Flight Officer Jack "Frosty" McCauley and First Lieutenant Gemilan "Gremlin"
[Unnamed planet with an asteroid belt]
Frosty was tired. He was so tired he had fallen asleep twice in his pilot’s seat, only to awaken when he felt a sharp pain in his arm.
"Get stuffed, you kriffing Sithspawn."
Besides him, sat on his A-wing's portside, was his wingmate Junior, syringe in hand. "Wow, that's some of the weakest curses I've ever heard you say."
"Go suck a Hutt."
"Ah, there we go - stims are working."
Frosty grimaced as he felt the familiar hot flush rush over him, his head pounding. He gripped his controls tighter, despite the fact his ship was powered down and parked. "Where's our relief?"
Junior shrugged and now Frosty could see how sleepy he was too, his shoulders sagging and his eyes dim. "Not a karking peep out of Command. Not even sure if anyone knows we're out here."
Jack shook his head violently at the suggestion and weakly pushed up from his seat. Clambering out of the tight and cozy cockpit, he fell backwards onto the soft grass of the makeshift campsite. "I'm just gonna stay here a while."
Junior hopped down, finding the next stim in his pack. "I gotta go find the others. More brains to frakking prod."
Jack watched Junior walk away from his vantage point of the floor and considered getting up. The grass was wet and, like all grass he'd ever felt, was itchy and full of mysterious biting insects. Eventually the wetness soaked through his flight suit and he started to shiver, so with Wookiee-like strength he pulled himself up and stood.
A noise in the bushes nearby caused Jack's reflexes to surge into overdrive, dropping him back to the floor as he reached for his blaster and unthinkingly fired off a few shots. Danger. Stormies found us. Shouldn't have lit campfire.
Some blaster bolts sizzled back, missing by miles. Definitely stormies. He fired back once, then stopped, his brain on fire from the stim and adrenaline. "There's more of us than there are you, Imps, and I've got my starfighter’s lasers powered up and ready to vape you. Come out!"
Silence stretched for what seemed like minutes, though it would have been no more than a few seconds for anyone not hyped on drugs and exhaustion. Then a voice he knew all too well rang out across the foggy clearing.
“McCAULEY, YOU KRIFFER!”
Staggering out from behind the bushes came a familiar figure: X-wing orange flight suit, purple hair, fiery red skin and a voice that could blister a Star Destroyer’s hull. “YOU MANIAC!” Gremlin was in no mood to be quiet. “I can’t even take a PISS without you trying to kill me, you frakking Kowakian monkey lizard!”
She advanced towards the prone pilot, only to trip over one of her dangling ejection straps and land heavily on her hands and knees, her blaster skittering across the damp grass. Jack was not the only person who was running on empty.
As the tension started to dissipate and the comedy of their situation became clear, Frosty started to giggle. What at first started as a muffled snicker grew uncontrollably until deep belly laughs came pouring from his mouth, tears streaming down his face.
"We...could...have..killed...each other!" he wheezed.
Gremlin stared at him, her long tail of purple hair hanging over the front of her half-open flight suit. “You mean you could have killed me!” But as Jack’s laughter continued, even the angry Zeltron couldn’t maintain her level of annoyance. Slowly her expression relaxed as she sagged onto the ground with a sigh.
“Why’d you think I was a stormie anyway, you … you moof-milker?” The last word was almost drowned out by an enormous yawn.
"You were walking like a stormie, all uptight. Probably because you needed a piss!" He fell to the floor wheezing. Reaching into the top pocket of his flight suit he extended a hand, still shaking with laughter, as he offered her his last stim. "You take this. You need it more than me. That way you won't miss!" He dissolved into laughter again. "I feel like I'm dying!"
“Wait - whaddaya mean, I won’t miss? You missed too!” Gremlin raised her head - it felt twice as heavy as normal, as if they were on a high-gravity planet - then let it fall again, pillowed onto her arm. “Kriff, I’m so tired ….” she mumbled, ignoring the stim. Blinking, she managed to focus on Frosty’s face.
“Why … why’re you dying?” Somewhere, half-buried by exhaustion, she knew that was a bad thing. She also knew she was still angry with Frosty - for lots of things, not just for shooting at her - but him dying was not what she wanted to happen.
