"It's not fair!"
From his booth in the academy lounge, Probationary 2nd Lieutenant Zander Pokri discreetly eavesdropped on his class of recruits. Sipping caf, he pretended to browse his datapad while listening to his trainees vent about that morning's exercises.
"He's got some personal vendetta against me!" Cadet Mika Haduron slammed her fist against a table she shared with the eleven other recruits in her class. "Tell me I'm wrong."
"No, I noticed it too." One of the Sullustans chimed in. "He's been focusing you. Every time I turn my back, he's on your tail."
"Who is this guy, anyway? He's never mentioned his name or even his rank. He never shows his face. He's in the simulator pods before we get there and he doesn't come out until we leave."
Zander had strategically chosen a booth facing away from where the cadets usually sat. He carefully protected his anonymity while getting the measure of the New Republic. The New Republic had much more forgiving policies and processes than the Empire . . . but hatred between the two factions ran deep.
"I've seen him." One of the cadets, Fizbit, hushed his voice. "I passed him in the refresher last week."
"Well? Spill it! Who is he? Some celebrity pilot? Just some average instructor? What?"
Zander pinched his lips together. He remembered brushing shoulders with a recruit during one of the bio breaks. He'd hoped the little Rodian wouldn't connect the dots. All the cadets knew his voice from over the comms, so he'd only nodded to the cadet in passing instead of speaking.
"How do you know it was him?"
"I recognize his scent every time we enter the simulators." The Rodian's voice got lower with every word.
Ah. Rodians had keen olfactories, didn't they? Having spent his life in the Empire, he hadn't crossed paths with non-humans often enough to grasp all the physiological differences between species.
That meant the Rodian could also smell him now, hence the hushed voice.
"So? Who was he?"
"I don't know."
"Fizbit, what's got you so spooked?"
"W-w-well, um." The cadet hesitated. "He had a thing on his ankle."
"A thing?" Mika's frown was audible. "A tracker? Like they put on criminals under house arrest?"
"Yeah. Like that."
"A criminal is teaching us?" Another cadet gasped. "Is he like some serial killer or something?"
"Don't be silly. They wouldn't put a serial killer on house arrest."
"Are you sure? The way he's going after Mika? Maybe he's got a thing for her. Maybe she's 'his type'."
Taking a long draught of his caf, Zander stood up. Time to stop hiding.
"Oh, come on, guys," Mika growled. "They wouldn't let that kind of person into the academy. He's..."
"Right behind you." From across the table, the Rodian saw Zander coming, and if his eyes could have opened any wider, they would have.
The entire class turned in their seats to stare. He'd never seen so many non-humans in one place. It made him uneasy. Humans, he could read. Non-humans, he hadn't a damn clue about. But he didn't need to. He understood gossipy cadets, whatever species they were.
"You're correct on all counts." He noticed their shock as they all recognized his voice instantly. "I am a killer, and I am particularly attracted to people like you . . . Mika."
She drew back from him, nearly crawling into the lap of the cadet next to her as she folded her arms defensively over her chest. "Wha... What? You can't... I'll report you to my father! He's a..."
"I don't give a flying frak who he is." He grabbed the back of her chair and dragged her a couple paces from the group. "You make yourself such a sweet, tempting target. How can I possibly resist?"
They stared at him, not quite believing what they were seeing.
"All the way over here." He shook his head as he leaned over her. "Away from your team. Too focused on me, my wingmen, and your precious performance metrics to realize you're out of position. You're exactly my type. I've been stalking you all week. Watching. Waiting. Murdering you at every turn, because you make it so damned easy!"
Her mouth opened in silent protest.
"I know who your father is. General Haduron. The man who had to raise his teenage daughter alone after his wife died trying to ambush an Imperial convoy. Is she where you got your piloting skills from?" He'd researched each of his cadets. Knowing their weaknesses was the only way to beat out their vulnerabilities and repurpose them into advantages.
She flushed. "Yes."
"That explains how she died." Ignoring her outraged expression, he shoved her chair back amongst the group. "And it's how you're going to die, too, unless you learn to lose your blinders and use your team. Any one of the Dicers would have chopped you up like mincemeat, because that's what I taught them to do!"
