Obviously, this owes a great deal (understatement of the century candidate) to George Lucas, and to Michael Stackpole's "X-Wings" series of novels.
Booster and Mirax are his, as is the manner of the elder Antilles's deaths. However, Wedge's parents (even to their names) and his childhood are mine, as is everyone else on Ralla.
No copyright infringement is intended.
One of the problems with a small-moon station was that there was no way to tell how long ago the hit had happened. Under atmosphere, there'd have been smoke early, weeds and rust late. Here, there was nothing, bar debris and frozen air that might have been there for the month the Skate had been away, or only for an hour. The yacht's two occupants stared at the destruction in stunned silence, which Booster Terrik finally broke. "Sithspawn," he swore softly. "Black, dead stars."
That last made his daughter Mirax swing around and stare at him. She hadn't heard him say that since her mother had died and he'd had to monitor his own language around his young daughter. Even in the rowdier places she occasionally had accompanied him to he'd been careful about it. Now, his face scared her worse than the destruction of what seemed like her second home, the place where she'd spent so much time with the Antilleses when Booster was off somewhere he didn't want his child. She didn't think she'd ever seen him quite so angry.
"Sithspawn," he said again, and then seemed to make up his mind. "Hold her here," he said, "and keep a sharp eye out. I don't want CorSec dropping in on us any more than whoever did this."
Mirax put her hand out and halted him as he started to leave the cockpit. "Fatherwhere are you going?" Booster looked at his daughter for a moment. They were alike in some ways, but Mirax had her mother's beauty and build rather than his. Both were black-haired, though his was cropped very short and going grey where hers was long; and both were dark-eyed, although actually Booster's left eye glowed red deep beneath his brow from the replacement he'd gotten a decade earlier. But they never looked more alike than when they were squared off at each other, stubborn as rafiks, as they were now. "Where do you think, girl?" he finally said. "Down there. See if anything's left that might point at whoever did that."
"Father. That's what CorSec's for. The Antilleses were legit," she pointed out.
"CorSec, my ass," said Booster inelegantly, "which they couldn't find theirs with both hands. Since when did you rely on Corellian Security? Grey never taught you that; I know I didn't."
"Father," she said again. "This isn't something you should do."
"Why not?" Booster started to push past her, his bulk oddly graceful in the confined space of the Skate's forward area.
"FatherI'm worried. What if..." her voice trailed off, and Booster stopped in his tracks. Sometimes he forgot how young she was, still only fifteen.
"Worried about what?" he asked.
"What if CorSec shows up and blames you?"
"They won't. Not if you keep a good eye on that scanner," he added, somewhat spoiling his certainty.
"What if they're still down there?"
"Nobody's down there," said Booster patiently.
"But... what if"
Booster lost his patience, which in truth he'd held onto longer than usual. "What if there's a squadron of Imperial fighters around the back side of the station? Can't live your life on 'what ifs', girl." He took a few steps, then stopped. "Mirax," he said, turning back to look at her, "that was Grey and Mrendy. My friends. My only friends. The only people who still remembered the name I was born with. This was the place I could come whenever, the people who were glad to see me regardless. I knew Mrendy a long time; I trusted Grey with my life. I trusted him with this ship. I trusted them with you. I stood for their boy when he was born. Nobody does this and I do nothing. Understand?"
Mirax nodded, resigned to the inevitable and even, he thought, approving underneath the worry. She'd flinched when he'd mentioned their son... but she was tough, she was his daughter. She'd want vengeance soon enough.
"Good girl. Now keep a sharp eye out, and stay next the comm," he said. "I'm taking the
scooter; keep bay B
open for me. In case."
It was worse close up. Somebody had been either extremely angry or very vicious, maybe both. As far as Booster could see, nothing was left that was even worth mentioning. The refueling and maintenance bays had been torn open by heavy fire and their floors and remaining walls were scorched and twisted, eerie under Varra Gus's jade light. Any vehicles that had been here were long gone, either stolen or salvaged... wait a minute. Booster stared. The airlock on one of the doors into the main maintenance bay glowed green. And unless he was badly mistaken, that shadow next to the door held the Antilleses' short-range scooter, scuffed and dented but looking no worse than the last time he'd seen it. Maybe it had been overlooked, or scorned, but maybe... Booster drew his blaster and moved carefully into the airlock.
The inside of this room wasn't much better than the maintenance bay had been. Scorch marks and broken furnishings bore witness that the marauders, whoever they were, had been in here, too. But the air was breathable, though very stale, and that was the first good sign he'd seen. He started to pull off his helmet, and that was when he heard the voice.
"Stay put, whoever you are," it said, a young voice, strained almost beyond recognition. Almost.
Booster didn't move, he was too experienced a smuggler for that. But his eyes closed, and he swallowed hard, and in general surprised himself with how much relief he felt. "Wedge? Boy, is that you?"
"Boo?" Wedge Antilles began, and had to break off and start over. "Booster? Booster?"
Booster spun around and caught his breath. The boy looked like hell. Not surprising, he reflected, as he said, "Wedge. You're alive." That sounded so inadequate. "Living stars, Wedge. Your parents?" he began and immediately wished he hadn't.
Wedge shook his head, his eyes bleak. "No." He didn't seem to be able to add anything else to that, so Booster asked,
"What the hell happened here, boy?" No use in pretending it hadn't, best get the boy to talk about it, and anyway, damn it, he wanted to know.
Wedge shook his head again. His words came in short phrases as he fought his voice steady. "I don't know. I wasn't here. I was at Iriodana. I wasn't here."
Booster shook his own head and took hold of the boy's shoulder. "A good thing." He looked around the building, then back at Wedge, cocking his head slightly to get the boy's face in his real eye, an old habit from days when his mechanical eye hadn't been as good as the one he had now. "A real good thing. Thank Sathembi, at least you" He broke off as Wedge, without warning, collapsed against him, wracked with sobs and hanging on for dear life. Booster reviewed his words and swore silently at himself. Grey had always used to joke that Sathembi must be the most forlorn deity in the galaxy, no one ever so much as mentioned her besides Booster and Mrendy. And he always forgot how young Wedge was, really, only a few months older than Mirax for all he usually seemed more grown. He shook his head and then awkwardly wrapped his arms around the crying boy, who responded by burrowing tighter and crying harder.
Booster couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Mirax cryshe was so toughand he didn't think he'd been the one to deal with it when she had. Hesitantly he tightened one arm around Wedge's thin shoulders and held him, putting his other hand in the boy's shaggy, dark hair and rubbing (he hoped) comfortingly. But he couldn't think of anything substantive to say, only, "There, there. It's okay, Wedge. Go ahead." He repeated that a couple of times and then lapsed into silence, gladder than he wanted to admit that no one was there to see him, Booster Terrik, being, well, kind. He hadn't been crazy about the idea of one kid (though he adored Mirax), and now he guessed he'd gotten another one. StillMrendy's son, Grey's boy.... He stroked Wedge's hair and let him cry it out, thinking black thoughts himself.
It really wasn't very long before Wedge got himself back in hand; he was, after all, sixteen. He pulled away, scrubbing at his face with the back of his hand and looking anywhere but at Booster, who was just as glad to pretend it hadn't happened himself. They stood silently for a minute, and then Booster asked, "When?"
That Wedge could answer. "Six...," he paused, rubbing the back of his hand across his face one last time and then picking up the blaster he'd dropped. "Six days," he finished. "I, uh, I was at Iriodana, picking up a transtator for the... anyway," he looked at Booster, his brown eyes still bleak, shaded with that green they picked up when he was under stress, like Grey's did..., but his emotions mostly under control. "I couldn't have missed them by more than an hour, Booster," he said. "Maybe not that long. Mom..," he swallowed hard. "Her blood was still wet..."
"Dead stars," murmured Booster. Mrendy...
"An hour," Wedge repeated. "If I had left Iriodana on time, if I hadn't... I'd've been here, with them."
This time Booster said it deliberately. "Thank Sathembi you weren't."
Wedge stared at him, with an emotion that Booster wasn't sure was surprise, or anger.
"I mean it, Wedge. What could you have done here, with them, except die here, with them? I knew your parents too well not to know that they were glad you weren't here. Living stars, Wedge. It's not your fault that you're alive and they're not. The universe has given you life: you take it. Do with it."
Wedge's eyes dropped, but not before Booster saw the relief that flared across them.
"Six days... Do you have comms?"
"CorSec?" Wedge lifted his head sharply, and there was a living edge in his voice, which Booster heard with gladness: bitter was better than numb. "Yeah, CorSec was here. They said they were on it. They said they were. They took a lot of holos, asked a lot of idiot questions..." Booster could imagine: 'did you get along with your father? Uhuh. Well, did he owe anybody money?' Wedge went on. "One of 'em poked around here for a bit, and then left. Haven't heard from him since. And none of 'em really sounded like they cared."
