ the pilot answered.
Cromarty shook his head. The X-wing squad on Yavin was complete, so Caller would eventually end up with Salm’s lot, since they were still two pilots short of a full squad—four, currently, with Trey suspended and Bergen in sickbay. Colonel Salm would be less than thrilled about another former Imperial, he supposed.
There were several armed men standing before the shuttle when Josh Caller came out, two of them definitely not human, as well as several people in uniforms who had to be officers. Caller had no idea what Rebel uniforms looked like, what branch they signified and how to distinguish their rank insignia. To be honest, he hadn’t even known there were specific uniforms in the Rebel Alliance, thinking they normally made do with what they could get. Now, however, he saw they were wearing beige coats, but no rank insignia he could determine. He supposed this was probably a precaution, so he didn’t try to shoot the first high-ranking officer he saw. Not that he would have been able to recognise a high-ranking Rebel officer.
‘Flight Officer Caller?’ a muscular, red-haired man in his late twenties addressed him.
‘Yes, sir,’ Caller replied. Apparently, the Rebels knew how to distinguish Imperial rank insignia. Caller was still wearing his black jumpsuit, with the flight officer’s insignia on the chest—and the Imperial badge on both shoulders, he suddenly realised.
The red-haired man extended his hand to him. ‘You can call me Riece. Captain Cromarty tells me you want to come over to us, is that true?’
Caller nodded. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Very well, then. Follow me, please, Flight Officer. Sergeant?’ He looked around to one of the Rebel troopers standing by the entry ramp with their blasters drawn, this one a member of some insectoid-looking species. ‘Yes, sir?’ the alien said.
‘Take two of your people and come with us. Skilsay, search the shuttle.’
‘Yes, sir,’ another trooper replied, and Caller followed Riece out of the hangar where he had landed. He saw several Y-wings standing here, and several people watching the scene from various workstations. Some of them wore nondescript grey overalls, some were dressed in the bright orange flight suit the Rebel Alliance was famous for. TIE pilots sometimes joked about how easy it was to make prisoners after a space battle, because Rebel pilots that had gone EV were rather easy to spot. And strangely enough, the Alliance still seemed to stick to these bright suits, although most of the time, the battlefield was dominated by Imperial ships after the Rebels had run.
Riece lead him to a small room not far from the hangar—doubtlessly in order to deny him a better look at the base—and shut the door behind himself, Caller, and the three troopers. There were chairs and a desk here, as well as a droid standing in a corner, looking like an outdated 1A-medical model. Riece indicated a chair, then sat down behind the desk himself and switched on a recording device.
Caller sat down with a slightly queasy feeling in his stomach, but he forced himself to ignore it. They can’t be any worse than the Empire was, he told himself confidently. And I survived ISB Commander Karranek, after all.
‘First of all, Officer Caller,’ Riece began, ‘I’d like you to tell me who you are, where you are from, and where you received your education.’
‘Flight Officer Josh Caller, born X-5-4158 in Yaemon City, Yaemon. I entered the Academy of Toric IX in 4176 and graduated two years later.’
‘You’re a TIE pilot?’
‘Where have you served?’
‘VSD Resolve, then ISD Emperor’s Hammer, then Yaemon Base.’
‘Yaemon Base was the last?’
‘Can you tell me how you defected, and why?’
Caller moistened his lips with his tongue. ‘Yes, sir. There was an uprising on Yaemon three days ago. There were demonstrations all over the planet, and some of the protesters had occupied the spaceport. We were ordered to bomb it, but I bombed the base instead.’
Riece’s eyes actually widened for a minute, then he was back in control. ‘I take it that was not an accident,’ he guessed.
‘That was all that happened?’
‘Almost, sir. I also saw that holo.’
‘What kind of holo?’
‘Of the destruction of Alderaan. At first I didn’t think it was true, but now I believe it is.’
‘Where did you see such a holo?’
‘My sister showed it to me, sir. She is—a kind of activist on Yaemon.’
Riece scratched his chin. ‘An activist? How long have you known that for?’
‘Only a couple of weeks, sir.’
‘Why do you want to join the Rebellion?’
‘Because I think that the Empire has to be stopped by all means, sir.’
‘You know, Officer Caller, I haven’t met a lot of people who were able to say so only three days after they had left Imperial service,’ Riece remarked.
Caller drew a deep breath. ‘I suppose I’ve been having my doubts before that, sir.’
Caller looked down at his hands, which were folded in his lap. ‘I once had to work for COMPNOR, sir, and I hated every minute of it. I had doubts about the ISB first of all, then began to wonder whether it might be the same with the Navy and the Army.’
Riece leaned forward on the desk. ‘Officer, when you told me where you’d been serving to date, did you leave anything out, by any chance?’
Caller stiffened. ‘No, sir. Why?’
‘Have you ever heard of a place called Gherro?’
Caller grimaced, realising that Commander Yenko had lied to him when he’d promised that the episode on Gherro would not be recorded in his file. Or maybe he’d meant to spare him that, but Karranek had put it there anyway.
‘You’ve got my file, don’t you?’ he asked.
Riece shook his head. ‘You haven’t answered my question, Officer. And no, I don’t have that particular piece of information from your Imperial file.’
Caller made himself remain upright. ‘Yes, sir, I’ve been on Gherro, and that was where my experience with COMPNOR dates from.’
‘Can you recount what happened on Gherro?’
‘I had to play bait in order to catch a Rebel agent, sir. They got the agent on the station, but they didn’t manage to arrest two Rebels who came because they thought I wanted to defect.’
‘Did you have anything to do with their getting away?’
‘No, sir. I’m afraid I didn’t.’
‘But you wish you did?’
‘Now, sir, yes.’ Caller hesitated a bit, then he asked, ‘Is it true what they say about a Death Star?’
‘It was. There was a battle station by that name, yes.’
‘Is it also true that it was destroyed here? By a single X-wing?’
Riece looked at Caller closely. ‘It’s true it was destroyed here, but there were a lot of people involved. Most of them are dead now.’ He stood, then nodded at Caller. ‘All right, Officer Caller. Sergeant Rrkptriik will escort you to your quarters. You are not allowed to go anywhere without an escort yet, and there will be a couple of more interviews over the next few days, to evaluate if you are serious about defecting, but if you’re honest with us, you’ll find we’re very easy to get along with. You may go to the canteen and ask Sergeant Rrkptriik questions, but you’ll understand he may not answer all of them. You’ll also be given a ground uniform, so you won’t be as noticeable when you leave your quarters.’ The Rebel officer eyed Caller up and down, and a hint of wry amusement crept into his face. ‘But I suppose it’ll be difficult to render you less noticeable.’
Caller wasn’t sure whether the Rebel expected him to reply, so he only grinned weakly.
‘Very well, then, Officer. You’re dismissed.’
Caller saluted with an Imperial head bob.
Rhun rubbed his face and had another swallow of caf. He’d had to wait again until he was alone in his room in order to try and gain access to personnel files on the base. He couldn’t have used one of the Intentions computers, because he couldn’t be sure there was nobody going to look in at any given moment. Well, he couldn’t be certain here, but at least it was a lot safer. Not that breaking into an Alliance Intel central system was ever safe. He wished he had a good computer spike, but he didn’t, which made things a lot tougher. All he had was the most simple version of a spike—a programme on a data disc that worked in the same manner, rewriting itself as it intruded the foreign system, thereby denying the other computer’s security measures the means to detect the intrusion. With a computer spike, somebody who didn’t understand a lot about computers could easily gain access to fairly well guarded systems; he hoped that he would be able to crack a really good one with a rather simple tool. Another problem was that Alliance computers relied on different measures to detect intruders than their Imperial counterparts, which Rhun was more familiar with. They were basically the same, searching for alien patterns that didn’t fit in, but the methods they used were different. Rhun was excellently trained in recognising and bypassing all sorts of Imperial security measures, but, understandably, the Alliance didn’t teach all their agents how exactly their own systems worked.
He’d decided to download the three files he was most interested in and then go out again immediately, somehow doubting he’d be able to surf through the personnel database at leisure. He’d taken Shirk Rowl’s file first, just to make certain he didn’t leave out one suspect, then went on to Gordon Dowd’s. Both of them were rather easily accessible—for him, at least—but when he tried the same approach with Geremi Bergen’s, he was kicked out.
Heart beating in his throat, he waited for a few seconds for an ominous knock on his door and somebody arresting him, but for more than ten minutes, nothing happened. Ho-kay, Rhun, once again, he told himself. Getting kicked out is probably a good sign . . . Means that someone is taking a lot of precautions.
He rubbed his face once more, this time to wipe sweat from his forehead, and got to work again. He wondered if Willard was able to protect him if he got caught, after all. It had certainly been very nice of the commander to allow him to do this, but Rhun wasn’t sure whether General Dodonna or Captain Candela or anyone else would see it that way.
Bypassing the primary security systems, he’d come about as far as he had the last time before he got kicked out. Not this time, he told himself, inserting another disc with the intrusion programme. He’d spent most of the previous evening and night writing and fine-tuning it (and making a copy for a case like this), and this time, he knew what he was up against. Come on, come on . . .
Hurriedly, Rhun downloaded the file, which was a bit longer than he’d expected. The programme, sixteen hours of work, wouldn’t hold off detection for more than ten seconds or so, and the file seemed to be longer than that. Grinding his teeth, Rhun stared at the screen, where the time counted down to four seconds, three seconds, two seconds. Blast it, why was this stupid file so long?
Rhun interrupted the transfer after the time had counted down to –3 seconds. He still hoped that maybe nobody had noticed, at least until he got the information he needed and could go to Colonel Salm with them. Before he opened any of the three files he’d just procured, he carefully erased the telltale remnants of the primitive spikes from the two discs, then he opened Bergen’s file first, almost certain by now that it would hold what he was looking for. When all that appeared on his screen was a seemingly arbitrary array of numbers, signs and letters, he had his answer to why it had taken so long to download the file. It was coded, of course. Well, here at least there was something he’d been trained to do.
‘That’s what the Retrieval agent says, sir. She’s been trying to gain access to the comm room again. We’re still looking for her in the surveillance data.’
‘Thank you, Lieutenant.’ Salm cut the link to the Security officer, one of the two agents who constantly kept watch on Trey (without her knowledge) and established one to Corporal Gatzek, who should have been on duty watching Trey when she apparently got out.
‘Gatzek,’ a female voice answered.
‘Corporal, this is Colonel Salm. Where was your charge yesterday, some time after fifteen hundred?’
‘Uh—she came in after reporting to you, and she stayed in her room for the whole hour.’
‘How can you explain, then, that she’s been seen in the comm room again?’
Bewildered, the corporal repeated, ‘In the comm room, sir?’
‘Exactly, Corporal. How is it possible that you’ve been neglecting your duty?’
‘I didn’t, sir! I was here the whole time! She couldn’t have left without me noticing!’
‘We’ll talk about that later, Corporal,’ Salm growled, then shut off the comm. Emperor’s black bones, this affair was getting way out of hand. And there was that other Imperial defector, someone Trey actually had known, at that. Salm increasingly felt caught up in a web of intrigue and corruption, and he was determined to get to the bottom of it. He currently had only eight pilots who were able to fly—Bergen was still on light duty after Rincon had broken his nose. Under normal circumstances, he would have suspended Rincon from duty immediately, but with only two thirds of a squadron fit to fly, he hadn’t considered that possibility for very long. And now the only replacement that was possible was another Imperial who could just as well be a part of this whole plot. Stars, how much he despised this cat and pittin game!
He put on his uniform coat and went to the door when somebody knocked. Salm sighed, forcing himself not to glare as he opened the door. When he saw who was there, he glared anyway.
‘Agent van Leuken, you’re beginning to get on my nerves.’
The slender Intel agent stopped saluting as he realised the colonel wasn’t in any mood to be overly rule observing right now. As much as the young man tried to remain calm, it was obvious he was rather excited. ‘Sir, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’ve found something you ought to look at.’
