Lasan Reslo rubbed his eyes against the light. It wasn't the gray of dawn on Indala, the soft light that he'd woken up to every day since he'd started at the Lieron School. It was the wall lume beside his bed.
It was still night.
He rolled over and pulled the covers over his head, ignoring the motion in the rest of the room. Perup Taswell was asking questions somewhere, and Vertash G'lahter -- the little high-voice squeaker the headmaster had stuck in here at the beginning of the term -- kept saying, "I don't understand!"
"You!" The covers were yanked away, and Estion Alem, the hall prefect, leaned in on Lasan. Estion was seventeen and built like a Wookiee. He wasn't easy to argue with. "I said up. Now. There are things happening."
"I just went to sleep," Lasan said, making a grab at the covers.
"I don't care. This is important. Up."
With an inward groan, Lasan resigned himself to it. The Lieron School had been built for the sons of Imperial officers, and Imperial discipline was kept. Most of the boys -- Lasan included -- had experience of it at home, but at times like this, it became apparent which ones didn't.
"What's happening?" Vertash G'lahter yelled. "Someone tell me what's happening!"
Lasan rolled his eyes. The school made it a policy for roommates to have an age spread--some standard cant about role modeling or chains of command or something--and it mostly drove him crazy. At twelve, he was in the middle of this grouping. Fifteen-year-old Perup acted like he was a general, and nine-year-old Vertash just needed to be babysat. He kept a holo of his parents on the windowsill, for the Emperor's sake, and said good night to it before going to sleep! Lasan's father would die of shame if Lasan did anything like that.
"There's a briefing," Estion told Vertash. "I'm not saying it thirty times to thirty different kids. Into the assembly room. Now."
Lasan dragged himself out of bed while Perup got Vertash calmed down with a few sharp words about honor and discipline. It was poodoo, but it was routine, and it worked. Estion went on to the next room.
"Ready?" Perup asked.
Lasan nodded, and followed his roommates across the wing to the assembly room.
Boys of all ages were already gathered there. Some of the older ones were still dressed from the day before. The littlest ones had their toys, and some were already drifting back to sleep on the long benches; they kept punching each other in the arms to wake each other up. Prefects went around doing head checks.
The door opened, and the headmaster, Colonel Soroby, came in, flanked by two other high-ranking teachers. Estion conferred with the other prefects, then went up to the headmaster, bowed smartly, and murmured something that made the headmaster nod seriously and say, "Thank you, Cadet. Good work."
Perup leaned over. "What do you suppose this is about, Reslo?"
Lasan shook his head. "Better be important."
"I think it is. The teachers wouldn't come in here after hours if it weren't. They'd have the prefects tell us."
Soroby clapped his hands smartly once, then cleared his throat. "I need your attention, boys. This is very serious and very important, and it is of concern to all of you."
Around the room, boys looked at one another nervously, no one willing to admit to the uneasiness that was beginning to pulse through the crowd. Lasan couldn't have said just why he was uneasy. Soroby's words weren't frightening. But his eyes? Something was wrong with his eyes.
"First, I must ask: Do any of you originate from Alderaan?"
One boy--one of the small ones in the first row--raised a shaky hand. The other hand clutched a blanket against his chest.
"Yes, Cadet..." The headmaster scanned his identifier. "Cadet Ersara. I would like you to go now with Lieutenant Siathe here. What has happened concerns you particularly, and you should not hear it in the fashion in which I must tell it."
Lieutenant Siathe came forward, put a hand on Ersara's shoulder, and led him out of the room, looking grave. Siathe was the school's healer, and the little children always liked him best.
When they were gone, Soroby leaned heavily on the podium, his eyes cast down, looking like he was trying to find a place to start. "Boys," he said, "there are times of trial coming. Something terrible happened an hour ago at Alderaan, and there will be... Rebel reaction to it."
More anxious looks went around the room. Lasan, still sleepier than he knew he should be, felt his unease start to blossom into fear. Vertash G'lahter had drawn his knees up to his chin, and was rocking back and forth with his eyes closed tightly, so they were only marked by the bright red line of his eyelashes.
"This holo was released by the Imperial Authority," Soroby said. "It is, perhaps, best if you simply watch it, then we will talk about what happens next."
The lights dimmed, and a heavily pixelated holo appeared over the holoproj at the front of the room. Someone in a military uniform, with sharp features and gray hair. He looked familiar, but Lasan couldn't place him.
There was a burst of static, then a clipped voice, a little out of sync with the visual, said, "The Empire regrets that it was forced to take extreme action against the rebellious world of Alderaan."
