Authors: Aaron Allston
Tags: #Star Wars, #X Wing, #Wraith Squadron series, #6.5-13 ABY
None of these Twi’leks had ever made him edgy when looking at him. None ever gave him the evaluative look that said, “I wonder what it would take to kill him?” His gut told him that they were dedicated pilots and technicians, not ringers for some power seeker. “I’m sure of them.”
Solo’s smile returned and the tiredness disappeared from his features. “Good.” He rose. “I just wanted you to be aware of what was going on. Keep it to yourself, though, will you?”
“Certainly.” As Solo opened the door to leave, Wedge said, “You know something? In spite of the way you seem to hate it, you’re pretty good at this management stuff.”
Solo lost his smile. “Don’t ever, ever say that. Someone important might hear you. And then I’d be stuck with it.” Then he was gone.
• • •
The man with the impossibly bland features appeared before Warlord Zsinj’s desk as though he were a holoprojection turned into flesh. “I have a present for you,” said Melvar.
Zsinj managed to keep himself from jumping. Melvar, he knew, prided himself on his silent comings and goings, and the nervousness this induced in his subordinates—and even superiors—though he claimed that this was not the case. But Zsinj had recently spent considerable effort to train himself not to start. To cover for his momentary lapse, he twirled one of his mustachios in rakish fashion.
“How delightful,” Zsinj said. “Have we instituted a new holiday, for which a gift is appropriate?” He waved his hands around to take in the lavish appointments of his office aboard his flagship,
. “And wherever will I display your present?”
“I’m sure you’ll find a place.” Melvar smiled, the innocuous smile of a blameless financial officer, and snapped his fingers. A mere diversion; Zsinj knew that the man must have secretly thumbed the button on his comm unit with his other hand.
The door into Zsinj’s office opened and a pair of guards escorted in two people. One was a man, lean, aging, graying—in fact, the man appeared to be growing older as Zsinj watched him, so great was the fellow’s nervousness. The second was a woman, her companion’s junior by twenty or thirty years; her hair and eyes were dark, her expression poised, perhaps resigned. Both were in civilian dress.
Melvar gave Zsinj a little theatrical bow. “Allow me to present Doctors Novin Bress and Edda Gast, from our special operations division of Binring Biomedical on Saffalore. After due investigation I decided to bring them to speak to you personally.”
Zsinj folded his hands over the imposing swell of his stomach. He noted with satisfaction that his white Imperial grand admiral’s jacket was spotless, nearly gleaming; it would be inappropriate to lead two doomed people before a shabby warlord. “Doctor, Doctor, delighted to meet you.” He was charmed to see the first flicker of hope appear in the older man’s eyes; this one would be fun to play with.
“Ask them,” Melvar said, “about missing test subjects.”
Zsinj gave him a blank look, as if struggling to recall something
of little consequence, then said, “Oh, yes. Doctors, tell me where a Gamorrean and an Ewok might obtain the necessary skills—and temperament—to fly starfighters.”
Dr. Bress, the male, tried to catch the eye of his younger colleague. Dr. Gast ignored his attempt; she kept her gaze on Zsinj.
“Well,” Bress said, “they might have escaped from our facility.”
“Ah,” Zsinj said. He picked up a datapad and brought up his day’s schedule. He’d have a massage in an hour, then sit down to a stimulating meal an hour after that. “It says here that I sent out a memorandum asking about possible test-subject escapes some time ago, and that you replied in the negative. Correct?”
Dr. Bress flinched. “Correct.”
Zsinj slammed the datapad down on the edge of his desk, snapping the device in two. Bress jumped. Interestingly, Gast didn’t. Zsinj modulated his voice to a snarl and allowed some color to creep into his face. “May I ask why didn’t you tell me then, when I sent out the memorandum? Why do I learn about it now?”
“Because we weren’t sure,” Bress said. “We’re not sure now.”
Zsinj stared at him a long moment, then turned his attention to Gast. “I’m not sure I understand this man. Perhaps you could explain a little more clearly.”
“I believe I can,” she said. “Might I have a chair? We walked some considerable distance to get to your office.”
