Star Wars: Battlefront II: Inferno Squad

CONTENTS

About the Book
About the Author
Also by Christie Golden
Title Page
Dedication
Timeline
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15
Chapter 16
Chapter 17
Chapter 18
Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Epilogue
Acknowledgments
Copyright
title page for Star Wars: Battlefront II: Inferno Squad
Star Wars timeline
Star Wars timeline

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Epub ISBN: 9781473535817

Version 1.0

Published by Century 2017

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Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm Ltd. &® or™ where indicated. All rights reserved.
Cover art: Two Dots

Christie Golden has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Inferno Squad is a work of fiction. Names, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, places, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

First published by Century in 2017

Century

The Penguin Random House Group Limited

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www.penguin.co.uk

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Century is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 9781780894829

ALSO BY CHRISTIE GOLDEN

STAR WARS

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Omen

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Allies

Star Wars: Fate of the Jedi: Ascension

Star Wars: Dark Disciple

Star Wars Battlefront II: Inferno Squad

STAR TREK

Star Trek Voyager: The Murdered Sun

Star Trek Voyager: Marooned

Star Trek Voyager: Seven of Nine

Star Trek: Voyager: The Dark Matters

Trilogy, Book 1: Cloak and Dagger

Star Trek: Voyager: The Dark Matters

Trilogy, Book 2: Ghost Dance

Star Trek: Voyager: The Dark Matters

Trilogy, Book 3: Shadow of Heaven

Star Trek Voyager: No Man’s Land

Star Trek Voyager: What Lay Beyond

Star Trek Voyager: Homecoming

Star Trek Voyager: The Farther Shore

Star Trek Voyager: Spirit Walk, Book 1: Old Wounds

Star Trek Voyager: Spirit Walk, Book 2: Enemy of My Enemy

Star Trek The Next Generation:

Double Helix: The First Virtue

(with Michael Jan Friedman)

Star Trek: Hard Crash (short story)

Star Trek: The Last Roundup

WORLD OF WARCRAFT

Lord of the Clans

Rise of the Horde

Beyond the Dark Portal

(with Aaron S. Rosenberg)

Arthas: Rise of the Lich King

The Shattering: Prelude to Cataclysm

Thrall: Twilight of the Aspects

Jaina Proudmore: Tides of War

War Crimes

Warcraft: Durotan

Warcraft: The Original Movie Novelization

STARCRAFT

The Dark Templar Series, Book 1: Firstborn

The Dark Templar Series, Book 2: Shadow Hunters

The Dark Templar Series, Book 3: Twilight Devils’ Due

Flashpoint

ASSASSIN’S CREED

Heresy

Assassin’s Creed:

The Official Movie Novelization

Blackbeard: The Lost Journal

Abstergo Entertainment: Employee Handbook

RAVENLOFT

Vampire of the Mists

Dance of the Dead

The Enemy Within

ORIGINAL NOVELS

On Fire’s Wings

In Stone’s Clasp

Under Sea’s Shadow

Instrument of Fate

King’s Man & Thiefy

A.D. 999 (as Jadrien Bell)

This book is dedicated to the “real” Inferno Squad:

T. J. Ramini, “Del Meeko,” Paul Blackthorne, “Gideon Hask,” and especially Janina Gavankar, “Iden Versio,” who reached out to me with such enthusiasm to learn more about this book and about Iden Versio, a character we both have come to love and admire.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ….

Chapter 1

The firm control of one’s emotions was an unspoken criterion for those who would serve the Empire. One did not gloat, or cheer, or weep, or rage, although cold fury was, upon occasion, deemed an appropriate reaction to particular circumstances.

Senior Lieutenant Iden Versio had been familiar with this stipulation since she was old enough to understand the concept. Even so, now, at this hour of the Empire’s unequivocal and absolute triumph, the young woman raced across the gleaming black surface of the Death Star’s corridors with her helmet cradled in one arm, trying and failing to smother a grin.

Today, of all days, why shouldn’t she smile, at least when no one was watching?

When her orders had come to serve on the space station—which a scant few hours ago had reduced an entire planet into rocky chunks of glorious rebel rubble—Iden had endured resentful, sidelong glances followed by murmurs pitched exactly too softly for her to catch. But Iden didn’t need to hear the words. She knew what the others were saying about her. It was nothing more than a variant on what had always been said about her.

She’s too young for this position. She couldn’t have earned it on her own.

She got it because of her father.

The self-righteous mutterers would have been startled to discover the degree to which their assumptions were wrong.

Inspector General Garrick Versio might well be one of the highest-ranking members of the powerful and secretive Imperial Security Bureau, but Iden had gotten nothing out of the joyless task of being his daughter. Every honor, every grade, every opportunity she’d had, she’d fought for and obtained despite him.

She’d been primed for the military academy while barely more than a child, studying at the Future Imperial Leaders Military Preparatory School on her homeworld of Vardos, located in the Jinata system, where she had, literally, been bloodied. There, and afterward at the Imperial Academy on Coruscant, Iden had graduated top of her class, with honors.

