Chapter 67: Sacrifices

A clamor of voices asking for guidance and commands erupted from the wishing well.

Carth was hard put not to ask, Orders, sir? himself as he watched the ponderous orbital platforms, the last line of Sluis Van's defense against invaders, turn their massive cannons from open space towards the habitats.

The habitats, hanging like jeweled eggs in space, a string of pearls adorning the brown planet, had no defenses of their own, only the thick transparisteel domes that generated a breathable environment. The orbitals were more than capable of blasting holes into those domes, letting out precious oxygen and decompressing the air inside. Those trapped outside of buildings would die by the thousands from asphyxia. And even those sheltering behind blast doors would die hours later as their air was used up, or from hunger or thirst when no relief came from the SVN. There could be riots over resources.

Even the refugees who had been evacuated to the planet would reach dubious shelter. The hydroponics farms that grew enough food to feed the system's population would be outside of their reach; the underground food facilities would soon run out, overwhelmed by the influx of new mouths.

If they didn't beat back the Sith quickly, they would soon be able to take whole habitats hostage.

But first they had to stop those orbitals.

"All squadrons, separate into three-man wings," Carth heard Lady Versenne command. "Converge on those orbitals and try to destroy them."

"Those orbitals have thick armor and powerful energy shields, Lady," Chief Jopeth said. "Their weapons may be too light to penetrate their defenses."

"That's why I ordered three-man groups. If they all fired at once, at a single point, they might be able to disrupt their stabilizers," Versenne said. "All wings, I am sending a schematic of an orbital - fire at the target I have selected."

"Those orbitals were modified somehow," Morin muttered. "I hope the modifications don't extend to covering that vulnerability."

The girl looked at the captain. "I hope so as well, Captain."

Carth stared at the holo in the wishing well. It wasn't enough just to destroy the orbitals, if they even could. Without the orbitals, there was nothing that could stop the Sith from sending fighters and cruisers to threaten the habitats. Lady Versenne, for all her boldness, didn't see the whole picture yet. Well, she wasn't exactly trained for it.

But you are, Onasi. Now think of a way to turn this around.

Meanwhile, the three-man groups had reached their targets, but their weapons didn't seem to be denting the orbitals' defenses; not surprising, since they were built to withstand the powerful cannons on capital ships.

"Lady, we can't seem to break through. Can the anti-aircraft guns on the shipyard help us?" called one of the fighter pilots.

"I'm sorry, but our guns don't have the range," Versenne replied. She turned a face that was starting to crack with stress to the chief. "What about the cannons on the cargo ships, Chief?"

"They have the same weight of fire as the fighters, Lady. I'm sorry. They're meant to stop pirates, not warships."

"Lady, weapons lock detected on Hes Dome," a crewman called out.

The lady went pale. "Already?" She scanned her console in an attempt to find a solution. The Chief and Morin copied her.

Then a voice from the holo made them all freeze.

"There's nothing for it, then," a wingleader said, one of the captains from the other Houses. Carth's eyes went to a fighter moving away and out of position. Was the man turning tail and trying to run?

"Captain Sedrik, what -" Versenne began.

The fighter opened up on the throttle, the exhaust from its boosters burning bright against the blackness of space. Accelerating from his confused wingmen, it pulled a hairpin turn and shot back in, towards their assigned orbital. The comm was full of queries for information and orders, but the wingleader ignored them all.

"Remember me to Lady Serenar, Lady Vosaryk," the captain said, saluting.

Then he rammed his fighter into the orbital. The view in the holo turned to static as the sensors were overloaded. Carth blinked in reflex, not quite believing what he just saw. Then he realized the whole room was silent.

In the holo, the view cleared; no one talked or scarcely breathed. All faces had turned away from their consoles to the huge viewscreen.

The orbital the fighter had rammed into was listing visibly, its stabilizers damaged. But its cannons were still moving, still trying to fix a lock on Hes Dome. The other two fighters began firing a continuous stream at the vulnerable spot, and soon the orbital began to tumble out of control.

