Colonel Vince "Stryker" Rambo settled into a familiar chair before a familiar, imposing desk.
"It seems Skull is once again in need of an XO." Rear Admiral Tolden of Task Force Vigilant clearly knew exactly why the colonel had requested the meeting.
Stryker been here before about the same topic countless times, and before the loss of the Liberty and the subsequent transfer of his squadrons to Vigilant, he had visited the rear admiral of that task force just as many times, if not more.
Tolden shuffled several flimsies and sighed. "That position has the highest turnover rate in the fleet."
They had had this same meeting just last month, before installing Captain Pilt as Skull's new XO, but Stryker asked again, as he always did. "Remind me why we aren't letting Major Tane promote from within his squadron? Captain Astrada is more than qualified, as he has pointed out every time the position is vacant."
In the next chair over, Lieutenant Commander C'our Dentran listened but let Tolden do the talking. The feline Myr Rho sat quietly enough to almost go unnoticed, a trait probably valued by the Naval Intelligence Division.
"It's a complicated situation, further complicated-I might add-by the fact the most recent XO turned up dead in the 'fresher."
Stryker held up the coroner's report. "That was ruled a heart attack from natural causes, not some nefarious plot by the Skulls. Just because Major Tane happens to lead a squadron made entirely from defectors doesn't mean they're up to something."
Tolden didn't seem to hear him. "The deaths of the other XOs were also ruled natural causes, accidents, and KIA."
"You make it sound as if every Skull XO dies under strange circumstances. Most of them simply transferred out."
"Eight XOs in half as many years. Two just this last month. The attrition rate in Skull is remarkably low except for this one position, and it seems an obvious point to stress that the XO is the only position in the squadron held by non-defectors. That's no coincidence."
"If we didn't keep installing a monitor like we don't trust them, maybe we wouldn't have this problem." Stryker knew for a fact this had become a serious sore point among Skull, and it didn't sit right with him either. "Major Tane and his closest associates have been with us since Alderaan, without a single blemish on their records. Don't you think it's about time we agree to trust them?"
"The point of a monitor has always been to establish trust, and the rate with which they keep disappearing proves there's reason to be suspicious. Maybe the monitor is the only thing that has warded off a security leak or other plots."
"I don't buy it. Nothing has ever indicated anything but loyalty and admirable service from Tane, Astrada, and Malone, or any of the Skulls who gave their lives for the New Republic."
"Maybe not, but the other members don't have quite as distinguished of a track record. Second Lieutenants Pokri and Mangalla, for example, are very new. Thanks to some general pulling strings, Mangalla didn't even go through a probationary period."
"The man was in a coma, an injury resulting from our actions."
"Exactly. From his perspective, we attacked his station, nearly killed him, wiped out nearly the entire rest of his squadron . . . and the next day he wakes up and is immediately planted into our ranks. You expect his loyalty to change, literally overnight? No. We need a monitor."
Stryker was tired of making the same argument time and again, but there was only so much he could do in the face of his superior's decisions. "How about we trust Tane to monitor his own pilots? I think he's earned it by now."
"We need to know he's not in this for the long con." Tolden steepled his fingers. "We need an XO we can trust."
"We've had XO's we can trust. Eight of them. It's not working."
"You're right." The admiral nodded. "We need an XO they trust."
"Yes, sir, but I don't think you and I are talking about the same thing at all. My squad leaders are more than capable of keeping their own people in line." Stryker realized his mistake the moment the words left his mouth.
Tolden didn't miss a beat. "Ah. Right. Like Lieutenant Colonel Reynolds of your vaunted Rogues kept Major Dobson in line when the man tried to murder a restrained prisoner. A prisoner of some value and visibility, I might add."
Stryker refrained from replying. He'd walked right into that one.
"This is why I've asked Lieutenant Commander Dentran for assistance." Tolden motioned to the Myr Rho.
Dentran nodded. "It's obviously a delicate situation, an impasse of distrust. They don't trust us, because we don't trust them. We don't trust them, because they keep managing to remove their oversight."
"It's a heavy-handed solution. Other defectors have entered our ranks without need for measures like this," Stryker pointed out. "Renegade Wing is riddled with ex-Imperials, yet only Skull gets a babysitter."
"It was a part of the agreement. As you know, the Reckoners defected together, as a whole squadron, and a condition of defecting was that they be allowed to not only remain together, instead of dispersing and being assimilated, but also that Major Tane remain in command. It's not the same as putting a defector into an existing squadron under the watchful eye of one of our trusted commanders." Dentran smoothed his orange fur. "Our condition for accepting this deal was that they allow us to install an XO of our own in their ranks. Your name is on the original documents, colonel."
"I agreed with it at the time," Styker admitted. "But after all these years, I think it's become outdated and problematic."
"It doesn't need to be," Dentran assured, passing him a flimsy with a personnel record. "It's a matter of finding the right fit, and I have someone very promising in mind."
Stryker scanned the document with a growing sense of anger. "With all due respect, sirs, this will blow up in our faces, I guarantee it."
Tolden hunched forward. "It's your job to guarantee otherwise, colonel. Do you think we like having to funnel trustworthy XOs through your meat grinder of a squadron? We need to resolve this, and I'm personally charging you with that responsibility. As the wing commander, you've let this fester for the last four years and change. Time to step up."
Stryker fumed at the sudden accusation, but he kept his face blank. He had been telling Command for all these years that this system wasn't working, that there was a problem, and now they were telling him it was his fault their solution didn't work? Worse, that he had to make it work?
However, he realized Tolden was right about one thing. As wing commander of Renegade Wing, the wing and all the squadrons within it were his responsibility. What's more, he had signed that original document, along with Major Tane. He should've had the foresight to set an expiration clause. Truth be told, with life expectancies being so low at the height of their war with the Empire, he had thought he and the Reckoners wouldn't live long enough for it to be an issue. Of the twelve original Reckoners, only three currently remained.
"I can work with Major Tane to find a resolution, but you can't send me back with this kind of replacement and nothing to bargain with." Stryker held up a copy of the original defection agreement with the Reckoners, and all the stipulations therein. "The disabling devices we install in their ships when new defectors come in-I want them removed from this agreement. They nearly got two of my pilots killed and put the fleet at risk."
"There is a good reason for those killswitches."
"And there are even more reasons to get rid of them." Stryker tapped the document emphatically. "Have the disablers removed, and I'll make sure the Skull XO position is no longer a problem."
He hoped he knew Major Tane as well as he thought he did.
Captain Kamion Leeon reviewed the transfer papers multiple times. She had grown tired being sent undercover on dangerous operations. Pretending to be someone else, hiding among one's enemies, took a toll on one's sanity.
This opportunity offered a position in a New Republic fleet, instead of to some remote Imperial installation. A chance to dust off her piloting skills once again. But the most important thing: success meant she could finally be done with the undercover business. She could finally be with her love.
The details made things a bit muddier.
As a Clawdite, the New Republic put her shapeshifting abilities to use every chance they got. They'd practically begged her to join the NRI as an undercover agent.
But she hadn't expected them to ask her to use it among their own ranks. They had called Skull Squadron a potential security risk. The catch-Skull was entirely ex-Imperial and had a long history of not welcoming non-defectors. They also never had a non-human member, but she'd spent enough time among Imperials to know how to deal with specism both from humans and against humans. And she'd spent enough time as a human to know specism against humans could be just as vindictive. No one species had a monopoly on distrust or fear, especially in a time of war.
They would give her a week to observe Skull from afar, and to choose her own identity strategically before being transferred in. The NRI would provide her documents and a military record to support whatever identity Kamion came up with.
The first thing that came to mind was to pretend to be another ex-Imperial, but they had told her that was off the table. She had to pose as a non-defector, an outsider, and still find a way to gain their trust.
Though deceiving New Republic personnel seemed like an odd assignment coming from the NRI, it would be her last. Then she could retire and leave this life of treachery behind.
She packed her bags.
Stryker found Major Alexander "Scythe" Tane in a corner booth of the SSD, with his constant shadow, Captain Fess "Nails" Astrada. He nodded to them. "Mind if I join you?"
"Sir." Scythe lifted his nearly-empty glass in an accommodating gesture.
"Can I get you both a drink?" Stryker waved over Iggy, the IG-88 assassin droid somehow pressed into service as a bartender. "Another brandy for my friend. And for you, captain?"
Nails shook her head. "No, thank you, sir."
