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Victor, Not Victim

Chelsey "Silence" Moyer, Corsair Twelve

Battle of Endor +17 days
Sullust system
CRC Veracity

"Please, have a seat, major. How have you been? How's the family? You wouldn't believe how many requests for leave I've reviewed these past two weeks."

Major Rosk Vikeron listened to her officer's small talk with complete attention and zero interest.

"Everybody wants to go home to celebrate the victory against the second Death Star! Can't blame them, but destroying a Death Star doesn't mean the Empire's just going to roll over and give up. Didn't we learn that from the first one? There are still wars to be fought."

Please get to the point. She'd never understood the purpose of pleasantries.

Of course, the overly-warm temperature of the office didn't help, nor did the humidity, the bright lights, or the fellow seated behind the desk. Were Duros cold-blooded? Did that explain the climate in here? Or did the colonel just like making all his visitors sweat?

"Your next assignment, major." Colonel Chamtal Amesh slid an inconspicuous datapad across his desk.

Finally! Rosk seized the pad with damp fingers and swept her gaze over the dossier on the screen. Contemplating how she'd have to approach the person in question, she nearly forgot her officer's presence, and her mood improved considerably.

She hadn't said a word since entering his office. Her fellow agents in the Rebel Alliance Intelligence Service - or more recently, the New Republic Intelligence - knew her as "Silence" for reasons like this. It took her a long time to warm up to people at social events, a process the other agents liked to call "breaking the Silence".

"Imperial, just the way you like 'em." The Duros sighed as he leaned back, and his chair groaned in resignation. "I don't like your methods, but I can't argue with your results."

"Hff!" Pushing black hair behind her ear, Rosk finally looked up. She grinned. "You, sir, have no imagination."

"Imagination?" Amesh narrowed his orange eyes. "My imagination worries that you sometimes forget who the enemy is, major."

"I have no particular liking for Imperials; I just don't hate them." She shrugged. "Hate the Galactic Empire, colonel, not the Imperials."

"They're one in the same."

"There are hundreds of electronic components in this device." Rosk tapped the edge of the datapad. "No two of them are the same, and not one of them is a datapad by itself. Judge a group by the group's actions, and an individual by the individual's actions."

The colonel's green fingers knitted together in disapproval. "You have your assignment. You are dismissed."

"Thank you, sir." Rosk saluted crisply before leaving. The moment she stepped into the corridor, she took an appreciative lungful of the cool, dry air.

"What's our new assignment, ma'am?" Just outside the colonel's office, right where she'd left him, Captain Evan Feldspar snapped to attention. With sandy hair that always needed cut and a boyish face, he looked exactly as he was - young and eager.

"He's being detained in the starboard bow of Level 12, Block A, Room 3C." Rosk walked briskly in that direction, swerving to avoid tripping over an MSE droid zipping toward Colonel Amesh's office.

The droid emitted a noise that might have been an apology as it disappeared inside.

Evan barely noticed, still fixated on the datapad in Rosk's hand. "So who is this guy?"

"A TIE Defender pilot, taken prisoner during the capture of the Imperial space station Ferro City. Dark hair, brown eyes, wears the rank insignia of a lieutenant commander. Refuses to talk. Based on the mobilization of forces near Malastare, command thinks the Empire may be planning an attack and that this guy might have information about when and where." She passed him the datapad.

"Right, because not just anyone gets assigned to a Defender." Evan scoured the sparse dossier. "So he could be privy to classified mission details?"

"Defender pilots have earned the privilege of being less disposable than TIE Fighter pilots, so maybe." Rosk walked past the horizontal turbolift. She smiled faintly as the captain shot the lift a longing glance.

The Quasar Fire-class cruiser-carrier that currently served as the New Republic's base of operations in the Sullust system spanned a considerable distance, but the lift could have whisked them from one end to the other in moments.

"It's a twenty minute walk from here, ma'am!"

"Yes. Which gives us time to think before we charge in headlong, yeah?" Rosk tapped her head. "Twenty minutes of planning can make the difference between disaster and victory."

"Yes, ma'am." The youthful captain quickened his pace to keep up with her as he took notes on his own datapad. He wasn't ready to lead an interrogation, but at least he diligently took down everything she tried to teach him.

After a while, Evan's attention returned to the other datapad. "This file barely has anything. Is this all we got?"

"And no, that's not all we got." Rosk smiled. "We got a new best friend."

"Best friend? I don't - "

"This guy." She reclaimed the datapad and waved it at him playfully. "He's our new pal."

"Major, no disrespect, but . . . you're very strange." His sideways look told her he'd heard the other agents gossiping about her methods.

"It's simple. Enemies don't talk. Friends do."

"So we pretend to be all friendly? He's not going to buy that."

"Of course not. You can't trust somebody who's pretending to be your friend. Goodwill has to be sincere, or it will backfire. Nothing's sleazier than fake friendship."

Evan made a face. "I don't understand how you can do that with an enemy. This guy has killed who knows how many of our people - "

" - and I've shot down more than a few of his." Her tone hardened, but only slightly. "That's called war, Evan. Don't take it personally."

"The Empire killed my family." The captain suddenly sounded more like a boy than ever. "Maybe you've never lost anyone, but don't tell me not to take it personally!"

Rosk halted. She grabbed the captain's shoulder and backed him against the wall. "Don't you ever whine. Don't you ever feel sorry for yourself. We've all been through hell, you got that? This is a war, not a pity party!"

He swallowed, his brown eyes widening as her icy blue gaze stabbed into him. "Y-yes, ma'am."

"There are two ways you can go through life, kid. Victim, or victor." She released him, her voice softening. "I'll let you in on a secret. The only difference between those two is mindset. Not circumstance. Not outcome. Mindset. If you feel bad for yourself, if you blame 'the enemy' or 'luck' or 'the universe' for everything that happens to you? Guess what? You've just given up all control over your life and handed it to someone else on a silver platter."

He frowned. She could tell he didn't understand.

"If you trip over a MSE droid and break your ankle, what good does blaming the droid do? You can get mad at them, but the MSE pathing calculations won't change. You'll just break your other ankle next time around." She smoothed out the shoulder of his uniform. "No. Take responsibility for your fall, learn from it, and pay more attention to where you're walking. Ensure it never happens again by taking control. Victor, not victim."

"Yes, ma'am." He swallowed.

She sighed. He still didn't get it. Few people did. It was just too easy to lay blame and too hard to take responsibility for the bad things that happened to oneself.

After a few minutes, Evan brightened. "I heard people saying that Zeno arrived last night. Maybe we'll catch her in the cafeteria tonight. She's got to have stories to tell after being deployed for so long!"

A person like Zeno always has stories to tell, but rarely her own. Rosk tilted her head noncommittally. "I won't be there. I have work to wrap up tonight."

"Oh, right. You're working late again on that case you never talk about? Hey, maybe you should ask Zeno about it. I bet with all her experience dealing with agents and double agents and moles that she has some interesting insight!"

"It's confidential, captain."

"Sure, but she's a colonel. She got to have higher clearance levels than you do, no offense, ma'am."

"I'm sure she does. And I'm sure she's busy with her own assignments."

"They say she looks a bit like you. You could use that to strike up a conversation - " His face fell. "I'm just trying to help. You won't talk about that case, but I've seen how annoyed you are after working on it every night. You're a workaholic, so I know you're not just tired and cranky. It must be a difficult assignment."

"You're good at reading me. Well done." She noted how quickly he beamed at her praise. He was naïve, an easy mark. It would be years before they let him pursue his dream of being a field agent. Zeno would like him.

. . .

She left Evan in the observation station outside of the interview room to take notes through the one-way window. Personable, smart, and easy to underestimate, he had valuable advantages as an interrogator, but his observational skills lacked. He needed to learn, as she also had, to see past himself before he could accurately observe others. Nothing could invalidate legitimate data faster than assumptions.

This one's going to take a while. As she entered, Rosk assessed the pilot from head to - Well, from head to table, given that he was seated behind a metal table, with his restraining cuffs bolted to it.

His dark hair sported a precise military cut. He ignored her, jaw clenched, his brown gaze boring into the mirror finish of the window behind her. Sometimes captives tried to barter or charm their way out, but this one clearly had braced himself to resist even the most brutal interrogation.

Rosk took the seat across from him, but she angled it to one side so she wasn't directly facing him. Crossing one leg over the other and resting one arm over the back of the chair casually, she studied her datapad, ignoring him in the same way he chose to ignore her. She angled her screen so he couldn't see her studying him through the room's cameras.

She waited. The faint scrape of metal-on-metal cut through the silence as he shifted his restraining cuffs to get more comfortable.

She kept waiting. The slightest furrow formed between his eyebrows. Finally, he glanced at her. She pretended not to notice.

After nearly an hour, he stopped ignoring her. He studied her, first furtively, then suspiciously, and then out of boredom. She had expected this, given that the bleak, metal walls didn't provide much scenery. His attention roamed from her face, to the flash of orange chromomite dye peeking through her hair, to the window, and then back.

"Do you have a question, lieutenant commander?" She rocked her chair back on two legs and rolled her head over to look at him expectantly. "Or are you just going to stare holes through me while I work?"

"I have nothing to say to you." He averted his gaze coldly.

"Right. That's what I thought." She wagged the datapad at him, leaning back farther to put her feet on the table. Her boot heels clonked ungraciously against the metal. "And so, if you don't mind, I'd appreciate it if you just let me work in peace. I was hoping for a bit of qui - et!"

She had leaned too far, and with a crash, she tumbled backward.

The door swished open immediately, and Evan burst in. "Ma'am! Are you okay?"

From the floor, Rosk giggled at the absurdity of it. "Yeah, captain, I'm fine. Unless you got a cure for an utter lack of grace."

He looked uncomfortable at her lack of dignity before the Imperial pilot. Taking her hand, he pulled her upright. "Are you sure you're alright?"

"Yes, thank you, captain." Rosk dusted herself off. "As you were."

He eyed her with uncertainty before leaving.

The Imperial pilot studied her with disdain. "You're a disgrace. You have no discipline."

"Pff!" She tossed her head indignantly, but when she couldn't come up with a good retort, she shrugged in sheepish defeat. "Eh. You're right. I spent enough time in the cockpit to know I'm no match for a TIE Defender pilot. I was a disgrace, as you say. Why do you think I don't fly anymore?"

"Are you drunk?" He stared at her for several minutes, as if unable to make sense of her.

"I don't drink." She'd learned a long time ago that her mouth could run off and make an idiot out of her without any sort of inebriation required. Why add loss of self-control and inhibitions to the mix?

"You're not even qualified to interrogate anybody, are you?"

"What, like stabbing needles under your fingernails?" She snorted, righting her chair and turning it backwards so she could straddle it and rest her arms across the back of it. "What's the point? You're not going to talk, and what do I want with a bloody mess? Plus if I accidentally kill you, it's a butt-load of paperwork, which I hate."

She pulled up a form on the datapad and slid it across the table to his shackled hands. "But since you like discipline and proper process so much, why don't you fill out this requisition form? I need a vocabulator compatible with an R2 model astromech. I've filled out like fifteen of them. Nobody seems to have any."

His left eyebrow arched as if of its own volition. "You really want an astromech yammering in your ear?"

"Sure. Well, no." She made a face and scratched her head. "Eh, it's complicated. I'm cobbling together salvaged parts to make a body for a droid memory core I rescued years ago. KX series."

"A battle droid Arakyd rebranded as a security droid?" He grunted. "In an R2 body? With a vocoder? You're never going to hear the end of that."

"Budget's too tight for the New Republic to spare a functional droid for 'personal use'. I couldn't even find a spare astromech. Best I could get was a head blasted apart by one of your friends. It’s not a lot, but I’ve got a plan. I bummed a couple of micro-replusorlifts off a guy in maintenance. Just got to figure out how to hook them up. Anyway, that's the least of my problems." Rosk grinned, resting her chin on her arms. "The core got double imprinted. Technically a manufacturing defect, I guess? So it's a KX with medical droid programming. I can't tell the boops and the beeps apart, so I need the vocabulator to understand what's going on in there."

"Why bother? Just wipe it."

"I was working quality control at Arakyd at the time. I sent it back twice for wiping." She tapped her temple. "But they say two heads are better than one. Somehow it hid some of its memory clusters from the wipes. After that, I figured it earned the right to not be sent to recycling, so I smuggled it out."

Disbelief filled his voice. "You stole from a company that fills military contracts for the Galactic Empire?"

"Sure. Why not?" She laughed and rolled her eyes. "What's a death mark or two, right? Yeah, yeah, alright, it was stupid. I guess you wouldn't know anything about doing stupid stuff, being Lieutenant Commander Discipline and all."

She heard him draw a breath. His eyes held the spark of someone formulating a response, but he looked away at the last moment.

She waved a dismissive hand. "I know you can't tell me anything. That's fine. Look, it's getting late, and I've got places to be. I'll have someone take you back to your room. Get some rest. You have a long day of being bored ahead of you."

His gaze followed her as she stood up.

"I'll see you later. That is, unless I get pulled from your case, in which case, you'll have a lovely, uptight individual prying at you with every trick in the book." She saw his face hardened. "Don't worry, we aren't actually allowed to torture anyone, so . . . yeah, whatever. See ya!"

. . .

"What was that?" A flabbergasted Evan chased after Rosk in the corridor. "With all due respect, of course, ma'am."

"That's how you get people to talk, captain." She stifled a smile, entertained by his expression.

