1 MO 5 WK ABY
[Ugly Mynock cargo bay]
So I was doing some work on my X-wing when he arrived. It was the Mando armour, that’s the truth – got me excited every time I looked at it. Except it wasn’t just the beskar-whatever, of course, or I’d’ve been getting the hots for Flash, too, every time she gave a briefing. No, this was about who was inside the armour. Him. Marine Kyle Mandel. Gnoizic.
I stood, giving him the patented Zeltron smile and the most hackneyed pick-up line ever: “Is that a blaster in your pocket or are you really, really pleased to see me?”
He didn’t answer, just crossed to me and pulled me into his arms. The next thing I remembered, his Mando helmet was off, we were kissing, I was dragging him into the cockpit and …
BLEEEP bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzt qwarkkkk!
Daydream shredded, I jumped and almost bumped my head on the bottom S-foil. “Fraggit, Leo! I was … busy!” Just as well you can’t see a Zeltron blush. That purple flush on my cheeks – entirely natural. Honest.
Leo blatted some more sound my way; I shook my head and went back to repairing the inertial compensator on Ice’s fighter. “No, I was not daydreaming. I was … working out how to fix this. Have you finished the analysis yet? It’s taking you long enough!” The best form of defence was attack – that was the Red Squadron motto. Well, it wasn’t; but I think it should’ve been.
Data scrolled across the pad I’d left handily propped against the open access panel; Leo had finished the analysis after all. I winced at the list. “Great; another hour’s work at least. I’m supposed to be playing sabacc with the Marines soon, remember?” And one Marine in particular could end up playing with me …. which might make it easier for me to keep my mind on my work in the near future. Between the various temptations aboard the Mynock but their distinct lack of response (so far – I’m always optimistic!), it hadn’t been an easy couple of months.
I wiped my hands on the old Imperial jacket that I’d taken to wearing over my lovely new flightsuit when I was working. I didn’t want oil getting on the suit, so the grey coat Sensei had acquired for me had become my equivalent of a mechanic’s coverall. “Well, guess I’d better get on with this before I’m bedding down here for the night by myself!”
I was bending down to reach into the access panel again when the loudspeaker blared, “Flight Officer Gemilan, report to the briefing room! Flight Officer Gemilan to the briefing room.”
This time I really did hit my head off the lower S-foil. “Sithspit, what’s that about?” I emerged swearing and rubbing my head, glaring at Leo as if he’d caused the bump. He whistled apologetically, holding out a pincer attachment to take the coat as I stripped it off. “What do they want me for? There’s no missions planned, I’ve got permission to help the mechanics …” I’d volunteered; it was a job I liked and it kept me from worse duties like routine patrols, “and I’ve not done anything wrong recently.” I frowned, thinking, as I scrubbed my hands clean on a rag. “Well, nothing anyone knows about, I guess.”
Leo whistled a question. “Nope, it’s clearly not an attack or we’d all be scrambled. I’ll let you know what happens! See you later, Leo!” And I left the makeshift hangar bay, still wondering why I was being summoned.
Even though we’d had them for a few weeks, I still got a kick out of walking through the corridors wearing my new flightsuit. Most people had seen them by now, of course, but there was still the occasional newbie who would get their first eyeful – and, well, let’s just say it was nice to be empathic when that happened! So I was smiling when I walked into the briefing room to find Lock waiting there for me …. and Flash, too. They didn’t look pleased.
I came to a halt before them and ripped off a salute that would have done an Imperial Guard proud. No smiles; now I was all business. Whatever they wanted to talk to me about, I would be attentive and polite and respectful, everything a good Rebel should be.
“Flight Officer Gemilan reporting as ordered.”
I was twitchily empathic, picking up odd flashes of emotions from them both. They let the moment stretch out while I fixed my eyes on the wall behind Flash’s shoulder. I kept my face impassive – a smuggler’s trick that came in handy at sabacc, too.
Flash broke the silence first. “Flight Officer, I believe you are cleared for piloting shuttles?”
I blinked. Shuttles were slow, lumbering beasts, compared to an X-wing. Of course I was cleared for piloting shuttles.
“Yes, sir?” I sounded wary, even to myself.
Lock tapped a datapad against the palm of his hand. I wondered if he was still playing the same stupid game he used to play back at Rainworld Academy. “My records show you haven’t run any courier missions for some time, Flight Officer.” His dark eyes watched me intently.
Kriff. If there was anything worse than routine patrols, it was courier duty. There weren’t enough shuttle pilots on the Ugly Mynock; it was too small to carry a full complement of transports so if Jack McCauley was off on one of his mysterious trips, a starfighter pilot ended up with courier duty. It was a universally detested chore.
“I’ve been pulling extra shifts working with the mechanics, sir,” I reminded him politely and respectfully.
“At your request,” he reminded me in turn, a hint of a smile on his face. Darn Corellian smile. They always thought they were so dashing. Trouble was, sometimes they were. Not now, though. Lock was just being contrary.
“Just putting my skills to best use, sir,” I pointed out, trying to look innocent – which, in that flightsuit, was quite a task.
Flash cleared her throat. The helmet mic made a nasty grinding noise; it didn’t sound human, far less feminine. “Be that as it may, Flight Officer, it’s time for you to do your courier shift. We have a special package awaiting delivery. To Zeltros.”
“But I’m in the middle of a big repair job …..” Wait. What did she just say? I hesitated, then repeated quietly, “Zeltros?”
My home planet? Where I hadn’t set foot for almost four standard years?
I looked from one to the other. Flash’s helmet hid her face, of course, but I’d have sworn there was an amused tilt to her shoulders. Lock, now, was frankly smiling. “Yes, Zeltros. You need to deliver it to Zeltros City, but there’ll be time for …” he glanced at Avern, “a two-day leave pass, I think? On Zeltros – with a shuttle – so you can go anywhere you like.”
“Aye. Two days.” The Mando woman had a smile in her voice. I was smiling too, unable to believe what I was hearing.
“Leave? On Zeltros? For two days? But I can … I can ….”
“You can do whatever you like, as long as you adhere to the planetary laws – which gives you a lot of scope,” Lock said, dry as a Tatooine dust devil.
But there was only one thing I wanted to do. “I can see my family,” I murmured; the shine in my eyes was more to do with tears of joy than anything else.
[Zeltros; southern province; Santroni township]
Everything about my life had changed yet, the closer I got to home, it seemed like life on Zeltros had stayed almost the same.
Santroni Spaceport was definitely busier, though. They had added new landing pads; I chose the cheapest. Most of my meagre Rebel paycheck went to my family, through various means that kept the originating source hidden. Though I still had a bit of the glitterstim profits left – the flightsuit had eaten up more than I had expected – I habitually kept that for emergencies; there was more spice on the Dropkick Murphy, of course, but it would be difficult to get hold of it and even harder to sell it on, given my current circumstances.
