The firm control of one’s emotions was an unspoken criterion for those who would serve the Empire. One did not gloat, or cheer, or weep, or rage, although cold fury was, upon occasion, deemed an appropriate reaction to particular circumstances.
Senior Lieutenant Iden Versio had been familiar with this stipulation since she was old enough to understand the concept. Even so, now, at this hour of the Empire’s unequivocal and absolute triumph, the young woman raced across the gleaming black surface of the Death Star’s corridors with her helmet cradled in one arm, trying and failing to smother a grin.
Today, of all days, why shouldn’t she smile, at least when no one was watching?
When her orders had come to serve on the space station—which a scant few hours ago had reduced an entire planet into rocky chunks of glorious rebel rubble—Iden had endured resentful, sidelong glances followed by murmurs pitched exactly too softly for her to catch. But Iden didn’t need to hear the words. She knew what the others were saying about her. It was nothing more than a variant on what had always been said about her.
She’s too young for this position. She couldn’t have earned it on her own.
She got it because of her father.
The self-righteous mutterers would have been startled to discover the degree to which their assumptions were wrong.
Inspector General Garrick Versio might well be one of the highest-ranking members of the powerful and secretive Imperial Security Bureau, but Iden had gotten nothing out of the joyless task of being his daughter. Every honor, every grade, every opportunity she’d had, she’d fought for and obtained despite him.
She’d been primed for the military academy while barely more than a child, studying at the Future Imperial Leaders Military Preparatory School on her homeworld of Vardos, located in the Jinata system, where she had, literally, been bloodied. There, and afterward at the Imperial Academy on Coruscant, Iden had graduated top of her class, with honors.
All that felt like a mere prelude to this moment. For the last several months, Iden had been part of a small, elite TIE fighter unit aboard what was arguably the pinnacle of Imperial design—the massive space station known as the Death Star. And she was rather unprofessionally excited.
Even as she tried to rein in her enthusiasm, she could sense that others hastening to their own TIE fighters shared it. They betrayed themselves with the surging tattoo of booted footfalls, their upright positions, even the brightness in their eyes.
It wasn’t new, this happy tension. Iden had seen it bubbling under the surface after the first test of the station’s capabilities, when the Death Star’s superlaser had targeted and obliterated Jedha City. The Empire had landed a one-two punch in a handful of seconds. It had destroyed not only the rebel terrorist Saw Gerrera and his group of extremists known as the partisans, but also the ancient Temple of the Kyber, held sacred by those who secretly hoped for the return of the disgraced and defeated Jedi. Jedha City represented the first real demonstration of the station’s power, but that fact was known only to those who served on the Death Star.
For now. To the rest of the galaxy, what had happened at Jedha was a tragic mining accident.
Things had happened with shocking speed after that, as if some galactic balance had suddenly, drastically, been tipped. The superlaser was again employed at the Battle of Scarif, this time wiping out an entire region and several rebel ships trapped under Scarif’s shield along with it. Emperor Palpatine had dissolved the Imperial Senate. His right hand, the mysterious caped and helmeted Darth Vader, had intercepted and imprisoned secret rebel and now former senator Princess Leia Organa. The Death Star’s director, Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin, had used the princess’s home planet of Alderaan to demonstrate the true breadth of the power of the now fully operational battle station.
As nearly all on the Death Star had been ordered to do, with their own eyes or on a screen, Iden had stood and watched. By their treasonous actions, the rebels on Alderaan had brought destruction not only on themselves, but on the innocents they always seemed so keen to protect. She couldn’t get the image out of her head: a planet, a world, gone in the span of a few seconds. As, soon, would be virtually all the Empire’s enemies. In a very, very short time, the galaxy would receive an implacable and thorough understanding of just how useless resistance would be. And then—
Then, there would be order, and this ill-thought-out, chaotic “Rebellion” would subside. All the extensive hours of labor, all the credits and brainpower spent on controlling and dominating various unruly worlds could, at last, be turned to helping them.
There would, finally, be peace.
The event would be shocking, yes. But it had to be, and it was all for the greater good. Once everyone was under the auspices of the Empire, they would understand.
