Table of Contents
This is slightly-impure Star Wars so far, set basically between Yavin and Hoth, with some continuity deviations, mainly to do with starfighter availability and just how much an Imperial Starfleet Captain can get away with. I found it lurking in a backup folder and decided to update it with some of the things I've found out from SDN- here beginneth Chapter 1
. Ghorn system, Vineland sector, a minor offshoot of the Perlemian run.
As fitted a system so close to one of the major arteries of galactic trade, there was a fleet presence.
Around a dim, red-orange star near the end of its life, planets; two gas giants, with their horde of moons and asteroids clustering and flustering around them, three smaller worlds huddling close to their dying sun. It had been burning itself down for longer than there had been star-traveling life, and the living creatures on the little lumps of rock were in no danger just yet. Except from each other.
A large slice of that danger, made actuality in durasteel, hung in latticework repair bays over the small blue-green haven of Ghorn II. It hovered protected by the guns of the planet’s north polar defence station, a fleet tender standing by the much- scarred ship, shuttles and tugs and work platforms roaming over it.
Imperator I-refit-II Star Destroyer Black Prince
did not look much like the pride of anyone’s navy, least of all that of her crew.
A grotesque patchwork of faded parchment yellow, gleaming white replacement hull, bare silvery metal, a few slabs and patches that were the colour of her name, angry heat- red emergency field repair and dots of fused blue- black scoring all across the much abused hull.
She would never feature on any recruitment poster, was lucky not to have been condemned as beyond economic repair, but she was one of the Twenty-Five Thousand, and far from the least, except in numerical precedence.
Beneath the registry number, 721, were a line of non- random black dots- silhouettes of ships. They were the boast, and the gun crews’ skill the living proof, that for all the damage abundantly visible she had given out far more than she had taken.
The tender Sahallare
’s job was field repair; in theory this was nothing out of the ordinary. In practice, most of them were spending as much time boggling at the ship as working on her. How was she still in one piece?
‘What in stang happened to her?’ One of them said to his workmate.
‘Lots of things, lots of times.’ The second technician said. ‘You ever seen anything this badly beat up and still flying?’
‘Yeah, a YT- series, but that was on a wanted poster.’ He was looking up at the kill markings beneath the starboard- side row of heavy turbolaser turrets, in particular the bulged oval that represented the Mon Calamari cruiser Irrepressible. The Rebellion had not forgiven nor forgotten.
A pressure shelter had been hung over the section of dorsal hull they were working on- deep-annealing a fusing line between two replacement hull plates.
They could work faster, and with a lower accident rate, that way than by wielding the clumsy jackhammer- looking heat projectors in spacesuits.
It also meant they could be kept under observation more effectively, and the work shed erected on the outer skin of the destroyer had a stormtrooper detail watching them.
The first workman was getting increasingly jumpy, glancing at the stormtroopers, glancing up at the kill score. There was a lot of blood on this ship’s hands, and some friends of friends of his would be interested to know that she was here.
Concentrate, he told himself, just do the job, don’t draw attention to yourself, keep your head down.
Finish the shift, get out, and then he could go to the com center on the Sahallare
, use his allowed call home, to which he would add certain phrases and emphases, which would be passed on to a man codenamed Starshine, and from there find their way to Third Mid-Rim Theatre Command.
Taking an Imperial Starfleet tender would be a shining achievement and a real practical gain for the Alliance; probably not going to happen, but they would settle for a chance at a beached Star Destroyer.
The rebel spy kept working, quietly, trying to avoid drawing attention to himself, hoping not to feel stormtrooper eyes on his back.
The destroyer’s own crew were working on their ship from the inside out, dealing with the softer tissue inside the heavy armoured shell. Most of the problem was with control systems.
The actual damage had not been at all severe, this time- not by this ship’s standards- mainly ionization. Half the consoles in the main bridge pit were still dark, clusters of operators round others.
One of the turbolifts opened, and a very junior officer bounced in followed by two engineering ratings carrying a large box.