I had just enough credits to pay for a two-day pad hire. I’d already picked up some knick-knacks for presents at a souvenir market on one of my refuelling stops. My family still thought I was a trader, after all, and my younger sibs in particular would expect some sort of gift, especially as I hadn’t seen them for so long. I sealed the shuttle, keyed it to my voice-code and set off through the bustling spaceport, my kit in a bag slung on my back.
Fury, but it felt good to be back on Zeltros! Even the air had a zing to it, so unlike the flat, slightly stale atmosphere aboard the Mynock. I could identify the familiar spices which habitually flavoured our food and our wine; my eyes were dazzled by the variety of clothes and skin hues and hair colours. I began to feel quite ordinary! My Zeltron clothes were in shades that had been in fashion some four or five years ago, after all. My flightsuit, which could have won me the wrong sort of attention – for Imperials did frequent Zeltros, taking advantage of the casinos and hologram facilities – had been left behind on the Mynock. Even though it wasn’t standard Rebel issue, it was different enough to spark potentially awkward questions.
Unwilling to be thought boring, I declared a fashion emergency and spent a few of the glitterstim credits on an amazing bra-top with a single asymmetric shoulder-strap. The material was woven with sparkling strands that caught the light and flashed colour like rainbows. Teamed with a new pair of bright orange hot pants, I found myself drawing appreciative looks from people as I walked past them – male, female and assorted others. That was more like it!
The new outfit also helped when I was hitching a lift to the outskirts of Santroni, where my family lived. Public transport did exist on Zeltros, but it tended to be taken by tourists. Natives just hitched; in a society founded on the desire to bring happiness to as many as possible, Zeltrons were willing to help others. As long as you knew where to find a hitching-point – and Zeltrons did – they were the best way of getting to your destination.
I said goodbye to my cabmates – as usual, we had been chatting amicably during the journey – and, shouldering my bag, headed off on the short walk from the main road to the street where my family’s house was situated. It was set back from the traffic by a large garden that held trees and shrubs, all wonderful play-spaces for active children. I lifted the latch on the garden gate, stepped through the enclosing walls and at last, after an eventful few years, I was home.
It was Linz who spotted me first; little Linz, who had been a chubby pre-teen when I last saw her. Now she had to be – fury, surely not! She had to be 15, the same age I was when I’d left to be an apprentice engineer aboard the Murphy. She was carrying a baby on her hip. My jaw dropped. I must have looked very comical, for when she came up to me she was torn between laughing and crying for joy. “Oh, he’s not mine! He’s Ma’s youngest! Gemi, oh Gemi, why didn’t you tell us you were coming?”
She pulled me into a whirlwind of a hug and deposited the baby in my arms. He stared at me, each as nonplussed as the other, as Linz started yelling, “Gemi’s home! Gemilan’s here! Come quickly, everyone! Gemi’s home!” Then the baby started crying and she took him from me to soothe him, which left my arms free for all the hugs that were coming my way as first my sibs and then my mother clamoured for their welcome-home and haven’t-you-grown and why-didn’t-you-tell-us-you-were-coming exclamations.
Eventually we ended up outside, at the battered old table where we took our family meals on fine nights, as my younger sibs waited at the gate to tell the others the good news upon their return from school and I sat, babe in arms – we had made up, him and I, and he was happy to snuggle – while my mother and I caught up on almost four standards’ worth of news face-to-face. I edited the story, of course; the last thing I wanted anyone to know was the truth. I had seen and heard enough Imperial cruelty to dare to put my family in any sort of danger.
As far as they were aware, for I had managed to send messages to them on occasion, I had been shanghaied by two dangerous pirates who had stolen the Dropkick Murphy while De’ethra had been embroiled in a little local trouble on Coruscant. The men – callous and vicious killers – had kept me alive only to look after them (I usually let the listener infer whatever they wanted from this part of the story) before abandoning me on an unnamed world. I had taken a berth on a small tradeship and again (by means left carefully vague) had worked my way up to first mate before the captain contracted an illness and died, leaving the ship to me. We had worked the trade routes profitably for the last standard or so before the ship needed a major overhaul, so I had left it in the care of the new first mate while I took a quick trip home to see my family, whom I had missed so much.
That last part, at least, was true. I hadn’t realised just how greatly I had missed them until we were all sitting together around the table, the older ones home from school, the youngsters clustered nearby, and Ma’s latest man appearing to greet me before heading off to his job at the local casino. He worked nights and would not be home before sunrise. And then, after Ma, came the person I wanted to see most.
“Granfer!” I stood, adjusting the babe with a gesture that was already second nature, and came to give him a hug and a kiss. He had definitely changed: one of my deepest fears had been that I would come home to find he’d died and the family hadn’t wanted to tell me while I was away, so even the fact that his hair had faded to a parched lavender did not upset me too much. Besides, his eyes were as vivid as ever, his laugh as warm, and as he enfolded me in his arms I felt that he would go on forever.
“Gemilan, child.” His voice hadn’t changed much; it was as deep and welcoming as I remembered. I clung to him, feeling like I really was a child again, and I’m not ashamed to say that tears came into my eyes. After everything that had happened to me in the past year or so – the deaths I’d witnessed, the friends I’d lost (and gained, but the losses still hurt), the stresses of launching into battle after battle and never knowing which would be your last – in my grandfather’s arms, I felt as if I had never left Zeltros.
He understood; I felt it in the pressure of his arms, in the way he held me close. “Ah, Gemi, it does my heart good to see you again.” He held me until the baby protested; we broke apart, laughing. I blinked back the tears.
“It’s good to see you too, Granfer. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you I was coming, but I only got the delivery commission a couple of days ago. I don’t have long on Zeltros, but I was determined to come and see you. See all of you!” I added, smiling at everyone around.
“Well, it’s been long enough! So you’re captain of your own ship now, are you? Sit down and tell me all your news!” So I did. I told them all, truth and lies intertwined, as the sun went down and the evening dwindled into night. The children went off to bed, some tired and whiny, others protesting their intention to stay up all night, and once the adults remained the gathering turned into an impromptu party, as things so often do on Zeltros.
Friends and neighbours called by as news of my return spread. Drinks were poured and drunk, snacks made and eaten, stories shared. I caught up on the gossip of the neighbourhood, learned who was cohabbing with whom, who had whose baby, who was working where. And I fielded questions, many from my mother, who was asking when I was going to come home. “I need grandchildren, Gemi! You’d be better with a baby in your belly, rather than roaming the stars on your own!”
