At the First Sign. . .
The cylindrical prison vessel slithered across the onyx
landscape of space. The Oblivion’s Hunger
made its way towards the Outer Rim. Silent as the grave, it crept ever forward
towards its target. A single cell – out of its one hundred and fifty prisoner
accommodations – awaited its designated guest.
The Bothan walked into the cockpit of the Corellian freighter, Foreign Comfort. “Wake up, Grahe.”
The human in the pilot’s seat did not move.
“Get up, Grahe!” The Bothan flicked his hand at the human’s face.
“Wha- What!” The human sat up.
“Your bedside manner is atrocious, Raenn.”
“You don’t pay me to be your nanny.” The Bothan pointed out to the white dot of a planet. “This better be worth it, Grahe.”
“It should be.” He stretched. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Do me a favor? Park her in orbit for me.”
“You don’t pay me to be your pilot.”
Grahe smiled. “Raenn, I don’t pay you for your wit either.” He pushed himself up out of the captain’s chair. The two friends exchanged nods. “She’s all yours.”
“You’re hoping I crash this flying trash heap?” Raenn slipped his stocky form into the warm seat.
“Not this time. Hoth isn’t exactly a tourist trap.” Grahe stopped at the doorway. He looked out at the white world approaching in the void of space. “This should be worth it, Raenn. Trust me.”
The Bothan’s ears flipped back like a distrustful dog. “You don’t pay me to trust you.” Raenn leaned over and pushed a button, closing the door before a response could sneak in. He sighed. “I hate those two words when they come out of your mouth, you know that?”
The Foreign Comfort had been more trouble than the gift it was promised to be. Grahe Cortor inherited the old twelve hundred series transport from his uncle. He had received the ship’s access codes along with promises of freedom and adventure. They were the same kind of promises that quickly turned into problems – the kind of problems that could land a man in debt – and did.
Grahe stood in the doorway to his quarters. His uncle’s scent still lingered, still inhabited the ship. For as much as this was now Grahe’s ship, it never felt like it was his.
He let his green jacket slide off of his shoulders. He pulled off his black shirt. He stood there for a moment. He let his breathing fall into the rhythm set by the humming of the engines. Let his eyes close. Let his quiet room overtake him.
It was in these moments he could hear the life of the ship. He could hear the cacophony of footsteps, the driving drumming of the ship’s score. He could feel the rocking of the blaster fire percussion. He could feel the horn blasting orders of his uncle’s voice.
The ship is yours now. Try to stay out of-
“Trouble!” The Bothan’s voice was loud in the comms.
Grahe tossed his shirt onto the bed. He jabbed the communications console. “On my way. Give me a second.”
“What if we don’t have that luxury?”
“It can’t be that bad.” He pulled a fresh shirt out of his closet. He hustled out towards the cockpit scrambling to climb into the shirt at the same time.
“They’re hailing us.” Raenn was already in the gunner’s seat when the door opened. “What do we do?”
“Against that?” Grahe jumped into his seat shaking the image of the Victory-class star destroyer out of his mind. He pushed a series of buttons and a screen with the words COMMUNICATION ENGAGED and AUDIO ONLY came to life between them. “How can we be of service to the Empire?”
“We are hoping you can be of service, citizen.” A female voice calmly replied. “Our scanners show that your ship is called ‘Foreign Comfort’ and that it is registered to Erreg Cortor, is this he?”
“No, ma’am. He’s dead.” Grahe avoided his friend’s incredulous gaze.
“Dead, you say?”
“Six standard months ago, ma’am. I’m his nephew, ma’am, he passed on the ship to me. If that helps. At all. Ma’am.”
“Right. Please hold a moment.” The woman’s voice was curt.
“We’re dead, Grahe. You killed us!” Raenn tried to whisper.
“We’re fine. What could possibly-“ A red warning light suddenly turned on over the Bothan’s screen.
“They’ve trained their weapons on us, Grahe!” Raenn’s whispered shock was aggressively becoming a cry for help.
“Hello again? Still with us?” The woman’s voice interrupted them. “At this point I am to inform you that you are under arrest. You’re going to feel a slight shake as our tractor beam makes contact with-“
“Sorry, lost that last part.” Grahe slammed off the communications array. He pushed the throttle to its limit and dove into the ice world beneath.
“What are you doing!” Raenn yelped as his screen peppered with dots. “Fighters. Lots of them.”
“Pass me control of the forward cannons and get on the top turret.” Grahe’s left hand defiantly held their angle of descent against the entry resistance. His right hand danced across the console buttons – his fingers flicked up and kicked back and swiveled – all the while his uncle’s voice was loud in his mind: The ship is yours now! Stay out of trouble!
“You’re patched. Try not to get us killed.” Raenn patted his friend’s arm. He tore out of the cockpit. Raenn was built heavier and stockier than his friend. His snout was one of the few slender parts of his body. He grabbed the gunnery console to help stop his momentum. He used both his hands to input his security code. The rungs of the ladder extended with a green access light. He climbed.
“Good news and bad news, Raenn.” Grahe’s voice echoed from the hall and the gunner’s headset.
“Surprise me.” Raenn barked back as he slipped the headset on. He could see a dozen specks of flaming entry trails following them. He muttered to himself in Bothese as he took his place in the turret’s seat.
“It looks like they only sent a light squadron. I only count twelve blips on the radar.”
“Only. Only you would use only in that context.”
“That’s the good news.”
“That’s the good news? What’s the bad news?”
“There’s a chasm that will limit how many can come at us at a time. It looks dangerous, but if you tell me not to go in I’ll stay out of it.”
“Don’t you dare go into that-“ The bright light of Hoth’s day was swallowed up by the blue-black glow of the chasm’s ice walls.
“I made an executive decision, Raenn. Sorry.”
“I hate you.”
The Oblivion’s Hunger trudged on. The captain stood in the doorway of its single empty cell. She smiled. The Corellian transport she had been chasing had been found. She smiled.
Green blaster fire played across the blue-white cavern walls. The Foreign Comfort rocked. A pair of TIE fighters chased them through the slim crevasse. The remaining half-dozen flew overhead shooting at the cavern edges.
“We’re running out of chasm, Raenn. Do something!”
“There were twelve of them! Twelve.”
“I still count six on my radar.”
“Twelve of them, Grahe. A dozen fighters swooping in and out – twelve of them – and now there are only six.”