Carth's head turned back to the holo, where the other fighters began to imitate the first captain's maneuver. The voices on the comm babbled in confusion, wingleaders ordering their wingmen to stop, wingmen arguing with wingleaders. Versenne and the chief also tried to stop the suicide attacks, at turns wheedling and threatening, but to no avail. It reminded him of the more crazy swoop riders, the ones that would take crazy hairpin turns at reckless speeds to make a better time. Swoop racing was one of the most popular sports on the Outer Rim, and it looked like it had infected the pilots.

"They're brave bastards, I'll give 'em that," Carth said, as one by one, orbitals went down under the kamikaze attacks.

"Remember their names, Chief," Versenne whispered, awed by their sacrifices. "I must provide for their families."

The numbers of fighters dwindled as each orbital fell into the planet's gravity well. Some were taken down by dying orbital defensive fire, others caught in the explosions, their fragile craft breaking up from the shockwaves. Still they flew into the teeth of the orbitals' fire, until there were streams of smoke and light as platforms tumbled out of their orbits and plunged into the planet below. The skins of their sides grew red, then white hot as they burned through the first layer of the stratosphere, giant comets with melting armor plating and instruments.

"Shouldn't we warn the planet of impending impacts?" Carth asked.

"They already know. In any case, all habitations on the planet are well underground. They may lose some instruments and sensors, but the cities won't be devastated," Morin replied.

"Lady, we've lost well over half of our screen," Chief Jopeth said. "There are some small fighters and corvettes that took advantage of the distraction and moved around the SVN's flank -"

"And without our orbital platforms, we cannot fend them off," Versenne said, coming to the same conclusion.

"Do you think they'll fire on us?" Dustil whispered.

Carth shook his head, but Revan answered first. "I don't think they will. They only tried that trick with the orbitals when the battle began to stalemate. You'll notice they didn't turn them on the shipyards and hydroponics, just the habitats."

"They're going to have to repair, refuel, and lick their wounds when this is over," Carth added. "They can't do that if they destroy the yards and refueling stations, and they can't feed the troops if the farms aren't working. No, but I think they're gonna try boarding actions."

His comment made Dustil sit up straight, alarmed. "Here, too?" he asked, hand going to a weapon.

"Maybe," Carth said. "A shipyard is particularly vulnerable, with all these docking bays and open slips." He was reminded of ships destroyed by Sith who had bypassed their scanners, thanks to Saul. But this time, at least, they could fight back, and give as good as they got. Saul was dead, and there were probably no more Sith officers of his caliber still alive.

Dustil looked around, giving the room an uncertain glance. Carth turned his attention back to the flurry of activity around Versenne; it looked like someone else had reached the same conclusion.

"Recall all personnel to the inner control rooms," the chief was saying.

Versenne nodded. "Close all blast doors and lock them down. Have the workers jam or destroy the controls as they retreat. There is no sense in leaving the doors open for them to waltz in. As each team comes in, turn off the grav generators for each section, and pump out the air. Let them come in bulky environment suits. And have our best gunners in the anti-aircraft turrets."

The chief and captain hunched over their consoles, snapping orders rapidfire into their comms. The room began to hum again after the silence.

Again, Carth had the feeling of being the odd man out. He felt he should either be the one giving orders, or the one carrying them out. Not be a helpless, out-of-the-loop bystander, sitting on the sidelines. An outsider.

Admit it, Onasi. You hate letting other people fight for you.

Feeling an odd frustration, Carth turned away, back to Dustil and Revan. Concentrate, Onasi, there must be something you can do. He watched the holo.

Enemy light cruisers and fighters were starting to break through from the distant lights and explosions. Red icons began to approach in the wishing well. The numbers didn't look good. Their screen, once substantial, had now become tattered. Squadrons of fighters still circled the shipyard, but to Carth it looked thin and weak.

We're a pretty tempting target. Sooner or later, they're gonna want to take a bite.