And that glorious moment was almost here. Tarkin had located the rebel base on one of Yavin’s moons. The base—and the moon—were but a few moments from oblivion.
Some of the rebels, though, were not going to go quietly.
These few had taken to space and were presently mounting a humorously feeble attack on the gigantic space station. The thirty Y- and X-wing fighters the rebels had mustered were small enough to dodge the station’s defensive turbolaser turrets, zipping about like flies. And, like flies, this nominal, futile defense would be casually swatted down by Iden and the other pilots in ship-to-ship combat, as per orders from Lord Vader.
Within the span of seven minutes, Yavin’s moon and all the rebels it had succored would be nothing more than floating debris. On this day, the Rebellion would be no more.
Iden’s heartbeat thudded in her ears as she all but jumped down the ladder into her fighter, sealing her flight suit and pulling on her helmet. Slender but strong gloved fingers flew over the consoles, her gaze flitting over the stats as she went through the preflight checklist. The hatch lowered, hummed shut, and she was encased in its black metal belly. A few seconds later she was swirling in cold, airless darkness, where the distinctive scream of her vessel was silent.
Here they came, now, mostly the X-wings—the Rebellion’s answer to TIE fighters. They were impressive little single-occupant vessels, and they skimmed along close to the surface of the station, a few of them misjudging the distance and slamming into the walls around the trenches that crisscrossed the Death Star’s surface.
Suicide, Iden thought, even as she knew the term was just as often applied to those who flew TIE fighters. You either loved the small starfighters or you hated them. A TIE fighter was fast and distinctive, with its laser cannons quite deadly, but it was more vulnerable to attack than other vessels as it wasn’t equipped with deflector shields. The trick was to kill the enemy first—something Iden was better at than anyone else in her squadron. Iden liked that everything was compact and immediately to hand—flight controls, viewscreen, targeting systems, equipment for tracking and being tracked.
Iden listened to the familiar beeps of the tracking equipment as it targeted and locked onto one of the X-wings. She swung her vessel back and forth with easy familiarity as the enemy ship frantically jigged and jagged in a commendable, but ultimately useless, effort to evade her.
She pressed her thumbs down. Green lasers sliced through the X-wing, and then only pieces and a flaring sheet of flame remained.
A quick count on her screen told Iden that her fellow pilots were also efficiently culling the herd of rebels. She frowned slightly at the tiny, ship-shaped blips on her screen. Some of them were veering off from the group, going deeper in toward the Death Star, while others seemed to be trying to draw the TIE fighters away from the station. Iden’s gaze flickered to another ship, a Y-wing—one of those enemy vessels that always looked to her like a skeletal bird of prey—and she went in pursuit, rolling smoothly and coming up on its side. More streaks of green in the star-spattered blackness, and then it, too, was gone.
Her gaze now lingered on the more suicidal of the enemy fighters, watching as they dropped into the trenches. As far as Iden knew, no one in her six-pilot squadron had been told why the rebels had adopted this peculiar tactic of flying through the trenches. Iden had grown up with nearly everything—from what it was her father actually did for the Empire to what her mother was designing that day, even what was for dinner that night—being on a need-to-know basis. She had grown accustomed to the situation, but she would never like it.
“Attention, pilots,” came the voice of her commander, Kela Neerik, in Iden’s ear, and for a brief, beautiful instant Iden thought her squad commander was going to explain what was going on. But all Neerik said was, “Death Star is now six minutes out from target.”
Iden bit her lip, wondering if she should speak up. Don’t. Don’t, she told herself, but the words had a life of their own. Before she realized it, out they had come.
“Respectfully, Commander, with only six minutes until the entire moon’s destruction, why are we out here? Surely thirty one-person ships won’t be able to do anything resembling damage to the Death Star in that amount of time.”
“Lieutenant Versio”—Neerik’s voice was as cold as space—“don’t assume your father’s position gives you special privileges. We are here because Lord Vader ordered us to be here. Perhaps you’d like to put your question to him personally when we return to the station? I’m sure he’d be delighted to explain his military strategy to you.”
