Flight

by Matthew Keegan

Category: Novella

Dal watched the light freighter pass the last marker through his cockpit window and gave a wave in their direction.

“You’re clear now, Boreal Beauty, and can start your climb. You should have a clear path up into the stratosphere from here. Have a good one.”

The XS Stock Light Freighter began a gradual nose-up and rose through the lilac and blossom coloured clouds that constantly surrounded the gas giant of Bespin. Golden sunlight reflected off the starboard side viewport briefly as the freighter's angle became steeper.

“Much appreciated, Lieutenant. We’ll catch you on our next run. Boreal Beauty, out.”

From the pilot’s seat of his Storm IV Twin-Pod Cloud Car, Lieutenant Dal Fenn kept his eye on the ungainly freighter until it disappeared into the cloud bank above them before looking across to his gunner in the second pod beside him. Separated by several metres but joined by the main engine housing, the two occupants of a Cloud Car communicated via a voice activated internal comms.

“Are you ready, Tikk?” Dal asked with a smile in his voice as he braced himself.

The gunner looked across at him and nodded. “Born ready, my friend.”

Tikk had hardly finished speaking when Dal threw the flight stick hard to port and pushed the throttles all the way forward. The craft rolled over onto its side, banking ninety degrees, and began a brisk yet smooth acceleration up through the sound barrier. The compact ion engine screamed its iconic howl as their speed raced from triple digits into the quadruple. Both men felt their pressure suits inflate around their legs and torso, keeping their blood up in their head and chest where it was needed.

At the peak of the fast turn their bodies were strained under an incredible 9 Gs of pressure,the limit their suits could compensate for. Dal heard Tikk grunting, fighting the forces as he sliced the car through the sky with astonishing speed. The howling scream of the engine was like the hot rush of a pure spice hit to them both.

Clouds rapidly blurred past them as Dal hugged the soft contours in their wide banking turn. The locally manufactured Storm IV could do 1500 km/h but he bought it out of the turn and straightened up once it crossed 1400. Dal then pulled back on the stick, aiming the Storm upwards. Like a dart, he disappeared into the giant clouds above them. Sunlight was obscured for few seconds as they pushed on through the hazy mass until they burst forth, exploding out the top of the cloud like a rifle shot and into clear, powder blue skies.

They left the tangerine and lilac forms behind them as they rocketed higher and higher, pushing the craft closer to its ceiling height. Azure blue gave way to a darker shade, a striking blue which always reminded him of his wife's eyes. He'd once taken Yeranna for a flight high up in the clouds years ago but his wife wasn't one for speed nor heights, preferring the safety on having her feet planted on the ground, even if that ground was part of a giant floating city.

Without looking at his altimeter, Dal knew when they'd reached the Storm's ceiling limit as he heard the tone of the engine change ever so slightly as the air around them got thinner and thinner. Above him was a blue sky so dark it was almost black. He saw the stars begin to announce themselves, seemingly just out of reach.

Slowly he nosed the craft over, arcing gracefully like a diving Kuati water dragon, before pointing the orange machine back down. As they fell from the sky like a meteor, both Dal and Tikk felt everything become weightless. This was Tikk’s favourite part, and he released a small chrome talisman from his gloved hand to watch it float before him. He never ceased to be amazed by this.

They punched through the upper cloud bank silently, the engine barely humming as Daldeployed the small air brakes to limit the vibrations caused by the violent slipstream of rushing air. Clouds rushed up at them like soft mountains and neither man blinked as they punched through each layer at astounding speed.

When he saw they were approaching their base altitude, Dal finally began to ease up on the stick, bringing it back to the horizontal and ending Tikk’s fun. And Dal's, if he was honest. He had to admit that this was truly freeing. Being up here among the clouds was as free as he had felt in a long time. Easing back to a safer cruising speed, Dal ran an experienced eye over his gauges to ensure his machine had handled the aggressive manoeuvres.

His Gas Density Detector still showed no rising thermals of tibanna gas in their vicinity. Flying through a pocket of rising tibanna wasn't life threatening but it could sometimes play havoc with engines, causing them to flare if an atmos intake swallowed an overly-rich concentration of the invisible, naturally forming accelerant. It was best to avoid them if possible which was why GDDs had been installed in all patrol vehicles. It was also the reason why escorts to and from the city were advised.

