Leia Organa had a bad feeling about this.
“At least their timing is spot-on,” she said, watching the transmission download on the comm screen. She and General Willard were on the Gamble’s small bridge, where Captain Denlan and Lieutenant Esrai occupied the pilot’s and copilot’s seats. They had just exited hyperspace, the starfield steadying in the viewport as the ship slowed to sublight speed.
Captain Denlan said, “If we’d been a little later taking off, or if our hyperdrive hadn’t been tuned just right, we would have missed it.”
“Well, we didn’t,” Leia said, more sharply than she had intended. If only the Rebel Alliance could have afforded to equip all its ships with the comm equipment necessary to receive hyperwave transmissions, this vulnerable moment could have been avoided. Still, so far the mission had gone as planned. There was no reason she should be on edge like this . . . but she was. At least, she told herself, they wouldn’t have to wait around for long.
“I’m just glad fleet command got the time conversion right,” Esrai said, her hands making quick adjustments to the control board. “That would have been embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing is one word for it,” General Willard commented. He was standing next to Leia’s comm station, his attention on the percentage-complete bar on the download screen. He was a tall, spare human with short graying hair, and Leia knew him well enough to see that he was uneasy as well. “Princess?”
“We have it.” Leia turned her chair around to face the computer console and checked the log to make certain the entire message had been recorded. It had. Now they just needed to decode the transmitted coordinates and program the jump to the meeting where they were to negotiate the purchase of raw materials for the construction of Echo Base, the new secret headquarters of the Rebel Alliance.
With the base so near to completion, the last couple of months hadn’t been easy. So many things had gone wrong, and the Alliance was dangerously short on resources. Leia would allow herself to breathe a little easier only when this mission was over and the materials secured.
“We’re done here,” she said. “Captain—”
“Wait.” Esrai’s voice was sharp. “I’ve got a sensor contact. It’s pretty far out but—”
So much for breathing easier. Every nerve in Leia’s body told her something had just gone terribly wrong. They were in the Mid Rim, at the farthest edge of an uninhabited system called Eschaton. With nothing more than a scatter of cold barren planets and one glowing ball of a striped blue gas giant, the system should have drawn little to no traffic; there was no reason for any other ships to be here. She snapped, “Take us into hyperspace—now!”
She started to turn her seat forward. Then something hit her from behind and slammed her into the console. The safety straps ground painfully into her chest. Her ears rang and her eyes watered; heat washed against her neck. A heartbeat later she realized it had been a blast impact.
She twisted around to see Denlan and Esrai slumped over their consoles. The controls sparked with stray energy, the metal blackened with the force of the blast, and smoke streamed into the air. Leia fumbled for the straps with numb fingers, opened the buckles, and pushed to her feet. She took a step forward and fell to her knees. She landed next to General Willard, who had been thrown into the base of the comp-console.
She said his name aloud but couldn’t hear her own voice. Her ears still rang with the ship’s alarm klaxons, strangely distant. The general’s face was bloody and his eyes were closed, but as she put her hand on his chest she felt him breathe. She gasped in relief, then grabbed her chair and pulled herself upright again.
Through the viewport, all she saw was a wheeling starfield; the ship was in an uncontrolled tumble. Every readout on the bridge was either redlined, blinking in an emergency setting, or blank. She stumbled to the pilot’s seat and gripped Denlan’s shoulder. She started to pull him up off the sparking console and then froze, her stomach twisting. The control panel directly in front of him had exploded and blown a hole in his chest. Gritting her teeth, she let him go and turned to Esrai, who was slumped over sideways. Leia felt for a pulse at the lieutenant’s throat, and her hand came away slick with blood. Dreading what she would see, she lifted Esrai’s hair aside. There was shrapnel embedded in her temple. Esrai’s dark eyes were open but fixed, dead.
Leia squeezed her own eyes shut, willing her stomach not to turn. Then the deck thumped and shuddered under her, and she grabbed the back of the copilot’s seat. They were still taking fire. She looked for the sensor screen to get some idea of where their attacker was.
