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Gutshot

Part 1
By: Bulldog and Silence

Now

Bulldog sat in an uncomfortable chair in a dingy interrogation room, his head drooping. His hands were bound behind his back in a tight pair of stun cuffs, which in turn were bound to the rickety metal chair he’d been uncomfortably sitting in for the past five hours. He flexed his fingers to temporarily relieve the pressure on his wrist, but he was losing the battle against numbness as his circulation was constricted.

The door creaked open loudly, and heavy footsteps entered the room.

“HEY! Murderer!” a gruff voice shouted.

Bulldog didn’t respond verbally, opting to instead attempt to act like he was still unconscious. The grating scrape of the door across the floor and the loud voice assaulted his ears, reverberating throughout his skull. It caused him to wince as he felt the vibrations from the sounds ringing all over his skull, rising in an agonizing crescendo as if the bones were a tuning fork. His split lip opened back up as he winced, and fresh blood began to drip down his face, intermingling with the crusty, dried blood already covering his mouth and chin from his broken nose.

CRACK

Stars exploded across Bulldog’s vision as he felt a familiar meaty fist slam into his temple. His head snapped to the side with the energy of the blow, and then dropped again.

“What are you DOING?” Another voice shouted in a mixture of horror and disgust.

“Wot?” The familiar voice of one of Bulldog’s tormentors replied to the newcomer. “He didn’t respond, so I was checking to see if he was still alive.”

“Tell me you don’t treat all of your detainees this way.”

“Jus’ the murderers.”

“Alleged,” Bulldog croaked out, hissing at the pain of his split lips opening up again in other areas.

“We’ve got all that we need, you scumsucking scooch!” The guard shouted as he gripped the collar of Bulldog’s torn shirt roughly, with his other fist poised to strike. “You killed a close personal friend of tha boss!”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” the new voice interjected. “Now leave us before I string you up on charges in a New Republic court for assaulting an officer of the armed forces AND abusing a suspect!”

“This karking mucker sucker ain’t New Republic!”

“Yes he is! Where is his flight gear? Did you steal that too?”

“These are the clothes he was in, more or less.”

“You cannot treat an officer of the New Republic in such a manner, and even if he’s proven guilty of what you claim- you cannot beat him while under investigation!”

The bully spit in disgust. “New Republic. Empire. Different sides of the same coin if you ask me.”

“We’re the good guys!”

“Think you own the whole galaxy, do you?” The door started to creak closed. “When you’re done wif’ ‘im, he’s ours!” The door slammed shut the remainder of the way, echoing off the walls of the small chamber.

Bulldog looked up and examined the newcomer. He was a young human in a relatively disheveled New Republic Intelligence uniform. His eyes, though, had a kind look about them. Something in those eyes told Bulldog he could trust this man to do his best to help him. Still, though, his distrust of intelligence agents in the past bid him to proceed with caution.

The agent smiled. “Captain Evan Feldspar, NRI.”

Bulldog shook his head again to clear his vision a bit. “Now WHAT is a New Republic Intel agent doing here? Where’s NR-JAG?”

Evan smiled sympathetically. “If I’m being honest, I don’t quite know what I’m doing here. I don’t think I’m anybody’s first choice for this type of thing.” He took the seat across the table from Bulldog and leaned back precariously until he almost fell backwards. Once he recovered, he sat the chair back down on all four legs and shook his head with a chuckle, as if laughing at his own inside joke. “I just happened to be passing through a nearby system when I got a call to divert here for you.”

Bulldog chuckled too, but it quickly turned into a choking cough, which racked his body with more pain from what he suspected might be a broken rib or three from an earlier beating.

“Are you ok?” Evan asked, with genuine worry on his features. “Have they mistreated you?” Instantly, his face fell as he realized what he’d just asked.

“Pretty obvious, isn’t it?” Bulldog hissed. “What does your intelligence assessment profiler tell you?”

Evan nodded in apology. “Yeah, I deserved that. Stupid question.”

Bulldog’s head fell. “No no, it came from a good place. I’m just…”

“Having a really bad day?”

Bulldog smirked. “Yeah. Pretty bad couple of years, actually.”

Evan nodded, smiling. He revealed a small datapad and started tapping commands rapidly. “I’m going to record this for my records if that’s alright with you?”

