Star Wars: Yavin

1

 

The huge red sphere of the gas giant Yavin greeted ten snubfighters dropping out of hyperspace in the Yavin system, some of them looking as if they were going to come apart every moment. Five X-wings and five Y-wings formed up in something like a formation, although there was hardly one wing pair still left intact, steering towards one of the planet’s moons in what might have reminded a casual observer of a funeral procession, if there had been any casual observers.

And Samica was glad there weren’t. They were five minutes’ real space flight from the Rebel base on the fourth moon of Yavin, and she’d half feared the Empire had tracked them here, even if Dutch had taken all possible precautions. They had made a micro-jump out from the base at Suolriep to another part of the system, where Tiree had been forced to leave his Y-wing behind. The ship had somehow sustained the micro-jump and even the re-entry into real space, but after that, it would have been suicide to trust in it making the jump to Yavin. Dutch had taken his wingman into his Y-wing, which was a two-man fighter, before continuing here.

The jump had taken twenty-two hours, and Samica had slept during most of it. R5, her R2 unit, hadn’t made any suggestions about playing another match of Quadrant; if she hadn’t known he was only a droid, she’d have sworn he could feel her exhaustion and emptiness after the terrible twenty minutes before their escape to hyperspace like a human being. But then, she suspected he could just have looked at the losses that battle had resulted in and been able to generate a droid’s equivalent of emptiness. Eight pilots dead, three starfighters so badly damaged that they wouldn’t be flying for quite a while, one more Y-wing lost, and above all, the loss of the command ship Liberty, if not of her crew.

Or so Samica hoped. She hadn’t allowed herself to think about Rhun, but had simply told herself he’d got out of Liberty before they’d had to abandon the cruiser. Likewise, she’d hoped Pops had safely reached Yavin when his badly damaged Y-wing had left the battle almost before it had begun.

Samica had never fought in an all-out battle like this one where there had been so much at stake. She’d fought smugglers over Garon II, but that had not been the same. She had absolutely no idea how many enemy ships she’d shot down during those twenty minutes, but she didn’t really care. During the battle, she had not even wasted any thought on the fact that she hadn’t seen any combat to write home about so far, she’d just done what she’d been trained to do for two and a half standard years: kill the enemy. There had been moments when she’d suddenly realised this was real, this was not a simulator run, and if she got killed, there would be no canopy popping open over her and no commander to tell her how stupid she’d been. Those realisations had not lasted long enough to unnerve her, however; she’d been so absorbed that there hadn’t been any place for fear.

It was not until now, almost a standard day after the battle, that she was able to reflect on anything that had happened yesterday. Perry’s and Plancal’s deaths hurt, even more so because she felt responsible for both of them to some degree—Perry because she should have told Commander Willard or Dutch about the existence of Skiprays, but her neglect had meant none of them had been prepared for the blast boats; and Plancal had been shot down while he was acting as her wing. She’d known his ship had been damaged, and she could have ordered him to retreat.

Another part of her knew that she probably could not have prevented the pilots’ deaths, that Plancal had not told her how badly damaged his fighter had been, and Perry might not have made it against the Skipray even if he’d known what he was facing. Dutch would probably not hold her responsible for either of them, but she supposed he would have quite a few questions about the Skiprays—as would Commander Willard. The thought of another interview with the commander left her with a queasy feeling to her stomach—not because she was afraid of any consequences such an interview might have, but because she was still fighting for his trust as well as his respect, and yesterday hadn’t done much for either of those, she guessed.

They were flying over the dense jungle that was Yavin 4, and Samica saw that it was night on the side of the moon where the Rebel base was located. Several areas of the tree-covered continent were lost in fog, or maybe rain, she wasn’t sure which.

‘This is Yavin base,’ she suddenly heard a voice over her comm. ‘Incoming ships, please transmit your code.’

‘This is Gold Leader,’ Dutch replied, tiredly. ‘Transmitting code.’

There was a pause, then the ground control came back in. ‘Is Blue Leader not with you?’

‘Blue Leader’s not coming,’ Dutch answered. ‘But I’m sure we can settle that after we’ve had some caf.’

‘Sure, Gold Leader. You’ve got landing clearance in the main hangar.’

‘Thanks, control.’ Dutch steered his Y-wing into one of the huge stone buildings, one of which was large enough to house a hangar for three starfighter squadrons, and the remnants of his own squadron followed him, after them the X-wings.

