Imperial Muff Aleeto Farquhar sat in his meditation chamber.
The small room was panelled with imitation wood, and several prints of fractal images—in tastefully muted colours—hung from the walls. A small sand garden filled the centre of the small chamber, soothing patterns traced in the dry golden sand. Against one wall was a small shrine, containing a couple of flickering candles arranged around a marble bust of the Muff himself. Opposite the shrine, a low wooden platform supported a large, soft cushion. Here the Muff sat, legs crossed, hands resting lightly on his knees.
"Little Miss Tuff sat on a Muff," he mumbled to himself, "eating his..." He paused, and his lips moved as he ran various possible words through his mind in an attempt to finish the sentence. Nothing seemed to fit. Leaning forward slightly, he drew deeply from a large tube, inhaling the nacarat gas which bubbled up through the cool water.
There was a muffled beep. The Muff sighed and abandoned his poetical endeavours. He pushed the bong to one side and attempted to stand. However, the room had started to sway from side to side, and his crossed legs refused to cooperate. The beep sounded again. The Muff rocked forward, back, forward again until he was balanced precariously on his knees. His legs were still crossed, his feet angled atop his thighs.
A strange smile drifted across Aleeto Farquhar's face. This was the moment. He had partaken of the gas of the spice Menaajatwaa, and his mind was expanded. He didn't need the mysterious Source powers that were wielded by the Stiff; his potential had been enhanced in other ways. He would now transport himself to the next room, to answer the comm panel, without moving. He grinned widely, and one of his eyes rolled lazily in its socket until it stared at the large nose beside it.
The Muff toppled forward and landed face-first in the sand garden.
Struggling and thrashing, he managed to untangle his limbs. He leaped lithely to his feet, and promptly collapsed again as they gave way beneath him. His legs had gone to sleep.
The comm in the next room beeped again. As much as a simple innocuous beep could manage, it conveyed a sense of urgency.
The Muff clambered to his feet once more. Sand trickled down the inside of his uniform. He brushed the outside relatively clean and, spitting more sand from his mouth as he went, dragging one numb foot behind him, he hobbled from the room.
He tapped the flashing button beneath the comm panel. The blank wall changed to show an image of Admiral Muzzel standing patiently on the bridge of the IPD Bermuda. Behind the Admiral stood Captain Pyotrovich. Both men blinked as the image of Muff Farquhar appeared on their view screen. The Muff's hair was a ruffled mess, a patch of sand clung to his cheek, and his eyes seemed to be operating independently of each other.
"I left strict orders," snarled the Muff, "that I was not to be disturbed while busy!"
"Uh, sir," said the Admiral. "We have come out of hyperspace into orbit around the planet Hoff. Our sensors detect a planetary defence shield in place over the, uh, Rebel base. An analysis of all sensor readings indicates that this actually is an installation belonging to the Rebel Coalition. You were right, sir."
"Was I?" said the Muff. "I mean, of course I was. It's not luck at all. Just skill."
"Of course, sir," said the Admiral.
"A platypus defenestration shield, you say?"
"A, uh, planetary defence shield, yes." said the Admiral.
"You have come out of hypnospace too close to the planet," said the Muff, swaying slightly from side to side, as he spoke. "The Rabbits are alerted to our presence. You are as incontinent as you are foolishneshness." He blinked owlishly at the screen. His wandering eye straightened, then slowly rolled away again, doing its own thing.
"But sir," said the Admiral as a blank look of extreme patience slid onto his face, "the shield was already up when..."
"Your excuses do not concern me, Admirubble." The Muff was holding one hand in the air in front of him, making pinching motions with his fingers.
"Uh, sir?" said the Admiral. "Are you quite okay, sir? You do know that you are not a Stiff Lord, don't you, sir?"
"Of course I'm not Stiff," said the Muff. "I'm a Muff. Everyone knows that Muff and Stiff are two different things—although they can make wonderful things happen when they work together." He hiccupped suddenly. "Besides, being held by you isn't quite enough to get me excited."
"If you say so, sir," said the Admiral.
"I don't want to talk to you any more, Admill," said the Muff. "Go away. You're in command now, Adimubble Ploppovich."
"Uh, thank you, sir," said the Captain, stepping forward and glancing nervously at the Admiral out of the corner of his eye. Muzzel shrugged and shook his head.
