Chapter 1

Hoff Surprise

The planet Hoff was a frozen, forbidding world, far from its sun. The few indigenous species it supported scraped out a precarious existence from the permafrost and the occasional protruding outcrop of granite. Life was tough on Hoff.

Dark, angry clouds scudded across the gloomy sky, menacingly low over the snowfields. Gusts of wind puffed harsh ice crystals into the air and swirled them in every direction. On the horizon—which was closer than it seemed—a huge roiling mass of sleet and snow and ice grew steadily larger. Lightning flickered constantly within the grey-green storm front.

Astride his mount, Lurk Splitwhisker eyed the approaching storm warily. He had grown up on a hot desert world, and felt vaguely unnerved at the best of times to be constantly surrounded by frozen water. He did not believe he would ever get used to the constant, biting cold. He certainly had no wish to be caught outside in the electrical storm and its accompanying blizzard. His snowrunner stamped one large, clawed footpad into the crusted snow beneath them and whickered nervously; it seemed to share Lurk's thoughts on the matter. It tossed its large head, and snorted loudly; Lurk reached forward and rubbed the loose skin behind its small ear with his gloved hand, and after a moment it calmed down.

"What's your problem, girl?" Lurk asked it. "You smell that storm coming, huh?"

The snowrunner turned its shaggy head, rolled back one small eye, and peered quizzically at him for a moment. Then it snorted again and stamped its other foot.

"Right," said Lurk. It doesn't count as madness, he told himself, unless you start expecting a reply.

He pulled his scarf up to protect his mouth and nose, adjusted his goggles down over his piercing blue eyes, and shrugged a little more snugly into his heavy furred jacket. Then, with a muffled click of his tongue, and a nudge with his booted heel, he spurred the snowrunner into motion. The creature leaned forward, extended its stubby tail for balance, and broke into the long, loping gait which it could maintain almost indefinitely.

Standing about twelve feet tall, the bipedal snowrunner was native to these icy wastelands. Despite the fearsome-looking claws on each of its broad, padded toes, it was actually quite a gentle—albeit moody—creature, and had adapted quickly to domesticated life. Hardy, yet agile despite its bulk, it made a great mount for scouts and patrols.

As they crested a shallow rise, Lurk tugged on the reins. His snowrunner planted its foot deep in the snow and stopped abruptly; Lurk clung tightly to the saddle horn, well aware of the cantankerous beast's tricks. It whuffled softly and rolled one eye back at him again.

"Still here," Lurk told it.

He pushed his goggles up onto his forehead and lifted a compact set of electronic binoculars to his eyes. He turned slowly, scanning the horizon. Nothing broke the dreary white and grey vista. He was about to lower the glasses again when one of the readouts along the bottom spiked, and the unit beeped softly at him. He frowned. Shifting slightly in his saddle, he adjusted the binoculars and zoomed in for a closer look. Nothing was visible.

Thoughtfully he returned the binoculars to their place on his belt, then fished a battered old communicator from one of the jacket's deep pockets. Once more he pulled the thick woollen scarf down, exposing his face to the chill wind. He exhaled, and his breath fogged thickly into the air before being whipped away.

"Rover Three to Rover Five," he said into the comm, "are you there, Mal?"

The wind gusted suddenly, and a stinging cloud of ice crystals swept over Lurk. He closed his eyes until the flurry passed, and shivered as a sudden chill went through him. He leaned automatically as his snowrunner fidgeted and shifted beneath him.

"Where else would I be," crackled the comm. "What you got, kid?"

Lurk grinned; he was glad to hear the older man's voice.

"I'm just about finished my sweep," he said into the communicator. "I'm not picking up any signs of life. Even my damn 'runner is getting bored!"

"Can't say I blame it," said Mal. "We've been scouting this region for weeks. The only fools fool enough to fool around on this ice cube are us! I'm heading back in before that storm hits!"

Lurk glanced briefly over his shoulder at the ugly, bruised cloud mass. "Yeah," he concurred, "I'm with you on that! I've got a faint metallic trace that I want to check out—no doubt it's just another piece of space junk—and then I'll head back."