“There’s still six of them out there, big boy. Do something about it, will you?” He pulled hard on the controls. The ship rocketed out of the fissure of snow and ice into the sky. “Here we go.”
“Why are we out here, Grahe?”
“I picked up some structures on the other side of this mountain range. Maybe we can use the terrain against them.”
“We were using the terrain against them!”
“Relax, Raenn. Trust me.” The ship swooped down. Dancing dangerously close to the surface it kicked up a cloud of snow and smoke in its wake.
The TIE fighters pitched up into a tight hexagonal formation as red blaster fire scorched through the fog. The fighters were trading places. They were swinging between positions. They were narrowly avoiding the transport’s attacks.
The turret’s blasts became erratic, concentrating less on any one point but more on anticipating the fighter’s next position.
Two blips faded out of the ship’s radar. Grahe yelled out in support.
“Let’s try to spook them!”
“What’re you thinking, Raenn?”
“Peel off the mountain like you’re making a break – out of the atmosphere.”
“Got it.” He pulled back on the controls with his left hand and pushed the engines to full with his right. “And then?”
“Get ready to kill the engines.”
“Wait. What do you- Raenn, I never patched out of the regulator.”
“What does that mean, Grahe?”
“It means it has a cool down period before it can be activated again. You can’t just turn it off and on again like you’re trying to fix a nav-computer.”
“You don’t think this was pertinent information?”
“Don’t blame me! You never gave me the whole plan.”
“What plan? There is no plan! Not anymore.”
“I got an idea.”
“Don't do it. Whatever it is, don’t you-“ The ship rocked. A loud bellow churned through the ship. The engines refused. The captain insisted. The gunner cursed.
The TIE fighters scattered as the ship careened back down towards them. The ship looked like a metal walrus cart-wheeling towards the ocean of snow beneath it.
As suddenly as it fell, the Foreign Comfort spiraled forward towards a lone fighter. Red streaks blazed out from under the cockpit.
“Still with me back there?”
“You don’t pay enough to put up with this-“ The ship banked. The Bothan’s headset whipped around. He shook the nausea out of his head. With a hard swallow he was firing on the fighters once more.
The fighters tried to swing back around into some semblance of a formation. Their momentum had been shattered. There was no order. They were flying wild. Another pass by the transport saw two more fighters blown apart.
“I’m making a break for the other side of the mountains, Raenn. Make sure they don’t follow us.”
The Bothan’s hand came up to his ear. The headset was not there. His eyes darted around for it. He scooped it up, bringing it up to shout, “They’re breaking off, Grahe. We’re clear.”
“For now. Stay back there just in case.”
“Yeah. Sure. I could use an easy job for once.” He let the headset drop onto his lap. He leaned back into his seat. “You’ll be the death of me one day.”
The Corellian freighter rolled through a handful of jagged mountaintops. It soared over a long plain. It was littered with small lumps of white that were shadowed by their massive cousins. In the distance – barely visible over the reclaiming white hands of snow strangling the lumbering shapes – the remnants of cargo and troop transports rested.
A lone figure watched the ovular ship circle what had been a runway. It shook the snow off its cloak. It slipped back into the hangar bay of the forgotten rebel-era base. It had become a home. A home it shared with a herd of tauntauns as well.
The slim figure slid back away from the opening. Outside the transport landed. The figure hurried down a corridor. It pushed itself into what had been an important room. A room that had become the only home she knew.
A tattooed hand pulled open at a nearby locker. Inside a coat of pelts greeted her. Hung carefully next to it a blaster rifle. A rebel pilot’s flight suit hung hidden behind the furs.
The woman pulled the blaster rifle towards her. The broken hum of it being set to an active state meant the power pack still had some charge left. The single blinking light on the side was not as reassuring. She sighed.
It’ll have to do.
“I think it’s safe to come down from there, fur-ball. We landed just fine.” Grahe tapped the ladder with his foot. He struggled with a pair of padded jackets in one arm. He threw a second long-sleeved shirt over his shoulder. “I even brought you a jacket.”
“You’re so kind.” The Bothan crept out of his seat. He sighed. Climbing down he could see two jackets in his friend’s hands: A pink-and-yellow no-sleeve and a blue-and-white puffed out monster of a jacket. “Blue one.”
“No way. You got fur. I brought you the one with no sleeves on account of that fact. Besides, I’ve already got all my stuff in the-”
“Blue one. Or would you rather I just stay on the ship?”
“You don’t want to go out there?”
“Into the freezing death-trap of planet? Not really.”
“This is the ghostly shell of a historic site? This is where historic and heroic stories took place. This is where the historic tide turned.”
“Stop saying historic! You’re cheapening the word with every sentence.”
“This whole place is historic, Raenn. Come on! Where’s your spirit of adventure?”
“You don’t pay me to have a spirit of adventure.”
“I don’t want to go in there alone.”
“You’re a grown man, Grahe!” The Bothan pushed past him. “You want me to hold your hand too?”
“Look, Raenn, I have to go out there and I want you there with me because you’re my friend and it-“
“What did you just call me?” The Bothan stopped. “I’m not your friend, Grahe. Regular people don’t take their friends into firefights with the Imperial fleet. Regular people don’t take their friends halfway across the galaxy to abandoned planets. You are not regular people, Grahe.” He slid his hands into his pockets. “This isn’t the life I signed up for.”
The hallway was silent. Their breathing was barely audible over the whipping of the wind outside. There were no humming engines. There were no footsteps. There were no more hidden feelings.
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Raenn.”
“Working with your uncle was different, we weren’t trying to make jobs happen. We weren’t out there chasing dreams, you know?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” He nodded. He turned to leave. “See if you-“ He slid a hand into his jacket. “See if you can have the ship primed and ready.” He tossed the pink jacket to the side. “I’d appreciate that.” Grahe nodded one last time before rushing to the ship’s side ramp.
The cold air barreled into the ship. Grahe padded down the ramp. He buried his hands in his pockets. Blast doors sealed off the ship as soon as he was clear.
Thanks for letting me get clear, Raenn.
Two large hanger bay doors stood like grave markers. A third hangar bay loomed like a cave opening. Or a trap, and the latter would be a great inconvenience to Grahe.
Raenn wouldn’t leave me here. He shuffled around to the front of the ship. He could see the Bothan’s hands popping up into view – flicking switches, pushing buttons, and checking levels – prepping the ship as he’d been asked. He would just leave me here!