"Launch a salt grinder, I mean a salty ground, I mean a ground of salt," said the Muff. He frowned. "Take out the shield genera-whatsit, so we can land Troopers."
"Yes, sir," said Captain Pyotrovich. "We'll take care of it."
"Good lad," said the Muff. Tears welled in his eyes and streamed down his cheeks. "Did I ever tell you about your mother?" he asked. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he slumped to the floor.
The two Imperial officers gazed at the view screen for a couple of seconds. There was no sign of movement in the Muff's quarters. They looked at each other.
"Your mother?" queried the Admiral as the Captain severed the comm connection..
The Captain shrugged. "Beats me, sir!" he said. After a short pause, he continued: "Don't worry, Admiral, I'm sure he'll have forgotten all about my 'promotion' when he wakes up."
"It won't matter," said the Admiral. "A copy of that conversation from the archives, stored in a safe place, is all the security I'll ever need. Doping up on Menaajatwaa? That's dereliction of duty at the very least. Not to mention, of course, all those who witnessed his murder of poor Smithers."
"Yes, sir," said the Captain.
"Initiate the ground assault against the generator," said the Admiral.
"Yes, sir," said the Captain. He saluted smartly and turned to leave.
"Oh, and Captain," added the Admiral.
"Send somebody in to put the Muff to bed."
The Rebel Coalition's Command Centre was more tense and busy than usual.
"Another two Planetary Dominators just dropped out of hyperspace," said Libby, reading the information as it flooded across her screen. Her voice was steady, but there was a worried look in her eyes.
"Five? That's the entire Imperial fleet for this sector," said Commander Bekkalu.
"The shield will keep them out for a little while," said Mal, "but they will no doubt target the generator with a ground assault."
"Deploy the defence teams," said Bekkalu decisively. "We've got to give the transports as much time as possible." Outside the Command Centre, frantic effort was underway to load as much equipment and as many personnel as possible into the few grounded transports. Those Rebel ships which had been in orbit, unable to assist in the evacuation, had fled, jumping into hyperspace within seconds of the arrival of the first Imperial battle-cruiser.
General Dogidu tapped the chart. "They will land here somewhere, and make their way across this snow plain towards the ravine. I have all available troops here, along with perhaps thirty defensive turrets. I don't know what the Imperium will send against us, but you can bet it will be heavily armoured."
"Plodders?" asked Libby.
"Probably," said the General. "Our troops won't hold out long against that sort of firepower. Perhaps the ice-speeders will slow them down—we might even take out a couple of them—but there is no way we can stop them. Not with these weapons."
"Do your best, General."
"Goes without saying," said the General. "But once they take out the generator, this place will be swarming with Troopers within minutes—or they'll just nuke us from orbit. We have to be out of here by the time that happens."
"We shall do our best, General," said Bekkalu.
The Rebel Captain raised the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the horizon. It was a hazy afternoon, and visibility was not as good as he would have liked. Was that movement? Or just his eyes playing tricks? He lowered the binoculars and peered into the distant haze. Nothing. Blinking, he wiped a gloved hand over his eyes, then raised the binoculars again.
Something moved. He waited, and the object appeared out of the haze. It was a huge but squat, boxlike contraption, supporting its weight on six articulated legs. Several independent cannons were mounted around its hull. Inside, the Captain knew, would be twenty Shock Troopers—although the Troopers they carried were rarely necessary after the cannons had done their work—and another six to eight crew manning the guns and driving the vehicle slowly forwards.
It was an Imperial Plodder. Its official name was a confusing acronym which had something to do with its all-terrain capabilities, but everybody—absolutely everybody—called them Plodders. That was what they did. Slowly, surely, inexorably, they plodded onward.
It lifted three of its legs, swung them forward, and planted them again. Snow puffed into the air from the impact of each large foot.
"Plodder," he shouted. "Plodder at 273 degrees."
"Another one at 281 degrees," came a call from further down the defensive line.
The Captain reduced the zoom on his binoculars. There were four of them in all, appearing out of the haze. They were closer than he would have liked—damn these small planets with their close horizons—and he felt his gut clench in a momentary panic.
"They'll be within firing range in thirty seconds," he shouted. "This is it, everybody: get ready!" He dropped down into the snow trench which would hopefully provide some measure of cover.