Iden felt a cold knot in her stomach at the thought of a “personal” conversation with Lord Vader. She’d never met him, thankfully, but she had heard too many chilling rumors.
“No, Commander, that won’t be necessary.”
“I thought not. Do your duty, Lieutenant Versio.”
Iden frowned, then let it go. She did not need to understand the rebels; she needed only to destroy them.
As if they sensed her renewed resolve, the rebel pilots suddenly upped their game. There was a brief flash at the corner of Iden’s vision, and when she turned to look, she realized with sick surprise that the debris hurtling off in all directions was black.
Iden didn’t know who had just died. TIE fighters were so uniform as to be practically indistinguishable from one another. Their pilots weren’t supposed to think of their ships in the warm, fuzzy way the rebels were reported to do. A ship was a ship was a ship. And Iden understood that, as far as most in the Empire were concerned, a pilot was a pilot was a pilot: as expendable and interchangeable as the ships they flew.
We all serve at the pleasure of the Emperor, her father had drilled into her since she was old enough to comprehend what an emperor was. None of us is indispensable. Iden had certainly seen Imperial ships shot down before. This was war, and she was a soldier. But indispensable be damned.
The half smile she’d been wearing during most of the combat vanished, and Iden pressed her lips together angrily. She veered, perhaps a touch too violently, to the right and targeted another X-wing. In mere seconds it exploded into a yellow-orange fireball.
“Gotcha, you—” she muttered.
“No commentary, Versio,” warned Neerik, her voice rising a little; more hot than cold, now. “We will be having the honor of Lord Vader joining us momentarily. He and his pilots will be focusing on the hostiles navigating the meridian trench. All remaining units are ordered to redirect their attacks to the rebel ships on the magnetic perimeter.”
Iden almost shouted a protest, but stopped herself just in time. For some reason still unknown to the squadron, this perplexing tactic by the rebel pilots was clearly of great concern. Lord Vader wouldn’t trouble himself with appearing personally to take care of it otherwise.
Almost everything Iden knew about Darth Vader was pure speculation. The exception was a single revelation on the part of her father, in one of those rare moments when he was feeling less taciturn than usual with his only child.
“Lord Vader has great power,” Versio had said. “His instincts and his reflexes are uncanny. And…there are certain abilities he possesses that our Emperor finds to be of tremendous value.”
So yes. Vader was head and shoulders above the rest of them—literally and figuratively. But it wasn’t Vader’s friends who were dying in this battle, and Iden burned to be the one to make the rebels pay.
With a huffing sigh that she was certain was audible, she swerved from tailing the X-wing, frowning as red laserfire came perilously close to her fighter’s fragile wings. That was on her; she hadn’t been focusing.
She corrected that oversight immediately, zooming away from the station toward a pair of Y-wings that was, successfully, attempting to get her attention. Any other time, Iden would have enjoyed toying with them—they were decent pilots, although the ones in the X-wings were superior—but right now she was too irritated to do so.
She targeted the closest Y-wing, locked onto it, and blew it to pieces. Watching the fragments of the starfighter hurtling wildly was some small compensation for the deaths of her fellow pilots.
“Death Star is two minutes to target. Be aware of your distance from the planet.”
Ah, so that was why Neerik was giving the countdown. Iden had to give the pilot of the other Y-wing credit for courage, albeit of the foolish kind; the ship was now racing away from the Death Star at top speed. Were they heading back to Yavin’s moon, nobly choosing to die with their base, or were they just trying to evade her?
Not happening, Iden thought, and continued her pursuit. She got the vessel in her sights and fired. She didn’t slow as the ship exploded, but simply pulled back and looped up and over the fireball and debris, snug in her crash webbing, and smoothly dipped the TIE fighter in front of the second Y-wing for the perfect shot.
The pale moon-shape of the Death Star loomed behind the vessel, its gargantuan size making the rebel ship look like the toys she’d been allowed to play with as a child. The Y-wing was making for Yavin as fast as it could, swerving erratically enough that Iden frowned as she tried to get a lock on it.
A sudden scalding brightness filled her vision.