"They don't," said Booster with certainty. It was an article of faith with him: the only thing Corellian Security gave a damn about was people who bothered them in the heart of the Sector, people who evaded tariffs and upset their pretty, well-regulated worlds. Of course, they'd like to get pirates like this, but it wouldn't break any CorSec hearts that Grey Antilles, well known for asking no questions and turning away no comers, had fallen prey to someone he probably would have helped if they'd asked. "They don't care a damn."
"Someone has to," insisted Wedge, as if Booster had written off the whole thing as cleanly as CorSec had. "Somebody has to."
"Somebody does, Wedge. We doyou and me," said Booster calmly. "We care. We'll take care of it."
The hope in Wedge's eyes was more than enough to make Booster sure he'd said the right thing. Not that he hadn't meant to do it anyway, but Wedge deserved to have a share in it. "Look, you can't stay here... have you been here six days? That's no good."
"I got no place else to go," said Wedge simply. "I heard CorSec talking about putting me into care" Booster remembered, with a jolt of pain, Mrendy complaining about how Wedge always overheard too much "so I told 'em I was older than I am. I thought, if they rebuild this place, maybe I could stay on..."
"That what you want?" Booster was dubious about it, but he'd been dubious about it for Grey, too, and he'd made it work, nearly saved enough to buy the place, too. That was gone, of course, nearly twenty years' worth. If Wedge stayed, he'd be a wage slave. Booster found himself shaking his head.
Wedge shook his own head, looking around the desolate room almost as if he were seeing it for the first time. "I don't know, Booster. I don't know... I'm not even sure that they're going to rebuild here."
"Be cheaper to start from scratch somewhere else," nodded Booster. "What then?"
"I don't know," Wedge said, bending to pick up Booster's forgotten helmet and adding, not looking up, "I can't think, Booster. I just don't know."
"Ralla, then," said Booster briskly. "With me and Mirax. For now, anyway," he appended; Wedge was probably going to want to start running his own life soon enough, after all. Best not to get too much in the habit of doing it for him... "We'll get you settled, and then start asking our own questions. Except," he purred with deadly satisfaction, "ours will make a little more sense, and be directed at people with a somewhat better chance of knowing the answers."
"Okay," agreed Wedge, sounding glad somebody else was making the decisions, for the moment anyway. "I have to call CorSec"
"What? They tell you to stay here?"
"No; but they did say not to go anywhere without telling them."
Booster ran his hand through his short, bristling hair and considered the situation. Wedge was going to have to blow off CorSec sooner or later, that much seemed clear to the smuggler, and his gut said sooner was better than later. But, on the other hand, his brain said that CorSec could still make a lot of trouble for the boy, so later was probably better, however much it annoyed him. Moreover, appeasing CorSec would keep them from paying too much attention. "Okay. You can call them from the Skate. Ralla's in the sector; they shouldn't have any problems with it."
"They might have problems with you," Wedge actually smiled; it was shaky, but it was there.
"So, don't mention me," shrugged Booster. "Anything here you want? The scooter?"
"Flyaround? I think that's station property," said Wedge.
"Well, I think it is," the boy protested.
"So, have they come by to pick it up? I expect they think it's gone with everything else here. Forget it, take it." Booster saw the inflexible look appear in Wedge's eyes, and heard again his friend's voice, complaining about his son's stubbornness: 'You can't order that boy to have fun, but you could convince him to be miserable if your reasons were good enough.' "CorImEx owe back wages, don't they? Take it. Wedge, if they want it they can come and get it."
"Yeah, I guess so," Wedge nodded.
Booster figured by the time they got to Ralla, he'd have convinced Wedge to keep the Flyaround. He'd need cash, after all. "Anything else? Besides your flight suit?" He didn't figure so, but Wedge nodded again.
"Yeah, there is. Just a minute." He handed Booster the helmet and left.
Booster pulled on his helmet and activated his comms link to the Skate.
"Father? What's going on?" demanded Mirax.
"Anything on the scanner?" he demanded back.
"No. Are you coming back now?"
"In a minute. Close up bay B and get A open, okay?"
Booster smiled. This was going to be the only good thing he'd get to tell her. "'Cause Wedge's scooter and mine won't both fit into B"
"Wedge?!" Her squeal nearly deafened him. "He's there?"
"Yeah, he is." Not for the first time it occurred to Booster that those two kids might get together. "He wasn't here when it happened."
"And he's coming with us? To Ralla? To stay?"
"Yeah, he is. For a while, any way. You don't mind, do you?"
"Of course not! What do you think?" Her voice went from indignant to sad in the space of a single word. "Poor Wedge. Of course he's with us."
"Well, get the bay ready," said Booster as Wedge came back into the room, carrying his own helmet and a small canvas bag. Booster flicked off the comm switch and raised an eyebrow interrogatively. "Ready?"
Wedge looked around and sighed. "I guess so."
Booster felt an unaccustomed concern. "You all right, boy?"
Wedge glanced up and shrugged. "I guess so. It's just... well, you're right; I can't stay here. But I don't really want to leave. Stupid, huh?"
"Human," said Booster. "Just human. C'mon, boy; Mirax is waiting." And the sooner you're away from here, the better. Get back to living.
"Mirax is on the Skate?" Wedge asked, his eyes darkening slightly. "Good thing" he broke off.
"That she wasn't here, with you all? Yeah," said Booster grimly, "that had crossed my mind, too. Let's go, Wedge."
"Okay." Wedge took a deep breath and pulled on his helmet, togging it down and lowering the faceplate. Booster closed up his own and opened the airlock, and waved the boy through. He started to dial it shut from the other side, but Wedge put a hand on his forearm. "Leave it, Booster. Just... leave it."
Booster shrugged, and did so. It wasn't like they were ever coming back. He watched Wedge climb into the Flyaround and close it up, and then he climbed into his own scooter.
Aboard the Pulsar Skate Booster watched his daughter envelop Wedge in a welcoming hug almost before he got his helmet off. She kissed his cheek, and then pulled slightly away to stare at him without letting go, and then embraced him again. He clung to her tightly even as he protested, not very sincerely, "I'm all right, Mirax."
"Of course you are," she said, and hugged him again. "Oh, Wedge, I'm so sorry about your parents. I loved them, you know I did."
"Yeah, I know," he said quietly. "They... they loved you, too." His voice hung on the edge of breaking.
Booster figured he'd better intervene before Wedge fell apart again. "Okay, you two," he said, putting a hand on each one's shoulder, "break it up. Wedge needs to call Corellia, and we need to get started for Ralla."
They headed up to the cockpit, Booster with an arm over each one's shoulder, one on each side. Mirax was taller, though Wedge was somewhat older; Booster felt a sudden sense of responsibility that shook him deeply. What business did he have, taking on the boy like this? Wedge'd never even been out of the Corellian Sector before, and while Grey had walked the line, maybe even crossed it by some standards, he'd always been law-abiding in his heart. But by the time they'd reached the cockpit, Booster's natural self-confidence had reasserted itself. It wasn't like Wedge had anyone else, and though the Corellian Sector was hardly the whole galaxy, it was a good training ground. He'd be fine.
Wedge settled into the copilot's seat and set the comms board for the call to CorSec. After a moment, it was answered by an operator who asked how she could direct his call. He said, with an apologetic glance at Booster, "Investigator Horn, please. My name is Antilles."
Horn, thought Booster. Small Sector, isn't it? Give him something besides me to occupy his mind...
"I'm sorry, Mr. Antilles, Investigator Horn is not available at this time. May I take a message or direct your call to someone else?"
Wedge hesitated; Booster could tell he wanted the man he'd talked to before, the one who'd actually been to Gus Treta. And the man was good, when all was said and done. "When will Horn be back? I could call again."
"Investigator Horn has taken a few days leave, sir."
"Leave?" Wedge sounded stunned, and looked it, too. "Has someone else taken the Gus Treta case? This is about that..."
"No; that case is still Investigator Horn's. He'll pick it up again when he returns, sir. Would you like to leave him a message?" She sounded bored. If she was a droid, she needed her programming upgraded; if she was human, she needed to work on her customer relations skills. Booster actually found himself getting angry at CorSec's callousness, something he thought he'd gotten used to long ago.
"Yes. Tell him, I've left the station and am at Ralla now." Wedge had recovered his balance, and his voice was cold.
"What station is that, sir?"
"Treta. T R E T A," said Wedge.
"Yes, sir. And you're now at?"
"Ralla. R A double L A. And my name is Antilles," he anticipated her, "A N T I double L E S."
"Yes, sir. You've left Gus Treta and are now at Ralla. I'll leave this message for him."
"Thank you so much." Wedge flicked the switch with shaking fingers and looked up at Booster and Mirax, his eyes now green with more fury than bleakness. "Leave? My family is butchered and he goes on vacation?"
"That's CorSec for you," said Booster.
"Hey, it's not my fault," he protested.
"It's reprehensible!" she said.
"Yeah," he said, "I agree with you. I said so."
"You said it was CorSec," she snapped.
"Same thing," he said simply.
