Two Tales From Hoth
by Matthew Keegan
Category: Short Story
For war to exist – be it between factions, towns, states, nations, or worlds – there must be at least two opposing sides.
Each side will think its ideology and its cause is correct and the better of the two. Both will believe the other to be morally corrupt, selfish, and sometimes just plain evil. And some of the soldiers within both armies will certainly act this way.
But each side will also contain soldiers which are decent people.
This short tale is about two of those soldiers... one from either side.
Part One: THE REBEL
“Man will not find peace in technology, but in the nature around him.”
For the first time in her life, Rall Veldem was glad she was not a fast runner. Had she been several paces ahead of her current position, the chunk of ice the size of a power droid, which had dislodged from the hangar ceiling, would have crushed her flat. It was not how she wanted to end her service with the Rebellion.
With the battle pushing ever closer outside on the northern snowy plains of their hidden, ice world, vibrations of oncoming Walkers were causing the expansive ice caverns to break up. Already a number of the passageways were blocked and she hoped her intended destination had not succumbed to the same damage as other sections now buried.
She skirted around the ice boulder and pushed on across the cavernous chamber, past a humming GR-75 transport being loaded with crates... past a disassembled Y-Wing still awaiting parts which would never come... past a droid which had been sheared in half by falling ice, and slipped in through the doorway of the southern passageways.
Here, the sound of Rall's running, of her frantic breathing, bounced back at her off the walls. Even her pounding heartbeat seemed to echo off the confined icy hallways.
She vaulted over a downed electrical conduit and shot past a panicked crew member she didn't recognise. The rifle slung across her back bounced up and down, tugged at her shoulders and banged against her spine despite the padded insular clothing, but she ignored it.
The door to the base's main operation’s centre shot by on her right and she was briefly aware of people shouting orders and the disturbing sounds of battle broadcast in the air. The war sounded full of treble and static.
She pushed on.
Somewhere outside a huge explosion shook the mountain and the walls either side of her seemed to vibrate before they cracked lengthways. The floor jolted upwards and Rall was tripped up on a duckboard. She flew through the air and came crashing down against the floor, banging her shoulder hard into a lattice of pipework.
She let out a sharp groan but scrambled to her feet as quickly as she could. The lights flickered briefly but she put the fear of a destroyed power generator from her mind as she set off again.
Her left arm screamed with pain and she had to hold it tight against her body to stop it swinging. She wasn't sure if she had broken something but there was nothing she could do about that now. The medical wing had all but packed up and what medical staff remained in the base would be too busy dealing with soldiers and pilots from the battlefield. Her arm would have to wait.
Turning right at the next junction she heard their cries. At the next corner she could smell their panic. Their bellowing tore at her heart. Entering the holding pens she counted half a dozen Taun Tauns still confined to their pens, each one terrified of the noise that had come to their home- world.
Rall reached out with her good arm and tried to calm the closest animal. It was the matriarch of the pack. One of the men had named her Gammy after his cantankerous grandmother and the name had stuck. Gammy’s large feet pounded on the ice floor and her heavy tail thrashed left and right, slamming into the metal framework which made up the walls of its pen.
“Shhhh. Easy, girl,” she said in as calm a voice as she could muster, “Easy there, Gammy. I've got you. I've got you.”
She took a hold of the bridle and as she did so the base shook again. The ice walls groaned as they shifted laterally. Smaller pieces fell from the ceiling and Rall's arm was pulled back hard,
receiving a jolt of pain as the old Taun Taun reared its head back sharply. She winced in agony as quietly as she could and reached out again to stroke the muzzle of the beast. Forcing herself to calm down so the animals could be reassured, Rall waited until Gammy bowed her head slightly towards her, allowing her to take a hold of the bridle. Around her the other Taun Tauns quietened slightly.
Rall patted their leader with confidence. “Come on, girls. We're getting you out of here,” she said as she attached some reins to the bridle.
Swinging the gates back, the six animals waited for her to take the lead. With only Gammy being led by Rall, the other five Taun Tauns followed obediently as she pulled the older beast out into the main passageway.
Their heads grazed the ceilings as they raced along and it bought down dustings of ice on them. The six beasts filled the corridors and their bellows and grunts echoed in the confined space. Their heavy feet crushed duckboards as they ran. It took all of Rall's effort to stay ahead of them.