Satisfied all his gauges were resettling in the green, he looked across at Tikk. The young Bespin native was grinning from ear to ear, giving him a thumbs up as he pocketed his small, metallic talisman.

The car rolled around yet another large cloud and they entered sighting distance of Cloud City itself. The behemoth of a structure still amazed Dal, even after all these years of policing her airspace. Floating thousands of kilometres above the planet’s core, it was a long drop to the bottom.

When he was not on flight patrol he used to forget that fact, but once he lifted his Storm IV off the landing pad and crossed the city's edge, all that air below made him appreciate the engineers whom constantly inspected and maintained the hundreds of kilometres of repulsor-lift coils which wound around the underside of the city. With five million people living and working within the floatingcity, he hoped each and every one of them thanked the engineers in their own way.

They passed high over the privatised tibanna refineries which floated out some distance from the city, each platform chasing their own pocket of rising tibanna gas, and closed in on the city’s airspace. The top of the mushroomed shaped city sparkled like static electricity as sunlight reflected off thousands of high rise windows. Here and there tiny dots and dashes passed in between the tall buildings and Dal could make out other patrol cars, private vehicles and long public transports which snaked from platform to platform.

He dropped the nose of the car and decelerated to the city airspeed limit as they approached the belt of the superstructure. His plan was to pass the transport platforms along the outer edge for a quick patrol but their comms crackled to life with a message that would change everything. “Storm Thirteen, come in, Dal.” The voice of their dispatcher sounded taught, like she was on edge.

“This is Storm Thirteen. Go ahead, Control.”

“Dal, confirm you are in the east quadrant.”

“That's affirmative, Control. Just passing the heavy freighter pads...”

The dispatcher cut him off and her tone told Dal something wasn't right. Cloud City rarely had trouble that warranted a large scale security intervention. They broke up bar fights between drunken gas workers on payday, cleaned up after the odd speeder collision, escorted inbound and outbound ships, and basically kept the peace by being a visible presence. But this message didn't sound like help was needed with another ale-fuelled Ugnaught brawl in the lower levels.

“I’m redirecting Storm Six to your location. I need you two to escort a flight group

inbound from North Sector Nine. It’s...” The transmission broke off momentarily before the dispatcher came back on, her voice now noticeably shaken. “It’s the Empire.”

The words turned his blood to ice. Dal waited a moment, trying to convince himself he had misheard.

“Say again, Control? Did you say the Empire?”

“That’s correct, Dal. They'll be in atmos in five minutes. I’ve... I've been instructed to allow them to land on the Eastern city pads, level three, pad one-four-eight. Escort them in and await further instructions.”

For a moment Dal wasn't there. The car was cruising on its own. Gone were the clouds and the city, his gunner and everything around him. All he could see was that face. The look of

agonising shock on that face... or what remained of that face from long ago. The sound it made was that of a slow and painful death...

“Dal?”

Tikk’s voice pulled him back from the nightmare he carried.

“Copy that, Control,” Dal managed to reply. “Rendezvousing with Storm Six to North Sector Nine for escort. Storm Thirteen, out.”

He thumbed off the frequency to nodded to his flight partner. He forced a smile that must have looked strange.

“Are you okay?”

Dal blinked hard and nodded. “Yeah. Of course.” He was glad his eyes were hidden behind his tinted flight goggles.

“Why in seven suns would the Empire be coming here?” Tikk asked. “They never venture this far out.”

“I've no idea,” Dal answered as calmly as possible.

“And a flight group! Maybe their capital ship has run into trouble in the belts and they're here for help,” Tikk guessed.

“I doubt it.” Dal mumbled quietly, wishing Tikk would quit his questioning.

Their headsets crackled with a new voice.

“Storm Thirteen, this is Storm Six. Got a copy, Dal? This is Seer and Chez.”

Through his front viewport, Dal could see another burnt-orange Storm IV coming towards them, following the convex curve of the upper city.

“Gotcha, Seer. Form up on my left. Let's get this done.”

“What do you think they're here for, Dal?”

The elder pilot could think of a thousand reasons why the Imperials were here but one specific reason made him feel sick.