Samica sighed with relief when she saw three snubfighters standing there already, two Y- and one X-wing, one of which she recognised as Pops’. She set her ship down next to Jay’s, then opened the canopy. The hangar was lit by glow panels along the ceilings and walls, keeping out the darkness, but not the smell of a rainy tropical night. The air was even more oppressive than it had been the last time she’d been on the moon, only that it smelled different. The lights in the hangar were attracting all sorts of insects, some of them as large as her hand, all fluttering wings as they threw themselves against the glow panels.

Samica took off her helmet and ran a hand through sweat-drenched brown hair. She took a few seconds before she felt up to tackling the task of getting down the ladder, which, she soon found, had been a good idea; her knees threatened to buck as soon as she climbed to the floor.

Pops was standing at Dutch’s ship, slapping the commander’s back, but without too much enthusiasm. Samica heard a tootle behind her and saw R5 wheeling towards her, looking inexplicably awake. She took the time to pat his domed head and gave him a fleeting smile. ‘Good work up there, ’Five,’ she said, and he whistled happily.

‘Now look who’s developing a soft spot for droids,’ she heard someone chuckle, and turned to Pops, who’d come over after he’d welcomed Dutch.

‘I never said I wouldn’t,’ she replied.

‘Not expressly, no.’ The old pilot squeezed her shoulder, and she winced. She’d almost forgotten about the burns on her arm, and Pops threw her a searching look. ‘D’you need a medic?’ he asked.

‘It can wait,’ she answered. ‘Just a few second-degree burns or something. What I could use now is a shower and something to eat. In that order. The capital ships aren’t here yet, are they?’

‘No, Redemption and Defiance won’t be here for another standard day. They’re not going to stay anyway, just shuttle down the personnel that are staying on Yavin. If I heard correctly, Commander Willard will join us here.’

‘How long have you been here?’

‘Three hours; unlike you, I came here directly. I heard you took the long way round.’

‘You don’t know anything about the crew on Liberty, do you?’ Samica asked, and he shook his head.

‘No. I know that she had to be left behind and they tried to get the crew out, but I don’t know if they got everyone. But don’t worry, Sam; they usually do.’

She nodded, not caring if he knew the reason for her concern. She was almost certain he did; he’d seen her and Rhun together often enough, and he seemed to be one of those people who always felt what was going on inside you. Apart from that, from what she’d been able to gather during her time with the Rebellion, there were no restrictions on relationships between personnel in the Alliance, and so far, nobody had taken exception to her seeing a non-commissioned Intel agent.

Pops nodded towards the other pilots, who were following Dutch out of the hangar. ‘Well, come on, then,’ he said encouragingly. ‘You’re lucky, Sam. There’s separate refreshing rooms in the pilots’ wing, and it looks like you’ve got the ladies all to yourself.’


***

Samica came to the canteen for a bite to eat before going to sleep two hours later, after a shower and a visit to sick bay. This synthflesh allergy was turning out to be very annoying, she decided—under normal circumstances, a few second-degree burns wouldn’t have taken more than a day or so to heal, but as it was it looked as if she’d be forced to let her arm heal naturally.

The temple—called Massassi temple for some reason Samica hadn’t been able to find out—was huge, with more stairs and halls and rooms than she could hope to sort out anytime soon. She suspected she’d have to start finding her way around the more important places first of all, and the canteen seemed to be a good place to start, but she didn’t plan to stay for long. Even though she’d slept in the cockpit during the hyper jump, such naps didn’t do much to render you awake afterwards.

There were no pilots in the canteen except Dutch, who sat alone at a table in the large stone room, with a steaming cup before him. Samica got some food from a food processor, which looked out of place in the ancient stone temple, and joined the commander. The brew in his cup looked as if you could have stuck your spoon in and it would have remained standing.

Dutch nodded to her in greeting when she sat down, and she indicated his caf.

‘You know, Chief, my mother always used to have a good home remedy against tiredness. It’s even better than caf.’

He raised his head and watched her through dark-circled eyes. ‘And what might that be?’ he asked.

‘It’s called s-l-e-e-p. Me mum swears by it.’

He blinked, then got the joke and snorted dutifully.

‘I’m serious, Chief.’

He sat back from the table, stretching, tendons popping. ‘Yeah, I guess you’re right.’ He glowered at her from under dark eyebrows. ‘Still, that’s not a tone you should use with your commanding officer.’

‘Sorry, Chief. Just worrying.’