‘I’ve got it!’ the probationer lieutenant said. ‘El Fuzz says that it’s the-‘ He had expected his classmate to be the only one there of importance; he had failed to notice the tall, thin vulturelike figure of the executive officer at the back of the bridge. He realized he was in trouble when everyone else turned to look at the exec.
‘Carry on.’ The exec told everyone else, pointed at the lieutenant, pointed at the deck in front of himself. The probationer gulped, slunk over.
‘Who sent you up to the bridge?’ the exec asked, coldly.
‘Uhm, er,’ the probie tried to wriggle out of it, ‘I was told you were on board the tender, Sir, I really wouldn’t-‘
‘Is this really a line of defence you want to pursue?’ the exec loomed. ‘That you would not have expressed extreme disrespect of a senior officer, if you had realised that you might get caught?’
The poor, raw lieutenant was visibly squirming. ‘Sir, I meant no-‘
‘The proper response under the circumstances,’; the exec advised him, ‘is- repeat after me- “I am guilty of gross insubordination, I apologise, I will accept the mandated punishment, and I won’t do it again.” Say it. And do try not to make it worse for yourself.’
The lieutenant looked left and right; apart from the rest of the repair party, the only other people on the bridge were a four- being stormtrooper detail. One of them was wobbling slightly, trying and failing not to laugh.
The poor probationer gabbled through the words, and then broke orders again by asking ‘But Sir, how did you know I meant-‘
‘Who else would be sending you here, to say that it’s the-? Context, probationer, context. What does the chief say the trouble is?’ The exec would come back to attempting to entrap a senior officer later.
‘The secondary nav system, Sir. When it was ionized it went into full reset, and the only uncorrupt backup was the initial dockyard settings. It, ah, isn’t accepting that the ship’s been modified, and is trying to override the primary nav system, which it thinks is obviously still damaged.’ He parroted.
‘A hardware patch?’ Not normal procedure.
‘Um, I think so, Sir.’
‘Do you actually understand any of what you’ve just told me?’
‘I, I think so, Sir.’
‘Hmmm. Let us review the charges.’ The exec began pacing up and down in front of the main viewports. ‘Disrespect of a senior officer. Compounding the offence by asking me to refer to said officer in the same terms. Disobeying an order- not to make it worse for yourself, which you did. That is a technicality, however- where are you from?’
‘ ‘-tooine’ means ‘Barren wasteland’ in some language or other, I swear. Your only authority there would have been your family, which you disobeyed in any case to go to the academy.’ The exec did not know this, and was making it up as he went- accurately, it seemed, from the probationer’s reactions.
‘Poorly brought up, crammed through an abbreviated training program. Insufficiently prepared.’ The exec paused for thought, pacing up and down.
‘The daily bread of a starship is training and exercise. For all elements. Practise prepares us for the reality of working the Emperor’s will on the reluctant to obey.’
That much at least was doctrine; what came after less so. ‘Our onboard stormtrooper group has a deep probe interrogation team attached. They, too, need training and practice.’
The exec dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘If I had any reason to think that you weren’t simply a loose- tongued fool, I’d hand you over to them to use as a torture dummy.’
‘Sir, please don’t sir it was just a slip of the tongue, I genuinely meant no disconscious resp, I mean no conscious disrespect-‘
‘My duty,’ the exec stated, ‘is to make competent starmen out of people like you. At the moment, you’re alive because I’m assuming you’re an idiot. That is not a long term survival strategy.
A punishment that fits the crime- I think I’ll make you use your brain. I want a full rundown on the ship’s hyperdrive systems. How and why they work, evolution of hyperdrive, navigation systems, how they integrate with ship sensors and electronics, new experiments in hyperwave theory- I want you to prove, not to me, to the Chief Engineer, that you’re worth more to the Empire alive. Report back to engineering- Dismiss.’
The poor probationer, almost in shock, stumbled off the bridge.
The exec walked over to the port sub-gallery, the ship’s com centre, out of earshot of all but the sensors in the stormtrooper helmets; and released his own repressed burst of laughter. El Fuzz, indeed. He shook his head, went to the intraship terminal. ‘Engineering? Get me Commander Mirannon.’