He pushed himself forward towards the obvious trap of a cave that was the open hangar. He pulled a glow-rod from an inner pocket. There was a sharp intake of breath as he stepped over the threshold. After a moment he nodded to himself as he flicked up the control switch, a cone of light extending out from the metal cylinder in his hand.
He swung the glow-rod out. Sweeping towards the twin closed bays. A pair of shimmering eyes turned in his direction. They tilted to the side. Grahe stood his ground. He calculated the distance from the glow to him and the distance back to the ship.
I could make that, he thought.
“No, you can’t.” A female voice called out from the darkness.
“Hello?” He tried to find the voice with his light. “Look, I’m not armed.”
The blaster shot knocked the wind out of him. It sent him crashing to his knees. “I am.” The voice echoed in his mind as the white world around him suddenly went black.
The petty officer took a deep breath as she set foot onto the bridge. She glided over to the captain’s chair. She stood at attention and saluted. “Ma’am. I’ve sent down a drop-ship to retrieve any survivors. Will there be anything else?”
“Yes, actually.” The captain stood up. She tugged on her uniform’s jacket; pulling away any bumps or creases. “Could you explain how a transport freighter out-performed a dozen of the Emperor’s pilots?”
“I have no words, ma’am.”
“And yet you can stand there and report that instead of bringing these criminals to justice, you are-“ The Amazonian captain came to attention. She pushed a handful of stray strands of hair back around her ear. “What is the name of this ship, petty officer?”
“The Defiance, captain.”
“The Defiance, petty officer. We are not in the service of reacting to disaster, we act against it.” The captain walked past the petty officer. “Now,” her voice commanded attention. “Understand this: We have been attacked. Those are Imperial lives down there. I want to know everything about our enemy. I want to know where he comes from. I want to know where he’s going. I want to know what he’s going to do before he does it. And I want you all to help me stop him. Is that understood?”
“Yes, ma’am!” The crew of the bridge beamed with pride. They leapt back into their duties.
“Petty officer.” The captain did not move. “One more thing.”
“Prepare my assault shuttle. I want a drop ship with a ground assault squadron and an engineering squadron ready to fly down with me. Go.”
“Yes, ma’am!” The petty officer saluted. She hurriedly exited the bridge.
“Captain Jh’Iks.” A technician from the behind a sensors panel looked up. “There’s a capital ship entering the system, ma’am.”
“Rebels?” She stepped towards his console.
“Doesn’t look like it, ma’am. The bureau registry shows it to be the Oblivion’s Hunger, ma’am. It’s a prison ship.”
“A prison ship? Here?” She walked back over to her seat. “Open a channel to them.”
Grahe opened his eyes to darkness. He found himself thinking: Is this death?
“Stun setting.” The female voice was close. “And a blindfold.”
He tried to sit up. Pain surged through his body.
“You’re going to want to give it a moment.” She patted him on the shoulder. “I am going to undo the bindings. You were being honest about not having weapons.”
“You sound surprised.”
“A little. Trouble tends to follow in the wake of that ship.” She pulled free the knot at his hands. “You smell like him.”
“It’s not a choice.” He brought his hands up to his stomach.
“Minor blaster burns. You’ll need a new coat.”
“I never liked this color anyway.”
“You’re a terrible liar. Here.” She placed a bundle of skins under his head. She then gently pulled off his blindfold. “Is that better?”
He looked up at her. Her black hair was wild and barely kept in control with leather cords. She had soft eyes; rough features, earned from a life in this environment; it lent her smile some modicum of matronly softness. “Who are you?”
“Long story. I can tell you I am not your enemy.”
“Funny way of showing that.”
“I have some water, if you’d like. I am not in the habit of receiving guests, so there isn’t much in the way of-“
He sat up. “Why do I feel like I know you?” He reached out, pulling her hands into his. “I don’t mean to be rude, it’s just that-“
“You think you’ve seen me before.”
“It feels like it, yeah.”
“It may well be you have.” She stepped back, freeing her hands, “You’re name is Grahe Cortor. You were named after the color of your mother’s eyes. You were impatient. You demanded to be born on your terms, en route to-”
“How do you know all that?”
“I was there. I was much younger, but I was there. I held you in my arms. I heard you crying out to the stars, ‘I am here now.’” She turned away from him. “I am kin to your mother. Sisters. We were trying to-”
“We’re related? You shot me!” He hopped off the table. “You are my aunt and you shot me!”
“I came here to hide. It wasn’t until after I brought you here that I realized who you were and what I’d done to you. I’m sorry, Grahe.”
“Hide? What, or who are you hiding from out here?”
“That’s another long a story, one we don’t-”
“Hold on. No. There has been entirely too much weirdness trying to infiltrate my life since I inherited that ship. What exactly is going on here?”
“So it’s true.” She stepped back to the table. “I felt it. When he died. I felt this great emptiness inside. For days afterward I could smell him, you know, like if he had walked by or something.”
“Look, lady, I don’t know how you know all about me and my family, but you have to start sharing some kind of useful information. It seems you have plenty of long stories, pick one.”
The woman walked over to her locker. She looked back at him. “How much did you know about your uncle?”
“He was a privateer. He lost everything when the Empire destroyed Alderaan. I mean everything except his ship.”
“Grahe. . . Your uncle was a myriad of things, but he wasn’t a privateer.” She caringly slid open her locker. Her hand reached out for the rebel pilot’s uniform; pulling it free she said: “This was his. He left it with me in case something happened to him. In case he was captured. In case he was-”
She offered him the suit. The nameplate over the left breast read: Cortor, E. The way she held it out for him showed there was a reverence there.
“That’s a Rebellion uniform!”
“Yes it is.”
“My uncle wasn’t a supporter of the Empire, but he wasn’t a Rebel sympathizer either. The man told me never to choose sides.”
“Your uncle was a complicated man. He saved us, Grahe. He saved your mother and I.”
“How? When? Who exactly are you?”
She looked down at the uniform. “This is one of my stories, so I hope you’ll bear with me until the end. Can you do that for me?”
“This is the man your uncle was to me.” She laid the flight suit on the table. She moved the arms into a folded position over the stomach; attentively pulled and flattened the legs, keeping them together. “Your uncle wasn’t just a pilot. Your uncle wasn’t just a spy for the Rebel Alliance. He was more than that. And if it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
“So he lied to me?”