"Where the hell is our air support?" he wondered aloud.
One by one, the Rebel gun emplacements opened fire, and flak began to burst around the armoured hulls of the slowly approaching vehicles, seemingly without effect.
Twelve Rebel ice-speeders in close formation swept out of the main hangar bay. The force field shimmered up behind them. As they roared out across the plain, the group split into four groups of three.
"Alpha Leader to Alpha Wing," said Lurk Splitwhisker into his comm, "we'll take the Plodder on the far left."
"Acknowledged, Alpha Leader," crackled the voice of Alpha Two in his ear. "Uh, sir? Are we sure this is going to work?"
"Nope," said Lurk. "It looked good in the simulations, but you know how useful they are."
"Oh," said Alpha Two. "Right."
The 'speeders zipped over the defenders waiting at the front lines. The Rebel cannons fell silent as the 'speeders entered their line of fire.
"Sir," said Alpha Three, "can't you just ... you know?"
"Can't I just what?" said Lurk.
"Well ... change them. Like at Yawn, y'know?"
"No," said Lurk shortly. It was not a thought he wished to pursue; the memory of all the Imperial blood on his hands, caused by his use and abuse of the Source, had given him nightmares enough already. "Now get ready; we're coming into range of their cannons."
Blaster fire suddenly began to spew from the cannons atop the Plodders, and Alpha Wing took evasive action.
"Stay as low as possible," shouted Lurk into the comm. "That way they can't bring all their guns to bear." The ice plain flashed past beneath the bellies of the 'speeders as they wove and dodged steadily closer to the armoured behemoths.
An energy bolt clipped the rear stabiliser of Alpha Three, and the speeding craft wobbled dangerously before its pilot brought it back under control.
"Are you still with us, Three?" asked Lurk.
"Yes sir," said Alpha Three. "Got a little fried, but the secondary stabiliser kicked in okay."
"Good," said Lurk. "You take the first pass, then get out of here."
"No problem, Captain," said Alpha Three.
"I'll take the second pass. Alpha Two, you follow me. And watch out for those guns as you go over!"
Alpha Three swung about—a thin ribbon of smoke trailing from the ice-speeder's scorched hull—and accelerated directly towards the Plodder. At the last possible moment, he pulled up sharply and shot across the top of Imperial vehicle. As he did so, there was a puff of vapour as the Rebel pilot fired their secret—and hopefully effective—weapon. The cloud of water spray splashed across one side of the Plodder, and instantly froze solid in the icy, sub-zero conditions. As Alpha Three turned and headed back to base for emergency repairs and a refill, Alpha Two repeated the manoeuvre from the other side. As soon as Alpha Two was clear, Lurk made his own run, dumping a thousand gallons of atomised water onto the massive metal hull.
The water filled every crevice, seeped into every gap, and froze, and expanded. The Plodder's massive legs stopped moving, three of them suspended in mid-air. The cannons kept firing—their barrels were so hot that the water vapour which touched them simply turned to steam—but could no longer rotate to track the retreating craft. Grumbling and shuddering, the Plodder strained against its icy bonds. One leg moved a little, and then stopped.
"Hit them again, Alpha Two," said Alpha Leader.
"Sure thing," said Alpha Two. The 'speeder made another pass, and dumped the rest of the water across one side of the Plodder. Lurk followed him in, adding another icy layer.
"That thing's not going anywhere for a while," said Lurk. "Let's get out of the way of our cannons."
The two remaining 'speeders of Alpha Wing turned and headed back towards the defensive line. The 'speeders of the other wings had met with similar successes; the only casualty had been Gamma Two, which had taken a full hit in the underbelly as it made its first approach.
"Alpha Leader to gun crews," said Lurk, "finish them off."
The Rebel cannons opened fire once more, concentrating all firepower upon a single helpless Plodder. For a while the heavy armour withstood the fierce pounding—the Plodder even began to move forward again, as the barrage melted the ice which entombed it—but eventually, weakened by the extremes of temperature, it gave way. The behemoth shuddered violently, and an internal explosion punched a large hole in the hull as its ammunition store detonated. A second explosion gouted flame as the fuel ignited. Black smoke began to billow from between the twisted armour plates.
The Rebel defenders cheered raggedly, then grew silent as the guns turned upon the next Plodder in line.