One of her ears popped, and the din of klaxons grew louder. But one alarm was close at hand and particularly insistent. It came from one of the few functioning readouts on the command panel and showed a rapidly dropping percentage. bridge containment shield failing, Leia read, and her gaze went to the viewport. There was a deep, ragged crack in the lower quarter.
Leia swore and lunged across the bridge. She hit the release on the hatch and leaned down to grab Willard. The only reason she wasn’t breathing vacuum right now was that the containment shield had automatically covered the port when it detected the breach; she didn’t know how long until it failed, but the alarm suggested that could happen at any moment.
She pulled Willard into a sitting position and then realized the hatch wasn’t open. She stood and hit the release again. No response.
“Oh, you have to be joking,” Leia snarled, and popped open the plate for the manual release. The containment-shield warning screamed in her ears as she pulled the lever for the manual override. She felt the hatch’s locking mechanism click, but it still didn’t slide open. She dug her fingers between the seals, braced a boot against the comp-console, and put all her strength into dragging the doors open.
Slowly the hatch moved until she had just enough clearance to force her shoulders through. From the increasingly frantic shrieks of the containment alarm, she didn’t have time for any more. She leaned down, clutched the back of the general’s jacket, and started to pull his unconscious body through the opening.
Right at the point where she thought she was going to get both of them stuck and they were going to not only die, but die in an extremely undignified position, she heard boot steps pound toward her from the corridor.
“Here!” Leia yelled, her voice sounding harsh and desperate to her own ears.
A crew member appeared in the compartment door, took in the situation, and lunged forward. She grabbed General Willard under the arms and threw her weight backward. Leia lifted his legs and squeezed through and out of the bridge, then pointed toward the compartment blast door. “Hurry, the hatch won’t seal, no time—”
She knew her words were coming out incoherent, but the woman understood her. Together they dragged the general across the compartment and out into the corridor. As soon as they were clear, Leia dropped his legs and flung herself on the door control to hit the emergency seal. It slid shut just as the containment alarm shrieked one last time, then abruptly went silent. Leia felt a rumble and a thump through the metal as the bridge’s port gave way.
Breathing hard, the woman asked, “The captain and Esrai are dead?” She was a tall human, with dark brown skin and braided dark hair pulled tightly back. She would have been lovely except for the haggard worry in her expression. Her nose was bleeding and the skin around her eyes was bruised, as if she’d had a face-first encounter with a console or a bulkhead.
Leia nodded. “When the first blast hit.” The deck rumbled under her feet, a vibration from a near-miss blast impact. They needed to get the ship away. There was a comm panel near the hatch, and she pushed the all-ship alert. “Han Solo! Han, can you hear me?”
At first the only reply was the rumble of the firefight. Then another comm answered. She heard yelling in the background and a voice said, “He’s operating the guns with Barani, Your Highness. Are you all right? The bulkhead doors to the upper deck are down, we can’t get to you—”
That was all Leia needed, the pilot most experienced at this sort of desperate situation locked out of the control deck. “The bridge is depressurized,” she said. “I’m going to engage auxiliary control and take the ship into hyperspace. Just try to hold them off a little longer.” She had no idea who “they” even were, though it was safe to assume it was an Imperial ship. She didn’t want to admit over the open comm that she hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of their attacker yet.
“Yes, Your Highness,” the voice said, and Leia heard him yell, “She said to keep shooting!” before the comm switched into standby.
“We need to get to auxiliary control.” Leia hesitated, looking down at Willard’s inert body; he was breathing, and there was nothing she could do for him until the ship was out of danger. She started down the corridor, the other woman following. Leia wanted to run, but the deck rolled underfoot, a sign that the grav controls were beginning to fail.
She looked at her companion. “You—” The woman wasn’t wearing any insignia; because of the mission, no one aboard was wearing anything that might identify them as Rebel Alliance, and most were dressed in plain fatigues or as civilian spacers. But Leia vaguely remembered seeing her in the Independence’s fighter bay. “You’re a pilot? Can you fly this ship?”