"What does that mean?" Vertash asked Perup.
Perup shook his head, wide-eyed. "I don't know. That's Grand Moff Tarkin, though. He's a regional governor."
Lasan fought to wake up. This really was important.
The visual was replaced with a picture of a squadron of TIE fighters flying in formation next to the new battle station, the one that everyone called the Death Star. Most of the fathers of the Lieron boys were stationed there; the semester had been moved up to correspond with the launch, so that sons whose mothers were no longer with them would have someplace to go when their fathers' tours of active duty began. At any rate, all of them had seen holos of the station before. At the moment, it seemed to be surrounded by asteroids.
Tarkin's voice went on. "At the turn of the meridian, Imperial Center time, the battle station known as the Death Star arrived in the Alderaan system, with the intention of concluding a surrender treaty following the Alderaanian-led Rebel raid on Imperial interests last week. The approach was answered with defiance, and the Empire was regrettably forced to take the most drastic of steps in response."
The voice ceased, and the visual changed to someplace inside the Death Star. Silent orders were given, levers were drawn. Then the viewpoint switched to space, to Alderaan floating in darkness. A laser blast broke out from the station, then...
The air was filled with holographic asteroids. He could no longer see Alderaan anywhere.
On Perup's other side, Lasan could hear Vertash G'lahter chanting some prayer.
Yirisans... no matter what happened, they started praying about it. Vertash almost never got in trouble for the things normal people did, but he was always getting punished for dragging one local tradition or another into the middle of the Empire. Lasan pinched his shoulder to remind him to stop.
The lights came up and the display disappeared. Soroby came forward again. "It is a terrible thing that happened today. War is full of many terrible things." He sighed. "I know that many of your fathers are stationed aboard the Death Star, and you need to know that there will undoubtedly be a Rebel reprisal. The odds of success are low, but you have a right to know that your fathers will be going into danger."
One of the prefects slammed his fist into the wall, hard enough to rattle the light fixtures above him. "When are the Rebels just going to stop? This doesn't need to happen. Why'd they push us into it?"
"I know how you feel," Soroby said, "but I don't believe the Rebellion will stop, however foolhardy their pursuit may be. We need to be prepared. This was a ghastly occurrence. Those of you who have sisters at Sitor Academy on Arlest should know that they are being evacuated to Coruscant even as we speak, as are any of your mothers who are still alive."
"Evacuated?" Lasan asked, before he was even aware that he planned to speak aloud. "Why?"
Perup put a hand on his shoulder. "People liked the Alderaanians, Lasan. They took in refugees from all over the galaxy. People are going to be angry at the Empire. The Emperor just wants to get the children out of the way of people who think they look like easy targets."
"That's precisely it, Cadet Taswell," Soroby said--of course. Perup was a teacher's pet and always had been. "And for that reason, the Lieron School is also scheduled for evacuation, beginning in forty-eight hours. In the meantime, you are all to remain on school grounds. There is to be no travel into the Indalan countryside, and under no circumstance are you to engage the locals. Unfortunately, there are many ships in the fleet that will need to be prepared for the imminent battle. Only one transport ship could be spared, and it was thought that you boys would be more able to defend yourselves than your sisters would, should any unpleasantness occur."
In the front of the room, one of the little squeakers raised his hand and waved it.
Soroby didn't bother looking up his name. "Yes, cadet?"
"What's a peasant nest?"
"Unpleasantness," Soroby repeated gently. "We may have some frightening times, if people here on Indala are angry about what happened on Alderaan. Stay close to the bigger boys. But when it's over, you'll get a ride to Coruscant, and you can go see the Imperial menagerie as often as you'd like." He smiled in the way that only a kid under eight would like, but there were a lot of those, and they relaxed. "And with that, boys, I want you to return to your dormitories, and try to get some rest. Remain in the common rooms on your wards, though, and prefects, alternate your sleeping schedules. I want to be able to wake the school at a moment's notice."
The prefects gathered their halls, and led everyone back to the dorms. Estion blew the silver whistle he carried before anyone settled down. "I want everyone to get dressed and pack a travel bag."
Lasan rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on. We hang around for two days, then they'll come get us out. We're not going to need a bag tonight."
"That's an order, Cadet Reslo," Estion said. "Everyone, get a bag, pack it, be back here in ten standard minutes. Move."
There was a rush of activity, and the brief rush of adrenaline faded from Lasan's body, leaving him sleepier than he was before.