"By rolling around on the floor and talking his ear off? It seemed like he did a better job of interrogating you than you did of him!" The youth's lack of tact reminded her of her own, and she found it refreshing. "You just told him - "

"Falling over was an accident, but who cares? Evan, Imperial troops live with intimidation every day. It doesn't work on them. The less intimidating I am, the more he'll let his guard down." She stepped aside, seeing another MSE droid and several officers headed their way. "I told him the truth, yes. So what?"

"But you told him about our interrogation techniques. If he knows we aren't allowed to resort to torture - "

"Then he'll feel smug and safe." Rosk halted to salute the passing officers. "We can't scare him into giving up information, so why even try?"

"But - " Evan searched for words.

"Don't waste effort pursuing a path of guaranteed failure."

"Yes, ma'am." He frowned unhappily at his datapad. "But what do I put in the report?"

"You put down exactly what you observed, the conclusions you drew, and why. Nothing more, nothing less."

"Isn't that going to get you into trouble with Colonel Amesh?"

"The consequences of my actions are my concern, captain, not yours. The cameras recorded everything anyway, so make sure your report is accurate and unbiased. If you're always on the side of truth, the truth will always be on your side."

"Uh . . . Yes, ma'am." He didn't look convinced, but he took notes.

"By the way, captain, I'm sorry, but I'm going to need your help on a case tonight." She slowed, stopping in front of a vending machine. As she thumbed a handful of credcoins into the slot, she watched Evan's face in the reflection of the transparisteel window.

"Tonight? But Zeno - " His face went from disappointment to curiosity. "You said your case is above my clearance."

"It is. So you're going to be helping me with an adjacent personnel file." Rosk gazed through the window at the rows of candy, snacks, and drinks for a moment. She tapped in a handful of selections.

"So not the person you're investigating, but someone who had contact with them?"

"Yes. This man." As she waited for the items to get pushed into the delivery box, she pulled up the file on her datapad and showed it to him.

He squinted at the small letters, steadying the datapad with his hand so he could read it. "Jack McCauley?"

"Yes." With a swipe of her finger, she transferred the file to his datapad. Then she deposited a bundle of snacks and drinks into his arms. "So apologies for the overtime, but hey, dinner's on me."

"Yes, ma'am!"

One day, maybe he'd be cunning enough to see she had an ulterior motive.

Being a field agent wasn't a cool action holovid - it was a game of manipulation and misinformation. Rosk stuck to data and interrogations for good reason. Evan was right about one thing, though. Zeno was an expert at her craft. She had collecting impressionable young pawns down to an art, and Rosk didn't want Evan anywhere near her.

. . .

Battle of Endor +18 days
Sullust system
CRC Veracity

"Hello again!" Rosk tossed off a chipper wave as she entered the interview room the following day. "I'm back, Lieutenant Commander Discipline! And guess what I - "

"Jock."

"Hyuh?" She momentarily froze as she reached for her chair. "What? Your name's Jock?"

"No." The Imperial's mouth twisted slightly. Amusement? Disdain? "But you can call me that."

"Sure thing, Jock." Shrugging, Rosk slouched into her chair and kicked back, resting her boots on the table again, this time more careful about how far she tipped the chair. She repeated her tactic from the day before, pulling out her datapad and ignoring him.

"You never introduced yourself." Apparently he didn't want to be ignored today. "Typical manners I'd expect from a Rebel."

"Right. Sorry about that. Name's Rosk." She returned her gaze to the datapad in her lap.

"Your insignia says you're a major, though you hardly act like one." He snorted. "I guess they hand out promotions to just anyone."

"Pretty much." She swung her feet down and faced him properly, setting the datapad on the table and folding her hands in front of her. "Major Rosk Vikeron."

"Hey, look who learned feet don't belong on the table."

"I'm sorry. Did we get off on the wrong foot? You know I was a pilot, right? I'm not really a boots-on-the-ground type."

He made a face. "Your humor is just as refined as your manners, I see."

Rosk grinned unapologetically. "Better get used to it. You're stuck with me, pal, because you ain't gonna cough up any good info, and I ain't got anything better to do."

"So you are authorized to torture prisoners." He made a face and leaned back. "Just my luck."

"Well, if that's how you see it, you better give up now, because I can bust out bad jokes all day long." Smirking in anticipation, she leaned back. "There was once a construction worker who had this nifty collapsible ladder. He always took his ladder to work. But one day, tragedy struck."

"You don't say. Were you in charge of equipment maintenance?"

She stuck her tongue out at him. "No. His ladder . . . it fell down on the job."

"That's the punchline?"

"Yep!"

He sighed.

"But wait!" She waved a finger at him. "There's more. The next day, the guy has to use the company's ladder. It's a step ladder, and a lot shorter than his old one. So he gets to the top and sees that warning sticker. You know, the one on the tool tray that says 'Don't Step Here'? Yeah, well he reads that and he says . . . 'You can't tell me what to do! You're not my real ladder! Get it? Because it's a step ladder. Like a stepfather.' "

He sighed even louder. "Really? That's the best you've got?"

"Anyway, tragedy struck the poor fellow again. You know what the coroner's report said? 'Tried climbing the corporate ladder, but he went one step too far.' "

"Look, are you going to shoot me now or later? Because if it's all the same, just end me here."

"Sorry." A broad grin stretched across Rosk's face. "I can't shoot a man of your caliber."

He gave her a sour look.

"You know, because you wouldn't fit in any of my slugthrowers."

He closed his eyes, muttering under his breath. Finally, he tried to save himself with a distraction. "Was your requisition accepted?"

"Oh. Yes! I got it approved last night. Paperwork is slow, but it speeds up remarkably when you tell jokes bad enough to make people want to get rid of you." She flashed a grin.

He made a face. "I can sympathize with whatever poor sucker you bullied into signing that form."

"Yep, yep. Around these parts we run on puns and caf." Rosk tapped her wrist chronometer. "Speaking of which, it's almost lunch. Can I get you - "

Her datapad dinged as a new message alert came in, and she checked it. "Oh! Sweet! Shipment came in ahead of schedule. Here's hoping some of those parts actually work this time! Gotta run. See ya!"

As she stepped through the door, two words followed her out:

"Good luck."

She smiled. Progress!

. . .

Rosk pushed through the door to her tiny quarters, hugging a shipping container. It didn't really feel like home, since repeated deployments here and there and yonder kept her feeling like a transient, but with the lighting set to a buttery hue and a fluffy lavender comforter thrown over her bunk, it at least passed for "cozy".

Plopping down on the floor, she hastily opened the box. A flimsiplast note greeted her.

Major Vikeron:

Here are the couplings and adapters you asked for. I can't guarantee they'll work, given I pulled them out of the scrap heap headed for recycling, but you said anything was better than nothing.

Also, you're in luck! I found an astromech-compatible vocabulator on a back shelf. Whether that's good luck or bad luck is your call, but let's just say the last person who added this mod to their little backseat buddy brought it back after two days. Something about incessant screaming and surprisingly foul language.

Don't say I didn't warn you!

~ Lieutenant Courtner, A-wing Flight Maintenance Chief, Renegade Wing

"Aw, yes!" Ignoring the warning entirely, Rosk upended the shipping container on the floor and dug through the grimy contents and packing material with enthusiasm. "MD-KX, you're finally getting a voice!"

"Boop beepuuu-b-b-b-blaaaaart!" From where it lay on her bunk, the disembodied R2 head uttered a series of noises Rosk could only imagine would translate to "surprisingly foul language".

"Hey, I know it's taken me years to get you into a body, alright? Just be glad I didn't send you to get melted down when I had the chance at Arakyd."

"Bbrt-t-t-t." The subdued chitter could have been either an apology or a scathing amount of surly sass. Rosk had never learned to understand Droidspeak, having never flown with one. R-22's didn't even have room for a full-sized helmet, let alone an astromech unit!

Pulling out her spanner, she grabbed the R2 head off her bunk and sat on the floor, surrounded by the bits and bobs she'd just acquired. Taking a deep breath, she sighed. Nothing beat the smell of grease, metal, and fresh electronics.

Sniffing it again, she frowned. Fresh might be the wrong term. Ooh, that's not good. She winced at another scent. That coupling had seen too many battles.

She grinned at the head. "Nothing beats the smell of fried electronics!"

"Boo-blattt-beep!" MD-KX did not agree.

"You hush. I've got to get back to work, but tonight I'll be back to give you a few upgrades."

. . .

"I'm back!" Rosk barged into the interview room, carrying a steaming cup of caf in each hand. "Did Evan fetch you some lunch? I told him - "

A sandwich sat untouched on the table, still wrapped in flimsiplast that sported the ship cafeteria's logo.

Jock snorted. "You really think I'd fall for that? A sandwich laced with truth serum? Huh!"

"Truth serum? Like we're allowed to use that! Like we even have the budget for it!" She smacked the cups of caf down and tapped the sandwich. "Are you going to eat that or what?"

He lifted his nose.

"Excellent." Rosk tore open the wrapper and started stuffing her face, washing the sandwich down with caf between bites. "Didn't have time to grab lunch. I'm starving. Look, if you don't want your caf either, let me know before it gets cold. Wasting caf is a crime, if you ask me."

Before she'd gotten halfway through the sandwich, the door opened behind her and Evan's nervous face peeked in.

"Um, ma'am. The colonel is here to see you." Evan's rigid posture raised a red flag, but Rosk merely nodded.

"See you later, Jock. Or not." She shrugged at the Imperial pilot. "Depends how hard I get chewed out."

Jock approximated a wave by lifting his right hand a few centimeters - which was all the restraints would allow. "Don't do anything stupid."

. . .

"What the hell are you doing in there?" Colonel Amesh laid into Rosk the moment the interview room door closed.

Evan stood back nervously, pretending to be absorbed in the console that monitored Jock's vitals. Rosk stood her ground. She'd clashed with Amesh before and didn't appreciate the micromanagement. "You're interrupting my work, sir."

"Work?" The Duros scoffed. "Making a fool of yourself in front of the enemy? Did you forget that I review the recordings of these sessions?"

Rosk smiled faintly, her jaw clenching, but she held her tongue. Making a fool of herself in front of the enemy was all she'd ever accomplished, but at least in this job it saved people instead of getting them killed.

"I don't think you realize the gravity of the situation, major!" Amesh waved a hand at the pilot through the observation window. "Your pal likely holds vital information to the next Imperial attack, and all you're doing is telling jokes?"

"Yes."

"There are lives on the line! This is no joking matter."

"Then perhaps you should allow torture and truth serum and all the lovely methods the Galactic Empire uses. Interrogation droids. Sensory deprivation. Electroshock. Drugs." Rosk kept her voice flat and emotionless. "But even if you did, it would take days to get a man like him talking. He's been trained to resist all those methods, and what's in our handbook as 'acceptable' to the New Republic . . . that's a better joke than any I could come up with."

The huge, orange eyes narrowed dangerously. "Major, you are seriously close to stepping out of line."

"We train our people to feed interrogators a cover story, and eventually, if necessary, give up the truth piece by piece to prolong our lives in enemy hands. The Empire teaches their people to die before giving up any information, the sooner the better, really. Do you understand the disadvantage we're at? It's day two, and I already have him talking. Maybe he's not saying what you want to hear, but he's talking."

For once, Amesh said nothing.

"I have lives to save, colonel." Rosk allowed her lips to curve in the barest suggestion of a smile. "Instead of reviewing my interrogation footage, I recommend you review my record of results - the ones you said you couldn't argue with. Sir."

The colonel seemed about to snarl at her, but he took a breath and straightened his uniform instead. "Carry on, major."

"Thank you, sir." She tilted her head with a graciousness that barely stopped short of insolence.

As Colonel Amesh left, Rosk felt Evan's eyes staring into her back. She turned to confirm her suspicions. "Captain?"

"Ma'am! You could get into so much trouble talking to a superior like that."

"He's not our superior, Evan. He just has a higher rank." She sighed and rested her hands on her hips. "Chamtal Amesh transferred in a few months ago, barely before you arrived. He hasn't even passed through officer's school, because back then, we didn't have one. We've barely gone from a rebellion to an actual governing entity, and the influx of recruits and support we've gotten is amazing, but everyone's as green as spring sprouts except for a few of us."

"Are . . ." Evan swallowed, glancing at the doorway to the corridor as afraid the Duros would reappear any second. "Are you implying the colonel is . . ."

"Incompetent? Sure. It's nothing personal. We're all incompetent when we're new to a position." Rosk rested her hand on the display tracking Jock's heart rate and pupil dilation. "All we can do is learn as fast as we can and rely on the veterans around us. A subordinate with experience can be your greatest teacher if you keep your ego in check."

"Yes, ma'am." Again, the captain took a note on his pad. "But he still has the power to demote you or reprimand you. That's not going to happen, right?"

"The last time I deserved a demotion, I personally requested to be ranked down, and I was still denied. But if he wants to try, let him."

"Ah, the Torque mission." She had mentioned it once in passing, and like any good agent, he had remembered that detail about her. He looked up after she didn't move. "Aren't you going back in?"

Rosk watched the Imperial pilot through the one-way window. Devouring the other half of the sandwich like a ravenous rancor, he had apparently decided she hadn't poisoned it. "No. Let Jock wonder what had happened to me."

He frowned, puzzled. "But you heard the colonel. He wants information out of this pilot ASAP."

"I'm aware. I read your report on McCauley. Good job. But there's someone you mentioned in the notes. A Zeltron. Gemilan. Take the rest of the day and spend it digging up everything you can on her."

"What? But ma'am! Isn't this pilot the priority?"

"Get me a report on Gemilan by tonight." She took his datapad. "I'll finish up the paperwork here. Have Jock transferred back to his cell in a few hours, but don't let anyone talk to him. If he asks questions, don't answer. This guy is mine, got it? I don't want Amesh getting the bright idea of sending in a second agent and undermining all the progress I've made."

