The Stars Inside

Irene Heron

Sleeping in the launch bay is strictly against any protocol I ever heard of, but all techs worth their hydrospanners learn to zone out the hangar hubbub in order to catch a snooze.

"Ness?" Cutler kinda grunts as he wedges himself into the triangle of shadow under the boarding ramp. 'Bout all I can see of him is the gleaming white of eyes and teeth. And that ridiculous white shirt the crew chief insisted we wear today, to impress all these incoming VIPs. Me, I'm in my usual black undershirt and faded coveralls. I figure the media magnets couldn't care less what the well-dressed grease-lizard is wearing these days. Just as long as we get their ships fixed, fueled and back in space on schedule.

"You sure this ain't against the rules?" The youngster whispers like he thinks we might be overheard with all the racket going on. Kinda makes me want to laugh. Cutler reminds me of me -- about 40 years ago. Still wide-eyed and impressionable, so green he even thinks the crew chief is in charge around here. It's always been the techs, the ones who have the last word on which ship flies and which ship stays home. Not the chief. Not the deck officer. And most definitely not the pilots.

"Sure as all hells is," I answer quite cheerfully, but I don't think he heard me. Poor kid. He's so frippin' tired he's already asleep. And the chief wants him calibrating somebody's navicomp?

We've got maybe one full t-unit before we're missed, so I should make the time count like Cutler's doing, get some shut-eye, but I'm not as young as I used to be. We've been on short rations here at the station long enough that I've lost what little flesh I used to have. Been a while since I've found deckplates very comfortable.

Well, even if I can't sleep, at least I can take a breather and keep a watchful eye out for the crew chief. Wouldn't want young Cutler to draw a reprimand just 'cause he can't keep up with a work schedule that'd wear out a droid.

Shouldn't be too difficult to look like I'm busy making repairs to this particular ship. She's an old one, this freighter, and pretty battered. These Corellian YTs, though, were built to take a beating and keep on going no matter what. Not a beauty, but I can tell she's a champ.

"So, old lady, what tales can you tell me?" Some of the younger techs, like Cutler, think I've been breathing fuel for too long when I start talking to the ships. But they don't understand that certain ships, especially the ones like this, have souls.

There's some serious carbon scoring on her hull, and if I had to guess, I'd say this ship had been in a battle pretty recently.

"Plenty, to those who know how to listen." I don't have to turn around to guess that this must be the pilot. I saw him in the cockpit when they landed, him and the Wookiee. Hard to believe they're part of the VIP group. There's too much independence in his voice, in his attitude. In the ship he flies.

Now I do turn around. I figure I've waited long enough so whoever it is knows I'm not impressed or intimidated. Yep, it's the pilot. Human. Male. Youngish, dark-haired, cocky and goodlooking in the way these hotshot pilots always are.

"I know how to listen."

He's eyeing me with the kind of suspicion most guys would level on a fellow they think is poaching on their sweetheart. He points at my toolbelt. "Nobody works on the Falcon without my say-so."

Considering some of the shove-offs I've gotten in my time, this one is pretty polite. Ordinarily I'd treat a warning like this with all the respect due to an ego-ridden flyboy who couldn't find a motivator module with a manual and some coaching, but Cutler's getting some desperately needed snores a few feet away. He's trusting me he's not gonna get in trouble for it, so I bite back my first response and struggle for civility. "Looking all right?"

The pilot flashes me a grin that probably charms most women and a fair amount of men right outta their pants. "Sure. Admire her all you want."

He doesn't have to add the "just don't touch". I hear it anyway.

"Han!" A soft voice, but somehow it cuts right through all the background clatter, and that pilot's grin turns from something challenging and possessive into… well, the last time I saw a look like that, my sister was wearing it at her bonding. All proud and happy and amazed that she'd gotten so damn lucky.

"Luke." The pilot turns on his heel and I'm pretty sure he's already forgotten me by the time he's a quarter way through the turn.

Even before I focus on the boy walking toward us, things start falling into place for me, like the way a pattern of unrelated minor malfunctions can pinpoint an unsuspected hyperdrive matrix disaster-in-the-making.

That's Han Solo, and this is the Millennium Falcon, and now I am impressed. A man like Solo's worth a whole planet full of hotshots and admirals and diplomats and princesses. I've been hearing rec room talk of Solo and his ship for fifteen years. Oh yeah, this fine old lady and her captain could definitely tell me a few good stories.

And so could the boy in front of me, except I don't think he even realizes I'm here. I'm just background, like the ship and droids, because all that kid sees is Han Solo. There's a smile on his face, not a big one, but to anybody with the right view, that smile says more'n a roomful of gossipy old techs could in a day's worth of talk.

