Authors: Michael Reaves
The CO looked grim, and Tenn understood why. He was feeling pretty grim himself. He would do his job, that wasn’t even in question—he was too much the career navy man to do anything else. But he had to say something.
“Not really something I’d joke about, is it?”
Tenn felt like he’d just fallen down a pooka hole into some bizarre fantasy world. “For
? Just to see how well it’ll work?”
“Engineering hasn’t gotten itself together, from what they tell me. They say thirty-three percent power is all they can currently store in the capacitors for discharge. We need to see if that’s true.”
“What’ll it do?”
“Nobody really knows. Nothing has been run up even close to that hot before.” There was an awkward pause. Then the CO said, “You okay with this, Chief? Because I can get Beller or Reshias up here—”
Tenn raised his hand. “I’m good, Cap. Not my job to decide where or when, it’s to put the spike where they want it. Still …”
Still, it’s one thing to vaporize an enemy troop carrier or Rebel base, and quite another to destroy an entire world.
“I hear you, Chief. But that’s how it is.”
“Yeah.” Tenn straightened and squared his shoulders. “When?”
“Test is set up for eleven hundred hours.”
Tenn looked at the timer on the control wall. Two hours. “No problem,” he said.
Motti wasn’t really surprised when Tarkin told him of his decision, but he immediately saw the potential for problems. He voiced his concerns—circumspectly, of course.
“I understand your apprehension,” Tarkin said. “But I believe the political fallout will be minimal.”
“Still, why risk even that?”
“Because, as you well know, we cannot go into battle without knowing what our biggest weapon will do when we need to use it.”
Motti nodded. Tarkin was right. One always tested one’s weapons.
, however, were different questions.
It’s not your decision
, Motti told himself. A fact for which he was profoundly grateful. Aloud, he said, “You’re the Grand Moff.”
“Indeed I am.”
he cantina was closed; the air-purifying system was being cleaned and the ionizers balanced. It was noisy, but with the door closed to her office, the sound of the droid cleaners was muted enough so that Memah and Ratua could have a conversation.
Ratua had the smug smile that she’d come to know over the last few months. “What have you done now, Green-Eyes? You look entirely too pleased with yourself.”
“Merely supplied a basic human need,” he said.
“Right. C’mon, tell Aunt Memah.”
“Nobody got hurt,” he said, a bit too quickly. “Nobody will even miss a meal, trust me here. Everybody is happy. The quartermaster merely diverted a shipment of electronics and holoprojectors that would likely have sat in a storage bin for ten years doing nothing, because everything on this station is backed up at least twice already. The chances of them ever needing any of that gear are close to zero.”
“Uh-huh.” She wondered why she was even bothering to listen to him justifying himself. Theft was theft, no matter the circumstances. But she knew why she listened. As long as he kept talking she could gaze into those green eyes.
“No, look, it’s true. It’s not doing anybody any good, and there is this market out there for entertainment—people are bored out of their heads in some sectors.”
“And what are you going to show on these entertainment systems you, ah, liberated? Skin holos?”
“No, no, nothing like that!” He sounded honestly affronted by the thought. “We’re talking sports, crashball, low-g gymnastics, Podracing. Good, clean, family programs.”
“And why can’t people see those on the station’s regular entertainment communications gear?”
“Well, they can—but those terminals are set up where the designers want them. Think about the poor guy who’s working in some dark warehouse out on the Rim and gone away from any holo-unit. Sodder’s stacking boxes with a grav-loader all day—boring, mind-numbing work. No entertainment terminals there. What’s wrong with him having a little viewer on his loader, so that he can sneak a peek at his favorite team when he has a break?”
“Or ram his loader into a wall because he’s watching the ’proj instead of paying attention to where he’s going?”
He smiled at her. “Well, that’s not my problem. I sell them a knife, they can use it to slice their vege-steaks or they can stab themselves in the leg. None of my biz.”
She laughed. She couldn’t help it. Celot Ratua Dil was a bad boy, true enough, but he was so disarmingly honest about his dishonesty.
“Check it out,” he said, obviously relieved at her laughter. He produced a device the size of his fist and set in on her desk, then activated it. The three-dimensional hologram of the station’s entertainment net appeared over the ’projector.
“Aside from the regular channels, this particular unit can tap into the external cam feeds. Watch.”
He touched the device, dialed up the magnification, and the image of a planet shimmered into view, about the size of a crashball.
“My old stomping grounds,” he said. “Despayre. A terrible place to visit, and in fact you couldn’t anyway, ’cause
once you’re there, you’re there. But it looks nice from this far away.” He cocked his head in consideration of the green-and-blue image. “No, actually, it still looks awful.”
Memah glanced at the chron inset into the ’proj. Almost eleven hundred. The maintenance droids should be finishing the filters pretty soon, which was good, because she wanted to be open again by midshift, and it would take at least another hour to—
A flash of pale green glimmered briefly from the holo.
The room shook, vibrating enough to rattle the chairs. She felt her viscera become momentarily buoyant, and realized that the ship’s gravity field had flickered.