Colonel Salm closed his eyes for a second, then he exhaled sharply and stood aside to let the younger man enter. ‘Very well, Agent, you’ve got five minutes.’
‘That’ll be enough, sir.’ Van Leuken stood by the colonel’s desk when the balding bomber pilot sat, and put down a datapad on the desk—thereby messing up the colonel’s precious order there—and explained, ‘I’ve found out who stole the datacard that was found in Samica Trey’s room. Sir, do you know who the Retrieval agent is who accused her?’
‘No,’ Salm growled. ‘And I don’t really care. These people are here to make sure there are no Imperial spies on the base.’
‘I agree, sir. But sometimes they are a bit too eager for common good.’ He brought up a file and pushed the datapad over to Salm to read it, which caused a container with data chips to slip precariously close to the edge of the desk. Disapprovingly, the colonel put it back to its appropriate place before he took up the datapad and gave it a cursory glance. ‘Where did you get that?’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ van Leuken answered evasively. ‘The informer was Geremi Bergen, one of your pilots, sir, an Alderaanian who obviously hated all Imperials for what happened to his homeworld. Sir—I don’t say he did this to Sam—Captain Trey—just to be mean; he probably was convinced she was a spy, but he thought he’d have to help justice along a bit. He’s just a bit more paranoid than is usual for the job he’s in, but that was enough to let him steal the data from Doctor Blissex and put it in her boot. You see this? Excuse me—’ He leaned over the colonel’s shoulder to scroll down to a particular place in the file, where a new section started— ‘this is something I found on his personal system, sir. I’ve highlighted that entry, see? He got the codes for all the quarters on the base, so he could enter all of them at will.’
Salm was torn between disbelief at the young man’s inappropriate behaviour and interest in what he’d found, but he said, ‘So this is how he gained access to Doctor Blissex’ files, following your theory, van Leuken?’
Van Leuken shook his head. ‘No, sir, that’s how he got access to Sam’s room. The data from Blissex was drawn from the doctor’s computer, and he didn’t even bother to erase it after he’d made that copy and put it into her boot.’
Salm snorted, shaking his head. ‘This is incredible, van Leuken. Do you have the slightest idea what you’ve been doing? That’s trespassing and violation of Lieutenant Bergen’s private sphere. And it still doesn’t prove anything.’
‘Oh, it does, sir.’ Van Leuken scrolled on to another point in the file, to two holo files. ‘Here. Why do you think Geremi Bergen, who hasn’t liked Samica Trey for a single instant, would keep holos of her on his computer?’
Salm didn’t reply, so Agent van Leuken answered the question himself. ‘Because he wanted to doctor the surveillance holos in the comm room, when he realised it took more than a few inconsistencies to get her removed from Yavin. Sir, if you have the surveillance holos from the comm room compared to these two here, I’m willing to bet they are the same.’
Salm still would have thrown out the agent half an hour ago, but with what Corporal Gatzek had just told him, he realised that the young man’s story was probably true.
Nevertheless, he crossed his arms and looked up at van Leuken ominously. ‘Agent, you’re aware you’re in a lot of trouble for the way you obtained this information.’
Chastised, van Leuken nodded. ‘Yes, sir. But nowhere as bad as Sam would have been in if you’d believed Bergen, not me.’
Salm fixed the young agent with his stare for several seconds longer, then he hit the comm key. ‘Corporal Gatzek,’ he said. ‘Arrest Lieutenant Bergen and bring him here. Also bring Captain Pakkpekkat and Captain Trey.’ He paused. ‘And Corporal . . . ask Commander Willard to join us as well.’
An excited tweeting greeted Samica when she entered the hangar for the first time in five days, and she smiled as she patted Imp on his black-and-white head. ‘Good to see you too, Imp,’ she said to the droid, who chirped again, then she turned to Rhun, who was walking beside her. ‘I hadn’t realised there were this many transports here already,’ she said, taking in the back end of the hangar with a sweep of her arm. ‘Evacuation will start pretty soon, right?’
Rhun nodded, wiping at a persistent lubricant stain on his wrist. There were more of those all over his mechanic’s coveralls. ‘Some of the smaller transports have gone already,’ he said. ‘Some of them with vital equipment. Anyway, they’ll be happy to have you back when we start getting everything out of here.’
She cast him a sidelong glance. ‘I hope they won’t miss you too much in Intel,’ she said.
Rhun grinned at her. ‘Don’t worry. Most of the work these days is concerned with getting away from here and making sure everything is fit to fly. I suppose that I’ll be in Intel again as soon as we’re out of here. Willard would have let me get off with a lot less, I suppose, but breaking into the Intel computer without as much as a transfer for disciplinary reasons must have been a bit much for Colonel Salm. But it won’t be for long. He’s not my superior officer; Willard is.’
‘Lucky you,’ Samica said quietly, but if she thought about it, it wasn’t as bad as that. She hadn’t got an apology from the colonel, but she had at least been restored to the squadron, and apart from Gordon Dowd, who was as resentful as ever, and Shirk Rowl, who still only talked to her when absolutely necessary, the rest of the pilots seemed to be happy about that decision. Geremi Bergen was not part of the squadron anymore. Salm’s vengefulness had hit him as hard as it would have hit Samica if she’d been guilty, and he’d been sent to a Safe World. The fact that he’d been devastated by the destruction of his home planet had saved him from execution; the committee had certified him a certain degree of diminished responsibility. Samica doubted they would have been as lenient where she was concerned, but she couldn’t bring herself to feel resentment either. Bergen would never be allowed to return to the Alliance military, and would be well guarded to prevent his paranoia from harming others again.
‘Anyway,’ she continued more brightly, ‘now that we’ve got someone really competent to help us with the ships here, could you perhaps help me with my starboard sublight engine? I think it’s still not as it ought to be.’
‘All right,’ Rhun said as they went over to her Y-wing. ‘There’s something else I’d like to talk about with you.’
‘What’s that?’ she asked.
Rhun raised his eyebrows. ‘I guess they haven’t told you yet. You’ll soon get a new pilot, if Salm will have him, that is.’
‘Good,’ Samica began, then noticed that something was wrong. ‘Who is he?’
‘An old acquaintance of yours,’ Rhun said with a sigh.
Samica immediately went through a mental list of several of her former acquaintances at the Academy and afterwards, some of whom she could actually imagine going over to the Rebels, but she wasn’t in the mood for riddles. ‘Who?’ she repeated.
‘Caller,’ Rhun replied.
‘Caller?’ she echoed, incredulous. ‘What the hell caused him to join the Rebellion?’ She had never considered him, not after what happened on Gherro, and he hadn’t seemed the type to turn Rebel to her.
‘I don’t know,’ Rhun said. ‘I haven’t talked to him, but they asked me about an evaluation of him. I really didn’t know what to say. I don’t know what could have made him join either. And I don’t want to be Colonel Salm right now.’
‘Nor me.’ Samica shook her head in bewilderment. ‘I always thought he was a decent person when we served together on Resolve, but he never seemed to have enough—’ she searched for the right way to put it—‘backbone to leave the Empire. He always volunteered very little about anything.’
‘Well, he volunteered very little when I met him on Gherro,’ Rhun said, then added, ‘But you’ll have to admit that sometimes people do very strange things when the Empire pushes them just a bit too far, even if they didn’t seem to have much of a backbone before.’ He was grinning widely at her when she turned to look at him, and she snorted, not favouring him with an answer.
Rhun quickly became serious again. ‘But I still can’t say I’m comfortable with this. I hope when I meet him I’ll be able to find out more. He arrived two days ago, and at the moment, apparently, they’re still interviewing him, to see if he’ll join us. I know there are several who would like him to fly with you sooner rather than later.’
‘I can’t fault them,’ Samica said. ‘Not if they tested him. He’s one of the best pilots I know, especially considering the fact that he was just in his first TIE pilot year when he was my wingman. If he’s serious about defecting, he’d be a great asset.’
Rhun nodded. ‘And now that Bergen’s gone growing turnips, you’re desperately in need of replacements, aren’t you? How many are there in your squadron? Eight, nine?’
‘No, we’re ten all right,’ she replied, ‘if Caller joins us. But that’s still not very much. These days, the X-wing squads seem to get replacements first. And I’m not sure if he’ll like Y-wings. They’re a lot different from TIE fighters.’
‘If he’s as good as you say, that won’t matter, will it?’
‘Some might say it’s a waste of talent.’ Samica’s face twisted. ‘Anyway, if we don’t get this engine going again, I’ll waste my talent completely when I have to get used to bad habits trying to compensate for the random twists and turns this thing performs. Tibbs says he needs spare parts for repairing it all the way, but we don’t have them here, and aren’t likely to before we evacuate.’
Rhun rubbed his hands together as he tackled the task at hand with obvious enjoyment. ‘Spare parts are for people without imagination,’ he stated.
‘Officer Cahler, follow me, pleace,’ the insectoid trooper who had been looking after Caller for the last three days told him—Caller had forced himself to stop thinking about the alien as ‘it’ when he’d discovered he could talk, if with a harsh accent, even if he couldn’t have remembered the alien’s name for the life of him. To Caller, it sounded like a Jawa with a bad cough. ‘Cheneral Totonna u-ants to see you.’
Caller got up from his seat in the small room he’d been given and followed the sergeant out onto the corridor. This whole base seemed to consist of nothing but corridors, and he hadn’t seen a single lift in the giant stone building. Apart from the glow panels and electronic door locks, everything had been left as it must have been for hundreds of years.
The insectoid turned his glossy black chitin head, the huge featureless eyes watching him with apparent dispassion. ‘Ton’t u-orry, Officer Cahler,’ the alien told him. ‘I ton’t th-ink th-ey’ll sent you back to th-e Empire in chains.’
Caller gave the sergeant a look that was meant to be heartened, but wasn’t sure if he’d succeeded. He hadn’t met General Dodonna thus far, but he supposed that if he was to meet him today, there was probably some decision that had been made about his future. He told himself to relax; he hadn’t done anything wrong, and all the interviews that had been done by different officers and noncoms had seemed to go rather in his favour.
Caller had already heard that Samica Trey was also on Yavin base, but he hadn’t seen her so far, nor had he been able to find out a lot about her. He knew that the man who had been on Gherro with her was also here. Back then, he’d introduced himself as Haaris, but Caller knew by now his name was van Leuken. Caller wasn’t too keen on seeing him again, as he had never been very comfortable with having to betray the two of them to the Empire. He hadn’t lied to Lieutenant Riece when he’d said that he was sorry that Trey and van Leuken hadn’t owed their escape to him.
The alien took him to a rather large room, one of the largest Caller had seen in this base apart from the hangar, which had to be the general’s quarters, maybe in combination with a war room. There was an old man sitting behind a desk, with white hair and a white beard, whose rank insignia showed five dots—the highest number Caller had encountered, so this had to be General Dodonna, with several other high-ranking officers. There was a very short, balding man whom Caller had met briefly during one of the interviews; he remembered he’d been introduced to him as Colonel Salm. The look on his face reminded Caller of Commander Karranek, but he made himself chase the memory away. There were several others, some of whom Caller had met, like Captain Cromarty and Lieutenant Riece, and one or two more he didn’t know.
‘Officer Caller.’ The white-bearded man nodded to him by way of greeting, and Caller saluted Rebel-style, something he’d seen during the interviews. He’d always thought the Imperial head-bob looked a bit stupid, if he was honest.
‘At ease, Officer Caller.’ Dodonna gestured towards a chair and waited until Caller had sat down, then continued, ‘After careful consideration, this tribunal has come to a decision concerning your wish to join the Rebel Alliance. You still wish to join?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Caller replied.
Dodonna inclined his head. ‘You will be allowed to join the Alliance on a trial basis first. According to Lieutenant Riece, you have experience with heavy bombers as well as light starfighters?’
‘That’s correct, sir.’