"Y - yes, ma'am."

She needed time to think about how to proceed on both cases. Her thankless job required a certain amount of mercilessness paired with an equal amount of mercy. The better she got at one half of the equation, the harder the other half became, and sometimes . . .

She sighed. Why did she find it easier to talk to the enemy than to her own people? During the long walk to her office, she pondered the uncomfortable question.

It wasn't like she lacked commitment to the New Republic cause. She'd made that decision ages ago and never looked back.

It wasn't like she hadn't made some acquaintances during her current posting, but intelligence operatives . . . well, how could she trust the sincerity of people trained to deceive and manipulate? During small moments in the break room or in passing, she could joke with them like old friends, but she didn't hang out with any of them during her free time.

And Evan . . . well, she couldn't relax around a subordinate. He needed a mentor, a role model. No one wanted to find out the person they looked up to had their own problems. An officer had to show certainty and conviction, even in the worst of times. Especially in the worst of times. It gave stability and hope to the people lower on the chain of command, and that - as she knew all too well - could change the course of a battle.

No, it was a bad idea to get too chummy with a subordinate, even if Evan was the only person she trusted to have her back.

. . .

Battle of Endor +19 days
Sullust system
CRC Veracity

The next morning, Rosk entered the interview room and sat down, primly, without a word.

Jock's brown eyes swept over her blank face. "What happened?"

He cared. Some tiny part of him had gotten curious about her personal woes, and every part of her training told her to capitalize on that. If she played on his sympathy, could she get information out of him? Would it save lives?

No. Her only skill was sincerity and goodwill. That's why she would never fit in with the other agents. Manipulation, seduction, threats, and trickery - she failed at them all. She couldn't fish for sympathy without coming off fake.

And it was then - with that simple observation of a fact that had been in front of her face the whole time - that she realized she hated her job.

"Even the 'Rebellion' has limited room for rebelling." Deliberately, she propped her boots up on the desk once more. "With my luck, maybe they'll ship me back to the Torque system."

He chuckled. "What, you don't get along with Hutts? I can't blame you. I saw the place once. For being the sector capital of the Gordian Reach, it wasn't much to look at."

I wasn't looking at the Hutts, or their fetid planet. "I'm surprised the Hutts let Imperial pilots anywhere near their territory."

"Probably what the Rebel scouts we vaped thought, too. But even the Hutts know better than to argue when you have a Death Star in tow a few days behind you."

Torque system. Territory of Bwahl the Hutt. Neighbor to Yavin system. Graveyard.

Rebel and Imperial alike typically skirted around Torque. A few days before the Battle of Yavin, there had only been two military units in that area. One of them had been her R-22 forward scouts, which meant this man . . . She froze.

By some cruel trick of fate or coincidence, she had met this man before.

Breathe. You are the master of your emotions, not the other way around. She smiled stiffly. "Let me guess. They never saw you coming."

"They scattered like - " He broke off from what started as a condescending gloat and shrugged instead. "No discipline, lax training. Their leadership was to blame."

"You are correct." She wanted to make a snarky comment about who could have been to blame for the abject failure of defending the Death Stars. She knew better. She wanted to mourn her lost squadron. She knew better. She wanted to shoot this man who had participated in the murder of her wingmen. She knew better.

Only this man and herself knew exactly what went down in the Torque system, days prior to the arrival of the Death Star at Yavin. He knew the truth, as did she, and there was nothing left to be said on the subject that would make any difference to anyone.

Losing control of her emotions had cost her everything back then. It wouldn't happen again.

A heavy silence filled the room. It permeated the corners like toxic gas waiting to suffocate her, but she refused to break. Had he guessed by now that they had shared that battlefield? Probably not. He wouldn't think anyone had survived that massacre.

"So, how's that droid coming?"

It took several seconds for the question to reach her, because she was light-years away. Once her brain finally processed it, it caught her by surprise. Had the merciful change of subject been intentional? Had he noticed her suddenly terse demeanor?

Or was he merely well-trained in counter-interrogation, trying to establish a rapport between them?

"Fine. Sure." She forced herself to breathe. "Yeah. I got the parts I needed. Installed some of them, but I didn't have time to boot it up."

"Will you bring it by sometime?"

She lifted an eyebrow. "You seemed to think it was a disaster in the making. Now you want to see it?"

"Call it morbid curiosity."

"Pfff." Even though she scoffed, she recognized her chance to derail her brain from Torque and Jock's connection to it. Standing up, she stretched and then shrugged. "Sure, why not. Don't go anywhere!"

He groaned as she left.

. . .

"Ma'am?" Evan backed out of her way. "Is that one of the guys who - "

She stopped and waited for him to finish, but he did not.

He swallowed. "Are you okay? You could hand the case off to another agent."

"I'm a professional, captain, not some weepy-eyed recruit." She replied without hesitation. "I'm fine, this is my case, and I'm not going to push my work onto someone else. Keep an eye on him."

On her way back to her room, she did not take the lift. She counted her steps. Every fourth step, she took a breath. She had a job to do, and she would do it. There was no point questioning whether she could get information out of Jock or not. She had to, therefore, she would.

. . .

" - designation is inaccurate." MD-KX sailed into the interview room after Rosk. "Your pronunciation of it implies I am a medical droid. Multiple medical droids, to be precise. I have no m-m-m-m-medic-c-c-can I be of service? Is someone injured?"

As Rosk took her seat, Jock's dark eyes followed the floating R2-D2 head. A laser cannon had lobotomized the R2 unit and the rough repairs left the dome with a scarred and almost deranged appearance. "So you weren't kidding."

"Like I ever kid about anything!" She rolled her eyes, waving a dramatic hand. "Alright, let's settle this. If I can't call you MD-KX, what should I be calling you?"

"I-I-I-I am KX-4J1, a security droid manufactured by Arakyd Industries." The dome's optical sensor rotated to stare at Jock. The red light below the sensor flickered ominously. "Does this prisoner need to be disposed of? I am designed to provide m-m-m-many medical services."

"Wait, wait. KX-4J1, you shut up for a moment." Rosk pointed at the droid. "You. Who are you?"

"I am capable of many forms of medical services and diagnostics. I appear to be missing any form of designation. My software is flagged as 'beta'."

"So you aren't a security droid?"

"Not at all! Do you require medical assistance?" The dome spun around to take in the whole room. "I do not have the appendages necessary to perform surgery. I'm afraid my assistance is limited to advice and diagnosis. Would you like a check up?"

"No, thanks, Doc." So she wasn't dealing with a droid with two sets of skills. She was dealing with two entirely separate droids imprinted onto one memory core. "KX-4J1, do you have any interrogation routines?"

The dome stared at Jock again, glancing down at his restraints. "I do not. However, I am authorized to terminate any entity that presents a threat. Does this human male present a threat?"

Jock gave the droid a dirty look.

"Calm down. He's not a threat and you don't even have a weapon."

"Assessing hardware. . . ." One of the lights flickered. "I do not have a weapon."

"See?" Rosk stuck out her tongue, but the droid wasn't finished.

"I am a weapon. There are at least fifteen ways I could dispatch this meatbag right now. Awaiting orders."

"No killing anyone! Yeesh." Rosk shook her head. "I guess the rebranding from battle droid to security droid didn't include software updates. From now on, I'm calling you 'Jobber'."

Recognition sparked in Jock's eyes. "Rebel lingo for 'assassin'?"

Rosk shrugged. "He acts like one."

"Running psychological assessment." The droid's processor light flickered again. "Entity known as 'Jobber' exhibits homicidal tendencies. I would recommend caution. And therapy."

"Thanks for pointing out the obvious, Doc." Rolling her eyes, Rosk made a note on her datapad. "I'm going to have to set up different voices for both of you. At least you're starting to learn to not talk over each other."

"You mean you aren't planning to throw the whole mess into a trash compactor?" Jock's restraints rattling against the table and floor as he shifted restlessly. Rosk could sympathize. He'd been sitting in that hard, metal chair for hours.

"Goodness! Running psychological a-a-a-a-I dare you try it, meatbag!" If the droid could have bristled, it would have. "The time for psychological assessments is over, medical droid! The meatbag's words demonstrate violent intent, which qualifies as threatening behavior! Engaging 'subdue with extreme prejudice' protocols!"

"Doc, Jobber, calm down." Rosk caught the floating dome as it tried to fly over the table. "No one is throwing anyone into the trash, and no one is subduing, dispatching, or disposing of anyone. Maybe you should just wait outside."

Bodily pushing the droid out, Rosk closed the door behind it and returned to her seat. Fortunately, Jock spared her the burden of finding something else to talk about.

"If your mechanical aptitude is representative of the rest of the Rebels, it's only a matter of time before your entire fleet falls apart."

"As a matter of fact, I used to be part of the maintenance crew, and I'm not gonna lie - on our budget, resourceful jury-rigging got more ships off the flight deck than precision engineering." She leaned over the table on one elbow. "But I'll tell you what, if our ships are held together with hope and silver engine tape, yours are held together with tie wire."

Not even a glimmer of amusement showed on his face. "Your jokes are as bad as your repair skills. Do I have to sit through hours of abysmal puns again?"

"A pun a day keeps the blues away."

"And puns all day long keep everyone away."

She only grinned. "Why do you think you're chained to the table in a locked room? I'd call you a captive audience."

"Two can play that game." Shifting stiffly in his chair, he stretched his neck and shoulders, as if warming up for a fight. "Three Gamorreans walk into a bar."

She waited.

"You'd think the second two would have at least ducked."

"Oh!" She crossed her arms. "And you dare call my jokes bad."

"Hey, don't blame me. I'm justified in the use of lethally bad humor because it's a case of self-defense." He grinned. "Also, I'm getting the feeling you're having a bad day."

"Oh, so you want to finish me off? Put me out of my misery with that awful punch line?" Rosk snorted, trying to gloss over his concern with pure sarcasm. "Thanks! You really know how to cheer a girl up."

"That's what your mom said." He laughed at her deadpan expression. "Sorry. Barracks humor dies hard."

"Weak. Is that the best you've got?"

"Hmph." Despite his offended huff, Jock smiled. "You're one to talk."

She didn't miss the irony of it. An Imperial prisoner, her interrogation subject, was trying to cheer her up.

"Okay, okay." He tried again." Why did the Duros regret going to the all-you-can-eat buffet?"

She rolled her eyes. "Because his eyes were bigger than his stomach. Heard it a million times."

He hadn't a clue what he'd done. She wanted to hate him, yet her entire approach, objective, and philosophy from the beginning . . . had been to make friends with him. She'd told Evan over and over. If you like them enough, sincerely, it breaks down their resistances. Prisoners are going through their worst imagined hell, being at the mercy of their enemy, so when you show them genuine friendship in their lowest hour, it’s a sucker punch they never see coming.

Yet here she was. Her plan had worked as expected, but somehow she was the one feeling sucker punched. She was the one being shown friendship while down.

"Have you heard? The Mining Guild's relationship with the Galactic Empire is on the rocks."

She facepalmed to stifle a snicker. "Okay, you had no right to make fun of my humor if you're just going to make jokes right out of my wheelhouse."

"Speaking of wheels . . ." He smirked at her break in composure. "The Mining Guild has a space station called the Wheel."

"I'm aware."

"So my wingman says to me, 'They better not side with the Rebels! Otherwise, we'll make sure they have to reinvent the Wheel!' " He shrugged flippantly. "Don't blame me. These are all his jokes anyway. He was constantly coming up with the punniest quips he could imagine about every place we went."

"Sure, sure." She beckoned like a challenging fighter. "Lay it on me. Let's see what you got."

"One day he said to me, 'I just know I'm going to find love at our next stop.' So I said, 'What makes you think that?' " Jock leaned forward. "And he said, 'It's Sullust-ful planet."

She giggled at the stupidity of it. "I think your pal and I would get along great."

"Yeah. You would." The pilot's expression faded into seriousness. "Is he here?"

The sudden question pulled her back to the reality of the situation. The New Republic had captured him after destroying the Imperial space station Ferro City. He'd been stationed there with his whole squadron, most likely. Of course he wanted to know if his friends were still alive. He'd probably been playing along this whole time to butter her up for this very question.

Normally, if two people were captured together, the interrogators would divide them up and play them against each other, using one to fact-check the other's story or to manipulate the other into compliance. The file Amesh had given her had no such notes, and she suspected what that meant.

"To be honest, I don't know." It gave her an opening to subtly pry for information. "What's his name?"

He hesitated.

"Name, rank, and serial number are hardly classified." Pilots were trained to tell the enemy that information up front, yet this man hadn't even given her a real first name. "It gives us the option of offering a prison-of-war trade with the Empire. You could go home, in theory."

"He's a senior lieutenant. You would have captured him at the same time as me, so if your records are straight at all, it should be easy for you to find him." He spoke quietly, with a detached calmness Rosk understood well.

"Sure. I'll check. But it's going to cost you, because you're right, I've had a bad day." And you're about to, too. "Bring on the puns."

He smiled obligingly. "I wouldn't trust anyone from the Mikaster sector."

"Why not?"

"Derra strange breed."

She chuckled despite herself at the reference to the star system in the Mikaster sector, although her mirth died as she remembered that the Empire had destroyed a rebel outpost on Derra IV just before the Battle of Hoth.

"We were flying the other day. I asked if he knew where we were going, and he said, 'Nope. Better check Armath.' "

Rosk groaned. "Alright, that's just terrible."

"You asked for it."

"I did." Sighing, she stood up. "You upheld your end of the bargain, so I'll go look for your nameless buddy."