She rounded the corner and fear filled her. The passageway outside of the command centre had collapsed. Rall almost screamed in frustration. She had run through here only minutes before, but here it was now filled with ice and rock from the collapsed ceiling above.
No, she thought to herself, this is the quickest way to the hangar!
Behind her she could feel the TaunTauns becoming restless, eager to reach the open plains where they could run free.
But how do I get them there? she thought as she tried to picture the base's layout in her mind. It was a honeycombed maze under the mountain and some passageways were dead-ends.
Then it hit her. Rall almost laughed.
“The medical centre!” she cried out loud and began pushing the large beasts backwards up the hall. Not a creature that had evolved to walk backwards, she had trouble maneuvering the TaunTauns to a point where she could turn around, but after an agonising minute she forced them back into a doorway and, fighting the beast's weight, bought Gammy around to the front of the pack again.
Leading the way in the opposite direction, she dragged the beasts back past their holding pens and turned left into what had once been the medical centre. Now devoid of all patients and staff and with room to move, Rall burst into a sprint. Behind her the snow lizards followed, eager to be free, and kept pace as they pushed their way through the once clinically clean rooms. Empty carts and tables were knocked to the ground and several shut-down surgical droids which awaited collection were also sent flying as the group ran for their lives.
One rebel clerk emerged from a doorway in a rush and Rall screamed for him to get out of the way. The man dropped his wares and instantly dove to the ground, protecting his head as they hammered their way past him.
The floor thundered with the blows of heavy feet as they raced the length of the ward. Rall saw no one else for the next minute as she threaded the animals through the hospital exit and into yet another passageway. She had only ever come this way once before as it was used for the transportation of the sick to and from ships, but Rall was sure if she turned right at the next intersection she should be able to thread her way to the south hangar... if it wasn’t blocked by another cave in.
A different vibration reached them and Rall realised it was one of the transports taxiing out of the hangar. She didn't know how many remained but she prayed to the ancient gods of her home- world that there would be one, just one, still there once she had completed her task.
Please, please, please...
Then another sound reached her. Blaster fire. Lots of blaster fire. Behind her the TaunTauns barked their protest as she dragged them onward. She had to continue forward. It was the only way out.
They rounded the last cramped corner and elation swept through Rall as she and her six companions burst into the main hangar. The smell of burnt tibanna gas and engine fumes filled the air, as did streaks of incoming red blaster bolts. One transport, its nose sparkling and flaring from the impact of enemy hits, was punching its way out into the daylight and pulling up hard to clear the incoming fire. Another transport – the last one – was taking on the remnants of the base personnel as a dozen soldiers held off the wave of distant Imperial Snowtroopers outside the shield doors. She saw two men, two of her comrades, fall to incoming fire.
Turning hard and pulling Gammy behind her, the team raced along the side wall of the hangar, so far unnoticed by the Empire's forces.
Not far now, girls, Rall thought as she weaved her way between stationary cargo tugs and abandoned personnel carriers. If she could make it just beyond those vehicles, the TaunTauns would have a clear run to the outside, back into the wilds of their home.
The sniper's blaster bolt took Rall low, slicing through the side of her hip and into the ice wall behind her. She screamed out in pain and fell, sliding along the frozen ground. The reins fell from her gloved hands as both went to her injured side, their touch only causing more pain to the seared flesh. Time seemed to slow momentarily and all thoughts of the TaunTauns left her as her mind tried to deal with the burning agony she was in. She rolled over, balled up a fistful of snow and winced as she jammed it into her wound. There was some relief but not much. Then she remembered the TaunTauns and was surprised to see they had stopped and were standing above her, waiting for her to continue with them. Two of the younger beasts made hurried grunts and bowed their heads to her, pushed her firmly but gently with their muzzles, encouraging her to get up. Wrapping her forearm around the tusk of one of them, she allowed it to drag her to her feet and was grasping Gammy's reins when the unthinkable happened.
Gammy's eyes went wide and she howled louder than Rall had ever heard a TaunTaun as an incoming blaster bolt drilled through her thick hide. The old creature bucked backwards into the wall, her legs thrashing wildly to escape the pain, skidded on the slick floor before she crashed heavily onto the frozen ground.
“NO!” Rall screamed as the reins slipped from her grasp. Around her the other beasts howled as they watched their pack-mother scream in agony.
Rall dropped to her knees, her hands reaching out for Gammy. But she was no veterinarian. And even if she was, she couldn't help her here. Anger swept through her as she thought of how close they'd gotten. Rage at the enemy beyond the blast doors boiled up in her. Vengeance surged through her and before she knew it Rall had unslung and shouldered her rifle.