He saw from their horrified faces that he'd made his point, perhaps too strongly.
As he strode out of the lounge, he heard one of them hissing to another. "He's not a serial killer! Dicer is an elite Imperial squadron! He's an Imperial!"
"So he is a serial killer."
The New Republic and the Empire had plenty in common. Hate for the enemy. The pain of loss. The cruel fact that a certain number of graduating pilots would die on first contact. Mika was one of them. She cared too much about making her mark.
Her "mark" would be a starbird painted on the hull of a TIE.
"Thank you, Corporal Settich." Zander nodded to the soldier who served as his nightly escort to and from the airbase's hospital ward.
The corporal nodded and ushered him into the recovery room. His actions weren't a kindness...they were his orders. Zander treated it as the former, grateful to whomever had granted him visitation.
He took his usual seat by his wingman's bed. "Hey, pal."
As usual, the comatose figure didn't respond. His recovery, if it was that, had been slow.
Zander propped his feet on the edge of the bed and thumped one of his boot heels against Breg's leg. "Wake up, you lazy bastard."
Zander simultaneously wanted to hug the man and to punch him in the face. Punching a subordinate had been acceptable. Hugging had been frowned on. He'd learned to show affection a certain way. Breg was everything to him, and Zander would show it by cussing his friend out from head to toe the moment the man woke up.
If he woke up.
When he woke up.
How easy Silence had made it look, coming in on her last day before shipping out to Renegade Wing. She'd held Breg's hand like a true friend, even though Breg had flown on Zander's wing the day they had wiped out her former command.
She'd treated everything so logically, always grasping for rational courses of action, even when he saw her emotions clawing at her from the inside. He knew while she wanted to hate him, she didn't. She'd claimed sole responsibility for White Squadron's deaths. She'd failed them, she said, while he had merely done his job.
She'd caught him off-guard at every turn, during her interrogation of him and afterward.
The women pilots he'd met in the Imperial Navy were nothing more than smaller, angrier imitations of men. Muscular, cold, emotionally brittle and bitter, in constant competition with their male counterparts for the same skills and positions. Women in the Imperial ranks were nothing short of vicious, because only the vicious survived.
Silence was different. He'd thought her weak. Stupid. A joke. He'd been wrong. She'd never be able to arm wrestle her male counterparts and win. Chances were, she'd just befriend them instead. A disarming goofball hiding a strategic mind. She could be dangerous when she had to and kept a lid on her emotions, but otherwise, she offered no tough front.
Sighing, he turned on his datapad to review tomorrow's lesson plan, but a message notification interrupted him before he could start.
It was from the head of the academy. He read it aloud. "We have received a complaint from General Haduron, notifying us of unprofessional conduct towards and unfair treatment of his daughter, Mika Haduron, one of your cadets, by you. While we have reviewed the complaint and have decided only a warning is warranted at this time, you are strongly encouraged to remember that you are on probation and further offenses may lead to suspension and confinement."
"Yep." Leaning back with a sigh, he rolled his head to look at Breg. "She's going to die on her first mission, mark my words. Daddy isn't going to be there to save her ass when it counts."
Breg said nothing.
"In other news, women actually act like women around here. Worth getting up for, pal, I'm telling you."
Zander kicked his leg again. "Damn it, man. Making me talk to myself like some raving lunatic. Soon as you come around, I'm going to kick your ass."
Zander grumbled, deleted the message, and went back to his lesson plans.
"It's not fair!"
Zander stepped into the lounge to grab his usual caf and immediately heard the familiar whine. Mika sounded close to tears this time. The Imperial Academy would have torn her to pieces.
"Not fair?" He grabbed her chair again, yanking her away from the group. "Let me explain to you what's not fair."
This time, the other cadets rose from the table. They looked ready for trouble.
He pointed at them. "Your entire team got the message. They hated your attitude from the beginning. Now look at them! It's getting harder and harder to pick you off, because they jump to your side the instant they see me coming. Doesn't matter what they think of you...they know how to work together. But you..."
"I'm trying!" Mika stumbled out of her chair, facing him with a raw edge to her voice. "I'm trying to help the team, but you won't let me! You won't let me do anything! All you're doing is killing me out of spite."