All that felt like a mere prelude to this moment. For the last several months, Iden had been part of a small, elite TIE fighter unit aboard what was arguably the pinnacle of Imperial design—the massive space station known as the Death Star. And she was rather unprofessionally excited.

Even as she tried to rein in her enthusiasm, she could sense that others hastening to their own TIE fighters shared it. They betrayed themselves with the surging tattoo of booted footfalls, their upright positions, even the brightness in their eyes.

It wasn’t new, this happy tension. Iden had seen it bubbling under the surface after the first test of the station’s capabilities, when the Death Star’s superlaser had targeted and obliterated Jedha City. The Empire had landed a one-two punch in a handful of seconds. It had destroyed not only the rebel terrorist Saw Gerrera and his group of extremists known as the partisans, but also the ancient Temple of the Kyber, held sacred by those who secretly hoped for the return of the disgraced and defeated Jedi. Jedha City represented the first real demonstration of the station’s power, but that fact was known only to those who served on the Death Star.

For now. To the rest of the galaxy, what had happened at Jedha was a tragic mining accident.

Things had happened with shocking speed after that, as if some galactic balance had suddenly, drastically, been tipped. The super-laser was again employed at the Battle of Scarif, this time wiping out an entire region and several rebel ships trapped under Scarif’s shield along with it. Emperor Palpatine had dissolved the Imperial Senate. His right hand, the mysterious caped and helmeted Darth Vader, had intercepted and imprisoned secret rebel and now former senator Princess Leia Organa. The Death Star’s director, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, had used the princess’s home planet of Alderaan to demonstrate the true breadth of the power of the now fully operational battle station.

As nearly all on the Death Star had been ordered to do, with their own eyes or on a screen, Iden had stood and watched. By their treasonous actions, the rebels on Alderaan had brought destruction not only on themselves, but on the innocents they always seemed so keen to protect. She couldn’t get the image out of her head: a planet, a world, gone in the span of a few seconds. As, soon, would be virtually all the Empire’s enemies. In a very, very short time, the galaxy would receive an implacable and thorough understanding of just how useless resistance would be. And then—

Then, there would be order, and this ill-thought-out, chaotic “Rebellion” would subside. All the extensive hours of labor, all the credits and brainpower spent on controlling and dominating various unruly worlds could, at last, be turned to helping them.

There would, finally, be peace.

The event would be shocking, yes. But it had to be, and it was all for the greater good. Once everyone was under the auspices of the Empire, they would understand.

And that glorious moment was almost here. Tarkin had located the rebel base on one of Yavin’s moons. The base—and the moon—were but a few moments from oblivion.

Some of the rebels, though, were not going to go quietly.

These few had taken to space and were presently mounting a humorously feeble attack on the gigantic space station. The thirty Y- and X-wing fighters the rebels had mustered were small enough to dodge the station’s defensive turbolaser turrets, zipping about like flies. And, like flies, this nominal, futile defense would be casually swatted down by Iden and the other pilots in ship-to-ship combat, as per orders from Lord Vader.

Within the span of seven minutes, Yavin’s moon and all the rebels it had succored would be nothing more than floating debris. On this day, the Rebellion would be no more.

Iden’s heartbeat thudded in her ears as she all but jumped down the ladder into her fighter, sealing her flight suit and pulling on her helmet. Slender but strong gloved fingers flew over the consoles, her gaze flitting over the stats as she went through the preflight checklist. The hatch lowered, hummed shut, and she was encased in its black metal belly. A few seconds later she was swirling in cold, airless darkness, where the distinctive scream of her vessel was silent.

Here they came, now, mostly the X-wings—the Rebellion’s answer to TIE fighters. They were impressive little single-occupant vessels, and they skimmed along close to the surface of the station, a few of them misjudging the distance and slamming into the walls around the trenches that crisscrossed the Death Star’s surface.

Suicide, Iden thought, even as she knew the term was just as often applied to those who flew TIE fighters. You either loved the small starfighters or you hated them. A TIE fighter was fast and distinctive, with its laser cannons quite deadly, but it was more vulnerable to attack than other vessels as it wasn’t equipped with deflector shields. The trick was to kill the enemy first—something Iden was better at than anyone else in her squadron. Iden liked that everything was compact and immediately to hand—flight controls, viewscreen, targeting systems, equipment for tracking and being tracked.

Iden listened to the familiar beeps of the tracking equipment as it targeted and locked onto one of the X-wings. She swung her vessel back and forth with easy familiarity as the enemy ship frantically jigged and jagged in a commendable, but ultimately useless, effort to evade her.

She pressed her thumbs down. Green lasers sliced through the X-wing, and then only pieces and a flaring sheet of flame remained.

A quick count on her screen told Iden that her fellow pilots were also efficiently culling the herd of rebels. She frowned slightly at the tiny, ship-shaped blips on her screen. Some of them were veering off from the group, going deeper in toward the Death Star, while others seemed to be trying to draw the TIE fighters away from the station. Iden’s gaze flickered to another ship, a Y-wing—one of those enemy vessels that always looked to her like a skeletal bird of prey—and she went in pursuit, rolling smoothly and coming up on its side. More streaks of green in the star-spattered blackness, and then it, too, was gone.