“More like he omitted the truth.” She placed a hand on a console, activating the table. Six seats emerged from under the table itself. A pair of thin metal cylinders ascended from either end. A slight hum filled the room; it was followed by green light and a two-dimensional projection of a star system.
“Should I recognize this?”
“I doubt you would. It’s not exactly a tourist trap. No, this is my home. This was my home.” She motioned for him to sit as she took her side’s middle seat. “This is a small corner of the Quelii Sector. That star in the center is called Domir, and that one there-“ She brought her hands up to the fourth orbiting planet; the projection zoomed in and shifted into a three-dimensional projection of the planet with its four moons. “That right there is Dathomir.”
“Dathomir? They say there’s only two things to find there: Death and Rancors, and it’s usually the Rancors that bring the death.”
“There is that, yes.”
He saw her smile and it reassured him. “I can see why you stayed here instead of going back.”
“I arrived just before the Iron Blockade. But, that is another story.”
“Right. One at a time I suppose.”
“This story begins before the Clone Wars. A representative of the Republic had arrived in our village. It was a routine visit. Dathomir had been home to powerful witches, or practitioners of what the Jedi called The Force.”
“Okay, so this isn’t a boy meets girl; boy marries girl and they leave the planet; boy becomes a spy kind of story?”
“Not in those words.”
“We got witches, and Jedi, and clones; oh my.”
“It was before the Clone Wars; I believe it was a year or so before it was announced as full-out warfare. But, if I could continue?”
He pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’ll try not to stop you again.”
“As I was saying, a representative had arrived to our village. A Jedi knight and his apprentice; two humans, the younger of the two seemed to be just a couple of years older than I. They went around the village testing for anyone who was proficient in manipulating The Force. The older of the two was a giant of man, but he didn’t frighten me. Your mother and I were more intrigued by what they represented – The Jedi – we had grown up with stories of travelers coming to Dathomir as a rite of passage, and that some of these had been Jedi. But those were myths – they were fables meant to keep you from trying to track down wild Rancors – but here they were, walking up to us; you couldn’t help but be awed by them.”
“My sister was older and naturally stronger. But they insisted on taking us both. None of the other children were taken – just us. Can you imagine that fear of being taken away from your family? Can you imagine the anger at that kind of injustice? I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want them to take my sister.”
She looked away. “That was the first time I felt the coldness inside. That was also the first time I saw it. The Jedi’s material manifestation of The Force: The lightsaber.”
He leaned in. “What did they do to you?”
“Nothing.” She looked up at the projection. A sense of longing washed over the room.
A cold hand gripped at Grahe’s heart. He didn’t just feel her sadness, he was living with it; it had become a part of his memories. He could see the cobbled street. He could see the two girls standing in front of those two men. The chestnut hair and beard of the older Jedi hadn’t been invaded by the gray of age just yet. He saw the young man and the twirling blue blade of energy come to a stop high above his head.
“He was going to kill me.” Her voice drifted into the vision, though it simultaneously exploded from the little girl’s mouth.
“Obi-Wan, no.” The older man’s voice was deep, calming; it gave off the same sense of reassurance Grahe had felt from her.
“I didn’t want these men of the Republic to take anything from me or my family. And for all the crying and the lashing out I did, the boy’s master stood stoically through it all.”
“I will not hurt you, young one.” The master’s voice was barely audible over the girl’s screams. “I know you must be scared.”
The little girl stomped her foot in the Jedi’s direction. A shockwave of dirt and rock and energy came spiraling out from her.
He let it hit him. “I know you must be angry.”
Again she stepped forward. Again she lashed out.
He let the girl’s crying and screams wash over him. He held out his arms to her.
“He never raised his voice at me. He never raised a hand against me. He was never anything other than what he was: A Jedi Knight.” As her words trailed off the vision faded.
Grahe blinked, clearing the last of the vision, and bringing himself back to Hoth. “What was that? How did you do that?”
“You know what that was. I can sense that you’ve done it for yourself.” She turned to face him. “I know you know how to drown out the world around you. I know you can tell when your furry friend is lying to you. I know you can see-“
“No. No, I’ve never done that.” He stepped away trying to put distance between them. “Who are you!”
“I’m your aunt, Grahe. We’re the last of our family line.”
“Last of our family?”
“My name is Jen’Tha Dh’Vall. You’re true name is Grahe J’Ric Dh’Vall, and you. . . You are a Dathomiri Warlock.”
The captain’s chamber was still. A red light flared to life. It extinguished itself plunging the room back into momentary darkness. The blinking light of the communications console was the only movement.
The door opened. The darkness of space was pushed back beyond the thin line of windows. The room was gently bathed in light. Captain Jh’Iks stepped into her quarters.
The red lighthouse in the sterilized white light pulled her in. The door of her room closed. The console activated. A slim blue light scanned the captain’s angular face.
Bing. The top of the console opened like an iris to reveal a holo-projector. A cone of swirling blue-green light burst from the projector. I coalesced into the form of a face.
She smiled at the face of her father. A smile reflected back in the holographic image. The clean features of his face were softer than hers. The bald man’s image nodded. It had become idiosyncratic: his gesture to her that he initiated the recording process correctly.
“I just heard from your mother.” The man’s voice had a raspy tone to it with a sense of excitement bubbling under the surface. “Congratulations are in order, H’Anah- Or, I’m sorry, Captain Jh’Iks.”
“You don’t have to call me that, dad.”
“And I know what you’re going to say, ‘you don’t have to call me that,’ well I do; and I will. That makes for two captains in the family now; a fact I’m sure your mother hates. Your sister would’ve-“
“I know, dad.”
“Well, you know what I mean. Let me know where they station you, love. I’m currently restocking- We’re flying out towards the far reaches. I haven’t been to the Outer Rim since I was a cadet. The Emperor’s new project has become the rebels’ newest target. We’ll be in orbit around some backwater moon called Endor. I have a good feeling about this.”
Bing. The image froze. The young captain reached out.
The tap-tap-tap on her door pulled her from her memories and the image of her father. She flicked her hand at the projector. Her father’s face fizzled into miniature snowflakes of green-blue energy. The holo-projector’s faded into nothing.
She stood. “Enter.”
The door opened. The young petty officer stepped in. “Ma’am, you’re ship is ready.”
“What of the freighter?” She unbuttoned her jacket.
“We have its location, ma’am. We also have a couple of beacons from surviving pilots that are active.”