"Father, we can't let it go like that," she said angrily. Her dark eyes were blazing and her color was high.
Ah. "We're not, Mirax. I already told Wedge, we're going to be asking a lot of questions at Ralla. CorSec may have backburnered this, but we haven't."
"No, we haven't," agreed Wedge quietly, his anger exhausted as quickly as it had risen. "Thanks, Booster. You're right," he managed to grin slightly, "as usual."
"Oh, don't say that, Wedge," begged Mirax, purely out of habit. Or maybe to make Wedge feel more at home? Booster wasn't sure; sometimes Mirax was far older than her years. She continued, "He already thinks that."
Booster looked at them both benevolently. "Of course I am. Now, let's get underway" he broke off, looking more closely at Wedge. "Mirax, take Wedge to a cabin. You're beat, son." He couldn't believe the word even as he heard it leave his mouth.
"I'm all right," Wedge started to protest, and then stopped and shook his head resignedly. "No, you're right again. Suddenly, I feel so tired."
Mirax took his arm solicitously. "You look tired, Wedge. Come on. Are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?"
"Actually," Wedge admitted, "I'm starving. But I don't know if I can stay awake long enough to eat anything. Later, Mirax?" He reached for his helmet, which he'd put down on the panel, but pulled his hand back when he saw how it shook.
Booster picked up the helmet and tossed it onto the rack at the back of the cockpit, and then handed Wedge's bag to his daughter. Reaction was setting in, and six days' emotional onslaught; in a few more minutes Wedge would be wiped out. Mirax took the bag and looked at her father worriedly. "Don't worry, Mirax, all he needs is a little sleep; he'll be fine. Take him back and tuck him in, and then come on back and we'll get out of here."
"Yeah," affirmed Wedge, "sleep. That sounds really good right now."
"Okay," Mirax said. "Come on, Wedge. We're a little cramped but we've got room for three, though I think we'll have to clear off the bunk."
Wedge levered himself to his feet and smiled wearily, holding on to the seat for a moment. "Don't worry; the way I feel right now I could sleep under this chair."
"We can do you better than that," said Booster. "Go on with you." They left, Wedge following Mirax and using the wall to keep himself on his feet. But he was young and resilient; Booster wasn't worried. All he needed was a day's sleep, more or less, and then something hot to eat. And a shower. He'd be fine, physically. Booster stared after them for a minute, and then turned to punch Ralla's coordinates into the navicomputer. Mentally was a different thing, and that was going to depend on those questions they had to ask. Booster's eyes, real and implant, grew colder as he contemplated not only the questions but what he'd do with the answers.
Mirax placed Wedge's bag on the built-in side table and grabbed the boxes that were resting on the bunk. Hesitating a moment, she shrugged and dropped them onto the floor and kicked them into the holdall under the bunk, latching it down with her foot; he didn't have much, just the bag, he didn't need the storage space. "We can sort all this out later," she turned to Wedge, who was leaning against the doorway. She hoped desperately that her father was right, and that all Wedge needed was some sleep, but she thought he was being overly optimistic. Wedge didn't just look tired, he looked ... harrowed. She wished her father had given her a bit more detail; he'd said Wedge hadn't been there when it happened, but Wedge's eyes... he'd seen too much.
"That's plenty of room," said Wedge, straightening up with an effort, and smiling with more of one. "I don't need any room, really." He picked up his bag and tried to hook it through the d-ring on the wall. It took him three tries to get it secured, but Mirax didn't think he'd welcome her help. He sat down on the bunk and closed his eyes.
"When was the last time you got any sleep?" asked Mirax.
He hesitated, and then said, "How much is 'any'?"
"When?" she demanded.
"I don't know," he admitted. "Days, maybe four... I've slept some," he added defensively. "Just not much."
"You'll sleep now," she said. It was more than a statement, so she wasn't really surprised when he smiled tiredly at her and said,
"Yes, ma'am." He pulled off his boots, lying down on the bunk to chuck them into the holdall. When he had latched it shut again, he rolled over on the bunk and closed his eyes.
He looked so tired she almost didn't have the heart to tell him, "Wedge, you can't sleep in your flight suit."
"Why not?" He didn't sound surly, just exhausted.
"You just can't, that's all," she said. She tugged at his sleeve. "Come on, Wedge, sit up."
She pulled him to a sitting position and started working on the fastenings of his flight suit. He let her, but then pushed her hands aside and pulled it off himself. He looked even scrungier now, his dark blue shirt wrinkled and sweat-stained. She figured he probably hadn't had a change of clothes in those 'maybe four' days, either. He definitely needed a shower, but that could wait; he might fall asleep in it and break something when he fell down, like an arm. Or his neck. Mirax blinked away a sudden tear; if she started crying, he would, and he'd hate that.
He confirmed her decision to postpone the shower by suddenly yawning deeply and saying, almost plaintively, "Can I sleep now?"
"Take off your shirt, first," she said.
"What?" he blinked at her.
"Give me your shirt," she said, "it really needs to be cleaned."
"You're worse than" he broke off abruptly, and his eyes went very green before he hid them, and his face, from her by pulling his shirt over his head.
Mirax could have kicked herself. She tugged the shirt away from him and hugged him.
He let her for a minute, and then pulled away and hid his face against the thin pillow. "I'm going to sleep now," he said, his voice just not breaking.
"Sure," she said, keeping her own voice steady. "We'll wake you before we get to Ralla."
Ralla. Depending on who you asked, it was either a rock in the sky, a bustling testimony to free enterprise and independent businessmen, or a den of thieves. Grey Antilles had always said it fell somewhere on that spectrum close to the last, but not quite there. One of the things Mirax had always held over Wedge's head was that she spent lots of time on Ralla, whereas Grey wouldn't let Wedge go even for a visit. Wedge had figured that Ralla must be over the line that his father had drawn; finding exactly where that line lay washad beenone of Wedge's challenges. But for whatever the cause, Wedge had never been to Ralla.
He emerged from the Pulsar Skate with a little trepidation, not knowing what to expect and desperate not to let Booster and Mirax down. He was almost immediately encouraged.
He didn't find it, as he had Coronet the time he'd been there, overwhelming. It was smaller, more manageable, and it was an airless moon of a gas giant; the familiar sensation of light grav, the recycled air, and the black, star-strewn skies overhead no matter what time of day it was, all combined to make Wedge feel pretty much at home. There were a lot of people, of course, of dozens of species, and a lot of buildings, and more noise, but overall Ralla was more home-like than he'd expected. It reassured him.
Feeling rested and more in control of himself, he trotted after Booster as they left the field heading for the apartment Booster kept on Ralla. Mirax half-joked, half-apologized, "Father always walks; he says cabs are too expensive as long as his legs work."
"I don't mind," said Wedge. "And anyway, he's right. Especially in decent gravity like this."
"Hey, Booster!" The hail came from the door of a small shop selling something it didn't care to advertise. A tall red-skinned alien dressed in a purple shirt and bright cyan trousers came out into the street. "Jou are back."
"Yeah, Nirago, I'm back. Bettin' against me, were you?"
"Naw, Booster; this one never bets against jou. Jou always come back." Nirago bounced up and down on strongly clawed bare feet and cocked a bright eye at Wedge. "What jou got, there? Apprentice, or, how jou call it, son-in-law? Man for Mirax?"
"No to both, Nirago. Wedge," Booster waved him forward, put a hand on his shoulder. "This here is Nirago; she's a purveyor of a lot of things you don't want to buy any of." The alien threw back her head, which was crested with long blue hair, and laughed freely. Booster waited until she quieted down to say, "This is Grey Antilles's son."
The long-faced alien's huge pink eyes blinked twice. "Awwww, that was bad. This one was ver' sorry to hear about that. Jour father was a good man."
"Thank you," said Wedge, blinking back sudden tears. This was the first freely offered condolence he'd gotten from anybody except the Terriks. And he hadn't even heard of this alien, Nirago, before.
"We're looking for who did it, Nirago. You heard anything?"
"Naw, Booster. This one has heard nothing. Jou going to be here a while jet?"
"Yeah, a few days anyway. Listen, if you hear anything"
"Jes, jes, jou will know. Jou might go to Haspi's to ask, jes?"
"I expect so, Nirago. Take it easy"
"But take it anyhow!" She laughed again, and beckoned to Mirax as Booster started away again. Wedge hesitated, and thus heard Nirago say, "Mirax, girl, jou tell jour father, time jou get a man, naw? Jou want this one?"
"Nirago, we don't do it like that. I'll get my own when I want one, Booster won't have anything to say."
"Aw, girl; fathers don't say, they just get," Nirago laughed again. "Jou need a mother-replacement to do this? This one will send Booster out if jou want."
"No, thanks, Nirago," Mirax laughed, too. "I promise, when I want one I'll get one."
"Hokay, Mirax." Nirago slapped her on the back so hard she staggered, and went back into her store.
"She's so sweet," said Mirax, taking Wedge's arm. "We'd better hurry and catch up with Father."