Just a few days ago, that space had been full of ships being built, repaired, modified or refitted, tractor beams gently maneuvering them into the slips -

Wait. Tractor beams. Carth's eyes widened. He didn't realize he'd said the words out loud until Dustil repeated them.

"Tractor beams?" Dustil echoed, perplexed. Over his shoulder, Carth saw Versenne look up.

"Yeah! Look, tractor beams can grab onto something, but if you reverse it, you can use it to repel, too!" Carth explained, using his hands to demonstrate. He looked over at Versenne. "What do you think, Lady?"

Versenne called to her harrassed chief. "Chief, do you think it feasible? It is true we have more tractor beam projectors than turrets."

Jopeth consulted his instruments. "I think I can set up a program that will operate the beams automatically, Lady."

"Do so, Chief." Versenne turned back to Carth. "Thank you for that excellent suggestion."

"No problem." Carth caught the disgruntled look on Dustil's face. "What?"

"Nothin'."

You could've told me so that I could impress her, Father. Dustil didn't actually say the words, but his sentiments showed clearly in his frown.

Carth mumbled, "Sorry," and turned away so that Dustil couldn't see his smile.

In the holo, Carth could see that the chief had rapidly implemented his plan. Normally, a sentient operator would use a tractor beam like a giant set of forceps to grip the ship and nestle it into its slip; there was a great deal of pride in having the lightest hand so that there was never even a scratch caused in the process. It looked like the chief had programmed the beams to be operated in direct reverse.

An unsuspecting fighter dove in preparation to strafe at the anti-aircraft turrets, but something invisible swatted it just as it was about to let loose. It tumbled out of control, but before it could recover, a volley of missiles ripped it apart.

The chief said nothing, but Carth thought he could detect a gleam of grim triumph in his eyes as he went about the business of damage control.

Carth's eyes kept going to the screens showing the freighter captains, each with his or her own panel in the wishing well. To Dar, especially. If the yard had a weak link, it was Dar. If Dar chose to stick with the Sith, he could do a tremendous amount of damage. But by the tight lips and scowl of concentration on his face, Dar wasn't going to break. The Sith had just tried to kill his family using those orbitals. His wife and two kids would've suffered, no matter if the Sith knew Dar was on their side.

Remember that, Carth thought at Dar's image.

"Lady, they're comming us," Jopeth said.

Versenne raised her brows. "Let's see what they have to say, then."

"Repeat, surrender. Lay down your arms, power down your shields and open your docking bay doors," someone said over the comm; there was no visual. "No one will be harmed if you surrender peacably. Resist and we will be forced to use deadly weapons. Repeat, surrender -"

The unknown voice was silenced mid-sentence when Versenne cut the signal. "Yes, I see it is the usual message, Chief. Carry on." Her bland smile dared anyone to panic.

"We have incoming," a crewman announced.

"Shields are at maximum power - brace for impact, everyone," the chief called. "Fighters stand by to intercept."

Laser fire erupted on the screen aimed enemy fighters, leaving afterimages in Carth's eyes. The yard's screen of fighters broke off, scattering and converging. The Sith formation also broke apart, separating into groups.

"We need more fighters," Versenne said as she wrapped her hands on a wall grip. The station began to shake as shots impacted on several decks.

"Decks one and forty-five have sustained breaches -"

" - wounded on decks thirty-two, we need a medic down here -"

" - power outage at section six, it's gonna need a tech -"

"Damage control teams Two, Six and Forty-Nine, please report to -"

Carth let the disjointed chatter wash over him. It was all quite familiar - except for the fact that he was sitting on his ass and not doing anything about it.

The huge, ponderous freighters were doing their best to help, but they were hopelessly slow and ungainly compared to the tiny, agile fighters and the larger cruisers. The fighters ignored the freighters to concentrate on the yard. Versenne fielded the calls for help like a professional, but Carth could tell that every shot fired was like a physical blow to her.

"Enough of this - we'll be overwhelmed in a short time unless we have reinforcements -" Versenne began, but a shout from Morin distracted her.