While Iggy retrieved a decanter from behind the bar and returned to pour it, Nails scooted deeper into the booth, edging closer to Scythe to make room. Stryker shook his head. "I'm afraid I need to talk to your major alone. Go get a drink, on me."
She glanced between the two of them, shrugged, and got up. Instead of heading to the bar, however, she moved to a table across the room, facing them but out of earshot over the noise of other patrons.
"She doesn't drink." Scythe's red and blue eyes noticed Stryker's curiosity.
"A level of prudence rarely seen in pilots."
"Prudence." Scythe's gaze traveled back to Nails and then away. "I wish I could call it that."
Stryker had served on the same ship as them since they had turned against the Empire over four years ago. He barely saw the two apart, and while many of the pilots went against better judgment by flirting with other crew members, neither Scythe nor Nails ever showed interest in anyone. He could read between the lines. "You care about her."
"Of course." Scythe sipped his drink. "We've been through more together than two people should have to go through. But I hope you aren't implying our relationship is anything but professional."
"Merely an observation, major. Nothing intended." Stryker sensed a dead end in that line of conversation. Scythe wasn't hiding anything, nor did he want to talk about it. "I have some news about your vacancy."
"Let me guess, sir, you're here to turn down my recommendation that Captain Astrada be named XO." Something like humor pulled at Scythe's lips.
"That goes without saying." Stryker and Scythe both knew the details of the agreement, but Stryker passed him a flimsy with a copy of the document. "But I have some good news. One line item has been removed from the deal."
Scythe took the flimsy skeptically and reviewed. His eyes landed on the crossed out section and looked back up. "The remote disabling system for new transfers."
"Yes. The recent incident proves how dangerous it is, so I was able to convince the admiral to remove it."
Scythe took a sip from his glass, not exhibiting the relief Stryker had expected. Finally Scythe's eyes locked onto Stryker. "You don't remember that I put that stipulation in there, sir?"
Stryker hid his surprise. A lot had been going on at the time of the agreement being signed. He remembered the line item, but not how it had gotten there. He'd assumed it was an additional measure of control insisted upon by the admiral at the time. Kicking himself for making assumptions, he cocked his head slightly. "You? Why?"
"Because I can only vouch for the loyalty of my people, sir, not freshly defected Imperials claiming the best of intentions." Scythe scowled into his drink. "You forget, I'm not protecting my people from yours. I'm protecting all of us from the enemy, and their potential spies. But if a mole slips through and puts us all at risk, who takes the fall? Skull does. That condition was there so I could act immediately at signs of trouble."
"Ah." Stryker nodded, still feeling he was missing something.
"The XO having joint authority to trigger the system was the condition added by Admiral Ra'Kaat, who isn't even with us anymore." Scythe jabbed a metal finger at the document. "The XO's authority taking precedence over mine, so that I wasn't able to override his poor judgment, is the condition that nearly cost lives!"
"We both know we have a bigger problem." Pushing the flimsy aside, Stryker folded his arms on the table. "I can't offer you the option of choosing your own XO. You're going to get whatever they give you, and you're not going to like this one anymore than the rest. They won't trust you. You won't trust them. The cycle repeats every time. I spoke with Rear Admiral Tolden and Lieutenant Commander Dentran. They have no interest in changing anything."
"Of course they don't." Swirling his drink, Scythe glanced at Nails. "They're too far up the chain to understand the ramifications it has at our level."
"Point is, major, you and I do understand. It's up to us. After four years, I think it's time to put this problem to bed, don't you?" Stryker saw he had Scythe's attention. "I have an idea you might not like, but this time, we do things differently."
Humans. So easy to imitate. The species had become a second skin to Kamion after all her missions posing as Imperials or informants. Men, women, angsty teenagers . . . she'd been them all. Shapeshifting was only a small part of the task. Her acting could have rivaled the top holovid stars, and she got no second takes or scripts. She often got so deep into her characters that they nearly developed a mind of their own. She became them. While occasionally troublesome, that oddity had saved her life more often than not.
Observing the bar, curiously called the SSD, she sipped her drink and played up her initial cover, an overweight Ugnaught technician named Gefa Terim.
A lonely, single extrovert, Gefa chatted up anyone who would humor her. She asked about all the squadrons and many other things to avoid showing any special interest in the Skulls. Most of the personnel were only too happy to brag up their favorite squadron or crews but all of them had interesting stories to share about Skull.
"Oh, yeah." A Lannik janitor twitched her long ears eagerly. "I heard Skull is looking for yet another XO. But what's new, right?"
Gefa casually sipped her drink. "What's new? This happens often?"
"Yeah, like every six months. This last one though . . ." The Lannik leaned closer. "Rumor has it, they murdered him for spotting traitors in their mix. Nothing could be proven, of course. Their XOs go missing, resign, die . . . but nothing can ever be traced back to Scythe or his people. But we all know something is going on. The last one died right in the 'fresher! Last person to see him alive was Skifter, one the Skulls."
And later, from a junior mechanic: "The Skulls are seriously kinda creepy. Like, have you seen them? All dressed in black. Rigid as a bunch of popsicles, never a hair out of place. Heck, even their squadron patch has a TIE helmet on it. They never left the Empire-they brought it with them!"
And still later, from a protocol droid: "There's never been a non-human in Skull. They have a tight and exclusive social unit. Why, just the other day, I saw the two new guys talking to the deck chief, Wackachangi. He's a Wookiee, you know. Their body language said they were highly uncomfortable around him. I bet they've never even seen a Wookiee in person before."
The following day of scouting produced more of the same:
"They give me the chills, honestly."
"I heard Command keeps sending them XOs to report from inside the Skulls, but as soon as the Skulls find out, they disappear. They don't trust anyone."
"Have you seen Skull Leader? Those eyes give me the creeps. Honestly, the human eye is worse than the cybernetic one"
"Rumor has it, Nails tore some guy's tongue out through his throat with her bare hands on shore leave one time. I believe it. I mean, she killed her entire family as a kid."
"If you're looking for the best beans, ask for Skull Three, Skifter. But don't tell anyone, especially not Frosty. They have a bit of a turf war going on."
"No one really trusts them. We give them a wide berth, and they don't mess with us. Even Command doesn't trust them. Why do you think they keep putting non-defector XOs to keep an eye on them?"
"I feel bad for whatever XO comes in next. Poor soul will be lucky to make it out alive."
Feeling daring, and in need of concrete information, when she spotted two of the Skulls sitting alone, she decided to approach them.
Shuffling up to the table, Gefa offered the Ugnaught equivalent of a friendly smile. "Hello, gals. I'm new around here. Just looking to get to know some new faces. May I interest you in a drink and a chat?"
The two women, who Kamion recognized from their personnel files as Nails and Crossbones, turned to look at her. Nails looked at her pointedly from over a glass of water. Her metal nails clinked against the glass. "I don't drink."
Crossbones offered an apologetic smile. "Sorry, we're having a private conversation."
Gefa could see why no one seemed to be close to the Skulls. They didn't seem interested in mingling.
Back at her quarters, she sighed heavily, and Gefa vanished in a ripple of flesh. Kamion had gained little of value from her day's efforts.
The rest of the week didn't go much better.
Kamion ended her week's research in conflicted turmoil, staring into the refresher mirror of her temporary guest quarters at her naked body as it shifted and changed over and over. She tested different appearances, dissatisfied with all of them.
Clawdites could impersonate each other even better than other races. On her homeworld, trust had been precious and rare. They relied more on personality traits than physical appearances for identification, but a little acting ability undermined even that method. Kamion had saved herself and her little sister from a kidnapper based on smell alone. The kidnapper had styled himself after their mother, but he'd missed one thing-her perfume.
So to say Kamion was familiar with distrust would be the understatement of the year. The trust she did receive was only because her superiors were too enthralled with her potential to worry about her impersonating one of them. Her physical form got her into places no other agent could go, and her ability to play characters kept her alive long enough to become a top agent.
Her research had left her with a healthy amount of apprehension. The Skulls were entirely Imperial and acting like an Imperial to fit in would be easy, but she was not supposed to act like one of them. She had to gain their trust some other way
It had crossed her mind to not go undercover at all. To just walk in as herself, no disguise. Yet, she was afraid. Imperials didn't trust non-humans, but no one, even other Clawdites, trusted a Clawdite. If she tried that method, she'd fail her job in the first few minutes. No matter what choice she made, she lived in fear. The dread of being found out was hard to let go.