"What does she sell?" asked Wedge, to say something.
"Drugs, mostly," said Mirax cheerfully. "Spice, glit, vitamins, aphrodisiacs, poisons... pretty much anything you care to name, Nirago can get it if she hasn't got it on her shelf already."
"Oh." Wedge wasn't entirely sure what he thought of that.
"Good quality, high prices... She does all right for herself." Mirax was looking at him sideways.
"Good," said Wedge, and he realized that he meant it. He didn't give a damn what she sold, she was sorry about his parents. He'd take her over a solid citizen like Horn any day.
Mirax squeezed his arm. "I like her; she's always been good to me. She gets on Father's nerves sometimes..."
"Well, if she nags him to get you a man, I can see why."
"You." Mirax threatened to hit him, and he pretended to cower.
"Children," said Booster with enormous patience where he was standing waiting for them. Their eyes met guiltily, and they started laughing. Mirax was clinging to Wedge's arm, and just as he started to sober up, she looked at him and gasped out, "Jou want the job?" and he was gone again.
"Take it inside," said Booster, gesturing at the open door, and, hanging on to each other and laughing, they did. Once inside they collapsed on the sofa, and simply cackled. Booster pulled the door shut and stood looking down at them, his hands fisted on his hips, and it just made them howl.
"Don't talk, just get," Wedge gasped, sending Mirax into hysterics.
"All right," said Booster. "I can see you're useless for the time being. I'm going
to grab some sleep. Wedge,
assuming you're able, we'll go to Haspi's tonight. Mirax, feed him something when you
calm down." He shook
his head and went off toward the back of the apartment.
They didn't go to Haspi's that night. Haspi had closed it for two days because of some obscure religious festival. Most of his patrons hoped part of the ritual included scrubbing the floor, or at least washing the table tops.
They did go shopping though, to buy Wedge some new clothes. Booster's shirts would have swallowed him, and he had just gotten too much shoulder to wear anything of Mirax's, though they'd swapped shirts, jackets, and jumpsuits throughout their childhood. But she was closer to womanhood than Booster felt comfortable admitting, and Wedge was just on the edge of adulthood himself. Another year, two at the outside, Booster realized, and the boy wouldn't be a boy anymore. He'd be grown, shaving every day, and looking enough like his father to break your heart.
Well, be that as it would, and it would whether he wanted it or no, today Wedge needed something to wear.
So Booster and Mirax took him shopping in Yizhak's, where the clothes weren't expensive but were good. Booster, who'd been quiet on the way over, told Mirax to take Wedge in and start looking at shirts, he'd be back in a minute or two. She, as he'd known she would, jumped at the chance.
Mirax was yearning over a pseudosilk shirt in deep blue, its upstanding collar shot with silver, and Wedge was pretending he didn't like it, when Booster rejoined them. "Isn't it perfect?" she appealed to him.
"You could wear it," he nodded. "It would look good on you."
"Father," she regarded him exasperatedly. "We're shopping for Wedge, remember?"
Booster grunted. "It's bad for him," he said.
"What? It's beautiful!"
Wedge glanced from one to the other. Booster almost laughed, but remembered his own youth in time to not. It was pretty obvious Wedge wasn't sure if Booster was telling Mirax she could wear a man's shirt, or if she was trying to get him into a woman's.... Booster reached out and selected a similar shirt, in plain dark green, and offered it to his daughter. "Check out the difference," he said, and then turned to Wedge. "Blue's not real good for you. It's better'n red, or yellow, or white. Stay away from white, tan, cream, anything like that. Brown's okay, but green's best."
Mirax was holding the new shirt up against Wedge. "I see what you mean," she said. "But the blue's so pretty."
She stuck the green one back on its rack but took another of the same color. Keeping both shirts, she wandered off, looking at vests, holding the green shirt up to them and occasionally even sticking its sleeve inside. The other two watched her; Booster wondered how Wedge was taking her proprietary air. But when the boy spoke, he said, "I do like blue. What's wrong with it?"
Booster shrugged, wondering. Had Mrendy not noticed, or had she figured it was outside her son's life? CorImExCo employees wore company colors, and Grey's would have had green.... and, face it, for a mechanic, what did it matter? "Nothing. You just shouldn't wear it. You got a ... you got a trick with your eyes, same as your father's. Ever notice how they changed?" Wedge nodded. Booster half-shrugged. "Green pulls that change out before you get mad," he picked that emotion, though it wasn't the one that changed Antilles eyes fastest; it was the safest one to allude to. "Out here, it's safest to keep your emotions to yourself, unless you want to let them out," he realized he was giving Wedge Lesson Number One in surviving. "So, you got trick eyes, you dress to minimize it."
Wedge nodded again, clearly thinking about it.
Mirax came back to them, two vests held out for them to look at. "I get to pick?" said Wedge, feigning astonishment.
"Only if you do it right now, and in total silence," she responded.
He touched the black one, clearly taken by the tooling along the pockets, but it was the rusty brown one he selected. Booster was surprised by how good that made him feel. Mirax shrugged and hung the black vest up among the shirts. She gave her father a sideways look and then asked Wedge, "So, do you want the blue one?"
"It's a waste of money," he said after a moment.
"Okay," she shrugged. "It's a present, then."
"Mirax," he protested.
"I can afford it," she said. "You can wear it with your friends."
He shook his head at her, laughing. "I don't have any friends," he said.
"You can wear it to get friends," she laughed back.
He could wear it to get girlfriends, thought Booster, but wisely held his peace. Still, two days of watching them had just about convinced him that neither of them thought of each other like that. It was like Mrendy and him all over again. Instead of commenting, he pulled another green shirt off the rack, let Mirax check the size, and carried them all back to the try-on booths. The conversation with Wedge about cash had been sidestepped; with luck, Booster could keep dodging it until CorImExCo came through with a little back salary or death benefits or something. If they did. But that was borrowing trouble.
In the back of the store, Booster handed a shirt, trousers, and the vest to Wedge. He also gave him the parcel he'd carried into Yizhak's from Rusterman's, that held an old Pechora blaster that was pretty much the right size and weight for the boy now and would stay so unless he well outgrew his father, which was unlikely. Wedge looked at the package in puzzlement, and then ducked inside the booth. Mirax wandered around, looking at clothes. Booster waited, whistling tunelessly, and after a moment Wedge said, "Booster?"
"You wear that," said Booster.
"I don't" Wedge broke off.
Booster wondered if he'd been going to say, don't need it, don't have the money for it, or just maybe don't know how to use it. Surely to Sathembi Mrendy hadn't let that happen! Well, if so, Lesson Number Two was coming up this afternoon. Before Haspi's.
Well before Haspi's.
Wedge came out, wearing the blaster and the new clothes. Booster was glad to see he had the blaster strapped low on his leg and tied off properly; at the very least, he hadn't been influenced by CorSec's cop habit of buckling theirs around their waists.
"Wedge," Mirax appeared out of nowhere to survey him from slightly shaggy head to slightly scuffed toe. "You look ..."
"Like a vid star?" he asked skeptically.
"Hardly," she said scornfully. "You look like a real person. You look like you belong here, doesn't he?" she appealed to Booster.
"Yeah," he nodded. "You do. Try not to get too depressed over it. Clothes make the man."
"That's new," Mirax said. "Did you just get that?"
"Your dad got it for me," said Wedge. "I don't think he likes the Rambiey much."
"Rambieys are no good," said Mirax. "Are they?"
"Rambieys are fine for some things," Booster said more judiciously. "Like target shooting. Or ... well, I'm sure they have other uses. But a nice Pechora like that one is what you want if your life depends on it." He wore a BlasTech DL44 himself, but that was too heavy for the boy right now. And he didn't like the light DL18s. There was nothing they could do that a good Pechora couldn't do better, even if the older weapons were, well, older. "Can you use it?"
Wedge looked insulted. "Of course I can. My mother taught me." His eyes went greenish again. Booster was pleased to note that it was almost undetectable in that shirt, even in Yizhak's harsh lighting. In a place like Haspi's, only his friends would be likely to spot it. "I'm pretty good, in fact," Wedge finished.
"Well, we'll go by the range tomorrow, early, when it's likely to be empty, and let you practice with the Pechora. It's a bit different from a Rambiey," said Booster. And if Wedge wasn't skilled, then they could alter their strategy accordingly. Though if Mrendy had taught him, he was likely to be good enough. "For now, let's eat."
"Let's go down to the field, Wedge," Booster's voice distracted him from his darkish, and probably selfish, thoughts.
He looked up almost gratefully. "What's up?"
"I want to go over that hyaline sensor system," the big man said. "Your father was going to look at it for me; I figure you'll do."
Booster's voice hadn't hesitated or put any odd stresses into the sentence. Wedge was truly grateful now. You couldn't go on forever like they'd never existed; Booster's casual reference was, in its way, the best sort of tribute to them. Also, it gave him a chance to say something, after rehearsing it so he didn't break down. "My father told you to replace that sensor system, a year ago he told you." He stood up, feeling like he'd just aced an exam. I'm gonna miss the next one, he realized suddenly. Well... dead stars. He practiced that, too, but wasn't sure he was ready to say it out loud yet. The exams can wait.