He took a sip from the caf and said, ‘Anyway, Sam, I was quite impressed with you up there.’ He motioned towards the ceiling, as if the battlefield hadn’t been light years away from Yavin. ‘Even if you gave me quite the headache when you told me you’d known about those Skiprays.’

‘I know.’ Samica looked down at her hands. ‘Perry could still be alive if I had—’

‘Stop it.’ Dutch’s voice was sharper than she’d ever heard it, and she looked up, eyes wide.

Dutch leaned forward. ‘Sam, listen. You’ve made a mistake, and you and I both know this is something I’ll have to report to Commander Willard. But you’re not perfect, Sam. Nobody is, and nobody can expect you to be. Yes, you should have remembered it, and yes, you should have told someone, and yes, Perry’s dead. Yes, he might still be alive if he’d known about Skiprays. And maybe he wouldn’t. You can’t change it, Sam. You can do your best to prevent it from happening again, and I’m pretty sure you will, but you can’t turn back the time. Don’t let it get at you. It’s war, Sam. People die. Stars know I don’t want them to, and I’m doing all I can to keep my people alive, but if I accused myself for every pilot who died under my command, I could just as well hang myself.’ He stopped, drew a hand over his face, and sighed. ‘Sorry,’ he murmured, reaching out to pat her arm when he saw her staring at him. ‘Didn’t mean to distress you. You probably never heard such words from an Imp commander, did you?’

She could only shake her head, dumbstruck.

‘Sorry,’ he said again. ‘But these three dots’—he indicated his rank insignia—‘don’t mean I’m something like a god. What I’m trying to tell you is that you’ll make mistakes, and bad ones, too, and you mustn’t let them keep you from your duty. If you go into a stupor every time you make one, that won’t help anyone.’

‘Why are you telling me this?’ she asked softly.

He took some time before answering. ‘Because I suspect strongly that if you keep performing like you did back in Suolriep, StarCom’s going to dump a helluva lot responsibility on you. You’ve got leadership abilities, Sam, and you’re a good pilot. Those’re the qualities that’ll end you up in a command position pretty soon. And if you don’t start coming to terms with the fact that you’ll lose people, and lose some friends too, and that you’ll have to fall on your feet again, you won’t make in the biz for very long.’ Dutch rubbed his face. ‘Enough rambling. I think I’ll try that remedy of your mother’s. And I guess you should too.’

Sam nodded, and watched him leave the canteen, wondering if his ‘rambling’ had been directed at her . . . or at himself.


***

Rhun opened his eyes when there was a tremor running through Defiance that told him they were leaving hyperspace.

He’d slept on blankets in the corridor, as well as most of the other Rebels who had been rescued from Liberty. The frigate was designed for about a thousand crewmembers; with the refugees, that number had doubled, and Rhun was glad that he’d be able to leave this anthill in a few hours. He’d be staying on Yavin, along with Commander Willard and Captain Candela and his lot, as well as several hundred others, Intelligence and Army personnel for the most part. He knew that the base commander was General Jan Dodonna, something of a legend of wartime stories that went back to the Clone Wars. Squadrons Gold and Blue would also be staying on the jungle moon, but Rhun supposed that, after the battle in Suolriep sector, High Command would have to detach another squadron to Yavin.

He had seen the tentative list of those who’d died in that attack – several people on the cruiser who had been unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and eight pilots, especially the X-wing pilots, who’d taken the brunt of the assault when they battled the enemy TIE fighters. Rhun had been relieved to find Gold Seven was not among the dead; as far as Defiance’s sensors had been able to tell, she’d made hyperspace.

He got up and stretched, then folded his blankets and put them on a pile in the corner. They were not really his blankets, of course – what little he’d possessed was now in the hands of the Imps. There hadn’t been much he’d been able to salvage in the past few years, after all, he’d been cooped up in Rebel ships and on Rebel bases most of the time, places not noted for the possibility to go shopping anywhere near, but the loss of his sound slugs hurt. He’d gathered a few recordings of Deeply Religious concerts and one Red Shift Limit album, and it hurt even more because the Imps were not going to keep them anyway, since both bands were indexed and the possession of their albums carried penalties in most Imperial communities.

Rhun had finished clearing up his portion of the floor when someone tapped his shoulder, and he turned to see Cora standing next to him.

‘Thought I’d say goodbye . . . and good luck,’ she said.

‘You’re not coming with us?’ he asked.

She shook her head. ‘As soon as we’ve dropped you ground dogs, we’re out of here. There won’t be many ops from this base, or so I’m told. Mandy and I are bound for the action.’