A few moments later, an extremely hairy man in dirty overalls came to the other end of the terminal. When he had time to perform personal grooming, at best in other words, Engineer-Commander Mirannon looked like a wookie disguised as a human. When he had other priorities, like now, he looked more like a human disguised as a wookie.
‘Ah, Commander Dordd. What is it?’
‘Do I look like a waste disposal unit to you?’ the exec said.
‘I rebuild ships, not men- talk to Medical.’ The bulky, grease and dust stained engineer said.
‘You seem to think I am; you keep trying to dispose of unwanted junior officers by feeding them to me.’
‘Oh, you mean the work crew.’ Mirannon’s expression was not easy to read behind the beard.
‘Why are you using a hardware patch for a software solution?’
‘It’s temporary, it deadends the interference from the secondary nav computer. I have all the processing power I can get my hands on running finite element analysis for the ion drive calibration, hyperdrive’s a straightforward derivation of the same analysis. Eight more hours to work the balance out and twelve to set it up.’
‘So the engines are sound, then?’ Dordd asked.
‘It’s the firing controls that aren’t. We can make full acceleration, if you don’t mind a line of thrust, and relative inertial field, around eighty milliradians off the centerline of the ship. Probably not in the same direction, either.’ He sounded as if he didn’t expect Dordd to know the difference between a milliradian and a microchloridian.
‘Primary nav is functional, it’s sublight drive that isn’t.’ Dordd stated what he thought the position was. He was about to go on when the bridge PA called him.
‘Commander Dordd, report to the Captain’s day cabin. Repeat-‘ and he was moving already.
The day cabin was basically a cubbyhole just off the bridge for a cot and a desk, where the ship’s commander could get datawork done, catch a catnap, and still be within thirty seconds of the bridge.
Very few Star Destroyer’s captains let it remain that basic. It was a common joke that, as the ship’s offices were in the command tower, if the rebels did blow it off you might be better not restoring emergency control, just go down with the ship.
Otherwise, you would only spend the rest of your life paperchasing through the navy bureaucracy trying to rebuild the lost records, medical files, requisition and stores reports, status sheets, personnel records- it was the bane of the navy’s life, and more than one captain wished he could do his filing by turbolaser.
On the other hand, it meant there was lots of room to expand more important facilities into- just squeeze the offices up a little tighter. Preferably with the staff still in them.
Many Imperial warships spent more time fighting the bureaucracy than they did the enemy. Between a tremendous stroke of luck at the beginning to build on, and a combination of interest, brown-nosing, judgement and blackmail, ISD-721 had won victories roughly comparable to a certain infamous proton torpedo entering a certain poorly shielded exhaust port.
The Black Prince’s commander’s day cabin had expanded into a full scale penthouse suite including small swimming pool under a previous captain, but it was under new management now.
The entryway had been converted back into something resembling the original purpose- desk, computer terminal, flanking datawalls and holodisplays.
An abstract, multi- belabelled image of the ship was being spun from one holoprojector; ship status display. It hiccupped occasionally, as if refusing to believe the image it was showing.
The captain had one foot up on the desk, and was frowning at the image. He was a man of above middle height- not the stick-figure of his XO, not far off either- and leanly built, dark hair turning grey at the temples, chiseled face, dark, dark eyes.
Appallingly badly dressed- looking more like a sea- surface fisherman than a captain of a major warship, uniform tunic (faded) flapping open over a jersey of some palaeolithic material and grey- green uncertain colour.
‘You sent for me, Sir?’ Dordd asked. The captain nodded, waved him to the other chair.
‘Yes…where would you be now, do you think, if no-one had shown you mercy as a loose- tongued probationer?’ the Captain asked, tone well at odds with the words, speculative rather than punitive.
‘About the same place I’d be if no-one had pointed out to me in time that there are limits to mercy.’ Dordd said, still standing, not even bothering to wonder about how the captain had managed to overhear.
