Obviously, this owes a great deal (understatement of the century candidate) to George Lucas, and to Michael Stackpole's "X-Wings" series of novels. Rom and Kanraynor are mine; Dutch's name isn't...
No copyright infringement is intended.
Rom had slept because he'd learned to sleep no matter what. But he was too excited to sleep late; he was up before the first fingers of dawn clawed their way through Kanraynor's perpetually overcast sky. Before he did anything else he pulled out the precious laminated card: his pilot's license. His license, a false birthyear but otherwise genuine: the only picture ever taken of him for legitimate purposes, his name, his thumbprint and retinal scan... his key to getting out of the Under and into a better, or at least different, life. And while Rom wasn't much on optimism, he was fairly certain different had to be better. Couldn't be worse, anyway.
He had new clothes, too, to go with the new haircut. The hair he'd done himself, hacking his curls into something shorter for the picture, but the clothes he'd saved for, actually purchased. Maybe the money hadn't been cleanly come by, but the jacket and the trousers and the boots had. He unwrapped the parcels and dressed, settling the clothes, with their unfamiliar feeling of newness, onto his thin body. He raked his fingers through his hair and hoped he looked presentable enough.
He pulled himself through the hole in the roof of the abandoned building where he slept and made his way cautiously through the Warren until he reached the Way of Dreams. At this time of day the Under's main thoroughfare was as close to empty as it ever got, but it was crowded enough to be safe, and Rom dropped from the rooftops to streetlevel and began the trek Up toward Kelestyn Field. As he went past Golden Hours he heard his name called in rough accents, and turned to see Rouster limp out with a bucket of dirty water.
"You goin' to Field again, Rom?" the black-furred Tessir asked. "You mighty slicked up. You got a fancy man up there, Imp officer or somethin'?"
Rom hesitated. Rouster was as close to a friend as he'd had since Harl Ferris had gone, and since he'd been crippled in that knife fight two years ago the Tessir didn't move fast, but still... Rouster wouldn't kill him for the boots, but the license was valuable. He shrugged; half-truth was close enough. "Not an Imp; owns a little shipping line."
"Not bad. He pay you enough for that jacket?" Rouster's second cousin ran the Hours, and had taken Rouster on to clean the place up. Before that fight, Rouster had dressed in fine clothes, now he was lucky to have clean. He bulked twice as big as Rom, though; his envy was harmless.
"Nah," said Rom truthfully. "Not once noway. Been savin' long months for this."
"Lookin' good for human boy," said Rouster. "Hair too short, maybe. Less'n he like it like that. ‘Course, so, you get no looks on Field; reckon you steal better, huh?"
Rom didn't tell Rouster that he hoped he'd never have to steal again. If you stole stuff, landspeeders or chronos or anything in between, you were lucky to get five on the hundred of their worth. If you got away with cash, you were lucky not to get jumped for it as soon as anyone knew you had it. Salary, that was the way to go... "Yeah," he said to the Tessir. "Blendin' in clothes."
"Walk safe in dark," said Rouster, dumping the bucket in the gutter.
"Yeah," said Rom again. "You too." He waited until Rouster had headed back into the brothel before he turned his back and continued up the Way. He shivered slightly, though the air wasn't particularly chill. Rouster had been a big man once. It was easy to fall in the Under, and nobody would help you back up once you did.
The guards on the back gate to Kelestyn were well used to seeing Rom by now. This one had lost all interest in him a long time ago and just waved him through. He trotted along the tarmac toward Gwall's office, his heartbeat increasing. The scarlet and green logo was like a welcoming banner. He stopped to savor the moment. This was the first time in his young life that he could remember feeling anticipation as a pleasure. He turned and found the Kelestyn Field Tower, with the huge chrono set to Coruscant standard time under the blazoned name of the field.