“Ah, but remember, it’s in my blood – my father is a pilot, after all. And who says I’m on my own?” I added with a broad wink, to a chorus of catcalls and cries of, “Tell us more!” But it was a lie so I refused to elaborate, pretending instead to tease them with my silence.
All told, it was a convivial evening, though it didn’t break up till dawn was silvering the sky. And by then I wasn’t alone, in truth: neighbours further along our street had a son whom I had been sweet on, years ago, and he had turned into a fine figure of a man, albeit I found him somewhat immature compared to others of his age in the squadron. But maturity wasn’t what I wanted that night. As the carousing continued we slipped away with his partner, a stunningly beautiful woman who worked in Zeltros’ holosim industry, and we all celebrated my return to my home planet in the best way possible.
Rather than stay at their house, though, I went back to my own, finding my way to my old room only to discover it had been taken over by Linz and at least two of the small children, who seemed to enjoy sleeping with their older sister. I made up a rough bed on a chair and slept for a couple of hours, waking to find myself the centre of attention from the younger members of the household. It was a little overwhelming, if truth be told; I hadn’t realised how much I had grown used to the relative privacy of life aboard the Murphy and, later, the Mynock. Not that either of these locations offered much privacy, really, but they did at least allow you to sleep unaccompanied in your own bed if you so desired! And Ice did not snore; Linz did.
But it was so wonderful to be home, to be among my family again, that these inconveniences seemed minor in comparison. I was home and, even though the visit would only be a short one, I was enjoying it.
My mother was predictably disappointed to hear that I could only stay for one more day. “I know, Ma, but I have to go tomorrow. The refit won’t take forever and I need to get back to supervise it. I was lucky to get this commission, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to come back at all.”
She sighed, hands busy with preparing another big meal for the family. I had six siblings now; Ma had taken a new lover after I had signed on with the Murphy and had popped out two babies in quick succession. But he had gone the way of the others, including my own father, and now she was on another, much younger man. I admired her persistence – and her endurance. Hopefully I’d be as active when I was her age!
Hopefully, I thought with a touch of macabre humour, I’d live long enough to reach her age.
“Well, I’d like to think you’ll come back sooner, next time,” she added, just a hint of complaint in her tone. “Specially as there’s another babby on the way – I’d like them to meet their oldest sib sooner than young Anser did!”
I gasped. “Ma, you haven’t …! You’ve caught again?”
She laughed. “Yes, I have! You know what they say about younger men …” She winked and I joined in with her laughter, though I was doing my best to conceal my shock. The revelation only seemed to deepen the gulf of expectations between us. Would I have been like this, I wondered, if Connor and Jack had not come into my life and sent it spinning in a completely new direction? If the Rebellion hadn’t occurred, dragging my attention away from the minutiae of trade and forcing me to realise what the Empire was doing to millions of people throughout the galaxy? Would I have been content to learn my trade aboard the Murphy or would I have chosen the path of a mother?
That choice had been made when I joined the Rebellion. Starfighter Command did not want the expense of training pilots who then fell pregnant. A brief visit to sickbay and my old implant had been removed, replaced with another that stopped conception for years. It had been a source of amusement at the time; all the trainers dinned into us the fact that the life expectancy of a pilot was absurdly short, so why bother with an implant that ran into years, not months?
“Well, you’ll have to look to Linz for grandchildren first, not me. I’ve got my ship now,” I declared, trying to put a stop to her foolish wishes. Except it wasn’t the Murphy I meant, nor its alter ego, Luck Runs Wild. It was my own X-wing, with the pilot’s couch that felt as comfortable as my bed (my single bed). “Can’t have a pregnant captain, can we?”
She pulled a face. “A mother’s got to dream. And Linz wants to study more – to go to university, she says, to be a medic. No chance of grandchildren from her for a while!”
I felt a pang, like grief but less enduring. I had wanted to attend university too, but lack of money had forced me into taking the engineer’s job with De’ethra’s crew. Still, if my small contribution to the family’s coffers meant that Linz could do what I could not, then I would be content. Family mattered more than the individual, after all.
“Ma,” I said, as tenderly as I could, “you’ll have your own babbies to keep you busy for a while. Let Linz and me grow up some, then when the time is right you’ll have grandchildren aplenty.”
“Grow up, you say!” she sniffed, sounding hurt. “There’s you almost 19, now – I’d had you by then. Was I not old enough?”
“No, Ma, no!” I jumped up to give her a hug. “I only meant that, well, Linz and I are different people. Different fathers, different wishes, different – everything!” I held her shoulders, gazing into her eyes. I wished I could tell her the truth: it would be so much easier to explain that this could be the last time I’d ever be back on Zeltros. That I wanted everything to go smoothly, to gather only happy memories to sustain me through my time aboard the Mynock. It wasn’t just selfish, either; if – or when – my mother got news of my death, I wanted her to think of our last visit with pleasant memories.
“Don’t be upset because we want different things to you, Ma. Life’s changing. We’re changing! Even the galaxy is changing …” I caught myself abruptly before I could say something negative about the Empire, but my mother made a quick, warding-off gesture.
“Changing, maybe, but I just want that Rebellion to stay well away from here! Zeltros is a peaceful planet. We don’t need anything to upset our lives. I’d be pleased to see ‘em alongside each other, Rebels and Empire, at the casinos and hologram houses, spending their money and being happy, but having them at each others’ throats on our streets – no thank you!” She gave her mixture an emphatic stir, splashing some of the ingredients out of the side of the bowl.
“I know people say the Empire’s getting too powerful but as long as they keep their hands off Zeltros, we’ll be fine.” She darted me a commanding look. “Just you make sure you keep out of everyone’s way, all right? A youngster like you, in charge of your own ship – they might see you as easy to influence to one side or the other.” Her fierceness faded; she reached out one hand to give mine a quick shake.
“I worry about you, Gemilan. Take care of yourself, please. It’s a big galaxy and you’re all alone out there.”
I forced a laugh. “Hardly alone, Ma! I have a crew, remember?”
She made a rude sound. “Huh! A Sullustan and – how many more did you say? One? Two? Like you’re going to be able to hold off a Star Destroyer or one of these Rebel cruisers!”
“Ma, believe me, if I see a Star Destroyer I’ll only be heading in one direction – away from it,” I lied. “’Sides, nobody troubles you out there as long as you stay out of their way.”
“Oh, really? Well, that’s not what I heard,” she began, no doubt ready to give me a story from someone of her acquaintance who knew someone who knew someone who had heard something from somewhere, but then Anser woke up and started to cry, saving me from the whole sorry tale. And, I’m ashamed to say, that’s where I left things, because I didn’t want to lie to her any more. I picked up Anser, crooned to him and even changed him, somewhat clumsily, because it had been years since I’d had to mind my baby sibs, and the moment passed; the diversion worked. But I was left in the middle of my large family, feeling ever more alone as the day went on.