She reviewed her notes one more time, and when she finished, she hooked up the saline pump that allowed her to increase her mass. The familiar chill entered her veins, and her green skin stretched, Colors rippled across her face as she tested different skin colors.
Finally, she settled on a hard-jawed, brick wall of a man. Stout and bald, with a tribal tattoo down one arm. Hm. Not enough. Scar tissue along the side of the face and head. Beefy hands. Skin, a pale shade of . . . no, darker. Darker. An ambiguous brownish-tan.
"Captain Brock Grommer, at your service." She coughed and tried again, deepening her voice until it sounded like she had eaten a bucket of gravel. "Captain Brock Grommer. Brock Grommer. Grommer, Brock Grommer."
She made a few small tweaks to change fearsomely ugly to brutal with a side of rugged appeal. Perhaps the female members of the Skulls would appreciate that.
The superficial stuff completed, she moved onto the deeper layers of her character, becoming more and more consumed by it until she was . . . Captain Brock Grommer. The man tougher than nails. The man who lived and died for his comrades. The man with a tragic past, but not so tragic that he lost his sense of humor, dark though it might be.
And when Brock Grommer stepped away from the mirror, he smiled faintly. He was ready to face them. They would trust him, because he was them, modeled piece by piece after them to fit in perfectly.
Captain Grommer arrived on the Vigilant two days later, striding off the transport briskly and taking in his surroundings. When a junior officer ran up, he offered her his ID and a smile. Seeing her blush slightly, he winked. Human girls, on the New Republic side, were easily the most entertaining creatures to flirt with.
"Right this way, Captain Grommer." The girl turned away quickly and led him off the flight deck, hiding a smile.
"Have a seat, Captain Grommer." Skull Leader waved for him to sit on the other side of the polished, black desk. Only two things occupied the desktop . . . a flimsy and a potted cactus. "Let's get to the point. I know why you're here."
"I heard you need an XO, sir."
"And I heard you're from the NRI."
"Yes, sir. I have a background in intelligence."
"Then you've done your research on us." Scythe waved a metal hand. "XOs don't last long around here. The Skulls have been around since Alderaan, yet Command keeps installing outsiders as our XO, to 'keep an eye on us'. Does that seem heavy-handed to you?"
"I don't know, sir." Brock leaned back in his chair and shrugged indifferently. "Has anything happened to undermine trust in the squadron?"
"There was one incident, as I'm sure you know. A few years back, we were sent a fresh defect. She seemed sincere enough until we caught her trying to leak information to the Empire. We keep close tabs on the defects. No information made it out."
"Someone who has defected within the last three months. Someone who hasn't earned trust yet."
"Since then, Command has been breathing down our necks. The people they send us are intelligence agents, not pilots. Incompetent at everything but spying, digging for dirt that doesn't exist. I keep my crew squeaky clean, so they can look as much as they like, but no one likes a rat." Scythe's red and blue eyes both fixed upon Grommer.
"No, sir," Grommer agreed easily, but Kamion felt her heart rate increase. It wasn't fear. It was her favorite drug, the one that sharpened her senses when she needed them: adrenaline.
"We're pilots first and foremost, captain. We have no room for an XO who can neither lead nor fly."
"Then I shall take my leave, sir." Grommer started to stand up before Kamion could second guess the rash move, but perhaps better to play coy than to push one's luck. "I can't claim extensive experience with either.
Scythe tapped the flimsy. "Your personnel file says you've led multiple covert operations. Calm under pressure. Also says here you used to be a test pilot in the private sector."
Grommer gave a slight nod. "Yes, sir."
"Your background is sufficient." The analytical tone revealed no praise but also no sarcasm. "How do you feel about Imperials, captain?"
"Spent plenty of time around them." Recognizing the trap, Grommer didn't elaborate.
"We aren't Imperials anymore, and we certainly aren't traitors. If you're looking for either, you won't find them." The red and blue eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly. "We've kept what was worth keeping. Discipline. Standards. Honor. So if you look around, you might see some familiar things, but don't mistake it for anything but what it is. Are you here to be a spy, or are you here to be an XO?"
There were times to lie and times to tell the truth . . . and then there were times like this. "I think you know what my orders are, sir."
Scythe's fiery-cold gaze pierced right through Grommer. "That's the last evasive answer you give me, do you understand me?"
"Now answer the question."
"With all due respect, sir, I'm just a captain. I'm here to follow orders. Their orders, and your orders. I don't get to pick and choose which. They tell me to write reports, I write reports. You tell me to fly an X-wing and manage paperwork, I fly an X-wing and manage paperwork." Grommer rubbed the scars on his jaw. "But I'm not here to scrutinize Skull's every step for treason."
"Well . . . you are now." Scythe dug a datapad out of a drawer and opened two personnel files. You're in charge of Three Flight, where we keep the new people. We have two fresh defects. And you are going to find out if we can trust them."
"Yes, sir." Kamion knew exactly who they were, having studied the personnel files of everyone in Skull. New people who no one trusted, not even the rest of Skull. They had already been suspected of murder. She began to see how she could accomplish her mission.
Inside his quarters, Brock Grommer lay on his bunk, eyes closed. Inside Grommer, Kamion lay awake. She couldn't risk returning to her true form. They might have cameras even in her quarters. They trusted no one, and for all of Scythe's insistence they were no longer Imperials, they hadn't left much of the Imperial mindset behind.
The divide between the Skulls and the rest of the wing had made itself apparent, and while that had been stated as part of the challenges she would face . . . she saw it as an advantage.
I will be with you soon. In her mind, she kissed her sweetheart, but in reality, she dared not even pull up an image of him on Grommer's datapad. Years of deep cover had taught her to live in her mind. If you never broke cover, no one could catch you. She curled up in his arms and confessed her love for him, as she had a million times before, but never in person.
He knew she was a Clawdite, yet still he had smiled at her and eased her nerves during rough missions. A human, he could never deceive her in the same way another Clawdite could. However, as an undercover veteran, Kamion had never revealed her feelings to him.
But she knew they weren't one-sided. She knew from the kindness in his face when no one was around, the softer side he never showed to anyone else. She knew because he had resigned from being her handler to taking his own undercover assignment. She knew he had been hiding his feelings, as she had been, to avoid any professional complications. She knew he was waiting for her to complete this one last mission.
Sometimes, when no one could see her and there was no possibility of cameras watching, she had shapeshifted into him, so that she could see him and touch him. She had memorized every detail of his face, although the rest of his body had been left to her imagination.
To see him again, she had to gain the Skulls trust, and she would. Grommer would.
In the solitude of his office, Scythe poured a finger of brandy into two glasses. He pushed one across the table to Nails.
"Thank you, sir." She accepted it, but even coming from him, she still sniffed it, tasted the tiniest sip, and worked it around in her mouth. Someone else might think she was savoring it. He knew she was checking it for things that shouldn't be there. Things they both knew weren't there.
He understood her compulsive distrust of drinks, but every time he watched her, he saw another scene entirely.
Scythe scanned the line of assembled pilots outside the briefing room. "Where's Flight Officer Astrada?"
"The new girl?" Skifter peeked out of line and looked up and down Skull for himself. "She was still at the bar when I left. Maybe she lost track of time."
"Who saw her last?" Scythe had returned from shore leave early, as a squadron leader always should, to set an example of discipline and readiness. Most of his men had returned shortly after him. Being late was inexcusable for an Imperial Navy pilot of any rank. He went down the line. "Fumes?"
The young pilot shrugged. "Same, sir. She was sitting at the bar chatting up some guy when I left."
"I left at the same time as Fumes, sir. Saw the same thing. She seemed sober enough. She should have noticed us leaving."
"I think I was the last to leave. I told her it was time to go and then left. I thought she was right behind me."
Scythe frowned. "What did I tell you all before shore leave?"
"Be back on time, sir," Skifter provided helpfully. "Don't get drunk."
"Don't trust the karking locals."
"And our newest member broke all three of those rules." Scythe grunted in disappointment and ran his fingers through his dark hair. "Let's go get her. I'll have her scrubbing refreshers for the next month, assuming I don't throw her out on her ass. It'll be the last time she makes that mistake."
"Sorry, but I really have to go." Flight Officer Fess Astrada slipped off the barstool. She'd noticed the other Skulls drifting out of the establishment one by one, but when Floater tapped her shoulder and nodded to the door on his way out, she knew she couldn't drag her feet any longer. She smiled at the pleasant young man who had been buying her drinks. "It was nice meeting you, though."