“No idea. Let's just hope it's not for long.” *

It had been years since he had seen an Imperial shuttle such as the one which was gliding towards them. And even back then the sight of such a majestic craft had filled Dal with dread.

On route to meet with this inbound flight group, Dal had almost talked himself into believing Tikk’s reason for their visit simply being a stricken ship in need of fuel or repairs from navigating through the many asteroid belts which snaked through the outlying areas.

But as the pristine white Lambda class shuttle emerged from the rose pink clouds with its wings splayed out gracefully like a water bird coming in for landing, Dal knew this could not end well. Lambda class shuttles carried people of importance, people of power, people whom changed the rules of whatever planet they landed on to better suit themselves. And with Imperial dignitaries there was always a heavily armed military escort.

Dal felt the knot in his stomach get tighter as four more shapes emerged from the clouds. TIE fighters, two off each wing of the shuttle, bracketed it in perfect formation. These didn't look like Imperials needing fuel or repairs. Dal knew this was the start of something much bigger.

Switching the radio to the open frequency, Dal transmitted to the incoming ships before he moved in. He didn't want to be seen as making an aggressive move and mistakenly shot out of the sky by someone he was meant to escort. With a calm yet authoritarian voice, the best he could summon, Dal hailed the approaching shuttle.

“Imperial flight group, this is...” Dal caught himself at the last moment. It was BWG

procedure to inform all ships of your rank and name. It was just something they had always done.

He paused momentarily before continuing. “....the Bespin Wing Guard. I’ve been instructed to

escort you to your designated landing pad. Please follow us.”

He thumbed off the comms and took a breath. He realised his mouth was dry and he

desperately wanted a drink. Something hard and numbing would do the trick.

“Understood, Bespin,” the accented voice replied. “Lead the way with as little delay as

possible.” The voice cut off.

Dal couldn't pick if it was from Vandor or Coruscant, but the Imperial pilot definitely had

the accent and tone of someone whom had attended an upper class officer’s school.

He could see the five ships were not slowing down, so he and Seer both accelerated their

twin Storms in a sweeping curve to bring them up in front of the shuttle and its TIE escort. It wasn't

a comfortable place to be, as when he looked in the rear view-finder he could see nothing but

Imperial cannons on the front of the five ships all pointed his way. He decided he wouldn't look

back again. They flew in silence. Despite the craft’s climate control, he was sweating. His skin felt

clammy. He knew he must look like a guilty man whom had been found out.

Crossing over the city’s edge Dal could see the designated pad had its perimeter strobe

lights on. The two pod-cars slowed as they slipped between the surrounding buildings and Dal

thumbed the open frequency.

“Imperial Shuttle, landing pad one-four-eight is illuminated and ready for your arrival.”

There was no reply so both he and Storm Six broke away and went into a slow loop around

the pad to watch it land. The imposing shuttle's two pectoral wings folded up, coming to rest near

its vertical dorsal wing, and it touched down gently. Behind it the TIEs broke off and accelerated

away fast, back the way they had come. They didn't ask for an escort and Dal was secretly glad for

that.

Turning his attention to the grounded shuttle as his loop bought him back around, he

watched a dozen white clad Stormtroopers exit down the ramp under the cockpit and line up in two

rows either side of the ship. Then a large, caped figure in pristine black armour strode between them

to meet the welcoming party already waiting for the Imperials. Dal could make out the city's

administrator and his bald cybernetic assistant along with twenty of his fellow Bespin Guards

standing in the golden afternoon light. Dal could see, even from his height, the fear in his

colleagues. Maybe some had pasts just like himself and were keen to flee.

As he watched the imposing, black-clad, Imperial step up to Administrator Calrissian, a

voice came over his comms.

“Dal, I need to refuel. I'm heading back to the depot.”

He looked across at Storm Six and nodded. “Roger that, Seer. We’ll follow you back.”

The two forked patrol cars peeled away from the ominous events below and sped towards

their maintenance hangar on the far side of the city.

*

As technicians refuelled his craft, Dal walked away to the edge of the landing platform to

be alone. Although he was never truely alone. The voices of his past followed him, and that face...

that face was always there in the back of his mind, screaming in pain. That face had followed him

halfway across the galaxy and he knew he had more chance of shaking his shadow than that

traumatic image.