Zsinj forced himself to mask the genuine surprise he felt. It took a lot of nerve to make such a request when she should have been wondering how best to preserve her life. He took his first really good look at her. Adult human female in the prime of life, not beautiful but with cheekbones that made her striking and would do so throughout her life … and her eyes, dark, calm, unapologetic, were unsettling.
He forced a smile. “Of course. General Melvar, where are your manners? Give the doctor a chair.”
Bress spoke up, his voice wavering: “I, too, uh, could use—”
“Do be quiet, Doctor Bress.” Zsinj waited until Melvar
situated a chair behind Gast. He gave her a moment to compose herself. “Now, you were saying?”
“My uncle, Doctor Tuzin Gast, was also on this project,” she said. “He was the real pioneer on the cognitive-stimulation side of things. But he wasn’t really suited to the project emotionally. He became rather too close to his test subjects. He developed real affection for them. Not a good idea, considering their intended use.”
Zsinj nodded and gestured for her to continue.
“One day, a couple of years ago, there was a tremendous explosion in Epsilon Wing. My uncle and several test subjects were killed. Some were so close that their bodies were incinerated.”
“I remember,” Zsinj said. “It promised to be a tremendous loss until Doctor Bress told me that the dead doctor’s assistant—and niece—was at the very least his intellectual peer and would be able to continue his work, without much loss of time. And he turned out to be right.”
Gast nodded, acknowledging the compliment without smiling. “We reported the losses and continued as scheduled,” she said. “Although we discovered some interesting things about the accident.”
She began counting items off on her fingers. “First, it was suicide. My uncle mixed some volatile chemicals in a purification tank and set them off. His guilt apparently had eaten away at him until he could not stand to live any longer. Second, most of the test subjects that had died were those who were exhibiting the greatest aggressive reactions under our trigger treatments. In other words, they were the subjects who were most changed by our treatments, the most violent—”
“The most promising,” Zsinj said.
“Yes. The most promising. He deliberately brought them together so they would die with him.”
of the test subjects …”
“There was one exception. A Gamorrean. It had been through the intelligence series but not the aggression series.”
She shrugged. “I never met it. It was officially logged as Subject Gamma-Nine-One-Oh-Four.”
“And this subject was supposed to have died in the explosion.”
“Yes,” she said. “But the only cellular material we found of it was blood plasma.”
“Which your uncle could have extracted from the creature and distributed prior to the explosion.”
“Was there only blood plasma found of your uncle?”
She shook her head. “We found his head and several other parts.”
“How about Ewoks?”
“Two of the test subjects theoretically destroyed in the blast were Ewoks. They’d both been through intelligence and aggression treatments. We found body parts of two different Ewoks, so we had reason to believe both had perished.”
Zsinj took a long breath. “Well. There’s little doubt that Voort saBinring, a Rebel pilot of Wraith Squadron, is your uncle’s pet Gamorrean. There is also reason to believe that Lieutenant Kettch, a pilot with a pirate group called the Hawkbats, is a similarly enhanced Ewok from the program. Tell me, why would both of them become pilots?”
Gast said, “We found fragmentary records indicating that my uncle had tested the Gamorrean on flight simulators as one way to measure his temperament and intelligence. He could have done so with an Ewok, too. I just don’t see how an Ewok could have escaped … unless it was a test subject that he had never entered into the records.”
He fixed her with an angry stare. “You could have told me all this back when I circulated my first query. It would have saved me a lot of difficulty.”
“No, I couldn’t.” She returned his stare calmly, unapologetically. “I never saw your query. I have done my job satisfactorily.”
“That’s for me to decide.”
“With apologies, warlord, but you’re not qualified to evaluate my performance.”
Zsinj stared at her a moment, then barked out a laugh. “Very good last words, Doctor Gast. But, now, it’s time for a reckoning. Your division has failed me and blood must be shed if I’m to feel better.”
He held out both hands and the guards leaned in to place a blaster pistol in each hand. These Zsinj set before the two doctors. “I’d be happy for you two to accomplish the task yourselves. That would save me some mental anguish, I assure you.”
Bress looked with genuine fright at the weapons. “Sir, everything you’ve asked me I’ve done—”
“Yes. And now I’m asking you to do one final thing.”
Gast picked up her pistol and checked its settings to make sure it was charged. Zsinj watched her with real interest. She was very cool and might decide to remove him from the universe to avenge her own death.
