Blows Against the Empire
The door to Tarkin’s quarters whooshed open, disappearing into the partition, and out he marched, dressed in worn trousers and ill-fitting boots, with a lightweight gray-green duster draped over his shoulders. As the adjutant hurried to keep pace with the taller man’s determined steps, the strident voice of the protocol droid slithered through the opening before the door resealed itself.
“But, sir, the fitting!”
Originally a cramped garrison base deployed from a Victory-class Star Destroyer, Sentinel now sprawled in all directions as a result of prefabricated modules that had since been delivered or assembled on site. The heart of the facility was a warren of corridors linking one module to the next, their ceilings lost behind banks of harsh illuminators, forced-air ducts, fire-suppression pipes, and bundled strands of snaking wires. Everything had an improvised look, but as this was Moff Wilhuff Tarkin’s domain, the radiantly heated walkways and walls were spotless, and the pipes and feeds were meticulously organized and labeled with alphanumerics. Overworked scrubbers purged staleness and the smell of ozone from the recycled air. The corridors were crowded not only with specialists and junior officers, but also with droids of all sizes and shapes, twittering, beeping, and chirping to one another as their optical sensors assessed the speed and momentum of Tarkin’s forward march and propelling themselves out of harm’s way at the last possible instant, on treads, casters, repulsors, and ungainly metal legs. Between the blare of distant alarms and the warble of announcements ordering personnel to muster stations, it was difficult enough to hear oneself think, and yet Tarkin was receiving updates through an ear bead as well as communicating continually with Sentinel’s command center through a speck of a microphone adhered to his voice box.
He wedged the audio bead deeper into his ear as he strode through a domed module whose skylight wells revealed that the storm had struck with full force and was shaking Sentinel for all it was worth. Exiting the dome and moving against a tide of staff and droids, he right-angled through two short stretches of corridor, doors flying open at his approach and additional personnel joining him at each juncture—senior officers, navy troopers, communications technicians, some of them young and shorn, most of them in uniform, and all of them human—so that by the time he reached the command center, the duster billowing behind him like a cape, it was as if he were leading a parade.
At Tarkin’s request, the rectangular space was modeled after the sunken data pits found aboard Imperial-class Star Destroyers. Filing in behind him, the staffers he had gathered along the way rushed to their duty stations, even while others already present were leaping to their feet to deliver salutes. Tarkin waved them back into their swivel chairs and positioned himself on a landing at the center of the room with a clear view of the holoimagers, sensor displays, and authenticators. Off to one side of him, Base Commander Cassel, dark-haired and sturdy, was leaning across the primary holoprojector table, above which twitched a grainy image of antique starfighters executing strafing runs across Rampart’s gleaming surface, while the marshaling station’s batteries responded with green pulses of laser energy. In a separate holovid even more corrupted than the first, insect-winged Geonosian laborers could be seen scrambling for cover in one of the station’s starfighter hangars. A distorted voice was crackling through the command center’s wall-mounted speaker array.
“Our shields are already down to forty percent, Sentinel . . . jamming our transmiss . . .lost communication with the Brentaal. Request immediate . . . Sentinel. Again: request immediate reinforcement.”
A skeptical frown formed on Tarkin’s face. “A sneak attack? Impossible.”
“Rampart reports that the attack ship transmitted a valid HoloNet code on entering the system,” Cassel said. “Rampart, can you eavesdrop on the comm chatter of those starfighters?”
“Negative, Sentinel,” the reply came a long moment later. “They’re jamming our signals net.”
Peering over his shoulder at Tarkin, Cassel made as if to cede his position, but Tarkin motioned for him to stay where he was. “Can the image be stabilized?” he asked the specialist at the holoprojector controls.
“Sorry, sir,” the specialist said. “Increasing the gain only makes matters worse. The transmission appears to be corrupted at the far end. I haven’t been able to establish if Rampart initiated countermeasures.”
Tarkin glanced around the room. “And on our end?”
“The HoloNet relay station is best possible,” the specialist at the comm board said.
“It is raining, sir,” a different spec added, eliciting a chorus of good-natured laughter from others seated nearby. Even Tarkin grinned, though fleetingly.
“Who are we speaking with?” he asked Cassel.
“A Lieutenant Thon,” the commander said. “He’s been on station for only three months, but he’s following protocol and transmitting on priority encryption.”
Tarkin clasped his hands behind his back beneath the duster and glanced at the specialist seated at the authenticator. “Does the effectives roster contain an image of our Lieutenant Thon?”
“On screen, sir,” the staffer said, flicking a joystick and indicating one of the displays.
Tarkin shifted his gaze. A sandy-haired human with protruding ears, Thon was as untried as he sounded. Fresh from one of the academies, Tarkin thought. He stepped down from the platform and moved to the holoprojector table to study the strafing starfighters more closely. Bars of corruption elevatored through the stuttering holovid. Rampart’s shields were nullifying most of the aggressors’ energy beams, but all too frequently a disabling run would succeed and white-hot explosions would erupt in one of the depot’s deep-space docks.
“Those are Tikiars and Headhunters,” Tarkin said in surprise.
“Modified,” Cassel said. “Basic hyperdrives and upgraded weaponry.”
Tarkin squinted at the holo. “The fuselages bear markings.” He turned in the direction of the spec closest to the authenticator station. “Run the markings through the database. Let’s see if we can’t determine whom we’re dealing with.”
Tarkin turned back to Cassel. “Did they arrive on their own, or launch from the attack ship?”
“Delivered,” the commander said.
Without turning around Tarkin said: “Has this Thon provided holovid or coordinates for the vessel that brought the starfighters?”
“Holovid, sir,” someone said, “but we only got a quick look at it.”
“Replay the transmission,” Tarkin said.
A separate holotable projected a blurry, blue-tinted image of a fantailed capital ship with a spherical control module located amidships. The downsloping curved bow and smooth hull gave it the look of a deep-sea behemoth. Tarkin circled the table, appraising the hologram.
“What is this thing?”
“Begged and borrowed, sir,” someone reported. “Separatist-era engineering more than anything else. The central sphere resembles one of the old Trade Federation droid control computers, and the entire forward portion might’ve come from a Commerce Guild destroyer. Front-facing sensor array tower. IFF’s highlighting modules consistent with CIS Providence-, Recusant-, and Munificent-class warships.”
“Pirates?” Cassel ventured. “Privateers?”
“Have they issued any demands?” Tarkin asked.
“Nothing yet.” Cassel waited a beat. “Insurgents?”
“No data on the starfighter fuselage markings, sir,” someone said.
Tarkin touched his jaw but said nothing. As he continued to circle the hologram, a flare of wavy corruption in the lower left portion captured his attention. “What was that?” he said, standing tall. “At the lower— There it is again.” He counted quietly to himself; at the count of ten he fixed his gaze on the same area of the hologram. “And again!” He swung to the specialist. “Replay the recording at half speed.”
Tarkin kept his eyes on the lower left quadrant as the holovid restarted and began a new count. “Now!” he said, in advance of every instance of corruption. “Now!”
Chairs throughout the room swiveled. “Encryption noise?” someone suggested.
“Ionization effect,” another said.
Tarkin held up a hand to silence the speculations. “This isn’t a guessing game, ladies and gentlemen.”
“Interval corruption of some sort,” Cassel said.
“Of some sort indeed.” Tarkin watched silently as the prerecorded holovid recycled for a third time, then he moved to the communications station. “Instruct Lieutenant Thon to show himself,” he said to the seated spec.
“Tell him to train a cam on himself.”
Copyright © 2015 by John Jackson Miller. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.