Authors: Michael Reaves
When the door hissed shut, the noise level returned to normal, and Memah went back to her drink order. Nobody was hurt, and so there was no need to worry about the authorities. And if the troops were foolish enough to come back with others like them, seeking to exploit their Imperial status … well, there wasn’t an overabundance of support downlevels for such officiousness.
Memah sighed. When she’d first started in this line of work, waitressing in a dive deep in Gnarlytown called Villynay’s, most of the Imperial troops had still been clones, and every one of them had been uniformly polite and easygoing. It was true that, after a bit too much ferment, they could get a tad boisterous, but they’d never been a problem, and had also never been at all hesitant in helping to street anyone who was. She’d heard that they’d all been programmed, somehow, to only show hostility toward the enemy. Whatever the reason, the clones had been a pleasure to serve.
Well, that was then and this was now. Maybe she was looking at the past through rose-colored droptacs, but it seemed to her that a lot had changed. Now a night when Rodo didn’t have to eject a few obstreperous drunks was a night to remember.
As she put together a Bantha Blaster, stirring in the ingredients, Memah noticed another pair of customers. They weren’t causing any ruckus; if anything, they were too quiet. Humans, a male and a female, they were, like much of the crowd this time of the evening. Both were dressed in
nondescript black coveralls. They nursed mugs of membrosia and sat facing each other at a two-seat table in the corner, from which they seemed, without being obvious about it, to be watching the room.
And even though she never caught them staring directly her way, Memah got the distinct feeling that they were particularly interested in her.
Rodo arrived back at the bar like a heavy-gravity crawler docking. He scanned the room, looking for more trouble. None seemed to be in the offing at the moment.
Memah finished the Blaster and put it on the bar. “Ell-Nine, order up!”
The new server droid, a trash-can-sized one on wheels whose model she never could remember, rolled to the bar. “Got it, boss,” it chirped. It grabbed the tray with extendible arms, anchored it to the magnetic plate atop its “head,” and took off to deliver the drinks.
Memah drifted down to the other end of the bar. “Rodo, you see the two in black in the corner?”
Rodo didn’t look at the pair, nor directly at her. “Yep.”
“Know who they are?”
“Not who. Haven’t seen ’em in here before. Got a good idea what, though.”
There was a long pause that Memah finally broke. “You want to finish that thought and educate me here?”
He cracked a small smile. Rodo liked her, though he’d never made a move on her, and she knew he never would. “Imperial Intelligence ops.”
She frowned, surprised. What would a couple of Eyes be doing in her place? She ran a workingbeing’s bar, and there wasn’t much likelihood of any high-level skulduggery or spying being done here. This was the Southern Underground, after all; most underdwellers couldn’t even spell
, much less engage in it.
“Pretty much. They got the look. You want, I can poke around some, check ’em out.”
She shook her head. “No. Don’t stir up trouble we don’t need. Just keep an eye on them.”
Rodo settled back. “That’s what you pay me for, Boss Lady.”
aster Chief Petty Officer Tenn Graneet rolled out of his sleep rack and put his bare feet onto the cold metal deck. That woke him up fast enough.
Really ought to get a rug to put down there
. He’d been meaning to do it since he’d been assigned to the ship, eight weeks ago, but other things kept taking priority, and neither S’ran Droot nor Velvalee, the other CPOs who shared the cabin, seemed bothered by it. Of course Droot’s feet were more like hooves, and Velvalee was used to temperatures a lot colder—the blasted floor might feel warm to his feet, for all Tenn knew. Those two were on graveyard shift this week, so they’d be heading back to the cabin about the time he got to his post.
Tenn mentally shrugged. Someday he’d get around to it. Maybe cozy up to that Alderaan woman who did knitting when off duty, get her to make him enough of a synthwool carpet to cover the deck—it wouldn’t take all that much. He always could sweet-talk a fem into doing all kinds of things for him.
He padded down the hall to the refresher, took a quick sonic shower, splashed depil on his stubble, and wiped it clean. Then, wrapped in a towel, he went back to don the uniform of the day.
Tenn Graneet was past fifty, but he was in very good shape for a man his age. He had a few unrevised scars from
various battles when his station had been hit by enemy fire, or from when something had gone wrong and blown up, and a couple from cantina rumbles when he’d been slow to get out of the way of a broken bottle or vibroblade. Still, he was lean and muscular, and he could keep up with grunts half his age, though not as easily as he used to. The days when he could party all night and then work a full shift the next day were past, true, but on the obstacle course even the newbies knew enough to not get in front of him unless they wanted to get run over. It was a point of pride that, even after more than thirty years in the navy, nobody in Tenn Graneet’s gunnery crew could outdrink, outfight, or outwomanize him.
He picked out his oldest uniform clothes, the light gray faded to the color of ash, and slipped into them. They were going to get dirty and smelly anyway today, so no point in messing up new ones. Word from uplevels was there was going to be another surprise battle drill around midshift. The Port Heavy Blaster Station CO, Captain Nast Hoberd, was a drinking buddy with Lieutenant Colonel Luah, who was the admiral’s assistant, and as a result the PHBS always got the heads-up when a drill or inspection was about to be sprung. The captain wanted his unit to look good, and since they always knew in advance when it counted, they always did look good. White-glove a surface in any of the six turbolaser turrets or two heavy ion cannon turrets, and there wouldn’t be a speck of dirt. You could eat off the floor in Fire Control on inspection days. Light the battle alarms, and the port battery was the first to report battle-ready. Every time.
