Greer Sonnel enters the infamous Gauntlet race. But can she survive both the course and the competition?
StarWars.com is happy to offer Scorched, a short story by Delilah S. Dawson that originally appeared in Star Wars Insider #165, and ties into Claudia Gray's seminal Star Wars: Bloodline novel. Also featured is art specially commissioned for the project by Joe Corroney. Scorched, set before Bloodline, follows pilot Greer Sonnel as she enters a legendary race -- which, if she survives, may change her life.
The moment Greer Sonnel finished chugging her drink, she knew something was wrong. Normally, she savored the scorching rush as it burned down her throat, hitting her belly like a bomb and practically smoking out her nose. To any pilot from Pamarthe, there was no better augury of triumph than an empty cup of Port in the Storm. But this time, the heat ripped into her head and touched down behind her eyes like a tornado, scrambling her thoughts and making her dizzy as her empty cup hit the bar.
Not again, she thought. Not today.
Surrounded by dozens of pilots who’d love to take her down, her grin didn’t waver. She wouldn’t show weakness. Not now, not ever.
As the other three clay cups slammed down on the rough wood, Greer held up her empty one. “To the Gauntlet. If it’s not me that wins, I hope it’s one of you bastards.”
“To we, the pilots of Pamarthe!” Torret shouted, clinking his cup to hers.
“To the bloody stone of Corellia. May we never taste it!” Bors growled.
“To the losers!” Vee crowed. “Which is everybody but us.”
Her three fellow Pamarthens were talented competitors, and Greer could honestly say she hoped none of them died today. The Gauntlet was a mysterious and dangerous race sponsored by Han Solo himself, and everyone knew it was the chum pit from which elite young pilots were chosen to add to teams for the Five Sabers. That had been Greer’s dream, ever since her parents had told her tales of flying for the rebels: to race in the Five Sabers and make them proud. With no war to fight, the fierce and restless children of Pamarthe had to be the best at something, and it might as well be the something with the biggest purse and the most reknown.
More and more bar-goers noticed the time and hurried from the room until only Greer’s table was left. They’d checked their ships down to the molecule; what good would worrying do? That wasn’t their way. No one stood until the warning gong sounded, giving them ten minutes. Even then, Greer and her friends sauntered toward the hangar. They might run to their ships, one day—if there was ever a war worth fighting again.
At the open door, they parted to find their starfighters. Docking spots in the domed hangar had been assigned by lottery, the ships towed into place while the pilots waited. It was an odd setup: Fifty ships in a circle, their noses pointed inward like the spokes of a wheel. Greer found her ship on the far side and didn’t stop walking when an unfamiliar young pilot dropped a spanner as she walked by. With her hips naturally swinging in her slim-fit flight suit and her ink-black hair pulled back in a chignon, Greer was used to it. She valued skill over beauty and preferred the looks they gave her rear cam after she left their ships in the stardust.
A crude whistle drew her attention—and drew her hand to her knife. Turning slowly, as if she had all the time in the world, she gave the catcaller a dead-eyed stare that only went frostier when she recognized him. With a snort of derision, she continued walking.
“You can’t ignore me forever,” Karsted called from a shiny black TIE fighter.
“I can try,” she muttered.
And who knew? Maybe her ruthless, narcissistic, cheating ex would crash his splashy ship and explode into a thousand pieces. That would be almost as satisfying as killing him herself.
She walked past two more ships and stood before her newest obsession: the Ossifrage. The Gauntlet released specs required of entrant vessels every year, and Greer had blown what was left of her savings on what only looked like a piece of scrap. The ship had begun as an A-wing riddled with scars from its time fighting the Empire, and despite Greer’s extensive modifications, the Oss still wore its scorch marks like war paint. Greer climbed in, put on her helmet, and looked around the hangar, trying to puzzle out the race.
That was the thing about the Gauntlet: Every year, it changed. The previous year, it had involved dodging geysers over Cato Neimoidia’s stormiest ocean. The year before that, the racers had slugged through an abandoned city half buried in groundquake rubble and crawling with giant lizards. The pilots were given no clues other than specs for their ships and, at the starting line, a course map. After the final warning buzzer rang, a mechanized voice spoke into Greer’s helmet.
“Welcome to the Gauntlet. This year’s course is named The Evil Eye. Your map will upload simultaneously with the race’s start. There are ten Eyes, and your score will depend on how many Eyes you can thread weighted against your overall time. When the countdown is complete, the race begins. Ten. Nine . . .”
