Authors: Michael Reaves
The Old Man smiled and nodded, pleased. “What about the ventilation?”
“Specs call for a superannuated System Four and what you need is a minimum of a Five. A Six would be better.”
“The Empire deems a Four adequate.”
“The idiot who drew up the engineering specs was interested in saving money—if he had to sit in this hall with four thousand other beings, each putting out between sixty and a hundred and forty watts of heat and copious amounts of carbon dioxide, not to mention various body odors, while listening to some long-winded admiral blather on for two hours, he’d upgrade the air exchangers as soon as he could get to a requisition form.”
The Old Man laughed. “I can see why you were sent
to prison. Political delicacy is not one of your strong points, is it?”
She shrugged. “Form follows function.”
“The defense of the idealist. I will grant you that the Empire is slow to learn basic architectural concepts.” He nodded at the three-dimensional image. “All right. Make the portal changes. I’ll allow a Five for the exchangers. What else?”
Teela could not stop her grin. She was a political prisoner of the Empire, but at least she was being allowed to do work she knew how to do. As vast as the project was, they needed all the help they could get, and she was very good at her job. The Old Man knew it, even though he kept verbally poking at her every time they spoke. He himself was a willing tool of the Empire, but he had designed everything from refreshers to superskytowers, skyhooks to sports stadiums, and he had forgotten more than most architects learned in a lifetime of study. She had trained with some of the best, and she knew the hand of a master when she felt it. She didn’t enjoy being tested like a third-year arcology student this way, but she also felt a little surge of pride every time the Old Man smiled and nodded at one of her suggestions. It was good to be acknowledged by someone of his ability.
As she pointed out other inefficiencies in the standard design, however, she felt it again: that tiny twinge, that brief moment of discomfort. She was working for the
, a thing she had sworn she would never do, helping design a vessel that would, in all probability, be the most fearsome weapon the galaxy had ever seen. While it was true that improving the biometrics and seating pattern in an assembly hall was not the same as devising a superlaser that could melt moons, still …
Still, one was either a factor in something’s success, or a factor in its failure.
Working for the enemy
, said the little voice she sometimes
heard in her head. She often visualized it as a miniature version of herself, shaking a chastising finger.
How sad is that?
Not as if I had a
she replied mentally.
Nobody asked me if I wanted the job, now, did they?
You could have turned it down
, the avatar of her conscience shot back.
And been sent back to that serpent’s nest of a planet to rot and die? To what end?
Her inner self fell silent.
“We can’t do that,” the Old Man said to her suggestion of natural lighting in the complex. “I have limits.”
She nodded. She had thought that would be his response, but there was no harm in asking. The Old Man had considerable power when it came to design alterations. Several times Teela had seen specifications upgraded and improved to heights well beyond what she had expected. This project had support at the highest levels. While the admirals who controlled the credits were always trying to pinch and hold on to as many as they could, nobody was going to stint on anything that would make it function as intended.
Too bad the original designers hadn’t had that mandate.
Teela hadn’t seen all of the master plans—she didn’t think anybody below the Old Man’s standing had seen all of them—but there were plenty of design flaws in the sub-plans she had reviewed. Nothing so major that the place would fail to function or fall apart if somebody bumped into a wall, but enough little bits and pieces here and there said without a doubt that the designers had paid less attention to details than they should have. Another draft or two of the schematics would have corrected most of those; many were being caught and fixed on the fly, such as she had just done—poorly placed entrances and exits, less-than-adequate ventilation systems, thermal vents badly located … the usual minutiae that cropped up in big construction projects. There was just more of it, but then
there was a lot more vessel for mistakes to happen in, wasn’t there? This Death Star was, after all, as big as a Class IV moon, with a
of over a million beings making up the crew. Nothing this size had ever been built before … at least as far as Teela was aware.
What it all came down to was, she would do what she could do. Working for the Empire was bad, no getting around that, but not as bad as living in a makeshift hut on a world that was, for the most part, either jungle or swamp, and whose inhabitants would sooner kill you than look at you. After all, what could
do? Architecture wasn’t exactly the sort of exciting and dashing thing that people could rally around. She would, in all probability, just get herself killed if she tried to aid the Rebels. But by doing what she knew how to do, she might actually save a few lives, or at least make those lives more comfortable. Yes, those lives would belong to servants of the Empire, but after all, not every single being here was evil.
As rationalizations went, that one wasn’t so bad. Her inner self almost bought it.
he secretary droid C-4ME-O stood gyroscopically balanced on its single wheel in the hallway as Uli exited the surgery theater. The procedure had been routine, an operation to graft in a new liver for a Wookiee slave injured in the recent explosion at the construction site. Some of the enslaved species were considered expendable, as there were always more potential conscripts on the planet below, but Wookiees were too valuable to lose, a colonel had told him. They were worth three of just about any other worker, and Uli had already heard it at least ten times since he’d gotten here: if you want a job done right, get a Wookiee to do it. They were able to better withstand the temperature extremes of vacuum, they had more endurance than the other species, and their work ethic was unimpeachable—they seemed incapable of giving less than 100 percent, even on a project they had been conscripted for. The only drawback was that their vacuum suits had to be specially made to accommodate their huge, hairy forms. Uli had wondered why he’d seen so many of them when he’d arrived. He’d soon realized that like himself, they were not here by choice.
“Dr. Divini,” the droid said, in its pleasing tenor. “How are you?”
“As well as can be expected, Fourmio. Is there something you need?”
“I am quite self-sufficient, thank you, Doctor. But Commander Hotise would like to see you when it is convenient.”
Inwardly, Uli groaned. He’d been pretty much on the go ever since he’d gotten here, and now that his rotation was finally over, he’d been looking forward to some sleep. “Did he sound urgent?”
