The Big Chill: Syntax's Tale
The Corellian Corvette Interloper tumbled through the planet’s atmosphere, its bridge section exploded outward and still flaming. The Corvette went into a roll, the craft spinning end over end in an uncontrolled twirl that brought it towards an open area on the planet’s surface. Two Z-95 Headhunters were hot on the Interloper’s tail as it careened towards the planet’s surface, gaining speed as the hull began to heat up. The Corvette struck the ground with explosive force, debris flying high into the air as the hull snapped in half, scattering shards of metal and raining fire on the landscape. Not that the fires mattered much: the Interloper had just crash-landed on the icy plains of Hoth.
"Alright, we are 12 klicks out from Echo Base, heading west on a vector of 11.295," 9-LOM spoke into the comm of the snowspeeder he piloted across the endless fields of snow. 9-LOM was a machine, about 1.8 meters tall. Modeled closely after many insectile races in the galaxy, 9-LOM was meant for protocol. However, that was not his current profession. "You alright back there, Janson?"
"As comfortable as I’ll ever be," was the reply of Lt. Wes Janson, 9-LOM’s gunner for this recon mission.
"Recon 4, your target is the Corellian Corvette Interloper, or whatever is left of it," came a voice over the speeder’s comm, "Our scanners say it should be a little farther west of your position, and is mainly intact. You are to recover a device, which the Interloper was trying to transport to Alliance High Command before it was intercepted by pirate raiders and chased here. The device is a new type of explosive, stored in a liquid stasis container. When cooled, however, the solution begins to crystallize, and becomes highly unstable. When the substance is fully crystallized, it will go critical and explode. You must recover it before this happens. As you may have noticed, an extra heater has been retrofitted into your snowspeeder, to prevent the solution from crystallizing. Good luck, and watch for pirates. They may still be in the area. Echo Base out."
"Well, you heard them," Janson said. "Let’s find that container."
"I’ve got debris off the starboard bow," 9-LOM said. "That’s probably a good sign."
The debris stretched on for another few hundred meters before the two of them came up on the smoking debris of the Interloper. The fires were dying down, and most of the snow had settled.
"I’ll set down next to the docking bay. It appears to be blown open."
"Alright, then we’ll search the cargo holds. Try to make it fast, though. You heard what High Command said about what happens when that container gets cold. I don’t wanna be around when that happens."
"I roger that."
They set the snowspeeder down, and popped the cockpits. As they approached the Interloper, they noticed that the main docking door had been blown out, due to the impact of the collision. It lay about 30 meters away, in a snowdrift. 9-LOM and Janson climbed up into the hatch, and looked around. The bulkheads of the Corvette were a little crumpled, but the craft was otherwise intact, except for the destroyed bridge section. Janson unclipped a flashlight from his belt, and shined it around in the main hallway.
"Well, I sure wouldn’t have wanted to have been here when this thing hit," he said as he swing his light around, illuminating a few dead bodies. "When this thing hit, it must have hit hard."
"Yes, it appears so."
As they continued towards the cargo hatch, they were mainly silent, until Janson decided to speak up.
"Are you always this quiet."
"Usually, when I have a job to do, and nothing’s shooting at me," The droid replied.
"Why don’t you try to lighten things up? I mean, most humans engage in some form of small-talk to pass the time."
"‘Small-talk’? This does not compute."
"‘Does not compute’? That sounds like some sort of syntax error that a machine would say."
"Syntax error. I’ll have to remember that. I am a machine, you know."
"Yes, I believe I noticed that," Janson said with a grin.
They stepped through the cargo access hatch, and looked around. Equipment was strewn everywhere, glass was broken, and shelves were tipped. 9-LOM walked into the rear area of the cargo compartment, and sifted through some junk. He came up with a container, about 2 feet in length, filled with clear liquid.
"I think this is what we came here for."
"Yep, that looks like it. Let’s get out of here before those pirates come back."
The two of them backtracked to the external hatch of the Interloper, and started out towards the snowspeeder. However, the sound of fighter engines stopped them dead in their tracks.
Two Z-95s swooped in from overhead, and popped a few shots at the ground in front of them. 9-LOM lobbed the container to Janson, and motioned for him to head towards the snowspeeder.