Greer fired up the Oss and looked to the hangar door, but it was closed . . . and blocked by a green B-wing. Her heart kicked up a notch and her face went warm as she realized there was no way out. The floor appeared solid, and the dome didn’t seem to be made of any material that would allow it to open or change shape. And that meant . . .
“Two. One. Go.”
Light flooded the room as a circular hatch opened in the center of the dome’s roof, and Greer knew in an instant what she had to do. Slamming on the throttle, she pulled back hard and left burn marks on the floor as she aimed straight up for that hole of sky surrounded by blinking blue lights: the first Eye.
The other pilots weren’t as quick to catch on, and Greer allowed herself a moment of triumph from the other side of the hangar, watching the strangely polite dance to get out a hatch that could only accommodate one starfighter at a time. Two ships got greedy and collided in a fireball, slowing down the rest of the swarm. Enough time to gloat; now she had to fly.
The map sent her toward an icon of an eye, and she went for it at full speed, zooming far above the terrain of Corellia. Two other vessels were near, the rest following farther behind like crows trailing Pamarthen lions. It wasn’t long before her goal appeared—a hoop of blinking blue lights set at a bizarre angle. She needed to go through it to thread the Eye. As soon as she had, the map revealed that the next one was just out of orbit.
So it was that sort of race, then? Swooping in and out of atmo? So be it. The Ossifrage could handle it, and so could Greer, who’d been performing such feats since she was old enough to “borrow” her mother’s beat-up Y-wing and joyride across the stormy seas of Pamarthe. She shot upward into the clouds, determined to be the first pilot to hit the next target. The same two ships were close on her tail, Karsted’s TIE fighter and another A-wing similar to hers but far flashier, with modded fins and a metal coating that made it mirrorlike. Far behind them, several dozen ships were catching up. She wasn’t worried. They couldn’t beat her—not once she hit space and had room to run.
“You guys okay?” she asked, already tuned to the agreed-upon channel shared by the Pamarthen racers.
“Bors didn’t make it,” Vee said. “Scraped off in the hangar. Alive but pissed.”
“Could be worse,” Torret added. “At least he’s already back to drinking.”
“This is one hell of a course.” Greer paused for the fizz of unexpected heat that shouldn’t have accompanied hitting atmo and kept talking once she was in the black. “We’re looking at an orbital shipyard for number two.”
“Feeling generous?” Torret asked.
Greer chuckled. “Only because there’s no way you can catch me.”
Being in space always put Greer in a good mood. Something about the vastness, the possibility, the glittering stars—it was where she was meant to be. And during the most important race in her entire life, thus far? All the better. She forced herself to ignore the worries that surfaced along with sweat along her hairline. She was fine. There was nothing wrong. Really.
The other A-wing was creeping up as they neared the floating shipyard, abandoned and still. Only the Eye showed glowing lights.
“That little wedge looks like it’s been in a trash heap since the Rebellion.”
The voice in Greer’s helmet was male and unfamiliar, and it sounded amused. Since only two ships were in her view and she had Karsted’s channel blocked, the voice had to belong to the pilot of the other A-wing. Trash talk was nothing new, and she wouldn’t let it vex her. But that didn’t mean she was going to play nice, either.
“And yours looks like it was dipped in a droid bath. Let me guess. It’s so you can see your reflection better?”
He chuckled. “It’s not always about ego, kid.”
“We’re pilots. It’s always about ego. Now shut up.”
With an elegant swoop, she shot through the Eye, already on course for number four, which was back on Corellia. And if she was reading the map right, underground.
“Nice flying,” the man said.
She was going to block his comm and ignore him along with Karsted, but he copied her loop so flawlessly that she had to admit he had skills. “Just try to keep up,” she said, as close as she’d come to a compliment.
Greer pushed the Oss through atmo and almost closed her eyes for another swoon before she realized that dozens of ships were headed in her direction, burning hard for the Eye she’d just threaded. Oops. She had to focus. With time to spare, she flew a wide spiral to maximize her speed and avoid the other pilots. Just behind her, the other A-wing kept pace.
“You okay?” the pilot asked.
She ignored him and looked for her friends among the throng.
“Kothan si!” Torret yelled as he shot past.
“Kothan si!” Greer repeated the traditional Pamarthen greeting, which roughly translated to “May you die at full throttle.” “Wait. Where’s Vee?”
“Lost her in the first Eye,” Torret said. “Skidded out. Probably alive.”
“Blast. That’s two out.”
“With two left. Loser buys the next round!”
With that, he was gone, blazing upward. Greer aimed straight for the next Eye and savored the fall. She loved the mix of complete control and utter chaos when the ship was ruled half by fuel and half by gravity. Her stomach flipped, a stronger wave of heat throbbing behind her eyes and making her hands shake with sudden chills. There was no choice but to ignore it, to push it down. She opened her eyes and focused on the horizon, breathing deeply.