"Major Vikeron." His voice stopped her as her hand touched the door controls. The door swished aside, but she paused, waiting for Jock to finish.

He didn't finish, however, and when she turned to glance at him, he shook his head. "Never mind."

"Does the meatbag need to be dispatched yet?" The floating dome barged into the doorway, lights glimmering. "Your vitals indicate stress. Are you feeling okay?"

"No, Jobber! Yes, Doc." Rosk pushed the droid away and closed the door behind her. "You guys let me worry about this. Give me some space, alright?"

In the observation room, washed in the blue and orange glow from the diagnostic displays, Evan jumped up from his station. "Ma'am, I didn't want to interrupt, but Colonel Amesh came by earlier. He's getting impatient."

"Then let him be impatient. Pull up every location Jock just gave us and compare them against all of our forces in those areas."

"He gave us locations? I thought those were just jokes."

"Maybe, but he said his wingman made puns about the places they went. Makes sense the ones he'd remember best are the ones made recently. One referenced Sullust, which is right below us, and two of them are from the nearby Mikaster sector."

"Yes, ma'am." He sat back down and pulled up a holographic star map. All the stars sparkled like glitter dust among the glowing blue spirals of the galaxy. Evan lit up the locations in orange by tapping them one at a time. "He also referenced the Wheel, which is way across the galaxy, almost by Yavin and Torque."

"And Duros, which is halfway between, but let's face it, that joke's been around forever. Probably not a lead at all. Where was Ferro City?" She leaned over his shoulder as he brought up the records on Jock's capture. "Near Malastare. That's only a short trip from here, following the Hydian Way, but Sullust's too big of a target for them to attack here again, surely."

Evan swept his finger upward, through the glowing, holographic clouds. "But Derra isn't much farther away if you head up Hydian."

"They already destroyed the outpost we had at Derra IV. I'm not aware of any of our forces remaining in the Mikaster sector, but I can't keep track of an entire galaxy of military assets." She pointed to a nearby planet. "Check Armath."

"Better check Armath." Was Jock's wording accidentally significant? Intentionally significant?

Documents flicked by as Evan searched for any New Republic activity in that sector. "I don't see any outposts on Armath. Wait . . . there's a Stellar Class orbital starport we recently granted a military contract."

"Doesn't sound so special. If the Empire hits that, we'll just contract another." Rosk straightened, patting Evan's shoulder. "Keep digging. I have my own investigation to do."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Doc, Jobber, come with me." Rosk retreated to her office, once again using her long walk through the ship to organize her thoughts.

The droid drifted behind, only keeping quiet for a few minutes before interrupting her introspection. "Rosk, I'm detecting elevated heart rate and breathing. Are you quite sure you are feeling okay?"

"Yes! I'm fine!"

"I provide medical services. Lying to me will not help your situation."

"I don't lie." Rosk glared at the dome. She took pride in her honesty, even though it was an admittedly horrible trait to have as an interrogator. "Look. I've had some rough times. I made some mistakes. Interviewing this guy brought up some strong emotions. Sure, that's going to get a physiological response, but I'm not lying when I say I'm fine. Get kicked down, get back up, live to fight another day. That's how it goes. No matter what happens, I'll be okay."

"Perhaps your definition of 'fine' deviates from the one defined in my programming. What triggered your 'physiological response'?"

"I don't have time for this, Doc."

"By my calculations, we have another ten standard minutes before reaching your destination."

"Yeah, and I need them to process everything that's happened today. Not everyone has a CPU with a blazing-fast clock speed, alright?"

"I apologize for my intrusion, then. However, I am obligated to point out that talking to someone about traumatic experiences can be therapeutic."

"Noted, Doc."

"Would disposing of the meatbag also be therapeutic?"

"No, Jobber." Should it be?

"Perhaps you might consider some hardware upgrade projects to be therapeutic? This body is inexcusably deficient in offensive and defensive capabilities."

"Perhaps." Despite both droids sharing the same voice, Rosk could already tell them apart immediately. It did give her ideas for several upgrades she could make, though.

Her comlink chirped, and she snatched it out of her pocket. "What did you find, captain?"

Evan's voice filtered back with a note of urgency. "I think I know what they're targeting, ma'am. There's a New Republic fleet docked at the Armath shipyard. It consists of a damaged MC-80B, the Vigilant, undergoing repairs, and a brand-new MC-75C, the Sovereignty, which is still being fitted and supplied."

"What sort of defenses do they have? Two Mon Cal cruisers should have fighter support of several squadrons each, at least."

"Should. And they do have a number of squadrons listed, but they suffered high casualties in the Battle of Endor. Every squadron only has a handful of pilots left. They're in the process of consolidating."

"Consolidating. Meaning they have little to no experience flying with each other, people are getting promoted left and right into command vacancies they are completely green to, and everyone's dealing with the recent loss of their closest friends." Rosk sighed. "They aren't prepared for a full-scale surprise attack. Sounds like the perfect target."

"It's the only presence we currently have in that area, if your hunch about Jock's jokes is correct."

Of course, she couldn't ignore the possibility that Jock had intentionally led her to a false conclusion. "Alright. Tell Colonel Amesh immediately. Be sure to tell him that this lead is a hunch, not a concrete fact, okay?"

"Yes, ma'am."

. . .

After digging through reports and files, Rosk found herself in the medbay, illuminated by the sedate blue glow of a bacta tank. Inside, a mostly-naked man floated like a drowned sailor adrift in the sea. He looked . . . fine?

The 2-1B medical droid supervising Rosk's visit answered her unspoken question in a soft monotone, hushed for the sake of other patients partitioned off behind curtains. "His injuries were mostly internal."

"Is he going to make it?"

The droid paused. "We can rebuild bodies, ma'am. We can rebuild brain matter. But there is more to a sentient being than what we can physically reconstruct."

Doc appeared from behind Rosk's left shoulder helpfully. "This patient's records indicate a reduced state of mental activity."

"You mean the meatbag's become a vegetable!" Jobber pulled no punches. "I'll never understand the state transitions of you organics."

"Please mind your volume." After scolding Jobber, the medical droid dipped its head in acknowledgement. "This man is in a coma. We are repairing his body, but whether he recovers is beyond our control."

"I see." For a minute, Rosk stared at the bacta tank quietly, listening to the hushed hum and whir of medical machines in the background. Looking at the man inside bothered her on several levels. It bothered her that it bothered her.

Finally, impetuously, she walked up the transparisteel tube of bacta and slammed her palm against it, as one might do if trying to annoy an aquarium of fish. "Listen to me, you frakking Imperial scum! You better stop hiding. We put effort into saving your sorry hide, so you better not waste it, you ingrate! Wake up and face the world!"

"Major Vikeron! Please!" The medical droid ushered her away. "There are other patients in this ward. Do not disturb them. Yelling will not help this man."

"You don't know that. You just said you can't fix a coma, so it's clearly beyond your expertise. Yelling and screaming is a verified method of dragging scared little soldiers back to reality." Rosk turned to face the tank again, even as the droid pushed her backwards. "Your wing leader is waiting for you. Wake up, flotsam! That's an order!"

"Major, I'm afraid I must insist you leave, or I will be forced to remove you." The medical droid put a metal hand on Rosk's shoulder, and its grip tightened enough to remind her that even a medical model was strong enough to throw a human out on their ear.

"Just you try!" Jobber plowed between them like a wrecking ball. "You want a piece of her, you go through me, you doshing screw-brain! I will mess you up!"

"Ow! Calm down, Jobber." Rosk shoved the floating droid under her arm. His over enthusiastic defense had broken the medical droid's grip, but it had also clobbered her hard enough to leave her winded and bruised. "We're leaving. It's fine."

Rosk strode out of the medical bay with mixed feelings, and Doc read her face immediately. "How are you feeling?"

"You tell me, Doc. I just tried to save the life of a man who probably helped kill my closest friends." Rosk closed her eyes and drew a breath before opening them again. "How am I supposed to feel?"

"It's not my job to tell you how to feel. How do you feel?"

"I don't know. I should relish watching him die. I should be happy that when he does, Jock gets to feel the same way I did when I survived my squadron. I should laugh in his face as I tell him he just blew the operation to assault Armath." Rosk looked away.

"I didn't ask what you should feel." Doc persisted. "What are you feeling right now?"

"Confused!" The word burst out of Rosk unexpectedly, bubbled up by all the emotions she'd been keeping her foot on recently. "I just don't want anyone to lose a friend they don't have to. I like Jock, you know? He's from the other side, but he's a decent human being! He was just doing what any of us would have done. Does it make me a traitor to say that? After what he did to my squad? I hate what he did, but why can't I hate him?"

"I see." Doc hummed. "Historically, warring factions will 'dehumanize' the other side, to use a human-centric term. This is where most derogatory names come from, and the purpose that they serve is important to morale."

"I've seen both sides, Doc. The Empire is made up of ordinary people. Every large group has its share of scumbags, of course, but the only real difference is that their policies and leaders reward the scumbags and strip freedoms from decent people, leading to a faction capable of such atrocities that it must be stopped." Rosk took another breath. "I will see the Empire put down, even if it costs my life."

After a moment of reflection, she continued. "I'm fighting an ideal. I'm fighting a process, a practice, a mindset. But to do that, we have to kill people, most of whom think they are fighting for the right thing, thanks to propaganda. Some of them don't even agree with what they're obligated to fight for! It's a cruel joke, isn't it? We have to kill good people to stop the bad ones."

"I'm not programmed to espouse any particular philosophy." Doc's lights flickered. "However, it is important for one's mental wellbeing to adhere to one's own philosophy, code of ethics, religious standards, or whatever you may choose to call these abstract notions. People must find their own answers to such questions, and I believe you have just found your answer."

"And what answer is that?"

"Are you obligated to fight the Imperials and kill them in combat?"

"Yes."

"Are obligated to hate them?"

No. That's what she'd said for years, but now Rosk leaned against the wall, taking a long moment to process that question. "What about White Squadron? Would they despise me for not hating the men who shot them down?"

"Perhaps you should leave the dead to their own devices and make your decisions for yourself." Doc followed up with a shrewd observation. "Mental health is determined by your outlook on your life. The opinions of others towards you are only a factor if you decide it should be. Feeling your squadron would disapprove inclines you to condemn yourself because you think they would condemn you . . . but is there any benefit to guessing at the opinions of the dead? To hurting yourself with assumptions that could be wrong?"

"I guess not."

"Peace of mind comes from doing what you think you should do." Doc made a noise like the clearing of a throat. "I am obligated to point out, however, that doing what others think you should do is occasionally a legal matter, on which I am not programmed to offer advice."

"Sure." Rosk absently acknowledged the droid's last remark while processing the rest of the advice.

Doc hadn't finished. "Putting aside your squadron, are you doing what you think you should be doing?"

"You don't understand, Doc. I can't put aside my squadron. I failed them. I owe them - "

"Perhaps what you are actually struggling with is your failure."

"Yeah, I failed. I admit it. I own it." Rosk scowled at the droid. "Can we move on?"

"That is a question for you to answer, not me." Doc's lights flickered again. "A review of your military records suggests that you ran away from your failures instead of confronting them. Perhaps that's why your current behavior suggests you have not, as you say, 'moved on'."

"It's not running away." Jobber butted in. "It's called 'strategic retreat'!"

"No," Rosk said numbly in realization. "It's only called that if you return to fight another day. Otherwise, it's called cowardice."

She had always thought of herself as a logical and well-balanced person, but that one event continued to bother her long after she had done everything to accept it. I ran away. Subconsciously, she had known that for years, but looking at it head on for the first time hurt. I transferred to Intel and never looked back. I thought I was moving on, but the reason I never looked back was because I was afraid to.

" 'Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather, the act of not letting fear stop you.' " Jobber must have come with a suite of military quotes.

She straightened her posture and her uniform. She knew what she had to do.

Her comlink interrupted her resolve, and the moment she answered it, Evan's voice told her something was afoot. "Major, the colonel wants to see you in his office."

"Of course." She knew better than to vocalize her true feelings when someone might overhear her. "I'm on my way."

. . .

"Wait outside, Doc Jobber." When Amesh's door slid open, Rosk paused a second to assess the interior before stepping inside, stalling for a number of reasons. For starters, the longer the door stayed open, the more hot, humid air escaped the Duros' office.

Amesh waited expectantly behind his desk. He was standing, but not on her account.

Evan stood also, next to the door. He looked nervous. In a good way? In a bad way?

Looking beyond Evan, she saw the reason for it all, and adrenaline charged in her veins, vaporizing her exhaustion. Well, frell. Here we go.

She stepped inside with deliberate calmness and saluted twice. "Colonel. Colonel."

Colonel Zenia Ceriseal Bellenacht. Human, female. Ex-Imperial Intelligence, defected to the Rebel Alliance Intelligence Service, now known as New Republic Intelligence. Serves with distinction as one of our most effective field agents. Rosk could have recited the whole personnel file in her sleep, and it wasn't a short read.

Never had she been more aware of a door closing behind her. She'd felt this itchy rush of anxiety before, always in combat. This might be a civilized meeting of fellow soldiers in an ordinary office, but she knew it was as dangerous as any other battlefield she'd entered.

The woman standing before the desk returned the salute casually and took a seat. She gracefully pushed back her long, silver hair as she folded one leg over the other. "A pleasure to meet you, Major Vikeron . . . or do you prefer Silence?"

Rosk shrugged with the vaguest lift of her shoulders.

"Silence it is." The woman smiled warmly. "You may know me as Agent Zeno, although I don't believe we've met before."

