Authors: Michael Reaves
Hotise nodded. “Imslow,” he said.
“That’s right.” IMSLO stood for “Imperial Military Stop Loss Order.” Too many skilled people who’d been drafted had had enough of the military after the Clone Wars, and when their compulsory service ended, wanted nothing more than to go home. With the action against the Rebels heating up, the Empire couldn’t allow that. Doctors, in particular, were in short supply; hence, IMSLO. A retroactive order mandating that, no matter when you’d been conscripted, once you were in, you were in for as long as they wanted you—or until you got killed. Either way, it was kiss your planned life good-bye.
Imperial Military Stop Loss Order
. An alternative translation, scrawled no doubt on a ’fresher wall somewhere by a clever graffitist, had caught on over the last few years: “I’m Milking Scragged; Life’s Over.” The memory brought a faint, grim smile to Uli’s lips.
“Sorry, son,” his CO said. “It’s not my policy.”
The older man nodded. “We each have our chosen path.”
“Not exactly true, is it? If I was on
chosen path, probably you and I would never have met.”
Hotise shrugged. “What can I say? I don’t run things back in civilization—I just do what I’m told. We were short a surgeon. I requisitioned a replacement. You’re him. You weren’t here, you’d be someplace else where the Empire deemed you necessary.
“It ain’t Imperial Center General or Big Zoo, but it’s quiet here. Not like a Rimsoo tent out in the tall grass. Nobody is shooting at us. Most of what we see is the occasional industrial accident or normal wear and tear. You could do better, Captain, but you could also do a lot worse. War is ugly, but that’s how it is.”
“You can drop that part. We’re pretty informal around here. I’ll have a droid show you to your quarters, and you can take the tour and settle in.” Hotise looked at Uli’s orders. “Says here you’re originally from Tatooine, Dr. Divini.”
Hotise squinted at him. “Beg pardon, son?”
“People call me Uli. It’s a Tusken word—means—”
An alarm blared, cutting him off. Uli didn’t need a translation:
A secretary droid rolled up on a single wheel. Its gyroscope squeaked a little right at the edge of Uli’s hearing as the spinning wheel kept the droid upright and stable. It stopped in front of Hotise. “Sir, Ambulance Ship Nine is on
the way to Dock B with twelve workers injured by an oxygen tank explosion at the construction site.”
Uli noticed that the droid’s vocabulator had, for whatever reason, a kind of musical lilt that he found pleasant. It was as though the droid were a character from a light opera, about to burst into song at any moment.
“It should be arriving in six-point-five minutes,” the droid continued. “Field medics list primary damage due to compressive injuries, shrapnel wounds, and vacuum ruptures. Four critical, two of those in shock; three moderate; five minor. Species breakdown is six Wookiees, three humans, one Cerean, one Ugnaught, one Gungan.”
Uli frowned. That was an interesting mix—
Wookiees? Working for the Empire? That didn’t seem right.
“So much for quiet,” he said. “Which way to Emergency Receiving?”
“You don’t have to jump right in yet,” Hotise said.
Uli shrugged. “Might as well. It’s what I do.”
Hotise nodded. “Fourmio will show you.” He nodded at the droid. “Leave your gear here; I’ll have it taken to your quarters.”
The droid said, “This way, Dr. Divini,” in a pleasing tenor. Its wheel squeaked as it rolled down the hall. Uli followed.
s a Zelosian, Celot Ratua Dil could, if pressed, live on sunlight and water—at least for a while. He didn’t know his species’ origin, but he did know that his people all had green eyes and green blood. While nobody outside the species had ever been curious enough to do full genetic scans, the theory that there had been some unique melding of animal and plant in the dawn of Zelosian history was accepted as fact on his homeworld. Sunlight and a little water, and he could go a month, two months, without eating a bite, though he’d rather not. He’d rather eat a nice meal of bahmat steak and feelo eggs, and, as long as he was rathering, he’d
rather be home on Zelos than on a prison world full of nasty criminals.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t how it was.
He looked around the inside of the rude hut in which he lived, a ramshackle collection of local wood and cast-off Imperial packing crates lashed together with vines, wire, and bits of twine. Not much, but it was home. He rolled off the pad he used for a bed, essentially a blanket over some evergreen boughs. Fresh and layered right, it was pretty comfortable. The branches were getting dry, though; it had been a couple of standard weeks since he’d changed them. He’d have to do that soon; not only were dry branches uncomfortable, but scorpion slugs would quickly infest them,
and one sting from a slug’s tail could cause members of just about any humanoid species agony for weeks—if they were lucky.
For the thousandth time Ratua mentally railed against the bad luck that had sent him here. Yes, he was a thief, though not much of one. And yes, he’d been a smuggler, though he’d never made any real credits at it. He was a pretty good scrounger, which helped him survive here. And he was not above taking advantage of a poor trader in a spirited transaction now and again. But being scooped up in a Trigalis port pub that just happened to have a pirate gang in it, and being lumped in as one of their crew? That was
. All he had done was stop in for a mug of ferment. The fact that he had been doing a little haggling with one of the pirates over some meelweekian silk that had “fallen” from a commercial hovervan earlier didn’t mean he was a member of the crew.
The judges, unfortunately, had not been convinced. Ratua had offered to undergo a truth-scan, but somebody would have to pay for that, as he didn’t have the coin, and the judges weren’t willing to spend taxpayers’ credits when he was so obviously guilty of something, even if it wasn’t this particular crime on this particular world. And so he’d been tossed in with a crowd of hard-bitten types, all of them wedged into a cargo hold not big enough for half their number, and summarily tossed off the planet.