Bress, his voice climbing into a wail, said, “Please, sir, so much of the project’s success is my doing, my mistakes have been so few—”
Gast set the barrel of her pistol against Bress’s ribs and pulled the trigger. The sound of the blast filled the room, followed by the smell of seared flesh. Bress staggered sideways and fell against the office wall.
Gast held up her pistol and allowed Melvar to take it from her. “Now,” she said, “will someone be killing me?”
Zsinj looked at her, forcing his expression into one of reasonability. “Shouldn’t we? You’ve been part of a team that has covered up critical errors in judgment. Coming before me as a penitent, you’ve been insubordinate, even arrogant. You couldn’t even carry out a simple request to kill yourself.”
She shook her head. “Nobody asked me to kill myself. Your unstated request could have been that we kill one another.”
“Nor did you show enough courage to try to kill me when you had the chance.”
At last, she smiled—a lopsided smile full of sarcastic cheer. “Please don’t insult me if you’re going to kill me, too. I’ll bet every credit I own, every one I’ve hidden away, that if I’d pointed that blaster at you and pulled the trigger, it would not have gone off.” She leaned forward and her smile evened out, became more genuine. “Well?”
He regarded her steadily. “Well, you’re correct in assuming that I didn’t ask you to kill yourself. Why would I? You’re blameless. Had you killed yourself, or allowed Doctor Bress to kill you, you would have proven yourself to be
blameless, but fortunately that’s not the case. How would you like to do me a favor?”
“I’d like that.”
“Return to Saffalore. Dismantle the operation without letting anyone—and that means anyone at Binring—know you’ve done so. Send everything to
we’ll consolidate the two laboratories. Set up the Binring facilities to detect and then annihilate anyone breaking in. Because at some point Voort saBinring’s squadron mates are going to get permission to return to the land of his birth … and that will be a good time to eliminate them. Setting all this up guarantees your continued employment within my organization; each dead Wraith brings you a sizable bonus. Deal?”
“Deal.” With her characteristic insolence, she extended him her hand to shake.
When she, the guards, and the still-smoking body were gone, Melvar returned to stand before his warlord. He looked curious.
“What?” Zsinj asked.
“You’ve instructed her to kill all the Wraiths. One of the Wraiths is an unknown quantity. Gara Petothel.”
“I know. But since the mission to Aldivy went to pieces, she hasn’t communicated. Our agent dead, her ersatz brother dead, and no word from her since then … I’d be happy to arrange for her protection. She has to give me a reason first.”
“And how goes Blunted Razor?”
“The operation continues moving. Every day, we retrieve more tonnage of the wreck of
.” Melvar didn’t add, “And only you know why we’re wasting all this energy gathering up the wreckage of a destroyed Super Star Destroyer.” He didn’t have to. Both men knew he wanted to say it. Both men knew he wouldn’t.
Zsinj smiled. “Dismissed.”
Flight Officer Lara Notsil leaned in close to hear every word of the briefing, to see everything that floated on the holoprojection.
She hadn’t always been Lara Notsil. She’d been born with the name Gara Petothel, and had worn many others since her adolescent years.
She hadn’t always had downy blond hair cut short, or a near-flawless complexion. Nature had provided her with dark hair and a beauty mark on her cheek. Makeup and trivial surgery performed when she’d created the Lara Notsil identity had rid her of them. The delicacy of her features and build remained from her true identity, but little else did.
She hadn’t always been a pilot with the New Republic’s Fleet Command. Since her earliest years, child of two of the Empire’s loyal Intelligence officers, she’d been groomed to be an officer of Imperial Intelligence. In that role, she’d infiltrated the lower ranks of New Republic Fleet Command, had transmitted vital data back to her Imperial controllers and then to Admiral Apwar Trigit. She’d provided Trigit with information he’d later used to destroy Talon Squadron, an X-wing unit led by Myn Donos.
And now she fought beside the Rebel pilots who’d once been her enemies. It had originally been a deception, another
infiltration, but was so no longer; it was where she wanted to be, what she wanted to do. But she also fought against the growing certainty that someday her fellows would learn her true identity, learn what she had done before she’d come to accept their outlook on the way the galaxy’s sapient species should determine their destinies. When they learned who she was, they would reject her, and they would probably kill her.