Her gaze now lingered on the more suicidal of the enemy fighters, watching as they dropped into the trenches. As far as Iden knew, no one in her six-pilot squadron had been told why the rebels had adopted this peculiar tactic of flying through the trenches. Iden had grown up with nearly everything—from what it was her father actually did for the Empire to what her mother was designing that day, even what was for dinner that night—being on a need-to-know basis. She had grown accustomed to the situation, but she would never like it.

“Attention, pilots,” came the voice of her commander, Kela Neerik, in Iden’s ear, and for a brief, beautiful instant Iden thought her squad commander was going to explain what was going on. But all Neerik said was, “Death Star is now six minutes out from target.”

Iden bit her lip, wondering if she should speak up. Don’t. Don’t, she told herself, but the words had a life of their own. Before she realized it, out they had come.

“Respectfully, Commander, with only six minutes until the entire moon’s destruction, why are we out here? Surely thirty one-person ships won’t be able to do anything resembling damage to the Death Star in that amount of time.”

“Lieutenant Versio”—Neerik’s voice was as cold as space—“don’t assume your father’s position gives you special privileges. We are here because Lord Vader ordered us to be here. Perhaps you’d like to put your question to him personally when we return to the station? I’m sure he’d be delighted to explain his military strategy to you.”

Iden felt a cold knot in her stomach at the thought of a “personal” conversation with Lord Vader. She’d never met him, thankfully, but she had heard too many chilling rumors.

“No, Commander, that won’t be necessary.”

“I thought not. Do your duty, Lieutenant Versio.”

Iden frowned, then let it go. She did not need to understand the rebels; she needed only to destroy them.

As if they sensed her renewed resolve, the rebel pilots suddenly upped their game. There was a brief flash at the corner of Iden’s vision, and when she turned to look, she realized with sick surprise that the debris hurtling off in all directions was black.

Iden didn’t know who had just died. TIE fighters were so uniform as to be practically indistinguishable from one another. Their pilots weren’t supposed to think of their ships in the warm, fuzzy way the rebels were reported to do. A ship was a ship was a ship. And Iden understood that, as far as most in the Empire were concerned, a pilot was a pilot was a pilot: as expendable and interchangeable as the ships they flew.

We all serve at the pleasure of the Emperor, her father had drilled into her since she was old enough to comprehend what an emperor was. None of us is indispensable. Iden had certainly seen Imperial ships shot down before. This was war, and she was a soldier. But indispensable be damned.

The half smile she’d been wearing during most of the combat vanished, and Iden pressed her lips together angrily. She veered, perhaps a touch too violently, to the right and targeted another X-wing. In mere seconds it exploded into a yellow-orange fireball.

“Gotcha, you—” she muttered.

“No commentary, Versio,” warned Neerik, her voice rising a little; more hot than cold, now. “We will be having the honor of Lord Vader joining us momentarily. He and his pilots will be focusing on the hostiles navigating the meridian trench. All remaining units are ordered to redirect their attacks to the rebel ships on the magnetic perimeter.”

Iden almost shouted a protest, but stopped herself just in time. For some reason still unknown to the squadron, this perplexing tactic by the rebel pilots was clearly of great concern. Lord Vader wouldn’t trouble himself with appearing personally to take care of it otherwise.

Almost everything Iden knew about Darth Vader was pure speculation. The exception was a single revelation on the part of her father, in one of those rare moments when he was feeling less taciturn than usual with his only child.

“Lord Vader has great power,” Versio had said. “His instincts and his reflexes are uncanny. And … there are certain abilities he possesses that our Emperor finds to be of tremendous value.”

So yes. Vader was head and shoulders above the rest of them—literally and figuratively. But it wasn’t Vader’s friends who were dying in this battle, and Iden burned to be the one to make the rebels pay.

With a huffing sigh that she was certain was audible, she swerved from tailing the X-wing, frowning as red laserfire came perilously close to her fighter’s fragile wings. That was on her; she hadn’t been focusing.

She corrected that oversight immediately, zooming away from the station toward a pair of Y-wings that was, successfully, attempting to get her attention. Any other time, Iden would have enjoyed toying with them—they were decent pilots, although the ones in the X-wings were superior—but right now she was too irritated to do so.

She targeted the closest Y-wing, locked onto it, and blew it to pieces. Watching the fragments of the starfighter hurtling wildly was some small compensation for the deaths of her fellow pilots.

“Death Star is two minutes to target. Be aware of your distance from the planet.”

Ah, so that was why Neerik was giving the countdown. Iden had to give the pilot of the other Y-wing credit for courage, albeit of the foolish kind; the ship was now racing away from the Death Star at top speed. Were they heading back to Yavin’s moon, nobly choosing to die with their base, or were they just trying to evade her?

Not happening, Iden thought, and continued her pursuit. She got the vessel in her sights and fired. She didn’t slow as the ship exploded, but simply pulled back and looped up and over the fireball and debris, snug in her crash webbing, and smoothly dipped the TIE fighter in front of the second Y-wing for the perfect shot.