Designated PLWDR-7449—the acronym stood for Perambulatory Legion and Weaponry Deployment Redoubt, and yes, the Imperial functionary who came up with it had been summarily executed—the second Plodder trembled as the defender's guns zeroed in. Along with Teams Hyrax, Beaver, and Zorilla, the five Shock Troopers of Team Badger were huddled inside. The pounding thunder of the Rebel barrage was deafening. Only the fact that their helmets were fitted with personal comm units made it possible for the Troopers to make themselves heard.
"Into the launch tubes, dammit," growled Sergeant Strong. "All Troopers into the launch tubes. This hull won't last much longer. We've got to take the fight to them!"
In the garish red light within the Plodder, the Troopers scrambled to obey.
"Are you all ready to kick these Rebel scum back to the ice age?" shouted Strong.
A ragged chorus of hooyah came back as the response.
"Then let's go," said the Sergeant. "I'd recommend the rest of you get out, too," he added to the three-person crew of the Plodder. "Take your chances out on the snow. We'll do what we can to distract the Rebels from your position."
"Thank you, Sergeant," said the young officer in charge of the Plodder. "Your actions today will not be forgotten."
"See you when this is over," shouted Strong as he backed into the final empty launch tube. He rotated the hatch closed and hit the large red button.
Ice shards flew and smoke billowed from the armoured back of the crippled Plodder as its Emergency Personnel Deployment System was activated. Red flashes lit the boiling leaden shroud as numerous tubes were launched high, cylinder following cylinder, into the frozen air. A couple of them exploded as they were caught by the withering barrage of cannon fire which still pounded the hull of the Plodder; the rest sailed clear. As they reached the zenith of their path, each tube sprouted small guidance fins and began to glide, falling rapidly, towards the Rebel front lines.
For the barest second, silence fell over the battlefield as the Rebels readied themselves to meet this new development.
The first of the tubes thudded heavily into the snow; upon impact the front face exploded outwards, sending the defenders diving for cover as a hail of shrapnel ripped through the air. The others landed in a ragged line either side of the first, each adding its own deadly spray of metal fragments to cut through the Rebel ranks.
From out of the midst of each carefully shaped explosion stepped a fully armoured Shock Trooper, garbed in Arctic Camouflage colours and wielding an ugly black Gemini Mk-III Vaporiser. Several of them were firing their weapons before their booted feet hit the snow, keeping the Rebels pinned down behind the ramparts of their trenches.
"Form up on me," shouted Sergeant Samson Strong, his stentorian voice cutting across the excited chatter on the comms channel.
"Right behind you, Sarge," shouted Fib. He fired a quick burst at a Rebel soldier who had raised his head into view; the Rebel fell backwards out of sight.
"Let's move," Strong ordered. "It won't take these guys long to regroup, and we're too exposed out here; even this disorganised rabble could pick us off like this."
Even as he spoke, a bolt of blaster fire seared through the chill air in front of him, so close he heard it sizzle. He returned fire and began moving forward in the nearest approximation to a double-time trot he could manage; the snow crackled and gave way beneath his boots with each step he took.
"Let's go, let's go," said Jenkins urgently. She stood her ground, waiting as the rest of the Troopers scrambled past her. Behind the brutal visage of her mask she scowled. "Who's missing? We're a couple short!"
"Worry about roll call once we're in cover," said Strong.
"The tower, Sarge," shouted Jenkins. She pointed towards the new threat, although he could not see her. Many of the gun emplacement turrets had ceased fire; one of the nearby ones was slowly rotating, bringing its barrel to bear on the advancing cluster of Imperial invaders.
"The rest of you head for the North trench," shouted Strong, his voice ringing out clearly—with just a hint of electronic distortion—from the amplifier in his helmet. "Take it and hold it. Team Badger, with me." Strong began to run for the threatening laser cannon tower. The other four members of Team Badger were right on his heels as he reached the hatch. It was locked.
Strong turned to Jenkins. He held up one finger, then pointed up at the narrow view slot through which the crew manning the cannon peered. Jenkins nodded. She lifted a small thermal grenade from its place on her belt, and pressed the activation switch. She held up one gauntlet-clad finger, two, three, four... She tossed the small grenade casually up into the air; it clattered through the narrow slot and into the interior of the tower. Moments later there was a muffled explosion, and thick black smoke began pouring out of the destroyed emplacement.
