Cairn Natayn clamped down the seals of his black flight helmet, twisting shut the gas hoses as he sat hard. Clipping his inertial restraints over his chest, he raced his fingers over the TIE?s diagnostic console.
"Prepare for launch."
"About time! We?re gonna? lose those damn Rebs in the asteroids!"
His TIE shuddered, guided forward by the docking clamps of the Star Destroyer Fear. Through the eyeball viewport of the fighter, he watched the open bay stretch out into space. Vertigo tingled his toes. Cairn smiled. A zip of adrenalin rushed through him as he scanned the star field below. Snapping his head back, Cairn finished his diagnostic. Lasers. Engines. All green.
A jolt rocked his ship as the docking clamps released their hold. Watching the inside of the wide bay disappear, Cairn let the tractor beam guide his fighter away from the Fear?s thick hull. A fuzzy band of brown cut a swath through space far off to his left. The Koorlian Cluster.
"Asteroids." He sucked in a stale breath.
The tractor beam released.
He punched the throttle.
Eyeing his scope, Cairn raced through the signals it had picked up. Licking his lips against the stale recycled air, he smiled again, this time showing teeth.
A Rebel Nebulon-B Frigate. Two Corellian gunships. And a handful of X-wing fighters. Cairn scanned the widening asteroid field with his eyes. The fleeing Rebel force was trying to escape into the maze of spinning rock. If they managed to enter the Koorlian Cluster, no force of TIEs in the Empire would be able to dig them out. Even TIE pilots were not that expendable.
A glint of hull against the asteroid field caught his eye.
"There you are," he whispered to himself. Flicking open a channel to the Star Destroyer, Cairn cleared his throat.
"Fear this is Gamma One, visual on Alliance task force."
They were three clicks away from Fear. Only two clicks away from the asteroid field. And closing fast. This was going to be close.
"Copy Gamma One, ten seconds."
Cairn watched the Imperial signals multiply as the Fear disgorged its first squadron of TIEs. His squadron.
Cairn fought the urge to rocket alone towards the fleeing Rebel force. He knew that one of the Corellian ships was more than enough to kill his unshielded fighter. Forget two of them, four X-wings, and a modified Nebulon-B frigate. Yet he fought the urge, his knees bouncing under the console as he watched the last of Gamma squadron take to space.
"Gamma form up double van!"
Cairn steered his whining TIE in a wide circle flanking the Fear. One of the Lancer class frigates blurred past his viewport as he pulled the hard turn. If the X-wings turned on the Fear, the four Imperial ships would be more than a match for the Alliance fighters. Rocketing up behind eleven other accelerating TIEs, he gripped the control yoke. One by one they reported in. Cairn checked his cannons one more time. All green.
"Gamma seven, eight, nine, take the port gunship! Ten, eleven, twelve vape the other one! Don?t worry about the needles," Cairn said, watching the X-wings? signals on his scope. His headset crackled, static echoing inside the helmet.
"Here they come!" Cairn shuddered as adrenalin kicked into him. The X-wing?s signals were closing on his speeding group. Fast. Cairn wondered if one of them had fired the final torpedo that had taken out the Empire?s supply platform over Spiar. Not that it mattered.
Red bolts of laser energy leapt towards him, snapping his mind back. Cairn held his course for another split second. Veering up and away, he zipped through the targets on his scope, locking on the lead X-wing as it tried to match his course. The comm erupted in chatter as the X-wing fighters met Gamma squadron head on.
"Seven watch your flank!"
Red bolts shot past Cairn?s viewport as he ripped the throttle. Faking a move to the left, he tore the yoke right, flipping his TIE and diving. Stars scrolled past his viewport as he righted the craft. The quad engines of the X-wing stared him in the face. He fired. His cannons shook the cockpit as green lances of energy leapt around the veering Rebel fighter. One hit scored, the glowing shields absorbing most of the assault. The glowing engines loomed closer. Cairn felt his eyes widen. Ripping the yoke up, he pulled back hard, trying to avoid the imminent collision.
"Crazy bastard," he breathed. An explosion outside his viewport forced him to veer wildly. The distant hull of the Fear blurred by as he tried to locate his attacker again. His prey.
"Where are you?where are you."
The Alliance Nebulon-B was one click from the asteroid field. One of the gunships had lagged behind the fleeing capital ship to assist the X-wings. It looked like one of the picket craft had gone ahead of the frigate into the asteroids. Most likely to clear a path through the deadly rock field.
One of the Imperial signals blinked out on his rear scope. Gamma three. It was followed into death by the first of the X-wings. Cairn redirected more energy to his cannons, catching a visual of his target as he wheeled around. The X-Wing was glued to another TIE?s tail, harrying it with a curtain of laser fire. Two clicks away.
"Hang on," he said, gritting his teeth. One point five clicks.
The X-wing pressed its attack. Ilin Harn would not last much longer.
"Get him offa? me!" Cairn could hear the panic in his voice. One click.
Cairn pumped all energy to his cannons, feeling his craft slow. He realized the danger of making himself a sitting bantha, but right now his cannons needed power and reach. Cairn did not wait for the computer to lock on. He fired into the distant melee. The green laser bolts traced deadly streams of energy around the attacking X-wing. The Rebel craft did not veer, pressing its attack harder. His computer locked. Cannons charged full.
"Smoke this." Cairn fired, holding down the stud.
Three bolts hit the X-wing?s body dead center. It buckled, a final shot sliding out of its wingtip cannons. The X-wing erupted in a flaming cloud. Ilin Harn?s TIE exploded in front of it, a victim of the Rebel?s final attack.
"Frag it!" Cairn kneaded his palms against the control yoke. He had been a split second too late. Checking his scope, Cairn saw Alpha squadron clear the Fear?s belly bay. It?s about time. His headset crackled again as the Fear came over the comm.
"Gamma flight-let Alpha deal with the fighters. Get to those ships before they make the asteroid field!"
"Copy, Fear." Alpha?s signals had closed on their melee, increasing the pressure on the two remaining X-wings. And freeing the remainder of his squadron to go after the Nebulon-B.
"Form up, Gamma. Watch the gunship?s dorsal emplacements."
The stars wheeled again, sweeping the looming asteroid field across his viewport. The lagging gunship had already opened fire, its top turret spitting a hail of red laser fire towards them. The cylindrical body had started a slow turn towards them.
"Copy," his wingman barked. Diving hard, Cairn watched his wingman?s signal drop from his front scope. The remainder of the squadron split in two as the gunship tried to defeat their flanking maneuver. A red bolt shot by a meter from his viewport.
"Too close," Cairn said, blinking the burned-in image out of his retinas. Checking his scope, he smiled. Yanking the TIE?s control yoke, he pulled a tight arc, pumping all energy to his throttle. The turning gunship popped into his viewport. He fired, his cannons strafing the shielded body of the ship. The dorsal turret spun to face him. Cairn dove, catching the glow of the laser energy. Eyeing his scope, he saw the last X-wing blink out. Alpha squadron had started to close on their position.
"Gamma, step it up, we?re going after that frigate!"
Cairn jinked away from the Corellian gunship, flicking through his scope. Locking onto the fleeing Nebulon-B, he steered his craft in a wide flanking arc. His wingman rejoined him, following his maneuver. He could see the asteroids now; spinning chunks of cratered rock. Cairn scanned the Rebel capital ship in his scope.
"Gamma flight, watch the top turrets, this things been refitted!"
Cairn?s wingman sped ahead of him as the Nebulon-B loomed in his hexagonal viewport. Cannons charged. The capital ship opened fire with every weapon on its hull. A mosaic of red laser energy lanced out from the Rebel frigate as it cruised full speed into the outer fringes of the asteroid field. Cairn?s wingman fired at the communications tower, the green bolts lighting up small explosions on the protruding antenna. Veering off as the turbolaser fire began to track him, Gamma two disappeared from Cairn?s viewport. The Nebulon-B filled his entire field of vision. He fired.
Thick bolts of energy ignited surface explosions as Cairn sped over the upper surface of the ship, racing past the scarred conning tower. He held the firing stud down until his TIE cleared the back of the hull. The backwash of the Nebulon-B?s powerful engines rocked his TIE. He cranked his head around.
Cairn had caught a glimpse of a massive spinning turret on the back end of the frigate. Another Imperial signal blinked off his scope. And another. His helmet comm spurted the clipped yells of his squad.
"-cutting us to pieces!"
Cairn tightened his grip on the yoke; his black gloves wicked up his sweaty palms. The Fear was closing on the fleeing task force. The Rebel gunship that had lagged behind had disappeared from his scope. Cairn smiled. Locating his wingman again, he wheeled his craft around.
"Two cover me, I?m goin? after that turret!"
The stars scrolled wildly, stabilizing as the Nebulon-B popped up again. Cairn saw another explosion as a TIE collided with the thick hull of the Rebel warship. Where was Alpha flight?
Visually locking onto the fleeing frigate, Cairn located the spinning turret. Closing on the Nebulon-B, he lit up his cannons, roaring past.
Helena Mastaire pulled back hard on the turret control, pressing her body into the seat as the TIE rocketed by. The red bolts of energy that pulsed from her dual cannons lagged behind the quick TIE as it disappeared from her sight. Dropping her hand from the firing mechanism, she got a quick lock on the Imperial fighter as it rocketed away. Swiping the moisture from her head with the back of her hand, she bit her lip, pushing the turret lever forward.
The stars whirled again as Helena was forced back into her seat by the turret?s quick spin. Her eyes traced the space outside of the two curved triangular viewports. The entire frigate rocked underneath her. Helena knew there was a Star Destroyer in pursuit. And that last blast had not felt like a starfighter hit. Cranking her head around, she swore as her chin hit the hard edge of her gunnery suit.
A small chunk of asteroid whirled by outside of her rear viewport.
"No way in hell we are going into an aster-"
Explosions lit up the outside of her armored turret. Cranking the turret control back, Helena gritted her teeth. The turret whined, the sound of stressed metal shivering up her spine as it whirled in place. One TIE dead center. She fired. The thick bolts clipped the TIE?s wing joint, spinning it into another one of her shots. The Imperial fighter exploded in a blossom of flame.
"Light that up and smoke it!"
Helena grinned teeth, wondering if Grennis was shooting down more TIEs than she was. Just under an hour ago, they had destroyed an Imperial supply platform that was interdicting freighters over Spiar. Helena remembered what the platform had looked like as it had fallen in flames into the atmosphere of the planet. Their Alliance strike team had escaped before Imperial reinforcements had arrived, but were pulled out of hyperspace by a gravity beacon. The Empire had been on top of them within seconds.
Sparks erupted from her panel, forcing her to shield her eyes. Beating the panel with her palm, Helena?s other hand scrabbled for the fire extinguisher. Turning over her helmet on the deck, she swore again. Her fingers found it. Gripping the top of the small canister, she tucked it into her leg pocket.
"Just in case."
Eyeing her scope again, Helena smiled as she tore the thick handle of the turret control back towards herself. The stars scrawled again as she lit up her turbolasers. All her mind registered was a split second of TIE wing, then an expanding ball of flame.
Scanning her scope for her next target, Helena?s heart plunked into her stomach. Both gunships no longer appeared on her scope, nor any of the four X-wings. Her jaw tensed until she heard her teeth grit together. Static erupted in her ear, followed by frantic screams. The voices sounded like the bridge crew.
"-reach! Go to your own life support! Hull-"
The deck rocked again, a sharp jolt. Another hit almost made her bite her tongue. Her cramped turret was shaking. Helena?s breath came ragged as she reached for her helmet. It fell out of her slippery hands, hitting the deck again. Her hand caught on the thick strap clamped to her chest. She swiped the tether out of the way.
Fear blossomed in her chest as she swiped at her helmet again, only to be stopped by her chair restraints. Slapping the thick buckle, she nearly fell out of her curved chair as the restraint let her loose. Another explosion hit just outside of her cockpit. Her toplight went out, leaving her with the light of the stars and explosions to find her helmet by. Grabbing the obstinate helmet, she pulled it over her head. Her fingers raced to clamp it down.
Taking a breath as she heard the double click, she rolled back into her chair. Checking her diagnostic, her mouth dropped. The cannons power levels were dropping like a stone. Yanking the thick turret lever back towards herself, Helena dropped her helmeted head back onto the rest The entire ship was shaking.
The turret started a slow turn, whined and ground to a dead stop.
One last shot. All she needed, she had the power for one last shot. Her eyes flicked up.
Cannons blazing at her, a TIE was dead center in her guns.
Helena fired. The TIE?s green energy bolts exploded on the outside of her armored turret. Helena felt the roar as the vacuum of space tore the air from her turret, freezing her exposed hands. She should have been wearing her gloves. She felt three massive vibrations; the last one whipped her into the durasteel walls. Helena heard a sickening crunch. Before she passed out, her brain was burned with one last thought.
She had hit the TIE.
That was the first thing Cairn Natayn heard. A deep methodical intake and expulsion of air. Each breath was punctuated with a barely audible click-click. His feet felt no ground, his eyes blurred crossed when he tried to open them.
Bitter air. So bitter it nearly made him gag. Blinking his eyes shut again, he tried to shake his head clear. His flight helmet stopped the violent motion short. He heard the breathing speed up, becoming ragged and forced. It was his breath.
The turret. The last thing he had seen was the turret. He had locked it into his targeting computer and transferred nearly all his power to his cannons. Cairn remembered that he had to destroy the turret. It had taken out four of his squadron in less than a minute. He had been closing on the turret. It had been dead center in his cannons.