"Lady, we have a wounded man in one of the outer docking bays. We haven't cut off the power and air there yet, but we can't send help, either - one of the bulkheads have collapsed and it would take hours to cut a passage to him."

The anguished look on Versenne's face earned her all of Carth's sympathies. It was a command decision if ever there was one: choosing who would live, and who would die.

"Lady?" Morin asked, when Versenne didn't answer. "What are your orders?"

Versenne gulped a breath. "Shut off the power and decompress the bay. It will... it will at least be quick. And make sure you remember his name. I must make amends to his family."

"Yes, of course, Lady." Morin bent to his unpleasant task.

"Chief," Versenne commanded.

Chief Jopeth looked up, his former calm reduced to harassed worry. "Yes, Lady?"

"Open a comm to House Khyrohn. I wish to speak to Lord Khyrohn."

The chief gaped, thunderstruck. "To... Lord Khyrohn? But -"

Dustil stared at Versenne, then at Carth. "What's she doing? I thought Vosaryk and Khyrohn were, like, mortal enemies or something."

Carth was just as shocked. "Yeah, that's what I thought, too."

"I know!" Revan cried. She leaned forward. "Dustil, remember that time we overheard her and her father arguing?"

"You mean... you mean that bit about House Khyrohn starting to develop ships of their own?" Dustil said.

Despite his shock, the chief had managed to speak to a low-ranking lackey at House Khyrohn, who was proving to be mulish about interrupting her lord with the message. In light of the animosity between the two Houses, Carth couldn't really blame her. Lady Versenne took over.

"I am sure Lord Khyrohn will take some time out of his busy schedule to speak to the Head of House Vosaryk. I have a proposition for him," Versenne said, making sure the camera showed the seal around her neck.

The servant's eyes widened at the sight of the seal, and she began to utter obsequious apologies. "I beg your pardon, Lady Vosaryk. I will put you through to him immediately."

It didn't take long for Lord Khyrohn's face to appear in the holo; the same elegant young man Carth had seen at Bazaar's End; Carth glanced aside at his son, noting the jealous scowl. Khyrohn stood in a similar room; Carth could just make out screens and consoles behind the young lord.

"Lady Vosaryk," Khyrohn said, as politely as if he were still at the party. Only the hum of noise in the background and the slightly frazzled look on the lord's face gave a hint to the very different situation. Khyrohn's eyes were drawn to Versenne's necklace.

"Should I extend my condolences to you with regards to your father?" Khyrohn continued. "He seemed quite well enough at the Conclave." The ironic smile on his face showed he was not ignorant of Lord Vosaryk's agenda. "Incidentally, I suppose I should thank you for the rescue this morning."

"No thanks are necessary, Lord Khyrohn," Versenne said. "My father realized he was no longer able to carry on his duties after the exertions of this morning, and for now has decided to retire to our offices on the planet."

Khyrohn raised a skeptical eyebrow, but his eyes darted to something off-screen and he decided to cut the pleasantries short.

Thank the Force, I thought they'd never stop talking. Carth sighed. This is why civilians shouldn't try to fight, they get too caught up in irrelevant nonsense. He was itching to tell them to stop messing around and get on with the real business. Calm down, Onasi. You're not the one running this show.

"To what do I owe the pleasure of this call, Lady? There are urgent matters I should be attending to," Khyrohn was saying.

Versenne took a fortifying breath and said, "Lord Khyrohn, I understand your House has been researching starfighters for some time, and this year you've actually built a few squadrons for demonstrations."

Khyrohn looked stunned. "How did you - the projects had been conducted in absolute secrecy -"

"Actually, my father had heard rumors, my lord. But it was only recently that I confirmed those rumors." Versenne smiled sweetly.

Comprehension dawned; the young lord wasn't slow. "That break-in the other night - that was your doing, wasn't it?" Khyrohn demanded.