A flash of fear crossed Bulldog’s face. “It’s your prerogative, Captain.”

“Ok, so let’s get started…” Evan began, tapping his fingers on the table while he gathered his thoughts. He was used to interviewing defectors or prisoners, trying to break their deflections and lies to find the vital truths he needed to save lives. He didn’t know the first thing about dealing with a totally compliant subject, and one that was on his side of the war to boot. He chuckled. “I’ll be honest, I don’t even know where to start with something like this…?”

“I’m a Captain in the New Republic Starfighter Corps,” Bulldog answered.

Evan smiled warmly. “Captain, thank you. What is your name?”

Worry again creased Bulldog’s bloodied and bruised features. “I’d… rather not say in case they are listening.”

Evan nodded, but inwardly he cursed as the thought of them being observed hadn’t crossed his mind. “What is your current posting? All I was told is that we had a New Republic pilot arrested and he needed representation immediately.”

“I am a Captain in Renegade Wing, attached to the cruiser Vigilant.”

Evan’s face screwed up in thought. “That unit and ship sounds familiar to me for some reason…” He thought for another long moment, and then shook the thought away when he didn’t come up with the connection he was looking for. “Anyway, how about we start from the beginning. How did you end up here?”

****************************

Then

Bulldog sat in his office, finishing up the stack of after-action reports he’d let pile up. He had planned to let them continue to pile up since many had accrued before he was promoted, but Stryker had ordered him to go into his office and to not come out unless they were completed or all fighters were scrambled. So Bulldog did as ordered, working hard to remember details that had once been fresh in his mind but were now lost to the fog of time and other skirmishes and sorties. He was hoping to avoid having to review gun cam and sensor records of these missions, but it was quickly becoming apparent that he might have to do just that.

“I need to stop procrastinating and get these things done immediately after the mission,” Bulldog mumbled as he massaged his temples. He hadn’t even really expected or sought out this position, and all of the new paperwork he was now responsible for was proving his gut feelings correct. It also gave him a newfound respect for his previous superior officers.

Weight tootled in the corner of the office, startling the lone pilot.

“By the Whills, Weight! I forgot you were even here!” Bulldog snapped, his heart beating rapidly.

Weight beeped in apology.

“It’s ok, buddy. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have the capability to write these things for me, would you?”

Weight hooted sarcastically.

“Yeah, you’re right. I need to do my own work,” Bulldog said with a defeated sigh, hanging his head in exhaustion. He reached into his desk and pulled out a bottle of Whyrens Reserve. “It’s going to be a long, long night I think.”

His datapad chirped an urgent message. Bulldog stopped pouring his drink and tapped the message alert. After reading a few moments, he was out of his seat and pulling on his flight suit while the bottle shattered on the floor, sending glass skittering in all directions and valuable whiskey spreading rapidly across the deck. His datapad likewise fell carelessly to the floor.

“Weight! Ping Buccaneer Eleven for immediate takeoff for flight skill evaluation, and get to the hangar to prep our ship!”

The droid let loose a series of confused tones, but peeled out of the room and into the hallway as he’d been ordered.

Bulldog grabbed a small personal bag and threw in a change of clothes in the style of his old spacer days, then as an afterthought dropped his oral hygiene kit and deodorant on top of the clothes. Looking frantically around the room to see if he needed anything else, he grabbed the lightsaber he’d lifted out of a pile of relics last month and threw it into the bag, zipping it up tight afterward.

He grabbed his helmet off the peg on the wall by the door on his way out and began hauling his bulk as fast as it would go down the relatively deserted hallways of the Vigilant. He brought his suit’s wrist commlink up to his mouth as he ran. “This is Captain Clark, requesting immediate clearance for takeoff of Buccaneer Twelve and Buccaneer Eleven for flight skills examination.”

“This is highly irregular, Captain,” the voice of the flight controller replied groggily. “I don’t see any orders for such a maneuver on the list for tonight.”

“I’m the executive officer of Buccaneer Squadron. I write those orders, and I’m informing you that I’m doing it now!”

“Affirmative, Captain. Clearance granted. Be sure to file your flight plan with the tower on your way out.”

“Roger. Appreciate it,” Bulldog huffed, tapping the end button as he continued to sprint.