Frosty sighed deeply, his laughter having finally subsided. He felt empty and was suddenly much more aware of the tension that still existed between him and Gremlin. "Stims. Lack of sleep. Seems like I can't even feel my own body."
Somewhere in the distance a low roar of a TIE fighter cut through the dark sky. Pulling himself to his feet slowly, he nudged his exhausted compatriot with a booted toe, the stim still in his hand. "They're getting close again. You got to take this - we need to move and find another hiding spot."
Gremlin roused herself, giving Frosty a glare. “Don’t you tell me what to do!” But the remark lacked bite. She knew that constant vigilance had kept them all safe for the last three days, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing she knew he knew she knew he was right. Or something. Sithspit … I just want to sleep!
Inch by aching inch, she pushed herself onto her feet and stood, swaying slightly. Her flight suit gaped open, her flak jacket hung from one shoulder and her ejection straps - the “trip strips”, as she often thought of them - dangled dangerously close to the ground. Her helmet and chest-box were back in the cockpit of her X-wing, left behind as she’d answered the call of nature - never an easy assignment for a woman wearing a flight suit; even harder when said woman was barely awake.
Slowly she raised her arms into a stretch: her usual routine, but slower and more painful than normal. “Dank farrik, I need a stim. D’you have one?” She had already forgotten his offer, seconds earlier.
Frosty snarled irritably. "I kriffing said already - here!" He pushed the stim towards her face. The side effects of the drug were hitting again; he felt sweaty and his heart raced. "Why aren't you listening?!"
“Because you didn’t say you had one!” she growled, swiping it from his hand before he could change his mind. Awkwardly, she pushed down her flight suit to reveal one bare, red-skinned shoulder. “Sithspawn, I hate this bit ... “
Gremlin took a deep, supposedly calming breath before jabbing the injector against her upper arm, grimacing at the sting of the needle. “Kriff!” She dropped the stim and bent forwards to place both hands on her knees, shuddering as the powerful drug ripped through her system.
He looked away, feeling uncomfortable about the thought of how far they were pushing their bodies. He'd had a long weekend like this once, with his brother. Experimenting with every chemical stim they could find. It'd taken a week to recover and he'd been a lot younger then. This was really going to hurt when it was all over.
Frosty glared at the sky, trying to see the interdictor cruiser in orbit. "All this fuss for a four-ship patrol? They've got to know back-up will find us sooner or later. What are they doing?" It was a question they had asked many times since being trapped on this dank planet, hunted - or herded - by the Imperials overhead.
"I think they're spinning." The voice of Angel came through the darkness. As she stepped into the light, they could see her body trembling slightly from the stim Junior had just given her. "I've been thinking about this …. I’d heard rumours from others, then found a little info in my astromech’s database. Seems that some of the Imps can't hack it. Don't want to follow the new leadership, but too dedicated to the cause to give up. Instead they become a death cult whose only objective is to kill as many of us as possible, regardless of their own losses."
“Seems like a lot of effort for just four fighter jocks.” Junior had followed Angel into the clearing, stumbling slightly in the dim light. “I mean, they’ve been after us for three days now. Why bother?”
“I dunno - their idea of fun?” Angel’s dark-shadowed eyes rested on the Corsair pilot. “My R2 didn’t have much in its database, but basically the advice was … stay well clear. These kriffers won’t rest till they find us.”
Frosty shook his head at the idea. "But when our rescue finally tracks us down?"
Angel shrugged, but her gaze was haunted. "They'll charge right at them, be totally outgunned and then be gone. Hopefully."
Gremlin overheard the conversation as she rode the wave of stim coursing through her body. She knew it would help her focus - for a while - but she was also aware that all four of them must be coming dangerously close to overdosing. Stims weren’t meant to be used long-term. Swallowing against the rush of nausea the drugs always invoked - another reason why she didn’t like using them unless it was absolutely necessary - she pushed herself upright, seeing the scene with a new clarity.
“All right. Death cult or not, we’ve got to hang on till rescue comes .. and it will. But first - what’s our fuel status? And our stim status?” she added, glancing at Junior. “I only had two and I used my last one yesterday.” The stims had been their only way to stay alert and keep ahead of their pursuers. There were enough TIE pilots on the cruiser to take turns hunting them; the New Republic pilots didn’t have that luxury.