‘You will then serve as Flight Officer with Colonel Salm’s Y-wing Squadron Blue. However, we will not give you a fighter right away; you will fly other craft first, until Colonel Salm is sufficiently convinced that you are to be trusted.’ Dodonna glanced over to the small colonel, who nodded, probably unconsciously. Obviously, this had been his idea as much as the general’s.
‘You understand, Officer Caller,’ the general went on, ‘that we can’t entrust you with all the knowledge and privileges that you will be able to expect as a full-fledged member of the Rebel Alliance, but you will be a full member of the Alliance soon enough. You understand that, for safety reasons, we cannot tell you everything?’
Caller nodded respectfully. ‘Yes, sir. Certainly.’
‘Good. Colonel?’ Dodonna turned to Salm.
The small, thickset man looked over at Caller. ‘As long as you don’t fly a Y-wing, your callsign will be Blue Thirteen. Unless there are further questions on your part, I’ll hand you over to Captain Cromarty. The captain will show you the places you’ll need to know and introduce you to your new squad mates.’ He waited for a short moment, then turned to his tall, bearded exec. ‘Very well then, Officer Caller. Captain Cromarty, he’s yours.’
General Dodonna stood again. ‘Good luck, Officer. Gentlebeings.’
Caller saluted again, then followed Cromarty out of the room. The captain was probably as tall as Caller was, but walked more stooped, so he seemed slightly less tall than he actually was. Cromarty looked his new squad mate up and down and observed, ‘Well, you’ve been given a ground uniform, I see. Now I finally know where my spare one went.’
Caller was about to make a startled reply when Cromarty gave a short, dry laugh. ‘No, Officer, that was just a joke. I’m not missing any of mine. Let’s pay a visit to the quartermaster and see if we can find a flight suit your size as well. I’m speaking from experience when I tell you that’s a problem sometimes. If we can’t find anything, I can always give you a spare one.’
‘You don’t have to, sir,’ Caller answered. ‘I’ve still got my old black one. I don’t like it a lot, but it’s better than robbing you.’
‘I’m afraid not,’ Cromarty answered. ‘These suits serve a purpose, you know. If you should go EV in a black flight suit, we’d have a tough time finding you, and I seem to remember that Imperial flight suits aren’t spaceworthy anyway, are they?’ Caller shook his head. ‘You see, if they really don’t have anything that will fit you, we can either go against one set of regulations and deprive me of a spare suit—I’ve never needed one anyway—or go against another and let you go outside in a black suit when you could as well wear a bathing costume for all the good it will do you in space.’
‘Is it common for Rebel pilots to go EV?’ Caller asked carefully.
Cromarty shook his head. ‘You most likely will, once in your life, but your chances are pretty good that you live to brag about it. Don’t forget, in the Alliance, you’ll fly only ships that have shields and ejection seats. And we usually try to pick up our Dutchmen after a battle.’
Caller was about to make a reply when—to his great embarrassment—his stomach growled perceptibly. He gave the other man an awkward smile. ‘Uh—sorry, Captain, but could we pass by a cantina or something for a quick bite to eat before we visit the quartermaster?’
Cromarty chuckled into his beard. ‘Ah, right, your metabolism. From Yaemon, if I remember correctly. Well, I’m from a high-gravity world myself, but fortunately for me, it's only 1.15, and I’ve spent most of my life in standard gravity.’ He took a turn and waved down another corridor. ‘We’ll visit the mess first, then. A good chance to meet the rest of the squadron.’
Caller finally asked the question that he’d been brooding over for days. ‘Sir—Lieutenant Trey is here, isn’t she?’
‘She’s a captain by now—brevet captain—but yes, she’s here. She’s been in a bit of trouble recently herself.’
Caller frowned. ‘What do you mean?’
Cromarty cast him a sidelong glance and sighed. ‘You’ll find that Colonel Salm is very . . . careful about Imperial defectors, and he is very careful in choosing whom to trust and whom not to.’
‘He doesn’t trust her?’ Caller asked, astonished.
‘He does now.’ Cromarty stood aside at a set of large double doors. Beyond was a rather crowded, spacious room with a number of benches and tables and a food processor in one corner. The smell was not very appealing, but Caller had lived on Rebel diet for the last three days, and he was past regretting his defection for culinary reasons. In for a cent, in for a credit.
There were several pilots in the room, and Cromarty steered towards a table with four of them. Caller instantly recognised Captain Trey, as well as two humans, who both looked to be around his own age, and one alien, this one resembling a fish. He identified it as a Mon Calamari. There was also one person at the table who was not a pilot; Caller recognised him, too—Rhun van Leuken, sitting next to Trey.
A small blond man with blue eyes saw them first. ‘Now look who’s here,’ he greeted them. ‘The Cap’s trying to push up the average height in the squadron a bit!’
An equally short man with curly brown hair grinned. ‘I once heard about a Screaming Wookiee training squadron somewhere, Cap, if you scrounge up any more of those, we could rename ourselves!’
Cromarty let his disapproving glance wander over them—none of them had ever been able to determine whether it was mock disapproval or if the captain actually meant it—and introduced the new pilot. ‘This is Flight Officer Josh Caller, our new pilot. Try to be a bit nicer than usual, would you?’ He raised an eyebrow at Caller. ‘Just make yourself feel at home, Flight Officer. They’re just trying to scare you.’
Samica had turned around when they approached, and her look was guarded as her eyes met Caller’s. The same could not be said about Rhun; the Intel agent looked downright sceptical.
It was Samica who spoke first. ‘Good to see you here, Caller,’ she said lightly.
Relieved, Caller answered, ‘You too, Captain.’ She smiled fleetingly as she noted his correct form of address.
Rhun nodded towards the tall flight officer. ‘Caller,’ he said, his tone not exactly unfriendly, but utterly noncommittal.
The others had known that these three were no strangers, and Dave covered what could have been an awkward moment with his usual easiness. ‘Dave Haaland,’ he introduced himself. ‘We flight officers usually call each other by our first names. Oh, and I might add that the colonel absolutely loves to be called Horton.’
Caller’s expression made it even clearer than Cromarty's frown that nobody would ever dream of calling the colonel by his given name; Dave only opened his eyes wide as if he’d only just realised he might have been wrong. ‘He doesn’t?’ he said with a perfect parody of horror. ‘Damn! I knew there had to be a reason why I’ve been stuck with kitchen duty since I joined the squadron!’
Alden now took over. ‘You mean when it’s not my turn in the kitchen,’ he said sourly. ‘Alden Rincon, Blue Twelve. D’you know already where they’re going to put you?’
Caller sat down now, even as Cromarty retreated again, and shrugged. ‘I don’t know yet. I won’t be flying Y-wings for a while anyway, I suppose.’
Sympathy crept into Samica’s glance as she turned to Caller once more. ‘I see,’ she said quietly. ‘So you’ll have to earn the colonel’s trust first.’
‘Is that hard?’ Caller wanted to know.
‘Not if you’re good at repairing a starfighter and maintaining it yourself,’ Lawal now said, then inclined his head to the new squad member. ‘My name’s Lawal, Blue Eleven.’
Caller looked among the others uneasily. ‘I haven’t done a lot of that after the Academy,’ he admitted. ‘And back at the Academy, my grades in technical studies were what gave me the greatest headaches of all.’
Dave grinned and looked at each of the others in turn, except Rhun. ‘Welcome to the club, Josh,’ he said.
Even though Dave had hoped that, misery liking company and all that, Caller’s limited repairing skills would simply be overlooked in a squadron where few were able to work tech miracles, he was soon proven wrong. Salm picked on Caller more often than on any of the others, including Samica and Lawal, and Samica had come to suspect that Caller was filling the gap that her rehabilitation had left for Salm. He took it stoically enough, just the way she had by now come to expect him to behave, but she wondered how long it would take until Caller was accepted by the colonel as a full member of the squadron. The fact that he was not yet allowed to fly with the others didn’t help matters any, of course; Caller flew shuttles and transports, helping to bring out some of the equipment that could already be flown up to the capital ships in orbit, and he scored very promising results in the simulator, but Salm seemed very reserved where he was concerned.
The same was true for Rhun. He was never outright frosty, but almost too correct. Samica didn’t really know what caused Rhun to be so guarded when Caller was around—she had by now been convinced that Caller was really a defector, whatever had happened on Gherro, but Rhun didn’t seem to be of the same opinion. She never asked Caller about Gherro; she had heard that COMPNOR, or worse, the ISB, had forced him to play along in their schemes, and that was enough for her. She didn’t like to be reminded of the moments in her life when her path had crossed with COMPNOR or the ISB’s, and she was certain Caller didn’t like the memories to be revived either.
As far as Samica was concerned, Colonel Salm seemed to have laid the matter to rest. He treated her no differently than he treated any others of the squadron, not really as a senior officer, but at least not as a criminal either, and that was enough for her.
Samica had noticed a change on the base after she had been restored to Blue Squadron, an uneasiness that had not been there before and that she hadn’t noticed when she had more urgent personal matters on her mind. The Empire had taken a long time in taking on Yavin 4 again after the ignominious defeat of the Death Star, a time which the Alliance had put to good use to arrange an orderly evacuation of the base, but even as preparations were drawing to a close, everyone was waiting for the inevitable.
Evacuation preparations were well underway, with some vital data and equipment already flown to safety and no less than eleven capital ships in orbit around Yavin 4—six corvettes, two Carrack-class cruisers and two Nebulon-B frigates and even an Assault Frigate, plus a number of gunships and armed transports—to provide cargo capacity as much as firepower if necessary. Samica was flying a long-range patrol with Dowd, Lawal and Alden, a micro-jump out from Yavin Base, checking the outermost perimeters of Alliance space, when Lawal sent her a tight-burst signal over comm, not a regular transmission. Samica felt her blood freeze as she realised what that meant, even before Imp played it for her. Lawal’s ship, a Longprobe which had been modified to pick up the weakest passive emissions, had detected the presence of ships in the sector. He had not been able to identify them all, but what little he had found so far was enough for Samica. She counted one Star Destroyer plus a number of smaller line ships on the margin of Lawal’s sensor range.
Samica knew she had two options: either go back right now and be certain to get away unnoticed, or try to sneak closer to get a clearer image of what the Empire had brought in for this. That second option, however, entailed the greater risk, a risk Samica couldn’t take. If the Imperial task force gathered this far outside Yavin 4, they were certain to have brought scout ships with equally long sensor ranges, and they would detect them sooner or later—which would spoil the element of relative surprise the Alliance still had and badly needed, if only to get their defence in order. In addition, unless Samica was very wrong, she already knew what she had before her. One Star Destroyer—Imperial class—with some twenty ships as support meant that the Empire had dispatched a battle squadron to take care of Yavin base this time, something that didn’t come as a surprise to her. The presence of a battle squadron meant that the Empire was really serious about whatever business was at hand, and she wouldn’t have expected anything else.
She brought her Y-wing around, maintaining comm silence, and flew back towards the hyper point from where they would micro-jump back. The other four were following her, none of them transmitting either, and they jumped back to report what they’d found. She knew that it wouldn’t have taken more than another week until the Alliance would have been ready to leave Yavin base anyway, but she supposed she had to be glad for small favours—the Empire had taken enough time for the Rebels to prepare for evacuation, even a hurried one should things go very bad.
Which they just had.
‘Ten, stick close to me. Eleven, Twelve, you’re on your own until you’ve safely delivered your transport to the hyper mark.’ Samica adjusted her speed to remain next to Dowd and brought up the Gallofree Yards transport on her tactical. As soon as they had come back with the news that the Imperial task force was here, everything that would fly had been sent up from the moon, the Y-wings protecting the vulnerable transports. Samica, Dowd, Lawal and Alden’s were the only fighters in orbit; the other pilots were still being briefed on the base. Their best bet was to get most of the equipment safely into hyperspace before the Imperials even entered the system, and in order to do that, they’d have to hurry. The Alliance had been better prepared for this evacuation than was usual in similar circumstances, which made the procedures go rather smoothly, but every minute the Empire gained was a step towards defeat.