Rom didn't read, not really. He'd memorized the test book, knew the shapes of the sentences to match them with the questions Gwall had read out loud to him, but he couldn't mix the words into new phrases. He was slowly figuring out some of them, could, for instance separate Kelestyn from Field, the latter showing up so many times in the pilot's manual. And he could sign his name, though even after hours of practice it was still one long fluid line to him, not separate letters. Numbers he knew, though, numbers he knew well. And he could do math in his head, even complex equations. Converting CST to local was easy. He was early, more than an hour. That was okay. That was fine. Gwall would be just as glad.
He tugged at the short hem of the jacket and wiped his hands on his trouser legs, and then started up the outside stairs to Gwall's office. He paused on the landing to look at the two ships with Gwall's logo on them sitting on the field, the little Skipper and the Cal Richlan freighter, with the cargo hatches open and the droids loading the bays... in an hour and an half he'd been taking that Cal Rich to Arrevon, on the other side of Kanraynor. And pretty soon, he'd be piloting Gwall's Cal V to whole other planets, in the system and out of it. Pretty soon, he'd be lightside living. Him, Rom Hothagan. The only reason he didn't laugh out loud was because he'd grown up knowing how dangerous it could be; he was definitely laughing inside.
He walked into the outer office, past Gwall's secretary droid. The gray-haired man looked up when he entered and leaned back in his chair, smiling the smile that still set Rom's teeth on edge. The day he'd met Gwall was the turning point in his life, had made today possible, but he despised the man and loathed everything about him. Rom smiled cheerfully and said, "Mornin', sir."
"You're early, boy," said Gwall, rising and closing the door, as Rom had known he would. "You look bright," he added, "real bright and shiny," running his hand from Rom's neck down his back.
Rom let the man have his way. Nothing in the world came free, there was nothing truer than that. He'd been paying Gwall with his body for two years, and the man had delivered what he'd promised, that license in Rom's jacket pocket. There was no sense in stopping now, on the curb of the new road. Just lean on the desk, eyes closed, jaw clenched, and ride it out. As usual. Better than usual, with Arrevon in his reach.
Afterwards, Gwall settled back in his chair, pouring himself a drink. Rom pulled his clothes back on, straightening himself, standing by the window and looking at the Cal Rich. When his voice was back under his control, he'd ask... he stiffened. A blond man was approaching the Cal Rich, talking to one of the droids. I should have known, thought Rom. A feeling he didn't recognize immediately settled over him, a dark and hopeless emotion. He turned slowly from the window and looked at the line owner sitting with his back to him.
"That look like Kemp, sir," he said, unwilling to believe what he knew to be true. "What he doin' here?"
"Kemp? What do you think? He's taking the shipment to Arrevon," said Gwall without looking up.
That clinched it. But Rom tried one last time to grab the lightside before it slipped away. "Copilot?"
"Co?" said Gwall, with what sounded like real amusement in his voice. "Co? You have to be joking. You didn't really think I was going to let a two-bit gutter whore like you fly my cargo, did you? Take the Skipper for a joyride, boy; I've filed a flightplan for you. You can take it anytime you wantjust so long as you stop by here first, let me get my money's worth"
Rom didn't ever remember making a conscious decision to kill him. One minute he was looking at his gutted dream, the next, his boot knife was in his hand and he was slicing through Gwall's throat, sending his body to the floor to mingle his real blood with the phantom blood of Rom's dead future. And then, of course, it was really dead. Any chance he'd had of turning his license to use with someone other than Gwall, minuscule as that might have been, was gone. Funny, though, he didn't regret it, not as long as he got out of there... and he would, with the Skipper waiting.
Gwall moved slightly, and Rom looked down at him. Their eyes met, and Rom read surprise and shock in the older man's. He smiled, his real smile, and bent down to say, "I may be a two-bit gutter whore, but you a fool. You not first man I killed, and Skipper won't be first thing I stole." Then the life drained from the line owner's eyes, and Rom wiped his knife blade clean on the corpse's shirt.
Then he picked up the Skipper's key- and datapads and left, closing the door behind him and telling the droid Gwall didn't want to be disturbed. It nodded; that too was usual. Rom walked down the stairs, taking one last look at Kelestyn Field, and crossed to the Skipper. Kemp lifted a neutral hand in his direction, and Rom nodded back at him; the pilot had never spoken to him, but he'd never tried to get rid of him, either. He probably didn't know what Gwall had been promising; if he did, his face was his fortune and he should have been playing high-stakes sabacc.