Junior shook his head unhappily. "All gone. Those were the last ones."
Angel fished her datapad out of her pocket and squinted, trying to read it. "I got my astromech to run the numbers. If we continue to avoid a fight, we could maybe do a few more planetary hops. An hour, maybe two, of flying at absolute most."
The scream of the TIE was louder now. Frosty started shifting his feet. "We really, really got to get moving. We should follow the night side of the planet - staying out of sight and powered down has worked so far. If we can find somewhere with good tree cover…"
He cut himself off as he ran underneath his A-Wing, emptying his stomach there. When the retching finally subsided he turned back, swaying on his feet and mumbling, "No more. No stims. I don't want any more."
“Just as well we don’t have any left, then.” Gremlin’s tone was dry. She could feel the now-familiar tremor starting in her hands as the stim took effect, but did her best to ignore it. Though she and Angel were technically the ranking officers, the group had long since evolved into a loose collective where decision-making was shared - largely because each of them was exhausted. It made sense to rely on joint wisdom rather than, as Junior put it, hoping the leader wasn’t dead on their feet.
“I’ve plotted a course following the night.” Angel had been working on her datapad as Frosty heaved up his guts. “Sent it to you all.” She stifled a yawn behind one delicate, mud-stained hand.
“Campfire’s out and kit packed.” Junior indicated the bag on his shoulder, trying not to catch Angel’s contagious yawn and failing miserably.
Gremlin was next to yawn, notwithstanding the amount of stimulant coursing through her veins. “Sithspit, we’d better go. Frosty, can you fly?”
He was already trying, and failing, to clamber back up his A-Wing. Junior gave him a boost and he fell forwards onto the top of the craft, crawling to his cockpit. "I was born to fly," he said without confidence. "But you can lead."
[Aboard the Interdictor Cruiser Fealty]
Captain Solomon Drell looked upon the bridge crew with pride. They were all exhausted and had been for months; he knew they all suffered unending nightmares since Endor. Since the end of order.
Each officer sat at their command console, in turn commanding hundreds aboard elsewhere on the ship. A capital ship was a well-oiled machine and required every individual to function perfectly;not a single soul could shirk their duty. The crew had been presented with many challenges in these past few months, but they had given their all. A small smile escaped on to Drell’s lips: surely there was no finer crew in the Imperial Navy.
He marched forward to the viewport of the bridge, his fists tightening as he saw the boots of the traitor commander dangling just above the transparisteel. He knew many might have considered it unbecoming an officer to place the commander there, but he wanted the message to be clear to all onboard after the CO had initially tried to declare they would be following Admiral Rae Sloane’s orders. Across the hull of the ship, the bodies of other executed traitors were fastened against the bulkheads. Some had sided with the commander, some had tried to encourage the rest of the crew to join them in a life as freelancers; now they were dead, their spacesuit faceplates smashed open to let hard vacuum exterminate any resistance to his rule. Captain Drell knew that those who remained were loyal and dedicated to their mission.
A sensor started to wail and one of the Ensigns perked up, the light of the console casting a bright blue glow over his boyish face. “We found something, sir!”
The captain continued to look out to the dark views of space, his heart vibrating at the thought of a final call to action. “I need more detail than ‘something’.” His tone was calm, but the Ensign shrank back, abashed.
“Yes, sir. It’s a beacon, sir, a Rebel emergency broadcast. It looks like one of those starfighters placed it but they didn’t do a very good job - its signal is dampened by the asteroid belt and our jammers. I doubt anyone outside this system heard it.” A few clicks and button presses and the Ensign visibly relaxed again. “Our TIEs are on the way to destroy it.”
“Belay that order!”
The whole bridge crew turned to look at the Captain, their faces confused. Smiling in reassurance, he began to pace back towards his captain’s chair. “Get a tug out there and move that beacon into broadcast range. Have an engineer boost the signal, if you can. I’m sure those vermin we’re hunting will have friends who’ll come rushing to their aid. When they do, we’ll be ready.” He turned, a rictus smile stretching his face.
“Engineering, make sure our hyperdrive is ready. It is our time, gentlemen; we will make our final stand a glorious one. We will stab them deep in the gut!”
A murmur rattled around the bridge. The captain waited to see who would be the bravest. It was his comms officer, a ten-year veteran, who eventually spoke up. “You mean to … ram them, sir?”