"Just one more drink?" He flashed an irresistible grin. "Please?"
"Sorry, I can't show up completely trashed in front of my squad leader. He'd have my hide."
"Bartender! Javarican espresso." The man tapped the counter with determination. "Let's make sure the lady gets back to her commander sharp and alert, huh?"
"That's sweet, but-" Fess scanned the room, searching for any remaining Skulls. No, she was definitely the last one. "I really got to-"
But when she turned back to finish apologizing, he already had the espresso cup in hand. That bartender was no slouch! It even had a heart drawn on top in frothed milk. She sighed. She was feeling really drowsy. She grabbed it, and downed it in one shot. "Okay, now I'm going."
"I'll walk you out." He offered her an arm, which she gladly leaned on. "Are you okay?"
"So sleepy." She hadn't intended to utter the words aloud, but she had drunk more than she should have, apparently. She giggled. "Such a lightweight. I'm such a light . . ."
He helped her stagger out the door, into the sparsely-lit street.
"Wheeee, spinny." Her mouth ran on without her help. How had she gotten drunk so fast? Scythe was going to kill her. She tried to clear her head by shaking it. He was going to rip her a new one. He was-
The cool breeze momentarily cut through the fog in her brain and she waved a finger in the opposite direction. " S'thother way. Where're we goin'? The base's . . . t'basessesss . . . other way . . ."
"Shh, I got you." He pulled her arm over his shoulder as she stumbled again.
Something urgent kicked in, feral instincts that knew something was terribly wrong. "No!"
She sucker punched him in the stomach and broke away when he doubled over in pain. Staggering and weaving, she headed back toward the brightest light. Tripping through the door and back into the bar, she caught the edge of the counter just in time to avoid cracking her head against it.
The man came through after her. "She's had a few too many. No more drinks, bartender! I'll walk her home."
She whirled, picking up a barstool with the intent of breaking it against his face, but it slipped from her fingers and clattered across the floor.
"Whoa, babe. Calm down. We need to get you home."
Home. The word sent her into a rage that immediately turned to tears. "Don't wanna go home!"
Her knees gave out. "Don't wanna. Don't. Dnrflmrg . . ."
"I'm so sorry. I forgot how much of a lightweight my girlfriend is." The man's voice seemed a million miles away. "Sorry about the scene."
"The frak is going on?"
Scythe? She fought to get up but only succeeded in floundering on the floor. She fought her mouth to form coherent words. "Srrr, I-I'mmmmnahhh noth drunk mm nah-"
"Flight Officer Astrada!" Scythe's voice lashed her. "What the frak did I tell you? Get up and get back to base, NOW!"
She still felt his disgust and disappointment poignantly, so much so that it hurt. He didn't understand. Neither did she. But through all of that, she felt a surge of relief. He'd come back. Flailing with hand, she caught his polished boot, dragged herself to him. Whatever was happening, she'd tried to protect herself and couldn't. Now she could only hope Scythe and the Skulls didn't leave her behind.
He and Skifter pulled her upright, but she felt like jelly.
"I saw what she was drinking, sir." Skifter took her weight while Scythe looked her over. "There's no way she got this drunk that fast."
Scythe pried her eyelids open. His blue eyes stared into hers. "She'd been drugged."
A second later, she heard a scuffle at the bar. The charming man yelled in pain. Then the locals got rowdy. Skifter dumped her on the floor, and even though she knew a huge fight was breaking out around her, the floor felt sooo good. As comfortable as any five-star mattress.
Smoke caught her nose. It smelled like a campfire. How she knew that was a mystery, because she'd never gone camping.
The screaming and yelling seemed a million miles away.
And then, it faded.
She awoke, choking on smoke. Her limbs still refused to move, but urgency pulled her into awareness. Her eyes stung when she opened them.
All around her, flames consumed the bar, exuberantly licking across the spilled alcohol.
"Where is she?"
"I had to put her down, sir."
Scythe's swearing seemed to come from behind her somewhere.
Bottles on the shelf behind the bar shattered in the heat of the flames, and each small explosion became an inferno. Something large crashed, and the floor shuddered.
"You can't go in there, sir. The whole place is about to collapse!"
"Shut the frak up, captain! I don't leave my people behind!"
She wanted to call out, but the best she could do was struggle for breath. The flames rapidly depleted the oxygen in the building.
Everything was on fire. The bar, the tables, the chairs, much of the floor, the doorway. Flames even rolled across the ceiling. Leave it to idiot locals to build a drinking establishment out of wood.
A dark figure plunged through the doorway. Fess raised her hand. It shook like a leaf, but the drugs were starting to wear off.
"You're a karking pain in the ass, flight officer." He crouched, coughing through the rag tied around his face.
As he reached for her, a metal keg on the bar exploded. A gout of flames billowed over the bar and fiery droplets rained over them. Something cracked with a splintering sound overhead, and something heavy struck Fess on the shoulder.
She moaned and through the watering of her smoke-stung eyes, she saw Scythe lying under a heavy chandelier.
She grabbed his sleeve weakly. He didn't move. Overhead, the ceiling timbers groaned.
She knew she had to drag him outside, but she could barely get the chandelier off of them both before collapsing into a fit of coughing. It wasn't just the smoke or the drugs now. Oxygen deprivation suffocated her.
She knew the ceiling would come down any moment, and she couldn't even stand up or yell for help.
Another explosion rang out, and she desperately climbed on top of her commander, shielding him from the shower of burning alcohol. It splashed over her back and neck, pooling on the floor at her fingertips, and the flames devoured the liquid and ate into her flesh eagerly.
She screamed until she passed out.
Scythe's red and blue gaze lingered on Fess's metal nails for a moment. While he'd survived mostly unscathed thanks to her shielding him, she still bore extensive scarring on her back and neck. The damage to her fingers had led her to choose prosthetic nails. She had gained her call sign as soon as the others saw her swap them out for sharpened claws.
Neither of them would have escaped if the rest of the Skulls hadn't banded together as a brigade to drag them out. The locals' efforts to douse the fire had been too little, too late.
He remembered her confusion when coming around in the hospital. "Did . . . Did we get shot down, sir?"
The drugs the man had spiked her drink with had contained an amnesiac. He remembered the growing horror on her face as he told her what had happened.
She hadn't believed him, at first, but when it finally hit home, she'd cried pitifully. Not the confused tears of a girl who didn't understand why someone would hurt her. It was loud, frustrated sobs of rage, the sounds of someone being forced back into nightmares they thought they'd escaped.
Then she had dried her face on the bed sheets and looked up with a coldness that he'd only felt in graveyards. "I'm sorry for being so naive, sir. It'll never happen again."
And it never had. Not the tears, not the naïveté, not the drinking. The cocky, temperamental, and occasionally sweet girl had become a woman in those few seconds. Reserved, professional, and mercilessly hard on herself, she drove herself to become his best pilot after that. He'd never seen the girl again.
It wasn't prudence, as Stryker had assumed. Buried deep underneath the gruff, tough, and toned exterior . . . lay fear. But not fear of being hurt. Fear of letting him down again. He'd told her how they found her shielding him with her own body. He'd told her they were even. She'd never seen it that way.
"What do you think of the new XO, Fess?"
She shrugged. "Just look at the guy. It's like he was practically engineered to fit in with us, but he doesn't. I don't trust him. He's just more of the same."
"Perhaps." Scythe ran his metal finger around the rim of his glass, making it sing. "But we aren't going to treat him the same."
"No?" She raised a white eyebrow.
"No." He spoke in time with his circling finger. "They don't trust us, therefore we don't trust them, therefore they don't trust us. 'Round and 'round it goes. We have nothing to hide. The only people here whose loyalty can be questioned are the new guys. They are his problem; we are not."
"Mmmph." She scowled and took another tiny sip of her drink. "Fine. But how are we going to convince him of that? You know they sold us to him as an untrustworthy clique hiding spies."
"Actions speak louder than words." Scythe pulled a commlink out of his flightsuit pocket. "Captain Grommer. Please come to my office."
Grommer stepped inside the squadron leader's office. "Sir?"
"Sit." The cybernetic hand gesture to the third seat, the one next to the other occupant of the office, Nails. Her folded arms and bunching muscles said she wasn't comfortable having him sit that close, but orders were orders. Grommer pulled out the indicated chair and sat stiffly.
