Luceno / STAR WARS CATALYST
“What if . . .”
It was as much as Galen Erso got out before falling silent and pacing away from the alphanumeric data field that hovered above the holoprojector. Galen’s fragment of a question also seemed to hang in the air, and his fellow researchers in the control room stopped what they were doing to regard him in palpable expectation. One of them, Nurboo, broke the pregnant silence.
“You’ve a new idea, Galen? Should we delay the test?”
Galen either didn’t hear him or didn’t care to. He stood motionless for a moment, his gaze unfocused, then resumed his determined pacing, mumbling numbers and calculations to himself.
A second Valltii gave his large and hirsute head a doleful shake. “It’s no good, we’ve lost him.”
From across the room, Tambo’s gravelly voice shushed him.
“Can’t you see he’s thinking?”
Galen’s pose certainly said as much. His head was lowered, eyes and lips narrowed, and his thick arms were folded across his chest, as if clutching something to himself. The new idea, perhaps.
Standing just over 1.8 meters tall, he was broad-shouldered and well developed, despite having spent most of his thirty-odd standard years in earnest rumination and reflection, often scribbling the results of all that thinking on whatever was handy. His hair was uncombed, falling around his face in heavy strands in a way that made him dashing in sunlight, dangerous in the dark.
Lyra finally pushed herself out of her chair and ambled over to him.
“What if . . .” she said in a patient, leading way.
Everyone in the control room took it as a good sign when the thumb and forefinger of Galen’s left hand went briefly to the corners of his mouth, stretching the skin.
“We’re getting there,” Lyra said. She loved it when Galen went so deep that he essentially disappeared from the world, going where few could follow, to his own private hyperspace.
A few centimeters shorter than him, she had a high forehead and layered auburn hair that just reached her shoulders. Arching brows and a slightly downturned mouth gave her a somewhat somber look, though she was anything but. She and Galen had wed on Coruscant almost five years earlier, and she was every bit her husband’s equal in appeal, with the physique of a natural athlete, honed by a lifetime of exploration on dozens of remote worlds. Bundled up in a coarse sweater and baggy trousers, Lyra affected a colorful earflapped cap made of local yarn, and she wore it well.
The only humans among the research group, they were a long way from the Core, and even farther from the conflict that had recently erupted between the Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems, the so-called Separatists. The six stout Valltii they had lived and worked with for the past four standard months had large round faces and mouths made for chewing meat. Beneath lustrous growths of facial hair, their skin was as blue as the glacial ice that covered half the planet. Galen and Lyra conversed with them in a pidgin of Galactic Basic and the indigenous language, which was guttural and filled with lengthy words that were confounding to humans. With an ear for mimicry, Lyra did better with the language than Galen did.
She was on the verge of goading him again when he blinked as if remembering who or where he was, and his attention returned to the data field.
She smiled lightly. He was back.
Reviewing the lengthy differential equations top to bottom, Galen stepped closer to the field, as if there were something to be discerned behind it or along its faintly oscillating edges.
“Assis,” he said finally, addressing the droid on the far side of the holoprojector.
“Yes, Dr. Erso.”
“Line four. Change the coefficient to five and recalculate.”
The TDK-160 research-assistant, a reconfigurable droid that just then was standing on two slender alloy legs, complied and sent the results to the holotable.
Everyone kept their attention on the field while the quotient groups, coefficients, and derivatives began to shift.
The control room was designed to house technology rather than living beings. Lined with humming machines, it lacked windows and was always colder than it had any right being. Heat was pumped in through ducts high overhead, but the room’s real warmth came from its having acquired a lived-in look through long months of research and experimentation. No one minded the unpacked crates stacked in the corners, the empty food containers piled on Nurboo’s worktable, or the litter of backup data storage devices. As cluttered and claustrophobic as it was, it was more hospitable than just about anywhere outside.
Thick walls broken by sliding entryways kept out the worst of the cold. A rear doorway accessed a ramp leading to a labyrinth of corridors that connected disparate parts of the facility, a few of them wide enough to accommodate compact utility speeders. Elsewhere were banks of computers and analyzers, plotting boards, comm stations, even a rudimentary HoloNet transceiver for extraplanetary communications.