"I know," Booster was saying. "But there are a lot of other things the Skate's needed more."
"Yeah, well, you're gonna have a catastrophic failure if you don't."
Booster was looking at him a little oddly. After a moment, he said, "You can't have a catastrophic failure with a hyaline sensor system."
"Yes, you can," Wedge insisted. "Any system can have a catastrophic failure."
"Okay," the smuggler conceded. "The system can fail catastrophically. But even if the whole damn thing stops cold, it's hardly a catastrophe. An inconvenience, maybe."
Wedge shook his head. "You should take better care of the Skate," he said. "If you take care of your" he stopped. Grey's voice finished it in his head: equipment, your equipment will take care of you.
"I know," said Booster, and Wedge realized the older man had finished off the saying, too. "When I win the Aliandran lottery, I'll rehaul the whole yacht. For now, let's just look at the sensors, okay?"
"Sure," Wedge said. He was silent all the way down to the field, but Booster didn't seem to notice. He just whistled and didn't speak himself.
Once there, Wedge scrambled up on the Skate's wing surface to look at the sensor intakes. Booster laughed when he did, and said, "Maybe I should keep you around, do all the climbing."
"I'll consider any reasonable offer," Wedge was glad to see that his voice was obeying his orders again.
Booster laughed again, and waved him to the upper levels, heading to look at the nose section himself. Wedge applied himself carefully to the task; Booster's words had touched a nerve. What was going to happen after (he had no doubt at all that Booster would) they found the pirates? He didn't want to end up back on Tralus (back, like that was where he was from), in care and alone. Or worse, with that family who'd hated his mother so much they'd stopped speaking to her husband. But he didn't know if Booster wanted him underfoot, either. He could be useful, he could do a lot of work; he'd just have to show Booster that was so. He'd have to show him he can pull his own weight...
"Who's the kid?"
Wedge heard the stranger's voice, but Booster's answer, whatever it was, was muffled by the sudden rush of memory. The last time someone had asked that, it had been Grey who'd answered. "That's my son. Wedge!"
Wedge had looked up from the wires he was threading to the sensor dish that had replaced one that had been on the receiving end of a little bit of unfriendly attention from someone. His father had been standing by the bay entrance, with a thickset human, or nearly so, man in a dark blue jumpsuit. Without losing track of his place in the wiring, he'd called back, "Sir?"
"Get down here," Grey had waved at him.
Wedge had separated and tied off the wires, and then dropped to the floor, some five and half meters below the upper sensor strut. The main maintenance bays at Gus Treta had been kept at the moon's natural grav, strong enough that anything you put down stayed where you put it instead of floating annoyingly out of reach, but light enough that anything you dropped probably wouldn't break. Landing with the ease of long habit, Wedge had joined the men.
"Son," Grey had said, "let me introduce you to Vorn Haakit, owner-captain of that Cal Rich you're working on. Hake, my son, Wedge, probably the best mechanic this side of Corell..."
Now Wedge found the intake he was inspecting blurry. He ducked his head and scrubbed his sleeve across his face, hoping no one would notice the quick movement. His father's praise had rarely been so overt, but the pride had been like background noise through Wedge's whole life, the pride and the love. He'd always taken it for granted, and he'd probably never hear anyone speak so casually, so ordinarily proudly about him again. His throat closed, and his swallow couldn't clear it. He wanted to swear at himself; this was no way to show he could handle the strain. But it was no use, he could feel the tears starting.
Dead stars! This time he would have said it if he could have trusted his voice. Instead, he slid along the Pulsar Skate's wing surface and dropped to the ground, and hurried up the ramp to the interior, as if he had something to do inside. But once there, he leaned against a bulkhead and, sliding down to sit braced against it with his knees pulled into his chest, he wept again.
Wedge came down the hall towards the small kitchen still feeling half asleep. The smell of caff not only gave him a goal, it made him realize that Booster and, probably, Mirax were already up; he was making them late. That was no good. One of the things that had kept him awake half the night was the worry that had hit him a few days earlier, and was now grown nearly out of control, namely what was going to happen to him. If he was going to convince Booster to let him hang around after the smuggler had worked out his grief, or vengeance, whichever was driving him, and then he was going to have to not slow Booster down. And he wasn't at all sure he could do that, or not do it. Whichever.
As he got close to the open door, he heard his name. Normally, he'd have spoken up, but in his current state, he froze, just out of sight, and listened. It'd serve him right if he heard bad news, but he wanted to know... He had to.
"He's up," Mirax said. "I heard him. He'll be out in a minute, he's a little slow in the mornings."
"Is he?" Booster's tone was indecipherable.
Not, apparently, to Mirax. "What's wrong, Father?"
"It's a little rough having him around," said Booster slowly. In the hallway, Wedge closed his eyes and sagged against the wall.
In the kitchen, Mirax rounded on her father with a fury Wedge could visualize, and which would have made him feel better if anything could have. "What are you saying? What do you want"
"Easy, girl. I didn't say it was a problem, or that I wished he wasn't. I just said it's a little rough. He's so damned much like Grey, that's all, for all he's so young; every now and then, like he's in half-light, or he lifts his head just so... It's just... Well, it's just rough," Booster finished impatiently.
Mirax's voice was gentle. "I'm sorry, Father. I didn't notice..."
"Nah, you wouldn't," said Booster. "Wedge's just Wedge, to you. His father was an old man."
Wedge was quiet, listening hard. Despite knowing he looked like his father, this was somehow all new to him. Emotionally, he supposed, it hadn't meant anything before this; it had just been a fact.
Booster continued, his voice almost pensive. "But Grey was one of my oldest, best friends ever. The best, bar Mrendy. And he... he went with Mrendy, you know? I never knew him without her... Sith. I miss them both. And Wedge..." The big man was quiet for a moment, and Wedge froze again. "Yesterday, he didn't just look like Grey, and sound like Grey, he was saying the exact same thing Grey'd said to me a dozen times. Exactly, same words, same tone... I don't think he even knew, pretty sure he didn't notice how close he came to breaking me down, though I know I missed a cue to say something."
Wedge couldn't remember the conversation. What had it been about? When had it happened? Booster had been as usual all day. He shook his head in silent despair; the smuggler was right. He wasn't observant enough, he hadn't noticed. And now he didn't know what not to say, how to make it less difficult for Booster to have him around.
"I love you, Father," said Mirax then, her voice a little muffled.
"Yeah? Well, same to you, daughter," he said.
"And that's why I'm coming with you."
"What?" That word was quiet but dangerous.
"I know," Mirax said, in tones that said she didn't care. "You want me to stay here with somebody when you and Wedge finally find out where to go and go. But I'm not. I'm going too."
"Mirax" Booster's voice was an ominous rumble.
His daughter didn't seem to mind. "Forget it. It's settled. Decided. Done." Her voice was light but firm. "I loved them, too, you know. So, I'm going. Now, if you're checking out Wedge's marksmanship, which is pretty good I think, you want me to go get him? You probably shouldn't let him have any caff, not if you want a real test."
Wedge, who'd been pulling himself together, decided that was his cue. He swallowed a couple of times to make sure his voice would sound right and walked into the kitchen. "No caff?" he said. "That wasn't me you were talking about, was it?"
"It was," said Booster, raising the eyebrow over his red-lensed implant. "She seems to think it would be a fairer test."
"It would," she said. "You'll get to see how he shoots half asleep."
With a slight effort, Wedge managed a snort of laughter. "You'll only get to see how I shoot with a headache."
"Mean," said Booster. "That's how a man shoots before he has his caff. And the longer he goes, the meaner he gets. I want to see how you shoot half asleep, I'll hire somebody to wake you up. Get some bread and a cup of caff, and we'll get going."
Mirax got her blaster and came with them. She had Rima's weapon, a Blastech DL20 with a Pechora grip and trigger to accomodate her smaller hand. Rima had put the thing together herself, arguing that BlasTech's market dominance made cartridges for it easier to come by than a Pechora. Booster hadn't bought the argument; Rima had simply loved having something to work on. Mirax kept it out of sentiment more than anything else, which was fine with Booster. A good blaster was a good blaster, whoever made it.
She'd chosen an outfit that made Booster think of Nirago: a bright, billowing magenta blouse and black everything else, including gloves. Her black hair was spilling over her shoulders and she was wearing red stones (crystalline hayakis, or Booster had lost his eye, flashy but not expensive) in her ears. She looked five years older than she was, and she was definitely not going to fade into the crowd.