He heard his breathing ramp up a notch. Cairn remembered the feeling of the firing stud underneath his finger, the image of the green laserbolts finding their mark. The feeling of absolute horror as he realized the turret was lined up on him.
He blinked again, swearing away the blurriness in his eyes, the fog in his head. It was replaced with black.
The echo of his own voice came back to him, reassuring Cairn he was still among the living. Then it hit him. He was floating in space. The stars began to resolve themselves. He had ejected. He couldn?t remember hitting the eject.
I was ejected.
Turning his head as far as his helmet would allow, Cairn spotted the edge of the asteroid field. He could see the massive spinning rocks tumbling slowly in the black void. It looked to be less than a kilometer away. It might as well have been a hyperspace jump. He kicked his feet, going nowhere.
Cairn did not care so much that what he had done was stupid. He had learned day one in Imperial flight school that unless you were strapped to a rocket, you were not going anywhere in the vacuum of space. He had needed the simple reassurance of his own voice.
His only companion right now.
Turning up his chest monitor, he read the blinking display. His oxygen reserves were at twenty-two percent. He must have been drifting for almost an hour. Trying to calm his breathing, he cranked his head around the other direction. Nothing but stars. A far off sun winked at him.
"Come on Natayn?think!"
The Imperial pilot tried to put himself in his father?s shoes. The old Genta farmer would have spit on his red stained hands, taken three totally unrelated pieces of machinery, and constructed a perfectly suited piece of farming equipment.
After slapping me on the back of the head and telling me how much of an idiot I am.
Cairn pursed his lips, letting a long, slow breath escape his nose.
He did not have any machinery, did not have his old man?s ?common sense??and he certainly was not getting smacked in the back of the head. He looked down at his pistol holster. Empty.
"Dammit!" If he had his thin pistol, he could have propelled himself towards?something.
Cairn scanned the asteroid field again. The scene on front of him was surreal, like a holovid. The only sound was the rasp of his breath. The tumbling chunks of pitted and broken rock made no sound. None that he could hear. A glint among the maelstrom caught his eye. One of the massive rocks continued a lazy spin, revealing what looked like a hull. It was a ship!
Cairn?s brief elation was squelched by the realization the he had no way to bridge the distance. No way to traverse what was maybe a hundred meters. And even if he did have a fraction of his father?s intelligence and could make something out of spit and duraplas, the chance of the wreckage being able to support life was slim to none. If he got there.
"Which I can?t."
Why couldn?t the answer just be staring him in the face? He checked his oxygen reserve again. Eighteen percent.
Cairn felt his jaw clench.
"This couldn?t have been easy, could it? You bastard! It couldn?t, could it!"
Cairn saw his father?s face in his mind?s eye. That look, that?disappointment. Cairn spewed a few more curses at his father. If he was going to waste the rest of his air, he might as well do it cursing out his old man. The caustic words echoed around the inside of his black skullish helmet, coming back to his ears. He shook his head. Cairn sounded like his father. Just like him.
He looked out over the star field towards the asteroids again. The wreckage of the ship had been cleared by the spinning asteroids, giving him a clear view of the twisted hull again. It looked like the remainder of one of the Corellian gunships. A long cylindrical section spun in space, twisted metal poking out at all angles; its final death throes. Part of the long body had survived, its charred hull jutting out of the back like a beast stripped after the kill. The cylindrical bridge section looked intact.
He had to get there.
Cairn knew how.
Reaching up to his black helmet, his gloved hands fingered the two gas hoses that snaked to the monitor on the front of his chest. Gripping the hexagonal ring that sealed the hose to his helmet, he began to twist. Cairn sucked in a deep breath.
"This is either gonna? be very right?or-"
The hose came loose. White gas spewed out of the end, spinning him in a slow circle. The tiny flap sucked shut on the hole, keeping the pressure in his helmet. Cairn would have cursed again if he wasn?t trying to conserve his air. The hose flipped out of his grasp, dancing like a snake. Cairn snatched at it, missing it twice before gripping the black hose. Squeezing the end, he watched the precious white plume of air stop venting into space.
Good one, moron. You must want to die.
Cairn was now spinning slowly in space. The rest of the asteroid field passed in front of his sight as he made a full turn around. Besides the stars, the field, and the wreckage, he was alone. As he came around towards the wreckage, he eased his grip on the pressurized hose. A small white plume jetted out. He couldn?t tell if he was actually moving, or just killing himself quicker.
Metallic fear spread on his tongue as he scanned the asteroid field again. The wreckage had disappeared. He had no idea if he was moving in the right direction. Or if he was moving at all. Perhaps the wreckage had been an illusion?or a delusion. The only thing he did know for sure was he was losing air fast. Swallowing over a dry throat, he sucked in another breath of air.
The field loomed closer. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Well begun is half done?moron.
Forcing the image of his father out of his head again, Cairn lasered his gaze on the last spot he had seen the spinning wreckage. Or thought he had seen it.
All these damn rocks look the same.
Cairn caught a glimpse of his chest monitor. The single digit glared out at him, an imposing red nine. What really caught him was how calm he had become in the last twenty seconds. Was this what happened when you knew you were going to suffocate?
He drifted closer to one of the larger rocks. From a distance it had looked as if it was a couple meters across. Now that he was approaching arms length, the thick jagged rock had grown to behemoth ten times that size. Clamping his fingers over the venting hose, Cairn pressed hard. The brown wall of rock loomed in front of him. He was approaching it faster than he had thought. Cairn?s eyes went wide as he tried to angle his feet in front of him. He hit.
His head bounced around hard inside his helmet as it hit the rock. His breath was punched out of his lungs by the impact. The sharp ridges of the asteroid poked into him, threatening to tear his flight suit. He lost his grip on the hose. Cairn caught a wild glimpse of the white plume of air spewing into space again. Scrabbling for a handhold, his glove caught a ridge of sharp rock. He pulled.
The glove ripped.
The cold of space stung his palm.
A wave of shock hit him as the remainder of his air was sucked out of his suit. Frigid claws gripped his spine, stiffening his muscles. This was not the way everything was going to end. He could see his father?s sarcastic face. Taunting him. Cairn was not going to die with the old man?s face as his only company.
Losing his grip on the rock, he got control of the spewing hose. The white plume had become a drizzle of air now. He let it take him backwards off of the rock, hesitant to take the last breath of oxygen in his helmet.
His back hit something hard and cold. He sucked in the last breath in his helmet. Feeling blindly behind him, his frigid fingers traced something hard, cold?and square. The wreckage! Flipping himself around, Cairn came face to face with a scarred Alliance firebrand. The dull red paint was chipped and worn. Probably stolen from the Empire. Not that it mattered right now. He had never been so happy to see the infamous symbol of the Rebellion in his entire life.
Pulling himself along the shattered hull, Cairn looked for a way in. The fact that there might be no salvation inside was pushed to the back corner of his brain. His muscles burned and shook with the minute effort of pulling himself along the scarred hull. The blasted hulk was the remains of one of the Corellian gunships that had hit Station Zeta above Spiar. A hundred thoughts raced through his oxygen starved brain.
Damn Rebels, serves em? right! It?s cold. Shoulda? stayed on the farm. I hate you father.
Cairn tightened his jaw. He knew what was happening to him. He did not care about slow death as much as he thought he would.
Pulling himself over the blown out framework of the hull, Cairn blinked inside his helmet. The bridge section caught his eye.
It looked intact.
Fever burned his muscles as he pulled hand over hand the last few meters. Pulling himself inside the sparking wreckage, he looked for a way into the bridge. The entire access hallway to the bridge had been blown out, the charred skeletal frame the only thing connecting the bridge to the rest of the massive fuselage.
Cairn searched the blackened bulkhead near the sealed bridge door. The access panel hung by three thin wires, a casualty of the Fear?s attack. Grabbing the thin metal, he flipped over the blinking panel.
How quickly things turn around.
Reaching a shaking finger towards the thick button that should open the bridge hatch, Cairn pushed it.
His world turned upside down. Space spun around him, the stars a blur. Pieces of the asteroid that had hit the fuselage pelted him, bouncing off the bridge door. Cairn spun free, his helmet hitting one of the support struts. He was going back into space.
He was jerked to a stop. Looking down through the black spots growing in his vision, he exhaled the last of his air. His empty holster had caught on a jagged outcrop of metal. Watching the stars blur by for another second, he pulled himself back into the exposed neck of the dead ship. Black splotches pulsed in his vision.
"Don?t have?no long?"
Snatching the shattered panel, Cairn punched the button.
He slammed it with his palm. Again. Again.
The door hissed open. The air roared past him, slamming him backwards into one of the naked support struts. A corpse flew past him, spinning off into space. Pain shot through his spine. Cairn pushed off the charred beam, coasting through the open hatchway. He punched the door shut. The bridge still had power. Maybe it still had life support. Kicking off the sealed hatch, Cairn shot across the bridge, slamming into the front viewport. The main console stretched out below him. He started punching buttons.
He unclamped his helmet.
Then Cairn Natayn passed out.
Helena woke to the freezing pain in her hands. Sucking in a sharp breath, she released the warm air in a slow exhalation. The pain in her hands was her only indication she was still alive.
She had hit the TIE.
At what cost? Clearing the haze from her brain, she peered through the fogged up helmet that protected her from the vacuum of space. Lances of pain shot through her hands as she tried to flex her frigid fingers. The joints creaked. How long had she been out here?
A small jolt tugged at her chest. The tether was still attached. Tracing the charred cord to its end, Helena?s breath caught in her throat. The other end was clamped to a jagged section of hull that was wedged precariously into a monstrous pitted asteroid. The Stenner had been totally destroyed. It looked like the Flame and the Malit had either escaped or been destroyed as well. Chances were better than fair that if the Empire had destroyed a Nebulon-B frigate, it had wiped out its smaller escorts. Grennis was dead. They were all dead.
Scanning the starfield, Helena saw nothing but asteroids and stars. The blackness hung under her feet. Though she could feel no weight, vertigo tingled her feet. Reaching down to her belt, she clipped off the tiny monitoring unit. The readout was connected to her miniscule oxygen reserves.
Helena shook her head. The techs who had designed the reserve system should have been killed. Now she was going to die slowly. Not only that, she now had almost twenty minutes to think about it. The reserve of air was designed to bridge the precious gap that would bring a rescue and recovery team. Looking around the void again, Helena did not see much chance of that happening anytime soon.
She tugged on her chest tether, pulling herself closer to the asteroid. The tough tether was designed to hold her to the modified Nebulon-B in case the turret became a target. And in case she was not vaporized by the attack initially. Helena had always thought of the tether as a joke; now it was her lifeline to a chunk of space rock. She tugged again, harder. At least she would die holding on to something.
Helena tugged one more time. The connection gave. The twisted section of hull came loose from its perch, drifting towards her. She was still moving towards the asteroid. The jagged metal plate was moving away from it, towards her.
Willing her frozen fingers to work, she pawed at the tether clamp on her chest. Scrabbling against the metal with unresponsive fingers, Helena started to gasp for air. Precious air. She did not care, did not stop. All she knew was that she did not want to die in space with a piece of hull as her only companion.
"Come on you spastheap!"
The clamp flipped up, then back into place. The hull cruised past her, heading out into the void. The tether curled as it followed the hull.
"No no no no!"
Helena winced against her frozen digits. With one frigid hand, she braced the fingers of the other. And pulled. The buckle flipped up, snapping back into place. Her tether was running out of slack. She clawed at the clamp again. It flipped up again, locking back into place. Focusing all her energy into her task, she felt her teeth grind as the clamp came up again. Almost there.
The tether went taut.
The clamp snapped back into place as Helena was jerked chest first after the piece of fleeing hull. Now she was moving towards it, having stopped some if its momentum. And away from the asteroid.
Her breath came in rasps as she tried to focus on the clamp again and not the prospect of dying alone.
The clamp flipped up and back again. And again. The asteroid was getting further away.
Helena prayed to every god she had ever forsaken.
Just let me do this one thing. Just this thing. If I get out of this, I will take up the Faith again. I swear.
The clamp flipped up. The tether floated free.
Helena still had a problem. She was still getting further from the asteroid field. Scrambling for her leg pocket, she ripped open the cargo pouch, shoving both frozen hands inside.
The small canister of flame retardant was still there. Cupping the silver can in both her hands, Helena eased it out. Focusing her entire will on keeping a hold of the smooth metal, she bit her lip. The canister perched in her white fingers. It slipped.
Swiping at the canister, Helena tried to wrap her entire body around the can in a flurry of motion. She looked down. The can had perched in the fold of her vac suit. Pressing it to her chest, she aimed the nozzle out into the void and pressed. A thin stream of gray foam jetted out, expanding in the vacuum. Craning her head behind her, Helena tried to catch sight of the asteroid. Her restrictive suit would only allow her to see the blurry edges of the field. Helena pressed down on the nozzle with all the strength she could will into her lifeless hands. The stream thickened.
She chanced a look at her oxygen monitor. Nine minutes. Her brain started to address her next problem.
The asteroid loomed. Giving the canister another spurt, Helena turned herself to face the rock. Pressing hard on the button, she slowed her approach on the gargantuan rock. Catching the outcropping that spun towards her, Helena wedged her elbow into a jagged cranny. She hoped her suit did not choose this moment to rupture. For a second she entertained the idea of replacing the canister in her leg pocket.
"Why tempt fate." Even she could hear her sarcasm now.
A glimpse of metal caught Helena?s eye.