The pale moon-shape of the Death Star loomed behind the vessel, its gargantuan size making the rebel ship look like the toys she’d been allowed to play with as a child. The Y-wing was making for Yavin as fast as it could, swerving erratically enough that Iden frowned as she tried to get a lock on it.

A sudden scalding brightness filled her vision.

Temporarily blinded, Iden hurtled wildly, her TIE fighter tumbling out of control. As her vision returned, she realized debris was coming at her as intensely as if she had suddenly materialized inside an asteroid field. Her focus, always powerful, narrowed to laserlike precision as she frantically dodged and swerved, maneuvering around the biggest pieces and wishing with all her being that TIE fighters had shields.

Iden pivoted and tumbled, breathing the mercifully still-flowing oxygen deeply and rhythmically. But she knew in her heart it was just a matter of time. There was too much debris, some of it the size of a standard escape pod, some of it as small as her clenched fist, and she was right in the thick of it. The smaller pieces were pelting her TIE fighter already. Sooner or later, one of the big chunks would hit her, and both Senior Lieutenant Iden Versio and her ship would be nothing more than smears on what was left of Yavin’s moon.

Somehow, she’d wandered too close to the Death Star’s target and had gotten caught up in the chaotic sweep of its destruction—exactly what her commander had been warning her against.

But how was that possible?

“Mayday, mayday,” Iden shouted, unable to keep her voice calm as she desperately dipped and dived to avoid disaster. “This is TIE Sigma Three requesting assistance. Repeat, this is TIE Sigma Three requesting assistance, do you copy, over?”

Silence. Absolute, cold, terrifying silence.

The inevitable occurred at last.

Something struck the TIE fighter, hard. The ship shuddered, tumbled off in a different direction, but did not explode. A piece of one of the sleek, fragile wings flashed across Iden’s field of vision and she realized that control of the vessel was out of her hands.

Others would panic, or weep, or rail. But Iden had been raised to never, ever quit, and now, at this moment, she was grateful for her father’s implacability. The ship was careening and, as she could do nothing to stop it, she took a few seconds to observe.

The prospect of her own violent and, possibly, painful and prolonged death was something that held little fear for her. But what she saw in those seconds struck terror down to her bones.

It was the blue-green moon of Yavin. And it was completely intact.

Not. Possible!

She thought of the dreadful silence on the comm. And now that she knew, now that she had wrapped her brain around something that was not supposed to happen, that no one had ever imagined could happen, she recognized some of the pieces that she was trying so desperately to evade.

They were of Imperial construction.

Imperial.

Pieces of the greatest battle station that—

A single short, harsh, disbelieving gasp racked her slender frame. Then Iden Versio clenched her teeth against a second outburst. Pressed her lips together to seal it inside her.

She was a Versio, and Versios did not panic.

The destruction of the Death Star was the brutal and irrevocable truth that the impossible was now possible. Which meant she could survive this.

And she was going to.

Iden clawed her way back to control and assessed the situation with a bright, sharp, almost violent clarity.

The impact of the debris strike had, fortunately, served not only to damage the wing but also to push her toward the moon, and without the pull of the Death Star to counter it, the gravity of Yavin’s small satellite was greedy. She couldn’t direct her trajectory, but she could manage it. Iden went on the offensive—a preferred tactic—but this time not against a rebel vessel. This time, her enemy was the debris that hurtled toward her.

She spun toward the moon’s surface, targeting anything in her path and blasting it into rubble. This sort of thing was second nature, so she let part of her mind deal with how to manage the process of reentry, a controlled crash, and ejection.

There would then be avoiding capture, stealing a vessel, and absconding with it, presuming she landed on Yavin’s moon in one piece.

There it was again, that frisson of bestial, primitive panic, closing her throat. Iden swallowed hard even as cold sweat dewed her body—

—beneath the uniform of an Imperial officer—

—beneath the helm of a TIE fighter pilot—

—and again took a deep, calming breath. The oxygen was finite, but it was better to use it now to help her focus than later as she panicked.

Iden was, as far as she knew, the sole survivor out of over a million victims of this act of rebel terrorism. She had to survive, if only to honor those who hadn’t. Who hadn’t chased the foe in an impulsive act that ought to have been a mistake, but instead had gifted her with a chance to live.

She would find a way back to Imperial space ready to continue the fight against the Rebel Alliance for as long as it took to eliminate every last one of the bastards.

Her jaw set and her eyes narrowed with determination, Iden Versio braced herself for a bumpy landing.

Chapter 2

“She … she’s what?”

Lieutenant Junior Grade Gideon Hask, twenty-seven, tall, elegant, the sole living member of a proud family of high-ranking Imperial officers, was usually poised and cool, just as he ought to be. Never sudden in his movements unless swift, decisive action was called for, his voice was well modulated and resonant. A voice, Gideon always thought privately, that was made for giving orders.

But now that smooth voice betrayed harsh joy as it cracked on the last word.