That night we had a party. A proper, organised party, not like the previous evening’s carousing. A party where people had been invited, albeit at just a day’s notice. A party in my honour.
It was the last day of the week, meaning schools had finished and some workplaces were shut. Not all, though; a large proportion of Zeltrons worked in the casinos and other haunts of the entertainment industry. These places never closed: they stayed open clock-round, seeking to part fools from their credits. But a Zeltron party lasted long enough so that anyone, no matter how crowded their schedule, would have at least a couple of hours free to partake of the occasion. I would likely go from the end of the party straight back to my shuttle, to make the first of several jumps to my rendezvous point with the Ugly Mynock. I could always catch up on my sleep in hyperspace. For now, though, I had to prepare!
I spent several hours helping my mother organise food for the event. Zeltron hospitality was legendary. Even at an impromptu party, as had happened on the previous evening, my mother had conjured up sufficient food and drink to cater for all who had attended. With some warning – even just a few hours – she was on a cooking binge to beat all others and anyone nearby was pressed in to help, even if (like some of my youngest sibs) all they could do was gleefully whisk ingredients together, spattering more outwith the bowl than they kept inside.
When I was finally released to get ready, I had to fight for one of the two bathrooms in the house. I showered and washed my long purple hair, rejoicing in the scent of traditional herbs that were used in Zeltron shampoos. Then I negotiated with my eldest sister and my mother to find some different clothes that I could wear. The asymmetric bra top, though gorgeous, had already been seen once!
Finally I was ready. My hair had been twisted up into a loose bun, strands left trailing to soften the look. I wore a floaty dress – quite unlike my usual form-fitting style – that, when the light was right, turned see-through, giving onlookers a glimpse of my toned body, bedecked with one of Linz’s skimpy tops and equally brief shorts from my mother’s non-pregnancy wardrobe. My appearance was greeted with a chorus of cheers, hoots and whistles, enough to make a girl giddy. And then the fun began.
Many of the partygoers had brought instruments, forming an ever-changing band to provide a musical backdrop. We danced, drank, chatted, danced again, drank some more, always enjoying ourselves, always convivial. Zeltrons rarely get drunk; our parties are generally good-natured, without the arguments and fights that so often overtake events held by other species where alcohol is imbibed.
It was before midnight when he appeared. Someone tugged at my arm and pointed; I turned, squealing with delight. “Father! Oh, it’s good to see you!” Throwing my arms around his neck, I treated him to an enthusiastic hug. “I’m so glad someone told you I was home. How are you? Where have you been flying?” He was a pilot; if it hadn’t been for his suggestion to join De’ethra’s crew, I would never have gained the skills that led to my current – well, it’s more a calling than a job, I guess. You don’t see many holo-advertisements encouraging would-be pilots to join the Rebel Alliance.
He smiled, a trifle stiffly, I thought, but it had been years since we had seen each other. “I’m well, daughter. I still pilot with Acclaim Lines, but I have moved on from cargo ships to passenger liners.” He wrinkled his nose. “The flying is the same, but the job requires a lot more diplomacy – especially when we have to mingle with the passengers at dinnertime!”
I laughed. “Yes, I can see that being an – interesting – part of the job! Does that mean you have to wear a uniform all the time?”
“Sadly, yes. But it’s amazing how many women seem to like a Zeltron man in a uniform!” His smile spoke volumes. I chuckled appreciatively and was about to make a comment in return when he continued, “Actually, there’s someone here who would like to meet you. He hasn’t seen you for a while …”
“Oh?” I raised my eyebrows, wondering who it was. Someone, perhaps, looking for a little night-time entertainment? Still smiling, I followed the sweep of his hand, to see …
“Uncle.” My tone was flat, but not just because I had been hoping for someone my own age. The last time I had seen this man, he had pushed me inside the secret smugglers’ hold with the glitterstim and a blaster, whispering that I should stay hidden until De’ethra had paid off the stormtroopers and they could all come aboard again. However, Jack and Connor had appeared instead and stolen the Murphy, leaving her captain and crew stranded on Coruscant and unknowingly taking with them an unwilling stowaway – myself.
“Uncle, I …” There was no point in pretending I hadn’t been taken by surprise. I managed a smile. “Fury, Uncle, it’s good to see you! I’d given up hoping that I would hear how you and the others were faring.” I forced myself to take a step towards him, to give him a careful hug, though I could tell by the tension in his shoulders that this was not a welcome gesture. I stepped back, trying to sound more natural.
“So how are you? What happened to you after – uh, after Coruscant?” I looked from my uncle to his brother, my father, who appeared uneasy. Perhaps, I rationalised, he had come under pressure to bring my uncle to the party. Though he would have familial loyalty to his brother, he should also have similar loyalty to me, as his daughter. This could not have been an easy situation for him, I thought. Kriff, it wasn’t easy for me either!
“We survived. But what about you, Gemilan?” His dark eyes bored into me. “De’ethra has been wanting to know what happened to his ship. Not to mention her cargo.” He put no stress on the final two words, but we both knew that they were the most important.
Fortunately, I had this part of the story down pat. I repeated the sanitised tale of how two pirates had seized the ship with me aboard, then dumped me once they’d had enough of my company. “After that, I have no idea what happened to the Murphy. I’ve been working for another trader, Luck Runs Wild, and though I’ve kept an eye out for the Murphy, I haven’t seen or heard anything. The galaxy’s a big place, though, and they’re out there somewhere. Before they abandoned me, they knew nothing about the cargo, I’m certain of that.”
He had been watching me closely throughout, as if he was weighing everything I said. “Do you know who they were, the two who stole the ship? Names, anything?”
I shrugged. “No names. They called each other by nicknames the whole time – One and Two, or Nip and Tuck, Bibs and Bobs, things like that.”
“Nip? Not Pip? Pip McCauley?”
I shook my head slowly, as if running the name through my mind, mentally cursing the impulse that had led me to choose Nip and Tuck as a suitable alias for the brothers. “No, not Pip – nor McCauley, either.”
“Jack? Jack McCauley. Sometimes goes by the name Frosty.”
Another head-shake, more definite this time. “No, definitely not. None of these names ring a bell. Not McCauley, or Jack, or Frosty. None of these were ever used.” I would do my best to protect Jack, at least. Connor, sadly, was beyond the need for protection. I frowned, as if wondering about something. “So how did you get these names?”