"There's so much damn debris in this system," growled Mal, "I don't know how we're supposed to spot incoming ships. Be careful, and I'll see you back in the warmth in twenty!"

Lurk chuckled. When your home base was carved directly into glacial ice, "warmth" was definitely a relative term.

"Sure thing, Mal," he replied. "See you in twenty."

Lurk returned the communicator to its pocket and carefully sealed the flap. He lifted the insulated flask from where it sat on his hip and took a swig of warm water to wash away the dryness in his mouth and throat. That was the craziest thing about this whole crazy world: water everywhere, locked away in crystals of ice, and yet the air was drier than it had ever been back on Ratatouille.

Suddenly his snowrunner shuddered beneath him. Its head was cocked at a strange angle, and it uttered a low whine—an eerie sound which Lurk had never heard it make before now. Then it toppled sideways, and Lurk scrambled frantically to extricate his feet from the stirrups.

Too slow. Too late.

Lurk heard two loud cracking sounds, simultaneous but distinctly different. One was similar to the sound made by the primitive kinetic energy weapons used by the desert dwellers on his home planet; muted somewhat by distance, it rolled across the ice plain and washed over him. The other was louder, but muffled; the sound of bones snapping as the dead weight of the dying snowrunner landed heavily on his trapped leg. The snow was packed hard here, and did little to cushion his fall. Pain blossomed briefly, and he thought he heard an agonised scream as darkness washed over him.

A small cloud of ice crystals puffed into the air around the fallen bodies, and the worsening wind swirled it away.

The clatter and scrape of clawed feet on bare ice echoed through the cavernous hangar bay. A couple of animal handlers, dressed in the well-padded orange overalls which were standard arctic issue to Rebel Coalition ground crews, ran out to calm the irritable snowrunner as Mal Single reined it to a stop. The 'runner snorted and stamped impatiently, and Mal was happy to swing down out of the saddle.

"Take care of him, guys," he told the handlers. "And you might want to check his left foot; he seemed to be favouring it a little on the way in."

"Will do, Captain Single," acknowledged one of the handlers. She nodded her thanks for the warning. Mal nodded in reply, then turned away and headed across the frozen floor. As he walked, he unbuttoned the front of his insulated, fur-lined white overcoat. Underneath—as was his preference—he wore a brown shirt.

It was warmer inside, but not by much.

The hangar was a bustling hive of activity. The number one priority for the Rebel Coalition was to get their small fleet of ice-speeders—deep-space fighters being modified to operate in low altitude atmospheric conditions—up and running; everywhere Mal looked, orange-clad mechanics worked on that task.

Mal's own ship, the Serendipity Sparrow, sat on the ice against the far wall of the hangar, partially hidden behind one of the larger transport ships.

It had been barely a month since the Rebel Coalition, fleeing from the forces of the Imperial Navy, had settled upon the remote, frozen planet of Hoff. An important factor in their decision had been the existence of this frozen base—the hangar itself, and a warren of winding passages and chambers behind it—cut into the solid ice of an enormous glacier. The base had once been part of an illegal mining operation, abandoned several years ago after the vein of rare ore trapped in the ice—the remnant of an ancient meteor strike—had been exhausted.

Mal entered a narrow passageway in the back wall of the hangar and wended his way through the maze of tunnels towards the Operations room. Many of the people he passed greeted him by name, but he was too distracted to notice. He kept his gaze on the frozen floor, glancing up now and again to check his location. A thoughtful frown sat upon his broad, honest features.

"Hey Mal, where are you off to in such a hurry?" said a voice loudly.

Mal stopped and looked up. He blinked.

"Oh, hello," he said. He paused for the barest of moments as he dredged the man's name up from his memory. "Sorry, Rudy, I didn't see you there. I've got a lot on my mind. How are Elsa and the girls?"

"They're fine," said Rudy. He was a short man, bundled up against the cold in several thick layers of clothing. He idly scratched at his ear.