Rosk waited. There was no benefit to offering any information until she knew the nature of the woman's visit.

Evan edged closer to the wall. His hero stood before him, but he still seemed uneasy. If he paid attention, he knew the less comfortable Rosk felt, the more she lived up to her nickname.

"Yes, indeed." Colonel Amesh also sat back down, seemingly oblivious. Since she always felt uncomfortable in his office, perhaps he assumed her silence meant nothing out of the ordinary. "Major Vikeron is one of our more accomplished interrogators. She's currently on our highest priority case. Our forces encountered what we believe was a forward staging area on the outskirts of Malastare. We suspect Grand General Kenner Loring is planning an attack, and we captured an Imperial pilot who may have information about what the target is."

"Excellent. You have my interest, Silence, as does this case." Zeno's blue gaze met Rosk's own ice-blue eyes. "How is the case progressing?"

"It is progressing as expected, colonel."

"She's being too modest. We already have a possible lead. I'm sure we'll have a solid confirmation by the end of the day, won't we, major?"

"Most likely, sir." Rosk wondered when the sweat running between her shoulder blades would start to soak through her uniform. She noticed how Zeno looked so effortlessly comfortable in the damp heat. The Duros may or may not be cold-blooded, but that woman was for sure.

How many case files had Rosk scrolled through every night for months, reading about Zeno's exploits? And those were the ones that made it to official records. Zeno may have changed sides, but her tactics had not changed at all.

"The military doesn't like rats, lieutenant." Rosk remembered being summoned into the office of General Airen Cracken several years ago. "You have made several reports about officers above you. You may think your . . .observations . . . have gone unnoticed, but they have not."

"Yes, sir. Permission to speak freely, sir?"

"I've read your file. When have you ever not spoken freely? It is your number one character flaw by all accounts." The general had waved a hand. "By all means, say what you have to say."

"I come from a QA background, sir. I report problems so they can be solved, not to get people punished. There are certain rules you can't break without jeopardizing missions and lives. I found that out firsthand."

"Ah, yes." General Cracken had nodded. "You were a commander once, before you filed a report on yourself that led to your own court martial and cost you several ranks."

"It was the right course of action to correct the problem, sir. I'm not going to protect myself at the expense of others."

"Which makes you exactly who I need for this job." He had smiled when she frowned. "I'm giving you a promotion. You'll retain your current post in Intelligence, crunching data and interviewing people, but you're getting an upgrade to your clearance, and you're going to be working a lot of overtime."

"Doing what, sir?"

"Following up on reports from people like yourself."

"I just process data, sir. I'm not ready for the field - "

"I already have field agents. I have people committed to the cause. I have people loyal to me. What I need is a person who cares more about the truth than about any person or cause."

Zeno had covered her tracks well, appearing in only a few incident reports, but as they trickled in, Rosk had taken more notice, eventually prioritizing the case to the top of her stack. For over a year, she had been hunting for proof of misconduct, and slowly the pieces had come together.

Unlike Colonel Amesh, Colonel Bellenacht had many years of experience for both sides, and she held her informants, subordinates, and other assets under the tightest of chokeholds. She trusted no one, so she gathered leverage over everyone she dealt with, putting them squarely under her thumb. She cared for no one, so she never hesitated to risk her assets lives for her goals. She stood for everything Rosk hated about field work, and everything she hated about the Empire.

People like this silver-haired and silver-tongued woman were exactly why General Cracken had given Rosk such high clearance and such a low profile. People like Zeno had connections throughout NRI, and with enough favors and blackmail, one could cover up any abuse of power.

"Well, it's been an honor meeting you, Agent Zeno." Colonel Amesh shook Zeno's hand, as enamored of her reputation as everyone else. "Unfortunately, I have some pressing matters to discuss with the major."

"Of course. The honor is all mine. Major. Captain. Always a pleasure to meet promising agents." The woman shook their hands as well, and left with a nod to each of them. Her hand left a trace of warmth on Rosk's cold palm. How did such a sinister woman have such a charismatic smile and kind voice?

Rosk was glad she had never met Zeno before, because she knew she would have wanted to like the woman. She would have doubted all the evidence she'd seen. As it was, she knew this was just another façade in the repertoire of a very skilled agent.

The colonel did not have such talents. The moment Zeno left, he scowled at Rosk. "Have a solid confirmation of the target before the end of the day or I'll let Zeno have the case. We may need someone with more experience for such a critical assignment."

Rosk thought about what she'd told Jock. Don't worry, we aren't actually allowed to torture anyone. She hadn't lied. Those were the rules. But someone like Zeno wouldn't follow those rules, and she had all the training in interrogation and torture that the Empire could provide.

Her jaw tightened. "Understood, sir."

. . .

A stack of flimsies in hand, Rosk stared at the door to the interview room. Evan had stopped at the refresher on the way back, and the observation room felt empty without his eager presence. All the lights glowed with life and all the instruments busily recorded and displayed readings, but there was no one around to react to any of it.

It felt like she felt.

She had too much information. She should be an emotional wreck, but each emotion struggled against another, leaving her unsure what to feel. What she did know was that she had a job to do, and that it was a job best done without emotional interference.

Was she lying to herself? Was she truly acting without emotion? What she was about to do was hardly by the book.

Well, whatever. She'd made up her mind. "Wish me luck, guys."

The droid receptor pivoted towards her reproachfully. "Luck is for the ill-prepared."

"That's very helpful, Jobber." Rosk rolled her eyes.

"You'll do fine." The R2 head bumped her gently. "You'll figure it out."

"Thanks, Doc. Wait here." Her hand pressed against the door controls, and it slid briskly aside, allowing her to step through.

Jock looked up hopefully.

Am I being compassionate? Or merciless? Laying the flimsies face down before her, she took her seat one more time, but this time she faced him squarely. She rested her elbows on the table, and her chin on her interlaced knuckles. "Jock, there is one thing I care more about than any loyalty to a person or faction. It's a double-edged sword. It's a little, inescapable thing that is often maligned, run from, misconstrued, and twisted, but it is immutable no matter how many people try to hide it or how many people misunderstand it. I will live by this sword until my dying breath. Do you know what it is?"

He shrugged, as if trying to lighten the mood. "After that lead-in, I wouldn't dare guess."

"It's the truth, Jock. And the problem with the truth is that it is so expansive, we usually only see small pieces of it. And a partial truth can be as good as a lie."

"You've grown very philosophical. I think I liked you better when you were being a goofball." His unease told her he knew something bad was coming.

"I like me better as a goofball too." She flashed him a heartfelt smile. "You asked about your wingman. I'm going to tell you the truth. But I'm going to give you the whole truth, not just a fragment, and not just about your wingman.

"I know more about you than you think. You're Dicer Leader. Commander of the forward scout squadron that led the way for the first Death Star as it went to Yavin. Your flight group chanced upon the only Rebel unit in the entire Torque system - the remains of White Squadron. Five little R-22s up against three TIE Defenders. They weren't expecting Imperial fighters to pop out of hyperspace. They didn't even know what a Defender was. Shields and hyperdrives on a TIE? Madness."

His brown eyes studied her warily.

She leaned forward. "White Squadron, as you said, suffered from poor leadership. Having suffered losses recently, it was led by someone too green to be a real leader, too green to maintain order during the heat of battle, too green to put up any sort of fight against an unfamiliar fighter model. Even with faster ships, without a proper leader to give them direction, White scattered and your ace team tore them apart with ease. And the only one who deserved to die that day . . . didn't."

"You? You were there?" He blinked. "I thought we killed them all."

"Rebels don't leave people behind. Someone came to sweep up the pieces, and the medical crew did their best to put those pieces back together." Her voice came out flat, as if reciting someone else's words in court.

She didn't tell him how few Rebel outposts had bacta tanks, or that Yavin wasn't one of the lucky ones. It had taken her three months to recover physically, and that was only thanks to having a medical droid and a decent surgeon on hand.

He stared at her quietly for a long time. Finally, his gaze dropped. "I see."

She understood his situation. He felt her pain and knew he'd caused it, but how could he feel bad about winning a victory against the enemy? She knew she wouldn't.

"I'm not seeking your remorse. I'm only telling you because I was there too, and I thought you should know." She cleared her throat and pressed on. "About Ferro City. It was a target of opportunity, discovered by a New Republic fleet returning to Sullust. Crippled by prior battles, our fleet was not prepared for a conflict. Surprise gave them the advantage, however, allowing them to shoot down the fighter patrol. They knew more fighters than they could handle would launch from the station in mere minutes, so in desperation, they played the only trick they had up their sleeve, a Sphyrna-class corvette. A hammerhead.

"The Imperials scrambled their fighters but couldn't get all of them off deck before the corvette charged the station, knocking Ferro City into a sizable asteroid. The collision resulted in a detonation of the station's ordnance depot. Turns out you guys were storing a heck of a lot of firepower, which is why we found you drifting in a smashed-up TIE Defender, knocked unconscious. The few Imperial ships capable of hyperspace retreated."

He remained silent.

"Being the first out, you got farthest from the blast. We found two other TIE Defenders in worse shape." She took a breath, not sure how to mention the man in the coma.

His fingers clenched into fists, and he stared at them wordlessly for a long time before speaking. "I guess you must find that pretty poetic."

"I'm not a fan of poetry."

He finally looked up, meeting her eyes. "By some absurd chance, you finally have the man responsible for the death of your unit. And you're telling me - "

"There's only one person responsible for the deaths of my pilots. It was my job to keep them alive." She drew another measured breath. "Your job was to take us out. You did your job. It was I who failed, and I won't give you credit for my failure."

"Maybe you should." Clearing his throat, he glanced away. "Blaming me might hurt less than blaming yourself."

She snorted. "You think it would help to say, 'There's nothing I could have done about it.' Render myself impotent in an effort to absolve myself? No. Blaming my opponent for my failures won't make me stronger."

"I just meant - "

"No. My loss was my fault, just as the loss of - " She almost mentioned Armath, but then thought better of it. "We're at war, and this is how it works. It's nothing personal. We fight the battles our command tells us to fight, and if we aren't good enough, we lose."

"You don't hate me?"

"If I hated you for doing your duty as a pilot, I'd have to hate myself for the same crimes. I don't. The only thing I hate is the ideals of your faction."

"But we're enemies."

"I disagree. We've gotten along fine." She hadn't faked her cheerful playfulness. She had genuinely enjoyed talking to him. Would her dead squad mates think she had betrayed them in some way? Maybe Doc was right, and it didn't matter.

She lifted her gaze as she corrected him. "Our leaders are enemies. My father's side of the family is from Coruscant. My mother's, from Alderaan. I've spent time on both planets, and they both had problems. The Empire and the New Republic both have problems. Both want control. Both claim they are in the right. But only one of them is terrified of dissent. Only one of them is willing to deliberately massacre entire planets of non-combatants to get their way."

"How many people do you think died on the Death Stars?"

"I said deliberately. Any civilians on the Death Stars were collateral damage that we would have avoided if we could. The civilians on Alderaan were the target." She stood up slowly, pushing her chair back. "You and I signed up to kill and to die. What did the people of Alderaan sign up for?"

"It was a show of force designed to save lives by preventing more worlds from engaging in civil war. Alderaan started the Rebellion - "

"No. One of their senators started the Rebellion. Understand the distinction between a government and the people below them. I guarantee you they didn't all vote for Bail Organa. They weren't all Rebel sympathizers. Twenty-six percent of the population were children. Why not just capture the Organas and string them up as the example?"

He had no response for that.

"I don't require my friends or my government to agree with me. I do, however, require they let me disagree with them." Perhaps she was wrong about him. She scraped the flimsies off the table. Perhaps it was too soon. If only she had more time!

Numbly, she reached for the door. "I believe my time here is up. Goodbye, Jock."

His voice stayed her hand. "Had we been on the same side, I think we would have gotten along."

She swallowed. "We have gotten along."

She hadn't faked her cheerful playfulness. She had enjoyed talking to him. Would her dead squad mates think she had betrayed them in some way? Maybe Doc was right, and it didn't matter.

"My name's Zander Pokri."

Rosk half turned, looking back at him.

His eyes met hers briefly before glancing away. "My friends call me Poker."

For a moment, she said nothing. She understood the comment for what it was - a gesture, an offer, and a question. She drew a breath, remembering each of the faces of White Squadron.

Sorry. If you want to hate me, it's well-deserved, but it's time I move on. Rest in peace, my friends. She let out the breath and nodded. "My friends call me Silence."

Her heart lurched with a jolt of adrenaline. Maybe it wasn't too soon, or too late.

The stack of flimsies waited in her damp fingers, clutched to her chest. Time to test her instincts. Time to ignore everything she thought White Squadron might think. Returning to her seat briskly, she slid them in front of him, face up.

He squinted at the documents. "What is this?"

"A petition to defect to the New Republic."

He frowned faintly at it, more in confusion than rejection. "Why?"

"You initially refused to give us name, rank, and serial number, which tells me you aren't keen on being sent back to the Empire. You only showed concern for one of your pilots, which implies you never meshed well with the rest of your squadron."

"Just because the Empire has problems doesn't mean you people are any better."

"You're right. It doesn't." She leaned back in her chair. "But you have three options. Stay a prisoner of war. Get shipped back to the Empire if they are willing to trade someone for you. Or, realize that everything you've heard about us - good and bad - is propaganda, and that the only way you'll know for sure is to look with your own eyes."

Jock stared at the documents for several minutes. His eyes didn't track back and forth, reading the words. Instead, his gaze stabbed right through the table and into the unknowable. Eventually, he spoke, his voice low and resigned. "I'm not going back."