Wedge, on the other hand, wearing one of his new faded-green shirts and brown trousers and vest, though also looking older, was decidedly nondescript. He could blend into the background just about any place Booster had ever been; only his eyes were remarkable, and that only if you got close enough to him to see the emotion there, desolation and the anger. That was a good thing anyway, in Booster's opinion; though he wasn't made to blend in any more than Mirax, and had therefore made the decision to emphasize his bulk and implicit threat, he'd always rather envied the men who just weren't noticed. And now, until Wedge learned his way around the business and the back lanes, how to take care of himself and what to do with notice, it was just as well that he wasn't the kind to draw any. Even the old Pechora was unremarkable.
He himself was his usual self, menacing from his red-lensed implant and close-cropped hair to his buckled boots, with the big DL44 blaster underlining the message: don't screw with me. He strode along the walkways with the assumption that people would get out of his way, and, as usual, they did. Wedge tagged along as they walked to the range, keeping close and looking around with eyes that seemed to register everything; he was a quick study, Mrendy's kid. Mirax, familiar with Ralla, didn't stick as close, especially in the mercantile section. The problem with that, of course, was that it took them three times as long to get to the range as it should have, but Mirax had to window-shop and chat and try to pull Wedge into conversations with strangers.
But eventually they arrived. The firing range was right at the edge of the pressure dome, with a complicated set of magcon screens permitting the firing of even long-range rifles out over the barren surface. The handgun ranges were empty at this hour of the dayit always fascinated Booster how humans insisted on simulating a solar cycle wherever they went. That lack of audience would be good if Wedge wasn't, Booster reflected.
He set up the targets and stood back. Mirax began firing and he let her, unworried about her skills, which were fine for her needs. He watched Wedge instead, as the boy took his stance in front of the target.
He stood a trifle off square, letting his right foot lead, and drew the Pechora. He held it for target shooting, his right arm extended with the elbow slightly bent and his left hand locked to steady it, and his grasp on the grip was good, not too tight, his little finger off the butt. Booster was glad to see he could aim without needing his line-of-sight to be along the muzzle. Wedge fired off five shots neither quickly nor slowly and then went down to check his grouping. Rusterman had assured Booster that the line-of-fire was true, and Wedge seemed satisfied with it; he came back and fired off another ten shots, more quickly this time, and for the last five without using his left arm as a brace.
Booster reached in and showed Wedge how to bring the target up to him this time, and took advantage of that to look at it himself. He was happy with it: the boy probably wouldn't win any competitions, but his groupings were tight enough. He'd hit what he aimed at, kill who he needed. At least, if he didn't it wouldn't be his marksmanship to blame. Booster slapped him on the shoulder and went to do a little practicing of his own.
One less thing to worry about. Wedge could hold his own in a fire fight, as much as you could be sure of such a thing until it actually happened. Now all that remained was to start asking those questions.
Wedge was lying down on the bed, staring at the gray ceiling just visible in the dark room and trying hard not to think about anything. Six days of being totally alone for almost the entire time, and only interacting with CorSec, which didn't quite equal human contact, and then suddenly the Terriks, and then all of Ralla... he was exhausted. And he was also keyed up, because everything he'd heard over the last two days indicated that if anybody knew anything, that somebody would be at Haspi's ... and Haspi's opened in the morning. He was trying to stop thinking about it, because he was driving himself crazy with it. Nobody would be there, because nobody would know anything. Ever. They'd never find out. Or people would know, but they'd lie. Or they'd tell the truth, and it would be.... unthinkable. The Diktat. Or CorSec. Or some Grand Moff. Or The Black Sun. Or some demented relative...
Stop it. Wedge rolled over and stared at the wall instead. It was no more soporific than the ceiling. Or worse, maybe worst, they'd be at Haspi's themselves and ... what? Exactly what would you do? Freeze? Not freeze? Get yourself killed. Not get killed. And then what?... Stop it.
He rolled over to look at the other wall. That was no better. Get Booster killed. That'd be just about routine.
The door swung open and Mirax said, "Good, you are awake."
He sat up. "What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to talk," she said, sitting down on the bed.
He pulled his knees, under the blanket, up to his chest and hugged them, looking at her sideways. "What about?"
"What's wrong?" she looked at him, her eyes even darker in the dim light and with her concern.
Oh, no. "Nothing," he said, as lightly as possible.
"Oh, don't give me that. This is Mirax, not that blonde at Iriodana. I know you better than that. What's wrong?"
He turned away, putting his back to her. "I'm an orphan," he said sharply. "Isn't that enough?"
"Yes, it is," she said, refusing to take offense. "It's way more than enough. So tell me what else is wrong and maybe we can fix it, and leave you with just the inescapable."
He was silent. Maybe she'd just go away. Instead, she sighed softly and shifted slightly. "You're mad at me because I mentioned Layra. Is that it? Because we could go to Iriodana..."
"No," he said, unable to leave that alone. "It's not... if I never see Layra again, it'll be okay."
"Did you two have a fight?"
"Because maybe I could help you figure out how to make up with her."
"Mirax," he said, almost exasperatedly, "there was no 'us two'. There was me. And her. And Pak Heron. Of the Port Authority Herons."
"Oh." She was quiet for another moment. "It was Iriodana, wasn't it? Father told me you were there when it happened."
"And he probably told you I wasn't supposed to be," Wedge's irritation faded. It wasn't her fault. "And he was right if he did. I wasn't."
"It's all right," he said shortly. He still didn't look at her. Maybe she'd go away. Please.
She didn't. Instead, she sighed again. "Wedge, believe me when I say this, because I'm right. I know. It's not a guess. I know. When Mrendy died, she was thanking Sathembi that you were at Iriodana. Grey, too."
"I know it."
"All right. You're right. Everyone's right. I'd have just got myself killed, too. Would that have been so bad?" His voice hurt his throat, but he added, "It might have been easier all around."
After a long moment, she said, "Wedge, please don't push me away. You don't have to carry this alone. Tell me what it is, we can help. We love you and I know you feel alone, but you're not. Not while you've got us."
"You, maybe," he said and immediately wished he could resist Mirax better.
"And what's that supposed to mean?" she said gently.
What it meant was, he was in Booster's way. He didn't know Booster all that well, really; the smuggler had been around a lot, but not for very long at a time, and, of course, he and Wedge were anything but peers. Booster had always been pleasant, no, not that exactly. Not really affectionate... maybe, maybe avuncular, in the dictionary sense. The only uncle Wedge knew about, great-uncle really, hadn't approved of his nephew's marriage, hadn't ever had anything to do with them, had never so much as written a line, so Wedge's private definition of avuncular was cold, sanctimonious, and unforgiving. But Booster had been, well, all right to have around. He'd been Mirax's beloved father, his own parents' best friend, and he'd brought Wedge the odd outrageous present and told the two children stories on occasion. They'd gotten along, and Wedge had been fond of the older man. And then he'd seen him as a refuge, someone to turn to, someone to make the decisions. And it was pretty clear Booster didn't want to be that. Wedge sighed heavily.
"Come on, Wedge," Mirax said. "Talk to me. Whatever it is, you'll feel better if you say it, you know you will. Don't hurt more than you have to, sweetheart."
Someday he'd learn to just give in at the beginning. "I'm in your way," he said.
"What?" She sounded puzzled. "Wedge, what do you mean, in my way?"
"No, your way, both of your way. You have lives, your own lives, and I'm in the way."
"Wedge," she said, "you're in our life. You always have been."
He unwrapped his arms from around his knees and put his head in his hands. "Your father's putting up with me," he said, "and I'm" He stopped, because even he hadn't been able to convince himself that Booster wouldn't go after Mrendy and Grey's killers whether Wedge were with him or not.
Mirax didn't wait for him to finish, anyway. Her voice was still soft, but a little edge had crept into it. "We don't put up with you. You're not something we have to put up with. You're like part of the family, Wedge, you're like my brother."
"Like I said, you, maybe," he repeated.
"My father wants you."
"I don't think so," he whispered, and wished he hadn't. Mirax was quiet for a minute, and he found himself filling the silence. "Booster's different. He's ... he's..."
"Grieving," said Mirax, and Wedge fell silent. "Father's grieving. He doesn't do it well, just like he doesn't do love-out-loud well, but he does it. And he does it by himself, that's how he is, he doesn't talk... He left me with you all after Mother died because he didn't know how to deal with me. I remember, he'd go days without mentioning her, and then days without saying anything at all." She took a deep breath. "He's grieving, because he really loved your parents. We both did. And if he's awkward with you, it's because, well, you make him think of them. That doesn't mean he doesn't want you around, it just means he's ..." she sighed. When she spoke again, her voice was soft and sorrowful. "He knew Mrendy a long time, they were close... I know how he feels, because I felt like just like that, when I thought you were dead."