"Then stop me."
"I can't!" She bared her teeth. "Happy now? I admit it! You're better than I am! I fight you, I die. I run the objective, I die. I do anything, I die! What am I supposed to learn? Humility? I know I'm not better than you."
"Then stop engaging me. Stop throwing away your life and that of your teammates to a superior opponent. Don't chase death. It wants to be found. Tempt it, nothing more." Despite his earlier complaints against Imperial women, at least they never broke down like schoolgirls. And then inspiration struck. "Get out, all of you. Lunch is over. Get back in the sims."
Some of them looked at their barely-touched food, and all of them shot him dirty looks, but none of them argued.
Once everyone was sealed in their pods, Zander customized the training routine settings. "Green Leader, your objective is to destroy the Imperial convoy."
He could feel Mika's hate as she ran preflight checks. "Green Squadron, my weapons system is damaged."
"We'll watch your back, Lead."
"No! Why protect me if I can't do anything?" Mika took a few test shots. "After every three shots, my lasers overheat and have to cool down. I can't help take out a convoy like this."
"But he's just going to shoot you down and then come for us. One man down, we'll never survive."
"Destroy the convoy. Don't worry about me."
As soon as she came within range, Zander took a few potshots in her direction. She fled. Finally.
He set his sights on Green Two, but no sooner had he taken a shot than Mika rounded on him and sent three lances of red his direction. He twisted out of the way easily and spun sharply around to meet her.
She ran. He let her run.
Every time he harassed her squadron, she harassed him. He'd given her just enough firepower to shoot and bail, but not enough to allow her to get tunnel vision.
With her distracting him, the rest of Green handily dealt with his AI wingmen.
The screens went dark, and then showed the scores. Mika was at the bottom of her team with no points. A moment later, the pods opened.
Everyone emerged quickly, as if about to burst out cheering over their victory, but an odd tension stifled the mood as Mika ducked out of her pod.
She watched warily as Zander also stepped out. The other cadets remained silent.
"You got a score of zero."
She didn't respond.
"By all statistical accounts you did absolutely nothing."
Her temper flared. "You cheated!"
"I did. And yet I lost." He pointed at the Fizbit, Green Two. "Why?"
"We only had AI to deal with."
"Mika kept you off our backs."
"That's right. Scoreboards don't mean squat. The only thing that counts is whether you accomplished the mission or not." He held out his hand. "Congratulations, Cadet Haduron. You finally figured it out. It's not about you. It's not about numbers. It's about knowing when to run. When to strike. When engage and disengage. A kill is rarely worth dying for."
She nodded slowly and grudgingly shook his hand. Hers was cold and damp and trembling from adrenaline.
"You're all rookies, but in battle, you'll go up against veterans. Aces who have gunned down plenty of pilots better than you. Die prematurely, and you won't live long enough to ever rival them." He eyed her flatly. "Graduation is end of this week. Keep it up, and you'll pass. Keep it up long enough...well, maybe you'll live long enough to teach your own class of hot-headed mush-brains."
Zander stared at the flimsy in his hand. It stated his probation would be over at the end of next week. After a review of his conduct and contributions to the flight academy...mostly a formality at this point...he would become an official part of the New Republic Navy.
"Congratulations. I guess you won't need me much longer." Corporal Settich read the notice from over his shoulder.
"Right." Zander wouldn't miss the tracker on his ankle, but honestly, he would miss the armed escort. The only person who mattered, the only person who had kept him sane in the Imperial Navy...was not really here. Zander was very much alone, among people who didn't care for him and didn't trust him. At least Settich had been a small measure of dependable company.
"In or out?"
"Sorry, what?" Zander realized he had stopped in the middle of Breg's doorway. Something had been troubling him for days now. He couldn't get it off his mind. "Can you please call for Breg's doctor?"
The corporal looked about to retort that he wasn't a personal secretary, but he saw Zander's grim face and nodded. "Just wait inside."
"Sure." Zander stepped through the doorway, but only just, and then stopped. A sinking sense of dread gripped his stomach.
