Cobalt squadron, p.1
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       Cobalt Squadron, p.1

           Elizabeth E. Wein
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Cobalt Squadron


  © & TM 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd.

  All rights reserved. Published by Disney • Lucasfilm Press,

  an imprint of Disney Book Group. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

  For information address Disney • Lucasfilm Press,

  1200 Grand Central Avenue, Glendale, California 91201.

  ISBN 978-1-368-01323-9

  Visit the official Star Wars website at: www.starwars.com.

  CONTENTS

  Title Page

  Copyright

  Dedication

  01

  02

  03

  04

  05

  06

  07

  08

  09

  10

  11

  12

  13

  14

  15

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  For my cousins in both generations.

  May the Force be with you.

  NOTHING, ROSE thought, is as peaceful as the limitless blue of hyperspace.

  As soon as they jumped to lightspeed, she took off her safety straps. She made her way down the long access ladder past the dimly lit bomb racks to the gunner’s ball turret, where her older sister, Paige, rode at the bottom of the heavy bomber ship.

  Rose liked to join Paige in the lower turret when they were traveling in hyperspace. She often felt that the lightspeed travel during a mission was the only time she and Paige really had to themselves. Even though they were usually sent on the same assignments, it was rare that they were alone together.

  “Nice to see you, Rose,” Paige said as Rose settled alongside her sister. The crystal cage of the gunner’s ball turret wasn’t designed for more than one person to sit in it at a time, so Rose cozied up against Paige behind the laser cannon, practically sitting in her sister’s lap.

  “I can’t stay long,” Rose answered. “I need to keep an eye on the little monster I invented. I’ve got to make sure the power baffler is working the way it’s supposed to.”

  “You sure it’ll hide us? It’s hard to miss a StarFortress.”

  “It’s not supposed to hide us. It doesn’t make us invisible. It just stops our energy trace from showing up on a sector scan. The baffler can’t stop anyone from seeing us, but it might stop them from noticing us. And you know what happens if anyone notices us….”

  “Well, if they do, that’s why I’m sitting here behind a laser cannon,” Paige said.

  Just for a little while, sitting safe in the clear cocoon of the gunner’s turret with her older sister as they sailed through the suspended reality of lightspeed, Rose ought to have felt absolutely no fear.

  Since the Tico sisters had fled the First Order’s ruin of their home planet in the Otomok system and found their way to the Resistance base on D’Qar, there had always been something to worry about. From dark reports of First Order clampdowns in other star systems, to damaged ships that had to be rewired and armed just in case, to every now and then a wounded pilot’s being hastily carried past on the way to the medbay, on D’Qar there were always reminders of reasons to be afraid. In hyperspace, there was nothing, and no reason to be afraid.

  Really? Rose asked herself. What about the past? What about the future?

  Even in these moments of calm, the fear was always there.

  Rose remembered what had happened to her homeworld. The fear wouldn’t go away until the First Order was completely destroyed. She didn’t believe a word of the party line about bringing civilization to the far reaches of the galaxy. She’d seen what they did to the Otomok system: the ice sheets littered with the debris of the First Order’s constant weapons testing and oily smoke rising from the poisoned settlements. At some point, other people were going to witness the chaotic horror that Rose and Paige had experienced. Rose was determined to put an end to it. She and her sister had joined General Leia Organa’s Resistance movement with the full intention of bringing down the First Order.

  In the quiet of hyperspace, Rose could wad her fear into a ball and temporarily jam it into a corner of her brain where she didn’t have to think about it for an hour or so. But it was still there.

  When Rose looked down through the clear crystal panes of the gunner’s ball turret, she couldn’t see anything but depthless mottled blue. But when she looked up, leaning back against Paige’s shoulder in the swiveling seat suspended in the clear globe, she could see the massive hulk of the well-used heavy bomber Hammer towering ominously overhead.

  “You’re breathing hard,” Paige said.