"Drink?" Scythe lifted a bottle and glass from a drawer. Before Grommer could answer, he poured the brandy and slid it across the desk.
Grommer checked that Scythe already had a half-empty glass before accepting. Wouldn't be wise to drink around an officer if he himself wasn't partaking. "Don't mind if I do, sir. Thank you."
What caught Kamion's attention, however, was the glass in Nails' hand. She distinctly remembered the woman stating that she didn't drink.
To be fair, the glass looked barely touched, but Nails lifted it to her lips and tasted it gingerly. Perhaps the woman felt obligated to accept the drink to avoid being rude to her superior.
Grommer sipped the drink, wondering why Scythe had called him in. Nails remained silent, rubbing the tattooed-over scar behind her neck, just below her white cornrows. Her gray eyes wandered over Grommer curiously, as if wondering the same thing he was.
"Welcome to Skull, captain." Scythe raised his glass, and Grommer and Nails followed suit. "To old friends and making new ones."
"I'll drink to that." Grommer took another measured sip.
"I realize it's only been a couple days, but how are you getting along with Three Flight?"
Grommer reviewed his interactions with Joker and Poker. "Hard to say, sir. They haven't warmed up to me yet."
"Don't expect them to anytime soon. The last XO nearly got them both killed." Scythe ran a hand over the metal side of his head, as if to run his hand through hair and not finding any. An old habit, perhaps. "I want to be sure we're on the same page. I told you to watch them because they are new defects."
"Yes, sir. I haven't seen anything suspicious yet."
"However, you are their flight leader and their XO. This means you also need to watch out for them, not just watch them. I don't want what I said earlier to confuse your purpose. They are your responsibility either way, but I don't want to start out on the foot of distrust. Understand? Trust them unless they give you reason to do otherwise."
"Yes, sir." Grommer looked up and squarely met the gaze of the red eye. "I hope that policy applies to me, as well."
"Forgive us for not being the warmest of squadrons, captain. Trust is a precious commodity for us." Scythe and Nails exchanged a lingering glance. "Trust given tends to mean very little compared to trust earned. But . . . in light of our history with XOs, perhaps it is our own attitudes that need to change."
Nails stared fixedly at her drink, as if she didn't agree, but she said nothing.
"Normally we reserve Three Flight for backup, but this week, I'm putting Three Flight on patrol duty, starting tomorrow, first shift of the night." Scythe nodded to the door. "Dismissed."
"Yes, sir." Grommer stood crisply and left the office.
As Grommer headed back to his quarters, Kamion allowed herself a smile. Things were going perfectly. Scythe had given her a perfect excuse to get closer to Poker and Joker, and earning their trust was going to be essential to carrying out the rest of her mission.
It would be Grommer's first assignment, therefore Kamion had to make sure it went perfectly. First assignments could make or break trust.
Grommer entered the flight deck that evening after dinner and examined his X-wing from end to end. Yes, this was the maintenance crew's responsibility, but attention to detail saved lives.
Nothing seemed out of place, except the hush among the maintenance crew whenever he came close to them. He could feel them whispering about him just out of earshot. Even the other pilots he encountered only gave him a nod and moved on.
Frustrated, Kamion pondered the situation. Normally, she never broke cover. However, sometimes a second set of eyes could be crucial, and she already had an established cover as Gefa the technician.
Finding a remote corner of the ship, she changed to the ugnaught, packing her saline pump and Grommer-related items into a tool bag and putting on her technician's coveralls.
It was a strange feeling, walking into the same room twice as two different identities. When Gefa ambled onto the flight deck, no one even noticed her. Chatter ran on, uninterrupted by her entrance. She listened while making herself look busy.
Two Buccaneer pilots strolled past, engaged in an animated conversation.
"How long do you give him?"
"The new Skull XO? Ha! Like three weeks, at this rate. I feel bad for him, honestly."
"I don't. What kind of person spies on their own allies?"
"It's not exactly spying. It's . . . insurance."
As they walked away, Gefa moved to another part of the flight deck. Two humans stood next to a gray and blue X-wing. "Flight Officer Pristo . . . lack? Lake? Pristolaque? Am I saying that right? He was saying-"
The other tech scratched his head. "Who?"
"Uh. The green tentacle guy."
"Yeah. He was saying the shield generator is on the fritz. Loses power randomly in the middle of a battle."
"That's what happens when you are bad at dodging and soak a lot of hits."
"He swears it's broken."
"Right. That's the same guy who's scared of his own astromech. Look, I ran diagnostics. The thing is working. Whatever he's talking about, I can't reproduce it."
"He says it only happens when he gets shot at."
"Well, I'm not getting paid to go out and get into a firefight! I can't reproduce it. There's nothing to fix."
"Okay, look. Just swap it out with a new one."
"We don't have any new ones! They're on backorder. Again. So unless it's actually broken and therefore something I can fix-"
"Alright, fine. Just swap it out for another shield generator in another X-wing." The first tech surveyed the flight deck, tapping his chin thoughtfully before his gaze landed on a ship in the distance. "Last I heard, Skull's three flight was empty. We swap pieces off the Skull ships all the time. As fleet defense, if Skulls' ships break down, they're easy to recover. Not the same as Rogue and the others that go out on long-range missions, you know? Put the generator on one of them and tell noodle-noggin we gave him a new one."
The second man grunted. "Waste of time if you ask me."
"Well, no one asked you."
"No one ever asks me."
"There's a reason for that."
While the two men bickered, Gefa frowned. She wanted to point out that in the last two weeks, Three Flight had gone from empty to almost full, but refrained from intervening, because it would show she'd been eavesdropping. She wanted to find out which ship they put the faulty shield generator into, but if she lingered much longer, someone was bound to notice she wasn't actually working.
Gefa hummed cheerfully as she left the flight deck, but Kamion was troubled. How long had the techs been using Skull Squadron for spare parts?
Grommer got up early. Very early. He went to the flight deck first thing and put in a polite but stern request with the X-wing maintenance chief, Talza Jech, that all Skull ships receive a thorough inspection, starting with Three Flight. He knew from Talza's face that she wasn't happy, but she knew from his face that arguing was futile.
He ignored the whispers and dirty looks. None of this would be necessary if they hadn't short-changed Skull on a habitual basis.
After Grommer left, Gefa returned, passing through the flight deck several times to see what happened.
The techs complained. More work was the last thing they had time for, they grumbled, and she overheard a few grousing that it wasn't necessary. They took the work order as an insult to the quality of their regular maintenance.
"I thought you said Three Flight was empty," one of the techs from earlier scolded the other. "What are we supposed to do about the shield generator now? If Skull XO has trouble with it after our inspection-"
"It passed inspection, right?"
"Yeah, but noodles-"
"Then we did our job. Not much else we can do. We don't have any spares." The first tech sighed. "Just do the routine checks and get it over with. It's not like that guy's going to last long. They never do."
By the evening, Grommer returned with his charges, Joker and Poker. All three were fully suited up, with helmets in hand.
"Captain Grommer." Talza jogged to catch up with them and handed him a datapad. It showed completed copies of the work orders for all four X-wings in Three Flight. She looked stressed, as if she'd seen the last system check get completed two minutes ago and had spent half of that time running around looking for him.
Grommer scrutinized the documents. Nothing seemed out of order, but he still didn't trust the ships and he still didn't know which ship had the potentially troublesome shield generator. He reluctantly signed off on the documents.
"Alright, boys." He glanced over the two of them, Poker with his dark hair and serious face and Joker with his brown hair and a poorly concealed smile. Grommer wished he'd had more time with them in the simulators. "Joker, you sure you're ready?"
"Absolutely, sir!" Joker pulled a rolled-up flimsy out of his flight suit pocket. "Medical clearance right here. Got it two days ago and can't wait to be flying again!"
Grommer beckoned for Joker to hand him the flimsy, which he'd already received a copy of, but instead of taking it, he eyed the man's outstretched hand, which trembled faintly.
Joker pulled his hand back, seeing the focus of Grommer's attention. "Just had a cup of caf this morning, sir, that's all."
"Right." Remembering something, Grommer beckoned for Poker to follow him a few paces away. "You used to be his squadron leader."
"Is he ready?"
"It's just a patrol route around the fleet, sir."
"Would you trust your life to him in a dogfight in his present condition?"