“Is that you or the ship wobbling, kid? You buy some bad fuel or something?”
“I think I sucked another pilot into an engine,” she answered, annoyed that the stranger had caught her moment of confusion.
After a few beats of silence, he asked, “So why’d you help that guy, telling him about the next Eye?”
Greer snorted. He was breaking her concentration. It wasn’t normal, talking so much to strangers during a race like this, even if they were capable fliers. And yet she didn’t feel like he was trying to pick her up, as per usual. He sounded genuinely curious.
“He’s from my planet.”
“If you mean I don’t want him to die, then yes. Wait.” She glanced at her comm. “How are you on our channel?”
“It’s all open,” he said, ignoring the fact that it was supposed to be private. “Would you prefer I go public?”
“No.” He was entertaining and a decent pilot, and talking to him kept her from thinking about the fever or Karsted. She was completely certain that the blinking red light on her comm was his repeated attempt to hail her—and heckle her. “One annoying pilot is better than thirty-six annoying pilots, thanks. Now shut up. It’s about to get tricky.”
“Oh, good,” he said. “I was worried it was boring you.”
The next Eye was underground. Breathing deeply, she dived the Ossifrage between the red stone walls, dodging rock formations. The A-wing stayed behind her, but Karsted suddenly burst past them both, using what had to be an illegal mod. He nudged her wing, forcing her to do a barrel roll to avoid exploding against the wall. When the cave yawned around the next corner, she shot inside, her hands shaking as she zipped underneath Karsted’s ship. If she was going to lose this race or die, it wasn’t going to be because of him, and it wasn’t going to be because of the mysterious illness that she’d been ignoring for months. Failure, like victory, would happen on her own terms.
The A-wing pilot was quiet as she zoomed through the cave, turning sideways to zip between two stalactites and beat them both through the Eye, which hung upside-down from the ceiling. The tunnel immediately curved and spit them out of a basalt cliff over furiously pounding waves.
The next Eye was on an island’s rocky promontory. The one after that was in a city, strung between skyscrapers. She almost clipped a wing on the ivy-covered Eye in a canyon, then swooped back up to a floating circle of blue lights anchored to a weather balloon.
If she’d been flying slowly, the course would’ve made a lovely tour of Corellia. As it was, she was pushing the Ossifrage to her limits—and her skills, too. The second time she swooped out of atmo and into space to head for an Eye floating in an asteroid field, the burning fever returned, so fast and hot that she blacked out for a split second and let go of the throttle.
“You slacking off, kid? Trying to let me win? Breathe through your nose and focus on the horizon if you have trouble with atmo jumps.”
It was the guy in the A-wing again, and he sounded worried. And no wonder. Her speed had fallen off, and Karsted’s TIE was almost past her. She slammed the throttle forward knowing full well that she’d rather explode against an asteroid than let Karsted win.
“I know what I’m doing. I just wanted to give the others a fighting chance,” she said, swallowing down her worries and focusing on dodging asteroids. Six more ships were visible behind her now, including Torret’s X-wing. The fever drained away as quickly as it had come, leaving her face cool and her hands steady, and that was all she needed to send her back into the zone, flying the Oss with the preternatural talent that had been her gift from day one.
“Nice,” the stranger muttered as she slipped through the Eye, twirled around an asteroid, and raced back toward Corellia and the last Eye.
“I couldn’t hear you in my wake.”
His response was another chuckle. “Let me know how mine tastes.”
Although the shiny A-wing had lingered behind her, now Greer got to see what the mysterious pilot could do. He plunged through the Eye, executed a perfect flip, and caromed past her with impossible speed. She was so impressed that she forgot to be jealous for a moment.
“Did you add an extra engine?” she asked.
“A little something new from Novaldex. They call this ship the Double-A. This is a test run.”
“Nice,” she breathed, following him through atmo.
Once Greer was back in blue sky over Corellia, the Ossifrage shuddered. Her instrument panel went berserk, lights beeping and alarms blaring. This time, at least, the source of the burn surging through her veins was clear: rage. Karsted’s TIE filled the screen. Her fist landed on the red comm button.
“Did you just shoot me?”
Karsted’s laugh dripped arrogance. “Of course not. No weapons allowed—you know that. Must’ve been a chunk falling off that relic of yours—into your right thruster, say. Or maybe you’re just not meant to be a pilot.”
So he’d sabotaged her. And now her system showed something stuck in a thruster, causing her to veer right as she slowed down.