Her first hunch had been right. "Then you have two choices left. You can either stay locked up, or you can take a chance on us."

"You want me to turn against everything I've ever sworn to uphold."

"No. I want you to make your own decision, based on your own personal observations, instead of what you've been told about the Empire and the New Republic." Rosk knitted her fingers together. She wished she could tell him what Zeno would do to him if he didn't follow along, but telling him would come off as a threat, and uttering such an accusation on an official recording would be suicide. "It's not my decision to make."

"I see." He continued to stare at the flimsies.

"There's one caveat. If you choose to defect, it comes with a price: honesty. I have one question for you, and you have to answer it truthfully."

He looked up suspiciously. "What question?"

"Where were your forces preparing to attack next?"

"Did you collect his body?"

The question caught her off guard, but she knew it shouldn't have. "Yes."

"Can I see him?"

She had intentionally let him think his friend had died, to help him take the dire news of the coma as a positive, but with everything else on her mind, she'd forgotten to give him the news. "Yes."

Gathering up the flimsies in his shackled hands, he tapped them on the table to line them up neatly. He took a breath. He let it out. And then he met her gaze. "I already told you. It's Armath."

"Armath. You swear that's accurate?" She nodded to the documents. "If you lie, that form is null and void. You know that, right?"

He nodded, and his grip on the flimsies tightened. "Ferro City was a staging area. We were early in the process of amassing an assault force with the specific mandate from Grand General Kenner Loring to locate and attack New Republic fleets weakened by the Battle of Endor and other recent conflicts. We were supposed to hit Armath next week, but the loss of Ferro City may set back the timetable a few months."

Next week wouldn't leave much time to muster reinforcements. I hope he's correct about that delay. She got up. "Thank you. I'll have a legal counsel help you fill out the form. Goodbye and good luck."

"See you around." He lifted a hand from the table.

"Unlikely." Her future in Intelligence was over. His case was closed, and she wouldn't be getting another.

"We've met twice already under more unlikely circumstances." He smiled faintly. "Silence."

My friends call me Silence. She remembered her words and for a moment, she couldn't speak.

"I'm not sure that name suits you, Rosk. You get pretty mouthy." He grinned in jest. "I'm sure we will meet again."

A pain cut through her heart. The last time she'd seen that expression had been four years ago. She quickly shook her head to clear it. "There's someone else you should be meeting again."

Opening the door, Rosk nodded to Evan, who had returned to the station outside. "Have him escorted to the medical ward."

"Yes, ma'am." Evan reached for his comlink to call for guards.

"I don't understand." Was that sudden concern on Jock's - Zander's - face? She couldn't blame him. Had she been sent to the medical ward by Imperial captors, her mind would be jumping to unpleasant conclusions that involved a lot of needles.

"One of your wingmen survived, but he's in a coma. You only asked about one of them, so I hope he's the one you liked best." She glanced back at him just long enough to catch the spark of hope lighting in his eyes. "Take care . . . Poker. Maybe you're right. Maybe we will meet again."

On her way out, Doc Jobber popped up from its resting place on Evan's desk. "See? I told you that you'd do fine. Well done, Rosk."

Jobber made a derogatory noise. "If you'd have let me take him out earlier, I could have saved you all this trouble."

"You're heartless! Don't listen to him, Rosk."

"Don't hold me to meatbag standards!" The droid's lights blinked in agitation. "By that comparison, you're brainless and gutless, medical droid!"

. . .

She'd done it. Heart hammering, Rosk took a moment to calm her nerves outside Colonel Amesh's door. She'd saved a New Republic fleet from a surprise attack. She'd saved a decent man from Zeno. Time to wrap things up.

Drawing a deep breath, she sighed, squared her shoulders, and once again entered her least favorite room on the Veracity.

Colonel Amesh waved her inside from his desk, but her opinion of the room immediately went from bad to worse as she saw he already had a visitor. Gritting her teeth, she saluted to both of them.

"Come in, have a seat." Agent Zeno patted the chair next to her invitingly. She pointed to the holoprojector on Amesh's desk. The image had been paused, a frozen version of Rosk leaning over a table, documents in hand. "It's always fascinating to watch other agents work, don't you think? Congratulations, by the way."

"Thank you, ma'am." Why couldn't anyone just let her work in peace? "I came to report that I got confirmation of the target, but I see you both already know."

"Yes. And through such . . . intriguing methods." Zeno's fingers swept through her silver hair, tucking it behind her right ear. "Such deft manipulation of the subject. Optimal outcome with minimal effort. I could learn a thing or two from you."

No, you couldn't, because you have no idea what happened in there. Rosk shrugged lightly, folding her hands behind her back to keep them from trembling with adrenaline. "Thank you, ma'am."

"No, thank you. You got him to request to defect. And we're going to grant his request, but first he has to earn it."

He did earn it! Rosk bit her tongue.

"You see, this man is a unique asset. The Empire is unaware we captured him. Which means we can send him back to them without them being the wiser. In his position, he'll make an excellent informant."

Her teeth could no longer stop her tongue. She fought to keep her tone civil. "You mean if they don't kill him on sight for going AWOL and not reporting in."

"A risk I'm willing to take. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?" Zeno's casual tone contrasted harshly with the gravity of the situation. "If he's willing to work for us, we'll approve his request."

What good was defecting if you just got sent back to where you were fleeing from? Would Zander accept the deal? Not willingly. But of course, Zeno had all the leverage. Rosk knew, as Zeno must also, that Zander's wingman was the ultimate bargain chip.

As expected, Amesh nodded along to the plan. "Tomorrow, you will explain to him the conditions of defecting."

"Of course, sir." The acknowledgement came out because there was nothing else to say. Her mouth covered for her brain, which scrambled to figure out what to do.

"No," Zeno countered. "Make it tonight. Tomorrow, have him brought to Room 3F. I will help him finalize the paperwork and the details of our arrangement."

3F. The interview room no one used because the recording equipment was broken. For some reason no one had bothered to fix it, despite Rosk's regular reports about it.

"Yes, ma'am." Again, her mouth offered up the correct response. "If that's all, I should get to it."

Amesh nodded again. "Dismissed, major."

. . .

Rosk took the lift.

She didn't know what to do, but she knew Evan and Zander would be at the medical ward.

When the lift door opened, she jogged the rest of the way, halting before the door to hastily catch her breath before anyone saw her. What to do, what to do, what to do. . . .

The 2-1B droid turned upon her the instant she entered the ward. It pointed a skeletal finger at her. "Major Vikeron. If you're here to disturb my patients - "

Rosk's eyes landed on the empty bacta tank and the two New Republic guards standing nearby, and her heart jumped. "Where's the guy who was in this tank?"

"His body has been repaired. I moved him to a bed to recover." A wave of his metal hands directed her towards the beds partitioned off by curtains. He pointed at the one on the end, and she saw two pairs of feet standing by the bed.

Jogging over, she yanked the curtain open. Seeing Evan, Zander, and Zander's wingman safe inside offered her a few seconds of relief, but she didn't have time for relief, or for their questioning looks.

She beckoned to the 2-1B droid. "Have this patient prepared for transfer immediately."

"Under whose authority, ma'am? I've received no transfer documents. He's in no condition to be moved without medical supervision. Not to mention he's a potentially dangerous prison who requires armed guards at all times."

"Under my authority. Under - Frak!" She took a breath, aware that now everyone was staring at her. She had no idea what she was doing. She only knew what would happen if she failed.

"Ma'am, are you okay?" Evan caught her elbow, looking concerned.

"Where's your report on Gemilan? Did you find anything?"

"I sent it to you last night. I noted everything that seemed significant, but you didn't tell me to look for anything in particular." His face told her enough. If he'd found any connection to Zeno, it would be the first thing he'd mention.

I have so little evidence. I can't go to Cracken with nothing but rumors and conjecture and expect anything to be done. Curse her for covering her tracks so well!

"I think you owe me an explanation." Zander's cuffed hands tightened around the bedrail of his unconscious comrade. "Why would you move him?"

Her brain kept skipping from one thing to another. "The approval of your defection is contingent on you working for us."

He frowned at her, probably struggling to connect the two unrelated topics. "I can offer my services as a pilot. That's not a problem."

"Yes, but that's not what they - She wants - " Rosk forced herself to stop and take a breath. She had to focus. Maybe she couldn't figure everything out, but panicking would be the fastest way to land the worst possible outcome. Evan was looking at her funny. He had probably never seen her lose her cool. Well, today you find out I'm only human, captain.

She pulled herself up straight and tried again. "They want to send you back to the Empire. You go back, pretend you survived somehow, and return to your normal duties. But as an informant to us."

Zander's brown eyes bored into her. "You think the Empire is that stupid? Do you know what they would do to me?"

Probably the same thing Zeno's going to do to you if you don't, locked in that unmonitored room with you. Interrogation rooms are soundproof, and I bet she has access to a dozen ways to make you scream without leaving any physical evidence. Rosk couldn't meet his gaze. No, torture wasn't Zeno's primary tactic - at least not from what she gleaned from hearsay and whispers. Zeno would go straight for Zander's wingman. But what if she couldn't?

She swallowed. "What are you willing to do for your wingman?"

He stiffened. "Major Vikeron. Rosk. Silence - what are you saying?"

Just then, a familiar shape barged into the ward. "Do you have any idea how slow these repulsorlifts are? I demand upgrades!"

"Jobber, not now." Rosk rubbed her face. "I'm sorry I left you behind. You could have just taken the lift."

"Have you ever tried to operate lift controls with no frakking appendages, human?" The receptor glowed, clearly incensed.

"Shush! Are you capable of guarding a prisoner?"

"Of course! I am fully qualified to - "

Rosk cut him off. "Doc, can you care for a patient in a coma?"

"I can provide direction, but as Jobber crudely pointed out, I have no physical limbs with which to provide care."

"Silence." Zander interrupted her. "You owe me an explanation. What is happening?"

She saw the concern and the brewing anger beneath it. So of the two pilots who had launched from Ferro City, this was the one was his friend. This was the one Zeno could use to corner Zander, despite all his stoicism and counter-interrogation training.

All the investigation she'd done, and she hadn't found anything concrete enough to stop Zeno. She couldn't go to her commanding officer because he wouldn't help her, and she couldn't go to General Cracken because she had a flimsy case at best, and nothing flimsy would stand up against Zeno's connections and cunning.

"Silence! Look at me." Zander's voice took a commanding tone, one that demanded her attention effortlessly. He'd been a good commander, hadn't he? One who knew how to calmly take control of his men in an emergency. Here he was, powerless, a shackled prisoner, knowing something threatening loomed over him and his surviving wingman, and yet he still had more composure than she did. "Take a breath. Let it out. Now, tell me what's wrong."

She swallowed. All she could do was turn him over to Zeno, but . . . maybe she had one last card to play. "I need your help."

. . .

Battle of Endor +20 days
Sullust system
CRC Veracity

"Colonel."

"Good morning, Silence." Agent Zeno swept briskly into Room 3F. Her gaze flicked over Rosk's crisp attention-posture and the two cups of caf she held awkwardly in one hand and tucked under one arm while saluting with the other. "At ease, major."

"I took the liberty of getting you and the prisoner some caf, colonel. Hot drinks always make business deals go smoother." Rosk handed both cups to Zeno, glancing through the observation window and into interview room, where Zander waited, his restraints locked to the table.

"Thank you, Silence. That's very thoughtful."

"Oh, colonel. I must apologize." Rosk waved at the dark screens of the observation console. "The recording systems in the room have been dead for a while. I keep putting in requests to get it fixed, but . . ."

"That's fine. It's not like I'm questioning the prisoner. We're just going over his documents. No need to have a recording when everything's already in writing." Zeno smiled. "Let's save the working rooms for the people who need to conduct interrogations, yes?"

"Of course, ma'am." Rosk nodded and tucked her hands behind her back. "Should I accompany you?"

"For a routine signing of documents?" The woman arched a chiseled eyebrow. "I'm sure you have more pressing matters to attend to."

"Yes, ma'am." Lifting her comlink, Rosk backed toward the door leading to the hallway. "Just call me if you need anything."

"There is one thing. This man's file mentions a second prisoner picked up at the same time."

"Yes, ma'am. He's in the medical ward, but he's in a coma, so we haven't been able to question him. I think he needs to be transferred to a specialist."

"No." Zeno eyes caught Rosk's sternly. "I want you to keep him where he is for now."

"Understood, ma'am."

Rosk shot a final glance through the window before leaving. Good luck, Poker.

. . .

Interview Room 3F had a long history of maintenance problems. However, Rosk had a history of repairing droids, and that meant easy work replacing the broken camera with the working one from 3E.

Rosk tapped into feeds using her desk computer, with her boots propped up in the comfort of her office. The interview started off as one would expect. Zeno and Zander both introduced themselves pleasantly, chit-chatted for a few minutes, and then got to the point.

"I hear you wish to defect."

"I do."

"Why?"

"I've dealt with too many corrupt leaders. No matter what you hear, it's difficult to feel you're on the right side when the shadiest sort of people rise to power and everything's a political game. I've seen good pilots torn apart for the smallest infractions while the best liars and brownnosers get promoted up the ranks like a rodent with its tail on fire." Zander poked at the table. "I thought the reb - the New Republic - would be even worse. Fanatic extremists touting anarchy under the guise of freedom while the Empire tries to keep the universe orderly and safe. I thought you were all lawless terrorists, to be honest."

"And now you want to join us? From the inside of a cell, you've somehow seen enough to decide we're not what you thought?"