“What is that?” Memah stood, fighting sudden, inexplicable panic. After all, what could possibly pose a danger to—
Ratua held up a hand to quiet her. Those green eyes watched the ’proj. “Wait a second,” he said. “Something’s wrong.”
The image of the planet Despayre seemed to shiver as a thin beam of emerald green—
nearly the same color as Ratua’s eyes
, she thought—from off the edge of the ’proj lanced into the center of the single huge continent.
They both watched disbelievingly as an orange spot blossomed on the image of the planet. It seemed no bigger than Memah’s thumbnail at first, but it grew rapidly, spreading in an expanding circle. The center of the orange turned black.
“Kark,” Ratua said. He sounded stunned.
“What? What is it?”
“They—they’re firing at the planet. With the superlaser.”
The orange and black spread in irregular waves now, continuing outward from the center. The blue of the ocean didn’t even slow it down.
“The atmosphere’s on fire,” Ratua said. Calmly, as if he
were discussing the weather.
Going to be a warm day today, temperature around five thousand degrees …
She felt a horrifying urge to laugh. It didn’t seem real—it couldn’t be real. Ratua must’ve tuned in to some future-fic holo by mistake. It wasn’t a real planet she was watching burn. No. Things like that just didn’t happen.
Memah stared at the image. She could not look away.
Tenn looked at the images from the targeting cam. He still had his hand on the firing lever. He released it and stared, watching as the very air on the prison world caught fire in a runaway planetary holocaust. Seismographic sensors showed that massive groundquakes had begun, rumbling down into the bowels of the planet. Giant waves in the ocean, generated by the shifting of tectonic plates, rushed for the shores of the big continent. Volcanoes spewed lava. Clouds of steam and volcanic ash began to rapidly obscure the surface from view—but not fast enough.
He had just killed everything on the planet Despayre. If all life wasn’t dead already, it would be soon.
The CO moved to look over his shoulder. He didn’t congratulate Tenn on the shot; he just stood there.
“Stang,” Tenn said.
The CO nodded. “Yeah.”
Motti said, “Engineering says the capacitors will be recharged in an hour and thirteen minutes.”
Tarkin watched the projection as the effects of the beam manifested on the planet. By the time the second pulse was ready for discharge, there wouldn’t be anything alive on
the world below them to care. The chain reaction was massive. And at only one-third of the power that would be available when it was fully operational.
“I hope you’re right about this,” Motti said. “Politically, I mean.”
“Of course I am, Admiral. The population of that world consisted of condemned criminals sentenced to life imprisonment. They were never going back to civilization. It was a constant drain on Imperial resources to transport them and to maintain them. Those troops will now be freed up for service. Nobody will mourn the murderers or the filthy planet on which they lived.”
“And where will the Empire send its major criminals now?”
Tarkin turned away from the images of carnage and looked directly at Motti. “Unless I am seriously mistaken, the death penalty will be used more frequently. Imperial justice is about to become swift and sure, Admiral.”
He turned back to watch the image of the dying world.
Nova woke up screaming, beset with horror. The other sergeants watched him, but none of them approached. Bad idea to get too close to a martial arts expert coming out of a nightmare.
Nova tried to calm himself, to slow his breathing, but he had never felt anything like this before. It was as if he had heard a million people cry out, all at once, as they were killed.
He stepped from his cot, went to the refresher, and washed his face. He needed to see that doctor again. He was beyond caring what anyone thought. Something was definitely wrong with him, and he couldn’t live like this.
n hour and fifteen minutes after the first beam, Tenn fired the second one.
The planet Despayre, already scorched lifeless and beset with cataclysmic groundquakes and volcanism, began to shake like some tormented creature in its death throes. Massive cracks, thousands of kilometers long and tens of klicks wide, striated the world. Mountains collapsed in one hemisphere as they jutted up and rose in another. It was impossible to see all this directly, of course, because of the cloud cover that had blanketed the surface, but the IR and VSI scopes showed everything all too clearly. The molten core of the globe, already venting through innumerable new volcanoes, oozed to the surface and produced oceans of lava that spread across the land. This was how the planet had been born, and this was how it was dying.
An hour and nineteen minutes later, when Tenn fired the third beam that blew the charred and burned-out cinder apart, shattering it into billions of pieces, it seemed almost pointless. Everybody and everything on it had already been roasted, scalded, or drowned. The system’s gravity twisted as the planetary well ceased to exist. Shield sensors quietly recorded the thousands of fragments, from the size of pebbles to that of mountains, deflected from the station.
Sweet Queen Quinella. A whole planet, destroyed. Just like that.
No matter how tough you thought you were, that was hard to stomach.
Especially when you were the one who had pulled the lever.
Vader had felt the fabric of the Force tear even in hyperspace. Some vast and terrible event had taken place. When they’d dropped below lightspeed, it had taken but a few seconds for his sensor crew to determine the cause of that event.
The prison planet of Despayre was no more.