“GET OUT OF HERE!” she screamed at the five remaining TaunTauns. “GO! RUN!” She leaned over and slapped the nearest beast on the rump as hard as she could but the animal hardly flinched. Its focus was on their fallen leader.
“GO!” Rall bellowed again with a breaking voice, tears filling her eyes as she willed the animals to flee.
But they didn't.
One bowed its head and nuzzled Gammy whom was barely breathing. Short, forced gasps left clouds of life in the air, each getting smaller as that life slipped away. A groan carried on her final breath. It was a groan that, although barely above a whisper, was clearer to Rall than the cacophony of war that surrounded her.
“No...” Rall whimpered as she looked down at the lifeless TaunTaun. The other animals seemed to be echoing her sentiments as each moaned lightly, almost solemnly.
“NO!” Rall screamed as she pushed the nearest beast, urging them to escape. “RUN! Please, run...” Her voice broke as she smacked it again.
This time the animals responded. With a course bark, one of them broke into a run and led the pack towards the daylight. Seeing them sprinting faster than they ever had, Rall’s fight returned.
They're going to make it!
Flicking off the safety, Rall aimed through the scope and began hammering away at the distant enemy. She fired quickly and with determination. More enemy troopers began zeroing in on her which was what she wanted as none of the fleeing TaunTauns were drawing fire.
Ice rained down on her as bolts impacted around her position. She leaned forward onto the still-warm body of Gammy and used her for protection and she fired faster and faster. She changed out packs and kept firing, on and on until her rifle’s barrel became red hot, but still she fired. Bolts hit Gammy’s lifeless body and singed hair and flesh. One glanced off Rall’s rifle with a shower of sparks and just missed her neck. She could smell the burnt collar of her coat.
With that shot her rifle had ceased to work.
“RUN!” she bellowed one last time. Tears filled her eyes and a wave of relief hit her as the creatures burst from the cavern into the sunlight outside and bolted across the plains.
Her laugh of joy cracked with emotion and she cried. She had done it. When everyone else had forgotten or not cared about what happened to the steeds they had been using the last few months, Rall had seen them set free.
Behind her the engines of the last transport crackled to life. She looked across the expansive hangar and saw a soldier looking back at her from the ship’s access ladder. A look of regret for not being able to help her was on his face, and as he climbed up into the belly of the ship she swore she could see the words “I’m sorry” form on his lips.
The transport surged ahead under fire and out into the daylight. Rall slumped down against Gammy. She was spent. She was alone.
And soon she would be a prisoner.
Across the snowy plains outside, a cry reached her ears. It was one of the TaunTauns. She wanted to believe it was thanking her. As the hangar flooded with Imperial troops, Rall smiled as she pulled the thermal detonator
from her pouch. With her face pressed up against the ebbing warmth of Gammy, she waited until the enemy were almost upon her to activate it.
Rall Veldem would not be leaving Hoth, but she was fine with that.
She had done her part.
Part Two: THE IMPERIAL
“If one keeps their eyes open, even in times of horror, beauty will reveal itself.”
He had seen so many battlefields in his accelerated lifetime but not many could claim to be as peacefully beautiful as the one he looked out over at that moment. Most battlefields had been mud-filled, crater-pocked swamps where the air smelled of Sulphur and blood and fire and death. Some were drenched with torrential rain. Others were shrouded by a seemingly never ending nightfall where the only illumination came from blaster fire and the incendiary death of comrades.
But this battlefield allowed Commander Tillak a moment of peace. It was something that rarely happened.
The setting sun painted the frozen landscape of Hoth with shifting purples and blues as ice crystals shimmered and danced with refracted colours... colours he had forgotten existed. Light turned icicles into countless tiny beacons of silvered diamond. The distant snow-covered mountains called to him with their soft pastels. Thin clouds rolled over their summits and down cliffs like faded orange veils slipping from the heads of playing children. Far out, a pack of indigenous snow lizards, once held within the Rebel stronghold for use as primitive yet effective solo transport and reconnaissance, fled from what remained of the hollowed-out mountain across the pristine snow swept plains.