Temporarily blinded, Iden hurtled wildly, her TIE fighter tumbling out of control. As her vision returned, she realized debris was coming at her as intensely as if she had suddenly materialized inside an asteroid field. Her focus, always powerful, narrowed to laserlike precision as she frantically dodged and swerved, maneuvering around the biggest pieces and wishing with all her being that TIE fighters had shields.
Iden pivoted and tumbled, breathing the mercifully still-flowing oxygen deeply and rhythmically. But she knew in her heart it was just a matter of time. There was too much debris, some of it the size of a standard escape pod, some of it as small as her clenched fist, and she was right in the thick of it. The smaller pieces were pelting her TIE fighter already. Sooner or later, one of the big chunks would hit her, and both Senior Lieutenant Iden Versio and her ship would be nothing more than smears on what was left of Yavin’s moon.
Somehow, she’d wandered too close to the Death Star’s target and had gotten caught up in the chaotic sweep of its destruction—exactly what her commander had been warning her against.
But how was that possible?
“Mayday, mayday,” Iden shouted, unable to keep her voice calm as she desperately dipped and dived to avoid disaster. “This is TIE Sigma Three requesting assistance. Repeat, this is TIE Sigma Three requesting assistance, do you copy, over?”
Silence. Absolute, cold, terrifying silence.
The inevitable occurred at last.
Something struck the TIE fighter, hard. The ship shuddered, tumbled off in a different direction, but did not explode. A piece of one of the sleek, fragile wings flashed across Iden’s field of vision and she realized that control of the vessel was out of her hands.
Others would panic, or weep, or rail. But Iden had been raised to never, ever quit, and now, at this moment, she was grateful for her father’s implacability. The ship was careening and, as she could do nothing to stop it, she took a few seconds to observe.
The prospect of her own violent and, possibly, painful and prolonged death was something that held little fear for her. But what she saw in those seconds struck terror down to her bones.
It was the blue-green moon of Yavin. And it was completely intact.
She thought of the dreadful silence on the comm. And now that she knew, now that she had wrapped her brain around something that was not supposed to happen, that no one had ever imagined could happen, she recognized some of the pieces that she was trying so desperately to evade.
They were of Imperial construction.
Pieces of the greatest battle station that—
A single short, harsh, disbelieving gasp racked her slender frame. Then Iden Versio clenched her teeth against a second outburst. Pressed her lips together to seal it inside her.
She was a Versio, and Versios did not panic.
The destruction of the Death Star was the brutal and irrevocable truth that the impossible was now possible. Which meant she could survive this.
And she was going to.
Iden clawed her way back to control and assessed the situation with a bright, sharp, almost violent clarity.
The impact of the debris strike had, fortunately, served not only to damage the wing but also to push her toward the moon, and without the pull of the Death Star to counter it, the gravity of Yavin’s small satellite was greedy. She couldn’t direct her trajectory, but she could manage it. Iden went on the offensive—a preferred tactic—but this time not against a rebel vessel. This time, her enemy was the debris that hurtled toward her.
She spun toward the moon’s surface, targeting anything in her path and blasting it into rubble. This sort of thing was second nature, so she let part of her mind deal with how to manage the process of reentry, a controlled crash, and ejection.
There would then be avoiding capture, stealing a vessel, and absconding with it, presuming she landed on Yavin’s moon in one piece.
There it was again, that frisson of bestial, primitive panic, closing her throat. Iden swallowed hard even as cold sweat dewed her body—
—beneath the uniform of an Imperial officer—
—beneath the helm of a TIE fighter pilot—
—and again took a deep, calming breath. The oxygen was finite, but it was better to use it now to help her focus than later as she panicked.
Iden was, as far as she knew, the sole survivor out of over a million victims of this act of rebel terrorism. She had to survive, if only to honor those who hadn’t. Who hadn’t chased the foe in an impulsive act that ought to have been a mistake, but instead had gifted her with a chance to live.
She would find a way back to Imperial space ready to continue the fight against the Rebel Alliance for as long as it took to eliminate every last one of the bastards.
Her jaw set and her eyes narrowed with determination, Iden Versio braced herself for a bumpy landing.