Poker stared him in the eye. "I would have trusted my life to him a week and a half ago. He would have proven himself then, if our last XO hadn't turned on us."
Grommer frowned. "I am not your last XO, lieutenant."
"No, sir." Drawing a breath, Poker dropped the snark expressionlessly. "Joker's got medical clearance. He's got my confidence. What more do you want, sir?"
"I want this patrol to go off without a hitch."
"I think we can manage that, sir." Poker tried to hide his sarcasm at first, but then it came out anyway. "As long as we aren't sabotaged by our own side."
"Why do you think I had maintenance do a fresh inspection on all our craft?" Grommer nodded towards the other Skull craft, which were still being swarmed by techs.
A frown formed on Poker's face, but he said nothing.
"Sooner or later, you're going to figure out I'm not the one you have to worry about." Grommer raised his voice to catch Joker's ears. "Mount up!"
Corsair, like all of the squadrons, had their share of patrol shifts. Three A-wings scooted through the hangar opening and settled to the deck as the trio of Skulls ran their preflight checks. Poker was about to close his canopy when the Corsair pilots strolled past his X-wing.
"What's this?" One of the pilots noticed him. "They lettin' you guys off the leash so soon? After what happened to Captain Pilt?"
Poker inwardly sighed, but he kept a calm face. They had briefly met in the SSD, so Poker recognized the messy-haired man as Frosty. "For the last time, nothing happened with Captain Pilt."
Frosty shrugged casually. "Something must've happened, else he wouldn't be dead."
One of the other Corsairs who Poker didn't know yet steered Frost away. "Don't get into any trouble out there, lieutenant."
It's a routine patrol. Who needs luck? Poker sealed his canopy, but continued to frown after the Corsairs as he pondered Grommer's words. Was someone trying to sabotage Skull? A friend of Pilt's, perhaps?
Skull's Three Flight circled the fleet uneventfully for several hours. Despite Grommer's misgivings, Joker had no problem staying in perfect formation with him and Poker, sticking tightly to Grommer's left wing while Poker took the right.
"How are the ships holding up, boys?"
"Everything in the green, sir." Joker gave a thumb's up from his cockpit.
"All good so far, sir." Poker's helmet turned towards Grommer's X-wing, but it took him a while to finally spit out his follow-up. "What's the deal with the inspection? Why are you so concerned about our ships?"
"Three Flight's been getting bum parts for years. When another X-wing has an iffy part and there's a parts shortage, they use our ships as a parts depot."
"How do you know that?" Joker broke in. "You just got here. We all did."
"Pays to do your homework." Grommer led them in a slow bank around an asteroid on the perimeter of their patrol route. "I'm sure someone's told you about my NRI background by now. You think I'm going to come into a position like this and not go digging for answers about why this position is so cursed?"
"Cursed? It's not cursed, it's doomed." Poker laughed. "No one wants a rat in their midst. Skull has a serious problem if Command doesn't trust us and we can't even trust each other. No wonder we're stuck on fleet defense. No one in their right mind would send a broken squadron out on a real mission."
Reflecting on the astute observation, Grommer remembered Poker used to command his own squadron, the Dicers, before defecting. His experience far exceeded that of any ordinary second lieutenant, and sometimes forgetting he wasn't a major anymore got him in trouble.
"Eight bogies incoming!" Joker quickly corrected himself. "False alarm. It's just Buccaneer coming back from wherever. Hey, why do the Buccaneers get into so much trouble?"
Poker sighed as if he'd heard a million of these jokes. "Why?"
"They're used to Bucc'ing orders."
"Don't quit your day job. That's the real reason for your coma, isn't it? Your jokes were so bad, you put yourself to sleep."
Joker laughed. "Nice one!"
"Alright, smart-alec," Poker retorted. "You know that medical droid, the one that's like a floating torso on a repulsor sled?"
"You mean Cutter. He's the one who signed off my medical clearance."
"Yeah. You know why I don't trust his opinion?"
Joker didn't even miss a beat. "Because he hasn't got a leg to stand on!"
They both laughed.
Grommer had inferred from the personnel files that the two pilots were close friends. Their history went back years and they had defected together, the only survivors of their last squadron. It made them excellent wingmen.
Poker's curious tone switched to business. "I'm getting a faint energy reading one-point-five klicks into this asteroid field. Too small for a ship, but I want to know what it is. Changing course to intercept."
"Roger, Eleven. Twelve, stay with me." Grommer reduced his throttle and pulled into a slow circle. He didn't want to stray too far, in case whatever it was turned out to be a threat. "All that ends with us. We're the keystone."
"How do you mean, sir?"
"Skull's filled with veterans. Cliquish, standoffish, but a respected pillar of the fleet nonetheless. All the distrust is wrapped around Three Flight."
"How are we the problem?" Joker asked, sounding annoyed. "This problem has existed for years, and none of us have been here more than a few weeks."
"That is the problem. Three Flight always contains the new guys that no one trusts, not even the rest of Skull. Historically, the death, accidents, leaks, fights, etc. happen in Three Flight. If they ever get in pilots who hang around long enough to rely on, they bump them over to fill vacancies inTwo Flight." Grommer checked his sensors once more while waiting on Poker's scouting run. "Rumor has it, you two killed Captain Pilt."
"Pilt had a heart attack." Poker matter-of-factly refused to take the bait. "No matter how many times I explain we were nowhere near the man, people seem to prefer the rumors over the facts."
Grommer believed him, but Kamion stopped to question the response. Was it true? She'd seen the coroner's report, but she'd also seen the footage of Skifter talking to Pilt in a threatening manner right before Pilt's death. No one knew what Skifter had said, but stress and fear could cause heart attacks. Skifter's words could have been the fatal factor.
"Coming up on the energy source." Poker paused. "What the frak . . . ?"
Second Lieutenant Zander "Poker" Pokri squinted into the blackness. Neither the X-wing sensors nor his astromech gave him anything useful. Reducing his speed to also almost nothing, he had crept up on the location.
There, sitting in a small clearing between asteroids, was . . . two caf bean cans strapped together with silver engine tape. A smiley face painted in neon orange paint winked back at him as it drifted slowly through space, a blinking red light serving as one of the eyes.
The light went out, and for a moment, the smiley stared at him unnervingly.
Then everything went dark. Every light in his cockpit flickered violently and winked out. Every sound from his engines and ship vanished, leaving only a deafening silence, the blackness of space, and the starlit asteroid field.
The second time in barely two weeks.
"Frak you, Grommer, you karking bastard!" Zander twisted in his seat to check over his shoulder, and he saw even the astromech was dead in its socket. It had all happened the same when Pilt had disabled Zander's X-wing remotely.
His comms were dead, and at a klick and a half from Breg and Grommer, he couldn't contact them visually either.
He ran swiftly through start up procedures, as he watched the nearest asteroid drift closer and closer and then clang! A jolt shook the X-wing as he collided with the asteroid and then slowly spun away from it.
As he flipped the last switch, the X-wing hummed to life once more.
Voices immediately flooded the comms. "Contact! Picking up six . . . seven . . . eight bogies!
"Requesting backup! Make that twelve boogies, coming in hot."
"They were hiding in the asteroid field!"
"Retreat to the fleet, Twelve."
"Zander's still out there!"
"He's gone, Twelve. I'm sorry."
"No. Sensors are picking him up again."
"Getting yourself killed won't help him!
"This is Eleven. Pull back to the fleet, Breg! That's a karking order!" Zander threw his throttle forward. If they'd seen him on the sensors, so had the dozen unidentified craft. Scarcely a klick away, they immediately changed course for him.
If he survived this mess, he and Grommer were going to have words. Very unpleasant words.
Scythe and Nails pounded down the hall with the rest of Skull hot on their heels. Klaxons blared overhead.
They burst onto the flight deck, splitting up to beeline for their ships, but Scythe saw a problem. What the kark were technicians doing crawling all over the ships of Two Flight?
He ran over and hunted out Talza Jech. "What's going on here?"
She replied stoically, unflustered by his intensity. "Captain Grommer requested an emergency inspection of all Skull craft. We-"
"Are they flight ready?"
"No, sir. A thorough inspection was requested. We have had to partially disassemble-"
Two Flight was benched for this engagement. Swearing all the way to his X-wing, he saw someone else had already noticed Skull would be delayed. The troop of weary Buccaneer pilots they had just passed in the corridor had hustled back to the hangar without a moment's hesitation. The Y-wings and B-wings were scrambling off the deck even before he climbed into his cockpit.