“I’m an X-wing pilot. I’ve flown slow cargo transports, airspeeders, but—I’ll try.”
That was all Leia could ask for at the moment. The Gamble was a small converted freighter with a crew of twenty, no fighters, but far more quad lasers than its size and cargo space warranted. The conversion and installation of the extra armament had left the ship’s corridors narrow and the layout a maze. Esrai had said the controls were as jury-rigged and altered as the rest of the ship, and Leia’s vision was starting to blur. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name—”
The deck pitched and threw them both into the bulkhead. The other woman took hold of Leia’s arm and, pushing off with her free hand against the wall, towed her down the corridor. “I’m Sian Tesar. I was down in engineering when you came aboard.”
“Oh, good. I always try to meet the entire crew, so I don’t have to ask someone if she’s a pilot while we’re in the middle of a firefight.” Leia was dizzy, and her head was pounding.
They reached the shaft that led to the auxiliary control, and the gravity held on just long enough for them to climb down and into the little cabin. There was no viewport, just a screen for the sensor data. It was blank, hopefully only because the controls were powered down.
Punching in the command override to transfer control from what was left of the bridge, Leia held her breath. If this didn’t work, they were dead. Everything seemed to hesitate; then readouts started to light up, and she breathed in relief.
Sian dragged herself into the pilot’s seat and hit the master to power up the boards. She winced as the screens came to life. “Our deflector shields are down, and we’ve got turbolaser fire incoming. I can’t see what’s shooting at us.”
Leia wrestled herself into the second chair and fastened the straps. “If it was anything close to the size of a cruiser, this would be over by now.” She powered up the navicomputer and was relieved to see that the hyperdrive was still there, at least for the moment. But capacity was down nearly 50 percent, she realized, checking the diagnostics screen. That’s a problem. The blast that had sent such deadly energy through the bridge controls must have gone through the engine systems, too, meaning the Gamble couldn’t jump directly back to the fleet. She also couldn’t program a jump to the conference location, because the coordinates hadn’t been decoded yet.
As Sian coaxed the sublight engines back online, Leia had the nav system check for valid coordinates nearby. They could look for a port later—right now, they just needed to get away. She glanced at the screen just as the sensors caught an image of their attacker. “It’s a light corvette,” she told Sian. Which meant the Imperials hadn’t known about this mission for long. If they had had the time, they would have sent something much bigger.
Sian swore and pushed the control yoke forward. “If they get us in their tractor beam, they could board us.”
“Then don’t let them get us in their tractor beam,” Leia said, making her voice cool despite the pounding of her heart.
Sian flashed her a sudden grin, proving Leia’s estimation of her correct. “Can do.”
As Sian turned their uncontrolled tumble into a deliberate spiral, Leia adjusted what was left of the shields to compensate for the failed sections and directed more sensor data to the screen. She had to fumble for controls that weren’t where she expected them to be; fortunately Sian was a quicker study and seemed to adjust rapidly to the layout of the console. The ship shuddered again at a near miss; on the weapons screen Leia could see the Gamble’s turbolasers still returning fire.
Sian put the ship through an evasive maneuver that made all the failing systems redline. She flew the converted heavy freighter like an X-wing, a strategy that Leia highly approved of, even though it was probably the only way Sian knew to fly. Then suddenly the ship swung out of the corvette’s kill zone and into a clear starfield.
“Come on, come on,” Leia muttered, glancing at the navicomputer. The alert pinged as it finally fixed on a set of coordinates. She confirmed them and configured the jump, narrowing her eyes in concentration, trying to think past the aching pain in her head and make sure she didn’t tell the computer to drop them into a star. “We’re going into hyperspace,” she said, and slid the control levers down.
Leia felt the engines stutter; then sudden power surged through the ship and the starfield blurred into streaks of light.
The readouts jumped between redline and normal, then finally settled on a range Leia interpreted as “not great but not likely to explode anytime soon.” She slumped back and put her pounding skull gently against the worn headrest. That was the kind of excitement she could have lived without.