The wreckage of one of the gunships twirled a slow pirouette hundreds of meters out. It had been hidden by the rock she now clung to. The bridge section was intact, as well as the fuselage. The two sections were held together by a twisted skeletal frame. Helena thought she saw lights?on the bridge, on the surface. She could not be positive. She knew her air was getting dangerously low.
Letting the asteroid complete another full spin, she yanked her elbow free. Pressing down hard on the canister, she watched the foam drizzle out. Daring a glance at the remains of the gunship, she watched the derelict grow closer. She was within a hundred yards now. Helena tried to depress the button harder. Her hands met air.
Her heart pounded. The canister had floated free of her deadened fingers. Swiping at it, she tried to close her fingers around the silver canister. Helena only succeeded in quickening its departure. All she could do was watch it float away. She took back all her vows in that moment. Helena still had one factor on her side. She was still closing on the wreckage of the gunship. The hulk?s spent engines faced her as she closed to fifty meters. Her approach was agonizingly slow.
Pain pinched her elbow. It was the chill of space.
The asteroid had punctured her suit. Not a fast leak to be sure, but a leak nonetheless. A trickle of air hissed out of the exposed mesh. The layered cloth still held fast.
Nevertheless, the atmosphere in her suit was still leaking into space.
The massive engines of the gunship approached, looming large in her field of view. Twenty meters. Forcing herself to focus, Helena tried to recall the gunship?s specs. Specifically access hatches. Not that that would save her. The Alliance had so heavily modified some of the factory specifications that the ships own creators might not recognize their designs. She got a flash of her own frozen corpse banging against the outside of the dead ship, icicles hanging from her nose. She almost laughed.
Ten meters. Helena tried to will some feeling back into her lifeless hands.
Five meters. All she needed to do was catch something.
Two meters. An outcropping, a com array, anything.
At the last moment Helena realized just how fast she was going. Opening her mouth to scream, she could not find the breath.
She hit hard.
Her world turned to a jumble of gray hull and pain. More pain. Scrambling for a purchase on the cold metal, Helena wrapped her arm around a stubby monitoring vane. The red light on the small outcropping blinked. This hulk was not dead yet. Her legs pinwheeled over her head. Helena?s muscles burned as she tried to right herself. Besides the shooting pain at the base of her wrists, Helena could not feel her hands.
Scanning the curve of the hull, her eyes picked out a few heavy carbon scores, a thick gun turret, and an array of dim running lights that pointed to the stern of the derelict. Helena knew that in reality she was now no better off than she had been minutes before. But the hull underneath her comforted her more than a chunk of rock. Most assuredly more than the blackness of space.
At least now she did not feel so alone.
Picking her way towards the rear of the ship, Helena pulled herself past the massive engine cones. The engineering section. The serrated durasteel threatened to catch her pressure suit, quickening her loss of air.
Tucked between the cramped engine cones she saw it. The access hatch to the engine compartment. Thrusting her arms through the cramped opening, she began to pull herself through. Her belt monitor bleeped at her. She knew what the sound meant, but she looked at the readout. Helena was out of air. Her muscles burned as she pulled herself closer to the hatch. The exterior of the black engine cones closed around her head. She reached out.
Her leg caught on something. Helena?s hand jerked to a stop five inches from the hatch. She stretched for the tiny exterior access panel. The leg of her suit had hooked on one of the smaller engine cone outcroppings.
Helena stretched until her shoulder shot with pain. Curling up, she pulled herself back, unhooking her snared leg. Pushing off the engine cone, she slammed into the hatch. Between black spots in her vision, she lifted the panel cover. Swooning, she jabbed at the access button with numb hands. The hatch ground open. Pulling herself inside the cramped airlock, she punched the door closed. Searching the interior panel, Helena?s palm hovered over the jumble of buttons.
"Where are you!"
She pressed the button. And saw black.
Cairn Natayn woke to a dull pulse of pain in his head. His lungs burned. There was no ground under him.
Am I still in space?
Opening his eyes, he saw a world of cracked color. Taking a deep breath, he felt the base of his lungs blossom in pain. Trying to resolve the twisted images in front of his eyes, Cairn winced.
Focusing closer to his face, he saw the eyepieces of his helmet were shattered, a web of cracks hindering his view. He was still weightless, his back bumping against hard metal. Snapping the double clamps on his helmet, he stripped it from his head. Cairn sucked in another painful breath. And laughed.
Bracing himself against the ceiling of the bridge, he pushed himself down to the wide control console. Cairn scanned what diagnostics remained.
The other console had been charred beyond use, globules of blood still clinging to its scored surface. He looked out the thick viewport into the asteroid field. Nothing but stars and rocks. If the Empire came back here, he could only hope that they searched this hulk.
Scanning the console again, Cairn located the environmental controls. The artificial gravity blinked active, yet his feet still were not touching the deck. He would have to locate the auxiliary power.
Ah boy, you sit around and wait for the galaxy to come to you? Get off your lazy ass and find the way!
Cairn gritted his teeth. If the old man was here Cairn might have killed him with his bare hands. But he was right. If he wanted the Empire to find a wayward TIE pilot, he was going to have to go to them. Or at the very least, get their attention. Pulling himself back along the console, Cairn pushed off the bulkhead. Flying towards the rear hatch, he caught a storage locker, halting his flight. Cairn?s arms burned. He was still weak. Not knowing how long he had been floating in space after he had been shot down, he made a mental note to regulate his activities until he could locate some food and water.
"If there?s any here."
His voice echoed back to him on the bridge of the Corellian gunship. Reaching up to one of the storage lockers near the rear of the bridge, he twisted the latch. Opening the cabinet, he smiled.
"I guess that takes care of that problem."
Foil wrapped ration bars floated in the tall sideboard. Snatching one from the air, Cairn heard his stomach grumble at him. Tearing open the wrapper, he opened his mouth. And stopped, looking at the bar sidelong.
The Rebels did not have time to poison the ration bars.
He bit half the bar off, chewing the ration into a dull sludge in his mouth. It would almost be a blessing if the Rebels had poisoned the rations. Pulling off his black gloves, he clipped them to his belt. His red stained hands leapt out at him. Just like his old man. The red Genta grass marked those who farmed it. Chomping the last of the bar with his teeth, he closed his crimson palms into fists.
"Everywhere I go?you?re there."
Shaking his head, he looked around the bridge again. Opening the far locker, he found a few vacpacs of water, enough for a few days at least. And an environment suit. Closing the locker, he scanned the blinking bridge console. He had to see if the engines were still salvageable. Pushing himself over to the center of the console, Cairn paged through the diagnostic display.
"This is almost like an Imperial system."
Time to save my own ass.
Helena woke up coughing. A splash of pink dots sprayed the inside of her loose helmet. That was the first thing she saw. Her whole body constricted as a lance of pain shot through her lungs. She was coughing blood. Bumping her head on the floor of the tiny airlock, she looked around in the dark. A red emergency light pulsed at odd intervals, lighting up the room beyond the airlock hatch with dark shadows.
Lifting her helmet, she watched the dots of pink froth disappear over her head with the faceplate.
I don't remember unlatching it.
Not surprising. Her brain had run out of air. Coughing again, she convulsed, spewing dots of pink froth.
"That can?t be?good," she coughed again. Curling as her lungs lit on fire again, she winced, trying to stifle her coughing reflex. There was air. The Imperial attack had not ruptured the engineering bay.
The bay of the gunship was a slow storm of upturned tool chests, sheet metal, and tools drifting in the zero gravity. The walls were a collection of tubing, wiring and access panels, and tapestry of tool lockers. Pulling herself out of the airlock, she raised her hand to fend off a blocky diagnostic station that was drifting near her head.
"Okay. We?ve got power," she whispered to herself. The blinking lights on the few consoles confirmed her diagnosis. Kicking off the bulkhead, she propelled herself through the maze of parts and tools, her hands pressing into the console. A shock of pain jolted her hands. Jerking away, she rubbed her fingers. She had been unconscious long enough for her hands to warm up. They still hurt. Especially the scars dotting her palms. She could use a pot of StimTar right about now.
Taking stock, Helena looked around.
"Okay. I?m out here in the middle of nowhere in some asteroid field on the ass end of the galaxy. The Alliance isn?t dumb enough to try to rescue a turret gunner, even if they did know I was here. I am not worth a small fleet to come dig me out."
At that moment, she wished that was not true. Helena felt her lungs beginning to convulse again. Closing her eyes, she willed the spasm away.
"First thing?s first?food and water?let?s really prolong the suffering." Helena laughed at herself. She knew that her situation was anything but funny, but she could not help herself. Her mother would have laughed with her. Her father would not. A cursory search of the engineering bay yielded no food or water. Helena did find out one thing very worth knowing.
Two of the Corellian gunship's engines were still functional.
Now she just had to get them online. First she had to figure out what was wrong with them.
"Wish I woulda? paid more attention to you, Kalib Tal." A crooked image of the black skinned engineer popped into her head. He had always taken a personal stake in his repairs. Countless times he had tried to explain to her the mechanisms of her turret and every other piece of machinery. Countless times she had tuned him out.
"Great." Helena looked at the jumble of tools and parts floating through the bay. There was only one place she could figure out how to get the powerful engines back online.
The bridge. If she could get there, she might be able to get the massive engines functioning. Figure out where she was, hobble to a nearby system.
Simple. Kicking over to the closed hatch, she swiped a broken hydrospanner aside, bracing her hands on the compact door that led to the stern of the gunship. Sliding the panel up, Helena went to press the exposed door button.
Helena had seen the blown out midship of the Corellian craft. There was no telling if there was atmosphere on the other side of the hatch in front of her. Craning her head through the debris, she located her helmet floating in the middle of the bay. Helena was going to have to go outside again. Pushing off the wall, she drifted to the nearest storage locker, banging into the thin metal. Inside she found more parts, a small Koensayr Lith power block, and a coil of spare wiring. The second locker was empty. As she went to close it, something caught her eye.
Snatching the gas mask from the inside of the locker, she checked the small status readout at the end of the transparent tube. The air was at ninety five percent. Helena?s adrenaline surged. Something was going right. Searching the flotsam, she pushed off the wall, intercepting a black roll of patch tape near the floor. Digging under the repair tape with her fingernail, she pressed a strip of the super adhesive gauze over the hole in her suit. Grabbing a handful of strapping tethers, she jammed them in her leg pocket.
Strapping the mask over her face, Helena fed the mask?s monitoring unit down into her suit, clamping on her helmet.
"Here we go again." Her voice echoed back to her inside the cramped helmet. Pulling herself along the side wall, she approached the exterior airlock again. Keying the lock open, Helena stopped, looking at her hands. They still ached.
"Gloves." Her stomach grumbled at her.
Within a minute, she was outside the Corellian gunship, pulling herself along its upper hull. Passing over a foot deep charred crater near the one of the upper turrets, she held her breath. Helena looked down into the cavity of the ship. How many men had died when the Empire had made that mark?
Three minutes later, she passed over the blown out neck of the gunship. Twisted metal girders gave her better hold here; the cold of the durasteel radiated through her thick gloves. The entire bridge section looked as though it was in one piece. Was there a chance that someone had actually survived the attack? Tying one of the strapping tethers to an exposed beam, she wrapped it around her wrist. Helena lowered herself into the skeletal section of the ship. A closed hatch greeted her. The blackness of space hung below her feet.
Helena was thrown outward as an asteroid slammed into the hull five feet in back of her. The impact tossed her clear of the hull and out into space. The world spun in her vision; she tightened her grip on the tether. The tether went taut; her shoulder jerked, snapping her head back. She could hear her breath rasping in her lungs as she dangled in space three meters off the hull.
Can I?catch a break?
Hand over hand she pulled herself back onto the hull. Her shoulder screamed with pain. Helena was closer to the bridge viewport now. Tying up her other tether, Helena inched her way toward the scored transparisteel. Poking her head down, her breath stopped. She yanked herself back up. Out of view.
She had seen an Imperial flight helmet. And its owner. His back had been to the viewport. Helena could hear her heart pounding in her chest. The thought of daring another glimpse crossed her mind.
"Stupid!" Mounting the hull, she began her long crawl back to the aft of the ship. Back to the engineering bay.
She needed a weapon. The battle that had started over Spiar was not finished.
"Two engines online."
Cairn scanned the diagnostic again, listening to his words echo back to him.
"So why won?t you work you gargantuan piece of bantha crap?" Kicking the panel in front of him, he felt his body lift in the nil gravity. Pushing against the ceiling, he drifted back down to the console.
"And this no gravity crap is really starting to?piss me off!" He yelled, swiping at his floating helmet. The black skull helmet bounced off the bulkhead, drifting towards the rear of the bridge. His eyes followed the helmet as it hit the closest storage locker. He wracked his brain, trying to mentally assemble the components he had found in the lockers. All he saw was his father heaping his sarcasm on his efforts. Shut up old man.
He had it. The shattered lenses of his helmet made an exit from the bridge impossible. Cairn needed something to repair the seal. Pushing off the bulkhead, he opened the locker, rubbing the material of the vac suit between his fingers. It was thin enough. Yanking it off the hook, he stretched it out, holding it in front of his eyes. Through the thin airtight mesh he could see a blurry bulkhead.
"It?ll do." Cairn looked around for something to cut the sheer material with. He shook his head. "First thing's first."
Kicking back towards the front console, he removed one of the front panels under the wide console.
"I hope this damn thing isn?t totally fried."
Sliding into the crawlspace, Cairn turned himself in midair, trying to remember what the gravity generator looked like. Pinching a small tab, he twisted it hard. The overhead lights went out.