Rumor was that Hoberd was up for major, and his unit’s pretty-much-spotless performance during every drill and inspection didn’t hurt his chances any. Not that the blaster crew had any slouches on it. You didn’t get to shoot the big guns unless you had plenty of practice shooting the little ones, and anybody who couldn’t pull his weight, Tenn got
rid of fast enough to leave friction burns. He had his own reputation to keep up. CPO Tenn Graneet was the best gunnery chief in this being’s navy. If somebody gave them a target and it could possibly be hit, his crew would hit it, sure as there were little green beings living on Crystan V.
Dressed, Tenn looked at himself in the mirror. A face that was every centimeter the grizzled old navy chief looked back at him. He grunted. He’d joined the Imperial Navy before it was the Imperial Navy, and he expected to die at his post. That was fine by him. A lifetime of military service wasn’t a bad life at all, as far as he was concerned. He left his quarters and headed into the hall.
was the ninth ship upon which he’d served; on the last four of them his duty had been that of a gunnery chief. An
-class Star Destroyer, the
was the backbone of the fleet. Tenn hoped to be transferred, one day, to one of the four new
-class Star Destroyers that were currently being built. Those were monsters indeed, eight or ten times the size of the
-class ships, which were themselves over a kilometer and a half in length. The SSDs looked like nothing so much as pie-shaped wedges sliced out of an asteroid and covered with armament. Perhaps if he called in the right favors at the right time, he might wrangle an assignment on the next one scheduled to roll ponderously out of the Kuat Drive Yards. He still had a few good years left in him, and who better to run the big battery on one of those monster ships than him? He had his request in, and maybe, if Hoberd got his promotion, he’d put in a good word for Tenn before he left. As long as Hoberd was running the battery, though, that wasn’t likely to happen. He didn’t want to lose the best CPO in the sector, so he said.
, thought Tenn,
it’s nice to be appreciated
. Still, he knew, deep down, that he wouldn’t be satisfied until he could say he’d run the biggest and the best.
Shift change was coming, and officers and crew filled the
halls on their way to their duty stations. Even though it would only be a drill, Tenn was looking forward to hearing the generators whine as the capacitors loaded, followed by the heavy vibrations and scorched-air smell as the ion cannons and lasers spoke, spewing hard energy across empty space to destroy the practice targets. To be able to reach out a hundred klicks or more and smash a ship to atomic dust was
power. And nobody was better at it than he was.
Tenn got to the array five minutes early, as always. Fifty meters in diameter, the unit was quiet as shift change neared. He saw Chief Droot and nodded at him. “Chief. How’re we doin’?”
“Shipshape, Gee.” The big Chagrian, one of the few aliens to rise to any kind of rank in the Imperial Navy, glanced around. “You know there’s a surprise drill at eleven thirty hours?”
“We cleared the decks, got the caps charged, ready to blaze.”
Tenn grinned. “Thanks, Droot. I owe you one.”
“Nah, I’m still two down—you had the station shining like a mirror on that last inspection. I got a smile out of the admiral himself that time.”
Tenn nodded. Everybody kept track of who owed who what on a ship, and you didn’t let a fellow chief catch flak if you could help out. Even if it wasn’t your watch, it was your station, and what made one look bad made them all look bad. And vice versa, of course.
“Station’s yours,” Droot said. “I’m gonna go get some supper. I hear the mess hall has some berbersian crab on the menu.”
“More likely doctored soypro,” Tenn said.
Droot shrugged. “Yeah, well, it’s the navy, not the Yuhuz Four Star.” He left, ducking to make sure his horns cleared the hatch.
The morning shift crew was already in place—CPO Tenn Graneet wanted his people onstation fifteen minutes early, and if you weren’t, you’d be sorry. Once, and you got your rump chewed like a starved reek was gnawing on it. Twice, and you were looking for another job.
“Good morning, people,” Tenn said.
“Morning, Chief,” came the echo from the crew.
“Polish your buttons, boys,” the chief said. “I don’t want anything sticking just in case we have to shoot something today.”
Most of the crew smiled. They all knew about the drill. They were all ready. None of them wanted to be the being who disappointed Master Chief Petty Officer Graneet. No, sir …
“Captain Dr. Kornell Divini?”
Uli nodded. “Yeah.”
“Medical Technician Class Two Vurly, sir,” the man said. Human, as Uli was, or at least close enough that he couldn’t tell otherwise, and Uli was something of an expert on humanoid anatomy.
“This way, sir.”
The meditech led him down featureless gray corridors, deeper into the ship, to an office complex. Uli marked the route half consciously, knowing he could find his way around pretty quickly if need be. He had a good sense of direction, though it wasn’t anything he could claim credit for—he’d been born that way.
Sure enough, it was the Medical Admin section he found himself in. Ships’ medical suites all looked alike; the same pale off-white walls, wide corridors, and color-coded luminescent floor stripes that led you to various departments.
There were a dozen or so people working: secretaries, mostly, some biologicals, some droids. The hands-on medical stuff would be done elsewhere down the hall, he knew.
“Commander Hotise, Dr. Kornell Divini.”
Hotise was a short, rotund man, probably seventy or so, with white hair and a cropped beard. He wore office grays, and the clothes were cut well enough that they had to be tailored. He was checking off a list on a flatscreen. He looked up, nodded at the tech. “Thanks, Vurly.”
The tech nodded, said “Sir,” and left.
, Doctor,” Hotise said. “Glad to have you aboard.”
Uli nodded. “Thank you, sir,” he said. His apparent lack of enthusiasm must have showed. The old man cocked an eyebrow that had more hair than a leafcrawler.
“Not happy with this assignment, son?”
That earned Uli’s new commander an incredulous look. “Not happy? I did my first tour in a Rimsoo unit on a swamp world where your lungs could fill with spores in five minutes if you weren’t wearing a filter mask. I patched up maybe a thousand clones, and I was supposed to be rotated back to my homeworld and discharged a civilian at the end of it. That was … five? six? hitches ago. I lost track.”