Samica’s flight group had been detailed for escort duty; soon, X-wing squadrons Green and Grey would launch, and they would go directly to the hyper mark, where the other capital ships were also waiting already. Some transports were leaving even now, but several would not reach the hyper lark until the Empire was here.
Samica couldn’t make out any of the gunships or corvettes from this distance, but she saw the Assault Frigate Patience, a modified Dreadnaught, a ship that had been introduced even before the Clone Wars. It was probably the ugliest craft the Alliance Navy had at its disposal, but no doubt the biggest and carrying much more firepower than a Nebulon-B frigate, which was less than half its length and less than a fifth of its mass. The Allied starships would start firing at the Imperials as soon as they entered the system, as even a Star Destroyer was vulnerable when it came out of hyperspace without its deflector shields up; but their only hope was crippling the ships of the wall before they could even launch their starfighters, even if that meant sacrificing a lot of starfighters and capital ships in order to accomplish that. Squadron Grey, with Luke Skywalker and Wedge Antilles, had been intended for service on another base, but had been delayed to stay and protect Yavin 4. Samica knew that a lot of equipment had already been taken away by transport as early as weeks ago, but the idea that a number of high-ranking Rebel military and political leaders—such as General Dodonna and Princess Leia—were still on the base was mildly distressing.
Samica had banished all thoughts about the last weeks completely. This was here and now, and the immediate threat at hand could only be overcome if she kept her wits together. He knew that Dowd was not at all happy about being her wingman, but that was his problem, and she couldn’t do anything about it—apart from doing her job well enough for him to realise that he could rely on her, even if they were not going to become friends anytime soon.
She, her wingman, and the transport they were escorting had almost reached the mark when there appeared a number of green icons on her rear sensor screen. ‘Blue flight, this is Green Leader. We’re on our way.’
‘Good to know, Green Leader,’ Samica replied.
‘Lord Vader is on the bridge,’ a flag lieutenant announced with a barely noticeable squeak in his voice, and the whole bridge crew of ISD Invincible did their best to look even more efficient and attentive. The Dark Lord of the Sith did not even take notice of any changes on the bridge, only walked up to the tactical plot. ‘Admiral Cervax, can you explain to me why your scouts could not stop those four enemy ships before re-entering hyperspace?’
The Dark Lord had never raised his voice, but everyone on the command deck seemed to catch their breaths. So did Admiral Cervax. He hadn’t been sure whether he should be glad or terrified about having been chosen as CO of Battle Squadron 13, under Lord Vader’s direct command, and so far, he hadn’t decided on either of these two options, although he was tending strongly towards the latter right now. ‘My Lord, they had the superior long-range sensors and could detect us before we could detect them. As soon as I knew of their presence, I ordered that they be pursued, but when I realised that I could not catch them in time, I ordered my fighters back, the faster to jump into hyperspace and attack.’
Darth Vader still did not move, his black-clad form as motionless as his unreadable black mask. ‘Very well,’ he finally said. ‘Proceed, Admiral.’
‘Yes, my Lord.’ Cervax turned towards his flag captain, who, against usual Imperial Navy procedure, was on the same deck as Vader and the admiral, both of whom would normally be required to be on the flag deck, while the ship’s captain would take care of things from the command deck alone. This was not the case today, and rumour had it that Vader liked all people who might be responsible for mistakes near him, to punish them instantly if necessary.
‘Captain Ozzel,’ the admiral said, ‘have the ship prepare for translation into real space.’
‘Aye, sir,’ Captain Ozzel replied, then turned to his helmsman. ‘Stand by for transition.’
Rhun jogged along the corridor towards the hangar, kitbag over his shoulder, together with several dozen other Rebel officers, soldiers and agents. There were not enough ships on the ground to bring out all personnel to safety at one time, so there were transports that would shuttle between the ships in orbit and the base, protected by the Y-wings. Rhun knew they would need two or more flights to bring out everyone, and he knew several high-ranking officers would be leaving last, among them General Dodonna. He’d witnessed the general telling Commander Willard about something that ‘needed to be done here.’ At least Willard had been persuaded to leave straight away. There was a Lambda-class shuttle waiting in the hangar, and Rhun couldn’t quite hide his surprise as he saw who the pilot was. Maybe he would have looked straight through the man, but he had noticed once before that it was virtually impossible to look through Josh Caller.
The tall pilot had seen him as well, and greeted him with a vague nod. Rhun stopped briefly, to let the rest of the evacuees enter the shuttle first, and asked, ‘What are you doing here, flying a shuttle? Don’t they need you up there in a Y-wing?’
Caller shrugged, then answered, ‘Well, this is what I was ordered to do. Obviously they mistrust me more than they need me.’ He shrugged again, then secured the entry hatch as soon as everyone was inside. ‘But I’m not complaining.’ He nodded to Rhun once more, then hurried to get into the cockpit and start the transport.
Rhun leaned against the bulkhead in the passenger compartment—all the seats were full already, as the shuttle would carry far more than the twenty passengers it was designed for—and wondered what it was that he didn’t like about Caller. He found he really couldn’t tell, but he knew that he actually disliked the man. Maybe it was his evasiveness, the fact that he still appeared like an Imperial officer rather than a Rebel. Rhun knew that Samica was willing to trust Caller, and his own dislike for him did not spring from a feeling that Caller would try to betray them. It was something else, something about the way how Caller had spied on them for the ISB, and maybe the long time it had taken him afterwards to turn his back on the Empire, and when he finally had, he’d bombed his hometown. He hadn’t talked to Rhun or Samica about anything that had happened back on Yaemon, but Rhun had heard it when he’d been called upon to give an opinion of Caller.
Rhun even suspected that his own uneasy feelings against Caller might have something to do with Samica. It had been Caller’s fault that she had been badly wounded on Gherro, and he found it harder to forgive him for that than for anything else. As far as Rhun knew, he hadn’t even apologised to Sam. He had simply come here, after reducing his hometown base to rubble, never talking more than two coherent sentences, and expected to be taken up with open arms.
He felt the shuttle lift off and caught himself against a handhold on the bulkhead, shifting aside his contemplations on Caller for the time being. There was no viewport in the passenger compartment, but he desperately wished he could see anything that was going on outside. He’d heard people talk about the Imperial force in the system, but he wasn’t really familiar with how many ships there were in what kind in unit. He wasn’t even sure what exactly they’d been talking about, if it had been a squadron, or a fleet, or a force. He didn’t really care. Whatever it was, it was bound to be a lot, as the Empire would never risk being outnumbered by Rebels. And they’d had plenty of time to prepare for their strike, after all.
Sam, please take care of yourself.
Even though Samica had been waiting for it to happen, she actually flinched when her screen exploded with red icons, two, ten, twelve, then twenty.
‘They’re here!’ she heard one of the X-wing pilots bark sharply. ‘One ISD, four—no, six Carrack cruisers, two corvettes, four Nebulon-B class frigates, and six Strike cruisers!’
Samica was quickest to make sense of the arrangement. Most of the training at the Academy did not distinguish between future Fleet and StarCom officers, and Samica had always had a good head for numbers. ‘Battle squadron,’ she identified the formation. ‘Four lines, two heavy attack, one pursuit line. The pursuit line will attempt to get our escape vectors when we jump into hyperspace.’
‘Good work, Nine.’ Colonel Salm had started from the moon several minutes ago, Blue Squadron scattered all over space, flying escort for the transports. Ahead, at the hyper mark, she could already see flashes of green and red as the Rebel ships began to make good of what small advantage they had over the Imperial ships which had just cleared hyperspace without shields and with laser batteries not fully charged. Samica saw the seven hundred metres long Assault Frigate blast away at the Star Destroyer, then retreat a couple of klicks.
‘Blue Squadron, this is Blue Leader. The first waves of starfighters will be here soon. Keep them away from the transports; you know what you have to do. And may the Force be with us all.’
‘Here they are,’ she heard Dave’s voice over comm. ‘Twelve eyeballs from four-sixteen.’
Samica knew that the Empire was likely to send more than one squadron at a time—this one was only the first of a whole wave the Empire could launch if it chose to. The Imperial Star Destroyer carried an entire wing of TIEs—six squadrons with a total of seventy-two fighters—and the Strike-class cruisers were capable of carrying another TIE squadron each. So were the Nebulon B-frigates, which meant that, if they all actually carried their fighter complements, they’d have to contend with a total of 196 TIE fighters. Normally, though, the ships of the line accompanying a Star Destroyer were not fully stocked, and if the Empire was planning a ground assault, some space especially aboard the Strike-class cruisers would be taken by assault vehicles and AT-AT walkers. Samica desperately hoped this was the case. Yavin base was lost and nobody could think it might be otherwise, but if the Empire was prepared for a dirtside fight, there would be slightly less emphasis on the action up here.
Two more squadrons of TIEs were launched from the Imperial battleships, this time one bomber squadron among them. Many of them did not get past the line of defence the X-wings and Alliance Carrack-class cruisers, corvettes, gunships and frigates had drawn before the Imperial ships, but some managed to break through, and they were too many for the Rebels to pursue. There were two Rebel transports and one corvette hanging in or just outside the atmosphere, and they would have to be protected.
‘Blue Leader, this is Grey Leader,’ one of the X-wing squad leaders reported. ‘Six dupes and four eyeballs coming your way.’
‘Copy, Grey Leader,’ Salm replied. ‘Five, Nine, your groups tackle the bombers; One Flight, on me; we’re going after the TIE fighters.’
‘We’re on them, Blue Leader,’ Cromarty answered. Two Flight only consisted of him and Shirk Rowl, after both Lieutenant Cargill and Geremi Bergen weren’t around anymore.
‘I’m right behind you, Five,’ Samica said. Her Three Flight was once more the only complete flight group in Blue Squadron.
The six Y-wings veered off to face the attackers, while the transport they had been escorting continued towards the single Rebel corvette, still in the moon’s atmosphere behind the Alliance line of battle, which would take up the remaining escapees.
‘Blue group, this is Valour,’ came a transmission from the corvette. ‘We’re being targeted by missiles!’
‘I’ve seen it, Valour,’ Cromarty replied. ‘Eight, we’ll target the missiles. Nine, take out those dupes.’
‘Copy, Five.’ Samica brought up one of the bombers on her scopes and assigned three of the others to her wingmen. ‘Let’s give them something else to worry about than just getting locks on Valour.’
The sluggish Imperial craft then came into firing range of her, breaking to port immediately as she began firing on it, the other five doing the same. Samica, Dowd, Lawal and Alden gave pursuit, while Cromarty and Rowl started picking off the missiles on target towards Valour. They had little trouble, even in Y-wings, gaining on the heavy Imperial ships, which were still slower than their own lighter bombers. Samica fired once again, scoring a hit on the bomber before her, even as she saw the one Alden was pursuing vanish from her plot. Bombers were usually accompanied by starfighter escorts, and the fact that these bombers’ escort was concerned with Colonel Salm’s flight group right now made them more vulnerable than Imperial doctrine liked them to.
Two of the bombers had broken formation and were flying another run at the corvette, so Samica changed their tactics. ‘Eleven, Twelve, finish of these three. Ten, we’ll take care of the two others.’
‘Copy, Nine,’ Lawal’s low voice came back, and she broke off pursuit of the bomber she’d damaged in order to keep the two others from launching their missiles at Valour. Gordon Dowd was directly behind her starfighter, and she assigned him the bomber designated as Beta Five while she targeted Beta Two.
Bombers could take considerably more punishment than TIE fighters could, and after two hits, the enemy ship’s hull was badly damaged, but it was still flying. Samica took a quick glance outside the starboard viewport and clenched her teeth when she saw that the corvette’s hull was highlighted by explosions. Apparently, Cromarty and Rowl had not been able to eliminate all the missiles fired at the cruiser.
Astern of her Y-wing, she saw another, closer explosion as Dowd vaped his bomber, then she scored another hit on the one in front of her, and it spun out of control.
She looked for Lawal on her display. ‘Eleven, this is Nine. Status report.’