Versenne continued to smile, neither confirming nor denying. Carth was surprised to see that Khyrohn wasn't angry; the young lord looked more impressed than anything else. Khyrohn burst out laughing.

"I applaud your audacity, Lady! All this time I thought you were the cautious, timid type compared to your father's blustering, but I see now I overlooked your subtlety." Khyrohn leaned forward. "Tell me, Lady... are they for hire?"

"Who?" Versenne seemed taken aback.

"The ones who conducted that brilliant raid, Lady. Are they for hire?"

Versenne darted an involuntary glance at Dustil. "I'm afraid I still have them on retainer, Lord Khyrohn."

"Ah, that's too bad." Khyrohn sat back, but a speculative gleam still glittered in his eyes. "I know just the job for them," he added dryly. "But I digress. What did you want?"

"Lord Khyrohn, to return to the original subject - I would like to borrow your fighters."

Khyrohn's eyes widened. "You want to borrow - all of them?"

"All of them, yes, if possible. You have trained pilots, I hope?"

"And why should I be willing to lend them to you?" Khyrohn's eyes narrowed.

The dangerous glint in the lord's eyes didn't daunt Versenne. "I do have a certain amount of information in my hands that I do not think you'd like me to have aired in public." She seemed to be in her element and enjoying it.

The young man's face went pale. "Blackmail, Lady Vosaryk?" he said faintly.

"'Blackmail' is such a crude word," Versenne crooned.

Khyrohn, knowing he was beaten, squared his shoulders, taking the blow like a man. "Very well. But I need some sort of assurance for compensation for any damages."

Carth glanced at Dustil while the two nobles negotiated the collateral; his son was gazing at Versenne with worshipful admiration.

"She's really something, isn't she?" Dustil whispered in a kind of awe. At least his tongue wasn't hanging out.

"Yeah. Yeah, she really is," Carth agreed. Anyone else would be breaking under the pressure after being handed a shipyard under fire, but Versenne was soldiering on calmly and professionally; not only that, but her serene leadership kept everyone around her calm enough to concentrate on their work.

"What do you think she's planning to do with those fighters?" Revan whispered.

"I dunno." Carth looked at the holos hovering around Versenne and in the wishing well. Most of them showed views of the huge cargo freighters. He had an inkling of an idea of what she planned, but it was too fuzzy for him to grasp it.

"I want all of our cargo freighters to start heading towards the habitats," Versenne said. "We'll stuff as many fighters as we can into the freighter bays, and the rest can hide in their capacious sensor shadows."

"A distraction, Lady?" The chief frowned. "For what purpose?"

"My thought was, if we prove to be too painful for them to swallow, they might direct their attentions elsewhere," Versenne replied.

Morin's brow wrinkled. "But, Lady, that would mean they'd turn to the habitats and the other stations. It would be rather rough on them." Versenne looked uncertain, but then the chief spoke.

"They no longer have the orbitals to help them, Lady. I'm not sure fighters by themselves can take over anything, especially the habitats. They can't fit entire cruisers into the airlocks."

"The fighters would fit," Morin said. "They could do an enormous amount of damage once inside."

"It would take time for them to enter, but, hm, then again they might have Sayir agents ready to open them," the chief said. "If their fighters are too busy in the habitats, that would mean the capital ships have no screens, or very thin ones."

"That may be a dangerous assumption, Chief," Morin retorted. "The SVN cannot afford to ignore their transgressions, they would have to divert ships back to the habitats, and that could be a costly - if not fatal - mistake."

Carth wondered if any of those reports Admiral Dodonna insisted he send regularly had been read by sentient eyes, or if they were just sitting buried on some nameless bureaucrat's desk even now. Or worse, still in the mail queue.

And even if someone had read them, it wouldn't do any good now; by the time anyone had thought to send help, the battle would be over, one way or another. Why would anyone send help, anyway, based on a few rumors and unusual activity in Sluis Van? Carth rested his chin on a fist and gazed into his caffa glumly. The Fleet was stretched thin now; there was no guarantee the Admiral had anyone to send even if she knew of the impending invasion.