He went back to the room he shared with Vertash and Perup. "Essentials," Perup grunted, pulling his duffel out from under his cot. "Clothes, a reader, a comlink."
"I know how to pack," Lasan said.
"Not talking to you." Perup jerked his chin at Vertash, who was trying to put the large stationary holo base--the one displaying his parents--from the windowsill into his bag. "Come on, G'lahter. We'll camp in the common room tonight; you can pick it up before the transport gets here."
Vertash nodded dubiously. He flipped the image back on and set it back in its place. "G'night, Mama," he said.
Lasan shook his head. His own mother had died giving birth to him, so maybe there was something he was missing, but to him, it seemed close to deranged to talk to a holo like it was real. Being nine only excused so much.
Somehow, Lasan got his bag packed before Perup and Vertash, and found his way to the ward's common room before anyone else. He was asleep on a couch before he heard a soul come in.
When he awoke again, he was certain he was still dreaming. Again, it was still night, and again, there was furious motion all around him, and someone had grabbed the covers away from him. But this time, it was Vertash G'lahter.
"Get up, Lasan. You have to. There's a fire."
"Go 'way." Lasan rolled back over. There was a good, pleasant smell, like something cooking over an open...
Adrenaline flooded his body at last, and he sat bolt upright, the blanket falling away from him. The common room was full of smoke, and the walls were covered with flickering shadows. Boys were rushing around, trying to get out the doors, but Estion and the other dorm prefects were catching them. Estion blew his whistle.
"Cadets! No panicking! Get the bags you packed and get them on your shoulders. I've got water in the basin -- dunk your blankets. If you don't have a blanket, pull a shirt out of your bags. Get it over your face so you don't breathe any more smoke. Now do it! Keep order!"
Somewhere else in the school, Lasan heard someone scream. One of the little kids here answered it. Estion strode over to him, picked him up, and covered his mouth. "You knock it off, Shrabi. No time for it." He scanned the room. "I said get moving!"
The boys blinked at each other stupidly, then the thought of taking some kind of action sank in. They ran for the water basin.
"In order!" Estion yelled. "You're going to knock it over!"
Somehow, a line formed. Lasan was about halfway back. Perup Taswell had stationed himself beside the basin, and was timing each person and keeping the line moving and the basin from rocking and sloshing. When it was Lasan's turn, he dipped only a corner of his blanket, fearing that the water would run out, then secured the dry part at his waist with his belt. He pulled the wet part over his nose and mouth. It was muggy and it smelled bad, but breathing because easier. He was tempted to draw it over his eyes to soothe them, but he knew he'd need to see.
When everyone was done, Estion dragged Perup forward then yelled, "Listen up! Taswell's on point!"
Perup straightened his shoulders. Lasan knew him well enough to know he looked nervous, but his voice was steady and he kept his hands--which had a habit of shaking--braced against his hips. "Okay. Little kids, find the nearest big kid."
"Who's little?" an eight-year-old asked.
Perup looked like he was about to hit him for insubordination before he understood the question. "All right, okay. Everyone under ten, find someone over ten, the older the better. If someone already has two of you, move on to the next one. There are enough big kids for everyone. Okay? Then stick with him. Bigger boys, come up front so they can see you. Whoever comes to you, you watch out for. No one cares who you like or don't like."
Lasan made his way up with the "bigger" group, though he figured no little kid would pick him. He stood beside Perup. "What's going on?"
"The Indalans are angry about Alderaan," Perup whispered.
"The Indalans? The Indalans who didn't even complain about taxes on their own planet?"
Perup nodded gravely. "I was awake when they got here. First it was just shouting about making the Empire pay and all that junk. I can't believe it didn't wake you up."
"I was tired."
"Whatever. Anyway, they started aiming blasters at the door fifteen minutes ago. Something caught on fire."
"Where are the teachers?"
Perup shook his head. His eyes were open so wide it looked like someone had stitched the eyelids up. "I don't know."
Estion made his way around the group, and stood in the doorway. "Cadets, when we get out, stay low, but keep your eyes on each other. Hook your hands into belts if you have to. I don't know how bad the fire is, but we're getting out of it together."
Something crashed in another wing, and there was a lot of screaming. Two little kids who had each put a finger around Lasan's belt hitched their heads back to join it. Lasan squatted down. "Keep it quiet. You need your air."
They nodded at him, eyes as round and glassy as laser crystals.
I'm supposed to be in charge of them? I can't, I'm only...