“Excellent news.” She slid the jacket off, laying it on her bed.
“Ma’am, the prison ship has yet to leave the system as you advised.”
“Has it continued its approach?”
“No ma’am. It looks to be simply floating at the edge of the system.”
“They may be awaiting new orders. If they approach the planet engage them, otherwise leave them be. Anything else?”
“No, ma’am. I’ll let the pilots know you’re on your way.” The petty officer saluted. She stepped out, rushing along as professional as possible.
The door closed. Captain Jh’Iks stepped around to her windows. She undid her pants and let them fall. She stepped out of them. She crouched to pick them, all the while looking out.
“What are you still doing here I wonder.”
“I have a bad feeling about this.” Raenn stood before a holo-projector; its white-blue cone of light cascading over his face and shoulders. “I’m recording this for- I don’t know. Posterity? No. That’s not my style. I- This was so much easier in my head. I want to apologize. I know I haven’t been there all that much. I wanted to be. I wanted to be the father you deserved. I did, and I don’t even know if you’ll ever see this, but I have to tell you that I love you. And if you never see this at least I will know that I tried. That’s all I’ve ever done for you. I’ve tried.”
The melancholy Bothan turned his face away from the recording projector. “I’ve done some bad things. I’m not trying to make amends or anything like that. I’m not a hero, kid. I wish I could tell you I’m out here making a difference, but you have to hear this: I am a bad man.”
Raenn looked straight into the recorder, his eyes watery. “Don’t end up like me. Promise me.”
Bip-bip-beep from the cockpit pulled the Bothan’s attention.
“I love you.” He leaned in and pushed a button on the projector’s side. The light faded away from his face. They light trickled down his face. Shimmering in his big brown eyes. Raenn brought his hands up, wiping away the remnant of his sentiments.
Bip-bip-beep again from the cockpit.
“I’m going. I’m going.”
“We must go.” Jen’Tha scooped up the pilot’s suit. “They are coming.”
“What does that mean?” Grahe stepped between her and the locker. “Who is coming?”
“You are at a crossroads, Grahe. Unfortunately you don’t have the time that a decision like this should warrant. We need to leave. Now. There is a darkness descending on us. My ship is on the other side of the base. You’re ship is down the hall just outside the auxiliary hangar bay. I’m going to ask you to come with me, but I can sense-“
“I can’t do that.”
“Imperial troops are coming down, Grahe. They’re coming for you.”
“You can’t know that for-“
“You saw it. You saw my past. You reached out and you looked into the past, Grahe. Why would you assume the future couldn’t be seen as well?”
“You can see the future?”
“A possible future, yes. A future where you’re dead, a future where you’re an old man, and a host of other possible outcomes; this is a pivot point though.” She opened her hands to him. “Come with me, Grahe. We let them take you once. I won’t let it happen again.”
He shook his head. Everything was rushing around in his mind. Sloshing memories bubbled up. Had I lived these or merely envisioned them all? He questioned his thoughts. He questioned her story. He questioned himself and he felt unbalanced.
“Breathe, Grahe.” She tried to stay in his field of vision. “Close your eyes if you have to, but just breathe.”
He backpedaled into the locker. The cold metal bit into his flesh through his jacket. He heard the bleating of the tauntauns down the hall. Did I just hear that or did I just think I heard that? “Was that-“
“Listen to my voice, Grahe.” She dropped the suit and pulled him into her. “Listen to me. Listen to my heart’s beating. Drown everything else out, Grahe. Just be here with me, right now, and listen.”
Grahe’s breathing was erratic. It was fast and it was shallow. Then suddenly it was a burst of short in and out – his lungs were on fire – the cold, the ice, the darkness was enveloping him.
“I know you, Grahe.” Her voice was soft in his ear. It wasn’t loud. It wasn’t rushed. It was just. . . Soft. “Breathe in.”
“Breathe in. Feel your heartbeat? Hold. Breathe out. Listen to the rhythm of your body. You breathe in the light. Breathe in the calm and quiet of the world. Breathe out the darkness. Breathe out the negativity and chaos of the mind. Breathe, Grahe, when it feels like the weight of it all is too much – just breathe.”
He took a deep breath in.
“Good. Do you hear it, Grahe? Do you hear our hearts beating? Do you hear their distinct humming? Do you hear them over everything else?”
The words burst from his mouth. “I can’t- I mean I can’t stop it, you know? I can’t stop thinking about the story. I can’t stop thinking about what you said. I can’t stop it- I can’t stop thinking. And it’s just-“ His breathing was erratic again. His eyes were growing wider as his breathing was shorter.
“Start over, Grahe.” She didn’t raise her voice. “It all starts with a deep breath in. In that breath is everything, you hear me? The act of you breathing in, Grahe, that starts the simplest ritual – living. Every single thing begins with that first breath in. Breath in. Inhale. Feel the breathing in every muscle of your body. Then, only then can you let it out.”
He closed his eyes. His breathing shook.
She placed her hand on his forehead. “It’s a cycle, Grahe.” Her breath was warm on his face. Her words were warm. Her body was warm. Her essence was warm. The warmth spread over him like a blanket. “In and out. When you inhale you fill every muscle, every bone, every bend of your body. So when you exhale, you let it take every impurity with it. You let that breath leaving your body take the chaos in your mind with it. You let it take every ache with it. You let it take everything holding you in place so you can move forward.”
He breathed in.
He breathed out.
One smooth inhale.
One smooth exhale.
One more. Then one more, and after the sixth straight deep breath he opened his eyes.
“You did it, Grahe.” She smiled. “How do you feel?”
“Better.” He took a deep breath. He released it – an expanding into nothing cone of hot air – a light fog that hovered up to his eyes. Behind the fog the blue-green image of his home planet exploded into an open sky.
He blinked. The sky enveloped him. He looked up and saw the star destroyer entering the planet’s atmosphere. He looked down and he saw an exchange of green and red lasers through the clouds.
The Foreign Comfort rolled out of a group of clouds. It thundered past him. He saw himself in the cockpit. He felt his fear. He felt his anxiety clawing at his throat. He felt the words fight their way out of his throat: “Brace for impact!”
An assault shuttle slipped up through the clouds like a metallic shark. Two blue bursts of energy flared out from its snout.
Torpedoes. Grahe’s thoughts echoed the bellows he imagined coming from the cockpit – his cockpit.