It wasn’t Lyra’s kind of place at all, but she had formed fast friendships with Galen’s colleagues, and Vallt was home for now.
Most of the ignition facility lay far below them, where gases were compelled to mingle and intense heat was generated. There, too, was the superheated ion-plasma reactor and the superconducting coils that cooled it, along with the hydrothermal autoclaves in which enormous crystals were synthetically grown. The fusion plant itself could power Vallt’s entire northern continent, and one day it might, but that wasn’t its present purpose. The goal was to generate outbursts of raw power that could be harvested, stored in capacitors, and doled out sustainably to worlds in need. The place hadn’t come cheap even in prewar credits, and Zerpen Industries, headquartered in an autonomous system in the Outer Rim, was still awaiting a return on its investment.
“The equation won’t resolve,” Nurboo said when the data field began flashing as if beside itself in confusion.
Galen addressed the droid once more. “Assis, go back.”
The original integrals and summation symbols returned to the field, and Galen studied them for a long moment.
“Is that a smile?” Tambo asked. “Lyra, is he smiling?”
Instead of retasking Assis, Galen leaned into the field and began to wave his arms in the air like an orchestra conductor or magician, altering the calculation. When the field had transformed and stabilized, everyone gathered around the holotable to scrutinize the results.
“That’s a fine number,” one of the Valltii said.
“An elegant solution,” another pronounced.
“Shall we conduct the test now?”
The six of them scattered to their workstations and instruments, exchanging comments and suggestions as they went about their responsibilities with renewed enthusiasm.
“The boule is in place,” Easel reported, referring to the synthetic crystal.
Galen fixed his gaze on the central display screen.
Nurboo cleared his throat. “Test sequence initiated.”
Illumination in the control room dimmed briefly as deep below them immense pressure was brought to bear on a massive crystal that had been grown only two months earlier. The synthetic gem had been modeled on an actual kyber, which Zerpen had gone to great lengths and cost to acquire. Relatively rare, the so-called living crystals were almost exclusively the property of the Jedi, who seemed to regard the kyber as sacrosanct. Finger-sized ones powered their lightsabers, and larger ones were rumored to adorn the ornate façades of their isolated temples.
“Results show a piezoelectric effect of point-three above previous,” Nurboo said.
The researchers watched Galen, who was shaking his head back and forth.
“No?” Tambo said.
“We should be seeing a much larger increase.” Galen firmed his lips and scowled at no one in particular, wrestling with what might have gone wrong. “The unit cell stacking in the synthetic isn’t stable enough. We’ll have to run a spectrographic autopsy and begin again. The entire batch of boules might be flawed.”
It was nothing they hadn’t been through countless times, but disappointment hung in the cool air regardless.
Galen returned to his thinking pose.
“We could try applying more pressure,” Easel suggested in the gentlest way. “Perhaps return the crystal to the vapor chamber and introduce a new dopant.”
Galen glanced around him, dubious and distracted. He had his mouth open to reply when a short chime issued from the control room comm station.
“Main gate,” one of the Valltii said.
Lyra rolled her chair over to the comm suite and watched the monitor. A meter of fresh snow had fallen during the night, and the air still swirled with flurries. The subsurface heaters that usually kept the principal access road clear had malfunctioned, so snow was piled high in windblown drifts from the gate all the way to the facility entrance. Where Lyra expected to see a taqwa-hauled supply sled waiting, the monitor showed a dilapidated military troop carrier. The word taqwa translated as “snow-strider,” although the approximation provided no hint of the quadrupeds’ innate ferocity.
“The troop carrier hails from the Keep,” Nurboo said from over her shoulder.
“Iron Gauntlet Legion,” Easel added. “The camouflage eddies are distinctive.”
Uncertainty furrowed Lyra’s brow. The sight of the military vehicle filled her with sudden misgiving. “What would soldiers want at this hour?”
“Another request to provide power for their base?”
Nurboo tried to make light of the situation. “And here I was hoping for a food delivery.”
Galen joined them at the comm suite. “Whatever the reason, we’ll be our usual courteous and accommodating selves.”
“If we must,” Tambo said.
Lyra blew out her breath in resignation. “I’ll see to it.”