But he glanced up to see Vertash G'lahter, who was all of nine, confidently comforting the other two boys who had gone to Perup (which was a good thing, because Perup looked like he might be allergic to them). If G'lahter could do it, Lasan could.
Estion looked around soberly, then nodded. "All together then. Do what I do." He turned toward the door, touched it and raised it, then dropped into a squat and waddled out into the hallway. "Under the smoke!" he called over his shoulder.
Panic was trying to set in again, but the older boys knew their duty, and each of them -- Lasan included -- kept speaking quietly and firmly to the little ones, to show them how to behave. Slowly, the gathering from the common room made its way out. Lasan and his boys were the fourth group to pass through the door. He kept his eyes firmly on a white tag on the back of Perup's shirt, which seemed to glow and float.
The muscles in Lasan's thighs were beginning to burn from the odd stance by the time they reached the bend to the main corridor, but he was going forward on momentum by that point, and when Estion suddenly stopped, it took all his strength to keep from falling backwards and dropping the line like a row of building blocks. Estion did fall, and when he scrambled to his feet, Lasan saw the thing that frightened him most in that long night: he was weeping.
Estion braced himself against the wall, took three long, shaky breaths, then coughed the smoke out harshly. "We can't use the main door," he said, and anyone who wasn't close wouldn't have guessed about the tears. "Big kids, don't let the little kids look. Cover their eyes if you have to."
Lasan didn't bother asking the two boys with him not to look. He just grabbed their heads and put his hands over their eyes. They didn't even resist. The new position made him stand a bit higher into the smoke, but as he moved, he saw what was in the hallway, and decided the trade was worth it.
There were bodies all over the floor, teachers mostly, all of them holding their weapons. Beyond the door were more bodies, not in military uniform. In a hole surrounded by broken transparisteel, the headmaster was hanging limply. He'd made it into a sniper's perch. It would have been a good choice, with its wide view of the yard, but Soroby was a teacher of children, not a real soldier--otherwise he wouldn't have been assigned to Lieron in the first place. He may have taken a few Indalans, but they'd taken him, too, taken him while they were still strong.
Not real. This is not real. It can't be real.
But Lasan could feel the smooth skin of his charges' faces beneath his hands, and he could smell something sweet and rotten that he refused to let himself identify. It was real.
The hall wasn't silent, nor was the yard beyond empty. A crowd of Indalans with blasters was guarding the doors which, Lasan realized, had been barred with a long steel pole. "Come on out!" one of the Indalans yelled, apparently seeing movement inside. "Come on out and join your friends!" A clumsy blast hit the ceiling ten meters further up the hall. The din of chanting outside was mostly unintelligible, but one drunken voice rose above the others: "We're going to let your daddies know just how expensive that shot was!"
Lasan felt his mouth gape open, and the acrid smoke filled it. He spat it out. "What the -- "
"Reslo," Perup growled. "Come on."
But Lasan couldn't move. The Indalans had never exactly been friendly to the boys at Lieron--like most boarding school towns, the locals had a thriving snobbery against the students--but they'd never been? they were? they were loyalists. Otherwise, the Empire never would have put the school here. How could they say??
"Keep moving!" Estion whispered harshly. "Don't listen to them! We're getting out of here!" A hand gripped Lasan's arm, hard. "That's an order, Reslo!"
Lasan managed a nod, and forced his feet to pull him on, his charges dragging along beside him. They entered the entrance hall.
Closest to the back, and to the boys from Lasan's ward, was Lieutenant Siathe, curled around the limp form of Cadet Ersara.
Lasan wanted to reach over and see if they were both dead, but he couldn't do it without letting go of his charges. He saw Vertash ahead of him, breaking orders--surprise--and staring at the carnage. He wasn't crying, but his face was working like he might scream, the kind of scream that would just keep going and going until he was out of air.
"It's Ersara," Lasan said to him. Vertash looked back, eyes open so wide that Lasan could see the rims of the irises all the way around. "Check him. I think" -- he coughed -- "Siathe's dead, but... "
Vertash nodded, reached somewhere inside of himself for courage, and crawled over to the still forms. Vertash wasn't exactly what an Imperial son was supposed to be--he laughed and cried and prayed way too much--but he definitely had courage when he needed it, particularly for a half-sized squeaker, and Lasan admired it. He reached under Siathe's body and touched Ersara's neck. "C'mon," he whispered. "Oh, c'mon, you've gotta be... "
But there was no response from Ersara.