The captain motioned his officer to open the comm for a shipwide broadcast. Taking a deep breath, he launched into the speech he had dreamt of making since taking the decision to overthrow the traitorous commander. “The hour grows late, my friends. We have seen our leader, the Emperor, taken from us, murdered by terrorists. We have seen the peace we fought for shattered, as the so-called Rebellion brings chaotic violence to every corner of our empire. We have seen our very own, weak in spirit, fall away from our sacred duty; we carry their bodies to remind us of their shame! But not us! Not today!”
He walked to the viewport, his boots clicking against the floor. “We still fight! There is no hope of victory, but still we fight! We fight because we are men of the Empire! We fight because we know we carry the dream of our Empire! We fight for the flag, for our children, for the safety of our families! We will go down, in these final hours, knowing we gave our lives to save others from the terrible, brutal, sadistic violence of the Rebellion. We die tonight, knowing we have no other choice! I ask you, are you Imperial? Do you feel it in your blood? In your soul? Does your heart scream for our Empire? I want to hear you scream - ‘My life for the Empire’! My life - for the Empire!”
It started as a low hum, rumbling in the deepest recesses of the ship, but with time the wave grew and became all consuming. Crew members wrapped each other in hugs, dropped to their knees, punched walls and pulled at their clothes as they continued the frenzied chant. On the bridge the officers stood at their stations, screaming until they were hoarse. Some cried openly, overcome by the emotions released by the captain’s speech.
Captain Solomon Drell let the rage wash over him, his eyes ablaze. He was ready for a glorious death. He was ready to achieve immortality.
It was quiet on this part of the planet. They’d kept low, brushing the very treetops, until they found a clearing large enough to take the starfighters. A proper camp had been set up beneath a thick canopy of trees and they settled in, Junior disappearing into the scrub with a knife and coming back with some kind of mammal to eat. Nobody asked any questions; they were just happy to get real food in their stomachs and, with luck, snatch some sleep - even just for a few minutes.
Frosty took first watch as Gremlin, Angel and Junior curled up against the tree-roots. Evidently he did a poor job as watchman; it took him several minutes to realise that Angel had awoken and was poking at the campfire. She looked lost in thought, the flames showing her unknown visions. Eventually Jack broke the silence, his voice hoarse with tiredness. “Couldn’t sleep?”
“Yeah. I only volunteered first watch cause the stims got me all messed up, you know? Can’t stop my hands shaking.”
The silence continued. “So…..how long you been with the Alliance?”
“A bit. Joined at Hoth.”
“Ah yeah? I don’t know anything about that stuff. Straight in with Red?”
She looked up at him, her eyes impassive. “You can cut the small talk. We’re not going to start bonding here.”
“Look, I didn’t mean anything by it ...”
“She’s started having nightmares since you came back. She barely sleeps. She’s so much more reserved now. Did you know that?” Angel was looking at where Gremlin was lying, her face illuminated by the flickering flames. A band of hair had flopped over the bridge of her nose, hiding one side of her face.
“I ...” It was his turn to stare at the fire now. “It wasn’t meant to go like this. She deserves better.”
“Yeah, she does. So does Lock. Those two have gotten me through hell; you can’t even begin to understand it all.” He could see despite her fatigue she was furious at him. Angel always seemed so quiet and reserved, but the love for her friends was radiating off her in rage. “You better fix this. You better figure it out.”
“I will,” he lied.
Tone, Angel’s R2 unit, came squealing over excitedly; the little bleeps and blaps causing the others to stir. “He says that our rescue signal got a reply. The fleet is on the way!”
Nobody cheered. Junior scratched his head, a look of puzzlement on his face. “I thought our kriffing beacon was no good - we’d dropped it in a bad location?”
Tone chittered happily as Angel relayed his findings. “Apparently it moved.”
“Dank ferrik, beacons don’t move by themselves.” Junior shook his head. “This doesn’t feel right. Trap?”
“Trap.” Gremlin and Angel nodded in agreement.
“Okay. But who for? Us?” Frosty kept staring at the fire. “It doesn’t make sense. If our heavy ships turns up, they’re toast. What can you do with a single interdictor against our fleet?” He started to laugh, shaking his head. “Charge it, I guess, right? Frakking chuck the engines on max and hold on. Hah! Imagine, who’d be so stupid?”