The captain nodded. ‘Narrow line, is it not? Encouraging them in some directions, stopping them in others, shaping young mynocklets like that into the officers the fleet needs- especially when they arrive thinking they know it all.
It was easy for us; the short sharp shock is less painful in the long run…someone thinks you’re doing something right.’ Captain Lennart handed his soon to be ex- executive officer a hardcopy of a recently received file.
Dordd read the first couple of lines, then his mind went blank. The Captain swung his foot off the desk, stood up, grabbed Dordd by the hand and shook it. ‘Congratulations.’
The exec was still boggling. ‘Thank you, Captain, I had thought-‘
‘Sit down.’ Dordd collapsed into the chair. ‘I did recommend you; it’s not been an easy cruise, she can be a demanding old bitch, and you did well enough.’
The Captain’s steward arrived then, as well timed as usual, with an iridescent metal tray, a crystal decanter and two glasses on it. Lennart poured the cobalt- blue liquid out himself, two full shots, and the two officers gulped them down.
‘What’s in that?’ Dordd asked, reeling. It felt like a river of molten ice being poured through his head.
‘Alien biochemistry’s a wondrous thing- not a clue.’ Lennart said, deadpan, and lying. Dordd’s eyes went wide before he realised it was a wind-up. Lennart went on;
‘I read it, of course,’ meaning the hardcopy, ‘Dynamic
’s one of the Arrogant- class. Not a new ship, which might be just as well.’ Both of them knew exactly what he meant. The sort of people who were getting priority over new construction, neither of them felt comfortable around.
‘Weird little ships, seventy- five percent our- well, a standard Imperator’s, anyway- length, thirty- six percent the volume and forty- five percent the mass. Supposed to be derived from the old Venator class- the pure combat version without the fighter bays. Half way through they realized they were doing it backwards, KDY turned the design study into a separate project and Rendili built the Victory class round the old reactor plant.
Dynamic’s a fast fleet hunter-outrider- once again, congratulations, Captain-designate Dordd.’
Delvran Dordd, very recently promoted Captain in His Imperial (and sith) Majesty’s Navy, started to think about his new job. What was the size- for that matter, who were- the crew of the Dynamic
? Where was she?
‘Normally,’ Captain Jorian Lennart told him, ‘I’d do a fast flyby of her last reported position and drop you off, but supposedly she’s been on boundary patrol on the outer Rim edge for the last year, and you’ll remember how trigger happy we got on that detail. Especially right now with our drives in this state, best thing to do is for you to take a shuttle- no, better an assault transport. One’s prepping now. You’ll probably miss that.’
‘Everything it implies. A million worlds in the galaxy. Capital ‘W’ worlds, anyway.
Another fifty million colonies. Four hundred billion stars- and tomorrow Black Prince
could be on her way to any one of them. Engineering permitting.
Even moving from exec to captain, you don’t realize what that means until it hits you- like one of them, a small planet in the face. You don’t have to be ready for anything, you have to be ready for everything
Arrogants don’t have the multirole capacity to be sent any-and-everywhere, so it should be easier for you. You’ll just be chasing ghosts all along the outer rim.’
‘Does it say anything about fleet, oversector group, assigned op-area? Or crew?’ Dordd asked, mind still reeling.
‘Eleven thousand, seven hundred and twenty- four, leaner manned than an Imperator.’ Jorian poured another set of drinks, drank one of them. He was talking about the crew.
‘So many, and probably the same unlikely blend of heroes and halfwits, starry-eyed idealists and black hearted thugs, overgrown children and dead- spirited cynics, blunderers, chancers, wasters, risk- takers, egomanicacs and lost souls, fools and rogues, murderers and paladins, and Bodgit and Scarper doing business as usual, changing face of the galaxy be damned.’
Dordd was worried. The captain was getting unusually maudlin; this wasn’t like him. Most of the time, anyway. ‘Are you sure this is safe for human consumption?’ he said looking at the shot glass.