Further down the line, a second tower was rotating to face them.
Suddenly another heavy rain of escape cylinders fell upon a second section of the Rebel front line. First one of the remaining Plodders, then the other, had followed Sergeant Strong's lead.
"Take out the rest of those towers," ordered Strong over the assault comm channel.
"Already on it," said a new voice. There was a flash of flame, a wave of heat, and the next nearest tower was reduced to a smoking pile of scrap metal.
"Glad you guys could join us," snarled Strong.
The Rebel forces had regrouped now, and the incoming small arms fire was becoming increasingly accurate. Several sections of the first trench had erupted into savage close combat as the Imperial Troopers had flooded over the edge onto the Rebel soldiers sheltering within.
"Team Badger, head for that trench," ordered Strong. "Take out that far tower."
Suddenly a distant rumble caught his attention and he looked around. The Rebel ice-speeders were returning to the battle.
"The fighters are back," screamed Mikki.
"Let me worry about the fighters," said Strong, "you just worry about that tower." He headed back towards the first tower they had blown.
Fib was racing for the trench when a glowing bolt of blaster energy caught him square in the chest. He went down hard, flat on his back. Steam hissed as the hot metal of his armour hit the snow.
"Man down," said Strong. He hesitated, torn between doing his job and heading back for his friend.
"I've got him, Sarge," said Jenkins. "You go deal with those fighters." She crouched down beside the fallen Trooper. Mikki laid down a withering blast of suppressing fire in the general direction of the Rebel lines.
The fifth member of Team Badger, the new guy, squatted on his haunches beside Fib and Jenkins, his weapon panning back and forth in search of a Rebel target. His name was Gorman Basski, and the quaver in his voice betrayed his nervousness as he asked "How is he?" This was only his second combat drop.
"Speak to me, Fib," said Jenkins, ignoring Basski's question.
Fib coughed. "I'm fine," he said. His voice sounded strained and weak. "The armour absorbed most of it. Just give me a minute, okay?"
"One minute," agreed Jenkins, "and then we've got to go."
"Those fighters are going to be breathing down our necks any second," warned Mikki.
Fib hissed sharply.
"Are you okay to move?" asked Jenkins. "We've got to get to cover now!"
"Yeah, sure," said Fib. "Damn suit just gave me a triple dose of healant. Give me a hand up."
Jenkins and Basski each grabbed one of Fib's armoured wrists; between them they hauled the big guy to his feet. Mikki scooped up his fallen weapon, and the four of them began to make their way towards the safety of the nearest trench.
From the cockpit of his ice-speeder, Lurk scanned the battlefield in disbelief. The entire Rebel defensive front line had dissolved into chaos, and Imperial Shock Troopers were everywhere.
"What the hell?" he said. "We had them defeated when we left."
"What was that, Alpha Leader?" asked Alpha Two.
"Nothing," said Lurk. "Target that second Plodder." He looked again. "I'll take out those guys on the ground." He swung his ice-speeder round, lining himself up with a small group of Shock Troopers who were struggling through the snow. His finger tensed on the trigger of his 'speeder's guns.
Without warning, a blast of energy ripped through the air in front of him. "What in Hell's Handbasket?" he muttered in disbelief as he glanced towards the source of the blast. One of the Rebel cannons, despite the smoke pouring from its damaged hull, was tracking him. He took evasive action as it fired again. The blast fried his fighter's electronics, and the controls went dead in his hands. He switched to manual and hauled back on the stick, but without power from the engines, the 'speeder had all the glide characteristics of a rock.
"I'm going down," he shouted, but there was no response. The comms unit was as dead as everything else. Wrestling with the controls, he managed to lift the 'speeders nose; then the snowy ground came up and hit him. The harness bit deeply into his shoulders as the 'speeder lurched to a stop, half-buried in a drift of snow. His helmeted head rattled against the inside of the canopy, and for a dangerous second blackness roared over him.
Fumbling blindly, he released the catch and the canopy popped open. The freezing air poured in, kissing his exposed face. He jerked back in his seat, fully awake again. Struggling free of the harness, he pushed himself out of the cockpit and half clambered, half fell into the snow.
His shoulders throbbed with pain.
"That's gonna leave a mark," he muttered to himself.