Popping the neck seal on his helmet and removing it, Tillak’s heavily scarred face was met with the frigid, biting air of the dying day. He breathed in deeply and savoured the crisp, clean, un-recycled air. The main battle to take the Rebel base using armour had happened on the other side of the mountain behind him, and being upwind he smelt no war. There was no death here. No stench of charred flesh or burning machine. No reminder of scorched earth or spilled fluids. This side of the mountain was devoid of life other than what had evolved here. This side was peaceful.
And despite being told they fought for peace, Commander Tillak rarely saw it. For where he went, war came with him.
As one of the last elite Kaminoan-grown Clones still serving the mighty Galactic Empire, CC-16989/1408 – or Tillak as his Mandalorian drill instructor had named him – had been created for just one thing; to fight. It was something he had excelled at. He had been lucky enough to have survived every battle he had entered. He had melted blaster barrels at Geonosis; viciously fought house to house in the towns on Ryloth; stayed awake for six days straight repelling attacks on the mountain passes of Mygeeto. Mimban, Lothal, Malastare, Yavin 4... The list went on and on. They were just a handful of battles he had walked away from. Sometimes he had left unscathed. Sometimes he would require lengthy bacta treatment. But he always left behind a mountain of enemy dead.
Old man Tillak has killed more people than the Death Star.
He'd heard the whispered comments in the mess halls or on parade grounds when other soldiers didn't think he was listening. It was a crazy comment of course, but it was one Tillak never rebuked them on. That reputation led to respect. And it was easier to lead men into battle if they believed their Commanding Officer was one step ahead of them with the intent to claim all the kills for himself.
Behind him he heard the crunch of approaching footsteps.
He recognised the voice of Captain Penn. A regular human from Coruscant, Penn had served him well over the last few years.
“Captain. Have Ordinance Disposal completed their sweep?”
“Yes, sir. All booby traps have been deactivated. And all prisoners have been prepped for transportation.”
“And the men are finished with the intel stripping?”
“Yes, sir. The computers they left behind had been wiped clean but some of their dead were still in possession of working data pads. Also, we found an inoperative K-3 protocol droid in their operations room with its memory still intact. It has revealed a lot about their command structure, past supply runs and even supply contacts on other Outer and Mid Rim worlds.”
Tillak nodded, not taking his eyes off the landscape. It was good news. If Military Intelligence showed their namesake, they would not raid these supply contacts. A smarter man would send in undercover operatives to watch these Rebel sympathisers and await contact. But that wasn't his job. He was the sharp end of the weapon.
“Very good, Captain.”
Captain Penn waited for a moment before asking, “Is everything alright, sir?”
Tillak nodded, watching the fleeing animals shrink into the distance. Above them the frowning crescent shapes of two of the planet’s moons slowly rose above the mountain tops to glower down at him through the waning daylight. They seemed upset that their host was being spoilt by war.
“It’s beautiful here,” he said. Penn looked out over the plains and took it in for the first time.
“It’s cold,” was his only reply.
Tillak smiled. Non-clones always looked at the negative aspect of things. Always so pessimistic. He and his brethren had had a different way of looking at the worlds they encountered, different to how the mongrels they worked with saw things. They never knew how lucky they were to be alive. Clones like himself would never appreciate a normal lifespan. For him and the millions of his Clone brothers, everything moved twice as fast, so he'd learned to appreciate the small things in his accelerated life. He had heard whispers, barracks rumours of some brothers whom had gone AWOL and had found a way to reverse the accelerated aging process, but he'd passed it off long ago as wishful thinking.
“Things don't have to be warm to be beautiful,” Tillak replied.
“I guess not,” Penn replied without confidence. He paused for a second before getting back to the war. “Commander, if you're ready, we're almost set to destroy what remains of their base. The placement of charges will be complete in two minutes.”
Tillak nodded. He looked one last time over the coloured frozen plains and breathed in deeply before donning his helmet. The orders from General Veers had been to wipe out what remained of the Rebel camp to deny them access to it should they return. Tillak knew their explosives would collapse the mountain and add one more scar to the landscape, but he had never defied an order. Not even Order 66 all those years back.
Turning to face the giant hangar doors of the Rebel base, he nodded again.
“Ensure everyone is accounted for and call in the shuttles. We’ll detonate it once we're airborne.”
The two soldiers of the Galactic Empire; one clone, one human, entered the empty base one last time. In the distance the cry of several Taun Tauns carried on the breeze across the painted, frozen plains.
Commander Tillak, Clone Officer CC-16989/1408, a veteran of multiple wars and the slayer of countless rebellion terrorists, heard it and smiled.