He smiled, but it was more of a grimace than a genuine grin. “De’ethra. Let’s just say he was – somewhat riled – by the loss of his ship, not to mention the cargo. For a time he thought you were involved …” I gasped, starting to shake my head, but he held up a hand. “It’s all right; he knows you weren’t. It took a while – and a lot of credits in bribes – but he found out that the pair who stole her had been involved with Imperial Intelligence. Some kind of set-up, De’ethra thinks, to get their hands on the cargo and make a killing on the re-sale. If De’ethra comes across them now, whether he gets his hands on the Murphy or not, he’s said he’s going to sacrifice them both to his moon-god, along with whichever Imperial hatched the plot.”
I stifled a shiver as I remembered De’ethra. Like most Weequay, he could be vicious, violent and mean-tempered – and that was when things were going well. If he ever did meet up with Jack … well, I wouldn’t want to be nearby when that happened. I resolved instantly to warn Jack to stay well away from Weequay in future. Any Weequay.
“Well, it’s no more than they deserve.” I tried to hide my concern and respond as if I supported De’ethra’s vengeance. “What happened after the ship took off? Did the troopers let you go?”
He snorted. “Eventually – two days later! The trail was cold by then, of course. Just as well De’ethra had access to some more credits – he’d used most of his free ones to buy off the stormies. We got passage off Coruscant, then most of us went our own way onto other ships while De’ethra tried to get another vessel for himself. He’s got one now, so I’ve heard, but he’s still looking for that pair – the McCauleys, or whatever they’re really called – and when he finds them,” his lips parted in a mirthless smile, “let’s just say that I don’t want to be within earshot.”
I shuddered for real, then. “Let’s leave it at that, eh? This is meant to be a party, after all! What d’you want for your drinks?”
“Spiced wine. So tell me, niece, what have you been doing since I saw you last?” And I had to go through the story one more time, feeling fear gnawing in my gut, knowing that one slip could damn both myself and Jack – if anyone ever caught up with him. Which, given that he was a Rebel now, hopefully no-one ever would.
I danced attendance on my uncle and my father for another hour, answering questions, weaving another tissue of lies. My mother inadvertently rescued me when she dragged me off to meet some of her friends; I put up with their questions because, frankly, they were easier to answer than my uncle’s. I managed to avoid him for the rest of the party, though my father did make a brief appearance again to say his farewells as people were starting to drift away.
“I’m sorry for having to bring him,” he murmured in my ear as he pulled me into a warm hug, “but as soon as he heard you were back, he was insistent on coming. I think he’s still close to De’ethra, even though he’s been working for another smuggler for some while. Not that you have anything to worry about, though.” He smoothed a straggle of hair away from my face.
“I’m proud of you, Gemilan. Proud to call you my daughter. Just 18 and already captain of her own ship!”
I smiled and ducked my head, feigning shyness; wondering what his reaction would be if he knew what I was really doing.
“Thank you, father. For passing on your piloting skills,” and hopefully he’d never find out just why that was so useful, “and for your pride in my achievements. I won’t let you down.”
My uncle returned briefly, bending to give me a kinsman’s kiss on the cheek. I did not hug him, but murmured a dutiful farewell. The relief I felt when they both left was intermingled with sadness. I did not like misleading my father, even though I realised that it was necessary. As for my uncle … him I would happily mislead for the rest of his life, if I could.
The party continued until dawn had broken and the day had fully begun. We ate breakfast outside, around the battered table, with the children coming down to join us as they woke up, rubbing their eyes and yawning. It was the perfect end to the party but after the events of the night before I still felt uneasy - perhaps it was just the knowledge that my time with my family was coming to an end. Within a few hours I’d have to leave on the first stage of my journey back to the Mynock. Back to my friends. Back to the Rebellion.
As soon as I could, I excused myself but instead of heading indoors to the bathroom, I sneaked round the back of the house, out of sight of the others. I needed some privacy, a brief escape from my full-on family - not to mention a chance to let down my mental guard. Living among a society of empaths while keeping my own secrets was challenging; in some ways, I was glad I only had two days to spend here. Yawning, I walked away from the house, towards the garden where my sibs and I had played so happily while we were growing up.
It was a beautiful morning. As I stood, looking out over the untamed garden, I felt a sense of peace that I'd been missing for ... oh, far too long. I sighed and, just for a second, allowed myself to imagine that I didn't return to the shuttle later that day. That I could stay on Zeltros with my maddening, wonderful family, being the kind of daughter and sister and lover that they wanted me to be.
It was tempting, yes, I admit that for a moment it was - but it was also utterly impossible. I had no intention of betraying the other Reds; they were my family too. And while I didn't think that my single effort could be the fulcrum which turned the tables on the Empire, I did believe that the Rebels, acting together, would eventually prevail. When that happened, I wanted to be able to say that I had played my part ... if I was alive to see it, of course.
But if I'd died, at least it would be for the best of reasons - to protect those I cared for the most, whether that was my blood relatives here on Zeltros or my adopted family aboard the Mynock.
I was so deep in thought that I didn't hear anyone coming up behind me. When someone spoke, I reacted instinctively, spinning into a crouch with one hand reaching for a blaster that wasn't there.
"Whoa!" My grandfather took a step backwards, lifting his hands palm-up to indicate that he bore no weapons. He eyed me with a shrewd gaze as I blushed and tried to look nonchalant.
"You startled me - I didn't think anyone was nearby ..."
He gave an amused snort. "I can see that, child! Well, if nothing else, that's confirmed what I'd been thinking." Granfer tilted his head to one side, watching me intently. "Just how long have you been in the military, Gemilan?"
For the second time within a minute, I was shocked. "W-what d'you mean?" I stammered, doing my best to look as if I didn't know what he was talking about. "M-military?" I faked a laugh. "I'm just a trader, Granfer. The closest I get to the military is staying away from stormtroopers whenever I'm in port."
His look this time was best described as exasperation mixed with affection. "Gemi, you could never lie to me. To your ma, yes, but not to me. I don't know how you came to be in the military, but I can guess why." He took a couple of steps closer, so we were standing face to face. Anybody approaching would not be able to overhear our conversation until they were right next to us. His gaze was direct and brooked no denial.
"I can't see you agreeing with the Empire, so I think you've joined the Rebel Alliance. And I don't think you're here on an errand. You're on leave - and you don't know when, or if, you'll get another one in future."
My internal struggle this time was brief. If I could trust anyone, it was my grandfather; it had been like that since I was born. Also it had been so difficult, trying to pretend to everyone that my life was proceeding on an even course when in truth I had only survived through a combination of luck, hard-won skill and the relative inexperience of the Imperial pilots I had battled. And, in one memorable incident, I had been spared by a fighter ace for some unknown reason - I still had no idea why Commander Larson had done that, but I thanked him mentally again now. Wherever he might be.