Vertash drew his hand back out, looking dazed. His eyes came up to Lasan's. "He's one of us. He's just one of -- "
"Yeah, I know." Lasan bit his lip. "We have to leave them, Vertash."
"I... I guess... " He shook his head in a vague way, then, with a decisive motion, placed one hand on Ersara's head and the other on Siathe's. He said something in Yirisan.
"G'lahter!" Estion called back. "No time for a memorial service!"
Vertash didn't answer him. He whispered another sentence, then kissed each head and waddled back to the line behind Perup.
Vertash was never going to make it in the military, Lasan thought, but it also occurred to him that, if he'd been Ersara, he'd have been glad for someone to take the time.
They worked their way down the corridor, until everyone was past the carnage, then the older boys let the younger ones see again. There was another exit near the dining hall, but even from here, Lasan could see that it was also blocked.
Estion stopped again, less suddenly this time, and waited for the group to form around him. "Cadets," he said, then coughed harshly. "Cadets, we have a problem. The doors are blocked, and there are bad people outside. We can't get out the normal ways. How many of you know ways out that aren't exactly authorized? I know I'm a prefect, but just once, I promise I won't give you any demerits."
This weak bit of humor earned a much bigger response than it deserved, but no one answered.
"Come on," Estion said, "I know you sneak out. Taswell? I know you get to the town library."
"I have permission. I use the doors."
Estion looked at Lasan. "What about you, Reslo? I've seen some food containers under your bunk that you didn't get out of the mess."
The food containers actually came from the teachers' quarters -- there was a tunnel -- but Lasan was pretty sure that would be blocked, too. No sense going someplace else and wasting that time.
But food gave him an idea. He'd pulled domestic duty the first month he'd been here -- a slap on the wrist for insubordination to Estion, of all things -- and there was an exit the Indalans might not be thinking to cover. "The kitchen," he said. "It has a tunnel to the pantry. I bet no one's blocking the pantry. That just got built last year. Overflow."
"Good plan, Reslo," Estion said. "And we can put some food in our bags on the way out. Let's go."
The line strung out behind Estion again, this time with Lasan right beside him, pointing him in the right direction.
The kitchen was deep inside the building, and the fire hadn't reached them yet, so the boys stood up as soon as the doors were closed. "Your op, Reslo," Estion said.
Lasan froze for a moment. He'd never had a command of anything. But this one was a no-brainer. "There's sacks in the cupboards under the sinks. Don't bother with the stuff here; just get the sacks. We'll get dry goods in the pantry."
The boys, more secure now that they were out of the smoke and there was a clear line of command, found and distributed the cloth sacks among themselves. Estion slipped off to a computer and, Lasan followed him.
"What are you doing?"
"Downloading as many books as I can from the library while they're doing this. I don't know how long it'll be 'til anyone comes for us. When they come, I don't want us to be savages."
Lasan left him to it. Estion had managed to get them this far; if he wanted to have a little fantasy about saving books or becoming savages in the two days it would take the Empire to get here, Lasan guessed it was his business. Not many texts could be downloaded in the five minutes or so that the sacks would take, but he didn't think Estion would try and keep them here.
He was right. As soon as Perup, who had actually crawled inside the cupboard, reported that they had all the sacks, Estion popped the recording chip out and dropped it in his bag. "Where's the tunnel?"
Lasan pointed to a door near the oven, and Estion went to it. He laid his hand flat against it to check for heat. "Cool," he said. "No fire in the tunnel. Everyone stay in your groups and stay together. And no noises. I bet those" -- he caught himself -- "I bet those bad men are all around the school, and we're going to be going right under them. So no one talks until I say you can."
The door slid up, and the boys slipped down into the dark tunnel. There were soft emergency lights, so it wasn't completely black, but it was dim. No one made a sound. Some of the little ones actually covered their mouths with their hands.
Sure enough, about halfway down the tunnel, they started to hear running feet above them, and dirt spilled down from some kind of impact shock. Lasan shushed the two boys with him, who looked like they might cry out, and he saw a few of the others doing the same. They passed under the sounds like a breeze, and soon the noise was behind them.
Stairs loomed up out of the dimness at last -- the tunnel seemed longer now than it had the many times Lasan had walked it with bags of food slung over his shoulder -- and Estion signaled them to wait at the bottom. He covered his mouth with his hand to signal that quiet rules were still on.
He disappeared up the staircase, and Lasan heard the door open. A minute later, Estion came back down. "Okay," he whispered. "Pantry's clear. Good call, Reslo."
Lasan didn't care about being praised. He just wanted to get up to the pantry and away from the school.