‘This is Eleven,’ Lawal’s gravelly voice came back. ‘One bomber destroyed, one damaged.’
‘We’re on our way, Eleven,’ she answered. ‘Transport Lightspeed, what about you?’
‘Some hull damage after a stray shot, but still operational, Nine.’
‘Ten, your status?’
‘Nice of you to ask me too,’ Dowd answered sourly. ‘Returning into formation.’
Samica considered for a moment chewing him out, since she’d seen him vape his target almost effortlessly and had known that there was nothing seriously wrong with him, as opposed to Lawal, but had just decided that that would take more time than they could spare at the moment, when Colonel Salm’s voice came in over comm. ‘Ten, cut it. Nine, Five, when you’re finished with those bombers, we need you here.’
‘Acknowledged, Blue Leader,’ Cromarty answered. ‘Nine, fly over to aid the others. Eight and I are taking care of these bombers.’
Samica acknowledged the order and called up the colonel’s Y-wing on her tactical. She could see that his shields were down to fifty percent, and that Bent’s ship had been damaged as well. There was a number of red icons around him, and when she brought up one of them, she thought at first that the enemy ships were bombers and started to wonder how bombers could have given the Y-wings so much trouble, when she realised that the ships’ wings resembled those of bombers from the front view, but from the side angle she saw that their wings ended in four vicious-looking points. In addition, they had only a single cockpit sphere instead of the two that were characteristic of TIE bombers, and that they were faster. A lot faster.
‘Sithspit, what are those?’ she wondered aloud before she could stop herself.
‘Whatever they are, they’re damn fast, and we really need you here, Nine,’ she heard Dave’s answer, sounding as if he was speaking between clenched teeth.
There were six of the new types of TIEs with Salm’s flight group, and even though one of the X-wings was there to help them, Samica saw with dismay that even the faster X-wings couldn’t keep up with the Imperial craft. She was still well outside firing range when two of the new TIEs broke free from the battle before them to attack her formation.
‘Look out!’ Salm warned them. ‘These interceptors’ve got four laser cannons each.’
Samica saw that the TIEs were coming for them head-on, but she was not going to witness the kind of destruction four lasers could wreak first-hand if she could help it. ‘Ten, break on my mark,’ she told Dowd, watching the distance marker scroll down to two klicks, then one point six, and shouted, ‘Mark!’, yanking her stick to port, just as green laser fire splashed towards her.
It missed, but as she cast a glance back over her shoulder, she saw with horror that Dowd hadn’t broken out but continued flying towards one of the TIEs; the other had come around to pursue her.
‘Dammit, Ten, break at once!’ she shouted at him. ‘This is not the time for heroics!’
‘We won’t be given another chance like this,’ he answered, firing away at the TIE, his own ship pounded by enemy fire.
Her brief moment of distraction had given the first TIE the opportunity to come into a good firing position, and she cursed as she jinked to shake him off, which was virtually impossible. The ship behind her was one of the fastest starfighters she had ever encountered, much faster than a Y-wing and probably even faster than an X-wing, and it brought the extra danger of heavy armaments which did not seem to weigh it down overmuch.
Ahead of her, Dowd had finally broken out, with heavy damage to his fighter, the TIE before him hit as well, but also still flying. They were even hardier than normal TIE fighters, despite their speed. She would have ordered her wingman to punch out, but that would not be an option today, as there wouldn’t be an Alliance ship to pick him up later.
With one TIE behind her trying to get a laser lock on her, she attempted to attain a good firing position to pick off the already damaged one that was about to finish off her wingman. ‘As soon as you’re clear,’ she told Dowd, ‘you fly to the hyper mark and jump out. And no discussions.’
‘Won’t do, Nine,’ was his answer, his voice beginning to show signs of fear. ‘Hyperdrive’s out, shields, too.’
‘Hang on, Ten,’ she told him between her teeth, even though she couldn’t have said what he was supposed to hang on to. ‘I’m almost there.’
Sandwiched between two TIE interceptors, she desperately tried to avoid the fire from the fighter behind her and still fire at the ship before her, and even though her prey was in a similar position, he managed to get off two more shots at Dowd before she killed him. One missed his Y-wing, but the other went squarely into the fighter’s prime target cone, between the two support pylons, disabling the power generator. Gordon Dowd’s Y-wing looked almost peaceful for the split second in which it drifted across space, carried on by momentum, before the TIE interceptor’s killing shot took it apart.
Samica tasted blood on her lip as she flew through the debris that had been her wingman, the interceptor before her coming apart under her fire, broken parts from the Imperial ship mingling with those of Dowd’s. Her particle deflectors flashed once as a large piece of debris hit her cockpit—not enough to penetrate her shields, but enough to disrupt them long enough in order for the TIE interceptor behind her to score a glancing hit on her Y-wing. Imp squealed a damage report, declaring both her ion cannon and proton torpedo launcher were gone. At least she was still able to manoeuvre normally, and Rhun had worked true miracles with her starboard engine, which handled as smoothly as if it was brand-new. And she had never needed manoeuvrability as badly as she needed it now. She corrected her earlier estimation of her opponent’s speed—it was not one of the fastest fighters she’d ever seen, it was the fastest. It was faster than an X-wing or a TIE fighter, and that meant it could outrun her as easily as she could a bulk freighter. The most disconcerting fact about it was, however, that its design compensated for all the flaws a TIE fighter had: custom TIEs were fast but not very agile, and could be destroyed by a single, well-placed hit. These birds obviously couldn’t.
She found it was all but impossible to shake off lock after lock the interceptor got on her, and she wouldn’t have dreamed of outmanoeuvring him in order to shake off pursuit. It was all she could do to just stay alive.
Another glancing hit reduced her shields to zero, and she redirected energy into her engines—nothing else would help her, certainly not lasers—when the bleeping indicating a laser lock let up for a full three seconds, the longest respite she’d had since she took on the interceptor, and the Imperial fighter broke off pursuit. Incredulous, she turned to see two Y-wings that had fallen in behind him, and saw that both were firing, some of the blasts hitting their target.
‘Get clear, Nine,’ Cromarty’s voice told her over comm. Samica had never been as glad at hearing Captain Cromarty’s voice as she was now. ‘Thanks, Cap,’ she breathed, flying clear of the interceptor and its two attackers, bringing up the overall situation on her tactical. Valour’s shields were rebuilding, and she remembered to channel some energy into her own deflectors once more. Salm and One Flight had done away with the remaining four TIE interceptors, together with several X-wings that had joined them to assist, but Samica saw that the number of Alliance starfighters had been reduced dramatically. There were only eighteen X-wings left of the original number of twenty-four, and she saw that Blue Three was gone as well. She had never had the chance to really get to know quiet, plump Bent, and now she never would. Two transports had also been lost. She would not let herself dwell on the fact that she had once again failed to keep her wingman alive.
Behind her, Shirk Rowl scored a hit on the interceptor that disabled him sufficiently for Cromarty to finish him off. Samica didn’t feel very well at the thought that it took three Y-wings to take on a single interceptor, one getting taken apart playing bait, the other two managing to sneak onto the Imperial unnoticed.
‘Blue Squadron, this is Blue Leader,’ Colonel Salm said. ‘Twelve bombers coming towards Valour. We’ll protect the corvette and then escort her to the hyper mark. The battle line there is trying to clear a corridor.’
Samica realised that ‘Blue Squadron’ sounded like a lot more than it still was—after the loss of Dowd and Bent, there were only seven Y-wings left. She could only hope that the bomber squadron would also have been reduced somewhat by the time it got to them.
Josh Caller docked the shuttle—the same craft in which he’d come here—with the Corellian corvette Valour, after the Y-wings had bought him a brief breathing space in which to deliver his passengers to the larger vessel. He had seen several Rebel starfighters wink out of existence on his scopes as he came closer to Valour, defending the corvette with their lives, among them two Y-wings from Squadron Blue. He couldn’t even remember who Blue Three had been, but as much as he had disliked Gordon Dowd, he wouldn’t have wanted anyone to encounter those new Imperial starfighters. He hadn’t known about their existence (something else nobody had bothered trusting him with), but he hoped that his performance in this evacuation would be enough to convince the Rebellion that he could be trusted.
When the passengers left the shuttle, he stayed inside the cockpit, not really keen on seeing van Leuken again. He’d need some conviction too, Caller supposed, before he accepted him as one of the Rebels.
‘Shuttle Calacium,’ he heard the voice of a communications officer aboard the corvette, ‘docking operation is complete. Head back for the base for one more run.’
Caller had half-hoped this had been the last one, but it appeared that there were still Rebels down there on the base. He closed his eyes briefly, then keyed the comm, then answered, ‘Shuttle Calacium, order acknowledged, Valour.’ He detached from the corvette and was just about to fly down to the surface again when he heard another voice over comm, a different one this time, and he recognised it as Commander Willard’s. ‘Wait, Officer. Don’t go down; there won’t be another run.’
An upset reply was cut off, then the commander said again, ‘Officer, I repeat, the evacuation is complete. Follow us to the hyper point.’ Caller heard that the commander’s voice was heavy, as if the words were not what he wanted to say.
This time, the link was left open long enough for him to hear a female voice that must belong to Princess Leia. ‘No way, Commander. General Dodonna is still down there, and we’re not leaving without him.’
‘Your Highness, we are leaving without him, by the general’s own orders. If we don’t leave now, none of us will be able to make hyperspace, the Imperial barrier will be too tight for any ship to slip through.’ Then he addressed the ships outside again. ‘Blue Leader, dispatch two of your fighters to escort Calacium to the hyper mark.’
‘I only have seven pilots left, Commander,’ Salm answered. ‘I can’t afford to spare any of them for escort duty for a single shuttle.’
There was a slight pause, and then Commander Willard acknowledged, ‘I understand, Blue Leader. You’re on your own, Calacium. Good luck.’
‘Copy, Valour,’ Caller ground out. Blast, he knew the colonel didn’t have a choice—there were plenty of other ships that could not get an escort of their own—but this decision made it that much harder for him to like his squadron commander.
‘Sir, damage report from Discord. Their hull is down to twelve percent.’
Captain Ozzel looked up at Admiral Cervax to make sure the admiral had heard the report, but Cervax was already issuing orders. ‘Give me Discord and Ruler,’ he said sharply, and the comm officer’s hands flew over his console. Instants later, the face of a pale, moustached man in a commander’s uniform appeared on the bridge screen next to Captain Messan of the Strike cruiser Ruler.
‘Commander Franchiff, withdraw your command from the line,’ Admiral Cervax ordered the moustached captain. ‘Captain Messan, take Discord’s place in the formation. Cervax out.’ He turned to the comm officer again. ‘Captains Groundel and Anaia,’ he told the lieutenant, who hurried to establish the connections. Messan and Franchiff disappeared from the screen, replaced by two more captains, both of Strike cruisers.
‘Captain Groundel, what’s the status of Intransigence?’ the admiral demanded.
‘We’ve taken heavy hits with damage to starboard weapons systems,’ the captain replied, ‘but otherwise operational, sir.’
Anaia of the Strike-class cruiser Inexorable bobbed his head. ‘Fully operational, Admiral.’
‘Take your ships into atmosphere and begin with the ground assault.’
Both captains acknowledged the order, and Cervax turned to Lord Vader, who had not spoken during the exchange. ‘The corridor will soon be closed, my Lord,’ he told the tall cloaked figure, who stood just as motionless as he had during the whole battle.
‘I hope it will,’ Vader replied. ‘For your sake, Admiral.’
‘We’ve lost Discord, Admiral,’ an operations officer reported from his station, and Cervax flinched as he looked back at the Dark Lord. He still made no move.
‘Carrack-class cruiser Discord has been destroyed!’ Samica heard someone shout over comm, and there were a couple of cheers from other pilots.
‘Damp down,’ Colonel Salm warned them. ‘That was one Imperial ship out of nineteen.’