  “That’s because I’ve been getting some exercise,” Rose said breezily. “That long climb past the bomb racks is as good as a workout.”

  That was true. But it hid the fact that Rose was scared. And Rose didn’t want any of the crew to notice it, least of all Paige, who worried like crazy about Rose. They were the only family they had now—the only people they knew who’d made it out of the Otomok system.

  Paige and Rose’s homeworld, Hays Minor, and its sister planet, Hays Major, had spun just at the edge of what could be considered habitable in the Otomok system. Cold and dark, Hays Minor had been so far from the sun that its inhabitants had lived in perpetual twilight.

  Now Paige mostly crewed Hammer’s guns, but she was trained as a pilot. Back home in Otomok she’d flown a stripped-down version of this MG-100 StarFortress bomber, blasting away the dark polar ice of Hays Minor for the Central Ridge Mining Company so the work crews could get at the surface of the planet. Paige’s skill meant that now she could sometimes swap roles with Finch, Hammer’s pilot, or take over for him on long flights so he could get some sleep.

  Rose couldn’t remember a time when she and her sister hadn’t shared a love of the sky. But then the First Order had filled the skies of Hays Minor with so much dust and filth that the Tico family could no longer see the stars from the observation dome of their living pod. Paige and Rose’s desperate parents had managed to smuggle their children out of Otomok as refugees. Wearing filtered goggles because their eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the bright sunlight of an inner planet, with no clothes except those they’d traveled in, when Rose and Paige had met General Leia Organa for the first time, Paige had told her, “Our planet’s being murdered.”

  Leia had answered seriously, “I understand.”

  Flying for the Resistance, Rose could see the stars again. But she couldn’t ever go home.

  “I don’t like climbing the bomb racks when they’re full,” Paige said sympathetically. “Creepy, don’t you think? All those black shining shells, every one of them full of explosives.”

  “Definitely creepy. Even now, when they’re not full of bombs.”

  Instead, they were full of probe droids equipped for a quick and secretive spy mission.

  Normally, Hammer operated as part of the Cobalt Squadron of Resistance heavy bombers. But this flight to the Atterra system was supposed to be a quiet fact-finding trip, and Hammer was on its own for once. The ship’s bomb bays were filled not with destructive magno-charge explosives but with self-propelled probe droids that were too small to be detected on most routine scanners.

  General Leia Organa wanted to find out the truth about what the First Order was doing to local settlements in Atterra. There were frightening rumors that traders who’d normally had no trouble getting in and out of the system were finding it blockaded. Armed ships were preventing access to Atterra’s regular space routes. If anyone slipped past the guard ships, they were attacked by automatic cannons mounted on the Atterra system’s many asteroids. The c
annons were equipped with visual sensors that fired at anything that went near them. And at least one report mentioned deadly patrols of TIE fighters roaming Atterra’s asteroid belt and the orbits of the Atterra system’s twin inhabited planets.

  Atterra was in a distant corner of First Order territory, but it had always been a safe place to trade. The First Order wasn’t supposed to be attacking neutral shipping lanes with automatic cannons.

  Otomok had been blockaded before it was destroyed, too.

  Leia was one of the few people who suspected that the First Order was planning a bigger bid for power than was obvious. So she sent a single StarFortress heavy bomber to Atterra to do a little spying for her.

  “I can’t believe Atterra has twin planets and they’re both inhabited,” Rose said. “What are the chances! Just like home. It makes me want to fight for them.”

  “I know,” Paige agreed. “Atterra Alpha and Atterra Bravo. I can’t wait to see them. The general’s got a soft heart, choosing us for this hop.”

  Of course, it wasn’t entirely a soft heart that had made Leia choose Paige and Rose’s ship to carry the probe droids to Atterra. Rose was good at coming up with makeshift solutions to technical problems. When she’d seen the mini spy-shields that helped camouflage the flight of the probes, she’d started wondering if there was a similar way to modify the engines and computers of her own ship. Rose’s “little monster,” the power baffler, was her quick-fix solution to disperse the energy emitted by the ship’s power sources so it became undetectable except at close range.