‘I’m pretty sure it isn’t. Maybe I am getting sentimental about my crew; but- what’s devotion to duty, if not a sentiment? What’s loyalty, if not a sentiment? Numbers are one thing, but you look out of the window down past the turrets and tell me we fought for the empire, and achieved that for the empire, on the basis of nothing more than reactor rated output.’
‘Captain, I believe, but I don’t understand. I’m not sure what I can do with what you’re trying to tell me.’
‘Well, on one level, you don’t have a choice- no stormtrooper detail. I’m telling you that in addition to the worlds outside the ship, you’ve got another twelve thousand on the inside to worry about, one- or more- inside each crewman’s head.
They might actually be the most important. The universe is too big to cope with on your own.’ Jorian Lennart shook his head. ‘I must be far gone- more narcotic than drink in this.’ Which was his excuse, anyway.
‘Still, better a blinding glimpse of the obvious than a blinding flash of turbolaser fire. You need your crew.’ He had one foot back up on the desk.
‘You need them to work for you, you need them to think for you, you need them to believe for you. The best built fighting ship in the universe is pointless if the people running it are half trained and scared out of their wits. The worst- and the tender crew seem to think we come pretty close- is invaluable if it’s properly used, and those twelve, or thirty- seven, thousand are as much the weapon as the ship is. You’re probably going to make a better captain than you did an executive officer.’
‘What do you mean by that?’ Dordd asked, slightly stung.
‘As exec, you have an answer for your problems. You have your part of the picture to look after and keep in order, you know what you ought to be doing. As Captain, you finally get to see all of the picture; and you realize that it’s a puzzle. I am generally prepared to put up with far more, from this crew, than you are. Did you never wonder why?’
‘It’s deliberate, that much I got, but I never understood why you think it’s a good idea.’
‘If I was being appropriately cynical, I would call it the illusion of freedom. I need their belief, their pride and commitment in the ship and in the cause. As a captain, you depend on your crew- only fractionally less than they depend on you.
One thing; your last official duty as executive officer of the Black Prince
. Who do you recommend I promote to replace you?’
For a brief moment, Dordd was tempted to recommend Mirannon, if only for a taste of his own medicine. ‘Lieutenant-commander Mirhak-ghulej.’ The Chief Divisional Officer, midships starboard section.
‘Interesting. Your logic?’
‘He’s done well in a difficult situation, keeping the most diverse part of the ship in good order, displaying what I think are the necessary qualities for the job.’ Dordd answered.
‘The crew loathe him. A man doesn’t get ves daubed over the inside of all his uniforms for nothing. At first glance, I would have opted for Brenn. However, exactly because he would have been my personal choice, that could mean he’s wrong for the job. Recommendation accepted.’
Dordd was still standing there trying to work that one out when the captain’s steward came in again with a datapad and two antidote pills. Lennart read it, thought about it, handed it to Dordd.
‘On the other hand, you may not want to miss this. It’s from your favourite stormtrooper.’
‘I don’t have a-‘ Dordd started to protest, then got involved in what the message said. It was a report from one of the security troopers, concerning one of the tender’s work teams. ‘She doesn’t even have a name.’
‘Her being named Omega-17-Blue-Aleph-3 might make whispering sweet nothings a bit more difficult, true - question is, is her judgement trustworthy?’
Omega company was special attachments to legion HQ; things like seismic demolition teams, deep probe units, propaganda and destabilization, ugly, dirty, messy jobs. 17 was the team number, blue the specialization - Scout, officially, but clearly not exactly so - Aleph 3 was a personal number.
‘Dockworker with high stress levels, trying not to draw attention to himself and getting it wrong, looking up repeatedly at the splotch for that damn’ rebel cruiser - that doesn’t make a spy.’
‘I’m inclined to take it seriously.’ Jorian turned to one of the subconsoles on his desk. ‘Engineering? Mirannon.’
The huge man covered in red-brown hair and grey- blue grease came to the terminal, grumbling. ‘Flarding interruptions, can’t I get - oh, it’s you, skipper.’