Something seemed to shift inside Wedge. It was as though he'd been wrapped up in something, and suddenly he could see again. He turned around and looked at the dark-haired girl sitting next to him, really looked at her. "Ah, Mirax, I'm sorry," he said. "I haven't thought ... you loved them, they loved you. Mom said you were like a daughter..." She swallowed hard, biting her lip, and her eyes, black in the dim room, shone with tears. "I'm so sorry," he repeated, "I've just been taking, and taking, and not thinking at all" he reached for her shoulders and pulled her against him. "I'm so sorry," he said against her black hair, and she suddenly collapsed in his arms, holding onto him desperately, her tears warm against his skin. "I'm sorry, Mirax. I haven't thought, I haven't said... they loved you." He stroked her hair and felt her leaning on him. "They loved you, and I love you, and I was selfish. I wanted to keep my pain away from you. I never thought that meant I was leaving you alone with yours. I'm sorry, Mirax." He rested his cheek against her head and said, very softly, "Mom and Dad wouldn't have been at all happy. But I'm back. We'll work it through together." Mrendy's comfort-words came unbidden to him even as his own tears began. "It's not so terrible; we'll get through it."
Booster woke early, as he did when something momentous was on tap for the day. He lay quietly for a moment, then opened his eyes. As always over the last dozen years there was the jarring adaptation to the implant; he wondered how long it would be before that seemed normal. Probably the first time he dreamed in the odd, binocular vision... Also as always since then, he missed Rima. Somehow, he always woke up thinking she'd be there. Clearly, his sleeping self was not very pragmatic.
His waking self shook off both discordances and looked ahead. Haspi's was the main order of business, where he expected to find somebody who'd done business with the bastards who'd hit Gus Treta. Out on the fringes of this affair, nobody wanted to get involved. On the other hand, nobody really wanted Booster Terrik mad at them, either. It was too bad he wasn't Talon Karrde, or Eet'Valaren, somebody with the reputation of a man who'd kill as soon as not. People thought hints were enough... Booster shrugged and punched the pillow into a more comfortable position. Hints were better than nothing, and Karrde and the Fyssit both had a lot of people gunning for them. Neither of them would have been able to let their daughter walk around Ralla.
What happened after Haspi's would depend entirely on who he found and what they said. It was entirely possible that this would all be over today. It was as possible, and a lot more likely, that this was the first step in a very long hunt. Especially given that it had been more than a week. Who knew where pirates like that had gone in that time? It was so unlikely that they'd come here in the first place, though before any word got out Ralla was safe enough. Booster shook his head. Pointless to speculate, so he stopped.
He thought, instead, about CorImExCo, and what a set of corporate bastards they were. Not that he'd thought they'd be generous, but he had hoped they'd be a bit less Co. and a bit more, well, human. A man works for them for nineteen years and dies working for them, and his son gets two months' wages. Two months. It wouldn't keep Wedge for one, on his own, without the company picking up the rent tab.
Booster also wished, in a vague way, that he and Mrendy hadn't been quite so convincing about the evils of the Corellian banking system back when Grey had started saving to buy the station outright. True, what with fees and taxes and conversions, it would have taken them a quarter again as long to do it, but Wedge would have had the money. After death taxes, of course. But it would have been more than two months' worth. A lot more. Now Booster was going to have to figure how to keep the boy from wanting to give him the little money he had. He had Grey's unquenchable personal honesty; the man would never have failed to repay a debt, and the son wouldn't either. Booster knew Wedge had been trying to get a price on everything so far; he'd have to do something. Maybe he could fall back on owing Grey and Mrendy.
Which, Sathembi knew, he did. And more than money.
He glanced at his wristchrono and decided he might as well get up. It wasn't outrageously early, and he wasn't going back to sleep. A few hours before going to Haspi's would be a good idea, anyway. Although he'd let Wedge sleep in as long as he could; the boy would only get more keyed up the longer he waited. His nerves were, understandably, ragged as it was; there wasn't any need to put more pressure on him. Fortunately, for that purpose, his refresher unit backed against the other, not the small spare room that Wedge was sleeping in.
He sat up, stretched, and got out of bed. He paused in front of Rima's holograph, looking at him with her smiling blue eyes. Wish you were here, darlin', to mother him a bit. I can't do that, and Mirax is tryin' but she can't either, really. Booster didn't talk to Rima out loud anymore, but he still thought to her in the mornings and just before he fell asleep. He told himself it was just habit and didn't mean anything, but he didn't try to break himself of it. Miss you, darlin', he finished, as usual, and headed for the fresher.
Once he was dressed, he headed down the hallway for the kitchen. He was startled to see Mirax's door open; she didn't generally get up this early. At least, he didn't think so, but he had to admit she was growing up fast, and changing. For all he knew, she went running in the mornings. Or sat outside and watched the stars spin past. Or went window shopping. He paused and glanced in her room; she was up, right enough, her bed unmade and empty. He didn't hear anything from the kitchen or the main room; she was being very quiet if she was still in the apartment. He shrugged and headed on down the hall.
He didn't go but three steps before he stopped again. Wedge's door was ajar. And the boy had shut it tight every time he'd gone in the room since he'd gotten there. He shook his head, hoping Wedge hadn't taken some fool notion into his head, like going to Haspi's early, or getting a rented room, or Sathembi knew what. The boy'd been strung out and acting odd the last couple of days; Booster wasn't sure how much sleep he'd been getting, and if he'd slept the last few days before that. It was completely understandable, but Booster found it hard to deal with on top of everything else. That being, of course, Mrendy and Grey... and if he'd let their son go and do something stupid, well, he didn't know what he'd do.
He pushed gently on Wedge's door, in case he was still in there and sleeping. Then he blinked, momentarily unable to move or even think. Light from the hallway spilled over his shoulder into the small, slightly cramped room, and streaked across the bed. Wedge was there, and he was still asleep. That was okay. What held Booster frozen was that he'd found Mirax, too. She was sleeping curled up against Wedge, whose arm was across her back. Her head, black hair in a thick braid, rested on his shoulder and her hand was curled up against his bare chest.
But what had Booster transfixed was what his mind's eye was throwing up over what he was actually seeing. Eleven years ago he'd come to Gus Treta earlier than expected. Mrendy had told him Mirax was in bed, maybe not asleep yet, and he'd gone to check on her, say goodnight, reassure her... and himself. She'd been asleep, curled up with Wedge like a couple of puppies, blanket shoved off, and wearing footie pajamas... had to have been Wedge's, she didn't own anything like that, and to this day slept in one of his, Booster's, shirts. It had been the cutest thing he had ever seen, and one of the last things he'd ever told Rima about, before he stopped talking aloud to her picture...
He wasn't sure how long he stood there, just staring, before Wedge shifted slightly. Then Booster withdrew from the doorway, pulling the door to as softly as he could. He didn't want them to wake up while he was there, and the boy was nervy enough to sense someone looking at him. He'd as soon they both slept a few hours longer, for that matter, so he didn't put on caff when he got to the kitchen, just opened a bottle of Rhyferrlan ale and went into the living room to sit on the sofa with his feet up.
Perhaps he was an unnatural father, but he had no desire to haul Wedge out of the bed and beat him up. Mostly because he was sure his initial impression was right, and that there was nothing more significant involved than there had been when they were five. And if he was wrong, and more than conversation had taken place, well, he knew who was to blame for it. Mirax had been leading Wedge, not necessarily astray, almost since the beginning; he and the Antilleses had, if ruefully, faced up to that years ago. He would never forget Mrendy's half-angry, half-amused recounting to him of how "your daughter took my son to Iriodana! She pretended like 'we're going out, okay?' was asking permission!"
One glance at the kids, both of them looking hangdog and sheepish, had been enough for Booster to reply, "So she had a blaster and he doesn't know how to use the comm?" And Mrendy had had to admit Wedge had gone along willingly enough. "But he wouldn't have done it on his own," she'd said, and that was true enough, though Booster couldn't get half as mad at Mirax as Mrendy was at Wedge, and she wasn't half as mad as Grey...
He sighed. If he was wrong in his observations, and Mirax did, in fact, want Wedge, then beating the boy up surely wasn't the right move. Anyway, the kid needed what he could get right now, and Mirax wouldn't appreciate his butting in. Especially since he was sure he wasn't wrong. So, hell with it. Let it ride.
Still, he found himself wishing he could talk to Mrendy about it. Or Rima. And if you could, you wouldn't have to, he told himself, and shook it off and thought about what he was going to do for fuel now that the place he could get credit was gone.
"Where'd you get that ring?"
Booster stopped. Wedge's voice was trembling with barely suppressed anger. The problem was, if you didn't know him it might sound like fear. Which wasn't a good image to project in a place like Haspi's. He looked behind him for the boy.
"That's my mother's ring," Wedge continued. "Where'd you get it?"
"Run on, hatchling, before I kill you." That was a cold voice, a slow and unconcerned voice, the voice of a being that would as soon kill you as not, sooner than go on listening to you.
Booster caught up to Wedge. The boy was standing, taut with nervous tension, staring into one of the large, pale eyes of an A Besseid. Booster didn't recognize this particular one, but he knew several. You didn't pull their barbels without a good reason; they didn't have those teeth for beauty.