Being on a prison planet with some seriously bad criminals was not a walk in a quiet park. Even without the exiled thieves, murderers, extortionists, and so on, Despayre wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice to build a winter home. The land was mostly jungle, consisting of one large continent and one considerably larger ocean. The rampant growth was nourished by a gravity level of less than three-quarters a standard g, and by seasonal gales that roared in from the distant ocean, fueled by tidal forces due to the erratic orbit.
The jungle flora and fauna had responded to the environmental challenge of the gales by producing large, close-knit growth that stabbed roots deep into the ground. In some places the entwined rain forest was totally impenetrable. The animal life had adapted as well, by becoming, for the most part, sinuous and serpentine, the better to forage through the tightly interwoven vines and boles. There were poisonous crustaceans, as well as a few flying creatures such as small winged lizards and manta-like things, the latter with an interesting life cycle that began in the ocean and ended in the jungle.
—seemed to be the most vicious, savage, and generally unpleasant representative of its species possible. It wasn’t so much an interdependent ecological system as it was all-out biological war, with each of Despayre’s myriad indigenous species seemingly hardwired to attack and destroy all others. Everything that moved, it seemed, had fangs that dripped venom, and everything rooted to the ground had poisonous thorns, barbs, burrs …
And on top of all
, there were the prisoners.
The guards, safe in their floating patrol barges, were there to make sure nobody escaped; short of that, the prisoners could do pretty much whatever they wanted to one another, and not a night went by without somebody being thumped, sometimes hard enough that they died. It was the law of the jungle in here, just as it was out there, and the big predators ruled. They took what they wanted, and if you objected, you got squashed. Ratua tried to keep a low profile—if they didn’t notice you, they weren’t as likely to take you out just for the sport of it. He kept his mouth shut and his head down, and concentrated on survival.
He washed his face, using fairly clean water in a stasis field generator dome, then headed outside. Sergeant Nova Stihl, one of the more easygoing of the guards, taught a self-defense class nearby every morning. Mostly the students
were other guards, but there were some prisoners, and Ratua enjoyed watching other people sweat. Plus, it was a gathering in which biz could be conducted. Swap a little of this for a little of that, get by a little better. Ratua had a pretty good biz going bartering goods and services, and that helped buy off the predators who did spot him now and then. Say, fellow being, which would you rather do? Stomp me into green mush, or get a new battery for your music player?
Among criminals, as among most people, greed was pretty dependable.
Ratua arrived shortly at the cleared spot where the self-defense players gathered. There were eighteen or twenty of them, plus about that many prisoners and guards watching. He circulated, hoping to find somebody with a couple of spare sunfruits he could score for breakfast.
Sergeant Stihl was talking about what to do if somebody attacked you with a knife as Ratua worked his way around the gathering.
“Anybody know the first thing you do if somebody comes at you with a blade?” Stihl asked.
“Run like a fleetabeesta,” somebody said.
To the general laughter, Stihl replied, “You took this class before?” More laughter. “Monn has it exactly right,” the sergeant continued. “You make tracks away, fast as you can. Bare-limbed against a knife, you get cut, no ifs, no buts. And unless you scum of the galaxy have been industrious since last time I looked, you don’t have much of a medcenter anywhere around these parts. You could get cut bad, bleed out, or get infected and leave the party by the slow and painful exit, hey?”
There was a murmur of agreement. Everybody knew that. Lose a body part here, it was gone for good if you weren’t a natural regenerator. The state of local medicine was rudimentary: a few docs and other healers, but not a
lot of equipment or meds. Of course, the closest bacta tank was a mere three hundred or so klicks away; unfortunately, the direction was vertical rather than horizontal, and most of the prisoners had few illusions about their chances of being hoisted up to the orbiting facility if they were in harm’s way.
“But if you don’t have a weapon and you can’t run, then you need another option. And it has to be one that doesn’t depend on great skill because it won’t work unless you have that, and even then, maybe not.” Sergeant Stihl looked around. “Hey, Ratua, lemme borrow you for a minute.”
Ratua smiled. He’d done this before.
“Lot of self-defense teachers, they say you have to trap and control the knife arm,” Stihl continued. “That, not to put too fine a point on it, is pure mopak. If you aren’t faster than the guy with the knife, that gets you gutted, no matter how much you know.”
Ratua strolled into the ragged circle made by the watchers. Stihl tossed him the practice knife, a forearm-length dagger made out of softflex. Stiff enough to work like a real knife, but with enough give that if you hit somebody with it, it would bend without doing damage. The point and edges were coated with a harmless red dye that left a temporary mark on whatever they touched.
“I’m twelve years deep in teräs käsi,” Stihl said. “I was the First Naval Fleet’s Unarmed Middleweight Champion two years, runner-up for two more. Bare hand-to-hand, I expect I can take anybody my size on this planet apart, doesn’t matter which species. Blade-to-blade, I can duel to a draw. Bare against a knife? I’ll get cut. Show ’em, Ratua.”
Ratua smiled and stepped in as if he was in no hurry. He made a lazy thrust with the knife. Stihl went into a crouching move to grab his arm, only—
Ratua did his trick.
As the sergeant reached for his wrist, Ratua pulled his
hand back, and while it looked like no big deal to him, he knew the watchers would see his hand
It wasn’t a Zelosian thing, it was Ratua’s own. He didn’t know where it had come from, but once he kicked in the booster rocket he was, for a short time, faster than most ordinary beings.
faster. Some medic who’d examined him once and tried to clock his reflex time had said something about mutation, about abnormally fast nastic response in the cellulose fiber that made up a large part of his muscle mass. Whatever the cause, it had come in handy more than once during his exile on Despayre.
As the sergeant continued to move in what seemed like slow motion to Ratua, the latter whipped up the knife and made three quick slashes and a stab. Then he took a step back.