Still, Samica thought, it was the first Imperial capital ship that had been destroyed today, whereas the Alliance had already lost five transports, three of its eleven capital ships, among which were two of its corvettes, and one Nebulon-B frigate. The Alliance ships were concentrating their fire on the Empire's Carrack-cruisers, the only ships that could keep up with the Allied ships when it came to running, and this left the heavier ships free to pick their targets. Still, the Alliance’s tactics were beginning to pay off; of the Empire’s remaining five Carracks, four were already damaged, two of them heavily.
Losses among the starfighters were equally heavy. Of the two squadrons of X-wings, only eleven fighters were still flying, and Blue Squadron had just been reduced to six pilots—Lawal’s ship had been so badly damaged that Salm had ordered him to the hyper mark to jump out. Samica desperately hoped he’d make it, and she wished she had Caller there with them in a Y-wing. She wondered whether Salm wished the same thing, silently, but it was no use dwelling on that; Caller was stuck in his shuttle, and couldn’t get to a Y-wing at present.
At least the Alliance losses were mirrored by the Imperials’. The three Rebel squadrons, aided by the gunships, had wiped out four full squadrons of TIEs, two of fighters, one of bombers and—with heavy losses—almost an entire squadron of the new TIE interceptors. Now, however, there was a new squadron of bombers on its way with Valour for a destination, as the Imperials must have realised that most of the evacuees from the base were on that ship, which meant there must be high-ranking personnel aboard her.
‘Blue Squadron, this is Blue Leader,’ Salm said. ‘Target the bombers with torps, single fire, and don’t attempt another run after a miss. I want each of you to keep four torps in case we have to clear the escape corridor of an Imperial ship or two later.’
Samica considered telling the colonel that her torp launcher was damaged, but decided against it. It wouldn’t make any difference for him if he knew it or not, and she didn’t want him to think she was trying to chicken out. And there was something else she could do.
‘Twelve,’ she told Alden, ‘I’ll have my astromech relay the data to you; my launcher’s out. That way, you don’t have to keep your ship on target for a lock.’
‘Copy, Nine,’ he answered, ‘but are you sure you can pull out in time when they get a lock on you?’
‘Don’t worry about me,’ Samica replied, setting her weapons configuration to proton torpedoes—even if she couldn’t launch any, she’d have to use her targeting computer. ‘Rhun’s been fiddling with my starboard engine.’
‘I take it that’s supposed to be reassuring,’ Alden murmured, but he didn’t protest any more.
The bombers came into firing range at the same time as they did, and as soon as Samica’s targeting computer started emitting short bleeps indicating it was attempting to get a lock, she saw the yellow warning light of her own warning system on her screen begin to flash in almost the same rhythm. Her ship was more agile than a bomber, however, and with only a tiny bit of jinking from side to side, she managed to prevent him from getting a lock on her without losing hers on him.
‘Imp,’ she shouted back to her astromech, ‘Transmit the data to Twelve’s R2 unit . . . now!’ Her lock indicator had turned from yellow to red, but just as she broke out, she became aware that it was not the only light that had turned red. The missile warning system began to wink red as well, and Imp barely relayed the data before he, too, started to squeal.
‘Shut up!’ she told him. ‘Show me the missile on my screen!’
Imp still warbled worriedly, but at least he didn’t shriek any more, and he did lock in the missile for her. Samica switched over to lasers and targeted the missile, which was not difficult, as it was programmed to take a direct course towards her. When she was about to fire, another yellow light flashed on her console as another bomber tried to target her, and for an instant, she simply reacted instead of thinking. She broke out sharply by reflex, shook the lock, but also lost the laser lock she’d had on the missile racing towards her. Any thoughts she might have entertained about attempting another laser lock on the missile were immediately interrupted by a new wail from Imp. The missile was already too close to be targeted successfully.
Cursing herself, she broke to starboard sharply, avoiding the missile by no more than twenty metres. It couldn’t mimic her manoeuvre quickly enough and was thrown off course for the time being, but Samica kept flying in as tight circles as her ship could perform, as the missile was going to come back sooner or later.
‘Stand by, Nine,’ Samica heard Colonel Salm’s voice over comm. ‘I’m coming around to help you.’
‘I can hold her, sir,’ she answered, seeing that there were still nine bombers flying towards the Y-wings. ‘Those bombers need to be taken care of.’
There was the slightest of pauses from Salm, then the colonel said, ‘All right, Nine.’
Samica exhaled sharply as she saw that the missile was only a hundred metres behind her, and she found it on her rear sensor screen, a yellow dot trying to keep up with her random manoeuvres. She flew another tight arc, then tore the yoke around sharply to bring her Y-wing into the direction of the missile, although not directly yet, watching the distance reaching seventy metres, then changed the direction ever so slightly, racing towards it and past it. The missile shot past her viewport, thrown completely off course, and finally did Samica the favour of detonating in empty space.
Alden whistled. ‘Fancy flying, Nine.’
‘Thanks, Twelve,’ she said, a little out of breath, when Salm interrupted them, disapproval in his voice. ‘If you’ve finished playing hero, Nine, we could use you here.’
Samica bit her lip as she felt her face heat, and Alden started to defend her, ‘Nine’s torp launcher . . .’
‘On me, Nine, Twelve,’ Salm cut him off, and Alden—and Samica—knew better than to press the issue in a situation like this.
Now she saw the new threat that had come up when they had been distracted by the bombers. Two Strike-class cruisers had pulled away from the main battle line and were coming down towards the moon, with no Alliance vessel to stop them. Nothing the Rebels had could have done a lot against the medium cruisers, apart perhaps from the Assault Frigate, whose firepower could not be spared, and since everyone knew that the base had been lost long before the battle had started, it didn’t really make that much of a difference.
Samica saw the bombers that had survived the Y-wings’ assault fly on towards the corvette, which was now attempting to outrun them, but at the same time, the Strike cruisers’ hangars opened, and two more bomber squadrons were launched, these on course towards the base, and her heart sank.
‘We’re going in for another pass,’ Salm commanded, but in that instant, they heard a transmission from the moon below over Alliance frequency. It was crackling with static, but they could all hear General Dodonna’s voice.
‘Blue Squadron, get clear of those bombers,’ the general said. ‘Repeat, all Alliance ships, get clear of those bomber squadrons.’
Salm hesitated for several seconds, then his voice came in. ‘You’ve heard it, people. Get clear.’ His voice was sombre.
Samica had heard the brief exchange between Caller, Valour, and Salm before, so she knew that Dodonna had ordered the Rebels to leave without him, and she wondered what it was he had in mind. She could only hope that the Empire hadn't unscrambled their frequency yet.
‘Back to Valour,’ Salm ordered them, and they flew an arc to intercept the bombers on their course. The distance was less than three klicks now, and Samica decided not to repeat the manoeuvre they’d flown earlier but to fire at the Imperial bombers with lasers.
The two bomber squadrons that had just been launched from the Strike-class cruisers carried on towards the moon, and Samica saw that they dropped proton bombs, not torpedoes or missiles. Whatever Dodonna had up his sleeve, he’d better play it fast, or he would never get out.
When the bombers came closer to the Massassi temple that had acted as headquarters for the Rebels for half a year, the forest around and south of it already smoking and scorched, there was a massive explosion from the base, which could not have come from the detonation of a single proton bomb, or even half a dozen of them. It came from the base, and it took out half the bombers instantly, crippling the rest so badly most of them went down in spins, crashing somewhere in the jungle. Tons of debris rained down on the temple, and incredibly, most of the ancient structures still withstood the destruction of seconds, but huge parts of other temples around them were destroyed and erupted into flames. Samica felt her eyes burn as she realised General Dodonna had never planned on getting out of the base in time. All he’d had in mind was crippling the Imperial forces so that many more of his people might make it, and he’d succeeded.
The seven remaining bombers attacking Valour had been completely surprised by the explosion below, and when Samica felt the shockwave from the concussion charges the general had set off against her shields, that meant they could feel it against their hulls. Instantly, she saw that the bombers broke off their runs, no doubt because their sensors were fried or at least experiencing malfunctions, and three of the Imperial craft died in a hail of torpedoes from the Blue Squadron Y-wings, the other four turning to try another approach, and Salm’s and Cromarty’s flight groups—or what was left of them—turned to give pursuit.
‘Nine,’ the colonel said over comm. ‘Take Twelve and help the others reach the escape corridor.’
‘Acknowledged, sir,’ she answered, and flew back towards the main battle. It would take her several minutes to reach it, so she took the time to call up all the ships to see their status.
What she saw was not good, but could have been worse. The Empire had lost three more ships—a Strike cruiser blocking the escape path for the Rebels, and two Carrack-class cruisers—but the price the Alliance had had to pay was high. The second Nebulon-B frigate had been destroyed as well, the same as another corvette and one of the Carrack-class cruisers, so all the Alliance had left there were three corvettes, one cruiser, eight X-wings, and the ancient Assault Frigate. The gunships had also been reduced to a mere handful, but at least they had succeeded in assisting the X-wings with the Imperial starfighters. Of their original twenty-odd transports, there were only three left here, and though Samica had read reports about a lot entering hyperspace, she knew that at least eight of them had been destroyed.
The huge Assault Frigate was also heavily damaged, but Samica knew from simulations what kind of damage these ships could sustain if they had to, and it must have been due to Patience’s presence that the Rebels had succeeded in destroying even a few Imperial ships of the line. There were a dozen smaller Imperial vessels before the Imperial Star Destroyer, which was still hanging back, but there was really no need for it to intervene. From a safe distance, it could securely launch its starfighters, although Samica thought there had to be an end to TIE fighters soon, if her reckoning was correct.
Still, Invincible was not so far away she couldn’t block the corridor if things got bad, and there still were the three Strike cruisers, which also hung back, delivering a shot from their laser batteries every now and then when the line of fire was clear. Patience did not have the firepower to stop them, and High Command would try to save her at all costs, as the Alliance had very few of the modified Dreadnaughts, so she kept behind the picket line of corvettes and gunboats also. At least, if she wasn’t badly damaged, she would be able to run after the battle. Dreadnaughts, the original ships, were very sluggish, but the Alliance version had been stripped of everything that was deemed superfluous, which made the Assault Frigate as fast as a corvette. If only the remaining Rebel ships could survive the pounding they took from the Imperials for long enough to escape into hyperspace.
Samica had never wished so desperately for a Star Destroyer or two in the Allied Navy.
Admiral Cervax was groping for the right words to explain the disaster by the Rebel base. ‘My Lord, I could not possibly have known that the Rebels had concussion charges down at the base—certainly you can’t make me responsible for Intransigence and Inexorable’s captains not sending scouting ships ahead—’
‘A scouting run is not carried out before a bombing run on a known enemy base unless the CO orders one, Admiral.’ The finality in Vader’s voice made Cervax’s blood freeze. ‘And your attempt to clear yourself of guilt is pitiful. You will not fail me again, Admiral Cervax.’
‘No,’ Cervax gasped, choking, ‘my Lord, please—I truly won’t fail you again—’
He wouldn’t; as he collapsed, gagging, the Dark Lord turned around to the only man on the bridge who did not try to let himself be swallowed by the ground.
‘Admiral Ozzel, you’re responsible for this operation coming out successfully.’
Ozzel looked at the Dark Lord uneasily. The Rebels were on their best way to escape, and he didn’t have any further bombers with which to stop their Carrack cruisers, since he had only one vessel left that was fast enough to remain even with the fleeing Rebels, which was his own cruiser. Then he suddenly had an idea that might save his neck. ‘My Lord, with all due respect, there must have been somebody on the base to set off those charges. They went off too precisely to be triggered by timers. I suggest we don’t try destroying the Rebel base, but capturing Rebels who remained behind. Maybe there are some among them who know where they are going.’
Darth Vader’s masked stare bored through the field-promoted Admiral for several seconds, then he nodded slowly. ‘Very well, Admiral. Make the necessary arrangements. But I warn you; I do not tolerate failure.’
‘I won’t fail you, my Lord,’ Admiral Ozzel assured him.