‘How many decimal places are you running this analysis to?’ Jorian asked him.
‘As many as I can. Tender’s got the tools and parts for me to fix a couple of long standing gripes, and synergy effects are going to take an unpredictable time to sort out - so many ifs and buts in the estimate, it’d make no sense. Sir.’
The Chief Engineer had a ship model on his seldom-used desk, which looked something like a cross between a normal star destroyer and a swan - wide, sweeping curves, streamlined, graceful.
The rest of the engineering crew said that was what he was trying to turn the Black Prince
into, one major refit at a time. And he knew perfectly well how long it was going to take.
‘If you were Rebel Theatre Command, and you found out about an unescorted imperial fleet tender patching up a disabled star destroyer, what would you do?’
‘Kriff.’ Mirannon swore.
‘Don’t think of it as losing time in calibration; think of it as saving time spent in damage control. How soon can you give me manoeuvring thrust?’
‘We can thrust, with a moderate to high chance of becoming pate in the process, and we definitely can’t steer. It’s not the only problem - I’m doing that the long way because there are other jobs needing done in the mean time. Power distribution forward of the hangar bay is shot, we’re using DC’ - in this case, Damage Control - ‘portaconduits that won’t take long duration at full power. They need a proper rebuild. Overlapping shields burning each other out. It’s all do-able, but it’ll take time. Can’t we just call for support?’
It was possible that by arresting the rebel agent, they could avoid contact entirely. Lennart hadn’t even seriously considered it. It wasn’t their job to avoid combat, and he was still in fighting temper after the clash that had landed his ship in a repair bay.
Capability was the only question. ‘We’ll notify fleet. How much notice they’ll take I don’t know, we’re strangers here. We’re not far off being able to do the job ourselves. I know perfectly well, chief, we’re not going to be a hundred percent in less than twenty days. I’m thinking ambush. How soon?’
‘I can knock a couple of hundred decimal places off the calibration and patchwork it- six hours, and the compensators will be redlining. Don’t push it. Another twelve past that to be able to hyper, well below full speed though- stable at point two five, best rough estimate. If I can borrow half the legion to do the donkey work with my people directing, shields in eight hours.’ Mirannon groaned inwardly, but stated the facts.
He was not an unhappy man in his job, usually. Imperial Starfleet engineers fell into one of two categories; peacetime, or at least civilian university, trained with general and comprehensive background knowledge- in other words, overqualified; or military academy trained and thus barely qualified- too narrow, too specific, skipping too much of the groundwork and basics to get to the workaday details.
Gethrim Mirannon fell very firmly into the former category, and it would have been difficult to prevent him reassembling the ship to suit himself, if in fact Lennart had wanted to stop him. For all that they snarled at each other occasionally, they were in effect partners in crime.
‘No support from the tender?’
‘The equipment I can use. The people-no. They’re why we’ve got the interaction problem.’
‘OK, chief, that sounds good enough. Get on with it.’ He dropped the link to engineering, and typed in an access code. ‘OB173, this is Black Prince Actual.’
‘You’re not supposed to be on this network.’ A female voice came back out of the speakers- deep, contralto, amused rather than offended.
‘Tell me more about this rebel of yours,’ Captain Lennart asked.
‘Probability that he has something to hide; unity. Probability that it is Rebellion related; 0.92. Do you want me to take him in?’ she asked, phrasing it purely as a question.
Lennart looked at Dordd. Dordd wanted to. Lennart decided against it.
‘Negative, OB173, he hasn’t had time to get the word out. Take him now and we’ll have nothing to trap. Your team has the ball on this one. Monitor him, let him communicate, then
grab him and brainburn him.’
‘Yes, Sir.’ She said, clearly looking forward to it.
Captain Lennart backed out of the stormtrooper comnet, turned to Dordd. ‘Don’t know what you see in her. Personally I’d be more inclined to run away screaming...do you want to leave for the Dynamic
, or do you want your old job back- in an acting capacity- to see this one through?’