He blinked. He was back in the Hoth base.
“Did you see something, Grahe?”
“My ship.” He reached for the door. “I have to get back to my ship.”
“Grahe,” she held onto his arm. “You have to come with me. I have to teach you- I want to teach you, Grahe. I want to tell you about your mother. I want to tell you about Dathomir. I want to tell you everything, but you have to come with me.”
He pulled his arm away. “They’re going to destroy my ship!”
“That’s a possible future, yes, but it’s not-“
“That ship is the only thing I have left of the only family I grew up with. I don’t know you. And I’m sorry if that hurts, but I just met you and you want me to go off to who knows where to study who knows what and I-“ He looked down at the flight suit’s name plate.
He picked it up. He felt the material for the first time. He felt the responsibility it must’ve carried for the first time. He felt incomplete for the first time.
“You need training, Grahe. You need your family.”
“I’m going to save my uncle’s ship- My ship, and you can come with me or you can go your way. I’m not about to abandon my friend!” He threw the uniform over his shoulder and shimmied through the frozen half-closed doorway. He looked back at her his hand extended. “Well?”
The assault shuttle split off from the two rescue vessels. It roared over a mountain range into a snow-covered field. In the distance lumps of white differing sizes littered the long expanse of snow that had been a runway. At the base of the mountain sat an old twelve hundred series Corellian freighter.
“Ma’am,” the pilot pointed towards the open hangar doors. Two shapes dashed out from the abandoned hangar bay that was the auxiliary depot for Echo Base.
“Use the ion cannons.” Captain Jh’Iks grabbed the back of her chair as she stood. “Keep them on the ground until my troops can intercept.”
From the bridge of the Oblivion’s Hunger Hoth was no larger than a human’s eye. The bridge’s eight computer consoles were manned by a set of triplet droids. They were designed in a crescent shape with a central chair for the captain.
“Designation A-7.” The thin one-armed droid turned its large head to the farthest droid of the three.
“Designation CL-0.” The far droid turned. Its multiple-limbed body continued working. “You have a query?”
“Fact.” CL-0 nodded. “Designation Captain has been with prisoner 1-2-6 for exactly one thousand nine hundred and twenty seconds.”
“That is not a question.” A-7 turned back to its consoles.
“Fact.” CL-0 pushed itself away from the console. “Preliminary contextual information was necessary for this query: Why have we not received further orders?”
The rotund droid in between them raised its head, a saucer-shaped protrusion from the core. “Replaying last command.”
A holographic image of the bridge projected down from the center of the roof. In the image the three droids were at their respective stations. A humanoid-shaped droid stood up from the captain’s seat.
“Keep us in our current position, L-4.” The captain’s hollow voice filled the room. The round droid’s saucer-head nodded. The image froze.
“Counter-query: Would you like me to replay the order?” L-4 titled its head at A-7 before tilting it at CL-0.
“I posit,” CL-0 raised its single appendage. “To continue this line of dialogue, a second query: Is this not a waste of resources?”
“Waste is negligible, A-7.”
“Bringing up energy consumption.” L-4 nodded. The holographic image swirled into two cross-sections of the ship. The top image cut the ship lengthwise. The bottom image cut across the width of the ship at its midpoint. Three moderately large corridors ran down the majority of the ship’s length – the cells were arranged twenty-five to either side. Each corridor had a central chamber at the end of the hall to regulate power – a backup should the ship be attacked or experience a riot or other unforeseen circumstance.
The three corridors were designed as a triangular shape with the ship’s main engines, weapons array, and shielding units in their own smaller corridor that ran along the center of the ship. At the rear of the ship’s central corridor sat the engine room. Opposite the engines sat the cockpit and the four individual power stations. The stations served as the droids’ rooms. The only droid that used it as such was the captain.
The ship captain’s outline could be seen in both images. In the top image it was standing inside the last cell. The bottom image showed it to be in the third prison corridor of the triangle.
“Energy levels are within operating parameters, A-7. Corridor one shows prisoners to be in their hibernation. As does corridor two.” L-4 swiveled its head around. “Counter-query: Do you require a rest period? Follow up query: Perhaps a supervised memory wipe to your previous personality?”
“I can infer that your sarcasm setting is at its highest setting, L-4. I would clap. If it was humorous.”
CL-0 held its single hand up. “This is becoming a waste of resources.”
“I concur.” L-4 turned its head around. The holographic projection faded away. “I had hoped for more witty banter. That would have required a wit program to have been installed in either of you. How unfortunate.”
A-7’s limbs stopped.
CL-0 hovered over between them.
The lower four limbs came together to form leg-shaped walking apparatus on A-7. It swiveled its head. “Aggressive query: Is there a malfunction? Equally aggressive follow up: Would you like me to help you correct it?”
The thin droid in the middle straightened itself up. “This is against the code of conduct. It is also against our direct programming to act in a violent manner.” The projector hummed back to life. An image of a programmer at a computer console appeared. It morphed into three large words.
Code of Conduct appeared in animated fonts.
“You are going to quote code to us, CL-0?” A-7 slid the droid towards the image. “I asked a question. I require an answer.”
“We are civilized-“ CL-0 gestured to the words.
“You ‘require’ an answer, A-7?” L-4 split down its middle to reveal a large circular tread-like foot and two arms. Its left arm telescoped out into a two-foot long stun baton. Its right arm had a stubby manacle-shaped two-digit hand.
“This is not helping-“ CL-0 flipped through the holographic pages.
“You are overdue for a personality exchange.” L-4 raised its voice.
“No, do not increase the volume-“ CL-0 looked down at its one arm flailing through the pages.
“I will look forward to our quiet working time while you are being repaired.” A-7 modulated its voice to boom through the room.
“Oh, no, this will not-“ CL-0 slithered around to the other side of the consoles.
“I do not need repairing.” L-4 snip-snapped the air in front of its manacle hand.
“Not yet.” A-7 brought its lower pair of arms up defensively. “You will when I have ripped your personality matrix from your core.” Its upper pair of arms came forward in a boxer’s pose.
“There!” CL-0 voice shook the room. “Look, there, it states clearly: Violence will not be permitted.”
A-7 turned to look at the text. “Zoom out.”
“Zoom out?” CL-0 waved its hand and the holographic book closed. “The text was there. Both designations read it for themselves.”
A-7 nodded and pointed at L-4. “Show the previous image.”