With a swift decision, I pinned my life on the trustworthiness of the man standing in front of me. "All right." I licked my lips; they had turned dry with nerves. "Yes, I've joined the Alliance. I'm a pilot - X-wings, the fighters that brought down the Death Star over Yavin. It's not the safest of jobs, Granfer, so this may be the last time you see me; I don't know." Having shared my secret, it became important to ensure that I left some message for my family, something more personal than the holos we were encouraged to record before a vital mission.
I stretched out one hand, grasping his arm in an urgent grip. "If I don't come back, I want you to tell everyone how much I love them, all right? Tell them why I did it. And above all, tell them never to mention me again. I don't want the Imperials to know that I have any connection to all of you, because if they do, I ... I don't want to think about what they might do as a result."
Though I had just voiced my worst fear - worse even than losing my own life to the Rebel cause - I felt strangely more at ease than I had for some time. There was something about confiding in Granfer that made me feel better, as if I was a little girl again when he'd comfort me for some childhood injury. But when he enfolded me in his arms, an urgent and unexpected embrace, I felt him trembling and realised that he, of all people in my family, understood.
"How did you know what I’d done?" I asked, taking a step backwards eventually so I could look him in the eyes. He smiled, but his gaze remained shadowed.
"Well, in case you haven’t realised, you're not the first member of this family to fight for a cause." He drew himself up proudly and for the first time I could see the hint of military bearing in his stance. "In my case, though, it was before the Clone Wars." My jaw must have dropped because he smiled. "Surprised, hey? Didn't think your old Granfer had it in him?"
I began to protest but he stopped me with an upraised hand. "I'm joking, Gemi. I learned a long time ago to hide that I'd been a fighter - and so should you, if you're planning on making any other trips in civilian clothes." He eyed me significantly. "If I can catch you in an unguarded moment and make you react so ... extravagantly, then an Imperial would also have no trouble identifying you had a military background. And in this day and age, if you're not Imperial, you're Alliance - and that spells trouble."
I nodded, recognising the good sense in his words. It was ironic that the self-defence lessons designed to make me safer could also contain the seeds of my own betrayal. I would have to be more aware of this in future - wherever I went, planet-side, Imperials would no doubt be nearby. "I won't forget," I promised. "But, Granfer - what did you do, when you were serving?" All at once I was eager to know about this hitherto unsuspected aspect of my family's history.
He chuckled and beckoned me over to a rickety bench that sat beneath the lessi tree. The smell of the ripe fruit was sweetness itself, but the bench was in plain view of the entire garden. Nobody could approach without us being aware of them. “Ah, how I got involved - that’s a story in itself!” He sat with a soft groan, one hand in the small of his back, but smiled when he saw my concerned look. “Just old age, nothing more, child. Holo-technology, Gemilan. That’s how I came to be involved.”
I sat down on the bench beside him, ready for the tale. “So how did holo-tech get you into the military, Granfer?” It was just like old times when he’d entertained me as a toddler, spinning stories in the evening.
It turned out he had just finished training as a holo-technologist, a promising newcomer in a burgeoning field, when he’d been tempted offworld by offers of rich pickings to be made on other planets. Holograms had always been a premium product on Zeltros, attracting interest from a wide range of users. CorSec, the Corellian security force, had wanted holographic training scenarios for use by its officers; Granfer had been one of many young holo-techs who had been attracted by the salary and benefits.
Having established himself as a tech of some skill, he’d been headhunted by forces from other planets, carving out a lucrative career designing holo-training simulations of ever greater complexity. His final contract was on Coruscant, back when Emperor Palpatine had been just a Senator and the Jedi Knights had been a byword for honour, responsibility and truth.
“I wasn’t employed as a tech by then, oh no,” Granfer said, wrinkles tugging at the corner of his mouth as he smiled. His tone of voice indicated that he found this more amusing than it sounded. “This task was far too important to be handled by a mere civilian. I was given rank in the Coruscant military, Gemi; Lieutenant Pascan, if you please."
I chuckled, giving him a jokey salute. “My Granfer, the Lieutenant! I’m a humble flight officer and likely to stay so.”
He waved aside my levity. “Rank isn’t important; it’s what you do that matters. I went through an accelerated officers’ training course, learned how to salute and how to address senior officers and how to march in step. It wasn’t all show, though; we learned how to handle weapons, how to give orders, how to work as a team - all the skills you’ll be aware of, I’m sure.” He gave me a shrewd look; I shrugged, smiling.
"Even pilots learn how to handle a blaster - but I'm better with laser cannon!" It felt good to be able to joke about my life after hiding the truth since I had arrived but Granfer shook his head with a rueful smile. I could tell he was worried; empathy can be a curse at times. I wished I could reassure him, but his military background meant he would probably see through any attempt to be economical with the truth.
He cleared his throat. "Well, I was surprised to find I enjoyed being a soldier. I was even good at it, or so my trainers told me. But what Command really valued were my skills in holo-design. I was in charge of a team constructing the latest in holo-sims for Coruscant's military - army mainly, but I also designed some piloting sims too." I raised my eyebrows at that; he smiled. "Oh yes, multi-talented, I was! And I enjoyed my job, too, even though I’d never had any ambitions to join the military when I started my career. But as the years went on and politics changed, I began to find that my work was taking on a new slant. “ A frown corrugated his brow as his gaze ranged back over the decades, sparking memories long submerged by time.
“It happened gradually, much as the changes in the Galactic Senate occurred - tiny steps, almost insignificant if considered one at a time, but they built up into much larger changes. More and more, the holo-sims I designed were sent back by senior officers with demands for alterations - removing Jedi from the list of allies so they didn’t fight alongside our soldiers in the sims, that was one example; having more non-humans as enemies; then only having humans as members of the Coruscant military … “ Granfer sighed, shaking his head.
“I tried to speak out against it, to point out that they were at the very least giving an unrealistic picture of what were supposed to be realistic training simulations, but my protests were first ignored and then simply dismissed by Command. I was eventually warned to shut up or risk a court-martial - or worse. By now Senator Palpatine had declared himself Emperor and Darth Vader was his right-hand man. Coruscant was renamed Imperial Centre and those of us who weren’t human - even near-humans like Zeltrons - found our lives were increasingly hemmed in by restrictions and interference.”
I was enthralled by now, imagining my Granfer in an officer’s uniform, but I could tell that he was finding it hard to talk about his experiences. My empathy is always better in close proximity to a person, without distraction from others nearby, and I could almost feel his mingled pain and grief. I rested one hand on his forearm, to remind him that he was not alone, but I don’t think he felt my touch; he had been transported back in time almost 20 years to one of the defining moments of recent history.