At the top of the stairs, he almost called for the lights by habit, which would certainly have been a death sentence, but Perup caught him in time and shook his head sharply.
Lasan nodded. He opened the cloth sack he was carrying, pantomimed putting things into it, and pointed at the cupboards that carried useful dry goods, like flour and dehydrated vegetables and meats. The little ones got to work there. Lasan himself drifted back to the cupboards where the desserts were kept. He didn't want the little kids wasting all the food space on sweets, but it would be good to have one sackful.
When the sacks were full, Estion gathered everyone by the door and signaled for silence. He grabbed Perup and Lasan, who were closest, and pointed at the door, then put his hand over his eyes to signify spying. Lasan nodded, and Perup did the same beside him.
The three of them slipped out into the night.
The sky was lit bright orange, and from here it was impossible to believe that anyone could have been crawling through the Lieron School only a few moments ago. Flames rose up in every window and smoke poured up from the roof. Two of the dormitory wings had collapsed entirely. Lasan looked the window of the room he shared with Perup and Vertash, and saw that the wing was still intact, but everything was burning. There was something glowing on the windowsill, and Lasan realized that it was a holo of Vertash's parents, the one he said goodnight to every day at lights-out. As he watched, it exploded in the heat.
The Indalans -- there were hundreds, it looked like -- were circling the school with blasters and torches. Many were shouting obscenities, some echoing the sentiment that the torching of the school was the "cost" of what had happened to Alderaan. Lasan thought about little Ersara, who had just learned his family had died there, only to join them within hours.
None of them so much as glanced at the pantry; they were too intent on what they were doing.
Estion nodded and looked out into the woods beyond the building. There was a path to the planetside hangar. It was possible -- barely -- that they could make it.
Fifteen minutes later, the boys, silent as it was possible to be, slipped into the Imperial hangar. Estion had sent two older boys ahead to spy it out and make sure that the Indalans weren't here, and--to the amazement of most of the boys over the age of ten--they had discovered that it was untouched and unmonitored. The first thing any Imperial officer would have done if running a similar operation would have been to destroy the escape routes. Perup just shook his head in disbelief. "Guess they flunked strategy and tactics," he whispered, which earned him a stern look from Estion.
Rows of speeders and speederbikes sat waiting for them. Estion raised his hand and brought the group around him. "All right, you can use soft voices now. We have to decide where to go."
"I thought the Empire was coming for us," a little kid said. "The headmaster said so."
"It's not going to be for another couple of days. We have to find someplace to go. G'lahter, I've seen you at maps. What do you know?"
Vertash shrugged. "I don't know. We can't go to the city, that's for sure. Shouldn't we call someone?"
Estion nodded. He pulled a comm device from a table. "We'll call when we get far away from here. I can pilot the group transport. You think about those maps while we're getting in. Are all thirty of us here?"
Perup did a quick headcount and reported back that everyone was. Lasan wondered if they were the only hall to get out, but stamped that out quickly. Of course the others had gotten out. He couldn't be the only one who knew...
Except that no one else had been in the kitchen or the pantries, and nothing else had been disturbed.
He looked down the road, to where the Lieron School was flaring up into the night.
No one else? No one?
But there was no time to think about it. The group transport would hold all thirty of them, if uncomfortably, and Estion herded them onto it. He sat behind the controls and fired up the engines. To Lasan's relief, they had the smooth, quiet running of good Imperial technology.
"All right, G'lahter, where are we going?"
Vertash struggled with his memory for a moment, then bit his lip. "Does it have to be close?"
Estion checked the fuel. "We can get about a thousand klicks."
"Okay. There's... well, I'm thinking because no one ever settled there. It's hard to get there... "
"Where is it?"
"It's called Rift Twenty-Four on the maps, but everyone on Indala calls it Rison's Deep, after a guy who went down there to live by himself. No one could get to him. The sides are magnetic, so we'll have to dump the transport someplace, 'cause it messes up the repulsors. That's how come no one settled there, and -- "
"Okay, enough. We'll go to Rison's Deep. Put in the coordinates."
Vertash tentatively typed commands into the naviputer, then faded gratefully back into the group. Estion piloted the transport silently out of the hangar, and they slipped away from the inferno that had been the Lieron School, leaving it farther and farther behind them as they flew south along the line of the rising sun.
Lasan, exhausted, slipped back into sleep for the last time on that long night.
It was noon when he woke up, and they were still moving. It was a beautiful day, warm and clear, and somewhere to the north, the bodies of their classmates were smoldering in the cellar hole of the Lieron School.