Juking and weaving and pulling out every evasive maneuver in the book, Zander kicked his shields to the rear and sank all remaining power to his engines. The ships emerging from the asteroid field consisted of every kind of old fighter, with no rhyme or reason to their paint jobs. Pirates.
They hailed him with a rainbow of plasma bolts, red, green, blue, and colors in between. Several splashed off his shields. As soon as the ragged band gotten within sensor range of the fleet and saw a swarm of bombers barreling down on them like stampeding mudhorns, they bolted. Whatever the pirates had laid the trap for, they had not been expecting an entire military fleet.
In moments, the dozen unlucky pirates had all hypered out or been destroyed.
"And here I thought you guys were supposed to be fleet defense," Buccaneer Twelve commented as he streaked past Zander on the way back.
Zander ignored the friendly jab. Inwardly, he was seething at something else entirely.
As soon as his X-wing touched down, he sprang down without waiting for the ladder and stormed over to Skull Nine. He waited stiffly as techs rushed a ladder over to Grommer's craft and the XO descended unhurriedly.
Breg jogged up behind Zander. "What happ-"
"You son of a karking whore!" Zander refrained from physically grabbing the XO and throwing him to the deck. "All that talk about you not being like the last guy who fried my ship! I turned sides of my own free will, so explain to me why it's still the Rebels who are trying to kill me!"
Grommer stared at him in surprise. So did the Buccaneers who had probably come over to gloat about saving the Skulls butts. Even a few tech peeked up from their working on Two Flight's ships at the tone of Zander's voice.
"Better let them sort out their own problems." The Buccaneer OC, Animal, nodded to his XO. With Bulldog's help, they shepherded the other Buccaneers away from the spectacle.
Zander ignored them. "You piece of-"
"Enough." Scythe's cold voice cut through the air as he and Nails stepped between them.
Zander took a breath and regained his composure. "Sir. This man disabled my ship. That's the second time in as many missions I nearly died to that absurd device. How many times before-"
"Enough, lieutenant." Scythe spitted Zander with his red and blue gaze. "He did no such thing. The disabler was removed from your ships several days ago."
"What?" Zander went back to the moment everything on his ship had died. Then he remembered the winking caf cans.
"We detected an ion blast near your position. Part of the pirates' ambush, most likely." Scythe stepped aside and motioned to Grommer. "You owe the captain an apology."
"Yes, sir. Sorry, sir." Zander mentally kicked himself for losing his temper. Back in the Empire, such a lapse in judgment could have cost him several ranks, if not his career. The relaxed nature of the New Republic had made him forget the importance of discipline. "It won't happen again, sir."
"No, it won't," Scythe promised. "Because if you lose your temper with a superior officer a third time, it'll be your last. I run a squadron of professionals, not hot-headed idiots. You might think being a former major earns you some kind of leeway, but it's the opposite-it means you know better."
"Yes, sir." Zander squared up his posture.
"I'm sure I would have made the same assumption, had I been in his position." Grommer eyed Zander without malice. "Apology accepted, lieutenant. No hard feelings."
Scythe narrowed his eyes. "You remember what I told you when I gave you that flightsuit?"
"Yes, sir. We're part of a team."
"That team includes Captain Grommer. Remember that."
"Yes, sir." Zander stayed expressionless but inside he felt confused. Scythe had shown no love for the last XO. What made Grommer special?
Grommer pulled off his helmet as the other Skulls left. What a strange feeling. He watched their receding backs as he tried to identify what he felt. When had anyone stood up for him? Ever? Was this what it felt like to be among . . . friends?
Kamion stifled the feeling. She had work to do, and this was a setback. Having Scythe's trust was valuable, but she specifically needed Joker and Poker to trust her. But she now understood exactly how to get that trust, and it wasn't through Grommer.
"What do you make of it, sir?" Nails seemed troubled on their walk to the debriefing room.
"Of what?" Scythe had a suspicion he already knew what was on her mind.
"That inspection Grommer ordered. Did he run it past you first?"
She frowned. "Didn't think so. That inspection is the only reason Buccaneer had to cover for us out there. Why's he so concerned about equipment failure? Suspicious if you ask me."
"I agree it's odd, but we have to make a show of trust if we're ever going to break this cycle."
"Yes, sir, but I don't like him."
"Care to elaborate?"
"He doesn't smell right. He smells-" Her gray eyes widened. "That's right. I wasn't able to put my finger on it until now, but he smells exactly like a technician I met in the SSD. A female ugnaught. She tried to buy me and Mia a drink."
"Interesting. That would explain it."
"If he's sleeping with a technician, maybe he heard how the Skull ships are used to replace parts in the other squadrons."
"Oh. Oh." She made a face, as if trying to picture how that would work and immediately regretting it. She tapped a metal nail against her teeth thoughtfully. "That does add up, but I still don't trust him. He should have come to you with any concerns."
"After today, maybe he will. Let's wait and see if our new approach to XOs pays off." Scythe pulled out his pad. "In the meantime, I'm tasking Skifter to keep an eye on him."
"Hey, Zander." Breg leaned into the doorway of their shared quarters, his flightsuit casually unzipped, with its sleeves tied around his waist. "Can I borrow you datapad for a moment?"
Zander frowned. "Why? You got one of your own."
"You'll see." Breg winked. "Trust me."
Sighing, Zander pulled the datapad out of his pocket and held it out. "Remember that Scythe's none too happy with me. Don't get me in trouble. And for frak's sake, wear your flightsuit properly. You don't see any of the other Skulls looking like lounge rats, do you?"
"I'll give it right back, I promise." Breg tucked the datapad into a pocket and zipped up his flightsuit as he disappeared down the hall.
Grommer zipped up his flightsuit and carried Poker's datapad back to his quarters with no one the wiser. No need to gain Poker's trust when Joker already had it. Changing appearances in the hallway had been risky. While no one had been around to see the shift, Kamion knew a video camera somewhere had probably recorded it.
Well, soon it wouldn't matter.
Grommer closed the door of his quarters behind him. He tossed the datapad on his bunk and stepped into the refresher to splash water on his face. When he looked up, Seechay's face stared back from the mirror. Captain Seechay Pilt.
His face nearly moved her to tears. Her handler. Her unrequited love.
"I'll see you soon, Seechay. I'll finish your mission, just like I promised I would if things went bad." Kamion kissed her fingers and pressed them against the reflection. "I miss you so much."
His face showed the agony she felt, and for a second, she felt less alone.
Collecting the datapad from the bunk, Kamion inserted a datacard into it. It only took a moment to install the virus that would hitch a ride on any outgoing message and then transmit their location to the nearest Imperial fleets. It gave her a sense of satisfaction to complete Seechay's life's work.
But as she dropped Seechay's form, she felt very small and very sad and very, very alone. The end was near, and the misery of her existence caved in on her. She sank to her knees.
In the Empire, she'd been tolerated only for her utility, surrounded by cold, unforgiving officers who didn't care if she lived or died during her assignments, as long as she got the information they needed. Except for one. As her handler, Seechay had been her lifeline, the one being she could trust her life to.
Even when they'd been assigned to go undercover in the Rebellion, he'd come with her. They'd entered the Rebellion's meager intelligence organization together, where he'd again been assigned as her handler. Surrounded by enemies, hiding her true identity from everyone and hiding her true feelings from her only ally, she hadn't been any happier.
When the Rebels had sent her on undercover assignments in Imperial territory, it had only gotten worse. Layers upon layers of lies offered but tenuous protection from the wrath of both sides.
And then Skull-specifically Skifter-had ripped the only thing of value from her life. He had stolen her only chance of happiness. He would pay. They all would.
Sniffling quietly, she picked herself up and took on Grommer's form once more. She hated everything.
Grommer didn't. He was pretty chuffed. For being a "nightmare" assignment, things were going well. He'd been with a few units in his time, and with each, there had been a turning point where he'd gotten to know the others well enough to trust them, to feel like part of the team. Despite today's rough patches, he'd made progress.
Pocketing the pad, he headed out.
As Captain Grommer approached Poker's and Joker's room, he was caught by surprise. Poker emerged from the doorway and saw him.
Taking on a stiff posture, he nodded to Grommer. "Sir."
"Relax, lieutenant." Grommer tucked his hands into his pockets. "What happen today-"
"My behavior was inexcusable, sir."