Sian let out a long breath. “We made it.” She glanced at Leia. “Sort of.”
“Yes, sort of,” Leia agreed grimly.
While Sian went to see if she could get the blocked blast doors open to the lower decks, Leia took a moment to find a data card in the supply case in the auxiliary control locker. She checked the navicomputer and saw it had the transmission, copied over from the main console in the bridge when she had transferred control here. She saved the transmission to the data card and then deleted the original from the system.
The comm was starting to buzz with reports of wounded. The Gamble had a small medical unit and a medic, whom Leia hoped could handle the injuries until they could get to a safe facility with a medical droid.
And she needed to find out who had told the Imperials where the Gamble would be coming out of hyperspace. It was tempting to think that the intel could have come from somewhere in Kearn-sa’Davit’s organization. He was the Alliance agent who had arranged the meeting with the traders with whom she was to negotiate. But Leia knew the leak was far more likely to have come from someone in the Rebel Alliance’s chain of communication. She rubbed her eyes wearily. This could be a terrible setback to their plans for Echo Base.
The screen signaled that the transmission had been transferred to the data card and deleted from the nav system. She popped the card out of the slot and slipped it into her vest pocket. She would still need to decode it, but at least the transmission was safe. Even if the Imperial corvette had intercepted it, only Leia and General Willard had the decoding key. So it’s just as safe as we are, Leia thought, appreciating the irony. With a groan, she unstrapped herself and started to climb back up the shaft to the bridge deck.
The gravity returned when she was in mid-climb, slamming her against the wall before the compensators in the shaft adjusted. “That’s great,” she told the compensators and the universe in general. “Thank you so much.”
She climbed out of the shaft just as Han bolted around the corner. Sian must have gotten the blast doors open to the lower part of the ship. “Good,” Leia said. “I need help with General Willard. He’s hurt—”
“Leia—” Han caught her shoulders. He didn’t look injured, except for a developing bruise on his forehead and some smudges and burn marks on the sleeve of his white shirt that must have come from proximity to an explosion. “Can you hear me?”
Leia glared up at him. “Yes, obviously.”
Han touched the right side of her face and held up his hand. It was covered with blood. “You’re bleeding.”
“Oh. No, it’s—” She stepped back and pressed a hand to her ear. No wonder Han thought she was hurt. The blood was all down her cheek, in her braids—it must have been sprayed across the bridge cabin when Denlan and Esrai had been hit. “That’s from Captain Denlan. Or Lieutenant Esrai. They were both—they’re both dead.” Leia turned away and started down the corridor, almost swaying into the bulkhead. She couldn’t stop moving now; if she did, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to start again.
General Willard still lay in the corridor where she and Sian had left him. Leia knelt beside him, overbalanced when her head swam at just the wrong moment, but managed not to fall on him. He was still breathing, and when she carefully felt his skull she found blood and a lump but nothing more alarming. She looked around, realizing she had misplaced Han at some point, but he arrived a moment later with a medkit.
He knelt on Willard’s other side, tearing the kit open. “You look like hell, Princess.”
“I know that, thank you.” Leia reached for the diagnostics scanner, and Han handed her a coldpack instead. Maybe that was best. The small readout on the scanner just looked like a green blur to her at the moment. She put the pack against the lump on the general’s temple and was relieved when he stirred a little and murmured something. She said, “That’s a good sign.”
“Here.” Han was trying to hand her another coldpack.
“I don’t know where else he’s hurt yet,” Leia said, exasperated.
“It’s for you.” When she stared at him, Han said, slowly and clearly, “Put it on your head.”
“Oh.” Leia pressed it against the side of her face and winced in relief. The chill revived her a little, the darkness that hovered at the edges of her vision receding as the vertigo faded. Which was a good thing, because Sian and Jerell, General Willard’s aide, were hurrying down the corridor toward her.