She had just begun to rise when Nurboo nimbly placed himself in her path. “You’ll do nothing of the sort. You’ve been spending entirely too much time on your feet.”
A second Valltii agreed. “You haven’t been resting enough.”
Her eyes darted back and forth between them, a tolerant smile tugging at her lips. “Keep your lab coats on, boys, I’m only going down to let them in.”
“One of us will go in your place,” Nurboo insisted.
“All of a sudden I’m more delicate than one of your ice figurines?”
“And more precious.”
Lyra’s smile broadened. “That’s sweet of you to say, Nurboo, but I already have a mother. Fortunately, she’s about twenty parsecs from here, and the last thing I’m going to do is let all of you start falling over yourselves to keep me a prisoner—”
A second chime from the comm suite interrupted her. The main gate attendant’s face appeared on the central screen.
“What do the soldiers want, Rooni?” Lyra asked toward the mike.
Rooni said something she couldn’t make out, so she swung back to Nurboo and the others. “Will all of you stop your clucking! It’s like a henhouse in here.” When they fell silent, she turned back to the mike. “Say again, Rooni.”
“King Chai is dead,” the Valltii said. “Phara now rules the Keep.”
“Marshal Phara lacked the military support to overthrow King Chai,” Nurboo said, his expression worried. “There must be some mistake.”
“Unless she received support from the Separatists,” Tambo said.
“The Separatists?” Nurboo tried to make sense of it. “Why would Count Dooku want to wade into Vallt’s internal affairs?”
No one spoke for a moment, then Easel looked from Nurboo and Tambo to Galen. “For Galen,” Easel said. “The Separatists want his research. Phara must have promised to deliver him into their custody.”
Nurboo’s eyes widened, and his whiskers stood on end. “It’s the only explanation,” he told Galen. “Count Dooku wants that big brain of yours.”
Galen made his lips a thin line. Close to Lyra’s ear, he said: “The war has caught up with us.”
Lyra felt the truth of it in her chest. The safe bubble they thought they had created was bursting. For the first time in as long as she could remember she was frightened, not so much for herself or Galen, but for the future she had imagined. “Is it true, Rooni?” she said toward the microphone. “Are the soldiers here for Galen?”
Rooni’s big bushy head returned a slow nod. “Marshal Phara has appropriated all extraplanetary concerns. The facility is today the property of Vallt.”
“Zerpen will have something to say about that,” Galen said.
“Perhaps,” Rooni allowed. “But you and Lyra need to leave immediately and let Zerpen Industries deal with Phara.”
“You must heed Rooni’s advice,” Nurboo said. “Phara wouldn’t have dispatched a troop carrier unless she means business.”
Galen regarded the Valltii for a moment, then shook his head. “Leave here how, exactly?”
“The tunnels,” Easel said. “If you go now, you’ll have time enough to reach your ship and launch.”
Galen gazed around the room in clear dismay, refusing to give ground. All the months of research just to make a start. How could Phara take this away from him? Didn’t she realize what Vallt and so many other worlds stood to lose by interrupting his work?
Nurboo drew himself up. “Galen! The two of you are wasting precious time.”
Galen nodded with reluctance and turned to the droid. “Assis, you’re coming with us.”
“I expected no less, Dr. Erso,” the droid replied.
Nurboo stepped forward to urge the three of them toward the control room’s tunnel access ramp. “Hurry! Trust that we’ll do our best to delay the soldiers.”
Lyra smirked good-naturedly. “With what, your data styluses? That’s almost worth waiting around to see.”
Nurboo’s blue face fell. “We’re as able-bodied as the soldiers, Lyra.”
Galen grew serious. “Don’t give them any reason to mistreat you. Remember, it’s me they want, not you.”
“The troop carrier has cleared the gate,” Easel said from the comm suite.
Lyra began to hurry though the control room, hugging everyone goodbye. “Not that I’m going to miss the smell of fried circuitry and stale food,” she said when she got to Nurboo.
“Promise you’ll comm us,” he said. “We expect to see many, many holoimages.”
“We’ll get this sorted out,” Galen said, trying to sound optimistic. “You’re not through with us yet.”