Moving gingerly, he disentangled his legs and dragged himself to his feet. He had overshot the lines of combat, skimmed past the row of now-abandoned Plodders, and ploughed a long furrow in the snow. There was nothing he could do now but start the long walk back, and hope that the Rebels would manage to hold out until he got there. Leaning into the cockpit of the downed 'speeder, Lurk retrieved his blaster pistol.
With one last backwards glance at the wreckage, he set off across the snow-field.
Far removed from the raging battle-front, nestled at the end of a blind valley, the Type Three generator emitted a quiet hum which resonated in the ribs of the squads of waiting Rebel soldiers. Mostly hidden behind the bulk of the generator, the primary shield emitter projected the protective field which kept the orbiting Imperial forces at bay.
Captain Albert "Goober" Cudingjam looked up from the sensor display and ran his gaze across the valley entrance. Nothing moved. The sensor array was already telling him that—with its motion detector, infrared camera, electromagnetic disturbance meter, and numerous other gadgets which the Captain only vaguely understood, it was much more accurate than plain old eyesight, but Cudingjam hadn't grown to be an old soldier by putting all his trust in fancy equipment.
Cudingjam sighed. He tapped the screen of the display, calling up the tactical chart, and sighed again. The Imperials were miles away yet. The Rebel front line was collapsing as the defenders fell back before the concerted push of the Shock Troopers, and Cudingjam ached to take his boys and join the fight—although even with his years of experience, he knew there was little he and his eighteen warriors could do to slow down the finest fighting force in the known galaxy. Nonetheless, he felt wasted here, so far from the action. And yet...
He switched the display back to the sensor output. Still nothing. With a frown, Cudingjam lifted his binoculars and scrutinised the snowy vista carefully. Nothing moved, nothing looked out of place, nothing showed to suggest there might be a problem. He lowered the binoculars thoughtfully.
"Anything?" asked Sergeant Wills.
"There's something out there," said Cudingjam slowly, his breath puffing visibly in the still, cold air.
The Captain shook his head slowly. "I don't know," he said. "I see nothing, and the sensors all agree, but something is out there! I feel it in my bones." And he did; the throbbing ache between his shoulder blades had nothing to do with the hum of the generator.
"Sniper?" asked the Sergeant. She was a woman of few words, and she certainly wasn't going to waste any on arguing with her Captain's instincts.
"Probably," said Cudingjam. "Reports say the bastard probably has stealth armour. Even so, the sensor net we've laid across the valley should pick up something. But..."
"Yeah," agreed the Sergeant.
"Of course, if his armour is good enough to defeat the sensors," said the Captain, "then it's always possible..." He trailed into silence, and turned to look back down the valley towards the generator. Nothing moved. "I wonder, Sergeant Wills, if you would be good enough to take a few men back and do a thorough sweep of the ground back there?"
"Yes sir," said the Sergeant with a nod. She turned away sharply, and selected four soldiers from the waiting squad, summoning them with brief hand gestures. "Recon," she said to them as they gathered around her, "sweep and clean. Barstowe, you take point."
Private Barstowe nodded and turned to lead the way back down the valley towards the generator. He gripped his blaster firmly, eyes darting from side to side with each step.
As the small group moved out, Cudingjam studied the steep side walls of the valley. Nothing. Nothing was everywhere he looked, and he felt a chill ripple down his spine that had little to do with the sub-freezing temperature. He hoped he was wrong, he hoped it was just his imagination playing tricks, he hoped...
The sharp crack ripped through the still air and echoed violently between the snow-covered walls of the valley, making its origin impossible to determine. Barstowe stumbled and fell, and lay motionless in snow which blossomed into a pink halo around his head.
"Down," shouted Cudingjam; those who hadn't already reacted dove for cover, but the second shot sent another member of the recon team crashing lifelessly to the ground.
A blur of movement, half-way up the steep slope, caught Cudingjam's eye and he fired a salvo of shots towards it; snow and steam erupted upwards where they hit, but there was no sign that he had caught anything more than a wind-tossed puff of snow. Then a third shot cracked out, and the blaster was torn from the Captain's hand.
He slumped back, his arm ablaze with pain. "Bastard," he muttered, "now you're just playing with us..." He looked over at where his blaster lay, now nothing more than a shattered, smoking ruin, and he realised with a chill that it gave away the sniper's position. "Behind us," he gasped, "he got behind us and we never saw a thing!"