  Their current assignment was to fly into Atterra Bravo’s orbit and release half of Hammer’s cargo of spy probes, then do the same with the rest of the probes over Atterra Alpha. They’d wait in the quiet starlight of space for a few hours while the droids flew over the surface of both planets, taking recordings and observations—and if they were lucky, not attracting any attention in the process. Then the heavy bomber would pick up all the satellite droids and fly back with their information to the Resistance base on D’Qar.

  Paige and Rose and their crewmates didn’t have any idea what kind of fate awaited them if they were discovered in orbit around Atterra Alpha and Atterra Bravo. Apart from the pilot’s guns and the laser cannons in the turrets, they didn’t have any way of fighting back if they were attacked. Hammer the StarFortress wasn’t built for high speed or maneuverability; the ship was built to carry a thousand rocket-propelled shell cases. Normally, if it was going to engage in a battle, it would have an escort of fighter ships. Its load of bombs could be used for breaking ice in a mining operation or blowing up an enemy base—depending on whether its crew was at peace or at war.

  In this strange middle ground between peace and war, it seemed there was another use for the heavy bomber: as a shuttle for a thousand electronic spies.

  “It’d be nice to be able to live without being afraid,” Paige said, reading Rose’s mind.

  “Who, me, scared?” Rose countered quickly. She tapped at Paige’s medallion of pale gold Haysian ore, the teardrop shape of a snowgrape leaf, whose cord was wrapped tightly around the gunsight mount of the laser cannon. It usually hung around Paige’s neck, but she liked to have it where she could see it during a mission. Rose had one almost exactly like it, hidden against her skin beneath her flight suit. The matching pendants fit together to make the ensign of the Otomok system, and it was the single physical link to their home planet that they still shared. Their parents had given them the medallions when they’d said good-bye. “We never really lived without fear, even at home, did we?” Rose pointed out.

  “Maybe you don’t remember living without fear,” Paige said. “But I’m older than you. It was never easy living on Hays Minor, even before the First Order came. But until they arrived, kidnapping and killing, we weren’t afraid. Mom and Dad weren’t afraid until they started worrying about us.”

  Rose couldn’t feel the shining medallion on the gunsight mount beneath her gloves. And she couldn’t feel the one that lay against her skin any more than she could feel her undershirt or her socks—they were just there.

  “Being afraid is like wearing my medallion,” Rose grumbled. “It’s part of me. I forget about it sometimes. But even when I’m not thinking about it, it’s still there.”

  “Cheer up,” Paige said. “So am I! Even when you’re not thinking about me, I’m still here. We’re in this together—whatever happens.”

  “Got to go,” Rose said as her family time with Paige came to an end. “I’ll be back for the trip home.”

  “See you then, Rose,” Paige told her casually, as she always did before a bombing hop.

  Rose climbed the long ladder back up to her place at the flight engineer’s monitors to be ready for the moment they emerged from hyperspace and into the Atterra system.

  Atterra was supposed to be a total nightmare for pilots to navigate.

  Between the uninhabited giant Atterra Primo and the inhabited twin worlds of Atterra Alpha and Atterra Bravo, there were thousands of asteroids, all in orbit around Atterra’s yellow sun. Many of these lumps of interplanetary rock were also in orbit around each other; tidal forces among them caused constant collisions.

  Closer to the sun, just beyond this chaotic celestial parade, the planets Alpha and Bravo spun steadily on the same path in stable balance. They each had a single moon, and were far enough apart that they didn’t influence each other’s gravity. Both planets supported life.

  It was a rare thing to find twin worlds within a star system’s habitable zone. Atterra Alpha and Bravo weren’t at all like Hays Minor and Major in terms of climate and terrain—but just the fact of the Atterra worlds being together in their orbit, like sisters, made Rose feel drawn to them. She knew how dependent those sister planets could be, so close together in the vast emptiness of space. She wanted badly for their future to be a happy one.