"Stang." He twisted it back, bringing the lights on again. Hooking two fingers on a small t-bar, he pulled and twisted. Sparks shot out at his face, making him flinch back.
"Zero for two Natayn?keep up the terrible work."
A chip panel caught his eye. It was lying askew in its slot. Sliding it out, he looked over the circuit board. Sliding the board tenderly back into the slot, he pushed, bit his lip, and prayed.
His prayer was answered with the hard deck slamming into his back. The air left his lungs as gravity reasserted itself. The small of his back landed on something sharp. The clatter of his helmet on the deck was followed by a hail of other small impacts on the bridge deck. Cairn felt as if a giant hand had been placed on his chest, and was pressing him down.
"That?s?one way?I guess," he gasped, smiling to himself. The time he would gain from not having to float around would more than make up for the increased power drain on the gunship. Sliding out from under the console, he got to his feet, rubbing the raw spot on his back. Rising on shaky legs, Cairn grabbed the suit from the locker, grabbed his helmet, peeled a water pack and got to work.
In just under an hour he had repaired the lenses on his helmet. Turning the helmet towards him, Cairn laughed. Where the eyepieces were normally black, a semitransparent tan cloth stretched across.
"Real tough." If only his flight instructor at the academy could see him now. Cairn slid the helmet over his head, clamping it down. His view out of the makeshift lenses was hampered by the cloth, but the overhead lights made the hatch in front of him just visible enough. The view was the last thing on his mind. Would the adhesive hold in the vacuum of space?
"One way to find out."
Cairn had already pulled up the layout of the gunship on the ships computer. It was one of the few pieces of information that had not been encoded. According to the specs he had seen, it was a straight shot from the bridge, back through the turret bay and the hold into the engineering bay. And that was where he needed to go. Since he could get a diagnostic on the engines, he assumed that the problem was not with any of the relays running from the bridge. Chances are the propulsion system went into failsafe the instant the gunship had been disabled. All he needed to do now was to get it primed and restarted.
First he had to figure out how. And to do that he had to get back to the engineering section. Fingers dancing over the front console, Cairn heard the hiss of air being sucked from the bridge. The cloth eyepieces went taut as the pressure inside his flight suit pressed outwards. If they were going to fail, he prayed the flimsy repairs did it now. Not later. Cairn held his breath.
The seals held.
"For now." Cairn had almost wished they had failed right on the spot. That way he could just re-pressurize the bridge, stay here until the power ran out. He would not have to take a potentially fatal spacewalk. Would not have to pilot a crippled Alliance ship through an Imperial held sector. Cairn could not even imagine where this misadventure would take him after that. It would have been so much easier for him to just die.
"I?am not." Cairn shook his head, setting his jaw. He would show the old man.
Checking the bridge pressure, he walked to the hatch. Pressing the button on the panel, he watched the door slide up. Bracing himself in the hatch way, Cairn took an unsteady step over the threshold. All around him, the skeleton of the gunship revealed the Koorlian cluster, and the light years of empty space behind it. The remainder of the hulk stretched out in front of him, the hatch to the central part of the ship covered with twisted debris. The damage to the Rebel gunship had been localized, but it had done the trick.
"Must have been a missile." His voice echoed back to him, the sound of his rebreather hissing in his ears. Grabbing one of the exposed beams, he pulled himself across the void to the intact aft section. Planting his feet near the hatch, Cairn began clearing debris. Pieces of bulkhead, fused console, and charred wiring floated out into space as he cleared the hatchway.
"Useless," he whispered, watching the blackened components float away into the asteroid field. Flipping up the stubborn access panel, Cairn tapped the hatch access. He heard a pop, a fizzling sound, then nothing.
Bracing himself against two of the exposed beams, he wedged his gloved fingers into the raised panels on the hatch. And pulled. Straining against the cold metal and his own fatigue, he managed to pull the door open an inch. Wedging his fingers into the crack, he wrenched the door open the rest of the way. There had been no decompression, no escaping air. The hull must have been breached in this section already.
Dull red lights pulsed on the ceiling, casting dark shadows.
Cairn jumped. A body floated in front of him, a meter from his face. From the look on his dead face, the man had not been expecting to die. Pushing the corpse to one side, Cairn stepped into the midsection of the Corellian gunship. Four laddered access tubes ran the side walls of the gunship, disappearing into the gunnery stations above and below. Cairn wondered how many more bodies were in those gun emplacements. Two waist high computer consoles stood in the center of the room, surrounded by open cargo crates.
Cairn tapped the nearest console, trying to access the ship computer. Behind his makeshift eyepieces he struggled to see in the dim red light.
It looked like the Fear?s fatal missile strike had left control of the ship at the bridge alone. Shaking his head, Cairn pushed himself over to the closest cargo crate. The rusted crate was half-filled with power packs for small arms. Unclipping one of the palm sized cylinders, he rolled the cold metal around in his fingers.
Something touched his shoulder. Cairn yelled, whipping around.
The corpse had floated over to him while his back was turned.
"Stang, man! Don?t do that!"
As he turned back to his inspection of the crates, something on the drifting body caught his eye in the dim red glow. Pulling the corpse towards him, he unclipped the blaster from the dead man?s holster. Wrapping his fingers around the rubberized grip, he checked the power pack. A full charge. He looked down at the crate of power packs, smirking.
"All dressed up and no one to shoot."
Jamming the gun into his hip holster, Cairn pulled himself past the central console to the hatch in the rear of the ship. The engineering bay was on the other side of the thick blast door. Checking the access panel, he frowned. The panel was dark. Pressing the square button yielded him no results. No hum of the hatch, no pop, not even a fizzle.
Great. The other door had blown its magnetic clamp, allowing him to pull it open with a fair bit of effort. This one was still mag locked. There might be air on the other side of the hatch. He had been lucky when he had opened the bridge that he had not been swept out into space. Cairn did not want to test fate twice. That meant one thing.
"Another spacewalk. Perfect."
Cairn pushed himself back toward the half open forward hatch, catching himself on the hatchway. Reaching out for a support beam, he stopped. His eyes lasered on a tether floating in space above the bridge section. It had been tied to one of the small monitoring outcroppings. The yellow material hung lazily in space.
Cairns adrenalin jumped. Someone had to have tied it there. He looked in front of him at the open bridge hatch, trying to peer inside from across the gap. Nothing inside was moving, he saw no indication that it had been disturbed. Palming his blaster, he reached across the gap, pulling himself over. Peering into the hatch again, he held his blaster in front of him.
Gravity clamped his foot to the deck as he stepped across the threshold into the bridge. Keying the hatch shut, he slunk to the bridge console, tapping the environmental controls. The hiss of air seeped into the bridge. After a few minutes, he unclamped his helmet, squatting down on his haunches. His eyes never left the closed hatch. Cairn checked the power level in his blaster one more time.
Someone was watching him.
"Get in there!"
Helena tightened her grip on the spanner, threading the bolt into the fist sized power cell. As if the task were not difficult enough, she had zero gravity to deal with as well.
Helena had found a plasma torch among the flotsam. The compact unit had been missing a gas hose and a power pack. The webbed hose she had found in one of the bay?s lockers, but the power cell had taken a bit more effort to locate. Now all she had to do was hook it up.
Her stomach rumbled again; it felt as if her stomach was going to digest itself if she did not get some food in her soon. Helena would bet any money that any rations to be had were on the bridge. And that damn Imp pilot was eating all of them. How in the hell had he gotten there? Just like you did. She shook her head, focusing on her task.
She threaded the bolt, twisting it three times until it was tight. Gripping the torch control in her hand, she flicked the gray switch on the double plasma tanks.
A white flame spurted from the end of the thick hose, sharpening into a needle point. The five inch flame made no sound, but she could feel the heat through her gloves. Pulling the lunky unit after her, Helena drifted towards the front hatch. There was no way she could take her newly made weapon outside. Either she would lose it, or end up floating off the hull into space.
Clenching the plasma tanks between her legs, she steadied herself on the bulkhead with one hand. Moving the torch closer to the thick hatch, she winced as white flame met metal. There were no sparks, but she could see the metal beginning to glow as the plasma heated it. Soon the flame had incised the durasteel and was biting into one of the mag locks that held the hatch closed. She would be through in no time. A hissing made her put her torch up. The air in the engineering bay was escaping into the other room through the new hole she had made.
If she had managed to get the door open before, she would have been killed instantly.
Twenty minutes later, Helena was wrenching the hatch backward, peering into darkness. Pulses of red emergency light illuminated a center console surrounded by a dozen cargo crates. Flicking her torch off, she pulled herself through the door, the plasma tank bobbing behind in the nil gravity. On both bulkheads, ladders were sunk into access tunnels to the gunnery stations above and below.
Her hand shot to her mouth.
The corpse of a man floated near the blown out forward section, bumping into the upper bulkhead. Helena swallowed. No matter that she had nothing in her stomach. Peering through the blinking redness, she made out the bridge hatch, just past the expanse of space. The Imperial was in there. Her eyes fell on the cargo crates. The crates were mag sealed to the deck, a few of their hinged lids swaying in the zero gravity. Power cells. More power cells. No food, no water. Helena looked at the floating corpse. Would she?
"No way. No way in Temple City."
She shut her brain off to the number of reasons why considering the dead man a food source was feasible. Shaking her head, she pushed herself over to one of the turret access tunnels, looking down, then up. No more bodies. Looking at the rungs of the ladder, she saw a few telltale globs of blood threatening to abandon their perches on the rungs. When the hull had been breached, it looked like the gunners had been pulled out of their chairs, down the access tubes, and out into space. Hitting every rung on the way.
"What a way to go."
Tugging the plasma tanks up behind her, she slid up the first access tunnel. A meter brought her to the empty gunnery station. Guiding herself up into the cramped pod, she looked around. Then she saw it.
A light. In the cargo hold. Sweeping back and forth. The Imperial!
Helena backed up, bumping into the gunnery chair. The light was getting closer. The beam pierced the access tube, making her heart stop. She did not have a blaster. Just the torch. It would have to do. The light beam got closer. The Imperial was coming up the ladder! Waiting until she saw the beam almost at the top of the tube, she ignited the torch. Pulling herself down over the edge, she thrust the lit torch in front of her.
The Imperial pilot jerked back, his blaster flying up the tube towards her. Dropping the torch, she swiped for the weapon. The pilot slammed into her, sending the blaster spinning away in the zero gravity of the pod. His light danced in her eyes, blinding her. Helena saw a crazy blur of black skull helmet and blaster. Kicking him away, she gripped the weapon, turned around, and fired.
The blue stun bolt hit the Imperial, blue tendrils of energy coruscating over his black flight suit. He convulsed once, and stopped moving. Flicking the weapon over to the kill setting, she aimed it at the unconscious Imperial. She pressed the warm barrel against the side of the black helmet. Her finger tightened on the trigger. Helena gritted her teeth. She had killed almost a hundred Imperial pilots. But not like this. Not so?close.
"Just a uniform?just an Imp."
The words carried no weight as they crept through her clenched jaw. The end of a turbolaser barrel had kept her at arms length from death. This?she could not do this.
But she could not let him wake up without having control.
Helena reached out for his inert form.
Helena pushed the barrel into his head.
"Alright already!" Cairn felt the cold end of the barrel at his temple. His helmet had been taken off. His hands bound behind him. A woman stood above him. Her brown hair was pulled back taut over a serious forehead. Green eyes burned holes in him. Cairn sucked in a stale breath. He was back on the bridge, sitting up against the front console. The woman looked him dead in the face, green eyes piercing him.
"How did you get here?"
Cairn looked at the blaster in her hands-his blaster-then smiled up at her. "Don?t you want to start with name, rank and serial number?"
Helena felt her face flush. She clicked over the stun setting on the weapon to kill. She had switched it back before he had come to, hoping she would have the chance to switch it back. For effect. Her insides were quaking right now. In front of her was a real live Imperial pilot. If the man would have had the gun, she was certain she would be dead right now. Helena knew that if she showed her fear now, the man would use it against her.
"Answer the question," she replied, her voice flat. Helena could see him considering her. The tan thin face cocked to the side.
Cairn tested his bonds. "I imagine I got here the same way you did, Rebel." The strapping tethers had been made with strands of durasteel. There was no way he was going to just slide out of them. His feet were still free. The woman had already backed up two steps further. There was no way he could get to her and take her off her feet before she shot him at least once. Cairn watched her raise the blaster to his face.
"What was your mission profile pilot?"
"To spread peace and happiness throughout the galaxy," he shot back, not missing a beat. She raised her chin. Her free hand went to the dual tanks sitting next to her on the deck.
"Do you know what this is?"
Cairn nodded. His eyebrows shot up involuntarily as he realized what she was suggesting. The plasma tanks were connected to a webbed mesh hose resting on the deck. He had seen what a plasma torch could do to durasteel when he had first been stationed on the Fear. On flesh the damage would be total. As would the pain.
"I used it on you once. Do not make the mistake of thinking I would hesitate to again."
Helena?s stomach grumbled at her again. She had already eaten three of the pasty ration bars and downed two of the vacpacs of water. The fluid had a sharp metallic taste. Not that she cared. The Imperial looked up at her.
"What are you going to do with me?"
Helena stumbled on her words. Beyond subduing him and getting some food in her stomach, she had not thought that far ahead. There was no way she could guard him and get the engines diagnosed and started at the same time. Helena sat down on the plasma tanks, resting the gun on her upraised knee. She made sure the barrel was pointed dead center on his chest.