Dordd stood there, thinking. Technically he shouldn’t even have been given the choice, but he had. On one hand, his own ship; on the other hand, combat against the rebellion- and he would just as soon put off the chaos of taking command for another day or so, to get his head straightened out.
‘You might need the assault transport.’
Lennart smiled. ‘Good.’
There was a lot that was not as it had been originally specified about the Black Prince
. As part of an experimental program, she had her main hangar bay compressed. A quarter of the pads expanded out to full maintenance bays, and the rest reduced to virtual wingtip to wingtip storage. Ceilings lowered, floors added, waste space eliminated.
The Oversector Fleet command she had been operating with at the time had been obsessed- more like traumatized- by rebel starfighters, and Black Prince
had been in for major refit after taking a kamikaze rebel gunship-corvette in the flight bay. A bay that had been suspiciously empty of personnel at the time.
Strings had been pulled and reputations traded on, and the end result was that the veteran destroyer had the support for a double normal strength fighter wing.
There was actually an Imperator- conversion that did this anyway, and it had proved easier, administratively, to get one of their heavy fighter wings assigned, but that variant lost too much capability as a warship for Lennart’s taste, and this way he had the best of both worlds.
The pilots were not busy at the moment. This was officially safe space, and the space they had come from had been decidedly unsafe.
They had taken losses, and needed time to draw breath, reorganize, and have the ground crews assemble replacement fighters from parts storage.
Most of Epsilon squadron had passed through the mourning stage, and got just about as far as ‘Thank the force it wasn’t me.’
Their unit bay held, on the lower level, their actual fighters, launch racks, maintenance pads, stores and spares, on the upper level- separated by a comfortingly thick armoured deck- the squadron ops room, office, ready room, rec- usually pronounced ‘wreck’- room, mess- which it was, ground crew barracks, pilots’ cabins.
The squadron leader’s cabin had black bunting around the door; half of it had been torn off and was now draped over the shoulders of Epsilon-3, he had a drink in one hand and with the other he was playing a kazoo. After their fashion, it was a wake.
In the squadron office, the only pilot not participating was sitting behind the desk, one hand holding a soother-pad over her forehead, stylus in the other, looking at three datapads and wishing her head would stop throbbing, or Three would stop playing that thing.
She had lost her own element leader, and been lucky not to have her own head ripped off when a lump of engine from a detonating rebel fighter had caved her cockpit viewscreen in. The senior flight commander of Epsilon squadron was therefore in a black mood, and wondering if anyone had ever in fact been beaten to death with a kazoo. Surely it had been tried.
She knew that if she did stand up and go to get some quiet out of them, she would probably end up doing some of the rebellion’s work for it.
‘Flight lieutenant Rahandravell?’ the door opened, and a misshapen figure said.
‘If you don’t shut that door, I’ll start blasting on the count of three.’
The lopsided man came in and closed and sealed the door; he had the same rank insignia she did, although rather less of a body to pin it on. The squadron adjutant was a grounded pilot; he had been on an atmospheric strafing run when a minor hit had caused his laser power cells to split.
That had cooked the blaster gas off, which had burnt off too many nerve endings for regeneration therapy to do much good.
‘How do you do this, Yrd? How do you stop yourself accidentally telling the truth to the poor silly bastards?’ Rahandravell poked at the datapads with the stylus. They were three letters to next of kin.
‘Lady Lyria Tellick; dear lady, your son died when a rebel heavy fighter blew the front of his cockpit off. I saw him drifting there in space with no legs, and I don’t know whether loss of blood or loss of air managed to kill him first, because I could still hear him screaming and thrashing round, so I know that shock didn’t.
Malomik Inturii, rust farmer; dear sir, your brother gave his life for the empire. Actually, he threw it away because he couldn’t stand it any longer, he ejected and was caught on the tail of his fighter, I should have given him a clean death there and then myself but I didn’t, the impact broke every bone in his body below the ribcage, they tractored him in before he could decompress but he killed himself in the med bay because he couldn’t take the pain any more. How do I not say that? How do I make them think it didn’t happen?’ she was crying.