"Good," said Mal. "Uh, listen, Rudy, I hate to cut and run but I'm a little busy at the moment..."

"Oh yeah, sure," said Rudy. "I was just wondering if you were playing tonight?"

"Is it that time already?" mused Mal.

"It surely is," nodded Rudy. "It's just that, well, Smitty can't play this week because of his hip; it's been giving him a lot of trouble recently. And I was thinking that..."

"I really don't know if I can make it tonight," said Mal. "You know I'd like to, but I'm just, well..."

"Busy, yeah," said Rudy. "Sure, no problem. We can probably..."

"Sorry, Rudy, I've really got to go. I'll talk to you later, okay?"

"Yeah, sure," said Rudy. "Next week then?"

"Next week," promised Mal. "I hope so, anyway. See you around, Rudy."

"Next time," called Rudy as Mal strode away.

Yeah, thought Mal, I hope there will be a next time...

He stopped at the next intersection he came to, and looked around. A pair of technicians—arguing loudly with each other—approached, and he squeezed against the icy wall to let them past.

"All I'm saying," said the taller of the two technicians—a heavy, bearded guy whose shirt, visible beneath his half-open jacket, bore an image of a popular singer—"is that Vogg files are better quality for the size."

"So you say," said his lean, blond companion. He wore his jacket buttoned closed, with the collar up. "But I bet you can't tell the difference between Vogg and Emmpy just by listening to them."

"Maybe," shrugged the bearded guy, "but that's beside the point. The point is, they're better quality, and they're free."

"That's two points," the blond guy pointed out. "You're just ... oh, hi." This last was directed to Mal.

"Evening, guys," said Mal. "Don't you two ever let up?"

"Nope," said the bearded guy. "Where would be the fun in that?"

"See you around," said the blond guy. "So what was I saying?"

"Beats me," said the bearded guy as they continued down the corridor past Mal.

"Have you seen those new meShell ads?" asked the blond guy of his companion. "Y'know, 'we sell meShells by the sea shore'?"

"Why would I want to see that?" asked the bearded guy. "Those damn meShells don't even play Vogg files. And what's with the colour? Dark Plum?"

"It's not Dark Plum, it's Mocha."

"Looks like Dark Plum to me," said the bearded guy. They rounded the corner and disappeared from sight, but Mal could still hear their voices drifting back on the still, chill air. He shook his head.

"Amazing," he muttered.

He looked around again. Nearly there! He turned down the passage the two technicians had come from, rounded the corner, and entered the controlled chaos of the Operations room.

This was where the planners and strategists of the Rebel Coalition gathered to plan and strategise. From tracking Imperial movements, to plotting supply raids, to furthering their ongoing campaign to foster sympathy for their cause in otherwise neutral systems; if the Rebels were doing it, this was where it was coordinated.

Libby was here most nights.

Mal spotted her on the other side of the room, deep in discussion with Commander Bekkalu. Princess Labia Orgasma was a head shorter than the Commander, but it was obvious to any who cared to look that the Princess was leading the conversation. From the age of six—when her father had married the eldest daughter of the planet Alderbark's royal family—she had been brought up to one day rule a world. The Commander, on the other hand, had inherited nominal command of the Rebel forces barely six weeks ago, upon the death of Commander Armada. She had done a valiant job of leading the fleet to safety, but she had been wise enough to consult with the young Princess every step of the way.

Mal felt his heart thump a little faster in his chest as he watched Libby talking excitedly. She wore rugged military-style pants and a heavy, fur-trimmed jacket—both white—but not even the heavy clothes could hide her feminine curves, her grace, her delicate beauty. He could not see the colour of her eyes from across the room, but he already knew they were hazel. Quick to sparkle with excitement or joy, quick to flash with anger, her eyes alone tantalised him in his dreams. He watched her soft lips move as she spoke, and he sighed. He knew it was hopeless—he knew she had her sights set on the strangely reluctant Lurk, and besides, he was old enough to be her father—but she was never far from his thoughts.