A fat lot of good you're doing here, Onasi. All that talk about advising these people is so much empty thruster fumes.

A horrendous crash shook the shipyard while he was immersed in his self-pity; his mug went flying and the caffa splashed out. Dustil and Revan were knocked out of their seats, and Morin only just managed to keep Bekim from hurling out of his float chair. The lights flickered, then steadied.

"Are you two all right?" Carth gasped; some of that hot caffa had spilled on his leg. They both uttered shaken yeahs.

"Damage report!" Versenne snapped. The console in front of her threw red highlights on her face. When there was no answer, she wrenched her eyes to her chief, who was lying in a heap on the floor. "Chief!"

Carth moved over and felt the old man's pulse; blood ran from a dent in the chief's skull. "He's alive, Lady, but he's taken a mighty blow to the head," he said, looking up at Versenne and Morin. Morin called for a medic on the comm.

Now's your chance, Onasi. Carth stood and stepped up to the familiar bridge. The readouts and displays were exactly the same as they had been in the Courageous he'd once been the pilot for.

"It looks like a fighter got knocked into one of the shield generators, Lady," Carth called out. "The engines exploded, and it's caused a power cascade. Generator power's dropped down to seventy percent, but the auxiliary generators are still online and functioning."

Versenne and Morin stared at Carth like he'd grown three heads. Carth repressed a smirk.

A couple of gleaming medical droids arrived and quickly placed the still-unconscious chief on a repulsorlift pallet. Versenne watched on, then looked out at the vast room, where every single sentient seemed to be juggling three or four jobs simultaneously. It was clear there was no one else she could designate to take over. She exchanged a significant glance with Morin.

"He did say he has experience," Morin said uncertainly.

"Well, then I suppose we won't need to find a replacement," Versenne said. Her smile looked a bit desperate. "Carry on, then, Nasi."

Carth didn't miss the flash of uncertainty in her eyes. "I'll do my best." Dustil shot Carth another disgruntled look, while Revan gave him an encouraging thumbs-up.

All right, Onasi. You're finally up here - what're you gonna do?

First they had to break through the jamming and get a message out immediately. No, the first thing they had to do was get accurate intelligence somehow. They couldn't just go out blind. Carth looked around idly as he thought, when his eyes fell on a pile of spare circuit boards Silam had left piled on someone's desk. Inspiration struck like a well-aimed torpedo.

"Lady, don't you have jobs where you've got to replace instruments and sensors?" Carth asked.

Versenne looked up. "Well, yes."

"Do you have a good amount of sensors stockpiled, then?" Carth persisted.

After checking her console, Versenne looked up and nodded. "Yes, we do, but why do you ask?"

"We can make a mine field, depending on the amount of materials you've got!" Carth said. "You use the sensors to detect any nearby ships and detonate them."

"But what are we going to use as the explosive?" Morin asked.

Carth spread his arms wide. "Ship fuel," he answered. "And haven't you got plenty on a shipyard?'

Versenne's eyes lit up. "Yes - the containers themselves can act as a shell, and we have plenty of scrap metal - we can use that as shrapnel."

"It's not even going to dent the armor of a capital ship - not even if a whole chain of them went off," Carth warned. "But if we can lure enough of their fighters into the trap, we could destroy their scouts."

"We could use a cargo freighter to transport and deploy them," Morin said, catching on, "but, how do we lure them in?"

Carth scratched his chin as he looked over the holos. "What if... what if we pretend there are some rich lords trying to escape the turmoil in another freighter? With all their wealth and goods?"

Versenne looked scandalized. "No House lords would be so cowardly -"

"No, Lady, I understand what he means." Morin was so excited he interrupted his boss; Carth had been impressed with the man's devotion and loyalty, but there was no doubt the captain was having a bit of fun at the nobility's expense. Maybe it was the stress. "We would certainly never countenance such a thing, but the enemy won't know any better."