"To be honest, I was going to set you adrift. You are a drain on the limited supplies on this wreck. On my food and water. You radically reduce my chances of getting back. You would have been better off as an icicle floating past Sullust?in my reckoning."
She watched his eyebrows pop up again.
"But as you can see, I elected to keep you. You are a pilot, you might have some tech experience that I do not. I thought ?maybe this Imp can help me' so let?s see if you were worth the trouble. Can you get this gunship at least partially functional?"
Cairn looked at her face. The Rebel was serious. Cairn tested his bonds again. No dice. He was going to have to give her some sort of answer. Sitting on the deck with his hands bound looking up at her, he struggled to maintain some semblance of control in his dim situation.
"I can. I was on my way to do just that. The question is?why would I want to now?"
He watched her head shake. She flexed her free hand. Cairn glanced at her palm, at the round scars dotting them. She was a StimTar addict. Cairn smiled. Maybe that would be his ace in the hole. He had seen the junkheads back on Ord Veica walk around in Temple City hopped up on the black liquid. Most of them lost use of their hands after a few years. The Rebel shifted, closing her fingers.
"Because it beats freezing to death with a Rebel, doesn?t it?"
"Not necessarily. What happens when I get the engines started? Let?s just say, purely for arguments sake, that I am successful. What then? You drag me in to be interrogated by the high and mighty Rebel Alliance? C?mon lady, what kind of a DooPaa do you think I am? At least if I froze to death I could do it in peace."
Cairn was lying through his teeth. The last thing he wanted to do was freeze to death. He wanted to get the gunship functional, wanted to get back to the Fear?wanted to do his job, retire, and die in a warm bed. Far from here. In all of his Academy training, there had not been a course titled ?What to do when you are stuck on a drifting hulk with a Rebel 101.'
Helena took in a slow breath, feeling her face redden. She knew she could not make the obstinate Imperial do anything he did not want to do. She was dreading the simple act of untying his hands if he had agreed to help her. She imagined him charging at her, his hands reaching for her throat. Helena Mastaire was not at all sure that she could kill the man. He was a human, regardless that he was an Imperial, and now he had a face. Helena knew she was going to make another mistake when she opened her mouth again.
"What?s your name?"
Now he had a name. Great. Well done, Helena, Dad would be so proud of you. Now Helena knew that pulling the trigger would be an impossible job. Sitting up straight, she looked him dead in the face. She still had a few cards to play. The Imperial did not have to know that she was not capable of ending his life.
"Where you from, Natayn?"
"Serial number 4 Alpha 4221178."
Helena huffed. "Oh I see. You don?t have to tell me anything, and you want to make damn sure I know that, huh?"
Cairn nodded. "You?re a swift one, for a Reb terrorist." He watched the blood rush to her face. For the first time he looked at her pressure suit. It looked like a pretty standard issue piece of equipment. She could have been a tech if it was not for her admission that she needed his help to repair the engines. The orange material gave him little clue to what she had done for the Rebellion. He looked at her chest, where a reinforced patch of material hid a clamp receptacle. What would she be clamped to? The image that had been burned into his brain surfaced again. Before he had woken up in space.
Cairn had been lined up on the Nebulon-B as it had tried to flee into the asteroid belt. He had been lined up on the turret. Cairn had watched it explode before his world had gone dark. His adrenalin rushed in two quick spurts as he looked her over again.
"You?re also a turret gunner."
Helena felt her jaw clench. This Imperial had just gotten another leg up on her. She was about to refute his guess, but she knew her body language had given away the truth.
"And you?re a TIE pilot." An obvious fact, but that was all Helena could come up with.
"And you?re?a Tarhead."
Cairn watched her face glow red as she closed her fist. The tendons in the back of her gun hand flinched, her gaze narrowing on him. The woman stood up, leaning forward. The barrel almost touched the center of his forehead.
"Shut your mouth."
"Did I touch a nerve?" Cairn smiled, taunting her with his eyes.
"I said shut your mouth!"
"No shame darlin?, we are what we are, just cause you?re a-"
Helena felt the helpless feeling mute into rage. She had clubbed him with the barrel of the pistol before she knew what had happened. Worthless Imp, who does he think he is? He fell to the deck, rolling on his side, a thin line of blood dripping across his forehead. Helena stepped closer, pointing the blaster at his face and yelling.
Through the white curtain of pain, Cairn watched her leg move one step closer. He let his legs relax, spreading out on the deck. The Rebel was screaming now. She took another step closer to him. Within the reach of his stretched out legs. Her mistake.
Cairn hooked her front leg, tucking his leg as he shot the other foot into her knee. The blaster went off, sparks raining on his head. Cairn heard the air escape her lungs as she dropped on her back to the hard deck. Tucking his legs hard, he rolled over, pulling his bound wrists under him. He rose to one knee, head swooning from her strike. Cairn shook his head, trying to clear the ringing.
Where?s the gun?
The weapon had clattered to the deck near the hatch. Tripping over her prone form, Cairn stretched out, falling forward. Falling on his elbows, he felt her hand wrap around his ankle. Kicking out, Cairn heard her yelp as he scrabbled for the blaster with his bound hands. The tight knot had cut off the blood to his hands. He picked up the blaster, aiming it at her prone form. Cairn could hardly feel his fingers.
"Over there. Move!" He motioned with his chin to the corner near the burnt out console. "Get over there Tarhead! Unlike you, I will shoot."
Helena swiped at the tears wetting her face. The back of her head hurt. Clamping her palms on her skull, she pushed herself into the corner, curling up. Cairn Netayn had baited her. And she had bitten. Hard. A whimper escaped her lips. Her pain turned to rage. Helena did not want this Imp to see her crying. She roared at him, tears flowing hard. Curling onto her side, she cradled her head again. Helena Mastaire did not care if he shot her. Did not care about much. She just wanted to go home.
Cairn wiped the blood off of his forehead with his sleeve. The fresh cut stung hard. Serves you right, smart mouth boy. Cairn looked at her curled up form as she heaved uncontrollably. He smirked.
"Hey, don?t take it so personally!"
Through her tears, the Rebel looked directly into his face. The green of her almond shaped eyes stopped his next snide comment. Even he wasn?t that cruel. Not even to a Rebel. She closed her eyes hard, curling up again.
Kneeling in the center of the bridge, he pointed the weapon at her.
"What is your name? Hey! Look at me! Who are you?"
Her response came back muffled. "Go take the short jump, you Imp scag."
Cairn sat there considering her prone form for a few more seconds. Her convulsions had stopped. She went to sit up, looking at the deck in front of her. Cairn chuckled once.
"Listen, it is just you and me out here. We might as well get along until we figure out what we are going to do. Something to consider along with that?I can get the engines started without you. As long as we?re here together, we might as well work together. Somewhere in that pretty Alliance propagandized brainpan this has to be making some sort of sense, yes?
She sat up, one hand still holding the back of her skull. Cairn braced himself for another retort. It is what he would have done, had he been her.
Cairn?s eyebrows arched.
"Mastaire. My name is Helena Mastaire."
Cairn nodded, pressing a grin into his lips. "At least you didn?t give me your rank and serial number."
Helena looked at his face. Even though her head sang in pain, she felt herself stopping?a grin? All things considered, her situation could have been a lot worse. She looked up at him.
"Yeah?could be a lot worse." Helena looked over her shoulder at the console, out the transparisteel viewport at the stars. "Listen, I know you?ve probably thought of?did you send a distress?"
Cairn exhaled, feeling some of the tension in his shoulders dissolve.
"Yeah I looked into it. Comm?s fried. Even if it was all green, I didn?t want to risk telling your friends I was here all by my lonesome." He looked her in the face. "Listen, I am going to put this gun down. Don?t?"
Helena nodded at him. She knew what he meant to say.
Don?t jump me, cracking my head on the deck, like I did to you. Okay? Please?
She no longer had the strength. Her lungs still hurt, lances of pain shot through her head, and she realized for the first time just how much her hand hurt from his boot. Helena watched him put down the gun. For a second she felt her eyes flash, her adrenalin spike. Calming herself, she watched him struggle with his bonds. She had tied it double-knotted, tightening the tethers with all the strength she had available to her. Helena sat up.
Cairn?s eyes flicked from his task to her, and back again. Pulling the obstinate canviplas with his teeth, he winced. After a full minute of wrangling the stubborn knots, he threw his hands down, exasperated. Cairn looked at her, then back to the knots around his hands, at the deck, then at her again.
"You coulda? tied these a little-," he spat, stopping suddenly. Helena watched him take a deep breath. "Let me start over. Will you?" Cairn extended his bound hands out to her.
"You?re?joking right? You want me to untie you?"
"No I am not joking. If I lose the ability to move my hands, neither one of us is getting out of here."
"I could probably grab that gun and put a nice smoking hole in that pretty black flight suit."
Cairn kneeled, pincering the blaster between his two gloved hands. Helena held her breath. Had she said a few words too many?
"Just in case," he said, popping the power cell out. It hit the deck, and he kicked it away. Cairn let the spent weapon clatter to the deck. "Level playing field."
Helena got to her feet, swooning. Steadying herself on the front console, she let the starbursts fade from her vision before she dared a step toward him. Catching herself on his outstretched hands, she felt him support her dizzy weight. Helena righted herself, going to work on the tight knots.
"Damn?how hard did you pull these?knots?"
"I was trying to get loose," he smirked.
Helena bent back a fingernail. Stifling a curse, she cradled the damaged digit. The knots had not budged. She rubbed her sore fingers.
"Well this isn?t working," she said to herself, looking around the deck. Her eyes fell on the plasma tanks, and the welding hose connected to it. Cairn?s eyes followed her gaze.
"No. No way."
"Do you see any other way?"
Cairn felt his heart start to pound. He saw a clear picture of his father holding him down, hitting him. The old man?s face had been crazed-
"Hey! Do you have any other bright ideas? Don?t worry I?m pretty good with a torch."
Cairn shook his head. "You?you?d better be."
Cairn took a step back; Helena picked up the nozzle, igniting the tank. The white flame sprang out of the end, its dull tip sharpening to a white hot needle. Helena looked at him.
Cairn felt his heartbeat pounding in his ears. A bead of sweat stung one eye, making him flinch.
"Hold still! What the hell is wrong with you?"
Helena grabbed his bound wrists, steadying them in the crook of her elbow. Jerking his black gloved hands, she grimaced at him, bringing the flame up to his hands. He jerked slightly. Helena could feel his hands, his whole body beginning to shake.
"Hold still!" She grabbed his black gloves by the fingertips, yanking them from his hands. Crimson stained palms stared back at her. Deep lines punctuated the red skin. The breath caught in Helena?s throat. She clicked off the torch, letting his hands fall as she took a step back. The last time she had seen palms like that had been on Ord Veica.
"You?you?re a farmer? Genta?"
Cairn?s brow twisted as he took a step back.
"You?re from Ord Veica?"
Helena took a deep breath. "I was born there."
Cairn broke a cold sweat. If this was the Rebel?s ace in the hole, it had been a winner. Cairn sucked in a long low breath. He still did not trust her. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the butt of the powerless blaster on the deck.
Cairn was about to ask what quarter, when Helena blurted it out. "In the Previat Quarter."
Helena snatched up the torch again, wanting the easy flow of words to stop. Or at least become difficult again. Flicking on the torch, she grabbed his hands, passing the white hot flame up and down the tethers that bound his hands. Inside of ten seconds, the cloth separated, falling in a smoking heap to the deck.
Cairn stepped back, rubbing his wrists.
"Rich girl huh?" He got no response, just an ice cold green glare. "Well, rich girl, what say we eat some of those rations, drink some of that water, and get this piece of junk among the living again?"
Helena nodded, flicking off the torch. The glint of the power cell from the blaster caught her eye. The small cylinder had lodged in one of the floor ventilation grates. She made a mental note of the power pack.
Just in case.
Opening one of the lockers, Helena pulled out a handful of the black wrapped rations and two vacpacs of water. She spread them out on the bridge deck, dividing them up evenly.
Cairn sat cross legged. His head still pulsed. Reaching up, he dabbed at the wound, wincing. Helena winced with him.
"S?ok. I?my?I?m sorry?too," he said, nodding at her hands," I did not mean?you know." She closed her fingers. Cairn changed the subject.
"Previat Quarter. That?s big credits."
"Yeah," she said, deflecting him," where was your farm?"
"The Northeast Co-op. Ever been there?"
Helena shook her head, unwrapping the ration bar.
"You aren?t missing much."
"Hmm. Ever been to the city?"
"Yeah," he said through a mouthful," I went there a few times with the ol?yeah a couple. Never to Previat though. They don?t let guys like me past the Triple Arch."
Cairn looked down at his folded legs. He felt like he was sixteen again, looking out over a waving red field of Genta grass. Looking at the sunset, wishing he was somewhere else. The feeling weakened him, sapped the energy from his limbs. He took a weak sip of his water, grasping at a new subject.
I?d give anything to be looking at that field again.
"You live in Temple City?Previat, all your life?"
Helena felt her chest tighten. "Yeah?my father, he was?involved."
"Nia?List or Muffari?"
"He was a Nia?List High Praetor."
"You?re?kidding right?" Cairn?s eyes goggled.
"No?I am dead serious." The ration bar in her mouth suddenly became very dry.
"That must not have gone over too well, you leaving home like that. What did you mother think of you going off planet?"
"My mother," she whispered," she was the reason I left."
"What do you mean?"
Helena looked up at Cairn, holding his gaze for a second. This Imperial was too easy to talk to.