He took out the small comm link from his jacket pocket and activated it. It was paired with

only one other on a scrambled frequency. It was old tech and anyone scanning and trying to crack a

scrambled code could probably unravel what was said if they were good enough, but the chances of

someone here trying that here at that exact moment had to be slim. He hoped anyway.

“Dal? What is it?”

He and his wife had only ever used their coded links when things were looking bleak.

“Yeranna. Where are you?” he asked.

“I’m still at work. Just about to do the shift handover now. What's wrong?”

“The Empire is here,” he said quietly but firmly. Just saying those words to his wife

seemed to cement the fact more so. The Empire was there.

“What?! Here on the city?!”

“I just escorted a flight in. Someone official landed on the north side. No idea who or why

just yet.” He checked over his shoulder to make sure he was still alone.

There was silence for a long moment before Yeranna replied, “I’ll get our things ready. I

can be home in twenty minutes and...” She paused as the gravity of what they were about to do hit

her. “I really thought this would be our home, Dal. We love it here. I never...”

“I know, babe. I know. But we have no choice. We don't know what their intentions are. If

they stay, it would be much too risky for us here. They'd find us.”

He heard Yeranna sigh. “I know. But after all these years, do you really think they'd still

be looking for us?”

The image of that pain-wracked face flashed into Dal’s mind again. The sound of that

horrible scream accompanied it.

“They’ll never stop looking, babe. Not this lot.”

“Okay. I'll meet you at home in twenty minutes and...”

“I’m still on duty,” Dal interrupted. “And if I'm airborne I won't run into any enquiring

Imperials. You get home and prep. I've got another hour to go and I'll meet you straight after.”

“Okay. Be safe. I love you, babe.”

“I love you too.”

He slipped the comm-link into his jacket pocket and sighed. He couldn't believe it really

was time to run again.

‘Dal? You alright?”

Turning, he saw Tikk crossing the refuelling platform, his shaggy blonde hair blowing in

the breeze. The kid didn't know about Dal's past and for a second he wanted to tell someone so he

could share the burden. But he knew it wouldn't help. He and Yeranna had to carry that between

them.

“I’m fine,” he lied as he turned back to look out over the beautiful city that had become his

home. It pained him that his time here had finally come to an end.

“Don’t worry about them. The Empire. We’ve not taken a side in this war that's going on.

They know that.”

Dal shook his head. The kid had so much to learn.

“That doesn't stop them,” he said quietly. “They move in and take over and call it

assisting... if you're lucky. Sometimes they give no explanation. They're like a virus that spreads,

constantly consuming and leaving death and despair in their wake...”

“Fierfek,” Tikk swore, using his favourite curse word which he'd picked up off a passing

Mandalorian a few months back. “They’ve got you rattled, haven't they?”

Dal shook his head and sighed. “No matter where I go, they're always just behind me. It

could be a few months or even years, like I've had here.” He turned and smiled a sad smile at

Tikk. “I’ve been here six years. Six years of living in one place in peace. And I thought this was

going to be it... the one place I could call home. But when you've done the things I've done...

you've always got to be ready to move on when they come calling.”

Dal stopped himself. He was on the verge of saying something, but he held back. It was no

secret the Empire was not well liked by most in the Mid and Outer Rim worlds. And people still

had to sometimes check their opinion for fear of it getting back to those whom ruled over the

galaxy. He trusted Tikk but the less his flight partner knew, the better, and he hoped it sounded like

he was just rambling.

Dal turned back to the skyline and tried to block the voices from his mind as he thought

back on his six years here. Six years...

They'd come in the middle of the night. An officer and four troopers. No warning. No

enquiry. Only charged blasters based on the accusing word of someone that didn't like him.

Yeranna had been deep asleep. Her light snoring had stirred him from his slumber a while

ago and he was enjoying watching her sleep. The muted lights of the industrial city washed through

the window, illuminating the outline of her face just enough for him to see. It was the last time he

had looked upon her without fear.

Then a noise reached him through the thin walls of their modest apartment. A noise which

was foreign. The sound of a weapon being bumped against armour... The distant hum of a blaster

power pack being switched on... Noises which had no reason for being outside his home on Kuat.

He'd woken Yeranna and motioned for her to be quiet.