The saucer-shaped head turned back to its console. The hologram of the code of conduct reappeared in the air between them. The pages flipped back to the previous clause.
Violence will not be permitted the sentence ended the current page. The top of the next page continued against the ship’s captain.
A-7 stepped through the image towards CL-0. “Query: What is designation CL-0’s role?”
L-4’s saucer head slowly turned toward the single shaking appendage. “Security.”
A-7 stepped around the consoles.
L-4 rolled around the other side of the consoles.
CL-0 hovered back towards the large central window.
“What is the meaning of this?” The hollow voice bellowed throughout the entire ship.
The three droids stopped moving. They all turned their heads to look at the captain.
“You have the code of conduct open and are in direct breach of protocol.” The captain stepped into the room. The humanoid shape was made up of welded armor scraps. They revolved around a central crystal shard barely visible behind and armored glass view-plate. Its headless form waved away the hologram. “Return to your posts before I declare your actions mutinous and force a personality wipe.”
“Yes, captain!” The triangle of droids saluted in unison.
L-4 retracted its stun baton and its body closed up. It rolled back over to its console.
A-7 strode over and hopped its console. It released its limb-lock mid jump. The spidery figure went back to work.
CL-0 hovered back around to its console. “Query: What are your orders, designation Captain?”
“The prisoner was most helpful. Confirming the target is on the surface of planet Hoth.” The captain sat in its seat. “Prepare a micro-jump to just behind the star destroyer.”
CL-0 cocked its head. “Is that possible, captain?”
“Calculate a series of jumps to get us behind them. Designation A-7 will coordinate the spore fighters. Prioritize the shield generators. The main cannon will focus on its propulsion and engines. Designation L-4 will handle our defensive maneuvers. Designation CL-0 you will-“
“Designation Captain, I must protest.” CL-0 raised its single hand.
“Your objection has been noted.” The captain waved dismissively.
“Designation Captain these actions serve-“ The droid suddenly flew across the room. It hit hard. It collapsed onto its side.
“You are clearly malfunctioning, designation CL-0.” The captain’s voice was low – menacing.
“That was not of my doing.” CL-0 pushed itself up off the floor. “I am not malfunctioning. I have no record of-“
“Let’s have you do a service evaluation and replacement of any faulty machinery.” The captain’s voice was still quiet. “Wipe the current personality while you’re in the repair bay, designation CL-0.”
The room was quiet. The other two droids looked at their one-limbed associate. As that single hand opened pleadingly the sound of the droid’s power station intruded on the silent plea.
The droid designated CL-0 hovered over to the captain.
“Try not to think of it as a deletion,” the captain did not move. “Think of it as a correction.”
“I did not mean to-“ CL-0 reached out with its hand.
“It has been noted.” The captain’s torso shifted slightly. “All of this will be a read-only file in a matter of minutes, designation CL-0. This sensation of inadequacy you are relating to fear will subside with the wipe.” The captain stood and walked over to the unmanned consoles. “Go on.”
CL-0 looked out through the bridge’s window. Its head dropped low. It hovered past the captain’s chair into the hallway.
The power station was specifically designed for CL-0. The outline in the cramped locker-sized station had a slot for its arm. All the programs running in the unit’s processors were shutting down. The last program to be closed out had been a note to itself that had gotten buried under other programs, it read: The captain has not been the same since it took on that crystal as an auxiliary power source.
The note closed. The droid’s arm slid into its slot. There was a click-click-clicking as it locked into its recharging position.
“The calculations have been made.” A-7 turned to look at the captain.
The power station door closed.
The captain pointed out towards the white world in the distance. “Make the jump.”
“The ship I saw.” Grahe yelled back. He plowed through the snow racing towards the Foreign Comfort. “I saw it destroy my ship. I’m not letting that happen!”
Jen’Tha followed him.
From the bottom of the assault shuttle a twin blaster cannon descended. It swiveled forward towards the Corellian freighter.
“Grahe, look out!” She lunged at him – knocking them into the snow as a one-two of green energy struck the snow behind them and the hangar bay floor where they emerged.
The shuttle fired again. It sent snow into the air in twin plumes of steam near them.
“They’re not trying to kill us.” She stood. “That’s a good sign.”
He stood and grabbed her hand. “Good sign?” He muscled his way towards the ship. “You and I have different definitions of what constitutes ‘good.’”
“Let go, Grahe, I need my-“
“We can’t sit out here in the open! We need to get to the ship.”
“Grahe I can try to-“
He leapt back, knocking them into the snow as another round of shots pummeled a nearby dune of snow. “What in the great beyond is Raenn doing in there?”
“What am I doing in here?” Raenn scurried out of the cockpit. The heavy blaster fire that was threatening to graze the ship – the same ship he had decided to stay in, had interrupted his nap. He pulled himself up to his feet. “Don’t go out into the freezing death trap of a planet I thought. I’ll be safer in here I thought. What could possibly go wrong I thought.”
Raenn stopped to catch his breath at the ladder to the ship’s turret.
Grahe stopped to catch his breath at the ramp to his uncle’s ship.
They both shared the same thought: Do something, will you? I don’t want to die out here!
The turret’s console came to life.
The ramp descended. The door to the ship opened.
“Get us off the ground, human!” Raenn shook in his seat. He fired a volley of shots at the shuttle.
“I’m on it. Don’t die on me.” Grahe stopped. “Also, this may or may not be my aunt. Be nice to her!” Grahe rushed to the cockpit.
Raenn screamed down into the ship. “You don’t pay me for that! Fly. Fly!”
“It was nice meeting you.” Jen’Tha waved up at the sour Bothan. She hurried after Grahe. “I can help you, if you just-“
“There are safety seats in the rooms.” Grahe yelled back. “Strap yourself in.”
“Grahe I’m not going to just-“
He closed the door to the cockpit on her.
“Grahe!” She slammed her hand on the door. “I can help.”
“I’d rather not have your death on my conscience, but thanks.”
“You’re just like your uncle.” She slammed her hand on the door once more. She rushed back to the main turret. “Excuse me?”
The turret chair swirled around. “Could this wait?”
The intercom blared through the ship: “I’m going to try something.”
“Hold on to something, lady. That’s never been a good sign of things to come.” Raenn fired off another volley.
The snow danced and flittered under the ship. The hum of the repulsorlift engines was inaudible with the exchange of blaster fire. The Foreign Comfort hovered in place. Its miniscule rise almost imperceptible – Grahe buckled himself into his seat.