“Yes, yes,” Nurboo said, all but pushing him through the door. “But let’s save this discussion for when you’re safely on the far side of Vallt’s pathetic excuse for a moon.”
A compact speeder bobbed at the base of the ramp. The air was much colder, and the din of the underground machinery echoed from the stone walls. The principal tunnel ran from the facility all the way to the starship hangar, with dozens of branches leading to remote outbuildings and subsidiary power stations.
Assis’s legs telescoped and it stepped adroitly into the speeder’s forward socket. When Galen and Lyra had clambered into the rear bench seat, the droid contracted and wedded itself to the controls.
“All speed, Assis,” Galen said, “we’ve a ship to catch.”
Assis’s head rotated toward him. “Then hang on, Doctor.”
The skimmer shot forward, pinning Galen and Lyra against the cushioned seatback, semicircular illumination arrays lighting portions of the tunnel as the speeder advanced. But they hadn’t reached the first fork when the droid brought the vehicle to an abrupt stop.
“What is it, Assis?” Lyra asked.
The droid’s head rotated. “There is movement ahead, in both the main tunnel and the power station fork. More than twenty Valltii. All of them on foot.”
Galen wasn’t surprised. “They’re onto us,” he said quietly. He glanced around him, focusing on a hatchway in the tunnel wall. “Assis, where are we exactly?”
The droid responded immediately. “Beneath the south station equipment room.”
Galen turned to Lyra, holding her gaze. “We need to go the rest of the way on the surface.”
Lyra’s brows went up. “You’re kidding, right? We won’t make half a kilometer in that snow.”
Galen clamped his hand on the TDK droid’s sloping shoulder. “Assis is going to take us.”
Assis actually stirred. “I fear that I’ll only slow you down, Dr. Erso.”
Lyra nodded in sudden understanding. “The twin-tread module.”
Galen gave her hand an affectionate squeeze. “Let’s hope that everything’s where we left it.”
Abandoning the speeder, the three of them raced for the hatchway.
The hatch opened on a short flight of metal stairs that ended in the south station equipment room. Lyra knew precisely where to find the coats, gloves, boots with toe bindings, and long wooden skis. While she tossed clothing to Galen, versatile Assis contracted its limbs and lowered itself atop a pair of continuous tracks adapted for snow travel. Buttoned into a long coat with a fur-lined hood, Galen affixed ropes to projections on the droid’s now boxy body.
Lyra raised the door, and the cold walloped them into a brief silence. A blast of wind-driven flurries cycloned around the three of them.
“We’ll take it slowly,” Galen said while he clipped his boots to the skis.
Lyra shot him a look. “Not you, too. Who tore whose knee on that Chandrila downhill?”
He looked momentarily chastised. “Excuse me for showing concern.”
She gave a final tug to one of her gloves and clomped over to him. Linking her arms around his neck, she pulled him close and kissed him firmly on the lips. “You can show as much concern as you want.” She eased back, then added, “Just another adventure, right?”
“More of an experiment.”
She kissed him again. “I love you.”
Lyra pulled the hat down onto her head and cinched the collar of the jacket. Assis moved out into the fresh snow on its treads, the ropes grew taut, and all at once the trio was tearing across the rolling treeless terrain toward the docking bay four kilometers away. Despite the late hour Vallt’s primary was a mournful blur moored low on the horizon, its customary location at that time of year in the northern latitudes. The surface snow had melted slightly, and they skied just outside the deep double-track left by Assis’s module. The lights of the facility had just disappeared behind them when the first projectile rounds sizzled past. Galen glanced over his shoulder in time to see two groups of Valltii riders converging behind them in close pursuit. A slight shift in the breeze carried the sound of the taqwas’ hoofed feet thundering through the snow.
“Assis, we have to beat them to the hangar!” Galen shouted.
“Easy for you to say, Doctor, when it’s me they’re shooting at!”
Galen grimaced. It was true: With his big brain suddenly up for grabs, Galen Erso was too valuable to harm.
The droid accelerated, Galen and Lyra bent low on their skis behind, the pace and the cold air sending tears streaming down their cheeks. The Valltii riders continued to fire their antique rifles even as they began to fall farther and farther behind. By the time the docking bay came into view Galen, Lyra, and Assis were out of range, but their pursuers were whipping their snow-striders with abandon in an effort to catch up.