“Someone is outside,” he had whispered.

His wife had sat up quietly, understanding the danger.

“Thieves?” she had uttered, barely audible.

He’d shaken his head and shrugged. He didn't know.

Grabbing the small repeating blaster pistol he kept by the bed, he had slipped from its

warmth and crossed the floor to peer over the balcony to the lower level of their dwelling. The

noise had come from outside the front door. Forcing himself to the stairs, he checked the charge of

the blaster before thumbing off its safety and descending.

Then the world had erupted in noise and light...

The front door had punched inward with a small explosive and a stun grenade had been

tossed through the opening. It took Dal a moment to realise what it was but he was too late in

covering his ears.

The grenade had been deafening, shaking him hard. A gut-punch which incapacitated

momentarily. Not designed to kill, it had robbed him of his hearing and sight long enough for the

doorway to fill with the white clad soldiers of the Empire, their helmets blocking the effects of the

grenade. Had he been on the lower floor he doubted he could have reacted as he had, but the low

wall around the stairs partially buffered the shockwave, and whilst the detonation still hammered

his body, he still had time to react.

Shouting, noise, beams of light... then someone had opened fire.

Dal couldn't remember if it had been him or not. It could have been.

The dark room strobed like red lightning as the small close-quarter war raged. Smoke

from blaster bolt impacts choked the room in no time. Another stun grenade went off when one on a

trooper's belt was struck by a bolt. Two troopers were thrown sideways, bones being broken from

such close proximity to the blast. The concussion of air seemed to disorientate everyone.

Then thirty seconds later it was all over.

It had seemed like the noise would never end.

But then the screaming began.

Two troopers were dead. Score marks below their jaws showed hits to their necks, the only

spot vulnerable to a small blaster. Two were unconscious, one laying on top of the other, their

armour blackened by the stun grenade. But the officer was screaming.

Dal got to his feet and crossed to the man. One of Dal's laser bolts had caught him in the

side of his face. His flesh had been scored black. His cheek and left ear were gone, his jaw was...

Light flooded the room as Yeranna came down the stairs. She turned away at the carnage.

The smell of burnt flesh and hair turned her stomach.

“Why?!” she had asked, her voice fading as the man's painful cries continued.

Dal didn't know if she had been questioning him or the screaming officer.

He'd heard the comm-link on the officer’s belt crackle with a demand for a sitrep. The

officer had continued to scream as best as he could with half a face.

“Dal!” Yeranna had pleaded. “What is going on?!”

Picking up the data pad the officer had dropped, Dal had looked at the screen and was

shocked to see both their names on a wanted list. 'Wanted for selling Imperial property to rebel

terrorists'. But it was ludicrous! He’d never stolen anything from the Empire. He worked in the Kuat

shipyards as a dock pilot. Everything he worked with was gigantic, and the smallest parts were

several tonnes in weight. He could hardly sneak out with sub-light drive mountings in his pockets.

Then he had seen another name below theirs... Himmar Greenly: the accuser.

“That snake...” he had muttered at the sight of the name.

The two men had never gotten along. In his three years working as a dock pilot they'd

constantly clashed over trivial things. The two could simply not get along. They'd come to blows

several months before in the locker rooms over something small. Greenly had come off the worst.

And his payback had been to lie about Dal and his wife to the Empire simply as revenge.

Which had resulted in the screaming officer now laying in their floor with half a face.

Dal, knowing the man was in terrible pain, had raised his blaster without a second

thought, took a bead on him, and fired one last time.

Then they had fled.

They had fled. From Kuat to Quellor. From Trigalas to Tibrin. Each time one step ahead of

the Empire until they finally got to Bespin. Here they had found a place to live. Dal had found a job

in the docks and had worked there as a pilot for a year before he'd put in an application with the

Bespin Wing Guard. He'd passed their tests, landed the job, worked hard and rose through their

ranks quickly. The pay was good, much more than the shipyard on Kuat or even the Bespin docks.

Yeranna found a job as a croupier in the Yarith Bespin Casino. Her card skills had drawn

many to her table over the years and with their combined incomes they had a fantastic apartment on

the west side of the city with stunning views.