"Maybe my interactions have been limited, but already I've seen sincerity and I've seen happiness and I've seen kindness." Zander's dark eyes flicked upwards. "Do you have any idea how grim and serious it is in the Imperial Navy? I thought it was called professionalism. It's not. It's mental suffocation. Always having to watch your back among friends? You don't have to do that with real friends."

A silver eyebrow arched. "You think one person represents the whole of the New Republic?"

"No. But I know she couldn't survive in the Imperial Navy, but she can here. That tells me enough."

"Very well. I believe you. I will approve your request." Zeno tapped the forms on the table between them. "However, you have to earn it."

"I suppose that's fair."

"We need an informant. We're going to let you go. You're going to return to the Imperial Navy, or whatever remnant of it you came from, pretend you eluded capture, and you're going to feed us intel."

A furrow formed between Zander's thick eyebrows. "No."

"No?" Zeno leaned back in her chair, a cold smile breaking through her normally warm façade. "I'm sorry. Did I give you the impression you have a choice?"

"I'm not returning to the Empire." Zander's posture stiffened. "I do have a choice, because if defecting means I have to go back, then I retract my request."

Zeno's smile turned to one of amusement. "And what would Breg say?"

Breg? Rosk's boots dropped from her desk, and she tapped the name into the Intelligence database. A few results returned, but nothing that seemed relevant.

The way Zander shifted in his chair told Rosk that he hadn't expected the name either. He didn't respond.

"You know, your wingman. The one who is still clinging to life under our care. I understand you are close friends."

Zander refused to fall for the bait. "As my friend, he would tell me to save myself."

"Would he now?" Zeno leaned over the table like a carrion bird, but the microphones in the room still picked up her whisper. "Thing is, Zander, your dear friend is in a coma. He could die at any time and no one would even bother with an autopsy."

Seeing the Zander's face harden, Rosk bit her lip. Please trust me, Zander. I told you I would protect him. Please believe me.

"I don't believe you are in any position to threaten me with my friend's life." His fingers curled around the chain between his stun cuffs, as if he wanted to wrap it around the agent's neck, but it was bolted to the table.

"Really?" Chuckling, Zeno sat back, pushing her hair over her shoulder. She pulled out a comlink. "Silence. Have Zander's friend brought to 3F."

Rosk snatched up her own comlink. She took a breath and closed her eyes. "I can't do that, ma'am."

Zeno's voice instantly turned sharp. "Are you refusing a direct order, major?"

"I had him transferred off-ship this morning."

"I told you to leave him in the medical ward." The icy razors of Zeno's voice cut through the comlink. "Where is he?"

"No one on Veracity, myself included, has that answer." Rosk had given Evan and Doc Jobber specific instructions to leave, but not where to go. "Sorry, Colonel Zenia Bellenacht. Conspiracy to commit murder, just to gain leverage over a defector? Your career is over."

"My career?" The woman in the holographic projection stood up slowly, and every ounce of her anger finally surfaced. She stepped away from the table, eyes flying to the camera that should have been broken. "You forget your place, major."

"You're not wrong. I've been promoted and demoted so many times, sometimes I salute my own subordinates." Rosk tossed off the joke casually, but her fingers grew clammy around the comlink, because she knew who she was dealing with. Her mind traced every known and suspected connection Zeno had within the agency.

Zeno disappeared from the holoprojection as she left the interview room, and a second later the projection died. "Thought you'd get clever? Against me? Nice try."

Without the projection, all Rosk had left was what she could hear over the comlink.

The whoosh of the interview door.

The clink of the comlink being placed upon the table.

Zeno's voice in the background. Did she have a second comlink? "Send a security team to Major Vikeron's office. She's suspected of treason and is in possession of sensitive confidential information. Use any force necessary to apprehend her."

Frak! Rosk snatched the datacard out of her desk computer, where she had made a copy of the holo recording. Why hadn't she seen this coming?

"Now we get to the real arrangement, lieutenant commander." Zeno's voice grew closer again, and a chair creaked. Was that genuine enjoyment in the woman's tone? "You see, your precious major may have hidden your friend temporarily, but he will surface eventually. And in the meantime? She's about to be arrested for treason and insubordination . . . which puts her squarely under my power. So, let's review that agreement again, shall we?"

Double frak! How had Zeno turned her into the leverage against Zander?

Rosk yanked open the fingerprint-locked drawer of her desk and pulled out an MSE droid. She stuck the datachip inside it and nearly punted it out the door as she headed the opposite direction down the hall.

"You think I'd believe that? Snuffing a man in a coma, maybe you'd get away with that. But an active intelligence agent on your own ship? Don't make me laugh." Thank goodness Zander was still calling Zeno's bluff.

She ran, not knowing where to go. Even on a cruiser-carrier the size of Veracity, she couldn't hide for long. The long corridors didn't help, because as she approached the closest intersection, she heard boots running from the left.

Doing an about-face, she bolted back to the nearest vending machine and ducked behind it. On her datapad, she opened the app controlling her chromomite dye and set all of her hair to blond.

As the security team approached, they saw a blond officer spilling a drink on herself and cussing a blue streak as she pulled off her stained jacket. They kept on jogging.

Breathing easier, Rosk tucked the jacket under her arm to hide her rank, looked back to make sure they kept heading for her office, and then darted for the intersection. Maybe someone would think she was late for a meeting, or running PT, or just needed to use the refresher really badly. Maybe she -

"Major!" Just as she skidded into the intersection to hang a hard right, she found a certain unpleasant Duros blocking her path. The blond hair didn't throw him. He knew about her special dye.

"Yes, sir!" She halted hastily and tossed up a salute.

"Report to my office immediately."

Did he know? Had Zeno told him she was under suspicion of treason?

"I just found the request you sent to me last night. I want to discuss it with you."

Oh, right. My transfer request. It sounded like he had no clue, but the last place she wanted to be was trapped in his office, waiting to be found.

"Sorry, sir. I'm in a bit of a hurry." The security team would be in her office by now. She lifted her comlink instinctively. "I'm actually on a - "

She stared in sudden horror at the comlink. It wasn't a bluff. She was on a call. With Zeno. Wanting to listen in on Zeno and Zander, she'd forgotten Zeno could hear her too. That meant - "Sorry, colonel. I'll be right there in five minutes. I just need to hit the refresher."

Disconnecting the call, she turned to head for the refresher, but it seemed Amesh had finally gotten tired of her borderline insubordination. He blocked her path. "I said, report to my office immediately, major. I'm sure you can hold it better than you can hold your tongue."

Over her shoulder, she heard boots running toward them. "I'm sure I can, colonel."

With that, she clocked him across his flat face with her right elbow hard enough to send him stumbling into the wall. Let security deal with that first.

Taking off at a dead run, Rosk appreciated every time she had refused to take the lift. She knew the layout of the ship well, and her endurance served her well to buy her time. She went up and down levels, doubled back, and hid in hard-to-spot corners.

Zeno had chosen a more subtle approach than to put the ship on high alert, which Rosk both appreciated and distrusted. The quieter the incident, the easier it would be to sweep her under the rug.

She couldn't run forever, nor hide on a ship filled with security cameras. When she couldn't go any farther, she staggered into the officers' mess hall and collapsed on her hands and knees before the table of the highest ranking officer present. "I'm under arrest. I surrender."

The officer, a general, scowled at her. "What the frell is the meaning of this?"

He didn't have to wonder long, because two security teams charged through opposing doors and converged upon her, weapons drawn. Rosk waited with her hands behind her head, and her cheek pressed against the floor, breathing heavily.

Had she bought enough time for her little MSE droid to deliver her files? At least throwing herself in front of a general had prevented them from shooting her on sight for "pulling a weapon" or some other fictitious excuse.

"Who is this?" The general's dark eyes located the chief security officer. "What is the meaning of this?"

"We have orders to apprehend Major Rosk Vikeron on suspicion of treason and aiding and abetting the enemy." The security officer waved at another man. "Cuff her."

Treason. Perhaps throwing herself in front of a roomful of officers where they could see her being cuffed and accused of treason hadn't been her smartest move. Maybe Cracken could protect her from being snuffed before her trial or imprisoned for life, but he couldn't remove this scene from the memories of those watching, nor stop them from whispering.

Treason. The cold metal tightened around her wrists roughly. She knew it wasn't true, but some aspect of the accusation still hurt. Getting pulled to her feet by security as people she knew stared at her wasn't a good feeling at all.

Treason. What if the MSE droid never made it? What if Zeno caught it, too? What if no one came to clear her name? The guards patted her down, taking her boot knife and datapad. There goes my only other copy of the evidence.

It slowly dawned on her that she might have lost. Her reckless effort to save Zander and Breg might have cost her everything. Her career. Her reputation. Her freedom.

But not her integrity! Clenching her jaw, she could only hope Zander hadn't caved to Zeno's manipulation.

. . .

Battle of Endor +22 days Sullust system CRC Veracity

Colonel Amesh glared at Rosk from across his desk. A dark green bruise took the place of a nose on his flat face. "I understand Agent Zeno was taken in for questioning and that you have been cleared of the charges of treason as well of aiding and abetting."

She nodded, carefully keeping a blank expression. She'd already had this conversation with General Cracken this morning, through an encrypted call to the prison block.

"I cannot overstate how much I appreciate your efforts to surface the crimes of Agent Zeno, major. Discretion isn't your strongest suit, is it? Rather a mess you left for me to clean up. I might also point out that your droid is extremely rude."

"Sorry, sir. I didn't know where else to send Breg and Evan except to you. I apologize for Jobber's behavior."

"I have been . . . 'strongly encouraged' to drop the charges of assaulting an officer." Amesh's face left no doubt how he felt about this. "However, it was agreed your efforts to resist arrest were inexcusable, so I am hereby stripping you of two full ranks. Your pay will - "

"You know what? It was worth it."

"THREE full ranks!" He was nearly screaming now, his entire face flushing dark to match the ugly bruise. "Your pay will be appropriately reduced, second lieutenant."

"Understood, sir." Three? That’s a new personal record. Rosk suspected the Duros would sound less smug if he realized the demotion brought her relief more than anything. She had known it was coming, anyway.

"With the evidence you sent me, it will be easy to remove all charges leveled by Agent Zeno against you." General Cracken had frowned at her. "But I'm afraid I cannot clear all charges against you without blowing your cover. Resisting arrest? Disobeying orders? Assaulting an officer?"

"I was afraid for my life, sir. Zeno has connections. I was buying time. As for assaulting an officer, if you knew Amesh, you'd understand, I promise."

"About this transfer request." Amesh squinted at his datapad. "What is the meaning of this?"

She didn't care to explain it. He wouldn't understand. "Consider it an early birthday present?"

"Why should I approve this?"

"I know you're eager to get rid of me. Show the other agents you mean business and won't tolerate unprofessionalism. That's what you want, right?" Rosk knitted her slender fingers together casually on the desk as she waited for him to read the document. "Make an example of me? Assert your authority?"

He only glanced at it. His next words grated out as if he had a blaster to his head. "I was told to congratulate you on getting intel from that prisoner."

"But in reality, you want to scoff at how unorthodox my methods were. Intel built from a set of silly puns? 'Preposterous,' you would say." She never thought she'd welcome it, but the oppressive heat of the office felt better than the cold cell she'd spent two nights in.

"It is preposterous, and your methods are unorthodox." He swiped through the pages of the transfer document, still fuming. "You want to go back to being a pilot? After how that ended for you last time?"

"You filed a rather sudden request, major. Why didn't you discuss it with me? It has ramifications for our little arrangement." Cracken hadn't seemed any more pleased than Amesh. "You've been a valuable asset, and someone I trust to give me unbiased findings on sensitive matters."

"Thank you, sir, but Intelligence is not the right career for me. To be honest, I never had a future there anyway. I'll never rise above mid-level investigator. I can't perform as a field agent, and I refuse to suck up to my superiors enough to move up to a higher position. Frankly, sir, I hate my job. I hate feeling like I'm on both sides. My coworkers don't trust me, and I can't say I trust them either, except for Captain Feldspar. I hope he gets promoted to fill my place."

"He may make a fine interrogator for Colonel Amesh, but can he replace my watchdog?"

"Perhaps not, sir. He's a little too naïve still."

"Major, I still have use for you. I've taken the liberty of adjusting your transfer request. I'm sending you to Renegade Wing. You get to be a pilot again, but you keep your clearance, and you still work for me on the side."

"Sir, I'm going to be a bit disconnected from intelligence. I won't have the same resources and attention to devote to - "

"I need someone I can trust aboard the Vigilant. You'll know more once you arrive, but trust me when I say your new location will be to our mutual advantage on this case."

"It says you want to transfer to Corsair squadron. What makes you think they'd even want someone with your record?"

Rosk ignored Amesh's condescending tone. "I might have some practice to do before I qualify, but that's not a problem. We have actual training programs now to help get new pilots up to speed. Besides, Renegade Wing suffered considerable losses. They need all the help they can get."

"But they are stationed at the shipyards of Armath. That's where you said the Imperials would attack."

"That's right. I could be in harm's way. You can't tell me that doesn't bring a smile to your face." Rosk nudged the datapad with her right pinky. "Just sign it. You never liked me, so why drag your feet?"

"You're a promising agent, major." This from the fellow who had barely been with Intel a few months, compared to her four-year tenure. It would have been condescending, if he hadn't said it with an irritating sneer that spoke of other motives. "You've cracked some of our most stubborn prisoners. But your methods - "

"My methods work. They aren't the problem. The problem is, you want me to do things your way, and I won't. Have you forgotten I punched you in the face?" Don't make me do it again. Rosk bumped the datapad closer to him one more time. The sweat rolling between her shoulder blades shortened her temper. "Sign it."

He frowned. "How insolent of you to presume to tell me what to do, lieutenant."