Encouraged, Assis called all it could from the tread module, and in moments the hangar dome was looming before them, Zerpen’s sinuous logo emblazoned on the curved side.
In the wan light, Galen scanned the final stretch of snow. “No sign of prints or tracks,” he said. “We’re going to make it.”
Short of the dome, Lyra let go of the rope and hurtled for the main hatch, bringing herself to an expert stop at the exterior control panel. By the time Galen slid to a less elegant standstill, the hatch was up and the interior of the hangar was illuminating. Their small, sleek spacecraft sat silently under spotlights. Unclipping from the skis, they plodded through a thigh-high drift that had formed in front of the hatch.
“Prep the ship,” Galen told Lyra in a rush. “I’ll get the dome opened.”
“Watch out for falling snow.”
“And me, Dr. Erso?” Assis asked, the tug ropes still dangling from its torso. “What would you have me do?”
Galen glanced briefly at the approaching riders. “Remain here and secure the entry behind us.” He crouched somewhat to address the droid directly. “You have your instructions if this doesn’t work.”
“I will execute your orders, Dr. Erso.”
Galen and Lyra hurried inside—he for the dome controls, she for the ship. Hitting the switch that opened the roof, Galen raced to join Lyra, but neither of them had advanced more than a few meters when a rope net as heavy as a trio of taqwas and just as coarse dropped from somewhere overhead, propelling them into each other and trapping them underneath.
“I’m guessing you didn’t figure this into your calculations,” Lyra said, struggling to rise to her knees.
Galen tried to extricate his right arm from the leaden mesh, escape and safety just out of reach. Anger raged in him. The Valltii had engineered the net to fall as soon as the roof retracted. How could he have failed to foresee such a crude trap? Or had he deliberately led them into it? “Looks like we made a bad call.”
“Back on Coruscant, you mean.”
Assis was reconfiguring itself to lend a literal hand when the sound of galloping animals and guttural voices infiltrated the dome. In short order, eight shaggy big-footed taqwas exhaling breath clouds paraded through the hatch and began to pick their way carefully around the deployed net. Bearing the brand of Marshal Phara on their rumps, they had long necks, sharp teeth, and doleful eyes. The riders were thickset males dressed in boiled-leather long coats and hide boots, the cheeks above their thick beards polished by Vallt’s blizzards to a cerulean sheen. One of them dismounted from a wooden saddle and doffed a wool cap as he approached Galen.
“Thank you for not disappointing us, Dr. Erso,” he said in the indigenous tongue.
Galen gave up on freeing his arm and allowed himself to sag to the hangar’s cold hard floor. “Good job covering your tracks.”
The black-eyed rider went down on one knee in front of him. Small blood-red beads were braided into his iced whiskers, and he smelled of smoke and rancid butter tea. “We strung the net two days ago. Last night’s snowfall favored our plans. But don’t feel too bad, you would never have reached here by way of the tunnels, either.”
“So we learned.”
“I am an innocent party to all this!” Assis said from just inside the hatch, back to bipedal mode and displaying two short arms. “I was pressed into service and had no choice but to follow orders!”
Without standing, the rider turned to his cohorts. “Muzzle that droid.”
Two riders dismounted to carry out the command.
Galen heard the sound of a restraining bolt being hammered into the droid’s torso. “Lyra’s the innocent party,” he snapped. “Get her out from beneath this thing.”
The same riders who had silenced Assis lifted a corner of the weighty mesh and helped Lyra to her feet, but made no move to free Galen.
“You are under arrest by order of Marshal Phara,” the lead rider told him.
“On what charge, exactly?”
“Espionage. Among others.”
Galen looked him in the eye. “Two weeks ago you and I sipped tea together, and now you’re arresting me.”
“Things change, Dr. Erso. My orders were to capture you. Marshal Phara will decide your guilt or innocence.” He stood and faced one of the mounted soldiers. “Ride to the facility and send the troop carrier to deliver Dr. Erso to Tambolor prison.”
Copyright © 2017 by James Luceno. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.