Silence fell over the campsite, the crackling of firewood.
“If they’re really going to ram it …”
“They’d use the hyperdrive, right? They would get messed up at sublight speeds.”
“With hyperdrive, our ships won’t have a chance to evade it. They’re gonna get pasted.”
Junior was the first to stand up. “We all know what we have to do.”
Frosty shook his head, “We’ve barely enough fuel to get up there. There’s four of us. You think we can take out their hyperdrive before our pals arrive?”
Gremlin looked at him, dead in the eye. “We’ve got to try. What else can we do? We’ve got to try.”
They soared through the atmosphere, two by two, heading for some of the asteroid debris orbiting the planet. It was a simple plan, really: strike fast, strike hard. Hope their fuel lasted. Get in under the shield and hit the power regulator. It should disable the hyperdrive for long enough. It should.
There are no guarantees in battle.
The two A-Wings hit first, their fiery little engines propelling them as they hugged the cold metal surface of the Interdictor. Turbolaser fire was too slow to track them and with perfect drilled unison they let loose with their rockets into the domed construction protecting the power regulator. It glowed white-hot in spots but it wasn’t enough, the larger beast swatting away the little stinging insects without so much as flinching.
TIE craft, Interceptors and Fighters, began to pour out of the hangar bay aboard the larger ship. They gave chase fruitlessly, the little A-Wings’ overstressed engines giving them the advantage. As the TIEs remained distracted, the two X-Wings arrived on the scene, their more powerful torpedoes successfully punching into the power regulator. It started to glow from within, orange through red then white, before explosions erupted, ejecting energy into space. The cluster of TIEs split in two, half chasing down the X-Wings as the others maintained their pursuit of the A-wings.
The exhausted four had done what little they could. Beyond the battle three ships blinked into existence, but none of the patrol flight were aware enough to know their rescue had just arrived.
[Aboard the Interdictor Cruiser Fealty]
Captain Drell smiled a death’s-head grin as the Republic ships appeared from hyperspace.. Sensors showed snubfighters emerging from the Nebulon-B frigate Regis as the pilots of Renegade Wing launched to protect their own.
“Three ships sir! Two frigates and a gunship!” His sensor officer was excited, like a puppy presented with a bone.
“We’re being hailed sir,” the comm officer interrupted. Drell motioned at the man impatiently and the officer nodded, indicating the comm was now open.
“This is Captain Solomon Drell of the Imperial cruiser Fealty. Whom am I talking to?”
The voice on the other end made Drell’s lip twist into a snarl, “This is Captain Viv Pootala of the Waverunner. Captain it is clear that this is an unwinnable battle for you. Retreat and we will not fire upon you, we only wish to recover our lost comrades.”
The captain didn’t even deign to give the pathetic rebel a reply, motioning his comms officer to cut the line. Cowards to the last, afraid to battle even when they have the overwhelming numbers. Drell glared into the crew pit. "Helm, navigation. Lock on to where that broadcast is coming from! Prepare for the jump to lightspeed!"
His engineering deckhand turned to him with a look of concern. "Captain, the power regulator is severely damaged! There's a risk -"
"Not today, Ensign! Today we put everything on the line for the Empire!" He looked to his helmsman and navigator, who both nodded confidently. "Today - we become immortal!"
There was a flash of blue light as the Interdictor jumped to lightspeed, followed a nanosecond later by a huge blue and yellow explosion still some distance from the New Republic flotilla. Within a matter of seconds the fireball dissipated and all that was left was the memory of the fools who had crewed and led her.
As the interdictor cruiser unwrapped itself into a blue-orange firework there was no relief felt for the few pilots left. Even though they were vastly outnumbered, the TIEs refused to give up their chase. None of them surrendered or fled. They continued to harass the New Republic fighters, taking insane risks to target the Renegades as the four exhausted pilots picked their way back to the Regis’s hangar. Gremlin skidded in for a safe landing first, then Angel, then Junior.
But Frosty lagged behind. Just half a klick from the warm. inviting blue of safe haven, his engines sputtered and died. He'd finally ran empty. Moments later green lasers from one of the suicidal TIEs impacted into his port side, an explosion rippling towards him. His last thoughts were of peace: finally, he could get some sleep.