“Your Highness!” Jerell said, sounding horrified. “The general—”
“He’s alive,” Leia told him. “He was knocked out when the first blast hit. Who is the ranking officer on board?”
Jerell was a slim, pale human, another Alderaan survivor, and he looked very young at the moment. Uneasily, as if all too conscious of giving bad news, he said, “You are, Your Highness.”
“Right.” That’s what I was afraid of, Leia thought grimly. Han aimed the diagnostics scanner at her, then frowned at the results. Leia pretended to ignore him. She was fairly certain she had a concussion, but she didn’t have time for it just now. “I need a status report on the damage and the wounded. Are all the crew accounted for?”
Still watching her worriedly, Jerell said, “Yes, Your Highness. There’s seven wounded, including General Willard. Mostly burns from when a panel in the engineering compartment and a laser cannon operating console exploded.” He glanced at the sealed door to the bridge compartment again and swallowed hard. “Captain Denlan and Lieutenant Esrai are the only dead.”
That was almost half the crew injured. Leia needed to see the medic and find out exactly how bad it was. Minor burns and breaks could be dealt with on board, but if they needed to get to a medical facility, finding one that wasn’t under Imperial control could be . . .
“Should I prepare a transmission to the Independence?” Jerell said.
“I’ll do that.” Leia made herself focus on the here and now. She hoped it hadn’t looked as if she had zoned out for a moment there. “Someone told the Imperials where we were coming out of hyperspace. I’m not convinced it wasn’t someone in the fleet.”
“An Imperial agent?” Sian asked.
Jerell frowned, startled and apparently offended. “There can’t be. Our security is too thorough.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that before,” Han put in. Leia would have rolled her eyes, but her head hurt too much. Jerell was one of the officers in charge of secure communications, and Han knew it.
“It’s far more likely to be someone involved with this merchant Davit.” Jerell glared at Han. “Maybe you’re more used to civilian traders and criminals who don’t have any loyalty—”
Han started to reply, but Leia interrupted with, “Jerell, if you have to make that kind of slight, don’t do it in front of me. Han, you know exactly what you’re doing, please stop. Sian—”
“I didn’t say anything. Your Highness,” Sian said.
Leia extended her hand. “You can help me up.”
As Sian hauled her to her feet, Leia added, “You’re on watch in auxiliary control until I can find someone to help you. And be sure you take care of your nose.”
“Take care of my—” Sian touched her nose and winced. “Right.”
Commander Degoren leaned back in his seat, his jaw so tight with suppressed anger it made his teeth ache. The rebel ship had vanished into hyperspace, a dissipating ion trail the only trace left behind. He had never cared for commanders who raged or threw ranting fits, so he just made himself say flatly, “That’s unfortunate.”
The crew at the bridge consoles didn’t cringe outwardly, but he could read the tension in the set of their shoulders. They knew as well as he did that if Degoren had to report to his superiors that he had lost this chance, a quick execution was the best they could hope for. The worst was a long, slow execution in the form of a transfer to a post on whatever hellhole the Empire currently sent its disposable personnel to.
Sorvir, his second in command, said, “If we’d had more time to prepare—”
Degoren cut him off. “Yes, because excuses always impress Lord Vader.” Even when the excuses were true. The Imperial agent hadn’t been able to get a transmission out until it was almost too late, and theirs had been the only ship within range. They hadn’t even had time to summon the surveillance ship they worked with in this sector. It was several systems away at this point, acting as a decoy for a smuggling operation they had been on the point of breaking up before they had received these emergency orders. He shook his head. “All we can do is wait for another contact.”
From what Degoren understood, the agent had been in deep cover for a long time, waiting for the right opportunity. The fact that Degoren’s customs corvette had been the closest Imperial ship able to respond was both a blessing and a curse. If Degoren succeeded, the reward would be unimaginable. Advancement in the Empire had been something he had always wanted but that had always seemed just out of reach. But if he failed to capture Princess Leia Organa, the punishment would also be unimaginable.
He didn’t intend to fail.
Copyright © 2013 by Martha Wells. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.