But all they had achieved had been because of that Imperial raid on Kuat... all because they

had been wrongly accused and had fought back. And now the Empire were here. So if the Empire

rolled in with force, how long until they started demanding scan-docs from everyone? They weren't

rebels but they were wanted for crimes against the Empire. They were both was on file. And the

penalty for killing an Imperial officer was death.

Beside him, Tikk said, “You’re crazy, Dal. There’s no need to worry about the Empire

being here. It won't be for long. I bet you they move on in no time.”

Dal just nodded, not wanting to get into an argument.

“C’mon,” Tikk said as he headed back. “Refuelling is done. Let's get back up there.”

Dal was about to reply when his work comm-link chirped. He activated the link and

answered the call. “Lieutenant Fenn here.”

The scratchy voice of the dispatcher came through.

“Dal. How long until you're airborne?”

He looked at Tikk who half shrugged and held up one finger.

“Less than a minute.”

“I need you and Storm Six to intercept an incoming freighter and keep it from

approaching the city for a while.”

Dal baulked at this. Either ships were accepted and escorted or very rarely turned away.

This was odd and he just knew it had something to do with the Empire being here.

“You want us to stall him, is that right?”

“That's the order. Incoming YT freighter to be held out beyond the outer marker until

further notice.”

“Copy that. Refuelling is done. We're on our way now.”

Another voice came over. It was his superior, Commander Towth.

“Lieutenant Fenn, under no circumstances are you to inform the incoming freighter about

the presence of the Empire. Do you understand?”

Not once had Dal ever heard the Commander over the comm-link. He was a bureaucrat and

never entered Control Operations as far as he knew.

“Copy that, Commander. We won't say anything.”

He signalled for Tikk to mount up and soon they were racing away beside Storm Six.

*

Control directed the two Storm IVs to a section of sky far beyond the eastern marker. Dal

began a wide looping circuit as they waited and Seer placed Storm Six several lengths off his port

side. Both noted that tibanna gas thermal activity in this area was more prevalent than what they had

encountered earlier in their shift but it was manageable.

After several minutes they were informed by Control that the incoming freighter was

inbound and should be coming into sight soon. Dal responded by accelerating hard directly at where

the freighter should appear.

It was hard to miss. The YT 1300 freighter came out of the clouds just below them and Dal

swooped down in a turning dive to close the space between them and the ungainly ship. Seer

volunteered to take the lead position with Dal on the freighter’s starboard side.

As Dal took up his spot just behind the freighter's cockpit, he activated the wide band

frequency and sent out a warning chirp that was piercing enough to alert anyone on the freighter.

“Attention, unknown YT freighter. This is Lieutenant Fenn of the Bespin Wing Guard.

You have entered a restricted air space. You are currently not permitted to approach the city. Do so

and you will be fired upon. Do you copy?”

A male voice, possibly Corellian, replied, “Uhh... copy that, Lieutenant.”

Dal allowed a long moment to pass, buying for time as instructed, before he continued.

“Please transmit your registration and maintain your course.”

The same complying voice came back at him. “Transmitting now.”

Dal kept an eye on his screen and waited only a few moments before the incoming details

from the YT rolled down the monitor. He relayed the information to Control and turned his

attention back to the freighter, taking in her detail as they cruised through the clouds.

It's mismatched grey hull was covered in scorch marks from laser blasts and he'd seen

enough asteroid damage on ships to know this one had been through one of the belts of the nearby

Anoat System. Fresh dents and scores had pounded the years-old coating and revealed the metal

underneath in a myriad of places. It was missing outer panels from various spots but it had other

areas heavily layered with additional sheeting. Moisture or some other corrosive matter had caused

severe oxidisation on many exposed parts around the ship's engines. The quad cannons on the top

and bottom were not standard and their blackened barrels showed signs of heavy use. Overall, this

ship looked like it was on its last legs and he wondered if it would even make the city... if Control

allowed it to enter.

The GDD chirped and plotted a path around several rising columns of gas. Thumbing the

comms, Dal hailed the freighter and told it to follow their course to avoid the tibanna.

Part of him wanted to warn whoever it was to flee, to tell them the Empire was waiting for

them. With the battle damage this ship had, it had to have been on the run from their common

enemy. How many ports had Dal and Yeranna flown into only to see an Imperial presence at the

last minute? So many close calls. So much hiding, living in fear...