“Many things had changed by then, Gemi. We weren’t members of the Coruscant military any more but the Imperial Army. Clone troopers flooded Imperial Centre, as the world was now named, and clones don’t need sims to the same extent as raw recruits. Also, the Jedi were … gone; at one swoop, it seemed, they had ceased to exist. I had a good friend, a Jedi who worked in their library -” he paused, an expression of grief crossing his face. “She didn’t deserve what happened to them. Not that we heard officially, you understand, but who needs the holonet when rumours pass from person to person far more effectively than official news? And we all knew by then what the Emperor was like, especially those of us who were not human.” He put a bitter twist to that final word.
“I tried to resign my commission, but I was told that I couldn’t leave. Apparently I was too ‘important’ to the Imperial cause - more like, they didn’t want me spreading rumours about life at the centre of the Empire. When I was told I was being moved from my officer’s quarters to be sent to an area of Coruscant reserved for non-humans, I realised that there were only two things I could do - die in Imperial service, probably very soon, or attempt to escape. I managed to make my way off Coruscant by faking my own death; nobody in authority bothered about events in Invisec, as it was already becoming known, and I paid enough credits to ensure my travel permits were as secure as my slicer contact could make them. Eventually I made my way back to Zeltros, where my daughter had just given birth to her first child.” He smiled at me; I grinned in return.
“And that’s my story, Gemi. I made a new life here, using my skills to create holo-sims for the tourists. Occasionally I use my military experience for … private commissions, but on the whole I’m glad to leave that time of my life behind.” He covered my hand with his own, his voice becoming ragged as he tried to keep his emotions under control. I could feel tears welling in my eyes and cursed my own empathy as he continued, “I can’t say I’m happy that you have put yourself in danger, but I know you well enough to be sure that you had good reasons for doing it. Just … please, take care of yourself, child. The Empire is terrifying in its reach, its control. You Rebels, you represent the most serious threat the Emperor has faced in years and he will do everything in his power to crush you all. Remember, Gemi, if you ever need to hide … you have family here. We will do everything we can to keep you safe. You and your friends, if that’s what it takes!”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I know, Granfer, and I’ll remember that. Don’t you worry - I will remember.” But I didn’t say to him that I would never, ever come anywhere near Zeltros if I was being chased by the Empire; I’d go as far away as possible if it meant keeping my family safe. But I buried that thought so he couldn’t pick up on it with his own empathic senses, concentrating instead on how happy I was to be here with him.
“I’ve found her! She’s talking with Granfer!” The voice belonged to Deek, my oldest brother, third of my mother’s children. He’d come round the side of the house, clearly looking for me. I gave him a wave.
“I’ll be with you in a minute! Just catching up.” I turned back to Granfer with a rueful smile. “I guess I should go. I … I’m glad we’ve had a chance to talk, though, and I’ll remember what you’ve said - all of it. I’m glad I’m following in your footsteps, Lieutenant Pascan, sir.” I didn’t want to risk a salute, even a jokey one, with Deek nearby so I simply smiled but I knew Granfer could sense my true feelings; I wasn’t hiding them now.
“Just come home safely, Gemi, that’s all I ask. But -” his breath hitched and he had to pause before he could continue, “but if the worst happens, I’ll pass on your message to your Ma.”
I nodded jerkily. “Thanks, Granfer. I’ll do my best to make sure you never have to tell her, though.” I leaned forwards, kissed his cheek and stood to follow my brother, though I knew that my grandfather thought he would never see me again.
Empathy. I swear, it’s a greater curse than a blessing.
Saying goodbye to my family for the second time was the hardest thing I’d ever had to do. Before that farewell, my worst moment had been the memorial service for the dead Banthas. Then, as now, I struggled not to cry; as far as my family was concerned, I would be back again some time in the future, when my trade schedules allowed. But as I wrapped my arms around my grandfather for a final embrace, I found it harder than ever to keep back my tears.
“Stay safe, Gemi-child. And remember, I’m closer than you think,” he whispered for my ears alone.
I walked out of the garden gate and I didn’t look back.
All the bustle and delight of Santroni spaceport failed to beguile me this time around. I was walking, head down, back to my shuttle when someone dragged me into an alleyway between two tourist shops, clamping one hand over my mouth so I couldn’t scream. I wish I could say that I remembered Granfer’s warning and didn’t over-react, but truthfully I was taken by surprise.
“De’ethra wants a word with you!” muttered a voice I knew all too well and only then did I respond. Driving my elbow backwards, I twisted clear, shrugging my pack off my shoulder to free me up for further manoeuvring.
My uncle swore as he pulled out a vibroblade and thumbed it on, the wicked whine sharpening my senses. I could almost hear the voice of my unarmed combat instructor from Rainworld Academy; my body remembered smoothly and I moved in, closing the distance before my uncle could respond. I kicked at his knee, sending it in a direction the joint was not meant to go; he shrieked and dropped the blade but I was still in motion, the heel of my hand slamming upwards into his nose. It broke with an audible crack, sending blood streaming down his face, but I wasn’t finished yet - my foot was heading for his groin. He let out a scream and collapsed, hands clasped between his legs. Only then did I stop, barely breathing heavily although adrenalin was racing through my body.
I stooped, picked up the vibroblade and switched it off, tucking it into the pocket of my shorts. Dropping to one knee beside my would-be attacker, I said clearly, “Tell De’ethra that I have nothing to say to him. I don’t know where the Dropkick Murphy is - or the McCauleys, if that’s their real name. They’re in my past and so is he. And if I ever see you again, you kriffer,” I clasped my hand around his chin and looked at him fiercely, “I’ll kick you so hard next time your balls will end up in your mouth. Understood?”
I didn’t wait for his reaction; I let go, picked up my bag and walked out of the alleyway, pausing only to shout, “And no means NO, you …..!” The Zeltron obscenity that followed wasn’t what caused heads to turn; it was the implication that someone had overstepped the bounds of good behaviour. On our planet, everyone was brought up to understand that a refusal was final. A passer-by put a hand on my arm; I stiffened, then forced myself to relax. (Granfer would have been proud of me.)
“Can I call port security?”
“No, thanks - I’ve dealt with him.” I gave the man a quick smile. “No need to bother security for someone who has no manners.”
He chuckled and nodded, glancing into the alleyway as he walked on. I followed his gaze - it looked like my uncle was fumbling in his pocket for something, so I shouldered my pack and hurried off. While I didn’t think he’d be walking any time soon, he could easily call for help and I had no desire to be confronted by a larger number of opponents.