She looked over suddenly, as though feeling his gaze, and caught him staring at her. He grinned roguishly, and half-shrugged. Excusing herself to the tall pale woman beside her, the Princess waved him over.

"Libby," he greeted her.

"Mal," she responded with a slight nod. "How was the patrol?"

"Same as always." Mal shrugged. "There's no sign of intelligent life out there; not within a hundred miles of this place, anyway."

Libby nodded. "And Lurk?" she asked casually, her expression set in a careful neutrality.

Mal glanced up at the chronometer on the wall of the Operations room. "He should be back any minute now," he said. "He stopped to check out some space junk, out by the north ridge. We couldn't hang around out there: tonight's storm was coming in fast."

Libby looked away from him, her gaze wandering around the busy room. Seeing nobody who demanded her immediate attention, she turned back to Mal.

"Was there something else, Captain?" she asked.

"I just came to say goodbye," he told her.

She blinked. "You're leaving already?" she asked. "I thought you'd decided to stick around a while longer."

"I had, but that bounty hunter we ran into on Orb Mandrill changed my mind."

"Orb Mandrill?" Libby's brow furrowed briefly. "That was weeks ago."

"Yeah, it was," he agreed. "And I've done my part to see that everybody is safe. But this price on my head isn't getting any smaller, and if I don't settle things with Flabby the Butt soon, I may end up drawing more trouble down on everyone here."

Libby looked up at him. "Well, if that's the way it has to be," she said, "the Rebel Coalition will be sorry to see you go. We need good pilots like you."

Mal raised one eyebrow. "'We need'?" he said. "What about 'I need'?"

"'I need'? I don't know what you're talking about."

Mal shook his head. "Probably don't," he said, more sharply than he'd intended. What did I expect? he asked himself. A teary goodbye? "Well, don't get all mushy on me. So long, Princess." He turned on his heel and stalked angrily out of the room. Stupid, stupid thing to say! he chided himself. Too late now, though!

"Mal, wait!"

Mal stopped. He stood without turning. Waiting. Her small hand touched his arm—even through the thick material of his jacket, he could feel her warmth—and the tension drained from his body.

"I..." she began, then hesitated.

He half-turned toward her, expectantly.

"I will miss you," she said softly. "Of course I'll miss you. Will you be back?"

"Soon, I hope," he said. "Once I've paid off Flabby, I'll be right back." He turned to face her.

"And you know how to contact us, if we've moved on from here?"

Mal nodded. "I will find you," he told her.

Libby reached up, and lightly brushed his cheek with her fingertips. "Take care, Captain Single," she said.

"I will," he said. He reached up and covered her hand briefly with his own. Then, releasing her, he turned and walked away.

Lurk tried to open his eyes. One seemed to be frozen closed; the other opened enough to admit a blurry smear of flickering grey light. He spent several seconds trying to determine exactly what was wrong with what he was seeing, and finally decided that the horizon was not normally vertical.

His head ached. His leg—well, something felt wrong with his leg, but he could barely feel anything below his waist. He tried to wiggle his toes, but had no idea whether the attempt was successful or not. His body ached, and his arms ached, and his neck ached. His face was burning.

He blinked.

Snow. Ice. This was not Ratatouille. Perhaps his face was not burning, perhaps it was freezing. This was Hoff. But why was the horizon vertical?

He blinked again.

The dark amorphous blob at the lower range of his vision swam slowly into focus, but for a moment he couldn't identify it. Fur, lots of fur. Small stubby horns. Small stubby ears. A streak of blue-green running horizontally. Lurk knew it was important, but he had no idea what it was.

He blinked a third time, and suddenly he was staring at the head of his snowrunner lying on the ground in front of him. It was not the horizon that was oriented wrongly, it was himself. He was lying on the ground, half-buried in a drift of snow. His mount lay there too, a trickle of blue-green blood—copper based, he remembered somebody saying to him, so very long ago—frozen down the back of its head.

He tried to sit up; his upper torso twisted slightly, and a bolt of pain ripped through his leg.

He screamed, and consciousness fled once more.