"I was going to say 'understandable'. You nearly died on your last mission out, for what seemed to be a similar reason at the time. If you weren't upset, I'd be surprised." His fingers met something hard, and he pulled a datapad out of his pocket. Right. He was supposed to give this back to Poker.
No. Joker was supposed to give this back to Poker.
"Is . . . is everything alright, sir?" Poker looked at him strangely after a few moments had passed. He didn't seem to recognize his own datapad, as generic and unmarked as it was.
"No. I don't think it is." Grommer frowned at the datapad. "Excuse me."
Grommer found Scythe and Nails in the SSD, quietly sipping their respective drinks and looking preoccupied.
He stepped up to their table. "Excuse me, sir."
Scythe glanced up. "What is it, Captain?"
Grommer stared once more at the datapad locked in his white-knuckled grip. He felt rather lost, almost confused, like he was missing something huge, but he was pretty certain-
"Yes, sir." Grommer sat without being invited. "I wanted to thank you for earlier today."
"For what? For keeping my men in line?" Scythe smiled dryly, but then elaborated. "I'm not keen on false accusations."
"Right." Grommer placed the datapad on the table. "Neither am I. I watch my squad's backs."
"What's this?" Nails poked the datapad with a gleaming fingernail.
"It's Poker's. It was stolen from him. Tampered with. It'll transmit our location if anyone sends a message from it." Grommer checked over his shoulder, expecting to find someone watching him, but she wasn't there.
That got Scythe's attention. "And why do you have it? Who stole it?"
"Joker. I mean me." Grommer shook his head to clear it. "I mean her. Kamion."
"Who the kark is Kamion?" Nails flexed her fingers. She reminded him of an animal with its hackles up.
"Kamion Leeon. Ask up the chain. The NRI knows who she is." Grommer smiled stiffly. "Except they don't. She's an Imperial operative."
Scythe and Nails glanced at each other, only for a fraction of a second, before returning their intent gazes back to him.
Fear cut through Grommer. It wasn't his fear. It was hers. But it inspired his own. She was back.
Kamion froze in terror. Where was she? Who was she? She glanced at her hands. Grommer's hands. She took in the scene before her. Scythe. Nails. Poker's datapad.
Why? Why was it here? Why hadn't she returned it to Poker? Why had she blacked out? This had never happened before! Well, almost never.
I protect my own! Grommer shoved her away. He stood up. "Excuse me, sir. I think you should call the MPs. Tell them a traitor is among us. Kamion Leeon is a clawdite and can hide very well."
Kamion couldn't do anything but go along for the ride now. He'd cornered her. She had no choice but to stay Grommer. She had to wrest power from him without shapeshifting, or else give herself away, but he wasn't letting go.
She'd always been able to assume identities. It was a talent! But many years ago, someone had dared tell her otherwise. A doctor had asked her a great many questions when she'd enlisted in the Imperial Navy. She'd bragged up her abilities in detail, hoping to impress them enough to accept a non-human. The doctor had been more concerned than impressed. He mentioned something about dissociated identities.
She'd always been in control, no matter how many identities she took, or for how long. Shifting identities was as easy as shifting her skin. Why was she now held hostage in her own body? But it wasn't her form. It was Grommer's.
She saw a man watching her from a nearby booth. His gaze bored straight through her, as if he could sense something he shouldn't be able to. He knew something wasn't right with her. He wore a colonel's insignia, vaguely remembered reading a file about him. Rambo? Stryker?
Another man entered the SSD, oblivious. He nodded to Scythe as he walked by the booth. "Sir."
This man, she knew instantly. Skifter.
"Skifter." Scythe returned the nod and then tapped his cybernetic eye.
Skifter, the man who had murdered Seechay.
Grommer stumbled backward toward the exit, but fury rose within her like lava erupting from a volcano. She reverted to her own form, yanking control away from Grommer. She wasn't Grommer. She was Kamion! And she was not going to let Seechay's death go unpunished!
"This is for Seechay!" As she snatched a steak knife from a nearby table and lunged for Skifter, four blaster bolts converged upon her. The colonel and Scythe shot to stun, but Skifter and Nails shot to kill.
She collapsed in a heap, leaking blood and saline.
As her life trickled out upon the floor, she waited to be reunited with Seechay.
She had failed Seechay in every way. Would he still come for her?
He would understand, wouldn't he?
Grommer saw people and droids huddling over him. Doctors. They were trying to save him. Or Kamion. Whoever they thought lay before them, they worked diligently to reverse the damage done.
For a moment, Grommer thought he was drowning. He thrashed in the watery fluid.
He lay in a bed, staring at the metal ceiling of a hospital room. The door sat open, but he saw an MP guarding his door.
A few hours passed. Medical personnel checked his life signs and asked a series of generic questions. A nurse gave him a handful of pills to choke down with spoonfuls of yogurt.
Eventually, a nurse ushered in three visitors, all dressed in familiar black.
Scythe pulled up a chair and sat down. Nails and Skifter stood on either side of him. The red eye fixed upon Grommer.
Grommer eased himself into a sitting position. "The datapad-"
"Sealed in an evidence locker."
"Let's cut to the chase. You're Captain Kamion Leeon, an NRI agent transferred in by Command to gain our trust."
"Yes?" Grommer wasn't sure how to answer. He was, but he wasn't. To him, he was Captain Brock Grommer, with a long and distinguished service record. Until the day he'd turned in the stolen datapad, he'd been oblivious to Kamion's existence.
But something had changed, a floodgate of new memories had opened, and for the first time, he knew his entire life . . . wasn't his. Wasn't anybody's. It had never existed. He didn't exist. She did, and that scared him.
"You're also an Imperial agent, sent to rat out this fleet."
"You tried to murder Skifter here."
"Because you blame him for Captain Pilt's death. Pilt used to be your handler."
"Yes. And . . . lover? Maybe. He was also an Imperial agent."
Scythe rested his hands upon his knees and gazed at him with a hard face. "Why are you lying to me?"
"Excuse me, sir? I answered all your questions truthfully."
"I don't think you did. I'm not talking to Captain Leeon, am I?"
Grommer weighed his options with a sense of urgency. "What are the charges against me?"
Scythe frowned but Nails answered without hesitation. "Treason and attempted murder."
"I plead guilty." Grommer pointed to a video camera in the corner of the ceiling. "That means you have my confession on tape."
The major shook his head. "Since we entered your room, you've barely noticed Skifter, the man you were apparently obsessed with killing a few days ago. The man who nearly killed you."
Cracking a bitter smile, Grommer scoffed. "Well, he did a poor job of it."
Skifter snorted. "So did you."
"If you're not going to be honest with us, let me be honest with you for a second." Scythe leaned forward. "Captain Grommer did his damndest to keep his people alive. Captain Grommer exposed an Imperial spy among our ranks. Captain Grommer saved the fleet from a problematic leak of information."
"He also saved one of his men from taking the blame for that leak," Nails added. "Which would have called the reputation of Skull into question. Again."
"Sorry." Grommer held up a Clawdite hand. "Captain Grommer was just a cover I used. He doesn't exist. My name is Kamion Leeon, and if given a chance, I might finish what I started."
"Let her try." Skifter smiled icily.
"A pity." Scythe stood up, but he met Grommer's eyes with flat sincerity. "Grommer is the best XO I've had in four years."
As the trio turned for the door, he knew he'd never see them again, and that filled him with regret. "You know I can't promise she won't be back. I can't control her. This is her body, not mine. I'm just . . . a figment. A fragment. A defect of a shattered mind. This is the only way I can contain her-the walls of a prison cell."
Scythe turned slowly, and when he spoke, it was deliberate. "We're all defects around here, captain. Your actions will not be forgotten."
Stryker sat before Rear Admiral Tolden once again, this time without the company of Lieutenant Commander C'our Dentran of the Naval Intelligence Division.
"Thank you for seeing me, Admiral."
"I trust it must be important." Tolden was a man who knew the worth of his time, because he never wasted it.
"We've uncovered not one but two Imperial spies within Skull Squadron." Stryker levelly met the man's gaze.
"So the distrust has been well founded after all?"
"You might say that." Stryker placed two flimsies upon the desk, the files for Pilt and Leeon. "Tell me if you see the problem here."
Tolden eyed the files, saying nothing.
Stryker pushed the flimsies across the desk. "It's time we come to a new agreement with Skull."