He had been summoned with no explanation to the Federal District of Coruscant’s Imperial City by Inspector General—no, Hask corrected himself, there had been a promotion in the last few days—Admiral Garrick Versio. The admiral was at this moment frowning ever so slightly in disapproval at Gideon’s lapse in professional demeanor. But for once, Gideon couldn’t care less.

“I said,” Admiral Versio repeated with a slight hint of impatience, “Senior Lieutenant Versio is alive.”

Gideon swayed, ever so slightly, and had to catch himself on a corner of the gleaming black desk behind which sat the admiral—and his best friend’s father.

Iden’s alive.

“How the hell—” At the admiral’s arched eyebrow, Gideon took a moment to recover. He released his grip on the desk and straightened, taking a deep breath. “How is that possible, sir? We were informed that everyone aboard the Death Star was killed.”

A mere three days after the inconceivable disaster, the destruction of the mightiest weapon the galaxy had ever known, the Empire was still reeling. No one admitted it, of course. And it was easy to take all that disbelief and shock and grief like a piece of clay and mold it into hatred and cold fury. Revenge—no, nothing as petty as that; justice for the deaths of hundreds of thousands—was the focus now. The dead were to be avenged and honored, not grieved.

Except … Gideon had grieved for Iden, privately, and on his own time. He had encountered the Versio family when he had been sent to Vardos to attend the Future Imperial Leaders Military Preparatory School. Vardos was an illustrious and staunchly Imperial world located in the Jinata system. The system had been praised throughout the Empire for its efficient control of its worlds. Garrick Versio himself had been the one to bring the planet into the Empire when he had been a young man. He had done so successfully and without violence, and the population loved both him and the Empire. In many aspects, Vardos was Versio.

Gideon, a native of Kuat, had been orphaned at age ten when a rebel infiltrator had detonated a bomb at the planet’s shipyards. His parents had died in the blast. Gideon had grieved when he’d lost them, too—also privately, and on his own time, alone in his room in the now too-large house on Kuat, during the handful of days it took for his legal guardian to arrange for his enrollment in the school.

The guardian had deemed the school an adequate substitute for parents. It was not, of course, but over time Gideon had learned to appreciate that it had forced him to mature, taught him invaluable skills. And … it had connected him with Iden. Though she was several years behind him, he’d been tapped to keep an eye on her while he was at Future Imperial Leaders, and had come to respect her. She was definitely a Versio, fiercely determined and excelling even at a young age. Later, they’d found themselves at the Coruscant Imperial Academy at the same time—and this time, Iden was the one keeping Gideon on his toes.

This shared history made them less than friends—because, as the school’s headmaster, the Aqualish Gleb, had instilled in them, young Imperials did not make “friends,” they made “allies”—but more than colleagues. Gideon and Iden had an intense but respectful and strangely amiable sense of competition. She had consistently bested him, but that didn’t lessen the amount of regard he had for her. Her excellence only spurred him to his own. Like the pair of siblings they were not, they jostled for recognition. It had smarted when she received the coveted appointment to the Death Star while he, five years older and more experienced, had to be content with the TIE squadron aboard the Advance.

Until just this moment, Gideon had viewed that appointment as Iden’s death sentence. He was both unable and unwilling to share his torment with anyone; nearly everyone he knew had lost friends or family on the Death Star, and no one seemed to be as devastated as he. Gideon had wrestled with the enormity of the hole Iden Versio had left behind in his universe. To have lost the only regular presence in his life for over a decade, and in such a manner, had shattered him more than he could have anticipated.

And now this revelation had restored him with the same unexpected force. Iden was alive. That suppressed joy made it all right that Admiral Versio sighed heavily and said, an edge to his deep, rumbling voice, “Of course everyone who was physically on the station died in that tragic event. But Lord Vader, Lieutenant Versio, and a handful of others were not on the station. She was in her TIE at the time.”

Carefully, Gideon said, “Then there is one thing to be grateful for, in the midst of this tragedy.”

“I have to admit I myself was very pleased to hear the news.”

The confession surprised Gideon—it was definitely out of character. But he did not acknowledge it, instead asking, “What happened?”

“According to her report, Lieutenant Versio’s TIE fighter was damaged in the explosion. She maneuvered it to a crash landing on the surface of Yavin’s fourth moon, ejecting safely before impact. She eluded detection and relieved the rebels of one of their hyperspace-capable vessels. When she reached Imperial space, she immediately identified herself. She’s been fully debriefed and is recovering on Hosnian Prime.”

Gideon was smiling by the time the admiral had finished, but then, catching himself, he forced his face to return to a carefully neutral expression. Of course that’s what Iden would do.

“Quite impressive, and a testament to your training, sir,” he said.

“Not all that impressive,” Versio demurred. “Lieutenant Versio reported that there was a lot of celebrating going on.” The admiral’s voice dripped with contempt. “There’s not too much honor in eliminating a handful of drunken guards.”

Although he’d known Admiral Versio his whole life, Gideon had never seen him effusive about anything except the glory of the Empire, so he shrugged off the older man’s downplaying of the scenario. The rebels, with their shocking, sickening victory, had suddenly proved themselves a force to be reckoned with. Gideon couldn’t imagine they would drop their guard and drink at their posts at any time, even when they’d struck a major blow against their enemies. He knew that Versio knew this, too, and that the admiral was simply being … well … the admiral.