Rom closed up the Skipper and called the field control. He didn't know where the flight plan had him going and didn't care; he was headed toward Fele Field, where Kanraynor was darkest. He could sell the Skipper there for a couple of hundred, maybe more if he got lucky. If he got really lucky, some smuggler would be looking for crew. In his present mood, he'd stand still for a shipload of anything if it would get him off Kanraynor, and his pilot's license might turn the trick...
Major Vaerrit couldn't believe what he was hearing. Of all the stupid things Leerahay had ever done, insulting a half-drunken Trandosian had to be the stupidest. And he'd never challenge that; it was hard to be stupid with your head blown off. Sith and Sithspawn, thought Dutch Vaerrit; it wasn't as though he'd liked the idiot, but why did he have to go and get himself killed on this backwater hellhole? And then, to be told that this dealer in stolen ships wouldn't go higher than four hundred for a T-65 X-Wing in nearly perfect operating condition
"You see, you must see, honored sir," said the Fleerit, his golden furred face impassive and his four arms folded across his belly, "Imperial Forces no longer use the Incom design. They use Sienar Fleet System's designs. To be found with an Incom T-65 on my lot, it would be worth several limbs, if not my life. I have to factor that risk."
"A T-65," said Dutch icily, "costs considerably more than four hundred."
"True, honored sir," said the Fleerit. As far as Dutch could tell, he didn't have a name. Everyone at Fele just called him ‘the Fleerit'. "Now, as I said, for two thousand I could, by tomorrow, modify one of your T-65s with clamps so that you could carry the other one."
"Which would play hell with maneuverability and fuel consumption," said Dutch, "not to mention that it would be impossible to extend S-foils."
"True, honored sir. Well, then, for fourteen thousand I could sell you a slightly-used freighter that would carry both T-65s in ampleness of space."
"If I had fourteen thousand. Which I don't."
"Then, you must sell one. Or hire a pilot. And no one here will give you as good a price as I, honored sir."
Which was, so far as Dutch could tell, depressingly true. "There aren't any pilots."
"That is true today," said the Fleerit consideringly. "But perhaps, if you wait some days, a pilot will show up. Of course, you'll have to pay field fees. And the pilot. And few will be willing to cross the Empire for less than, say"
"More than I have, I know."
"Four hundred will pay your field fees and fuel your T-65. It will do that, with increasingly less change back to you, for two more days," the Fleerit said helpfully. "I will not lessen the price to you, honored sir. I have no love for the Empire, myself."
"That's nice to hear," said Dutch. "I'll think about it."
"Certainly, honored sir," said the Fleerit.
Dutch turned to leave. A young boy was standing in the door.
"Can I be of service?" inquired the Fleerit.
"I want to talk to him," the boy gestured at Dutch.
"Certainly," said the Fleerit, turning his moist golden eyes toward his data screens and apparently forgetting their existence.
Dutch looked at the boy with some trepidation. When Leerahay had died, he'd taken a couple of barflies with him, drunken Trandoshians being even less coordinated than sober ones. All Dutch needed was for this to be the son of one of them, looking for money. He walked out of the Fleerit's office, heading for his X-Wings.
The boy trotted along beside him, apparently not surprised that Vaerrit hadn't stood still to talk to him. He was thin, with pale blue eyes too big for his face and thick black hair that was raggedly cut just a little too short to be curly. His clothes were not particularly good, or well-fitting, but seemed new, and he looked hungry. "What can I do for you, boy?" Dutch asked, aware he sounded brusque. He hated dealing with children like this; they made him angry and guilty at the same time. He prayed daily that when the Rebellion succeeded, children like thishungry, homeless, abandoned scroungerswould no longer exist.
The boy either didn't mind the tone or didn't notice it. "I hear... someone said you lookin' for a pilot," he said, trying to sound older than he was.
"I am," Dutch said. "You know one?"