Lasan pulled himself up. Estion was still at the controls, but he looked exhausted. He obviously hadn't slept. All at once, he seemed to be not the prefect who had given Lasan half a dozen demerits in the three months they'd known each other. He was just another Lieron student, like all of them, and Lasan felt sorry for him.
"You gotta stop, Estion. You're gonna crash us."
Estion looked at him blearily. "Yeah. We're almost there. When we get close, I'm getting us off and sending the transport over the bluff." He nodded out the side window.
Lasan looked. They were skirting a high cliff that ran at the edge of the ocean.
"You shouldn't be flying 'til you get some sleep."
"It's on autopilot," he said. "I'm not an idiot. But someone had to stay awake and watch out, in case they followed."
"They didn't, though?"
"No." Estion tapped an earpiece. A light was blinking, showing that it was receiving a broadcast. "They're saying everyone died there. The Indalan government says it's going to be arresting everyone and... " He sniffed disdainfully. "A little late, don't you think?"
"So here's what I'm figuring. The Empire thinks we're all dead. They're going to be really angry at Indala. How long do you think it's going to take that battle station to get here?"
Lasan felt like cold slime was being poured over his innards. "You think they'll do Indala, like Alderaan?"
"I would if I were them. I'd like to."
"We'll die, too."
"After last night, I don't know if that's a bad thing." He rubbed his hands over his face, and he seemed even younger. "Reslo, if you tell any of the others this... You're from Arkhy, right?"
"Me, too. So this is on Arkhyan honor, between us."
"I'm afraid to go to sleep, Reslo. I'm afraid of what I'll dream about."
"I didn't dream about anything," Lasan said. "I just got away for awhile. Give it a try."
But it didn't happen. A light flashed on the navigation panel, and Estion jerked the transport to a stop. They were on a grassy plain in the warm part of the world. Glancing at the current location map, Lasan was surprised to see that they'd crossed the Cilemic Sea to the southern continent while he slept.
The others woke up with the cessation of movement, and there was another period of transfer, each boy working like an automaton, gathering belongings and food, filing off the transport. When they were all off, Estion hit a button on a remote, and the transport dove gracefully over the cliff. Lasan watched it hit the water and disappear.
"We're on our own," Estion said. "I don't want the Indalans finding us, and that means we can't make it too easy for the Empire, either. If the map's right, the rift -- what did you call it, G'lahter?"
"Rison's Deep. It's to the west, about ten klicks. We'll have to climb down, so I'm glad you all got rest."
Without any more words, Estion struck out through the grass. Lasan followed. The two little ones were back with him, quietly hanging on to his belt. Several others had found their fire partners as well, and were clinging.
The trip to the Deep took two days with the whole group, but the climate here was tropical and the weather was kind and pleasant. Lasan let his mind go blank as they walked, letting it smooth over the Lieron School and Alderaan and the dead teachers at the main entrance. It had been obvious for awhile that Estion was still listening to the broadcasts through his earpiece, but no one thought much of it until they had almost reached their destination. It was early sunset and they could see the edge of the Deep, and Lasan was already scanning for usable paths.
Suddenly, Estion fell to his knees and dug his hands into his hair. He didn't make a sound, but the action was the loudest noise he could have made.
Everyone gathered around him.
"What is it -- "
"What happened -- "
"How -- "
He held up a hand, then got slowly to his feet. "Cadets," he said, "something has happened."
It was so close to what Soroby had said just before the fire that it set the littlest ones to crying. Estion didn't stop them.
"There was a battle," he said. "A very bad battle with the Rebels. They said it happened around a place called Yavin."
"Was the Death Star there?" Perup asked, his face grave.
"We didn't win, did we?"
Estion shook his head. He whispered something to Perup, who nodded, as though he'd already guessed.
"I have to call my father -- "
"My daddy is stationed there, I have to find out -- "
"I need to talk to -- "
Perup cut them off with a wave of his hand. "Cadets, this is hard news. There was only one way to beat the Death Star. They would have to destroy it."
This sank in with the older students, but the younger ones didn't quite get it. Lasan was able to picture the station, possibly exploding outward, maybe collapsing inward, its hull breached...
...into deep space.
If the Death Star had been destroyed, it was thousands of men.
Lasan's father was stationed in security. He would have been standing guard.
He wouldn't have been finding an escape route.