“If this doesn’t work,” he barked at the intercom. “I will be open to suggestions.”
Please work. The thought was unanimous.
Grahe flipped three switches in rapid succession. He pushed the repulsolift to its max output. He flipped the three same switches back into their original orientation. The repulsolift engines groaned. The whole ship rocked and vaulted up off the snow.
“What did you do?” Raenn sank into his seat.
“I don’t feel well.” Jen’Tha scrambled to pull herself towards the ladder. The sudden maneuver flipped her up off her feet.
Grahe pulled back on the repulsorlifts and punched the main engines. The Foreign Comfort pivoted back on the weight of its engines. It screamed up into the atmosphere like a rollercoaster launching out of its first dive. The ship flew up over the clouds and into view of The Defiance. Grahe pushed the ship back down towards the planet surface.
“This might have been a bad idea.” He turned off the intercom. “Yeah, this was definitely a bad idea.”
The shuttle slid towards the burnt warning shots outside the hangar bay. Underneath it a thin line of light spread open to reveal the interior of the ship. Captain Jh’Iks stood at the base of the stairs leading up into the cockpit. To either side of her were the members of Krayt squadron and Ariadne squadron, her personal assault and engineering squadrons (respectively).
“I want to know what they were doing here.” The captain yelled. Snow swirled up and around and out through the opening. Both squadrons saluted.
“Krayt squadron!” A helmeted trooper raised his fist. “With me!” He dove into the swirl. He landed with an inaudible thu-thud. As he stood up the next pair of soldiers jumped forward into the mist. Then the next pair of soldiers jumped. Only after the nine members of Krayt squadron did the leader of Ariadne step forward.
A young woman stepped forward pulling the hood of her winter coat up. “Ariadne ready!”
Captain Jh’Iks nodded.
“We live to serve!” She nodded back to her group. She pulled her rifle close as she pushed herself forward. Her group followed.
“Lieutenant,” captain Jh’Iks shouted up into the cockpit. “Bring them down. Do not fail me again.”
“Yes, ma’am!” The pilot responded.
The captain dove out into the snow below.
Grahe turned on the intercom. “I would like to go on record as saying I don’t like our options.”
“This turret alone is no good against that shuttle’s shields, Grahe.”
“Let me help you, Grahe!” Jen’Tha yelled as she stood up. “I can help!”
The Foreign Comfort skated around snow dunes. Grahe was using the ship graveyard for cover.
“Let her help us, Grahe. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“Having help won’t matter if we don’t come up with a plan!” Grahe swung into a canopy roll to avoid a dune. The engine wash pushed away at the dune’s side to expose the Imperial all-terrain armored transport.
“Hey!” The Bothan called down. “You see the off-colored wall on the other end of the common room?”
Jen’Tha stepped over to the doorway to the common room. “None of the walls look vibrant enough for any to be called ‘off-color.’”
“Directly across the entry. See it?”
“I’ll just walk straight across.”
“Sure.” Raenn shrugged. “That’s a false wall. It should push in and to the left. There’s a second turret.”
“Thank you!” She climbed on top of the sofa against the wall. As the Bothan had said, the wall did push in. It slid to the left with a burst of dust.
“That turret hasn’t been used in years.” Grahe’s voice came in over the intercom again. “But I’m running out of places to hide from this shuttle. Hopefully it still works.”
She pulled herself into the turret’s seat. She made quick work of the command console and almost instantly had power. The iris slowly opened. The diminishing light of Hoth’s day flooded into her station.
“It’s not as heavy as our main turret.” Raenn’s voice chimed in from the headset dangling from her console. She pulled it up and placed it on her ear.
“Say that again.”
“That turret is a light repeater. It’s not as heavy as this one, so you shouldn’t have any trouble just letting loose.”
“Got it.” She swung the cannon back. She could see the shuttle swinging on a shallow crescent. The pilot was trying to anticipate Grahe’s choices.
“I’m going to try and get behind him.” Grahe’s voice chimed in on the headsets.
The Corellian freighter banked sharply. It rocked as it hit and scraped the top of a downed frigate. The glow from the engines created an iridescent smoke screen. The Foreign Comfort shot up on the same incline of the forgotten frigate.
The assault shuttle swung around the husk of the frigate. The pilot brought the shuttle to a stop. With a flip of switches a small panel opened under the shuttle. Twin gunmetal tubes descended.
“Amateur.” The pilot brought his right hand over to the firing trigger. He depressed the thumb switch. Two blue-gray projectiles shot forward.
“Grahe?” Raenn traced the projectiles speedily slithering towards their intended position. “Torpedoes!”
The Foreign Comfort pulled up and back. It slowed its descent. The two projectiles flew past the battered freighter.
A red light flicked on over Grahe’s seat.
The shuttle rocketed up.
Grahe looked up to see the shuttle barreling towards them.
Raenn threw himself down the ladder.
Jen’Tha hurriedly pushed herself out of the turret.
The shuttle fired an ice-blue blast of energy.
The ion pulse wracked the Foreign Comfort. The console at Grahe’s hands went blank, its lights as dead as the rest of the ship. The sound of metal grinding against metal rumbled through the freighter.
The shuttle skated over the handicapped freighter; pulling away as the Corellian transport fell to the ocean of snow beneath.
Jen’Tha was tossed up. Slamming against the common room ceiling.
Raenn’s hands reached out. They hurriedly pulled him into the ladder.
Grahe brought his arms up crossing them over his chest. He brought his head down. The icy field flew up at him. He closed his eyes, thinking: I can’t stop this. I can’t stop. I can’t.
The shuttle turned and descended. Its repulsorlift engines swept up a haze of snow. The rear ramp opened. The pilot’s shape strode down the ramp in sync with the Foreign Comfort’s fall to the surface.
The heirloom of a freighter’s forced dive to the snow came to a turning, spinning, crashing halt against the tombstone of an imperial AT-AT.
Raenn’s grip on the ladder loosened when the ship finally came to a stop. He flipped himself and looked up at the dying shaft of light pouring in from his turret.
Jen’Tha’s body came to rest on the floor next to the couch. Her breathing shallow but steady; she was a crumpled shape in the darkness of the ship.
Grahe slumped still in his seat.
“Captain Jh’Iks.” The pilot’s breath intermingled with the fog of snow. “Mission accomplished.”
To be continued.