“Oh, no! Is the great Greer Sonnel about to lose?” Karsted taunted.
“Who’s this joker?” Double-A asked.
Greer snorted. “My ex. If you have guns, please shoot him down and take his ship for scrap.”
“Forget him. Look, your right thruster is blocked. You need to power off for ten seconds and restart with the throttle on hot and your right stabilizer maximized.”
It made sense to her, but she’d never heard of this trick before. “Why should I trust you?” she asked as Karsted shot past her, hurtling toward the last Eye.
“Because you know I’m right, and you know I could beat you if I wanted to. If you don’t trust me, trust your gut. But do it now, or you’re out of the running and that other guy wins.”
Without a word, she powered off, the ship gliding forward as it lost altitude. Cold seeped into the cockpit, and Greer’s stomach dropped out as she counted to ten, her breath fogging the viewport. The Double-A slowed to pace her. When her countdown hit zero, she restarted and punched the right stabilizer as she pushed the throttle. The Ossifrage came back to life in a melee of alerts and jerked to the side as a tumbling sound ended with a loud bang on the right. The instrument panel went back to normal as the rest of the ships came into view in her rear cam.
Greer exhaled in relief. “Where’d you learn that trick?”
Double-A chuckled. “I used to have a hell of a copilot.”
“I owe you one,” she said. “Both of you.”
“Pay me back by beating the guy in the TIE.”
Greer checked her map and her view. The last Eye was on the ground by the spaceport and larger than the others had been.
“This seems too easy . . .” she started.
The mechanized voice in her helmet said, “For the final Eye, double points will be awarded for two ships passing simultaneously through the sensors.”
“Still trust me?” Double-A urged.
Karsted had looped around, knowing that if he passed through alone, he had no hope of coming in first. Greer realized too late she’d neglected to close his comm.
“You’d fly with a stranger instead of a Pamarthen?” he broke in. “Whatever happened in the past, we’re a good team. We’re from the same town. I was your first kiss. You know me. Let’s fly through together.”
The three craft raced toward Corellia. Greer had mere seconds to make her choice. A stranger she liked or a known quantity she hated who would only use her to beat her own time? If nothing else, two A-wings would slip through the loop more easily than the bulky TIE.
“I’m going with the A-wing,” she said. Her fist slammed the red button as Karsted called her a rude word in Huttese.
“Okay, Double-A,” she said. “I’ll take top. You take bottom.”
“Copy that. Let’s do it.”
Greer angled the Oss upward and a bolt of light shot past, barely missing her ship.
“That’s your ex and his illegal guns again, isn’t it? We need to lose him. Any ideas?”
Racking her brain, Greer came up empty. With no weapons and no shields, what could they do? Damn Karsted and his blasted ego!
“Wait. That’s it!” she cried. “Double-A, can you use your ship to blind him?”
Double-A chuckled. “Good call, kid. You fly a loop and leave him to me.”
Greer pulled back, shooting straight up and looping behind the black TIE fighter. The Double-A turned sideways and passed in front of Karsted, and Greer shut her eyes as the mirrorlike A-wing aimed a bright white flash across the TIE’s viewport. When she opened her eyes again, Karsted had slowed dramatically and veered off, and she dodged around him and back on course.
“See? It’s not all about ego.”
“We can debate that after we win the race,” she said.
As they swooped into position, the Double-A slowed to match her speed, the ships flying across the grassland with less than a meter between the stranger’s cockpit and Greer’s hull. Her hands were steady, her head mercifully clear after the raging fevers and dizziness that she could no longer ignore. Her chin jutted out when they threaded the final Eye as smoothly as if they’d been flying together forever.
Greer’s map changed, directing her back to the dome where the race had begun. She couldn’t stop smiling. She’d won! Or if not won, tied. And even if ties weren’t acceptable on Pamarthe, such skillfully coordinated flying infused her with triumph. When she got back home, she’d go to a medcenter and find the cause of her illness—and the cure. Flying like this was her everything, and she wasn’t going to let some stupid fever slow her down. At least it wasn’t bloodburn. It couldn’t be. That was a weakness she would never allow.
“Nice flying, Greer.”
“Nice flying, Double-A.” Then she caught it. “Wait. How do you know my name?”
The other A-wing swooped in, side by side, the pilot saluting her from his cockpit. He’d taken off his helmet to reveal gray hair and a cocky, lopsided smile.
“The name’s Han Solo,” he said. “And I’d like to talk to you about joining my team for the Five Sabers.”
The events of this story tie-in directly with Star Wars: Bloodline by Claudia Gray, on-sale now wherever books are sold, and available in paperback.
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