Josh Caller almost gasped with relief when two new Y-wings appeared behind him, or rather, behind the TIE fighter that was chasing his shuttle, picking the fighter off his back.
‘Thanks,’ he said, slightly out of breath. ‘That was close.’
‘Always happy to oblige, Flight Officer,’ answered a voice he knew very well but had never heard in the cockpit of an Allied ship.
‘Thanks, Captain,’ he said again. ‘I hadn’t realised it was you.’
‘Blue Nine, at your service,’ Samica Trey answered, and he thought he could hear her quick grin from the tone of her voice. ‘We’ll get you back to the others.’
‘Nine, two eyeballs from seven-oh-four,’ her wingman said—or Alden, who was acting as her wingman, and the two Y-wings turned sharply to meet the newcomers. Caller took another look at the battle lines four klicks ahead of him. He doubted the Empire had reckoned with so few capital ships. They had clearly expected a larger force, composed of heavier ships like cruisers or at least frigates, or they would have brought fewer attack lines and more pursuit lines. That was the only thing that would save the Alliance today—if anything would save them at all—that the Imperial battle squadron had been prepared for a full-scale space battle, but not for a pursuit of fleeing picket ships. Maybe less would have been more in this case, but that was fine with him.
Samica felt her shields buck as a stray laser blast glanced them, and she quickly took a look around to see where it had come from. She and Alden had shot down the two TIE fighters that had tried to block their path towards the exit corridor, and the others were still engaged in the battle ahead.
Then another blast shot past her, and she realised that it had not been a stray one at all, but was aimed at her. It had come from the Imperial Nebulon-B frigate to port, and she saw that two of the ships were closing the distance to block the corridor. This made sense, she reflected bitterly, as the frigates were the only capital ships the Empire had that had starfighter scale cannons.
‘Calacium, get clear,’ she told Caller and saw the shuttle turn away from the escape vector, clear of the danger zone.
Apparently, the new tactical situation had been noted by the Alliance as well, and Samica saw Patience move in to intercept the frigates. Then, they heard the voice of Captain Lajaie, captain of the cruiser Temperance, who was in command of the Alliance fleet now that Jan Dodonna was gone.
‘All Alliance craft, Patience will clear us a corridor to escape. Omega signal. Repeat, Omega signal.’ Then the captain spoke again, this time over Blue Squadron frequency, ‘Blue Leader, this is Temperance. Your people will aid the X-wings clearing the escape route.’
‘Acknowledged, Captain,’ Salm said, who was only two klicks behind Samica now. ‘Blue Nine, Blue Twelve, target the frigate closest to you with torpedoes.’
Samica sighed. No use pretending. ‘Blue Leader, this is Nine. My torpedo launcher is damaged.’
‘I copy, Nine.’ Salm didn’t indicate that he’d known; maybe he hadn’t.
‘The same approach as last time, Nine?’ Alden asked dubiously.
Samica hesitated, but only for an instant. ‘Yes,’ she decided. ‘The frigate’s laser cannons don’t have much firepower. Even if I can’t evade them, I can take one or two hits if I must.’ Her shields were fully charged again, and apart from the secondary weapons systems, her ship was still intact.
‘Nine, I’m going in first this time,’ Alden offered. ‘That way, they’ll think I’m the threat and will fire at me rather than on you, and I can jink as much as I want.’
Samica had seen how good Alden was, so she nodded. ‘All right, Twelve,’ she said. ‘This is it!’
Alden dropped in in front of her, and she switched over to torps once again, waiting for the HUD to turn red. This time, their ploy worked; the frigate concentrated its fire on Alden, while she kept astern of his Y-wing, and he evaded the frigate’s fire effortlessly. Escort frigates were designed for use against starfighters, but not against trained pilots, as they had originally been meant to be used against pirates. Accordingly, their laser cannons were not powerful enough to punch through a Y-wing’s hull, and they were not good enough to track a jinking starfighter. One blast hit Samica’s ship, but she had been prepared for it, and even though it reduced her shields to sixty percent, that was a small price to pay for the excellent missile lock she got in return.
Imp transmitted the data to Alden, and her wingman fired two proton torpedoes at the frigate, both of which hit their mark. Six of the remaining X-wings were joining their efforts and attacking the other Imperial frigate, and the Assault Frigate Patience was quickly gaining on the slower escort frigates, so Samica hoped they would soon be able to get away from here. She was about to turn around for another pass when something hit her Y-wing from behind, and she broke out instinctively before she looked at her rear screen. Imp warbled something.
‘I can see that we’ve been hit, but by what?’
Imp chirruped a reply, and for an answer, she saw the ship that had attacked her on her tactical. Her blood ran cold as she recognised it as one of the new TIE interceptors.
‘Where’d he come from?’ she gasped, reading that the ship’s designation was Gamma Five, which her astromech had reported killed earlier in the battle. From the way it looked, it had only been disabled—or maybe the pilot had been unconscious—and was back now. Samica could see that his ship was damaged already, but that didn’t seem to impair his speed or his weapons systems. Her own shields were almost gone, and she knew she was not going to survive another hit like the last one.
‘Twelve, where are you?’ she asked urgently as she scanned around for her wingman.
‘On my way, Nine,’ Alden answered. ‘Sithspit, that thing’s fast!’
‘Never said anything else,’ she replied between clenched teeth, trying to fly a tight arc to shake the interceptor off, but it was absolutely no use. The Imperial ship copied her manoeuvre with almost ridiculous ease, almost languidly attaining another good firing position.
‘This is Blue Nine, I can’t shake him,’ Samica shouted, hoping there was any fighter near and free to help her.
‘Hang on, Nine,’ Shirk Rowl’s voice came back. ‘I’ll be with you in a minute.’
A minute. If she survived that minute, she knew she would one day remember it as an eternity.
The interceptor fired, and she broke out at the very last instant, four laser beams splaying out from the tips of his pointed wings, passing her Y-wing by two metres, reducing her shields to zero and causing several warning lamps on her display to wink madly.
‘Eight, where are you?’ she shouted.
‘Hang on,’ he told her, and Samica knew he was not going to be here in time to save her. This was it. She knew it with a clearness that surprised her. Still jinking for all she was worth, she expected any second to feel her fighter explode around her, when suddenly the green light on her console winked out, indicating that she’d shaken the lock—she had no idea how—and there was an explosion, but behind her, not around her. She craned her neck, expecting to see Rowl fly up behind her, but it was not the Shistavanen. Instead, she saw the characteristic threefold wings of a Lambda-class shuttle and heard Caller’s voice.
‘You’re clear, Nine,’ he said, and his voice reminded her of the simulator run a lifetime ago, when he’d also saved her life—probably the only instance she could think of when anybody had saved anyone’s life in a simulator run.
‘Good work, Thirteen,’ she said now, just as she had then.
‘Thank you, sir,’ he answered, and this time she was certain she could hear his grin through the comm.
Rhun stretched out a hand to steady himself on the bulkhead as Valour rocked once, hit by a laser blast from some Imperial ship outside. He had always hated situations like these, and getting into them more and more often did nothing to make it any better. He was on a ship he had never seen before, where he had no business whatsoever, nothing to make himself useful in any way, apart from keeping out of the way of people who had the means to make themselves useful. The evacuees from Yavin were crammed into the crew quarters of the corvette, and there was no viewport here to look out, nothing at all to see how it was going out there. They knew that General Dodonna had most likely been killed when he set off the charges that destroyed the two bomber squadrons, and everyone in the room was subdued.
Rhun stuffed his pack under the bench he’d been sitting on and got up, walking a few metres out onto the corridor.
‘Where’re you going?’ Ritchett Bania, another Intel code-slicer Rhun sometimes worked with, wanted to know.
‘Nowhere. I can’t go anywhere, can I?’ Rhun replied, stepping over legs and feet in order to get someplace less crowded.
In the corridor, he found Captain Candela, his superior officer for many years now. The small Intel captain eyed him with a look of understanding in his eyes. ‘If anyone gave me a computer and told me I had to calculate random sets of numbers to be used in all the casinos on Corellia in the next ten years, I’d do it,’ the captain stated. ‘Anything to be of use.’
Rhun grinned weakly. ‘If you need someone for the supplementary numbers, I’m your man, sir,’ he said.
Candela snorted. ‘What a nice put-up job that’d make,’ he said. ‘We could run off to Corellia and make a fortune.’
‘Probably not,’ Rhun answered a little sourly. ‘Unless we find Commander Willard and ask him to put me back in Intel.’
Candela cast the young agent a sidelong glance. ‘Well, Agent van Leuken, then I’ve got good news for you,’ he said. ‘Try to act surprised when you hear about it officially, please, but at our new base, you’ll be once again back in Intentions . . . and Ops, whatever’s needed more.’
Rhun grinned. ‘That is good news,’ he said, then sobered a little. ‘An Intel base?’ he asked.
Candela must have anticipated the question, for he smiled. ‘Not exclusively. There are more branches at the base, as far as I know . . . Equipment and StarCom, if I’m not mistaken.’
That instant, Rhun had to grasp around for support again, as did the captain, when the ship lurched once more. This time, however, the movement was accompanied by the short feeling of nausea Rhun always felt when entering hyperspace. He should have shouted with joy, but he was only tired, probably more tired than he would have been if he’d actually been working. At least as much, anyway.
‘Even better news,’ he said. ‘Shall we calculate those numbers, sir?’
‘Yeah,’ Candela replied, looking around. ‘Think we could get access to a computer?’
‘All right, this is it,’ Colonel Salm announced over comm, his voice hoarse. ‘Move out!’
Samica cast another glance back at the place where Patience had disintegrated a minute ago, taking with her the last Imperial Nebulon-B frigate the X- and Y-wings had not been able to take out. The remaining two gunships, two corvettes—among them Valour—the single surviving cruiser and ten starfighters followed. All the rest had been destroyed trying to keep the corridor clear, eight capital ships and their crews, eight gunships, and twenty-five starfighters. Two of the gunships and the third corvette had been destroyed during transition, as the Star Destroyer had once more fired its turbolaser batteries, not close enough to block the path, but close enough to hit the larger ships entering hyperspace.
Beside her, she saw Caller’s Lambda-class shuttle vanish, then Dave’s and Alden’s fighters, and knew Salm was waiting for her to get clear, so she pulled the lever and watched the stars turn into lines. She didn’t look back at Yavin. Maybe she would regret it later, but she felt too tired for nostalgia.
Admiral Ozzel awaited Lord Vader’s reaction with a faint spark of hope after his people had reported that they had made prisoners down at what was left of Yavin base—and none less than General Dodonna. The old man had been wounded in the destruction of the base, and it would be a while before he could be interrogated, but he was certain Vader had been pleased about this particular captive. The fact that it had been Ozzel’s orders that had made his capture possible made the admiral look towards the Dark Lord’s arrival with slightly more confidence.
Darth Vader had been down on the base to get a clear picture of what it had looked like down there, and, no doubt, to instil even more fear in any captive Rebels when they saw him there in person.
The bridge blast doors opened, and in strode the Dark Lord, accompanied by several officers, some of them Intel.
‘Yes, Lusankya, I think,’ Vader told one of the Intel officers, who bowed and retreated back through the blast doors, and Vader turned his attention on Ozzel. The admiral stood erect, becoming aware he was awaiting a sentence.
The Sith Lord was silent for at least a minute, in which Ozzel struggled to remain calm, then, finally, Vader said, ‘The base was surprisingly intact, apart from structural damage that could not have been prevented after the concussion charges that old fool set off. You have done well under the circumstances, Admiral. More than half of the enemy ships have been destroyed, and we have captured the military head of the Rebel Alliance.’
Ozzel breathed again.
‘Yet Skywalker has escaped me again,’ Vader continued, and the admiral caught his breath once more, but this time the Dark Lord did not look at him. When he finally turned to Ozzel once more, it was briskly. ‘Admiral, in order to hunt down those that have escaped me today, I will need a squadron of elite Imperial officers, their commands and their crews, and I will need an elite leader for that task force. I offer you the post as CO of Death Squadron.’