The agreement to defect had been important once, something hopeful. Now, the flimsy in his hand felt like a piece of cheap plastic, devoid of meaning.
"You requested my assistance?" The medical droid opened the door a few minutes later, nearly bumping into Zander's back. "Oh. Pardon me."
Zander stepped aside. He stared at Breg numbly. "It's been over two months."
"Acute head injuries..."
"How long does he have?"
"That's not a question I can answer. Some humans have lived as long as eighty years in a coma before passing. There was a human child..."
Zander gritted his teeth. Droids could be so obtuse. He threw a frustrated hand in Breg's direction. "I'm not asking for impossible estimates or medical anecdotes! He's on life support and military budgets are finite. How long does he have until you pull the plug on him?"
"Oh." The droid paused.
Zander knew how the Empire operated. He knew they would keep a prisoner alive only if that person had valuable information. Breg had none. The New Republic might be more forgiving, but sooner or later, someone had to cut losses.
"It is policy in cases like this to return the patient to their own people."
"To the Imperial Navy."
"To what's left of it, yes."
Zander lifted the probation notice flimsy in his hand, even though he already knew the problem. Breg had never had a chance to defect. He was still an Imperial combatant, as far as anyone but himself was concerned. "When?"
Another pause. "He's scheduled to be shipped out next week."
"They'll kill him." Zander looked the droid square in the face. "You know that right? They have no use for a body taking up resources and space! He's going to die alone. He has no next of kin. I'm all he's got!"
"I have no say in the review, and certainly not in the affairs of the remnants of the Imperial Navy." The droid bowed his head slightly. "I'm sorry. Perhaps your friend will surprise us before then. It's been proven that patients recover faster when someone talks to them and provides human contact."
Dying alone was Breg's greatest fear. Zander didn't care much for the thought himself.
Zander had nothing left to say, and eventually, the medical droid took its leave.
He sank into the seat next to the bed and clenched his fist around the flimsy. He considered tearing it up, retracting his request.
It hadn't been his intention to defect. He and Breg had been captured by chance. True, neither of them had been all that happy where they had been. They had been given questionable orders and harsh recriminations and strict lifestyles with no room to think for themselves. But, they had chosen that life by enlisting.
He'd defected because he knew his officers wouldn't take him back. They were too paranoid about double agents to trust him again. He'd defected because someone with a smile...a real, sincere smile...had given him hope. He'd wanted to give that same hope to Breg.
If he recanted his defection, there was no guarantee the New Republic would send him back with Breg. And even if they did, he'd never see Breg again. They would be separated, and Breg would be terminated.
He eyed Breg's hand. Silence had made it look so natural, but she was a girl, and an idiot who didn't care what people thought. But she'd said she'd felt the man's fingers move.
Finally, he reached out and grabbed Breg's hand. It was limp. But it was also warm, when he'd somehow been expecting something cold and lifeless.
He remembered that same hand grabbing his, helping him up from the training mat during hand-to-hand exercises. That hand had punched him in the face more than once. That hand had flown Breg's TIE Defender through maneuvers that had saved Zander's life countless times.
His fingers clamped down on Breg's hand with a sudden ferocity, but a moment later, he stood up and threw Breg's arm back to the bed. "Why won't you karking wake up! That's an order, lieutenant! Wake up, damn you!"
He could no longer be in this room, helplessly watching his friend's last days. He needed air.
On the walk back to his quarters, under the watchful eye of Corporal Settich, Zander seethed behind a façade of calm stoicism.
The Rebels had done this. They had attacked the space station Dicer Squadron had been stationed on. They had taken Breg from him once and they would do it again scarcely a day after swearing him in as an official member of the New Republic.
Anger surged in Zander's veins. Why had he ever considered switching sides? What difference did it make? Neither side would spare Breg's life.
Yet he remembered Silence bursting into the medical ward, frantically devising a plan to get Breg out of harm's way. For the sake of people she'd just met, people who had torn apart the comrades dearest to her, she had put her career on the line. She had taken three cuts in rank . . . for what? For him? For Breg? No. To do what she thought was right. It was something he hadn't seen anyone do in the Imperial Navy. At least no one who'd lived to talk about it. Courage like that was punished by death.