"I am one," the boy said, pulling a license out of his jacket.
Dutch regarded him skeptically, and then looked at the license. It was the boy's hologram, all right. And it was, as far as he could tell, a perfectly valid Imperial Provincial license, like the one his own son had back on Alurry. If he verified the retinal scan, it would probably check. The birthdate was a lie, of course; this boy wasn't eighteen. He was probably fourteen; he hadn't grown his beard yet, that was for sure. He sighed and handed the license back. "How long have you been flying, Rom?" he asked almost gently.
"More'n year now," said the boy fiercely.
"Flying what? Skippers?" Dutch guessed. "That's not what I need. I'm sorry"
"I can fly that," he pointed with his chin at the T-65 in the hangar.
"I doubt it," said Dutch as gently as he could. "Do you know what that is?"
"It an Incom T-65," the boy said. "Four engines, hyperdrive"
Dutch cut him off before he could recite all the specs. "It's a bit more complicated than a Skipper."
"I can fly that," the boy repeated with enough certainty that Dutch couldn't argue that point.
Not that one. "Maybeso, but you're awfully damned young to take this on. What would your folks say?"
"If I ever known 'em, maybe I could guess," Rom said defiantly. "They ain't around to care. I can fly that, and you need a pilot."
"I don't know that I need a pilot that badly," said Dutch, with finality. "This isn't just a ferry run. This is dangerous. This is, or at least it could be, combat. You look for another job, son."
The boy hesitated a minute, and then said, "Lookyou don't have to pay me. I'll fly for nothin'. I'll pay youI got a Skippy, Fleerit'll take it for your field fees and fuel. Just take me off Kanraynor." He stepped closer and said, softly, to Dutch's silence, "You can do me if you want, I don't care. Just" He broke off, clearly startled by the reaction that got.
Dutch swore, reaching out and grabbing the boy's shoulder and neck in one hand. He shook him, sharply, angrily, saying, "Don't you make that offer, don't you ever make that offer to anyone again. Do you hear me?"
Rom had frozen in Dutch's grip, his pale eyes wide. Now he swallowed and said, carefully, "You gonna be around to watch?"
"You gonna be around to know what I say?" He rephrased it.
Dutch paused. Was he? "How old are you?"
"You seen my license"
"Don't lie to me. How old are you?"
"How old?" Dutch demanded.
"Fifteen," said the boy. "I think."
"You break my shoulder, I can't get no job for nobody," the boy said cautiously.
Dutch swore again, releasing his grip. Rom immediately moved out of reach, poised to move further faster if need be, but didn't leave. After a moment, he offered, "I done killed already. It wouldn't be nothing new."
Dutch closed his eyes briefly.
"I won't say that again," said the boy, "but I'll fly your fighter for you for nothin' if you take me off Kanraynor. You don't have to deal with me again, after, if'n it bothers you to do with Underscum like me. Just let me go with you, that's all."
"Shut up," said Dutch, but gently. After a long moment he sighed and said, "You said you had a Skipper. I don't suppose you have any kind of papers on her?"
Rom silently produced a datapad.
Dutch looked at it. It, too, looked genuine. There was a different name on it, not the boy's. "Is this legitimate?" he asked.
The boy hesitated, and then said, "It ain't in my name, but it's hern."
"I don't suppose the Fleerit will care," said Dutch.
The boy shook his dark head.
"I am almost certainly going to regret this to my dying day," said Dutch. "But you are coming with me." He leveled a finger at the boy's chest. "You are going to join the Rebellion, Rom Hothagan; if you can really fly, you can be a pilot. Otherwise, you'll do whatever you can do, because if you come with me, I can't let you run loose. Is that clear?"
The boy cocked his head and said, "Will you feed me?"
Dutch laughed shortly. "Yes. You'll get fed. All you can eat. And you'll have your own bedand you will sleep alone, damnit. And new clothes. And spending money."
Rom smiled at him. "I'll do pretty much whatever you want for that."
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," said Dutch. "You just keep it what I want, not what anybody else wants." And I'll have to figure how to get you past Josan Williard.
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