Before he could gather the strength to repeat this revelation more loudly, to alert his men and call down a rain of blaster fire on the Imperial Assassin, the world tore apart with a bone-rattling kaboom. Pressure, sound, heat, debris; the explosion rolled over the cowering Rebels and left them deafened, gasping for breath. Blackness clutched insistently at the Captain; he tried to fight it, to lift his head and look, but he knew without having to see the smoking crater that the generator and the shield emitter were gone.
"The third transport is away," declared a Rebel comms officer from where he sat, one hand pressed firmly over the small speaker in his ear. He looked up and said, a little more loudly this time, "the third transport is away!"
"Yeah, thanks," said Mal, "we heard you the first time." He turned his attention back to the silent, solemn figure of Princess Labia. She stood so straight and still, an island of peace in the chaos of the Command centre. She was focussed fully on the reports flooding back from the front line, and only the faint worry lines which creased her brow hinted that the news was mostly bad. She was a pillar of strength, and it seemed at times as though she carried the weight of the entire Rebellion on her slender shoulders. Mal wondered if anybody else saw through her masks to the fear and fragility beneath. He hoped not. Seeing her like this made his heart ache.
"Come on, Princess," he said. "There's nothing more you can do here. This battle is over."
The room fell silent as those who remained behind turned to look at the young woman.
Libby looked into Mal's eyes. He met her gaze unflinchingly.
"Okay," said Libby with a sigh. "Perhaps you are right. We've held out as long..."
The complex rumbled and shook, and lumps of compacted snow fell from the ceiling. The lights went out. After a couple of tense seconds, red emergency lighting flickered dimly into life.
"The generator," said Mal softly.
"We're out of time, people," said Libby loudly to the room. "Sound the retreat, and get to your transport now! We've just lost the shield, and we'll be knee-deep in Shock Troopers in no time!"
The room erupted into chaos once more.
"Shaggus," Mal shouted into the small comm unit in his hand, "get the Sparrow warmed up now! We are leaving!"
Captain Pyotrovich and Admiral Muzzel stood on the bridge of the IPD Bermuda, watching the battle play out on the tactical screens. It was going well; the Rebel forces were falling back rapidly as the Shock Troopers pushed forward. So far, however, three transports had lifted off from the planet's surface and taken evasive action, spiralling dangerously away within the atmosphere in an effort to get past the Imperial blockade. Two of those had managed to escape to hyperspace; the third had been crippled by a well-placed barrage to its engines, and was currently held snugly captive beneath the steel belly of the IPD Scalene.
"Sir," said a lieutenant loudly.
"What is it?" asked the Captain without taking his eyes from the screen.
"I've just detected a large explosion, roughly four miles north of the battle-front," said the lieutenant, barely containing his excitement, "and, well, my sensors say the Rebel shield is down."
"What?" The two senior officers turned to look at the young lieutenant. "Can somebody confirm that, please?" said the Admiral.
"I'm not getting any reading on the shield," said another lieutenant, looking up from her station. "But surely I should be reading something, whether it was up or down?" she added uncertainly.
The Captain shook his head. "No," he told her, "there is no reason you would get a reading on an inactive shield. Why would you?"
"Sorry, sir," she said. "I just thought..."
"Never mind," the Captain said. "I know it's a popular misconception. Tends to get spread around by entertainment forms aimed at the unwashed masses."
"Incoming message from the surface, sir," said one of the communications officers into the momentary silence. "Coded, matches the signature of the Imperial survey team."
"And it says..." prompted the Admiral.
"It says simply: 'Shield down, generator down, come on down.'" The comms officer fought the urge to grin.
"And it is definitely from our team on the surface?" asked the Captain.
"Very well," said the Admiral. "Captain, launch all Troop Carriers; I want that base. Intact if at all possible."
"Aye, sir," said the Captain.
The Admiral's nose wrinkled in momentary distaste. "You had best send somebody to inform the Muff. If he is awake."
Mal and Libby ran up the ramp of Mal's freighter. The princess paused a moment to close the ramp behind them.
"Oh my goodness," gasped Seepy Weepy excitedly as Mal came through the narrow doorway from the cargo bay. "I was beginning to think you were never going to come and fly me away from here." The 'bot was seated in the small lounge area of the Serendipity Sparrow.