“Gotcha, Lieutenant,” the freighter pilot replied and the freighter mirrored the turn. “If it

speeds things up, I'm an old friend of Lando Calrissian. I was hoping to catch up with him.”

Dal heard the name of the city’s Administrator and pictured the man meeting with the

Imperial delegation not an hour earlier. The man dressed in black armour... his imposing size and

the way he carried himself had unnerved Dal. And that was from a distance as he flew far above.

The pilot of this freighter, if he was an enemy of the Empire as Dal assumed, had no idea what was

waiting for him.

“YT freighter, we need verification of your approved landing permit,” Dal cut him off,

delaying for time. He really wished this guy would take the hint and leave before it was too late. He

looked across at Tikk and got an idea. Maybe if they fired across their bow, he might hightail it out

of there... “No, I don't have a landing permit,” the freighter pilot tried to explain. “I'm trying to

reach Lando Calrissian.”

“Tikk, give him a warning shot. Shut this guy up,” Dal said as he willed the guy to leave.

Take the hint... he pleaded. It'll be your last chance.

Reacting instantly as he had been trained, Tikk fired a couple of bolts at the forked bow of

the vessel. With the amperage set low, the blasts shook the freighter but caused no damage... not

that anyone would have been able to tell anyway.

“Whoa, whoa! Wait a minute! Let me explain!”

“You will not deviate from your present course,” Dal shot back sternly.

Take the hint, you fool, Dal thought to himself. Get out of here!

But the YT continued on, sticking to Storm Six’s exhaust trail like he was being towed.

Dal slumped in his seat. With the comms being monitored, undoubtedly by the Empire,

there was little else he could do. But he couldn't say he hadn't tried. This guy may not want to save

his skin, so Dal would concentrate on saving the one who counted: his wife Yeranna.

Dispatch finally cut in on their comms. “Okay, Dal. We need that freighter on platform

three two seven. All flight paths have been cleared for your approach.”

Dal sighed quietly. “Copy that, Control. Platform three two seven.”

Sorry, bud, he thought as he thumbed the radio. “Permission granted to land on platform

three two seven.”

The pilot replied with a grateful, if somewhat unamused, “thank you” and Dal nodded to

himself, resigned in this guy's fate as there was no more he could do for him.

“Take him in, Seer,” he said to his colleague out in front.

“Copy that, Dal.”

As the three vessels began to close in on the city, Dal thought about all which he would be

leaving behind once he landed.

His relatively peaceful life here with Yeranna in this majestic floating city would come to

an end. The people he worked with every day, most he could call his friends, he would never see

again. The readily available entertainment, the unbelievable luxury they had stumbled upon, the life

a thousand times better than they had on Kuat... it would all end once he touched down. It would all

become a memory.

A small part of him, the daring part of him, wanted to risk it. Maybe the Empire wouldn't

find us... Maybe they would take this YT pilot and his crew and be on their way.

Maybe

Or maybe not.

Dal let the thought slip away like ash on the wind as they watched the YT freighter flare up

and land on platform 327. As the ungainly ship settled on its landing struts, he peeled off to the side

and bought the Strom IV around in a tight turn, banking hard and fast one last time before aiming

for his own designated landing pad on the other side of the city.

Melancholy washed over him as he bought Storm Thirteen in to land for the last time. He

touched down softly, perfectly, and for a moment he closed his eyes and savoured the sound and

feel as the orange machine came to rest on its dampeners. He killed the engines, flicked all circuit

breakers off, and listened to the hum of the ion engine beside him fade away to silence. He breathed

in deeply and willed the synapses of his brain to permanently record the metallic smells of the

cockpit as he didn't know when he would be able to take the controls of another fast craft again.

Realising he was taking too long, Dal triggered the canopy release and climbed out. His

passion to be airborne had to take a backseat for a while. He now had to save his other love. It was

time to buy passage on the next ship off-world with Yeranna and find another life, far from the

Empire.

He couldn't risk saying goodbye to anyone. Not Tikk, his gunner for the last two years. Not

Seer or Chez. He would just slip away and rendezvous with Yeranna. They would then look for a

new life somewhere else and leave behind their life in the clouds... on the run once more.

~ THE END ~

20