If I had grandkids, this would be the kind of thing to tell them -- the day I met Luke Skywalker, last of the Jedi Knights. And if he and Solo are to each other what I'm guessing they are, Skywalker is the last of the Jedi, because I don't see much hope that there'll be any future Jedi generations toddling around any time soon.

They don't actually touch, far as I can tell, but there's something pretty damn intimate about the way they look at each other. Like… going into a temple in the middle of a busy city, and feeling the silence and peace seep into your bones until there's nothing but you and whatever you believe in. That's how they look, with all this frantic activity surrounding them. Like the only thing that matters in the whole galaxy is each other.

I've seen holos of both of them over the past few years, receiving awards or being interviewed here 'n there, but that's nothing compared to seeing them in person. They both project a real presence, something I can't quite torque down tight, but sure can feel. Like they both got white stars inside 'em instead of the usual human complement of organs. They frippin' shine.

Somewhere off to port I hear the painfully shrill screech of two anti-gravs just squeezing by each other, followed by a couple of loud voices cursing. Maneuvering room's pretty tight in here, all right, but Boze and Hackworth have made careers out of aggravating each other. From where I stand I can see about 30 people, and all but two of them are looking at Boze and Hackworth. Nothing like the prospect of some blood to get folks interested, and I'm glad of the distraction. Gives me another minute to size up Solo and Skywalker without anybody noticing.

Maybe it's 'cause they remind me of my sister, gods rest her soul, but I kinda wish I could protect that little bubble of privacy they've got here. But maybe they're doing all right on that score themselves, because I never heard a breath of this, and gods know techs hear just about every scrap of gossip there is. Can't help it, the job we do.

Somebody else has got to've noticed something like this, though. Nobody's more high profile than the last Jedi. And what about that princess Solo was supposedly paired up with a while back?

Skywalker's saying something, so low I can't hear the words, but his expression has shaded into serious and Solo's leaning in close, listening hard. Back to business, I suppose. The Jedi and the General, they probably can't scrape together more than a few minutes for themselves.

Now that I know what to look for, though, it's there. In the way Solo leaves his hand on Skywalker's arm seconds longer than a friendly gesture calls for. In the softening of Skywalker's mouth and a guarded expression in his eyes when he looks up at Solo.

I'd wish 'em clear skies, but that's something they won't get. Not in the middle of all these border skirmishes and diplomatic missions, trying to create a peaceful galaxy out of the vacuum left since the war ended. I figure these two know how to make the most of moments like this. And that means I'm intruding where I shouldn't.

Time to get Cutler back on his feet anyway. Turning my back on Solo and Skywalker, I shake the kid awake. He grunts and shifts, and then finally opens his eyes. I hope that was enough of a nap to keep him steady for a while longer.

"I'm awake, I'm awake," he assures me, but I have my doubts. His voice is too slurred and that makes up my mind for me. Even if the crew chief wants to bust my butt for it, I'm gonna send Cutler to his cabin for a real sleep. I'm the senior tech and it's my call.

"Up ya go." He takes the hand I offer and together we manage to get him into a sitting position on the ramp. "You're a lucky son-of-a-Sith, Cutler." Lies like this are easy to tell when the only person getting into trouble will be me. "Chief's changed the duty roster and you're off 'til third shift."

His reaction comes slow, too slow for my liking. "Sounds good to me," he agrees, and blinks sleepily against the glare of the overhead lights. Too tired to even question his good fortune.

I take a quick look around and see the chief dressing down Boze and Hackworth. By the color of his neck, he's got all engines online under full power. That works fine for me. The chief enjoys that part of his job.

"Yeah. Your bunk's callin'. I'll join ya soon." I slap the kid on the shoulder to help wake him up enough to move under his power. "I gotta get back to work now."

But first I'll take a little detour. Solo and Skywalker are still talking softly as I approach, completely absorbed in each other.

What the hell. "Clear skies," I mutter as I draw even with them. Can't hurt to wish 'em well. Skywalker's eyes cut over to me -- he heard, all right. He doesn't say anything but dips his head just a little in acknowledgement. And I get the feeling he knows exactly what I mean.

Solo, though... he looks at me and grins again. "Thanks," he says. He's taken one of Skywalker's hands in both of his, a gesture that's hidden from everybody except me.

I toss a glance over my shoulder, and beyond a wandering VIP, Cutler is finally pulling to his feet. He'll be long gone before the chief is done having his fun.

I sidestep a sprite of a girl directly in front of me and resist the temptation to turn and look at Solo and Skywalker again. I've seen more than I've a right to already.


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