"Go! Go! I’ll keep them busy! Prep the ship!" he yelled, and unslung his disruptor rifle. Janson sprinted out into the clear, making a mad dash for the snowspeeder. 9-LOM switched off the safety on the rifle, and took aim at one of the Headhunters as it came around for another strafing run. Shots traced up the snow towards 9-LOM’s feet, but he stepped out of the way just in time, spinning around and popping a shot up into the craft’s engines as it blew over his head. Janson stopped just long enough to turn around and see the disruptor bolt hit the Headhunter in the left engine, blowing it and the left wing clean off. The Z-95 rocketed into the ground, destroying itself on impact. The second Headhunter peeled away for the moment, and 9-LOM took advantage of this opportunity. He slung his rifle back over his shoulder, and ran for the snowspeeder. Janson hopped into the gunnery seat as 9-LOM got into the pilot’s section.
"Nice shot," Janson said as he closed his cockpit, and armed the power harpoon on the rear of the snowspeeder.
"Yeah, I get that a lot," 9-LOM said as he closed his cockpit and lifted the speeder off. He brought the ship around, and throttled up to maximum, vectoring in on Echo Base. However, the other Z-95 Headhunter came in from above, popping a few shots at the unshielded snowspeeder.
"Aah! We’re losing power…" 9-LOM said. "Let’s see if we can drop this loser, though. Arm the tow cable."
"I copy," Janson replied.
The Headhunter pulled in behind them, and tried to go for a good firing angle. 9-LOM kept weaving and dodging side to side, to keep the Z-95 from getting an accurate shot. Laser blasts flew past on the left and right, but none hit the snowspeeder.
"Ready with that harpoon," 9-LOM called back to Janson.
"I’m way ahead of you…"
Janson fired off the power harpoon, which sailed back and connected with the cockpit of the Z-95, the fusion tip boring though the duraplast cockpit and securing itself just to the left of the pilot’s face. 9-LOM immediately felt the tow cable get taut as the Z-95 pilot instinctively tried to evade, and then 9-LOM swung the snowspeeder up, and then back down. The motion of the speeder had a whiplike effect on the tow cable, lifting the Headhunter up a bit, and then slamming it back down.
Janson flipped a switch, and the tow cable lanyard pulled itself out of the snowspeeder’s rear compartment just as the Z-95 hit the ground. The right wing crumpled as the Z-95 hit, and the craft began to spin before catching on fire. The pilot ejected from the critically damaged craft, just barely getting clear before it exploded.
9-LOM’s snowspeeder dipped a bit, and then began to slow down. "We’re losing power… auxiliary heater, offline. Engine thrusters, offline. Weapons systems, offline. I’m gonna bring it in for a landing. We’re gonna have to walk for the rest of this trip." 9-LOM heard Janson sigh, and then he landed the speeder and got out. Janson hopped out, carrying the solution’s container and an emergency pack, which is standard issue on all recon missions.
"Here, you take this," Janson said as he hefted the large emergency pack to 9-LOM. 9-LOM took it, and slung it over his shoulders. "How far are we from Echo Base?"
"The last reading said about 4 klicks. Not too bad."
"Maybe not for you. You’re a machine. I’m a human, and it’s cold out here."
"I like griping…"
They continued on like this for another few minutes, with Janson griping, and 9-LOM telling him to shut up, before something dawned on 9-LOM.
"Hey Janson, check the container."
"Oh yeah…" He said as he pulled the capsule out of his backpack, and held it to the light. "Oh damn."
"What is it?"
"It’s starting to crystallize. We’ve got problems…"
"Yeah, we do. We’d better get back to base as soon as possible. You have a comm on you?"
"No… It was damaged when we took the snowspeeder down. Sorry."
"Well, it looks like we’ll be sticking together until we get to base, or they send someone out to find us."
"Great. They’ll probably send someone out when this bomb we’re carrying goes off…" 9-LOM said.
So the two of them trudged on through the snow, the container continued to crystallize, and the sun began to set. It was pretty boring, but it didn’t stay that way.
"Put your hands up!" called a voice from behind Janson, who instinctively did as he was told. 9-LOM turned… to see a human of about medium height with short brown hair, holding a holdout blaster to the back of Wes Janson’s head. "I want that capsule. You shot down my partner, but I am not going away from here empty-handed."