“Actually, sir, his precise words were, ‘Get Divini’s butt up here on the double.’ ” The droid did a perfect imitation of Hotise’s voice.
Uli had to smile at that. Hotise might be a career man, but he was honest and direct in his speech and actions. And he was just another cog in the Empire’s giant machine—no point in blaming him for the situation.
Uli was wearing surgical blues, which he did not waste time changing. While standard service protocols ordinarily required more formal dress when attending a commanding officer in a noncombat area on board a ship, the medical units were less stringent. Most medics were draftees and didn’t give a Psadan’s patoot what the navy thought of them anyhow—they were just hoping to get out and go home. And like him, any doctor worth his laser scalpel knew he, she, or it was far too valuable to be stuck in a brig for failing to observe some piddling uniform code. The Empire was sometimes hidebound and slow, but not altogether foolish.
When Uli entered, Hotise was seated behind his desk, tapping his fingers rapidly on two different input consoles. Holoimages danced and flashed over the consoles as the codes flowed. It was impressive to watch, like seeing someone able to write in two languages at the same time, one with each hand.
“Sit. Be with you in a few seconds.”
Uli parked himself in the chair, a flowform device that hummed and adjusted itself to his contours for a perfect support. Sitting down was a mistake, he belatedly realized. If he leaned back, he could fall asleep faster than …
Hotise, true to his word, jarred Uli from his doze only a few seconds later. “The construction crew has gotten a couple of equatorial med stations operational—not full-service plexes, but they have two surgery suites, pre-op and recovery rooms, and twenty medical beds each. Not to mention bacta tank wards, nursing stations, supply rooms, offices … you know the drill. More than a Rimsoo, less than a medcenter.”
“And I want you to go run one.”
“I’m not an administrator,” Uli said.
“Teach your grandfather how to put his boots on, son. I know you’re not an administrator, but we’re shy a few dozen of those right now. Construction is running ahead of schedule, at least in our field, and we’re slow getting fresh help.
“You’re qualified as chief surgeon, and I’ll send Fourmio along to handle the secretarial stuff. We need three surgeons and a couple of internal medicine docs, all with broad-species experience, plus nurses, aides, orderlies, and some computer operators. It’s no worse than running a clinic. Caseloads’ll be mostly workers getting banged up, some infections, age-related illnesses—the usual med-surg stuff on a construction site. Nothing you can’t handle. If you get bogged down, you can call for help.”
There was no way out of this, Uli realized. Still, he couldn’t resist asking: “Why me?”
“Well, frankly, son, I don’t have anybody else I can spare.”
What did it matter? Uli asked himself. Here, there, or somewhere else—it was all the same, really. This wasn’t a combat situation, like so many in the past had been. Nevertheless, he could feel a tiny worm of uneasiness begin to writhe slowly in his gut. “All right,” he said.
“Thought you’d say that—not like you have much of
a choice. Pack your gear—you leave on the third-shift shuttle.”
As Uli headed for his quarters to gather his few belongings, he considered his life yet again. It had been two decades since his first assignment on Drongar. He’d helped staff a few more Rimsoos since then, and when the Clone Wars had ended he’d been more than ready to practice in the private sector. But that wasn’t the life he’d been dealt. And now, when he should have been long free of his bondage, he was going to yet another post—this time on the behemoth called the Death Star.
Generally he tried not to think about Drongar—even after all this time, reminiscing led to certain memories that were too painful. But he couldn’t help but remember a phrase that the scrappy little Sullustan reporter Den Dhur had often used:
I’ve got a bad feeling about this
, Uli thought.
Ratua first heard the rumor from Balahteez, the Pho Ph’eahian spice smuggler. Balahteez had, over the years, developed numerous contacts, and, perhaps not surprisingly, many of them had ended up here. As a result, he always seemed to have good sources of information. The price you had to pay to hear that information was to listen to his sad story of unjust treatment by the heartless Empire.
Spice smuggling by itself usually wasn’t enough to rate a trip to the prison planet for a life sentence, but Balahteez had been involved in an unfortunate accident while being pursued by an Imperial patrol near the Zharan moon Gall. Realizing that his ship would soon be overtaken by the navy gunboat chasing him, Balahteez had jettisoned his illegal cargo. The drug, packed securely in a block of carbonite the size of a luggage trunk, had hurtled down Gall’s
gravity well and punched a large hole into the outer hull of a barracks housing a large unit of TIE fighter mechanics. The hole was big enough that thirty of the hapless mechanics had been blown through it and into vacuum by the explosive decompression, and a dozen more had run out of air before the emergency and repair droids could reseal the compartment. Not to mention the other fifty or so who had died immediately from the impact; the carbonite block had been traveling at about two kilometers a second and had left a crater thirty meters in diameter.
It had been an accident, pure and simple, and the odds against the block striking one structure in a few thousand square kilometers of utter emptiness were so large that calculating them would have caused a throbbing headache in a Givin. Needless to say, the Empire hadn’t seen it like that.
Ratua had heard the story enough times that he knew it almost word for word: the smuggler had been tried, convicted, and put on a ship to Despayre, all in less than a standard week’s time. Ratua had heard it said that Pho Ph’eahians were great raconteurs, entertaining enough to keep their audience spellbound. And the Pho’s story had been interesting—the first five or six times Ratua had heard it. But he’d lost count of how many times it had been told to him by now. And the Pho couldn’t be hurried along: Ratua had to sit and smile and pretend to be interested, offering sympathy in the right places, nodding, clucking his tongue and shaking his head in amazement, or the smuggler would get miffed and wouldn’t reveal what he had recently learned. It was rather like performing a well-rehearsed play: if Ratua did his part correctly, he’d be rewarded; flub his lines, and he’d be left joyless.