Rhun smiled. ‘Yeah, right, I can imagine . . . especially in Mandy’s case. It’s hard to imagine her chatting up the birds and bugs after she’s through with all the male personnel on the base.’

Mandy had come up during their exchange. ‘Careful, Rhun,’ she said. ‘I heard that.’

‘You were meant to.’ He extended his hand to her, grinning. ‘Good luck . . . and good hunting.’

‘Thanks, and you.’

Rhun felt himself blush. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Mandy winked. ‘I think you know. Just keep up that innocent look with those puppy eyes of yours, and she’ll go for it. Just don’t you think you can fool me—sly one.’

Rhun turned to Cora. ‘What’s she talkin’ about?’

Cora grinned and squeezed his arm. ‘We must be going.’

He saw them disappear down the corridor, and shook his head. Mandy liked playing the dumb blonde, primarily because nobody would ever suspect a dumb blonde of being an Intelligence agent, but he knew that there was a very sharp mind working underneath all those curls.

He went to the mess to get something to eat before going down to the base, then started towards his quarters to pack his stuff until he remembered there was no stuff to pack—and no quarters around here either. He only hoped he’d get his hands on some new sound slugs soon.


***

Rhun had been prepared for warm, sticky air, but he hadn’t realised it would be quite this bad. The shuttle had set down in the large main hangar in the great Massassi temple, and even if it was evening now, the sun shining through the foliage outside all day had warmed the hangar as well. Rhun wondered how they kept all the equipment dry in this environment. He could see that moss and mould had been scraped off most of the walls, but work was obviously still in progress, and the plants that had taken over the ancient Massassi structures centuries or even millennia ago seemed very reluctant to yield their dominion to the Rebels, growing back slowly, but persistently.

Rhun had grown up on Garon II, a world with a moderate to cool climate and rather little rain, resulting in many prairies and some patches of woodland in more rainy areas in the mountainous ranges, and he felt distinctly uncomfortable in this humid climate. He was relieved to find that it was better in the temple itself, slightly cooler and less humid. The further he went from the hangar, the more the walls were overgrown with moss; apparently, the Rebel scouts who had prepared the temple for use as a base had concentrated on cleaning away any plants from those parts of the building which were meant to house technical equipment and had left the others alone. Rhun thought this was fitting—despite the fact that the place was now full of people, he felt as if he was disturbing the peace of a place that had lain in silence for an eternity. Nobody knew why the Massassi, who had once built and lived in these structures, had disappeared, but Rhun could almost feel their presence, watching. Not that he was going to share these thoughts with anyone else. He’d long since discovered that people looked at him very strangely when he tried to tell them things like these.

He found the mess after some time, and saw that it was rather full; apparently, most of the people who’d arrived aboard Defiance had had the same idea as he: eating, catching up on some stories, and see who had made it. Rhun steered towards a speck of orange in one corner, where several pilots sat. He recognised the commander, Dutch, as well as Pops, Teddie and Jay, and Dutch’s wingman, Tiree.

One didn’t sit, however—Teddie was standing on a table, bending over, arms flailing at his sides, and most of the others were grinning or laughing. Then Rhun saw Samica, turned halfway away from the table, her expression between embarrassment and anger.

Then she saw him, and her face lit up at once. She was on her feet immediately, coming over to greet him, and against his first impulse to hug her, Rhun settled for clapping her on the shoulder when he saw that her right arm was bandaged.

She smiled at him, eyes shining. ‘It’s good to see you,’ she said softly.

‘You, too.’ He glanced at her arm. ‘Are you all right?’

She chuckled. ‘I promised I’d hit you the next time you said that, remember?’

‘Okay . . . so, how’s your arm?’

‘I’m all right.’ She grinned, then grimaced with a look back at Teddie. ‘Apart from those idiots, that is.’

‘Why? What’s he doing up there anyway?’

‘Kindly demonstrating the Emperor trying to bite his own behind.’

Rhun scratched his head. ‘What for?’

She sighed. ‘For letting me go and join the Rebels.’

‘Agent van Leuken!’ Teddie called through his legs, then straightened and jumped down from the table. ‘Great to have you back. Sam was so stressed out when Liberty got hit that she took it out on the TIE fighters. Shot down six of them, and two Skiprays! Whew!’

Samica had whirled to stare at him. ‘What did you just say?’