"Here we are." Settich stopped in front of Zander's quarters and swiped a card at the door to let him in.
"Hey . . ." Settich gave him a once-over. "My shift is over as soon as my replacement gets here. I'm going over to the pub in town to grab dinner. Want me to bring you anything?"
"I already ate at the academy."
"Beer? Something stronger?" Settich fidgeted. "Look, man, I know today's news was rough."
"Why do you care?"
"I dunno. Because I'm human?"
"Practically the entire Imperial Navy is human. Trust me, that's not the reason."
"Because I can?" Settich laughed. Then he thought about it, rubbing his chin. "Well, I never thought I'd say this to an Imperial . . . but you seem like a decent guy. You haven't given me any trouble. What's the harm? You're going to be one of us next week. Nothing says I can't show a little compassion."
Zander looked down at the flimsy still clenched in his fist. He smoothed out the creases. "Because you can."
Settich said it like a joke. He took it for granted. Silence had taken it for granted as well. In the Imperial Navy, showing compassion had been a weakness at best and treason more often than not.
He wasn't going back to the Empire, or what was left of it. Neither was Breg.
Zander counted out the days, diligently teaching his classes. In the evenings, Settich escorted him to the hospital and then dropped him off at his quarters. Sometimes Zander's visits ran hours over time, but Settich waited without complaint.
On the day Zander officially completed all the paperwork and formalities, Settich walked with him back to the hospital, as if nothing had changed.
Outside Breg's door, Zander pointed to his ankle, where there was no longer a tracker. "You don't have to follow me, corporal."
"I know." After a moment, Settich explained himself. "You might be in the New Republic now, but your buddy's still a prisoner of war. This is still a secure ward. They wouldn't have let you in without my security clearance."
"I see. Thank you." Zander still hesitated. "This door stays locked, doesn't it?"
"So you don't need to stay here waiting on me. Go home, corporal."
"A guard still has to be present when anyone visits prisoners. It might as well be me." Settich nodded towards the door. "Take your time. I know what day it is. Are you going to be okay?"
"My friend's being sent to his death tomorrow." Zander gazed levelly at the young man. "But I've seen a lot of people sent to their death."
Uncertain how to respond, Settich awkwardly said nothing. Finally, he nodded.
After he entered the room, the door sealed behind Zander. He glanced out the observation window. Settich had planted his back to the door, unable to see in, giving them privacy.
Zander pulled his seat to the edge of the bed and took Breg's hand. He recounted their finest moments, and a few of their worst, until the wee hours of the morning arrived and he'd run out of tales to tell.
Getting up to stretch his legs, he walked to the window. The graveyard shift. Only a skeleton crew staffed the hospital at this hour, mostly droids. For long lengths of time, the corridor outside stood vacant except for Settich, who remained with his back turned.
"You'd have been happy here, Breg. We fought so hard to make it into the navy. Fought so hard to survive once we got in. I fought for you when that corrupt NRI agent threatened your life."
Settling back into the chair, he removed the oxygen mask and placed a hand over Breg's mouth. "I'm not letting them take you back. I'm not letting you die alone. You either die here with me, or you fight."
With that, he pinched his friend's nose shut.
He'd shot down plenty of enemies. Killed a few up close. He had stared death in the face. But this time, he couldn't watch. He turned his head and screwed his eyes shut.
"Fight, damn you!"
Breg's chest heaved, his body's involuntary efforts to get air.
"Fight me, you mother-frakker!" He heard the heart-rate monitor beep chaotically. "Fight!"
Precious seconds passed, but he couldn't let go. By now the monitors would have alerted the medical staff that something was wrong. They would come running, and when they caught him red-handed, they would arrest him. He wouldn't get a second chance, and Breg would die alone, at the hands of people who cared nothing for him.
Fingers caught at his arm, feebly floundering before going limp. Zander pulled away sharply, his eyes snapping open...
Only to find Breg laying deathly still. The monitor flatlined. An alarm sounded. He stared in shock. He hadn't imagined that brief motion. He hadn't.
But he hadn't noticed fast enough.