Lasan knew he was going to throw up only a second before he did. It was barely enough time to turn away from the group. He didn't remember his mother, but his father had been a good, strong man who had worked hard to give Lasan anything he needed. The vomit steamed up at him from the grass, and the smell was enough to make him do it again.
He wasn't the only one. When he turned around again, he saw that there were many boys crouched in the grass.
When the initial shock passed, Estion called them back.
Perup spoke clearly first, the question that was on everyone's mind: "Were there any survivors?"
Estion shook his head. "The broadcast said that Lord Vader's TIE fighter? he was out in the trenches fighting alongside the pilots? anyway, they recovered it, and he'd put himself in some kind of stasis. But other than that... no one was found."
They fell silent again with no prompting, and the enormity of it settled in on them. Many of the boys at Lieron had been sent there because there was no mother at home to take care of them. Not all of them, surely -- Vertash's mother should still be safe on Yirisu -- but looking around, Lasan saw at least twelve boys of the thirty who he knew perfectly well to be motherless, who were now fatherless as well.
As he was.
He didn't start crying, because he was afraid that if he started, he wouldn't be able to stop.
Lasan didn't have a chrono, so he never knew how long the thirty survivors of the Lieron School sat together in the tall grass, not speaking. Some of the little ones sniffled, but most, like Lasan himself, just looked like they were slipping into shock.
It was dark before anyone spoke, then it was just Perup saying that they should set up a camp. No one was in the mood to climb down into the Deep tonight.
Lasan spread himself out on the grass obediently. A queer numbness seemed to have settled on him. He drifted down to perfectly dreamless sleep, and would have been happy to stay there forever, but after hours he hadn't counted, something began to enter his dreamworld. First it was just horrible images of the burning of the school, then dreams of his father lying there in the entrance, then memories of the holo of Alderaan, erased from existence. In his dream, the Indalans had become Alderaanians, dressed all in white, but splashed with blood, demanding vengeance.
He fought toward waking.
The images came faster, swirled together. A many-armed ogre chased him through the woods. His father died, over and over. Ersara awakened in the entrance hall long enough to say, "You deserved it."
But then there was something else. A soft, high sound. Words he didn't recognize.
"...t'halo kana voran tash..."
It seemed to rise above the images, a rope thrown to him as he flailed in the water, and Lasan fought to catch it.
"...Lah fo sergi ihdo vash..."
Lasan opened his eyes. The others were starting to stir. Standing against the sun, on the east side of the camp, was Vertash G'lahter, singing to the sunrise.
No one interrupted him.
When he finished, he turned without any self-consciousness and went to the food sacks to start getting breakfast. Everyone else took it as a sign to start the day, and joined him.
"What did that mean?" Perup asked over a re-constituted egg. "It sounded... different."
"It's Yirisan," Vertash said. "It just... well, basically, it thanks the sun for coming up, is all. My mother always sang it. She said it reminded her that things keep going, no matter what we did. I thought maybe she'd be singing it, too, you know? Only I don't think she was. It didn't feel like she was. I have to go find her."
Estion shook his head. "Not yet. Let it cool down, G'lahter. I don't trust Indala, and I don't want you trying to contact a transport until we know the Empire is close enough to pull us out."
Vertash nodded. "I get it."
"I don't want to go with the Empire," Perup said abruptly. "I've had it with all of them." He got up and left the spot where they were eating before Lasan realized that he really deserved to be hit for that.
After breakfast, supplies were secured and the group made its way to the very edge of Rison's Deep. From here, Lasan could see a rough, boulder-strewn path leading down. There were a few places where they'd have to jump, but never very far. It wouldn't be impossible to climb back out, but it would be tough. The walls of the rest of the Deep -- which Lasan could see from where he stood as a crescent-shaped bowl in the ground -- were pretty much impassable.
His tactics teacher, whose motto in life was "Hold the high ground," would recoil in horror. Retreat was almost impossible. But so was the approach, and Lasan couldn't see the Indalans trying to raid Rison's Deep after all these years.
One of the boys had been resourceful enough to take a cable from the transport, and they used it to secure the little kids as they made their way down the path to the lush flat area at the bottom. A spring-fed lake spread over half the valley floor, and fruit trees lined its banks. The other half was rocky, but had a lot of natural shelters in the crevices.
Estion came down last and did a head count to make sure that everyone was there, then nodded. "All right. Today, we shelter in the little caves and figure out what we've got here. Reslo, you take five and figure out how to catch fish in the lake. Taswell, you start analyzing the fruit. The rest of you, just explore and see what there is.
"Tomorrow, we start building."
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