“I was eighteen kilometers above sea level when they caught me,” she said.
The droid measured her heart rate from across the room (sixty-two beats per minute, seven above her baseline) and stored her voiceprint for post-session analysis. It performed a cursory optical scan and noted the scrapes on her lips and forehead; the sling supporting her right arm. She had begun to regain muscle mass, though she remained—the droid permitted itself a poetic flourish—frail.
“You remember the precise altitude?” the droid asked. For this interaction it had chosen a masculine voice, bass and hollow. The sound projected from a speaker on the underside of its spherical black chassis.
“I have an extremely good memory.”
The droid oriented the red lens of its photoreceptor as if to stare. “So do I.”
The woman met its gaze. The droid readjusted the lens.
This is the story she told.
Eighteen kilometers above the surface of the planet Nacronis, Yrica Quell fled for her life.
The siltstorm raged outside her starfighter, blue and yellow mud roiling against the faceted viewport. A burst of wind lifted the ship’s port-side wing, nearly sending her into a spin; she adjusted her repulsors with her gloved left hand while the right urged a rattling lever into position. The ship leveled out, and the comforting howl of its twin ion engines rose to a screech as six million stony granules entered the exhaust. Quell winced as she bounced in her harness, listening to her vessel’s agony.
Emerald light shot past the viewport, incinerating ribbons of airborne mud. She increased her thrust and plunged deeper into the storm, ignoring the engines’ scream.
Her scanner showed three marks rapidly closing from behind—two fewer than she’d hoped for. She moved a hand to the comm, recalibrated her frequency, and called out two names: “Tonas? Barath?” When no one answered, she recalibrated again and tried, “This is TIE pilot Yrica Quell to Nacronis ground control.” But Tonas and Barath were surely dead, and the locals were jammed, out of range, or ardently inclined to ignore her.
Another volley of emerald particle bolts sizzled past her ship. Quell maintained her vector. She was a fine defensive pilot, but only the storm could keep her alive now. She had to trust to the wind and the blinding mud to throw off her enemy’s aim.
Her comm sounded at last. “Lieutenant Quell?”
She leaned forward, straining at her harness, trying to peer through the storm as her teeth chattered and her hips knocked against her seat. A ribbon of blue silt streaked by and she glimpsed, beyond it, a flash of white light: lightning ahead and twenty degrees to port.
“Lieutenant Quell? Please acknowledge.”
She considered her options. She could head toward the lightning—toward the storm’s center, where the winds would be strongest. There she could try to locate an updraft. Reduce her thrust, overcharge her repulsors, and let the draft and the repulsors’ antigravity toss her ship high while her pursuers passed below. If she didn’t black out, if she didn’t become disoriented, she could dip back down and re-engage her enemy from behind, eliminating one, maybe two before they realized where she’d gone.
“You are hereby ordered to reduce speed, eject, and await pickup, detention, and court-martial.”
She couldn’t imagine that the man on the other end of the comm would fall for such a maneuver. More likely she’d be shot down while she spun helplessly through the sky.
Of course, she’d also be shot if she ejected. Major Soran Keize was a good man, an admirable man, but she knew there would be no court-martial.
She changed course toward the lightning and pitched her ship incrementally downward. Toward the ground, she reminded herself—ground, like atmosphere and gravity, was a challenge she normally flew without. Another flash of emerald suggested her foes were getting closer, likely attempting to catch her in their crossfire.
She let the wind guide her. She couldn’t outfly Major Keize, but she was at least as good as his squadron mates. She’d flown with Shana, seen Tong’s flight stats, and Quell deserved her fate if she couldn’t match them both. She dived through a ribbon of yellow silt that left her momentarily blind, then reduced her repulsor output until the TIE fighter’s aerodynamics took over and sent it veering at a sharp angle. Quell might find atmospheric flight challenging, but her opponents would find an enemy jerked about by gravity positively confounding. The next volley of particle blasts was just a glimmer in her peripheral vision.
They would be back on her soon. A thunderclap loud enough to resonate in her bones reassured her she was near the storm’s center. She wondered, startled by the thought, if she should say something to the major before the end—make some last plea or acknowledgment of their years together—then blotted the idea from her mind. She’d made her decision.
She looked through her streaked cockpit at the swirling vortex of colors. She accelerated as hard as the TIE would allow, checked her instruments through the pain in her skull and the glimmering spots in front of her eyes, counted to five, then tilted her fighter an additional fifty degrees toward the ground.
After that, two events occurred nearly simultaneously. Somehow she was aware of them both.
As Quell’s fighter rushed toward the surface of Nacronis, her three pursuers—already accelerating to match Quell’s speed—flew directly toward the storm center. Two of the enemy TIEs, according to her scanner, attempted to break away. They were caught by the gale and, as they decelerated, swept into each other. Both were immediately destroyed in the collision.
The third pilot attempted to navigate the gauntlet of lightning and silt. He fared better, but his starfighter wasn’t equal to his skill. Something went wrong—Quell guessed that silt particles had crept into seams in the TIE’s armor, or that a lightning strike had shorted the fighter’s systems—and Major Soran Keize, too, disappeared from her scanner. The ace of the 204th Imperial Fighter Wing was dead.
At the same time her pursuers met their end, Quell attempted to break out of her dive. She saw nothing of the world outside her cockpit, nothing beyond her instruments, and her body felt leaden as she operated the TIE’s controls. She’d managed to level out the ship when she heard a deafening crash and felt her seat heave beneath her. She realized half a second later that the bottom of her starboard wing had struck the mire of Nacronis’s surface and was dragging through the silt. Half a second after that, she lost total control of her vessel and made the mistake of reaching for the ejector switch with her right hand.
The TIE fighter halted abruptly and she was thrown at the now-cracked viewport. The safety harness caught her extended right arm and snapped her brittle bones as the straps cut into her body. Her face smashed against the inside of her flight helmet. Agony and nausea followed. She heard nothing but an unidentifiable dull roar. She blacked out and woke almost immediately—swiftly enough to savor the still-fresh pain.
Quell had an extremely good memory, but she didn’t remember cutting herself free of the safety harness or clambering out of the cockpit hatch. She didn’t remember whether she’d vomited when she’d removed her helmet. She remembered, vaguely, the smell of burning circuits and her own sweat—but that was all, until she sat on top of her broken craft amid a multicolored marsh and looked up at the sky.
She couldn’t tell if it was night or day. The swirling, iridescent storm looked like an oily whirlpool, blotting out sun or stars or both. It churned and grew, visibly expanding moment by moment. Glimmering above the white lightning, faint and high, were the orange lights of atmospheric explosions: the payloads of other TIE fighters.
The explosions would stoke the storm, Quell knew—stoke and feed it, and others like it, until storms tore through every city on Nacronis. The silt would flay towers and citadels to their steel bones. Children would choke on mud flooding the streets. All because an order had been given, and only Quell and Tonas and Barath had bothered to defy it.
This was what her Empire had become in the days after Endor. She saw it now, but she was too late to save Nacronis.
Copyright © 2019 by Alexander Freed. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.