9-LOM took advantage of the apparent pirate’s involvement with holding Janson hostage and whipped out his machine pistol, leveling it off at the pirate’s head. "Drop it, or I’ll put you all over the snow. It won’t be any big loss to me."
The pirate spun to fire on 9-LOM, but the droid was faster, stepping in towards the man and elbowing him in the gut, then kicking him in the shin. 9-LOM then grabbed the pistol from the man’s hand, and lobbed it out into the snow. "I suggest you do as your told."
Janson turned around and unholstered his own standard-issue blaster pistol, aiming at the pirate. "I figured you’d had enough when we towed you into the ground."
"I don’t die easily," the pirate said with a smirk.
"Well, it doesn’t look like you’re getting the capsule from us," 9-LOM said. "I doubt you know the real deal behind it, and anyway, how are you going to get off-planet if you do manage to somehow get it from us?"
"Um… I didn’t think of that."
"That’s what I thought."
"Hey, it could be worse. The solution could have started crystallizing…"
However, a slight hissing emanating from Janson’s pack interrupted their conversation. Janson quickly shrugged the pack off, and pulled out the container holding the solution. It was almost completely crystallized now, and the top was starting to hiss, as if pressure was building inside. Janson dropped the container out of reflex, but 9-LOM stepped in and caught it before it could hit the snow.
"You moron! Dropping it in the snow would just accelerate the crystallization process. Do you want it to blow up right here and now?" 9-LOM exclaimed.
"Whoa now… ‘Crystallization process’? ‘Blow up’? What are you talking about?"
"Son, you clearly don’t know what you’re dealing with here, do you?" 9-LOM inquired.
"My boss said I was to pick up a container of some highly-valuable liquid off of a Corellian Corvette."
"That’s all he told you?"
"What we’re holding here is a bomb. If it gets cold, it crystallizes. When it’s done crystallizing, it’ll vaporize a large chunk of wherever it is. I do not want to be around when that happens. Does this make more sense to you know?"
The pirate stepped back a foot, then stared wide-eyed at the bomb, then at 9-LOM, and then at Janson. "I’m getting out of here!"
"Oh no you’re not," Janson said. "We need to bring you in for interrogation. Besides, if we let you go, who knows where you’ll go, or what you’ll do. You’re with us now."
The pirate’s shoulders slumped, and he stepped back towards the two Alliance personnel. "Alright, you win."
"I knew he’d see it our way," Janson said with a grin.
The three of them trekked on into the fields of ice as the sun began to set. The wind picked up, and the temperature dropped. Janson pulled out a field lamp from the emergency pack, and turned it on. It did very little in the windy snowstorm that swirled around them. Eventually, the three of them stopped to rest, setting up an emergency tent and passing emergency rations amongst themselves. 9-LOM didn’t eat anything, being a droid.
"By the way, my name’s Harker. Mitchell Harker," the pirate said suddenly.
"What?" Janson asked as he started to doze off.
"My name. It’s Mitchell Harker."
"Ah, I’m Wes Janson, and my partner for this lovely evening is 9-LOM, part of the Infiltrators, I think."
"This is correct."
Harker nodded, and looked around. "Well… what do we do now?"
"We wait until daylight, and then we can keep moving."
"Is it going to get much colder?"
"This is Hoth. Of course it gets colder."
"Hey, at least the bomb seems to have stabilized itself…"
The container took this opportunity to start hissing again, louder than before. Janson lifted it out of the pack, and shone the emergency light on it.
"If there’s any one thing I learned from being a protocol droid, it’s that ‘uh oh’ is bad in any language. It’s done crystallizing, isn’t it?"
"Yep," Janson replied with a nod.
"Well…can’t we rig up some sort of beacon or something? Something that’ll get someone down here to help us?" Harker asked.
"Nope… my comm’s busted," Janson said.
"I can rig up something, if you know the Alliance base frequency, and if you’ve got a transmitter and some sort of power source." Harker said as the hissing increased.
"It might work…" Janson replied as he pulled out his comm unit, and popped it open. He handed it to Harker, who started fiddling with some wires.
"I just need a power source now."
"I’ve got one," 9-LOM said.
"Where?" Janson and Harker asked in unison.
"In my head. My servomotor generator can create enough charge to run a comm for a while, at least."