"Hm, yes, I see." Versenne looked thoughtful. "We could use one of the cargo freighters -"

"I was thinking something like the yacht you've got in your shipyard -" Carth began.

"No, no, it's much too small." Versenne shook her head. "We must have something ostentatious and grand, something the enemy would positively salivate after. A huge, slow, tempting target, all of its many cargo bays absolutely stuffed to the decks with all manner of riches these imaginary lords could haul away. They won't be able to resist, they must be desperate for such things."

"We could even have some convincing chatter on the comms," Morin put in, a twitch starting at the corners of his lips, "calling them all sorts of names for running away. It could be quite a show of thespian talent."

Well, that still left the capital ships in business, a not insignificant problem. Still, they had to discourage the raids and probing attacks on the yard, the stations and the habitats; the big warships had yet to get past the SVN.

Versenne had some of the crew working on reprogramming the shipyard and construction droids, setting them to work on assembling the mines. They weren't going to be the most sophisticated of ship killers, but hopefully it'd get the job done.

Carth was dismayed to discover that Dar's ship, the Serendipity, was going to be the decoy. It would be easy enough for Dar to make a real getaway, not just a fake one.

But that still left his wife and kids in the middle of a battle, Carth reminded himself. No, Dar wouldn't leave them. Carth tried to beat his doubts back down, but they kept floating back up.

One of the other freighters took charge of the delicate task of demolitions and set about seeding the space where the orbitals had been with the mines. Versenne negotiated with her allies and other shipyards to making the same; at times she reminded Carth of a battlefield commander, the way she handled talks with ten different people at once.

This had better work, Carth thought. Or he was digging a really, really deep hole of debt for Versenne to fall into. Then again, if this didn't work, they were all probably going to die.

He wondered if there was any point in revealing his true identity at this point. It might boost their morale to see a familiar Republican face, little though he wanted to admit it. Because it's fracking ridiculous to think they'd listen to me, even if I really am Carth Onasi. The planets on the Outer Rim prided themselves on their independence, regardless of who they leaned towards in the political arena. They probably wouldn't listen to him even if he declared himself to be the Supreme Chancellor. They'd be pretty angry about the lies, and they might be suspicious enough to throw him in the brig just for that. No, he had to go on just as he was, limited though that might be.

Carth turned back to the holo. It was a start, but it still wasn't enough; the habitats were still too vulnerable. The tractor beams had done their job, no more fighters bothered them now. It was time to come up with another plan. Carth drummed his fingers on the console, considering the disparate elements. His eyes kept going to that dull brown blotch. That asteroid field contained possibilities; he just had to find them.

"Lady, you said you had ore processing stations in the asteroid field, right?" Carth asked.

Versenne did not look up from the current round of negotiations. "That is correct, Lady Serenar - yes, Nasi - now, Lord Bernaday, I assure you -"

Morin looked at the data in Carth's holo. "What are you thinking of?"

"I was thinking - if we can throw a lot of radioactive and chemical junk out into the middle of their vector of approach, we could use that cloud to mask the trajectory of our own fighters. It would take a long time for the rocks and debris to get to the right spot on plain old momentum, but if we time it right, we'd have another distraction with a helluva punch behind it."

Morin looked dubious. "It's a great deal to ask of automated systems we must access remotely. It would also play havoc with our own fighters." Despite his doubts, he began tapping at keys.

"Our fighters will know where and what their targets are; the enemy won't even suspect there's anything behind the junk." Carth consulted his own console. "And what about those indie miners?"

Morin snorted. "What about them? Trying to order them is like trying to herd fell cats, and I think I'd rather have the cats."

"They might help with the right motivation," Carth rubbed his fingers together in the age-old gesture for money. "They'd probably know the best spots for the really nasty stuff."

Morin tapped keys, running and rerunning calculations and simulations. Carth was too busy taking care of damage control to be offended.

"It's going to be a right mess to clean up," Morin commented.

"So you're gonna do it, then," Carth said, looking up from his readouts.