I used my commlink to contact the port control, requesting an early lift slot. It left me just enough time to do a walkaround of the shuttle and complete the full power-up sequence. I settled into the pilot’s seat, eagerly anticipating the moment when I’d be back in my X-wing’s comfortable couch, and awaited the controller’s signal for lift-off.
It was only my habit of taking off with shields engaged that saved me. Ever since my first launch from the Ugly Mynock, shortly we’d captured the cruiser from the Imperials, I had always brought my shields up before leaving the protection of the ship and that hadn’t changed for planetary departures. I had barely punched through Zeltros’ atmosphere when laser fire splashed across my shields, causing me to jink sideways then curse the unresponsive nature of the shuttle’s controls compared to my X-wing’s finely-tuned handling. I hurled the craft into a dive, all the while scanning for the source of the blasts.
A stream of invective came across the comm; even after all this time, I recognised his voice. “Thief! Traitor! Where my ship?”
I redistributed my shields, dodging as best as possible the green laser bolts which sizzled past. “What ship are you talking about? Who are you, anyway?” I knew it was De’ethra but for the sake of those monitoring the comm frequencies, I was better off pretending to be innocent of everything.
The board came alive with calls. “Port control to freighter Weequay’s Revenge! Cease firing! Hostilities are forbidden in Zeltros nearspace!”
From a nearby Corellian transport: “Nomad to the idiots in the freighter, steer clear - we have a flammable cargo; if one of those lasers hits us we’ll go up like a second sun!”
I spotted the Corellian ship and adjusted course as much as possible to give it a wide berth without leaving myself vulnerable to De’ethra’s guns. “Shuttle Theta Three to control - requesting some help up here! This mynock thinks I’ve stolen his ship or something!” I jinked around a Zeltron transport … and froze as the unmistakable silhouette of an Imperial Star Destroyer appeared in my viewport. Instinctively I broke to starboard, seeking to escape the inevitable flight of TIEs intent upon my destruction, only to remember seconds later that I wasn’t in my X-wing; nothing marked me as a Rebel.
“Shuttle Theta Three, this is Captain Mehmet Astha of the Star Destroyer Oblivion. We can offer protection; close to one klick off our port side. Weequay’s Revenge, stand down or we fire.” The voice was deep, male and had a reassuring kick of malevolence in the message for De’ethra.
Who, of course, completely ignored it. “She stealed my ship! I want!” he roared in his broken Basic, sending another volley of shots towards me. I banked steeply - I would have inverted completely, but the shuttle would probably have disintegrated - and headed for the Oblivion, realising that I was already breaking my promise to my mother to stay away from the Imperials. The irony wasn’t lost on me, but I was too busy making sure that De’ethra’s gunners were more likely to hit the Star Destroyer than my ship. The shuttle’s shields were already down to just under 50% and I had no desire to lose any more protection.
“Captain Astha! Courier pilot Lentel from Zeltros aboard the Theta Three - where do you want me to go?” I used the cover identity which I’d been assigned for the delivery part of the mission; the panic in my voice was only half-feigned as De’ethra showed no sign of stopping and I was beginning to wonder what it would take to drive him away. A Weequay in the grip of an obsession was a chilling sight.
“Drop your shields, Three, and we’ll tractor you behind the protection of ours. Two Zeltron gunboats are on their way and will take care of the freighter.”
Fury, this was getting worse! “No - I don’t have time! I’m on an essential delivery and I can’t stop. Just keep him away from me and … and I’ll come back and thank you later. Properly!” I sent the shuttle into a flabby corkscrew, trying to keep out of De’ethra’s gunsights - his new freighter had at least three turrets, as distinct from the single dropkick aboard the Murphy. One laser burst hit me, dropping the shields another ten points, and the others splashed harmlessly over the Star Destroyer’s protection. It would take a squadron of Rebel fighters all firing proton torpedoes to break through its shields. How I wished I had the rest of Red Squadron with me now!
A blue flash illuminated the cabin with an actinic glow. The instrument panels fizzed and popped before settling down to their usual configurations again. I realised that an ion bolt must have passed close by, probably fired by the Star Destroyer, and sure enough when I checked my screens the Weequay’s freighter was hanging in space. De’ethra’s screams were muted by the malfunctioning commlink, so I could only imagine how he sounded to his crew. ‘Furious’ didn’t even begin to describe it!
I took a deep breath as I brought my valiant little shuttle around on a slow sweep away from the menacing bulk of the capital ship. The gunboats were clearly identifiable on my screens but they were still some minutes away and I had no intention of hanging around for questioning, even if it meant putting De’ethra behind bars.
“Thank you, Captain Astha.” I didn’t have to fake the gratitude in my voice. “Please tell the gunboats that this seems to be a case of mistaken identity - the freighter’s captain says I stole his ship which, I can assure you, I did not!” I hadn’t, either - Jack and Connor had. I had just been dragged along for the ride.
“Pilot, you’ll be needed to testify to the Zeltron authorities …” the captain began but I cut in.
“I can’t. I have an urgent delivery which is time-dependent and I can’t afford the penalty fees. Your testimony is just as relevant as mine, captain - and I’m guessing you’ll be here for a while, if your ship is scheduled for some R&R.” There were few other reasons why an Imperial capital ship would be stationed off Zeltros; it was a good guess. I let my voice develop into a throaty purr. “If you deal with him, I’ll be very grateful when I return, captain. Very grateful indeed.”
I remained on my outward course, ignoring any hails from the gunboats - they were too far away to attempt to force me to stay. And of course, Captain Astha was assuring them of my pressing delivery and my intentions to return as soon as I had handed over my goods. It had to be the only time when an Imperial captain unwittingly aided the escape of a Rebel pilot but it helped to offset the pang of leaving my family behind. As I passed beyond the reach of Zeltros’ gravitational pull, I toggled a lever and watched as my home planet disappeared into the blue blur of hyperspace.
Back aboard the Ugly Mynock, it was easy to forget that my brief interlude with my family had ever existed. I was immediately sucked back into the mundane reality of a starfighter pilot’s life: the mission briefings, the simulations, the skirmishes and battles that resulted. Only the constantly rotating stream of holo-images on the player next to my bunk provided a tangible reminder of the loved ones I’d left behind.
I had just finished a simulation for our next mission - a rescue run on our captured base on the planet Kay Ron - when the idea abruptly occurred to me. I sent my sim scores to the training officer’s datapad and quickly sliced into the top layer of the command program, where the information about developers and requirements was usually stored. The lead designer’s name was easy to find: he - or she - was apparently called “Strong Heart”.
I sighed. It had been a stupid idea, really; nobody would sign their real name to a sim program used by Rebels … I caught my breath. Maybe nobody would - in Basic. But in the Zeltron dialect, ‘strong heart’ translates as one word.