  She couldn’t wait to see them.

  “Hey, Nix,” Rose called when she neared the flight deck and could see the bombardier. Nix waved to her but didn’t answer aloud. He was standing at his computer pedestal, busy counting off the probe droids in the bomb racks to make sure they were activated and ready for the drop when Hammer reached the orbit of Atterra Bravo.

  Finch Dallow, the pilot, greeted Rose through the open bulkhead door as she strapped herself into her seat at the flight engineer’s monitors. The heavy bomber wasn’t built for luxury; its walls were rough and unfinished, with all the ducts and wiring laid bare. But the tech was up-to-date. “Ready for this?”

  “Paige says it’d be nice to live without fear,” Rose answered. “But I’m ready for anything.”

  She was ready for anything. She just didn’t like always having to be in a constant state of readiness.

  “Who wants to live without fear?” said Finch. All the crew members had their own burning reasons for joining the Resistance. Rose didn’t know what Finch’s was, or what nightmares he’d witnessed as a pilot for the New Republic scout service. He was relentlessly cheerful; it was good cover for whatever his real feelings were. He told Rose, “This’ll be fun.”

  They suddenly emerged back into realspace on the edge of the Atterra system’s gigantic asteroid belt.

  Almost immediately, Finch threw the heavy bomber into a wild swerve and then a wild dodge in the other direction.

  “What in the—” yelled Nix, hanging on to the bombardier’s pedestal.

  “Sorry—” Finch grunted. “Wasn’t expecting reentry to be quite so close to that lump of rock.”

  He straightened out the ship. “Okay, Rose, if I promise to settle down, can you check and make sure the baffler’s working?”

  “I’m on it,” Rose said, and quickly set the flight engineer’s monitors to automatic. Then, still reeling from Finch’s sudden swerve, she undid her straps to make her way to the cumbersome and makeshift machine that took up most of the space between the monitors and the tail gunner’s turret high in the top of the ship.

  The baffler was a
complex half droid, half computer that Rose had rigged together to communicate with the ship’s engines and randomly bleed off their ion exhaust. That way the ship’s power scan looked like it was using hardly any energy, when the StarFortress was actually operating at full blast.

  Rose had mixed feelings about this creation of hers. Little wasn’t exactly the right word for her mechanical monster. It annoyed her that she hadn’t been able to come up with a way to make it smaller. But she’d had to plug in a link to every single circuit in the engines, and there just wasn’t room to do it in less space in the short time she’d been given to work on it. The similar tech on the probe droids in the bomb racks seemed so efficient. Of course, the probe droids were a lot smaller than the StarFortress to begin with.

  But Rose was secretly very proud of how the baffler worked. She hadn’t had a lot of time to put it together, and so far it had been doing its job very well.

  “How’s it going?” she asked it. “Is the ship talking to you the way it’s supposed to?”

  The baffler gave a responsive chirp. The massive machine was suspended from the top of Hammer’s fuselage, leaving a gap of less than half a meter above the flight deck. The gap was just wide enough to let Rose crawl inside the machine when she needed to reach the multiple plugs that connected to the engines. But it wasn’t easy getting in, and Rose hesitated, wondering if she should check all the connections again.

  As she stood there making her decision, a tremendous blast to the ship knocked Rose off her feet.

  Automatically stubborn, she stood up while the ship was still rocking, and a second blast threw her across the flight deck headfirst into her own monitor station.

  For a moment Rose was aware of nothing but the dazzling lights behind her closed eyes. Then she heard Finch’s voice as the pilot checked on his crew through their headsets.

  “Sorry, kids, that was two direct hits. Looks like automatic cannon fire from one of the asteroids—must have gotten too close for Rose’s power baffler to confuse it. Took me by surprise. We’re out of range now and the shields seem to have held—everybody okay?”

 
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