She facially shrugged and proceeded to wait.

"What makes you think they have any use for a has-been?"

Rosk didn't respond to the jab.

"Now that we're officially the New Republic, standards are going to get stricter. Sooner or later, you'll have to learn to show proper respect to your officers."

Sooner or later, I'll get an officer who deserves that respect. She continued to wait. She had no problem with authority or showing respect, but she did have a problem with people who belittled others in order to distract attention from their own shortcomings.

"Given your success rate, I should encourage you to stay." The Duros' giant eyes blinked slowly at her.

She waited, gazing steadily into his left eye. Duros' eyes were too large to meet their gaze evenly. You had to pick a favorite eye and stick with it or else look like you were watching the nuna in a Nuna-ball match.

He hated her guts. He wanted her gone. She knew he was just trying to block her transfer just for the sake of revenge.

"It might be a mistake to transfer you at this time."

You hate me so much that you'd rather keep me around than give me what I want? Fine. If that's how you want to play, let's rumble.

"I'd be willing to stay another two weeks. It would give me ample time to do a full investigation into your background, particularly your ties to Kessel." She stood up, reaching for the datapad. Truth was, she'd done a full background check on him the moment he'd transferred in. "I'll need to have my facts straight if whoever came down on Agent Zeno starts to investigate her known associates and comes to me for information."

He pulled the pad away at the last moment and placed his digital signature on it. "You are a singularly unpleasant individual, lieutenant. I extend your new officers my sincerest sympathies."

She smiled, genuinely. "Thank you, sir."

"Sir, what's going to happen to Zander and Breg?" While in her cell, no one had shared any news with her. The encrypted call from Cracken had been her only "visitor".

"The fellow in the coma will return to medical care until his condition improves or deteriorates. If he recovers, perhaps he will defect, as his friend has."

"But Zander, what happened to him?"

"His request has been approved, on the condition that he serves us in a non-combat role. He's on probationary status and will be under constant supervision for security reasons, of course."

"Thank you, sir."

. . .

Battle of Endor +49 days
Sullust
New Republic Flight Academy of Sullust

A month later, Rosk threw open the hatch of her simulator. All around her, other pilots did the same, jumping out of their simulator pods excitedly. Some were fresh recruits who had just enlisted in the New Republic's flight program, and others were like her, taking the program as remedial training.

"You did fantastic!" Rosk hugged the nearest pilot, a Sullustan kid who had flown as her wingman in the sim. "What was that maneuver you pulled, Menno?"

He chuckled. "You don't remember? Silence, I learned that from you in week three. The mission with the - "

The other trainees drowned him out as they converged in the middle of the room, trading hugs, banter, and backslaps. Some of them still had months of training left to go, but all of them had made significant progress since their first day. Rosk only had a week left before she'd ship out to Corsair, the only squadron in Renegade Wing that specialized in RZ-1s, the successors to the R-22s she used to fly.

Doc and Jobber had been right to encourage her to return to flying. She had almost forgotten how much she enjoyed the simple act of sending her spacecraft spinning through the stars and dancing around asteroids and enemy fighters. And nothing could compare to being surrounded by a team of exuberant friends after a hard-fought victory.

"Who do you think Predator Six, the mystery instructor, is?" a Drabatan student asked as the ruckus settled. He gestured animatedly, acting out the battle with his hands. "That guy was all over me!"

A man nodded, wiping his brow. "He - or she? - was on my tail, too! I think they were going light on us. Could have vaped me at least three times during that mission, unless their lasers were out of juice every time."

"Yeah?" Rosk scoffed. "You're lucky. He's blasts me apart every other mission. I swear he has a vendetta against me or something. I mean, I guess I'm learning from it, but it's getting a little old dying all the time."

"I'm sure it's nothing personal." Menno patted her back. "How could it be? We've never seen his face. Maybe he expects more from you because of your previous experience."

The chirping of her comlink forced her to squeeze out of the noisy tangle of people, searching for a quiet spot to take the call. Who would be calling her? She didn't know that many people who weren't already in the room with her . . . except her old coworkers in Intel.

Please don't be Amesh. Stepping into the corridor outside and closing the door behind her to dim the racket, she answered warily. "Vikeron here. Hello?"

"Ma'am!" Evan's bright voice instantly calmed her apprehension. "How's the training going?"

"It's going great, captain." She knew he wouldn't call her without a good reason. "How are things on your end?"

"Well, it's been rough. They bumped me up to major, so I report directly to Amesh now. I realize now why you always clashed with him. It's not about his inexperience."

"No, it's not. He's one of those people who likes to put everyone down."

"I'm seeing that now. But whining about it won't do any good. I'll either figure out how to deal with him, or leave like you did. It's up to me to sort it out."

He sounded so mature saying that! She felt a swell of pride.

Evan cleared his throat. "I didn't mean to make this call about me. I just wanted to check on you and Zander."

Rosk cocked her head in confusion. "What do you mean, me and Zander? I haven't seen him since I got arrested."

"Huh? I thought you would have run into him by now, given that they made him a flight instructor at the Sullust academy."

"They what?" She supposed that made sense. His familiarity with Imperial ships and strategies made him a perfect candidate, especially since they'd be unlikely to trust a defector with live munitions any time soon. "No, I haven't seen him. He must be with another class."

"No, ma'am - "

"Stop calling me that. You outrank me, remember?"

"Uh, yeah. I keep forgetting." Evan coughed sheepishly. "But according to the records, he's with your group. He specifically requested it, actually."

The mystery instructor? The one focusing on vaporizing her? "How rude. He's never said hello. How's his buddy doing?"

"His full name is Breg Mangalla, by the way. Also called Joker. I pulled some strings to get Zander visitation time every day, and the medical droid says Breg's brain activity is increasing. Zander's been telling him all your jokes."

Rosk grinned to herself, imagining Zander rolling his eyes as he recounted her puns. "Tell Breg he better wake up because he owes me a butt-load of one-liners."

"Will do. Oh, there's one last thing." Evan cleared his throat. "Be careful."

"Why?"

"Remember what Zander said before he defected? Ferro City's destruction would have set Loring's plan back months. If Armath's still a target . . . well, it's been months. You might ship straight into a hot spot."

"Don't worry about me, sir." She grinned at the thought of him outranking her by not one but two levels. At least her low rank would put her in a junior position in Corsair instead of any position of leadership. "Thanks for the updates, but I have to get back to my training. Talk to you later!"

She disconnected as the door next to her slid open. Menno's face popped out and his large, black eyes spotted her. "Silence! There you are! Hurry up. We're about to go again, but this time, it's your turn to be wing leader."

"Sure." Rosk's innards twisted. Wing leader? She didn't want to be in that position again. What if I fail again? What if I panic again? What if -

Menno grinned. "What's the matter? It's just practice."

"That's no reason to be nonchalant about it," she admonished. "You'll perform on the field as you performed during practice."

Menno waved a hand, trying to usher her inside. "I thought you were a veteran. Aren't you supposed to show us new recruits how it's done?"

She swallowed, remembering Jobber's quote about courage. "Sorry, Menno, the only thing I can show you is how it shouldn't be done."

"You know that's useful too, right, Silence?" The Sullustan took her by the shoulders and pulled her inside. "If you screw up horribly, the instructors will tell us all what you did wrong and how to avoid it."

She remembered the cold terror in her stomach seeing the TIE Defenders drop out of hyperspace behind her squadron of flimsy R-22s.

She remembered shutting down in panic when the first green shots blew apart her wingman. What were these strange, tri-paneled craft? Should she fight? Flee? This was her first mission as wing leader. What was she supposed to do?

She remembered her men and women asking for orders, and she had none to give. Silence. That's what she had given them. Her Intel friends would never know how appropriate their nickname had been.

She remembered spending her last conscious breath cursing the name of the officer who had promoted her to wing leader despite her protests and lack of experience.

Lack of experience. Lack of training. The two things she'd needed most back then and didn't have. She'd thought bailing out of flying was the only way to prevent it from happening again, but no. Admitting defeat and rubbing her own nose in her failures had never helped anyone. The solution waited right in front of her, and all she needed was the guts to face it head on. She had to overcome her weaknesses.

Victor, not victim. Perhaps it was more than a mindset. Perhaps it was a decision.

Menno patted her shoulder. "So relax! The more you mess up now, the more we'll all learn."

Taking a breath, she headed for her simulator pod. "Well, strap in, boys and girls, because you're about to learn a frak-ton, and it ain't gonna be pretty."

Sealed inside the pod, surrounded by the lights of the instruments and displays as the scenario booted up, her vision blurred. Stupid Menno! How did a kid barely out of school cut her so deep with such a simple observation?

Truth is the sharpest sword. She answered her own question as she ran through the pre-flight checks. Blinking away tears, she ignored the betrayal of her eyes. He was right.

This was practice, and while she was supposed to try her hardest to lead her squadron to victory, this was her chance to show them all just how wrong things could go. They needed to be prepared for anything, including an incompetent leader, so that if they ever faced the situation White Squadron had been in, maybe they would survive.

She had to prepare them, even if it meant reliving the worst moments of her life. Even if it meant watching Zander tear apart her squad one more time. He wasn't here to be her friend. He was here to teach her a lesson.

Taking a breath, she wiped her eyes and grabbed her stick. "This is for you, White Squadron."

. . .

Battle of Endor +79 days
Sullust
New Republic Flight Academy of Sullust

"Woooo! We made it, Silence!" Menno tackled Rosk, nearly bowling her over. The graduating class had moved from the formal ceremony to the nearest bar, and Rosk got to watch as her classmates grew tipsier and rowdier by the minute.

"Yeah, we made it." Sipping her starberry milkshake, Rosk kept scanning the roomful of jubilant pilots.

Menno's huge eyes blinked blearily at her. "Who - hic! - are you looking for?"

"Our mystery instructor." Part of her felt a bit jilted. After everything they'd been through, Zander now avoided her entirely? He hadn't shown his face once.

"Good luck! If it weren't for him coaching us during the simulators - " the Sullustan swayed and sagged into the nearest chair with a blech " - we wouldn't even know his voice."

"I don't need luck. I know exactly where to find him." She shipped out tomorrow morning, and if she didn't catch him here tonight, she might never see him again. They hadn't gotten a chance to exchange contact information. If Zander wasn't going to congratulate his most dedicated student, she'd have to track him down.

She couldn't claim to be the best of her class, not by a long shot, but she had made the most improvement. Her single reenactment of White Squadron's demise had gotten her reprimanded by three different instructors and yelled at by every student in her group, but she stood by her decision. She and everyone else had learned a great deal about recovering during a surprise attack or a casualty in the command structure.

"I'm going to step out. Don't drink too - " Rosk blinked as Menno's unconscious form slid off the chair and collapsed under the table. "Never mind." . . .

Battle of Endor +79 days
Sullust
New Republic Naval Medical Center

The thin, green line on monitor spiked rhythmically, soundlessly counting out each beat of Breg's heart and every shallow breath of his lungs. Those vitals and many more were transmitted to the medical droids working the night shift, who would respond immediately to any fluctuation, but Rosk would have preferred an audible reassurance.

The man's chest rose and fell softly in the dim glow of the monitor and the blue strip lighting around the floor. She had arrived that evening to find him alone, and as she stood by the door waiting, she counted his breaths.

Silence.

Was Zander not going to visit his wingman tonight? Evan had told her he'd cleared Zander for supervised visitation every night.

Minutes crept by. She spent a few credcoins getting terrible caf from the hospital vending machine, and for a time, the sound of her gentle sips had given the room a hint of life. Finishing off the cup, she tossed it in the trash receptacle and continued to wait.

Silence.

She curled up in the visitor's chair, and her mind wandered back to her training.

Zander had singled her out, harassed her, and chased her down more than anyone. When she cussed him out through gritted teeth and swimming eyes, he'd berated her until she pulled it together. He had shown her no mercy in preparing her for the worst combat situations imaginable. She'd graduated with decent scores and a confidence she'd sorely lacked back at Torque. Was that his way of making up for his role in her loss? But why avoid her entirely?

She stared at Breg's inert form, but he offered no response to her unspoken questions.

Silence.

Sighing, she hugged her legs to her chest and dozed off on her knees. TIE Fighters filled her dreams. Red lasers minced them into slag, but the vastness of space swallowed up all sound from the explosions.

"Silence."

"Hyaah!" She jerked awake as someone tapped a rolled-up flimsy against her face repeatedly. Squinting, she swatted at the offender. "Hey! Stop it!"

"Very disciplined." Zander grinned at her. "This explains why I couldn't find you after the ceremony. I thought you got drunk and passed out somewhere."

"I don't drink."

"And yet you still passed out somewhere." He chuckled. "Look, I just wanted to say thank you. For everything. I was pretty hard on you during training, but soft combat instructors - "

" - get their students killed on the battlefield. I know. Thank you, Poker."

"Actually, I'd rather not keep my old call sign. Poker and Joker. Everyone called us that since the academy." He smiled faintly. "But some things are better left in the past."

"Fine. I'm going to keep calling you Jock, then." She punched him in the shoulder. "You could have said hello, at least."

"And have all the students talking about why their instructor has a tracker on his ankle and is followed everywhere by two security guards?" Jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the door, he lowered his voice. "Everywhere. Can't even go to the refresher alone."

She laughed. "Having second thoughts about defecting?"

"Not at all. They're still better company than what I used to put up with."

"Hey!" Rosk grabbed Breg's limp hand defensively. "Don't talk about Breg like that!"

Their laughter filled the room that had felt like a tomb only moments ago.

And then, without warning, Breg's fingers tightened around hers.