"I?nothing. Forget it." Helena looked at her silver water pack, taking a sip from the nozzle. She averted her gaze from his, looking at the deck, her feet, anywhere but right at him.
"I never really knew my mother. I think she died when I was one or two."
"Yeah, my old man?we didn?t talk." Cairn ran his thumb down the outside of his face. For the first time, Helena saw the thin white scar that traced his jaw line.
"Yeah, well I learned about the outside world through Twi?lek holovids and the neighbor?s kids. I thought the whole world was a field of waving red grass and busty aliens until I was full eight or nine seasons."
"That?s?unbelievable." Flashes of her rich childhood raced through her mind. Temple ceremonies, her mother teaching her paint and slab, her father?s stern face. By the time she was nine, Helena had learned two languages, met a dozen different species, and been an apprentice Candlebearer.
"Believe it. When I found out about the Academy, I knew I didn?t want to do anything else. Nothing was going to stop me. Nothing?did."
"Did you already know how to fly?" Helena asked, chomping another bite of her ration bar.
"Not like this, some in the harvesters, but nothing like a TIE."
Cairn shifted against the bulk of the plasma tanks. Either they were going to broach some very personal subjects, or stop talking altogether. He knew that Helena had a past, one that she might not want to talk about. Cairn felt the relief of not having to relive those days again. Even if it was just in his head. He took another bite of the ration bar, washing it down with the last bit of water. The vacpac crinkled as he sucked the last drops into his mouth.
"No, nothing like a TIE?" His voice trailed off. She was averting her gaze from him. Considering their circumstances, it was understandable. Helena stood up, stretching her legs. Rubbing her knee, she grimaced.
"What say we get this pile running?"
Twenty minutes later they stepped through the bridge hatch into space again. The asteroids of the Koorlian cluster tumbled on the black tapestry of space all around them. Helena tightened her grip on one of the twisted beams as she stepped out into zero gravity again. Her stomach rolled. She regretted eating four of the ration bars.
Don?t get sick. Not in your helmet.
Cairn had already propelled himself across the gap, catching a charred outcropping on the other side. The hatch to the turret bay was still stuck half open. Both of them squeezed into it. Helena looked at Cairn, now just another Imperial under his black helmet. But something more. An Imperial with a face. With a name. With a family and a planet. Helena swallowed, thinking of the adrenalin rush of intense pleasure she had gotten from blowing Imperial pilots from space. How many families had she rent asunder? How many lives destroyed? The only fact that kept her guilt balanced was the fact that Cairn Natayn had probably dealt his share of death as well.
Cairn braced himself on the bulkhead, pulling the hatch to the engineering bay all the way open on its obstinate track. A motley collection of tools floated in the zero gravity. The pair pulled themselves inside.
His skull helmet turned to her, his finger pointing to one of the far access panels. They had no comm hook-up between them. Helena shook her head, not sure what he was trying to tell her. Cairn pointed to her, motioning her to come closer to him. She pushed off the bulkhead, clearing a path through the flotsam. He grabbed her arm. Helena felt her muscles stiffen with panic. Had their makeshift alliance just expired?
Cairn pulled her towards him, his gloved hands sliding down to hers. Placing her fingers on one of the vertical power conduits, he pressed them to the insulated pipe. The skull helmet turned away, searching through the floating debris. Kicking off the bulkhead, he swiped a curved wrench out of the air. Another hop brought him to an open access panel. Pulling himself close to the wall, he began to work on the panel with the tool. Helena watched his helmet turn back towards her once.
He doesn?t trust me either. Can?t blame him.
Cairn jerked back from the exposed circuitry, smacked it with a palm, then resumed working.
Every tool fell onto the deck, followed by her feet as gravity snatched her. A sting shot up Helena?s legs as she landed on her rear on the bulkhead. A massive diagnostic console missed her head by a meter, crashing in pieces on the grated deck. Cairn kept his back to her, moving over the panel again. The forward hatch slammed shut. Stepping over the piles of debris, Cairn slipped off his glove, putting his hand to one of the floor vents. Standing up, he nodded to her under his helmet.
Five minutes later he popped his helmet off. Helena snapped the seals on her helmet, sucking in a deep breath of the stale air.
"Reactors still good, we are generating power. For how long, who knows?"
Helena stepped over the piles of junk, peering at the exposed panel.
"One hell of a rig job. Where does an Imperial rocket jockey learn a re-route like this?"
"You know the company that makes these gunships?"
"They started out making farm equipment. They sold off their agricultural concern about five years ago to some independent. I grew up fixing this spast."
Good thing, Cairn Natayn.
"Alright?I?m gonna? need...help here," he said, pointing to the broken console. Helena gripped the other side of the console and they slid it out of the way. Cairn grabbed the small depressed handle, lifting up a round deck plate. Dropping his legs over the hatch, he looked up at her.
"Be back in a minute."
Helena took a look around at the mess. Picking up a black wrench, she began to clean the bay. Within ten minutes she had a spot on the deck clear. Suddenly she heard him curse, his muffled voice spouting up through the access hatch in the floor. Then he started to scream.
Helena dropped her armful, letting the parts clatter to the deck. Dropping to her knees, she peered down into hole.
"Now! Gimme? the torsion wrench! Hurry! Torsion wrench!"
Helena hopped to her feet, sprinting across the bay. Rummaging through the pile of tools, she came up empty handed. She scattered the tools on the deck.
"I need it now!"
The torsion wrench was not there. Her heart felt as if it was going to burst.
"I can?t find it!"
"The panel! Look by the panel!"
Helena raced to the open panel, scanning the floor. No wrench. Her heart pounded. A hissing sound assaulted her ears, sparks flying up from the access tunnel. Cairn screamed. Helena leapt to the lip of the hole. Thick smoke engulfed her face. She reeled back, her throat seizing. Surging forward, she closed her stinging eyes, reaching blindly into the access tunnel. Their hands hit, he gripped hers. Helena pulled. Cairn jumped, clinging to the edge of the pit. Helena got to her feet, clamping onto him with both hands, hauling until her muscles burned. He flopped onto the deck, holding his chest and coughing. A short, thick wheeze.
They lay there on the deck for a full minute while the smoke dissipated. It hung heavy at the ceiling as the strained recycler struggled to scrub the air. Cairn leaned up on one elbow, red eyes watering. His face was a blotch of black soot.
"What are you?stupid?"
Helena shrank back. A million retorts shot through her mind; only one word made it to her lips.
"You heard me?I coulda? been killed! What?s so hard about finding a damn torsion wrench?"
Girl can?t you do anything right? You are just like you mother. Worthless.
Helena snapped. Her gaze narrowed to a hazy tunnel with an Imperial at the end of it. Springing on top of him, she wrapped her claws around his throat. And squeezed.
Cairn could not believe what was happening. But he could feel it. Dropping both his forearms, he hit her arms, stripping them from his throat. Cairn swung an elbow, her head rolling off. She dropped off him, coming up on her haunches three feet away.
"I should have known. Stupid dirtbag farmboy."
"Real hurt. Especially coming from a silver spoon Tarhead."
Helena charged him again, grabbing the front of his flight suit. She felt the back of his hand as it went across her face. Helena saw stars, felt the deck underneath her. Her hand fell on a stray wrench.
"You want your wrench?"
Her fingers wrapped around the hard metal tool.
Helena swung the long metal shank, hitting Cairn?s shinbone. He dropped to the floor next to her, his face a mask of twisted pain. Helena raised the wrench again, her eyes focusing on the side of his head.
Just another Imperial.
She swung. The weapon hit the metal deck with a clang. Helena?s arm went numb as the wrench flew free.
Cairn swung his leg around, his boot tip catching her square in the stomach. Her eyes opened wide as she tried to suck in air. Her lungs seized as she dropped to the deck, rolling on her side. She knew he had gotten to his feet. She knew he was probably going to kill her. Helena could not move. The blossom of pain in her abdomen froze her to the deck. All she could see was the hard grey grate of the deck, and his one black boot.
A shock went through her as the flat of his palm slapped her in the center of her back. Helena sucked in a desperate breath, coughing as she rolled over. Cairn stood over her, looking down. He leaned on one leg.
"This?is not helping us."
Cairn pulled her up, holding her shoulders.
Helena nodded, almost falling with Cairn as his wounded leg came out from underneath him. She steadied him.
"I found your wrench."
For a full four seconds they looked at each other.
Helena turned her face down before a grin cracked. Cairn looked her in the eyes.
My shin hurts.
"You know you coulda? killed me with that." He pointed to the bent durasteel tool that lay on the deck. Bending down, he grunted as he picked up the warm durasteel. A small dent mirrored the nick in the metal of the deck.
Helena looked at the tool, at the deck, anywhere but his eyes. "I?at least I wouldn?t have to hear you bleating like a Calamarian water cow."
She tried to read his neutral expression. Helena was extremely aware that he now held the weapon which she had just assaulted him with. She knew that if their situation came down to blows again, she would be the one floating in space. Hopefully Cairn saw her as more useful than not. Helena watched his face as he pasted a forced grin on it. Turning, Cairn swung his feet over the edge of the access hatch. Looking down into the dark pit, he stopped. For a moment he looked her in the eyes.
"I?let?s?not do that again."
Cairn studied her face. Something still lingered there. Something almost intangible.
"And no more names."
Helena nodded, a silent affirmation as he disappeared into the access pit again.
"Pass me that stabilizing clamp, will ya?? It?s?that one," Cairn said, pointing a crudgy finger out from under the bridge console. Helena snapped up the yellow handled tool, slapping it into his palm. Squeezing her arm into the narrow space between the edge of the crawlspace and his body, Helena cranked the small light around.
"Over here more," Cairn said," right?there."
Helena grunted, steadying herself on the outside of the console. Her palm pressed against the cool metal. She watched his black boots twist again as he lurched. Black Imperial boots.
"How long were you a farmer?" Helena pushed the words out. The silence had started eating at her sanity. She needed to talk, to hear his voice. His muffled response floated out of the panel.
"Since?since I was born, I guess. I was born and raised in the Southwest quadrant. I still remember when they co-op?ed the whole damn planet. What a joke."
"Yeah." Helena?s face burned. Her father had been one of the major lobbying forces behind the forced reorganization of the farms outside of Temple City. The re-org had always been an excuse for her father to be away. Away from her, away from her mother. Now even that event had a face.
"Hmm? Oh nothing. When did you realize?well, what made you join the Empire?"
For a moment, all motion under the console stopped. Cairn started to slide out from under the console; Helena backed up. Sitting up, Cairn wiped the beads of sweat from his tan face. He looked her in the eyes. For a second too long.
"You?really want to know?"
Helena nodded. Before, it had just been a way to carry on a semi-human conversation, an inquiry to pass the hours, to give a glimmer of hope in a hopeless situation. Something to pass the time until the inevitable. When Helena looked at the set of his face, it became much more than that. Now she wanted to know.
Cairn leaned his head back against the console, his eyes drifting to the ceiling. He inhaled a long slow breath.
"I?didn?t exactly have the best childhood. I was poor, and worse than that, I had given up. By the time I was fifteen, I would look at all that Genta and think of ways to kill myself. The sunset was as far off as the center of the galaxy. Even Temple City?I knew there was no way in the Outer Rim that I would ever even get a sniff of the money coming through there. I?d watch the hover trains come and collect our crop, watch my old man get ripped off time after time. He figured that was his life. Besides?he needed some justification for hating the universe."
Helena stumbled on his answer before she realized what he had said. It had not been what she had asked.
"I meant?do you hate the universe?"
"Nah. I never cared that much about anything. Except..." His eyes dropped to the deck. "Getting away from Ord Veica."
"And the Empire-"
"They had the keys. The way I saw it, they were golden gods sweeping in on their fiery chariots. Bigger than me, bigger than everything."
Helena smiled. She knew that feeling. Helena had felt that blind admiration for her father. Before she had seen what he really was. She had felt it for the Alliance as well.
"I?know what you mean." Time had dulled the glow. The years?and the miles. Cairn snapped out of his reverie, ducking under the console in a sudden move. All she could see of him again was his legs and boots.
"Almost done. The trans-relay was zapped when the engine fried. We still have the one engine, and this reroute looks?promising."
Subject closed. Helena took a deep breath.
"Cairn, do we have enough power for the guns?"
"If we do, it would only be for ten or so shots. Those monsters suck a lot of juice. I know what you?re thinking."
Do you now?
"If someone stumbles on us, or vice versa, I don?t think one turret is going to make a difference. We are running, maybe, on one engine. No shields, no comm, and the list goes on."
"I understand," she breathed," but I can adjust the turret so it doesn?t grab so much power. I think it would be worth our while."
Cairn popped out from under the console again. Helena took the yellow handled tool from him, handing him another one.
"Just in case."
Cairn considered her face. He nodded. "Just in case. I?ll see what I can do."
Helena sat back on her haunches, looking out of the front viewport. The wide transparisteel was scarred black in spots. She could see the stars outside, a few asteroids drifting.
If someone did run across their position, what then? If it was an Alliance task force, they would either board or tow the gunship. They would find the both of them. Cairn would immediately be interrogated and imprisoned. Helena swallowed. Her collusion with him would not be viewed with gentle eyes, either. If the Empire discovered them, it would be pretty much the same situation. Except their roles would be reversed. If the Empire did not blow then from space immediately, they would send a scour team to grab any data from the ships computer. Helena felt fear blossoming in her gut. They would find her. She had heard stories about Imperial interrogation methods. Slow, fast, subtle, direct?they all had one thing in common. Pain. And a lot of it.