"Better than nothin’…" Harker said as 9-LOM popped open a panel on the back of this head, and told Janson what to remove.
"Remember, I won’t be able to move, but I’ll still be able to talk. No funny-business."
"Oh, like kicking you while you’re down, or spray-painting you weird colors, or…" Janson asked.
"Yeah, that kind of stuff. If you do any of that, I swear…"
"You’ll do what?" Janson asked as he removed the power generator. "You can’t move," he said with a grin.
Harker rigged up the generator to the comm, and fiddled with it a bit. "Alright… I just need the Alliance frequency, and then I’ll start transmitting a distress beacon message."
Janson tapped in the code, and the homemade beacon started up.
"Sir," Toryn Farr, Echo Base’s comm officer said to Carlist Rieekan, the commanding officer of the Rebel base. "I’ve got a distress beacon at mark 2.16. It’s along the vector that the Recon 2 snowspeeder took before we lost contact. Should I send a scout?"
"Wait on that, Farr. We’ll see what we pick up."
"As ordered sir."
"Well, the beacon’s up…" Harker said, but then the hissing got louder from the container. "Oh man… this is bad."
"Ya’think? When did the idea dawn on you?" Janson asked sarcastically. "Well, I say we unhook the beacon, and start 9-LOM here back up…" Janson rose to unplug the generator from the comm unit.
"No! We’ll stand a better chance if we leave the beacon up."
"Are you crazy?" 9-LOM asked.
"We are not leaving 9-LOM here. Now give me the generator, so we can leave. Besides, what good does the beacon do us if this capsule explodes while we sit next to it?"
"Yes, yes, do what Janson says." 9-LOM said hastily.
Janson reached over and unplugged the beacon, and then set it back in place in the back of 9-LOM’s head. 9-LOM stood, and then gestured for the three of them to start off.
"What about the container?" Janson asked.
"What about it? I’m not prepared to hold it as it explodes. I want to live past today."
"Good point." Janson said, and then hurried over to 9-LOM’s side as he broke into a jog.
"I say we get the hell outta here, as fast as we can," 9-LOM said, hearing the hiss from the container increase in volume. The container cracked, and the crystal spread out from the container. Harker caught up with them, and the three of them sprinted through the snow, desperate to get as far away from the cooling time bomb as they could.
They got out about two hundred meters before Harker stopped, struggling to catch his breath. "How…much farther…before…we’re clear…?"
"I don’t know. Echo Base didn’t tell us-"
And that’s when the bomb went off. Night turned to day as the container lit up the sky. The crystal structure completely forming and igniting, blowing the emergency camp apart before the explosion started to spread. The shockwave hit the three of them like gale-force winds, lifting them up and throwing them backwards. They hit the ground hard, and that’s when everything went black.
"Sir, the beacon is gone. We’ve lost contact."
"Well, keep scanning the sector-"
The scanners lit up as they picked up the explosion. A few seconds later, the shockwave rolled in and rocked the foundation of the base a bit, causing some loose snow to drop from the ceiling.
Daylight came up on the fields of Hoth shining off the newly fallen snow. The debris had settled, and 9-LOM brought himself online, and found himself staring into the face of Harker.
"Syntax error…system malfunction," 9-LOM mumbled before he righted himself, and got his bearings. "What happened?"
"You took a blow to the head, apparently," 9-LOM heard Janson’s voice and he looked to his left. Janson walked over, a bruise on his right cheek, but otherwise okay. He grinned widely and held up his comm. "The explosion jarred my comm, and it’s fixed. I called in Echo Base, and they’re sending a rescue team. We’re gonna be alright. By the way, you’ve mumbled about ‘syntax’ on two separate occasions. Any particular fascination with that word?"
9-LOM stood, and dusted snow off his armored chassis. "It’s part of what I am. Mechanical language for the droid part, sentence structure for the protocol programming. I guess it’s just something I can’t abandon."
"Well, 9-LOM sounds a little ungainly. Would you mind being called ‘Syntax’?"
9-LOM thought about this for a moment, and then looked at Janson.
"Why no, no I wouldn’t," 9-LOM, or rather, Syntax, replied.
"Syntax, it has a nice ring to it," Harker said with a grin.
"Yes, it does, doesn’t it?" the droid replied as a pair of rescue snowspeeders skimmed overhead and slowed to a stop.