Morin nodded. "I think it is feasible." He looked at the feeble-looking dike of homemade mines being constructed and placed. "I just hope it's enough," he added as he began the process of controlling the ore processing droids.

Yeah, me, too.

A new message blinked, asking for urgent attention. Carth took the call. "Ops," he said, most of his attention focused on the trouble spots on the yard schematics.

"There's something funny I found on t' trains, Chief." Whoever it was didn't know Carth was just a substitute.

"What's funny about it?" Carth asked. If he could shift half of Damage Control Team Sixty-Eight to deck Aurek-21, then they could handle the coolant leak while the other half took care of -

The train of thought came to a screeching halt when Carth heard the gruff sentient say, "Well, there's a timer on one of them power packs."

Carth's eyes widened and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. "You... you mean like a detonator?"

"Very like."

Carth swung his head around, looking for the colored schematic of the shipyard, his eyes searching for the moving ribbons of the trains. He barely noticed Dustil and Revan had left their seats and were standing near him.

There were four different trains, each moving along their channels in their designated areas. Now various pieces of data came together in Carth's mind, presenting their smug conclusions.

He knew now why he'd seen Silam developing tibanna gas as a power source. Compact and innocuous, they could take out entire sections of the shipyard if detonated. It wouldn't need a powerful source of energy, with an easily detected signature. It would be child's play for someone to smuggle them on and attach them. They might be able to evacuate the affected areas, but it would leave the door wide open for the Sith.

Carth exchanged horrified looks with Versenne and Morin.

"Our demolitions experts are away, making mines," Versenne said, looking sick and pale. "And we only have two, not nearly enough."

I can disarm mines, but there's no way I can abandon my post. I need to supervise the mine laying and coordinate with the indie miners. He rather doubted Revan had the same expertise, even if she could remember - her commands had been carried out at the highest level, and this was not within her sphere of knowledge.

Carth's mind raced. The bombs couldn't be too complex, otherwise it would be too difficult to arm them. They had to be simple enough because anyone could walk in on them on those trains. It should - should - be simple to disarm.

As though pulled on a tractor beam, Carth's head turned and he stared at Revan; she knew how to disarm mines, too. Then his gaze went inexorably to her bandaged hands. Frak. There was no way she could handle the delicate business in that condition.

"I could help," Dustil said. "She can tell me what to do."

The shock of hearing Dustil willing to be ordered around by Revan was buried under the immediate denial. Carth barely kept the shout from escaping his lips: No, you can't! You're not going anywhere near any bombs! Or you're grounded! For life! I mean it, mister!

Dustil continued to look him in the eyes, not saying anything. Probably because he knew what his father would say.

"We haven't much time," Morin was saying to Versenne as he grabbed up some tools. "The two techs will return at all possible speed and take trains Shen and Osk. I'll take Mern. Right now we've halted them as a precaution in case they respond to movement, but they're all at different parts of the station and not at the central hub. I'll try to reach Resh after I get done with Mern." Gloomily he added, "I will be cutting it quite close."

"I've sent guards after this Silam," Versenne said. "We will find out if he is a Sayir agent - either way we will find out more details about these devices."

"Go!" Carth said; it was almost a shout. It startled them all. Cold sweat trickled down his spine.

"Nasi?" Morin said, hands stilled in the process of stuffing his tools in pockets.

"Nami knows what to do," Carth snapped, fear making him irritable. He turned back to his son. "Be careful - both of you." He emphasized this with a powerful grip on his son's shoulder and shaking him. Dustil's head wagged back and forth with the force of it.

"Come on, we'd better get started," Revan said as she headed for the door. Carth let go of Dustil, and he followed her out.

Carth gripped the edges of the console with shaking hands and stared fiercely at his displays, doing his best to immerse himself in the work. But his thoughts kept galloping after Revan and his son, keeping pace with them as they ran flat-out through gleaming, sterile corridors into danger, without him at their side.


With thanks to Prisoner 24601 for beta reading and giving me valuable feedback.