"Buckle up," said Mal as he ran past. He had meant his words for Libby, but she followed him through the lounge to the cockpit.
"Very well," said Seepy primly. As he clumsily manipulated his seat restraints he added quietly, "I do hope Arty will be okay." Nobody responded. The 'bot was alone once more.
Mal dropped into the pilot's chair. As he did so, Shagpyle Duphus snuffled a greeting: How's it going?
"Same as always," said Mal shortly. He watched through the forward view screen as the final Rebel transport lifted off the deck and soared out of the massive hangar doors, leaving the way clear for their own escape.
That bad, huh? snorted Shaggus.
"Imperium's right on top of us," Mal told him. "Let's get out of here."
Libby dropped herself into one of the spare seats in the cockpit.
Mal punched buttons. The Sparrow's engines revved hungrily for a second, then rumbled and died.
That doesn't sound good, whuffed Shaggus.
Mal banged the side of his fist against the overhead bulkhead. Dutifully, the engines roared back to life.
"If only all problems could be solved so easily," Libby said wryly. "Now, can we leave?"
"Working on it," said Mal.
Shaggus grunted something indecipherable and waved his large woolly arm excitedly towards the mouth of the hangar. Mal glanced up from the controls to see a flood of white-armoured Imperial Shock Troopers pouring into the cavernous space. Several of them began firing their blasters towards the freighter, and the ship shuddered as her shields dissipated the incoming energy.
"Perhaps I should have taken my chances on the transport," Libby muttered.
"Yeah, right," said Mal. He threw the main thrust lever forward, and the Sparrow jumped into the air and hurtled towards the exit. A couple of the Troopers continued firing; most wisely dove to one side as the ship roared overhead and escaped the confines of the hangar.
A short distance away from the Rebel hangar, several small fighter craft sat on a broad, snow-covered shelf of rock, awaiting the return of their pilots. These were the ships of the ice-speeder pilots. A couple had already taken off; most of the rest would wait in vain for pilots that would never return.
A solitary row of smudged footprints led onto the shelf from the snow-plains beyond.
Lurk was clambering into the cockpit of his Cross-Wing fighter when a familiar roaring sound made him look up. The Serendipity Sparrow shot through the cavernous maw of the hangar and angled away towards the safety of deep space. Several laser blasts—mostly from hand-held blasters—chased the fleeing ship, but none of them hit her. Lurk raised his free hand and waved after the ship.
"Good luck, Mal," he said softly. "May the Source be with you."
He settled himself into the seat of his fighter and closed the hatch. It sealed with a muted click.
"Okay, Arty," he said as he flipped switches, starting the fighter's engines. "Let's get out of here."
In the socket behind the cockpit, securely locked into place, Arty whistled and beeped urgently. Lurk glanced down at the small screen which translated her reply so that he could read it. I couldn't agree more, she said.
A laser blast ripped through the air in front of him. Lurk glanced to one side. Like ants, a swarm of Shock Troopers boiled out through the hangar entrance onto the flat snow plain. Several had turned in his direction.
"So long, guys," he muttered. He pushed the thrust lever smoothly forward, and his fighter leaped into space, leaving the planet Hoff, and her new Imperial owners, safely behind.
As the blue outside his cockpit deepened and became star-studded black, he looked around. In the distance he saw one of the Imperial Planetary Dominators accelerating away—no doubt in hot pursuit of one of the Rebel transport ships. Nothing seemed to be waiting for him; nevertheless, he angled away from the Imperial warship and took his small fighter around the curve of the planet before he dared to relax his vigil long enough to program the hyperspace module for his jump.
Those are the wrong coordinates, whistled Arty Farty.
"It's okay, Arty," said Lurk. "We're not heading to the rendezvous point. I have to go and see an old friend of an old friend."
But what about Seepy?
"I'm sure he'll be fine," said Lurk. "He's with the Princess, and she will be quite closely guarded."
Arty whistled dubiously; the translation device chose to ignore her comment. Then she whistled and beeped again: Do you want me to engage auto?
"No thanks, Arty," said Lurk. "I'd like to fly for a while."
The hyperspace module flashed. The route was calculated. Lurk hit the green button in the centre of the panel, and the stars outside turned to streaks as the fighter accelerated into the shifting depths of hyperspace.