Ozzel knew that an offer made by Darth Vader was not an offer one could decline, and it would not be made again. So he inclined his head. ‘I would be honoured, my Lord,’ he replied, and hoped he would live to see the fruits of his labour.
Samica stifled a moan as she moved over in her bed, wondering vaguely why it hadn’t become light outside yet, as she was certain she must have slept through at least two or three day and night cycles. Every bone in her body ached, but she finally convinced herself she’d slept enough. Strange nobody had woken her.
She opened her eyes and blinked in confusion at the unfamiliar surroundings. The room was small, but instead of the moss-covered stone walls she’d woken up to for the past seven months, she saw only grey duracrete. There was one bed, a chair, a locker and a small table—not much difference there to Yavin 4—but now she dimly recalled arriving here last night (whenever last night had been), somehow finding her quarters and falling on the bed face-down without even undressing. Her chrono was trying to tell her she hadn’t slept for more than eleven hours, but she was disinclined to believe it. She had slept in the cockpit during the three-day jump here, but when she’d come here last night, she had been absolutely positive she would sleep for a week.
Samica sat up in bed, noting with annoyance she hadn’t even rid herself of her flight suit, and the various plastisteel parts of it were the reason why she felt so sore. She took off the harness and control panels, then looked around the room again. Only one door leading out, which meant the showers must be somewhere else.
Outside, there were few people about, most of them techs and troopers. She looked around and was glad to find that her room was almost directly opposite the showers and ’freshers. There was a plaque next to her door reading ‘Capt. S. Trey’ with Cromarty’s quarters adjacent to hers and Colonel Salm’s next to that. Further down the corridor, there were the other pilots’ quarters, and she hazily remembered passing a canteen on her way here, beyond the quarters, and she decided to pay a visit to that after she’d showered.
She hadn’t seen a lot of the base last night, but that had not just been due to the fact that it had been dark at their arrival. Sentinel Base had been constructed into a cavern system on a water world, and all that was visible of it from above were two peaks of underwater rock formations. Both of them housed hangars, one the starfighter hangar with facilities for a single squadron, the other a supply hangar for shuttles and freighters. The world did not have a name on the star charts other than a long number, and High Command had code-named it Dakar. The water was rich in heavy metals and had to be filtered before it could be used by humans or humanoids, but at least there was plenty of it.
After Samica had showered for a luxuriously long time—a hot bath would have been heaven, but never mind—she had a look into the canteen, which was nearly empty, and went to explore the base. She soon found that there was a main level, which she was on, and a lower level, most parts of which were restricted areas. This was basically an Intelligence base, with starfighter support, and she had no business in the areas that were exclusively Intel. In the non-restricted areas there was the sickbay, which even had a bacta tank.
Above the main level, under the support hangar, there was the command level, with command centre and briefing room, and she grinned as she saw the plaque reading ‘Cmdr. V. Willard’ at the CO’s office. There was another level under the lower one, which contained training facilities and a simulator room, along with a gym. There seemed to be only the single canteen for all personnel, which made sense, since most of the people here would be pilots—officers—or Intel agents, who ranked somewhere outside the food chain anyway.
Well, Sam—this is your new home, then. Not too bad as Rebel bases go, I suppose.
It was a week before the base was fully manned, and when it was, there were no more than 118 people working here. The commanding officer of Sentinel Base would be Commander Willard, with Lieutenant Colonel Salm in charge of the Y-wing squadron. Most of the command staff would arrive over several days, most of them by shuttle and transports, among them Rhun and Josh Caller. There would not be replacements for the pilots who had died at Yavin for some time, but at least, counting Caller and Lawal, who was still in sickbay, Blue Squadron was once more at eight pilots.
Six days after she had reached Dakar, the day of Rhun’s arrival, the two of them sat in the mess, together with Dave and Alden. The single canteen at Sentinel Base made it very easy for Samica to see Rhun regularly. They still had different schedules and different ideas of when it was day and when it was night, but at least they’d managed to let her breakfast coincide with his dinner.
The two flight officers were mostly discussing ways to welcome Caller when he came here, and Samica soon left them to it and turned her attention to Rhun, who cast a glance over at Dave and Alden. ‘If they want to make him unhappy, they won’t have to do anything, only let him eat here,’ he remarked to Samica. He, too, had already noticed that Caller had a healthy appetite.
Samica shrugged. ‘He’ll survive,’ she said. ‘We all do.’
‘Will he be a full member of the squadron now?’ Rhun asked.
‘I suppose so,’ Samica answered. ‘Salm can’t afford to pass him by, really, with only seven other pilots, and he’s proven that he’s on our side.’
‘At least on your side,’ Rhun said.
She frowned. ‘You still don’t like him, do you?’
Rhun spread his hands. ‘I don’t think he’s a spy, if that’s what you mean. And I don’t have to fly with him, so it doesn’t matter what I think.’
‘I trust him,’ she said defensively. There was a guffaw from Dave as Alden had apparently made a particularly funny suggestion.
‘And I think you can,’ Rhun said. ‘Sorry, Sam. I really didn’t mean to sound accusing.’
She looked down. ‘I think I’ve heard way too many accusations in the past few weeks,’ she murmured.
‘How do you get along with Colonel Salm?’ Rhun wanted to know.
Samica sighed. ‘He thought I was going to play hero back in that battle, but I only tried to make things easier for Alden when my torp launcher was damaged and I tried to get in the data for him. I got a missile on me, and he thought I was trying to show off how well I could shake one.’
‘Were you trying to play hero?’ Rhun asked.
Samica started to protest that she hadn’t, but then she stopped herself. ‘Not in that sense,’ she finally said. ‘Gordon Dowd had just died, and maybe I was trying to show that I was willing to take risks for others.’ Her voice was very low.
‘Hey, Sam,’ Rhun said softly, ‘nobody who knows you would ever think that you weren’t willing to do that. Just do me the favour and don’t let yourself be killed in some stupid action, okay?’
She smiled faintly. ‘Okay.’
Three days later, when two weeks had passed after the Second Battle of Yavin, all Blue Squadron pilots assembled in the briefing room. It was the first occasion that saw all pilots together; Lawal had been released from sickbay the previous day, and Caller had arrived two days earlier.
Colonel Salm debriefed them on the battle; Samica was relieved that he did not take the opportunity to point out mistakes in front of the others. She could tell that the colonel was proud of his squadron, which had lost only two pilots compared to the X-wings’ losses of fifty percent, and had completed its main objective, which had been to protect the corvette Valour. Later, there would be a funeral celebration for Bent Colding and Gordon Dowd. Pilots’ funerals almost never involved a coffin, as few pilots could be retrieved to be buried; either the coffins were empty, or the whole squadron flew a mourning formation, the leader firing two proton torpedoes into the direction of the system’s sun to mark a pilot’s passing.
Before that, however, it was the time for reorganisations. ‘There will be three new pilots next week,’ Salm announced, ‘and in the meantime, we welcome Flight Officer Josh Caller to our squadron as a full member.’ Heads turned to the tall dark-haired pilot, and those sitting near him slapped his back or shook his hand. ‘Officer Caller, you will be Blue Ten and serve as Captain Trey’s wingman.’
Samica gave Caller a broad smile, which he returned. She had half-hoped that Caller would be assigned to her, but she had also feared that Salm wouldn’t want two pilots he didn’t fully trust in one element. Well, miracles never ceased.
‘Flight Officers Dave Haaland and Shirk Rowl, come forward, please.’
Dave rose, with an uncertain grin on his lips, and came to the front. The Shistavanen also stood and went to the colonel.
‘Officer Haaland, you kept three TIE interceptors occupied when your wingman was in danger. You could not prevent Officer Colding from being shot down by a fourth, but you are not to blame for his death, as you did more than was your due.
‘Officer Shirk Rowl, despite your ship being targeted by two Nebulon-B frigates, you chose to remain on target to fire two salvos of proton torpedoes into one of them, thereby destroying it, thus clearing a path for the Alliance ships. That way, you have earned the right to paint a Nebulon-B frigate kill marker on your fighter. I’m glad to say that sometimes, fortune favours the brave.’
There were several shouts and cheers from the assembled pilots, and a lot of applauding.
Salm continued. ‘For your bravery in battle, I award you both the Mantooine Medallion. Congratulations, Officer Rowl.’
Shirk Rowl beamed with pride as the colonel awarded him the decoration, then the small man moved on to Dave. ‘Congratulations, Officer Haaland.’
Dave grinned now, but not as broadly as he should have. Samica could see that he would have preferred it if Bent had been alive and he hadn’t got a medal at all.
The other pilots applauded, and Dave and Rowl went back to their seats. Then the colonel said, ‘Brevet Captain Samica Trey, please stand.’
Slightly taken aback, she stood, wondering if he’d changed his opinion on her playing hero, and he surprised her by a quick quirk of a smile around his mouth.
‘Captain Trey, I’m happy to inform you that your captaincy is now permanent. Congratulations, Captain.’
Samica realised that Alden and Caller, who were sitting next to her, had got up to shake her hands enthusiastically, and the other pilots were applauding, all of them, even Rowl. She smiled as she softly said, ‘Thank you, sir.’ This was better and more lasting than a medal, she thought, as it was poof that Colonel Salm had put aside his suspicions and respected her. He didn’t have to like her, but the promotion was the best show of respect he could have given her. She suddenly caught Alden’s huge grin and supposed that the young man had had something to do with this. Not ultimately—Lieutenant Colonel Salm was not the type of superior officer who promoted people on a whim or just on a wingman’s recommendation, even if it was just the confirmation of a promotion, really—but he probably had given the colonel a new perspective on what he’d disdainfully called ‘playing hero’ two weeks ago.
She wasn’t quite sure whatever had happened to the universe in the last few weeks, but it suddenly looked very bright again.
As most of you will be aware, it’s beastly difficult to bring the different sources of the Star Wars universe into accordance. I’ve never been very happy with the idea that the Empire took so long to erase Yavin base, but there were several other facts to support this I couldn’t have ignored. General Dodonna was left behind after the evacuation, but before that, he had to have laid the fundament for the A-wing starfighter with Walex Blissex. This is bound to take some time, so I decided to ignore the inner voice telling me any sane Rebel would leave Yavin the day after the destruction of the Death Star. (What seemed absolutely ludicrous to me was the idea that the Rebels stayed on Yavin until just before the battle of Hoth). Well, the Empire was rather devastated—morally, so I guess it can be argued that the Rebellion really took some time preparing the evacuation. And having the Empire jump on the Rebels just when they’re nearly finished is of course a very nice touch, dramatically.
I’m afraid I never read the comic in which Dodonna stays behind, only summaries of it in various encyclopaedias. If it diverges greatly from the canon, sorry, but I don’t really see the Marvel Comics as particularly canonical anyway . . .
A resistance group called the White Rose really existed. In 1943, a handful of students and one professor of the University of Munich decided to put up peaceful resistance against the Nazi regime. Among these were Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, Christel Probst and Alexander (Alex) Schmorell, as well as Kurt Huber, professor for philosophy. They spread leaflets which appealed to the population to resist as well, to eventually overthrow Hitler and inform those who were still willing to look away from what became gradually known about the atrocities committed by the Nazis. Several passages from Lana and Franco’s leaflet are taken from the White Rose’s last pamphlet from 18 February, 1943. When Hans and Sophie spread that leaflet at the University, they were both arrested and, together with several other members of the White Rose, died on the guillotine four days later. Hans was twenty-four, Sophie only twenty-one.
Sometimes, especially when I devise another role-playing adventure, and come up with something particularly despicable for the Empire to do, I find myself thinking, Come on, Jenny, keep it believable. Nobody could be that cruel for no apparent reason. Then, when I see another documentary film about the Nazis, I find again that people actually can.
For more information on the White Rose, visit
http://bildung.freepage.de/rsrv/ (Site in German)
http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Holocaust/rose.html (Site in English)