He had mentioned that Iden was “recovering,” which meant she’d suffered injury.

A thought occurred to Gideon. He hesitated, but had to ask. “Does … has her mother …”

“Zeehay Versio has been informed.” The clipped tone of the words was a warning, one Gideon knew to heed.

The Versios had divorced when Iden was five, and Gideon had never met her mother. Iden didn’t talk about her much, though Gideon knew they stayed in touch. The last time Iden had mentioned her, Gideon recalled, his friend had let slip that Zeehay was unwell, but had said nothing about her since. Zeehay was a premier artist at the Coalition for Progress and, until her recent illness at least, traveled to various worlds, designing inspirational Imperial posters tailored to appeal to each culture. There was no one Gideon admired more than the man he stood before at this moment, but he couldn’t fathom what it must have been like to be married to him, especially given Zeehay’s artistic nature.

Iden had gotten her mother’s coloring—warm, light-brown skin and black hair—and curiosity, but her strong jaw and strong personality had come straight from her father.

“Thank you for letting me know, sir,” Gideon said. “But … I’m fairly sure you didn’t request me from the Advance just to tell me Lieutenant Versio is all right.”

“No, I didn’t, but we will discuss that here in my office tomorrow at oh nine hundred. Lieutenant Versio and two others will be joining us. I’ve had quarters prepared for you at the Diplomat. Please head there directly and speak with no one. You’re dismissed, Lieutenant.”

Usually, Gideon would salute and depart, but there was something else he had to ask. “Sir? Would it be possible for me to talk to Iden?”

Versio’s gray eyebrows lifted. “I said, she will be joining us tomorrow morning.”

“I know, sir, but … if it’s permitted, I’d like to speak to her.”

Versio analyzed him for a moment, then nodded. “Very well, I’ll send you the coordinates. You may contact her once you reach your quarters.”

Gideon didn’t need to ask. He knew the conversation would be monitored.

Everything was monitored when it came to dealing with Garrick Versio.

Under ordinary circumstances, Gideon would have been assigned visiting officers’ quarters at the barracks, but it was clear that whatever the admiral wanted to discuss with him and his daughter, it was top secret—as were the identities of the two others.

He certainly didn’t mind the change of venue, relaxing in the comfort of the VIP shuttle that ferried him to one of the highest levels of the city-world, 5120, a short distance from Versio’s office at the Imperial Security Bureau headquarters in the Federal District.

The lift opened onto a floor with a single entrance. Clearly at some point in the hotel’s illustrious past, others had appreciated the value of near-total privacy. A guard stood beside the door, rigidly at attention.

“Your identification, sir,” the man said briskly. Bemused, Gideon handed him his code cylinder. The guard scanned it with a small, handheld device, then stepped up and pressed his palm against a square reader affixed to the door. It hissed open onto cool darkness.

“Welcome, Lieutenant Hask. I’ll be outside,” he said. “Com me if there’s anything you require.”

“Thank you,” Gideon replied, and stepped inside. The enormous suite lit up to welcome him. It was luxurious but also austere. The far end of the room was composed entirely of reinforced glass. Gideon knew the topmost level of the hotel was above the planet’s cloud layer, but this floor was located beneath it, revealing the bustle of Coruscant outside.

The only splashes of color in the otherwise stark black-and-white room were in the artworks. Recruitment posters from years past had been carefully framed, and Gideon found himself looking at images of proud young men and women, stormtroopers, and Imperial officers set against the stylized backgrounds of various worlds. Gideon was not an art aficionado, but he spared a moment to wonder if this was Zeehay Versio’s work. The young girl gazing up raptly at the stars in one painting certainly looked like Iden.

His bag slung over his shoulder, Gideon walked through the main room with its black-and-white couches, chairs, and table, and selected a room at random. He whistled softly as the door slid open. The room was, by military standards, enormous.

“Nice,” he murmured, “very nice.” He dropped the bag on the neatly made bed and headed for the holoprojector perched on the small table. He entered the coordinates and waited for what seemed like forever but was in reality only a few seconds.

She appeared before him, miniature and gray-blue, but even in holographic form it was easy to see that her face was swollen and there was the ghost of a bruise on her temple.

Her eyes widened. “Gideon!”

She always called him by his first name, except under professional circumstances. That wasn’t true with anyone else, not even her father. And Gideon had long since gotten used to being called Hask by everyone else. His first name was theirs, between them.

“Iden!” He found himself grinning. “I never thought … I just heard. I’m … I’m so glad to see you.”

She smiled weakly. “I’m glad to be seen.”

“Are you all right?”

She sobered. “A bit battered and bruised, but the bacta tank fixed the worst of it. I’m trying to get a little rest, but honestly, I can’t sleep.”

It hung between them; the thing they couldn’t talk about, probably shouldn’t talk about … but needed to.

Gideon waited patiently. Iden had been closer to it all than he had. She was sitting up in a medcenter bed, propped up against the pillows, and was obviously holding the holoprojector in front of her in her hands. She looked away for a moment, then back at him.