"No!" He leapt onto Breg's bed, straddling the man and shoving the heel of his palm into his chest over and over. As long as he could mechanically force air and blood to circulate, there was hope. "No! You come back to me! Don't you dare give up! Don't you karking dare!"
Cold, metal hands tore him off Breg's body, but warm, gentle ones caught him as he clawed and fought and tumbled off the bed. "Get off me! Breg! Joker! Lieutenant!"
The clamor of medical personnel and droids rattled distantly through his ears, but the world was nothing but a watery blur.
He'd pushed too hard. Breg had tried. He'd tried and Zander had murdered him. If only he'd kept his eyes open, he'd have seen the signs of life sooner.
He stopped struggling and slowly collapsed, he waited for the evitable cold bracelets to lock around his wrists.
None came. Hands pinned his own firmly to his back. Then they let go.
"I saw everything." Settich's voice. "He was trying to save his friend's life."
A doctor's voice. "Keep doing compressions!"
Zander's own heart leapt.
Beep-beep! Beep! Beepbeepbeepbeep! The monitor went off in a panicked cacophony.
"He's gone tachy! Clear!"
Beeeeee... Beep. Beep. Beep.
Jumping off the floor and pushing Settich aside, Zander shouldered between a Bothan doctor and two medical droids. A hand grabbed his arm, and for a moment, he thought Settich was going to drag him away again.
Breg's fingers dug into his wrist. Green eyes burned into his.
"Please, sir." A medical droid pulled at Zander's shoulder. "Let us work..."
He caught Breg's wrist in return, locking the two of them together. "You're not taking him from me!"
"It's okay, 2-1B. Leave him." The Bothan waved that droid away while the other adjusted an IV drip.
As the medical team worked, Zander gripped Breg's hand in both of his. If they arrested him now, he didn't care . . . but eventually the doctors left.
Breg's breaths came roughly, and a whisper rasped through dry lips. "I knew you'd come back for me, sir."
"I never left you, you damned idiot!"
"You look like crap."
Zander scowled through swimming eyes. "Have you looked in a mirror lately?"
"You tried to kill me. You bastard." Breg wheezed out a laugh. "You frakking bastard."
Zander froze, suddenly aware Settich still stood behind him, listening to everything, but when Zander turned, Settich offered a slight smile.
"Why? Why did you lie for me?"
"I said you were trying to save his life." The soldier's eyes flicked solemnly to Breg. "How was that a lie?"
Breg's eyes landed on Settich's uniform. "Ah. Captured."
Zander realized Breg's last conscious moments had been scrambling from the Imperial space station. "Yes. You've been out for awhile. Listen, I . . . defected."
It felt strange saying it to another Imperial, and he felt a familiar fear, but it passed when Breg slowly smiled. "I'd have skipped out years ago if it hadn't been for you, sir."
"You didn't say anything."
"How could I have?" Breg snorted and then coughed. "Not keen on firing squads, and you . . . always so straight-laced. Didn't seem like you were the type to hanker after the Rebellion."
"I wasn't. Someone changed my mind." Zander saw Breg's fingers turning purple. He released Breg's hand brusquely.
Breg made a face. "Thought you're about to propose for a moment there."
"Oh, frak you, lieutenant."
"So what happens now?"
Zander grunted unenthusiastically when the response to his transfer request arrived. He knew they wouldn't let him or Breg into Renegade Wing after their involvement in the planned ambush at Armath. What's more, Breg still had the rest of his probationary period to serve as soon as he got discharged from the hospital ward.
He thumbed it open anyway, rubbing his eyes and downing his morning caf at the tiny desk his quarters provided.
He immediately saw several documents attached, and he glanced at them each in turn.
-Transfer Request Approval
-Waiver of Probation
-Letter of Recommendation
He frowned at each, too confused to be pleased.
Another message arrived. From General Haduron.
2nd Lt. Zander Pokri...
Yesterday, my daughter's squadron met unexpected resistance. They suffered heavy losses, but she was one of the few to survive. She attributes this to your training.
Though nothing can repay my daughter's life, as a token of my gratitude, I've taken the liberty of expediting some of you and your associate's pending paperwork.
...General Fennus Haduron