Floating, in the void.
Is this what death was? A warm comfort of nothingness?
A sharp knocking sound, a blurry red figure. McCauley groaned into the rebreather; even here he couldn't get any peace. He placed a knuckled fist against the edge of the bacta tube and raised his middle finger. From somewhere out there he heard a muffled shout but he twisted away. They could all wait.
He came to in a hospital bed. This was definitely the Vigilant, the calming Mon Cal curves followed the ceiling and the walls somehow felt organic. His head hurt, a constant throbbing sensation whilst his hand itched. He looked down, relieved to see it was just a drip into his hand.
"Hey - how’re you feeling?" Angel stood at the foot of his bed, also in a hospital gown, her own drip feeding into her from a saline bag.
"My head hurts," he whined, pawing at what felt like thick towels wrapped around it.
"I'm not surprised - you smacked it really hard on your canopy, apparently. You got lucky that it was just a concussion."
"It … my A-Wing … exploded."
She smiled at him, a gesture of sympathy, but there was something else in her eyes too. "Yeah, like I said. You got lucky. No fuel, no missiles. There wasn't much left to explode in the end - your cockpit was mostly intact."
"Sure." He tried to prop himself up and felt dizzy. "Force take me. It's like the worst hangover I've ever had!"
Angel nodded, poking at her saline bag. "Doctors said it's gonna take a couple of days to recover from the stim sickness. We went way past the recommended dose. Junior’s sleeping it off over there. Gremlin's doing better though, of course, on account of the whole -"
"Two livers," they said in unison. He smiled weakly at her. "You don't need to babysit me. I'm all right."
"I'm not here to babysit you! I just wanted the snacks Gremlin left for you." Focusing his eyes a little, he saw she had an open packet in one hand, something crunchy and salty. "You want one?"
He waved it away, groaning slightly as his head hummed again. "This was a hell of a way to return to active duty. One week and I'm in bacta."
Angel looked uncomfortable at the mention of the bacta tank and he shifted direction. "Listen. About what you said planetside -"
"I was too harsh," she cut him off, looking slightly ashamed. "It's true Gremlin is my friend and you hurt her. But I was exhausted and miserable and it all got on top of me a bit. You and her, I think you can sort it out. Honestly, I want you to figure it out."
"Me too." This time, he wasn’t lying.
She took a seat next to his bed, moving slowly and grimacing as she sat down. As his focus moved away from the headache, he realised how much his stomach hurt and understood why Angel was moving so gingerly. "Kriffing stims."
Somewhere beyond his bed he could hear voices and recognised many of them as senior command staff. There were other uniforms rounding round the corner, accompanying them. Jack looked at them with confusion. "New Republic propoganda office. What are they doing here?"
Angel, who was already small, seemed tiny as she sank into her seat. Even in his current state Jack noticed and nudged her with an elbow, "You can tell them to frak off, you know. They got no right to be here."
"They know me," she said eventually. "They won't leave me alone."
Her eyes said a lot. He remembered walking into the recruitment office back on Portway, various vids playing on the walls. One he’d found particularly memorable featured a small figure in dress uniform, childlike, walking out to the wreckage of an A-Wing on a plinth. Same eyes, same figure. How had he been so slow to make the connection?
As the propaganda officers walked up to them, Frosty pushed himself off the bed, swaying slightly on his feet. "No."
"Excuse me, Flight Officer, but that's no way to talk to ..."
"No," he repeated, with a little more edge in his voice. "No interviews. No vids. We're not things to be used."
One of them started to protest but the senior of the two placed a hand on their shoulder and they turned away, seeking Junior to see if he could be convinced to say something courageous and wink at the camera.
Jack felt exhaustion come over him and he flopped back onto the bed, being careful not to move too quickly and hurt his head. "They shouldn't have done that to you. You're not a tool to be wielded. That's exactly why we fight, right? To stop that kind of thinking."
The snack packet was held in front of his face and he took one from her with a wordless look of thanks. "Can you help me out with something, Angel?"
Jack turned carefully and grabbed a datapad from his bedside. "I normally send my daughter a message every day. She’ll be worried that I haven’t been in touch, but my fingers and eyes aren't doing so good at the minute. Will you help me?"
She took the datapad, smiling slightly. "Sure. As a trade for the snacks."