“Over a million people. So fast. Gone, just like that.”

He nodded mutely and tried to reach for the positive. “But you’re not gone. You’re lucky to be alive.”

She started to give him one of her wry smiles, then winced a little; the gesture clearly hurt. “Sure.”

“Don’t do that,” Gideon snapped. “You are. And I’m glad, and your parents are, too. I saw the admiral today, and he even said so.” A slight exaggeration, but true as far as it went.

Iden brushed it off. “I mean … think about who we lost. The repercussions are going to be pretty horrifying. Some of the Empire’s top people were on that station. Grand Moff Tarkin. Colonel Yularen. So many good men and women. The Empire would have been better off if others had made it instead of me. I’m just a TIE pilot.”

Iden sighed and rubbed at one of her eyes with the heel of her hand. “At least Lord Vader survived.”

“Well, you did, too, and I’m glad. I know you, Iden. You’ll work to make sure your survival means something.”

He leaned forward, folding his arms on the small table. “So. Tell me what happened. How you got out.”

Light-years away, still in a medcenter bed, bone-weary and sick with guilty grief, Iden permitted herself to be distracted. She told him about the crash, how she’d been injured but had been able to fashion a splint out of debris. How she’d walked several klicks through the thick, unnervingly green press of the jungle. She’d eluded detection, save for a single rebel, but she had dispatched him before he could raise the alarm. Then she’d slipped into a cargo ship and headed for the nearest Imperial system.

“Not too exciting,” she said. “First aid, walking, taking a ship, and recovering here. No space battles.”

Don’t boast, her father had told her. Accomplish. Then let others notice and react appropriately.

“Nope. Nothing remarkable. Just sneaking onto a major rebel base and stealing a vessel right underneath their noses,” Gideon pointed out. “And,” he added, somewhat more somberly, “surviving the Death Star.”

Iden felt herself retreating inward. She didn’t want to see it, to think about it, because she didn’t want to lose control. Senior Lieutenant Iden Versio couldn’t afford to do that, not in front of anyone—even Gideon.

“Did you hear how the rebels did it?” Gideon asked. He was usually good at reading her, but Iden knew from experience that it was difficult to see expressions and body language on a hologram. She resigned herself to a discussion.

“Something about stolen plans to the station,” she said.

“More than just that. Iden—it’s awful.” He looked down for a moment. When he lifted his head, despite the distortion of the small size and color of his face, Iden saw that his eyes were blazing with fury she suspected had been too-long buried. “One of the scientists who helped design the Death Star … he built it to be destroyed.”

Iden stiffened. “Explain,” she said coolly.

“He’d been planning for this to happen all along. Years. He built an instability into the reactor. There was a small thermal exhaust port below the main one, along the meridian trench. The damn thing was only two meters wide. The shaft led directly to the main reactor system.”

Iden twitched as a scene flashed before her eyes: The X- and Y-wings heading straight for the trench, dropping down, moving along it, dropping—

“Proton torpedoes,” she said. It had to be. The shaft was ray-shielded. Because any sane attacker would try to fire lasers.

“Exactly! How did you—” He bit off the words. “Sorry.”

She waved in annoyance. “Go on.”

“Well, it turns out a direct hit started a chain reaction.”

“And the Death Star blew up from within.” Iden shivered. That’s why the rebels were sending in such small ships. That’s why they were heading for the trenches. And we who were on our comfortable, impregnable station, or in our fine fighters—we thought they were just grandstanding in a final gesture of defiance—

“Rumor has it the plans were stolen from Scarif,” Gideon continued. “That’s why the battle was fought.”

“But they died, didn’t they?” Iden’s voice was harsh. “The rebels? On Scarif?”

“Yes. They were able to transmit the plans to—”

“But they died?”

Hask blinked at her intensity, but replied, “Yes. They died.”

“Good. I’m glad. They should have died. They should all have died for what they did. But Senator Organa escaped.” She uttered the name of the traitorous princess like an epithet, then took a deep breath. “Gideon—she was on Yavin. While I was there.”

Now Gideon caught on, and his strong-featured face grew sympathetic.

“Yes, she was,” he agreed cautiously, “and your job was to get out of there alive, not execute every rebel in the place. You were wounded, Iden. Pretty badly, if I can see it even now—and in a holo. No one just hops into a bacta tank for a quick splash.”

She found herself smiling. She hated that Gideon knew her so well … but it was a comfort, too.

Still, the warmth of her affection for him faded, the cold knot of hate growing inside her.

“We’re going to get them, Gideon.” It wasn’t a statement. It was a vow. “We’re going to make them pay. We’re going to crush this Rebellion. We’re going to get justice for this—this terrorist act.”

He smiled—the cold, thin-lipped smile of absolute calculation that Iden usually didn’t like to see but now welcomed. “Oh yes, indeed we are. And I have a feeling you and I are going to get to be part of it.”

“We damn well better be.”