Helena looked down at Cairn?s black boots as they shook with effort. A grunt came from under the console.
What bothered her was not the fact that she might get caught. She could deal with whatever was going to happen to her. The thing that had started to eat at her was the fact that she had started to worry about what would happen to him.
"Okay," he growled, snapping her back to reality," almost?got it?there!"
Helena felt the deck shudder as power surged through his repair. The last functioning engine rumbled to life. Helena let out a yelp as she rocketed to her feet.
Cairn pulled himself out of the crawlspace. "Okay?okay, run propulsion diagnostics?we?re not out of the woods yet."
Helena hopped to the far right console, watching the reams of data scroll across the black screen.
"Engine relays green. Guidance green."
Cairn looked up from the center console, an incredulous expression on his face.
"Hold your power pack fly boy, its coming up now. Okay?comm?s still down. Short range sensors are up and-"
"Oh no." Cairn?s face went white. Helena stepped over behind him.
"What? What the stars is a seeker drone?"
"Look!" Cairn grabbed her arm, pulling her to the console. The flickering sensor screen displayed a small white dot. It had begun to circle on their position. The circles began to get smaller. Helena felt her adrenaline rush.
"Three, maybe four minutes!"
Helena started jamming her gloves back on, fumbling with her pressure helmet. Cairn turned, his eyebrows wrinkling.
"Where are you going?"
"To the turrets!"
"You make sure I have power when I get there!" She clamped her helmet on, drowning out his protests. Pushing his helmet into his hands, she jerked her finger at him. Cairn clamped his helmet over his head, tapping the environment panel. The air started to leave the bridge. Helena?s finger hovered over the rear hatch access panel, waiting for the thumbs up from Cairn as he watched the environment panel count down. After what seemed like twenty minutes, Cairn jerked a thumb up at her.
"About time!" Helena slapped the panel; the hatch slid open. Weightlessness rolled her stomach as she stepped outside into space. Craning her head around, she caught sight of his black flight suit poring over the console.
"Don?t you let me down, Cairn Natayn." Pumping her legs, Helena shot across the open space. A glint caught her eye. The Seeker drone. Circling far off in the asteroid field. And closing. Helena put her hands out, stopping herself on the open hatchway. Pulling herself through, she kicked off of the bulkhead, her fingers gripping the cold metal of the turret ladder.
Helena had been shown what a Seeker could do. The devious droids were planted at a battle site after an Imperial victory. They had been designed originally to deter pirates and scavengers. The droid would lay dormant until it detected an active ship engine. The tiny bomb would then home in and deliver its deadly cargo.
Unless she could shoot it down first.
Pulling herself up the shaft, Helena slammed into the ceiling of the cramped turret. The cabin was dark, the twin guns hung limp outside the octagonal transparisteel. Had he shunted power to the wrong turret? Helena?s eyes darted from the dead guns to the access tunnel. If another one of the three turrets had been enabled, she could probably make it there and shoot the Seeker down before it hit the gunship. If she strapped herself in and tried to get this station online, Helena knew she would not have enough time to hop to another turret. The Seeker was closing too fast.
She looked at the dead weapon emplacement. Then back at the access tunnel.
Make the call.
Helena started towards the tunnel. She stopped, craning her head around in her helmet. For a second, she floated in zero gravity.
Then she made her move. Gripping the high head rest, she pulled herself into the turret, snapping the chair restraints over her chest. The last time she had done this, she had ended up floating is space.
"This had better be the right one!"
The flat panel in front of her stared her in the face. A jolt of power surged through the weapon, the brief hum dying. She had chosen the right turret!
Flipping up a red safety switch, Helena began toggling the power for the turret. Spurts of energy were coming through, but nothing consistent. She pictured Cairn Natayn swearing under his breath as he scrambled under the bridge console again. A glint of metal caught her eye in the asteroid field. The Seeker had completed another circle around the derelict gunship. A tighter circle.
"C?mon!" Helena toggled the switch back and forth, nearly tearing it free of the panel. The double grips wavered in front of her face. Another surge of power lit up the tracking scope, then died. A few of the ceiling readouts blinked twice, dimming. Helena felt her helplessness mute into a dull rage. She was not going to die in a turret. Not like this.
"Natayn!" Helena braced herself on the slim arms of the chair, winding up her leg. Slamming her heel into the bulkhead, she bleated a string of curses. She kicked it again. And again.
The panel blinked once, died, then came to life. The ceiling readouts glowed, their colored displays lighting the cramped cabin. Her scope came to life, the single red dot of the Seeker tracing across it.
Helena slapped the cushioned grips into her gloved hands, her fingers hovering over the firing studs. She did not know whether she had one shot or ten, and did not want to tempt fate. Her eyes glued to the tracking console.
"Okay?okay?okay?come to mama you little Imperial bastard." The Seeker?s signal traced over the left side of her scope, inching towards the center. Helena flicked a glance out the transparisteel. Nothing but asteroids. The Seeker was behind them, circling up underneath. Helena tilted the firing assembly forward, watching the turret guns on the ship?s hull follow her command. The entire cabin hummed as the guns stopped moving.
The signal approached the center of her scope. Helena focused out into space. There was no way she was going to hit something that small with a targeting computer. She would have to eyeball it. Helena?s fingers jittered over the firing studs on each worn handle. She was shaking.
A glint caught her eye.
Jerking the turret control up, Helena swore as the seeker came down into her view. Firing a wild salvo, she forced her trigger fingers off the firing studs as the Seeker cruised down and out of her line of sight. Her jaw tightened, not letting even the vilest of her curses through. The signal tracked towards the right side of her display. She slapped the edge of the square display. The signals had been reversed, the console damaged in the battle.
Now Helena knew she could not rely on the targeting computer.
At least the guns work. But for how long?
Helena forced her eyes away from the display out into space. Pulling the double handle down, she watched the turret guns elevate. Her breathing jumped up, her heart thumping. One more chance. All she needed. One more shot.
Helena blinked away stinging sweat. Twisting her face up, she shook her head. The determined droplets coursed down her face, itching. Her eyes burned as her perspiration dripped into them. She sharpened her focus out of the transparisteel. Just space, rocks, and shaking anticipation. Helena almost flicked a glance at the scope again. She knew the second she made that mistake, the drone would complete another circle. Maybe its last.
"Where are you," she whispered, her hands tightening over the double grips. The muscles in her hands started to burn.
The Seeker drifted down into her view. Helena held her breath, tracking the flitting drone to the middle of her firing arc. She flicked the firing stud. The red bolt of energy went wide. She fired again. The bolt skimmed closer. Closing one eye, she eased the grips up, listening to the turret follow her motion. Helena had it. She fired. The bolt shattered an asteroid into a thousand pieces.
"No!" The chair restraints pressed into her chest.
Helena?s eyes went wide as she peered over the firing assembly. The Seeker flitted out of her view. Helena fell back into the chair, letting out a defeated breath. She shook her head; her hands dropped off the firing grips. Helena pictured the split second of surprise that would cross Cairn Natayn?s face as the Seeker slammed into the gunship. Her eyes traveled out into space, into the asteroid field. Small chunks of rock bounced off the transparisteel viewport from her last shot.
The glint of the Seeker popped into her sight again. Incredulous, her eyes shot to the tracking screen. The blip was almost dead center.
Slapping her hands on the firing controls, she felt her muscles tighten. She forced herself to relax as the Seeker came back into view. Her gloved fingers caressed the firing studs. Not yet. The metal of the Seeker glinted as it passed. Her finger twitched. The drone passed behind another asteroid.
"Not?again." She fired.
The Seeker popped out from behind the spinning chunk of rock. The red bolt speared it dead center. The tiny droid blossomed into a cloud of flame as the high density explosive ignited. It tore into the asteroid, reducing it to speeding rubble.
Helena?s eyes widened, her smile evaporated. The rubble slammed into her viewport, the shockwave rocking the ship. Fist sized rocks crashed through the transparisteel. Helena threw her hands up. The last thing she saw was a piece of space rock speeding at her fragile helmet.
Cairn sealed the bridge hatch, letting Helena?s flaccid body to the deck. Racing to the front console, he started the influx of air onto the bridge. His black flight helmet bounced on the deck as he threw it off. Kneeling at her side, he popped the seals on her shattered helmet. It clattered to the deck.
Her face was a crisscross of cuts and scrapes. Blood was trickling from one of her ears. Her orange pressure suit had three holes in it. And she had been exposed to space for at least a minute. That was how long between the explosion and finding her. Cairn felt for a pulse at her neck. His own pulsing fingers made her vital signs difficult to pin down. Dropping his cheek to her mouth, he waited. Nothing. No warmth, no breath.
"Not now. Come on Helena."
Cupping the back of her head, he supported her head with the other hand, lifting her into him. Even under the cuts and scrapes she was beautiful. Cairn looked at her face for another second. Then he touched her lips with his, holding her head. And he breathed. Again. Cairn barely remembered resuscitation training from the academy. He knew this was the wrong way. But considering his options, he decided it was better than no way. He breathed into her again. He felt her body tighten. She convulsed. Then she spasmed into a coughing fit, her green eyes flying open. She curled up, dropping from his arms to the hard deck. Cairn kneeled over her. Her eyes tracked him in between her fits of lung-wrenching coughing.
Cairn sat back on his haunches. She sat up, still hunched over, looking at him. He could tell she was trying not to cough again.
"Are you alright? Can you talk? Can you hear me?" Cairn probed her blank stare, grabbing her shoulders. He shook her, his eyes tracing over the maze of cuts and dried blood covering her face. Strands of loose hair were crusted in the coagulated mess. He shook her again.
"Yes! I can hear! Stop shaking me!"
Cairn released his grip on her shoulders. "What happened?"
Helena related her last memory to him. The turret, the Seeker, her victory shot. Cairn shook his head.
"From the way you describe it, it sounds like you took our last shot."
Helena winced, touching her face with her fingertips.
"Ow! Yeah, it was almost my last shot."
Cairn stood, nodding. Stepping up to the bridge console, he put his hands on the metal, looking out the wide viewport. He stood there for fifteen seconds. Helena got to her feet, reaching into one of the lockers for a water pack. His stillness stopped her.
Cairn shook his head once. Helena detected?disappointment? Cairn had not turned around yet.
"We?when you shot down the Seeker?"
"You forgot to adjust the power intake."
Helena?s face went white, her mouth dropped open. In her rush to get to the turret, the right turret, she had neglected to compensate the turret power drain. The one piece of knowledge that she could have contributed to their situation, she had blundered. She could have killed the unshielded Seeker with far less than a quarter power shot. Helena inhaled. She knew the answer. But she asked anyways.
"Have twenty-four hours of air."
Helena looked at his back, seeing his head shake slightly. She could feel the blood rushing to her head as the quivering in her gut sank further. Dropping her head into her hands, she squeezed her eyes shut. She was not sad.
Stop your crying girl?or you?ll get something to cry about.
Helena was empty. Shut down. The strained floodgates of emotion inside her trembled. But they held. Helena opened her eyes. She could not see Cairn anymore. She saw her father?s fist. Her mother?s terrified face. She heard the sound of one hitting the other.
The floodgates buckled again. Helena could feel them failing. Yet she struggled to keep them closed. What is happening to me? Helena?s muscles were locked, frozen. She knew she was sitting on the bridge of a dying hulk, could feel the cold metal grating of the deck, could hear the faint hum of the failing reactor. But she wasn?t here.
She was back there. Back on Ord Veica. Then.
The floodgates broke.
Cairn whirled around. Helena roared. Cairn felt his heart skip a beat. He had never heard a sound like that before. She stumbled towards him. He could tell she was trying to breathe. Trying to speak. Nothing intelligible made it through her curtain of rage. Helena fell towards him. Cairn caught her, his reflexes taking over. They sank to the deck.
Her hissing rant of breathing calmed as her body went limp. Cairn lowered her head down to the deck. She was talking. Ranting. A quiet whisper of nonsense. Cairn paused, looking at the hard deck. Sliding underneath her, he laid her head on his lap.
Before she passed out, Cairn managed to decipher one thing she said. Five words. Those words chilled him to the bone. More than ice. Colder than space. More than the scars the Old Man had given him all those years ago.
You let him hurt me.
Cairn watched her eyes flicker open. Helena?s green orbs flickered, trying to lock onto something. She looked up at him. Cairn pressed a weak smile onto his face.
She blinked, making a weak attempt to sit up. Turning her head, she looked at his lap. Cairn felt his face rouge.
"I?that deck?s pretty hard," he whispered. Cairn cleared his throat. He hadn?t meant that to sound so?tender?
He watched her sit up, clearing her head. She looked around the bridge.
Yeah, we are still here. Still in this nightmare.
Cairn wondered what nightmare she had been in before he had caught her. Cairn shifted his weight on his folded legs, feeling pins and needles prick the bottoms of his feet as the blood returned. Helena planted her hands on the deck, fixing her eyes on him.
"Not long. Forty minutes maybe."
She nodded, looking at the deck. Cairn could tell she was trying to say something. She cast around the bridge. Now it was almost too quiet.
Cairn was stopped by her hand.
"I?don?t know what I said Cairn?but-"
Her eyebrows wrinkled. Cairn repeated himself.
"Doesn?t matter." He stood, leaning on the console. She watched him, green eyes large. Cairn turned to the transparisteel, looking out into space. Taking a breath, he let it out slow.