Yrd was afraid to comfort her; he didn’t know her all that well. She was a highly competent pilot and an excellent shot, but had a reputation as an ice maiden; she kept whatever drove her sealed up deep inside. Now that was cracking wide open, and it made him squirm.
He didn’t know how to cope with it either. He started by rambling.
‘When I got shot up, I could have invalided out. Maybe should have, but home, for me, is Kuat. What would be the point? Every time I looked up, I’d see a sky full of star destroyers. I wouldn’t be leaving anything behind.
That and I couldn’t stand the thought of being back among the normals. They wouldn’t understand if-‘ the first thought that came into the adjutant’s head was ‘if you beat them to death with the squadron leader’s blown off legs.’ He knew better than to say things like that. Shock wasn’t going to work.
He was saved by the link terminal. It was no less a personage than the Captain.
Lennart had not simply been venting steam when he talked about believing in his crew; it was impossible to know thirty- seven thousand individuals, but he could keep track of section leaders, the senior enlisted rates- and the handful who screwed up badly enough to merit his attention- and at least the top layer of the ship’s fighter and ground combat attachments.
‘Flight lieutenants.’ Lennart began. His attention had been drawn by an incomplete item of paperwork- notifications to next of kin still to be sent off. He took one look at the state of the two officers on the other end of the terminal and decided there might be a problem.
‘The ship we were sent to rescue survived.’ He cut straight to the chase. Given the strike cruiser’s ineptitude in managing to need to be rescued, it was probably only postponing the inevitable.
‘The Rebel ambush failed. This ship survived. That doesn’t make it any easier to bear when it’s your friends and colleagues that didn’t. Talk to me.’
She stumbled through it again.
‘Your private griefs are your own, and no-one can, or should, help you with that.’ He knew perfectly well that she had been sharing a bed with the squadron leader.
‘When we come up against competent, determined opposition, some of our people will get killed. That much is certain, and I have two hundred and fourteen of those to send myself. My consolation is that I have twenty- two hundred not to.’ The crew of the strike cruiser.
‘Necessity determines whether we take the risk or not, chance determines who pays the price- insofar as anybody can be responsible for such a self- willed, contrary creature as a fighter pilot, I was responsible for him, and for you. I asked him, and you, to take that risk, and he did not die to no cause nor, considering the mauling we gave that rebel bastard, unavenged. What’s important now is to do our best to avoid having to write any more. As Franjia Rahandravell, you mourn- as Epsilon Five, your squadron mates and the ship need you. It is that simple.’
She sniffled a little more, wiped her eyes dry- still bloodshot red, though.
‘Two other things. Tellick‘s mother- I met her. I reckon she has a certain secret sympathy for the Rebellion. Tell it as you please- I don’t think she deserves the truth- but make sure she knows who killed her son.’ Franjia nodded.
‘Other thing- do you need stormtrooper support to deal with that kazoo?’ Lennart asked, deliberately changing tone.
‘Captain.’ She said, reproachfully- he was trying to lift her mood, she didn’t immediately realize that.
‘It’s been so long since they got to do anything, they’re getting stir crazy. I have manhunter teams pulling rank to demand jobs even as mindnumbing as walking security; if I sent a detachment down there to keep order, I’d have difficulty stopping them trying to use an AT-AT.’ He paused for a couple of seconds. ‘Seriously- you’re going to be all right.’
‘Yes, Sir. What was it you wanted?’
‘Already taken care of, flight lieutenant. Carry on.’ He broke the link.
If he had been stupid enough to accept Lyria’s invitation, and if Ezirrn Tellick had thought he had a future, she could easily have been his daughter in law.
She probably was good enough to move up a rank, he thought, but not now, not until her heart resumed normal operations, and not in her present squadron. Replace Tellick directly, and give her the next or next-but-one available squadron leader’s billet.
Depending on what happened- time for their spy to contact the alliance, time for them to analyse the information and make a decision, time for them to get a capable unit here- that billet could be open in twenty to thirty hours.