He glanced at the A Besseid's hand. Dead stars.... That was Mrendy's ring; he recognized it. He'd been there the day Grey'd bought it for her, had, in fact, lent him 150 to make up the purchase price. He'd thought it overpriced, and not good enough. "If you're gonna spend that kind of money," he'd told Grey, "you oughta get her something worth it. Like those" he'd gestured at a case of brilliants from outSector somewhere.
Grey had shaken his head. "No, this is right for her. Those are simultaneously flashy and ordinary; Mrendy's neither. This is understated, elegant even, and one of a kind." He'd bought it, and Mrendy had loved it. She'd never taken it off, so far as Booster knew, not even once since she'd married. Wedge had probably never seen his mother without it. And it wasn't a usual thing: nine tiny emeralds set in bezels on a slim gold band that bent like a gentle sine wave... By Sith, it looked a lot better on her than on your ugly grey hand, he thought, staring at the Bessie and feeling anger.
"Is this hatchling assigned to you? Take it away before I kill it."
"No," Booster shook his head. "He's not mine."
"I asked you a question," Wedge interrupted, if in fact he'd even heard Booster. "Where did you get that ring?"
"From some people who are now gone, and if you do not follow them immediately, hatchling, you will be dead." Only one of the A Besseid's hands were still in view.
One of Booster's more annoying traits was that his bulk made swift movement seem unlikely, yet he could actually move with laser-like speed and accuracy. Now, he slammed the A Besseid's head into the table top and held it down. A dull chunk heralded the scarring of the table by those teeth; it wasn't a good piece of wood, though, and Booster didn't care. One triangular tooth had in fact snapped out; Bessies lost them easily and grew more as easily. Another thunk, louder and from under the table, indicated that the blaster the A Besseid had pulled had hit the floor. Some clear liquid dribbled along the tabletop from what was undoubtedly an injured eye, but Booster didn't care about that, either. He leaned his not inconsiderable weight into his hold; Bessies weren't able to do much if their heads were down, only thrash around. Something about the way their spines were put together; Booster didn't worry about the 'whys' of things much, only the 'how tos'.
"Listen to me," Booster said, sounding remarkably polite for a man grinding someone's face into a table. "I don't think you really understand, so I'm going to explain it for you. And then, why, I'm sure you'll be happy to answer any question he might have. See, I know you hatched out of an egg, on a skein of eggs, in a hatchery full of skeins, watched over by people whose job it was. And even if you knew who dropped that skein, which you don't I'll accept that," Booster's tone was hugely placating as the A Besseid writhed at the implication, but he didn't let up an ounce of pressure, "you wouldn't have a clue who actually fertilized you. And, I know that once you hatched, you were ready to take your place as the adornment to A Besseid society you undoubtedly are in just a couple of months, all you needed was schooling. Now, as I'm sure you noticed, we're mammals. Things are a little different for us."
The Bessie rasped out some comment that contained the word "pervert". Most of it was unintelligible due to the interference of the table top. His uppermost eye glared at Booster, but it was impossible to tell exactly what emotion was being displayed. Not that it mattered a whit to Booster whether it was fear, hatred, or disgust.
Wedge was staring, wide-eyed but silent. Nobody else in the place seemed to notice; Booster had counted on that. Bessies rarely made friends. He went on, still sounding civil, ignoring his victim's struggles. "You see, that boy's mother carried him inside herself for nigh a year. Then she gave birth to him, and only him, in blood and pain. Then she fed him with food she made out of her own body," he raised his voice a little to override the Bessie's disgusted gasps and continued, "took care of him while he couldn't walk, couldn't talk, could barely even think, and raised him for more than a decade. And his father, his father fertilized him inside his mother, knew what he'd done, stayed with her and then with them, taking care of them, as a family. Do you know that word? Blood relatives, knowing each other, living together." He leaned a little harder. "You have to understand that that makes for a bond a lot deeper, a lot stronger, and very different, from the bond you have with your skein mates ... people I'm sure you personally would sell to the Empire for caviar if you got paid enough to do it. This boy is looking for the people who murdered his parents, and at the moment you're our best suspect. That ring you're wearing, that's not just an adornment; it's a symbol of that bond, and we know it." Booster's phrasing stayed polite, but his tone dropped into a cold, deadly threat. "Now, I've explained why we're talking to you. We need a little more solid information than 'some people' and 'they're gone'. Else, I'm going to explain something else to somebody else: I'm going to tell my friend here about that system of aerated water you pump through yourself out of that now very accessible back pack contrivance."
The A Besseid squirmed under Booster's grip. Wedge stepped closer, and the Bessie's eye moved to follow him. "Who did you get it from?" asked Wedge, and Booster was proud of the coldness in the boy's tone. No way for that to sound like anything other than it was. But it didn't get an answer.
"Speak up," said Booster. "I didn't quite catch that." He ground a little harder, and the A Besseid suddenly stopped fighting. He rasped something else, also unintelligible, but Booster thought he caught part of a real word, and one that made sense. He relaxed his hold a trifle, and the A Besseid repeated itself.
"Ch'Sheyari. They were Ch'Sheyari. I don't have names."
"Ch'Sheyari," Wedge said. "Where'd they go? When?"
"I don't know where. I just bought from them. A week ago," the Bessie gasped in addition as Booster leaned a little. "They left a week ago."
"Bought?" said Wedge sharply. "Bought what?"
"Glitterstim, mostly; glit and some ryll" that made sense, Booster knew. A Besseids did better in air if they mixed ryll into their water, and he hadn't heard of a species yet that didn't use glitterstim for something, usually medical, illegal, or both. "Some farrax, too." Highly addictive, for exotherms.
"And that ring."
"Yes. They had that. Green is luckyah!" He gasped as Booster leaned in hard.
"Not for you," Booster said. "Not for you."
"I didn't know where they got it, mammal!" the Bessie snarled. "I just bought it."
"Well, now we're buying it from you," said Wedge, reaching over and pulling it off the A Besseid's unresisting hand.
"Sure," said Wedge. "The price is, we're letting you live."
Booster grunted, and then shrugged. Ch'Sheyari weren't on the short list of species A Besseids might stick their thick necks out for. "Just don't go talking to anyone else," he said, "especially CorSec."
The Bessie gave the short, sharp sound that passed for laughter with them. "Not likely, mammal."
"See," said Booster, pleasant again. "We do see eye-to-eye on some things." He released his hold.
The A Besseid raised his heavy head and sat up, his injured eye closed and weeping. He swiveled his head to glare at Booster, and then reached under the table. Wedge held up the blaster. "Is this what you're looking for?"
"Give that to me, hatchling."
Wedge shook his head. "Not hatched, whelped," he said. "And I don't think so. I think I'll leave it with the barkeep on our way out."
The A Besseid laughed shortly again. "Then I hope you won't mind leaving now ... whelp."
"No. Not at all."
"You should have somebody look at that eye," said Booster solicitously, and then he and Wedge left the bar.
"Now what do we do?" Wedge asked. "We don't know who they are, or anything."
"Ch'Sheyari will not be that hard to find," Booster said comfortably. "Nobody likes them. And they'll have filed flight plans. Even if they were lying, we can get their signature specs. We'll find them. It may take a while, but we'll find them."
They walked another block in silence. Then Booster pulled himself out of his vengeance dream to look at Wedge. The boy, too, was off somewhere far away. Suprising himself, the smuggler realized that it probably wasn't a good thing to let him stay there too long. "We'll go to the field this afternoon," he said. Wedge blinked and turned to look at him, coming back to the now. "And we can leave tonight."
Wedge nodded. "That'll be good... Booster, do you think that A Besseid really will not talk?"
"It won't. Not for Ch'Sheyari, at any rate, even presuming someone might be willing to pay something. And that one certainly won't do it for nothing. Or go to CorSec."
"Nothing's what he'd get from them," Wedge said.
Booster laughed. "Why'd you tell it to call you 'whelp'?" he asked curiously.
"He was trying so hard to be insulting, and it was really just kind of funny," said Wedge, shrugging. If Booster hadn't seen his knuckles white around the ring he was holding he might have been deceived by the casual tone. As it was, he was proud of the boy. "I just thought, if I gave him the right word, the next person he used it on might punch it down his throat."
"You do well to stay away from Bessies' teeth," said Booster, amused. "And 'it' is usually safer with one."
He could see Wedge filing both facts away. "Why'd it buy glit and the rest from pirates instead of Nirago?"
Mirax has been talking, has she? Still, it was a good question. "For one thing, Nirago's prices are high; she guarantees quality and she always delivers, but her overhead's fierce... For another, she doesn't like A Besseids. In fact, she doesn't like any species that doesn't have sex ... and I don't mean genders, either. She can quite annoyed with some humans, for that matter. I never found out exactly what she is, but whoever they are, there's three things they firmly believe in if she's a fair representative, which mind you she might not be: free trade, prompt payment of gambling debts, and women running their own lives." He laughed. "And everyone else's, for that matter."
"And you let Mirax talk to her?" Wedge actually teased him.
Booster was proud of him; he had Mrendy's steel and Grey's honor and his own resiliency and he was going to do just fine.
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