"Helena Mastaire." Cairn felt a jolt of energy zip through him. "Look around. We are on opposite sides of a war with no winner. We were both left for dead?rightfully so. I survived you, you survived me?we?ve jumped off of the Death Star and into the center of Byss. The way I see it, we are dead. We just don?t know it yet. Maybe we?re both too damn stubborn."
"Let me finish. This is something I should have said a long time ago. Just?not to you."
Helena sat back.
"When it comes down to it, there is only one thing I have that is really mine. Some Alliance pilot-or turret gunner-can take my life like that. My home, my command, my ship?all gone. But there is one thing that I will never lose. Integrity."
Helena narrowed her eyes, tilting her head. He had said the word like he was attacking her with it.
"What you said to me?stays with me. I take it to my grave. Whether it?s this dying bucket of rust, or a plot next to my old farm on Ord Veica?it stays with me. Some things?you cannot take away."
Cairn set his jaw, looking her in the face. "Chances are very good that we are both going to die right here. I want to spend the last hours of my life with no explanations, no soul searching, not with a Rebel, not with an agenda?will you do something for me?"
Helena nodded before she could stop herself.
"Just be here. That?s all. Here."
Helena stood up, blinking away the spots in her eyes. Stepping behind him, she put a hand on his shoulder. For a full minute they looked at the spinning rocks and pinpoint stars. Helena interrupted the silence.
"Cairn," she whispered, turning to face him," that is not all we have left."
Looking at her face, Cairn caught something deep in her eyes.
"Do you really want to wait?"
She hadn?t said the words. Cairn got the meaning nevertheless. For the first time, he looked in her almond eyes and saw her. He held her eyes another moment. Looking down at her hand, he touched her scarred palm with his fingertips.
Cairn thought through their options. Decompression? Too long to suffocate. Maybe too messy. Blaster? There was no guarantee that once one of them pulled the trigger, the other would have the courage to follow. Looking around the bridge of the drifting gunship, Cairn?s eyes fell on the navigation panel. Nodding to himself, he looked up at her. He had his answer.
The remaining engine could be rigged to give the failing reactor enough feedback to overload. Death would come in an instant once the unstable power core went critical. Cairn stepped away, tugging her hand before he let it drop. Snatching his helmet from where it had fallen on the deck, he set it on his shoulder, clamping it tight.
"You've got a helmet to fix."
Helena's face relaxed. Cairn smiled.
"Come on, get suited up. We?ve got a ship to blow up."
It had been three hours. Helena grunted. Squeezing herself between the thick durasteel pylons, she wiped the sweat from her face. Prodding the dangling clump of wire with the electrical spanner, she yelled up to Cairn.
Cairn?s voice floated down to her. "Uhhh?hold on."
Helena adjusted herself in the dark, craning her head around. The faint light of the engineering bay trickled through the deck hatch above. She caught the motion of his foot. He was buried in the gunship?s innards just as deep as she was.
"Come on," she whispered under her breath. The muscles in her neck burned. The beam under her back jabbed into her spine.
"I heard that," he said in a loud voice. Helena smiled to herself. She felt?good. Now that she knew. Now that her future was certain. Now that the fear was gone. She felt good.
I finally have control.
Helena sucked in another tangy breath. Another second went by before Cairn responded to her.
"Alright?try that one."
Tilting the tiny wrist light, Helena focused it on the wire clump hanging from the blown panel. A tendril of blue electricity shot out, playing over the tip of the spanner.
"Clamp it down. That?s the last of it."
Helena dislodged herself from the works, pulling herself up into the engineering bay of the gunship. Cairn sat cross legged next to the access hatch. He watched her as she emerged, dropping the thin tool to the deck.
"You?re?sure about this?" Cairn almost whispered.
Helena nodded to him. She had never been so sure of anything in her entire life. She laughed.
"It?s just that?the best decision I ever made?is my last!"
Cairn tilted his head. He understood. Not that he shared her enthusiasm for scattering themselves across the Koorlian cluster. Not that he agreed with her. But he did understand. He put a hand on her shoulder.
"When I set the overload on the remaining engine, that?s it. I can?t undo it. The connection will be fused shut."
"How long will we have between that and detonation?"
"That?s the tough part. Since the reactor is damaged and we only have one engine, anywhere from?I?d guess five minutes to?just under an hour. But no more."
She jumped as the comm panel whined a shrill tone. She leapt up as Cairn shot to his feet. He watched her fingers race over the wall console.
"It?s?another ship." Helena turned to Cairn, her mouth hanging open. Everything shattered. Her answer, her definite future evaporated in front of her face. In its place stood an Impe?a man. Helena rapped the console with her knuckles.
"Can?t tell what it is. But it is combing the asteroid field."
The two looked at each other.
Cairn watched her eyes, trying to read her thoughts. He felt his chest tighten. Would this be the end of them? Of their time together? Of one of their lives? Cairn grabbed his helmet, dropping it down over his head.
Helena watched the skull black helmet drop into place. Before her stood an Imperial. If the ship was an Alliance ship, she might make it out of this alive. Helena would be rescued, nursed back to health, and be back in a turret in no time. She might even get a medal. As she reached for her helmet, a thought struck her hard.
She was thinking about herself. Not Cairn. Had their alliance evaporated? Another question gripped her gut.
"C?mon, let?s check it out."
Had they ever even had one?
Cairn grabbed the cold beam, letting his feet drift off the shattered deck. Wrapping his elbow around the twisted durasteel, he watched Helena float out of the hatch next to him. Space hung all around them; the closed bridge hatch in front of them. Cairn smiled towards her, forcing himself to turn his head and scan the star field.
Not that she can see me anyways.
He felt her behind him, watching him. An image of her prying his fingers loose and sending him into space shot through his mind. Cairn shivered. Snapping his head back to face her, he calmed his adrenalin. She was peering into the asteroid field on the other side of the ship.
"Relax Cairn," he whispered to himself. Smiling, he breathed. Chances were better than even that she was thinking the exact same thing.
Cairn squinted, peering through the makeshift lenses of his helmet. Beyond the glint of a hull, Cairn had no idea what to expect. An Alliance ship? An Imperial search team? Cairn shook his head. He hoped it was pirates. At least then he would not have to?what? Betray her? Had they made some formal pact? No. Had they vowed to turn their back on the causes each had fought and killed for? Not nearly. Still, Cairn felt as if something had bridged a gap between Helena and himself. Understanding.
That was the connection.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. Whirling around, he felt his arm tighten on the beam. Helena was speaking inside her helmet to him, pointing behind her. She had located the ship.
Cairn maneuvered himself over to her, watching space drop out from under his feet. Anchoring himself on another beam, he peered out into the asteroid field, trying to follow the line of her gloved finger. Nothing but brown spinning rocks. Squinting, he focused harder.
The glint of a hull caught his eye. Trying to resolve the fuzzy image through his translucent eyepieces, Cairn reached up to adjust them. He stopped as he realized what he was doing. If the eye seals breached, he would suffocate slowly. Peering through the stubborn material, Cairn held his breath.
The glint began to resolve itself. It was moving fast, slipping through the asteroids. It was getting closer.
Cairn felt his heart drop.
It was an Alliance Y-wing fighter.
They had come for her. The fighter reoriented itself on the gunship. Peeling away, it began to circle. The Alliance ship was most likely scanning the wreckage for life signs. Cairn looked at her.
Helena was already watching him. Cairn pushed off the bulkhead, tapping the bridge access hatch. She followed him inside. One minute later, the bridge was repressurized. Their helmets came off. Cairn placed his on the front console, watching her. For a full minute, no words were exchanged. Just the hum of the deck. When the silence finally broke, Cairn heard his own voice.
"Cairn?I?" Helena?s voice trailed off as she looked at the floor.
"We knew this was going to happen. One way or another, we both knew it. Now it?s here."
Helena stood up straight, cut by his tone. "Cairn, I am-"
"Don?t be sorry, don?t be anything. Just be?saved."
"We," he interrupted her," we what? Maybe we can both ride home in an Alliance fighter. Sure! Maybe they?ll serve me a Duro gin and Sullustan crackers at room temperature while I play Sabacc with Mon Mothma and trade stories with Luke blasted Skywalker!"
Helena felt her face redden under his verbal assault.Her gut twisted again. Cairn continued his rant.
"I don?t know what the stars I was thinking! I guess I wasn?t thinking!"
"Ahh!" He slammed his palms on the front console, staring out the viewport at nothing. Shaking his head, he looked at her one more time. The twisted expression on his face attacked her. Helena?s gut twisted further as he turned back to the bridge viewport.
She looked up and down his black flight suit. At the moment Helena could not help but falter between identifying Cairn Natayn as a man or an Imperial. A friend or a foe. It would have been so much easier had she just shot him in the first place. Then she wouldn?t have had to deal with this?situation. Then she wouldn?t have dredged up all her old pain. Helena thought she had seen the last of it when she had joined the Alliance. Apparently not. She took a step towards him.
"Cairn, I?don?t know what to say."
"You don?t have to say anything. Go. Just go."
"What?s going to happen to you?" She knew what was going to happen. After Helena was rescued, he would have two options. Freeze, or blow up. Slow or fast. Either way, the result was the same. Cain Natayn would die.
"What?do you think is going to happen to me? And why do you care? I am just an Imp pilot, right, just another notch on the inside of your turret!"
Helena?s rage burned white. She charged, fists balling impossibly tight. Slamming into his back, they both pitched forward, then flew back onto the deck. Helena knew she had been hurt by the fall. She leapt on top of him nonetheless. Clubbing him with her fists. His face, his chest. It did not matter where she hit him. Just that she hit him.
Cairn covered his face, trying to ward off her fists. Her fury spent, she collapsed on top of him. Cairn looked at the ceiling through a curtain of her hair. Her body heaved as she wept. Cairn found himself doing something he never thought he would do to a Rebel.
He put his arms around her.
The two lay on the deck for what seemed like an hour, her on top of him. He looked over at her, daring to disturb their blanket of stillness. Helena?s eyes were open, blinking, playing over the deck. Cairn?s hand found its way to her warm head. He laid it on her soft brown hair.
"I?am sorry. I didn?t mean?any of that."
He felt her nod. She looked up at him. Her almond shaped eyes were round, intense green.
"I wish I never met you."
"Me too," he replied. He knew what she meant immediately. It was not this time they were regretting. It was the future. The future they knew was circling around the gunship as they lay on the deck. Cairn took in another breath of her. Holding his breath in, he pressed his eyes closed.
Just one more moment.
"Time for you to go." He sat up, letting the distance between them grow. Cairn stood up, opening his hand. She took it, pulling herself up. Cairn swiped her helmet from the deck, handing it to her. He felt as if his body were on autopilot. If he deviated from his course now, there would be no going back. Jamming the helmet in her arms, he nodded to her.
Helena felt the energy drain from her frame. Her helmet was suddenly very heavy. It sagged for the floor. Grunting as she put it over her head, she struggled to find the clamps. Cairn slid up beside her, clamping the battered helmet to her pressure suit. His lip shook as he tried to hold a smile. Sliding his helmet over his head, he winked at her, locking it into place. Tapping the environmental console, he waited for the dying ship to depressurize the bridge.
Helena turned, tapping the bridge door. It slid open slowly. The rest of the battered ship shone through the open hatch, and the space behind it. Helena went to put one foot out the hatch into the zero gravity. She turned.
Cairn snapped his arm up in a sharp salute. His eyes stung. He caught one more glimpse of her face, her green eyes. Tracing every line, he took a mental snapshot. Cairn?s heart skipped a beat. She brought a gloved hand up to the clamp on her chest. She pressed an orange glove against the left side of her chest, her eyes blinking.
She stepped out the hatch. The door slid shut.
Helena Mastaire was gone.
Cairn Natayn let his breath out, looking around the bridge of the Alliance gunship.
"Let?s go Cairn?we?ve got some work to do."
"Helena! I knew you were alive! I knew it!"
Grennis Jad wheeled around in the front seat of the Y-wing as soon as the cockpit had sealed shut. Swiping her pressure helmet from her arms, Grennis dumped it on her lap.
"Oh man, you?re hurt. I?ll have you back to the fleet faster than lightspeed. Strap in!"
Helena heard the dull whine of the Y-wing?s engines, tasted the recycled air. But everything was dull. All her senses were blanketed with a welcome gray pallor. She saw the back of Grennis? head as he spun in his seat, strapping in. Slapping his helmet on his head, he pushed the throttle of the fighter forward. Helena?s head was pushed back into the worn head rest.
"I basically stole this slug. I was supposed to be doing a perimeter patrol. I knew you were alive, I knew it!" Grennis almost undid his restraint again. "Just stay with me, Hel, I?ll have you swimming in bacta in no time. Stay with me!"
Helena felt the blood leave her face. Her head rolled to one side. An asteroid shot by as the Y-wing accelerated past it. Then she saw it.
The gunship. Floating close to one of the larger asteroids.
Expanding into a brilliant cloud, the remains of the gunship flared out. Then it was gone.
Helena did not have the strength to crane her head around as Grennis piloted the fighter away from the expanding shockwave.
Just a uniform?just an Imp.
Helena closed her eyes. Tears touched the upturned corners of her mouth.
At least you didn?t give me your rank and serial number.
Helena felt consciousness begin to wane. She could still smell the bantha hide seat, she knew she was in the Y-Wing. Helena could hear Grennis? fingers programming their hyperspace jump. The fighter held her body, but her mind was somewhere else.
I wish I never met you, Cairn Natayn.
I wish I never met you.
Original cover by cereth. HTML formatting copyright 2004 TheForce.Net LLC.