Teddie shrugged. ‘You made ace in your first combat mission. Nearly double ace, actually. I don’t know if the Skiprays count double, I’ll have to check that . . .’

Her voice became icy. ‘And how did you get at the number of my kills?’

Teddie frowned, finally beginning to suspect that she was furious. ‘I asked that imp of yours. Your astromech, I mean. Why, was it anything I said?’

‘Teddie,’ Dutch cut in, sharply. ‘Leave her alone.’

Samica hadn’t listened to the commander. ‘And why precisely has my imp told you about my kills in the first place?’

Teddie was looking around among the others for help, then said, ‘I don’t know—I asked him, and he told me. Was there anything wrong with that?’

Jay spoke up now. ‘Sam, he’s right. Why would you keep your kills secret? They’ll go on your ship anyway. And I’ve certainly never heard about someone who scraped together eight kills on his first mission . . . or on her first mission.’

She looked at them in disgust. ‘I don’t want them to go on my ship.’ She watched their expressions, waiting for reactions, and when no one answered, she repeated, ‘None of them.’ Then she went out.

Rhun followed her from the mess, and to his relief, she waited in the corridor for him to catch up.

‘I don’t understand you,’ he said. ‘You’re a Rebel now, and that’s the way the Rebels do it.’

‘Would you want to paint a little stormtrooper on your blaster every time you shoot one with it?’ she asked.

‘That’s something completely different, Samica. It’s a tradition—’

‘It’s exactly the same. It’s one of the things I found most disgusting in the Empire, and I’m not going to do it here. I don’t want to be a little scratch on a TIE fighter entry hatch one day. Do you?’

‘Whatever you or I want, it’s not going to change age-old fighter pilot traditions,’ Rhun said softly.

‘So it’s not going to. But I decide if I want to play this macabre little game, and I decide that I don’t. If they think I’m crazy, that’s fine, but I’m not going to be proud of killing. Proud of saving a cruiser, saving a wingman, even if I have to kill for it, yes. But not of the killing itself.’

Yes, and that’s one of the more important reasons why I think I love you, Rhun thought, but he didn’t say it aloud. They’d reached the entrance hall of the great temple, and Rhun could feel the cooling night air outside. Night on Yavin 4 was not necessarily dark; even after sundown, the red gas giant remained in the sky in most nights, lending a ruddy glow to the jungle and the temples. The jungle sounds had quieted, and all that could be heard was the slow, steady drizzle of rain dropping through the leaves.

Samica sat down against the wall, drew up her knees, and looked out over the jungle.

‘During your time with the Empire . . . did you ever shoot down a Rebel ship?’ Rhun asked at length.

She didn’t move, didn’t look up at him, and he wondered whether she’d heard his question. Then, finally, she said, ‘Yes. One.’

‘And you didn’t make a mark on your entry hatch,’ he guessed.

‘No.’

‘Why?’

Finally, she twisted around to look up at him. ‘I think I may always have been a Rebel . . . and it just took me such a long time to find out.’


***

Samica went to the hangar once again before going to bed. Despite the fact that she was now on a base with a discernible day and night cycle, activity on the Rebel base never fully slept, and there were still people in the hangar, but they did not pay her any heed, after she’d waved off an inquiry by one of the techs.

Her Y-wing looked decidedly better, apart from the new scorch mark on the side of the cockpit. The ion cannon had been repaired, and an upgraded sensor package was being installed. She patted the hull over her head, then looked around for her astromech.

She found him with several other R2 and R4 units near a workshop at the end of the hangar, and he whistled happily when she went over to them, then hooted when his optical sensors registered her expression. He wheeled towards her and let out a series of whistles.

‘If you’re apologising for what you told Teddie, forget it,’ she said sharply. ‘How could you stab me in the back that way? I’m not interested in my kills!’

The R2 unit bowed down and warbled something that sounded like a whimper.

Samica remained standing before him, arms folded in front of her chest. ‘You won’t broadcast my kills to anyone, is that understood?’

R5 hooted plaintively, and she sighed.

‘All right,’ she said, relenting. ‘So you didn’t know. But you know now. And if anyone asks you about my number of kills, you tell them it’s not their business. And if anyone wants to paint any kill markers on my Y-wing, you tell them to come to me. Got that?’

The astromech whistled, straightening again.

She shook her head, her mouth curving into a faint smile, and reached down to pat his domed head. ‘Glad you see my point. Well then, see you tomorrow—Imp.’

Imp let out a happy whistle and wheeled around to rejoin the others.