Chapter 3

Lieutenant Commander Del Meeko piloted the Lambda-class T-4a toward the silver-gray-brown ecumenopolis that was Coruscant. Once, it had been home, but he had not returned for a very long time. The sight of white clouds coyly offering glimpses of a world composed almost entirely of the artificial was nostalgic, and curiously comforting. Which was good, because ever since he’d gotten the mysterious summons, the former chief engineer of the Star Destroyer Implacable had been more than a little on edge.

He’d reported for duty this morning, bleary-eyed as always before that first cup of caf, to find his crew awaiting him in Engineering. Lieutenant Naylyn Bashan, his immediate subordinate, had told him there was a message for him in his office. “Top priority,” she’d said, almost blurting the words. She and the rest of Engineering did their best to not look alarmed, and Meeko, of course, had also done his best to also not look alarmed. All of them knew that after the destruction of the Death Star nothing, absolutely nothing was going to be the same, and they were all prepared for the worst.

Admiral Dayun’s face, always florid, had been outright flushed as he spoke.

“You’re to be reassigned, Del,” he had said, using the chief engineer’s name instead of his rank and thus revealing how much the information had thrown him. “Admiral Garrick Versio requested you specifically.”

And that was, apparently, all Del was going to get. In the relative privacy of the shuttle, Naylyn had asked variants on what the hell is going on. Del had nothing to tell her. So instead, they’d told stories about their first time on the ship, and the ritual of practical jokes to which “nerf meat”—newcomers to the team—were always subjected. But now, with Coruscant filling their viewscreen, they fell silent.

Then Naylyn spoke. “Del … do you think this has anything to do with you having been stationed on Scarif?”

Del forced himself not to wince. Earlier in his career, he’d been a soldier, not an engineer. He had begun Imperial service as a storm-trooper, and had seen his share of battle. Later, he had served as a shoretrooper on the Imperial base that was once considered a working holiday. Most of the friends he’d made during that time had still been stationed there when the rebel attack occurred.

None had survived it.

“I’ve been asking myself that,” Del admitted. “But I can’t think why. That was a long time ago.”

“Lots of rearranging going on,” Naylyn said, then added, after clearing her throat, “Lots of positions to fill.”

“I serve at the Empire’s pleasure,” Del said, and while it was the expected reply, it was also true. “I’ve no idea what this is about, and if I did—well, I could tell you, but …”

They chuckled together at the ancient joke and the mood lightened. Del maneuvered the shuttle down, skimming along the white clouds pierced here and there by duracrete skytowers, their gleaming reinforced glass windows catching the light. Below that layer, the vessel entered the often dangerously speedy flow of busy traffic that constantly crowded the space above the capital world of the Empire.

Their destination was Imperial City, specifically the section that had, until recently, been called the Senate District. But there was no Senate any longer. When the shuttle was within a few kilometers of the area, two smaller ships materialized seemingly out of nowhere.

“You are entering a restricted area,” came a clipped, cold voice. “Identify yourself and prepare to be rerouted and boarded.”

Del and Naylyn exchanged glances. “This is vessel 4240-C, of the Star Destroyer Implacable. I am Lieutenant Commander Del Meeko, my copilot is Lieutenant Naylyn Bashan. Our authorization code is—”

“Authorization code is irrelevant. Sending coordinates. Reroute immediately.”

Something was wrong. Del remained calm as he said, “I’ve been ordered to report to Admiral Garrick Versio.”

There was a pause. A long one. Then: “Authorization code?”

Del gave it. Another long pause. Then: “You are cleared to proceed. We will provide escort. Head to these coordinates.”

The coordinates appeared on the console, and Del entered them. As he punched in the last number, he permitted himself to exhale. The two ships dropped to either side of the shuttle, one slightly ahead, the other a bit behind.

“Kriffing hell, Meeko, it looks like you were right about having to kill me!” Naylyn exclaimed, her eyes wide. “That name was like a magic word out of a folktale or something.”

“Yeah, well, I am definitely a hero in my own mind.” As the shuttle drew nearer to the restricted area, Del glanced at the great dome and wondered what it would be called, now that there was no Senate in the Senate District. He wasn’t about to inquire.

“We’re going to miss you, Del,” Naylyn said.

“You’ll make an excellent chief engineer,” Del reassured her. “I mean, now you will. You were pretty slipshod when you arrived, but I trained you well.”

That got the desired eye-roll out of her. He smothered his own grin. Wisecracks weren’t regulation, but Del let his team indulge in them. They knew well enough how to be serious—deadly serious—when the time came.

Sobering slightly, he said, “I’ll miss you all, too.” One wasn’t supposed to get overly attached to one’s team, but Del did. He got attached to lots of things, and one of the most challenging lessons he’d had to learn was how to curb his natural friendliness.

But his time in Engineering was done, and soon, the mystery of just what Admiral Garrick Versio wanted from Chief Engineer Del Meeko would be solved.

Del only hoped the revelation wouldn’t be something he’d regret.

The young woman was diminutive, both small and slight, and the chair in which she sat, as her eyes darted rapidly from one screen to the next, came perilously close to engulfing her. But she had grown used to it, and she swiveled and turned as necessary.