**********

Now

Evan nodded, expecting more. When nothing else came out, he leaned forward. “What was on the message you received?”

“I’d… rather not say,” Bulldog responded reticently.

Evan sighed, discouraged that his once compliant subject had started to clamp up. “Ok… Is it common to conduct flight evaluations late at night?”

“It’s not common, but not unheard of either.”

“Why did you decide at that moment to conduct one?”

“Because you need to see how a pilot handles their ship in all conditions, tired and surprised being some of those conditions,” Bulldog replied.

“I see,” Evan said, though he knew his subject was being evasive. Deciding to shoot straight, he pushed forward. “You understand that I can and should report that message and have the security slicers on your ship go and retrieve that message, right?”

Bulldog said nothing, but nodded as he looked away.

Evan pursed his lips. “So what happened next?”

***********************

Then

“Captain, do we have to do this right now?” Ant asked in a tone approaching a whine, but more of a gripe at this pitch.

“Yes,” Bulldog replied as he threw his bag into the cockpit of his Y-Wing from his position on the deck.

“What’s in the bag? Should I have packed a bag?” Ant asked nervously.

“No,” Bulldog replied tersely. “Is your X-Wing ready?”

“My astromech is prepping it,” Ant replied. “You know I’m already flight-certified with this ship model, right?”

“We’ll see about that, won’t we?” Bulldog asked as he started clambering up the ladder attached to his ship. He felt the vibrations running through the ladder from his ship going through preflight. “Go run your preflight, Flight Officer Whitemont!”

Ant took off at a dead sprint. “I flew through and survived Endor and that mess with the Vigilant ambush and he talks to me like this? Spast! Rank’s really going to his head!”

Bulldog ignored the comments, vividly remembering feeling the same way when he received orders that made no sense. He smiled tightly at the irony of being on the other end of that exchange for the first time in his career. He flopped into the pilot couch and strapped in. Flipping some switches, he checked his readouts. “How we lookin’, Weight?”

All systems nominal. Power plant is operating at 103% output, and both engines were recently tuned up by TSgt. Haarit.

“Excellent,” Bulldog replied. “Ready, Buccaneer Eleven?”

“You’re ready already?” Ant asked breathlessly.

“If this had been a real scramble, you’d be too late and people would be dying!” Bulldog barked, kicking his repulsors on and retracting his landing gear. Checking his immediate surroundings, he waited a moment to let an unobservant deck tech clear the area. Once the groggy Klatoonian was clear, he slammed his throttle forward to maximum power and felt himself get shoved back into his seat as he rocketed out of the hangar.

Ant’s X-Wing similarly shot out moments later. His closed S-Foils opened to the familiar X silhouette as the ship caught up to Bulldog’s Y-Wing. “Ok, so what’s the plan?”

“First task, plot a course to Kijimi and send it to my droid.”

“Kijimi?! Do we have enough fuel to get there?”

“Plot it and find out.”

“Roger, wait one…” Ant responded. “Ok, sent.”

“What’s it look like, Weight?”

Ample fuel to make it there and back, but very small margin for ACM in atmosphere. Slightly larger margin for ACM in space.

“Ok, Weight says it’s good. I’ll transmit this to the tower. Prepare to jump in twenty seconds,” Bulldog said as he typed up a quick flight plan identifying Rendili as their destination for heavy debris field testing. He sent it off, and then pushed the hyperspace lever down when the counter read zero.

***************

Now

Evan pursed his lips. “Why did you give a different destination than this one as your official destination?”

Bulldog looked away and didn’t reply.

Evan let out an exasperated sigh. “Look, Captain, I’m here to help you. You need to help me help you, though. I can’t just wave my hands here and make those stun cuffs fall off.” He stood and opened his coat and did a spin. “I don’t have a hidden lightsaber here to just cut you loose!”

Bulldog’s eyes flashed and he chuckled as if Evan had unwittingly reminded him of an inside joke. Then he began coughing, drawing another pained wince. The smile returned to his face after the pain subsided.

“Where is Buccaneer Eleven now?”

“Back home, I hope,” Bulldog snorted.

The door wrenched open again. “Time’s up, lawyer boy.”

Evan put his hand out. “Now wait just a minute! I wasn’t informed there was a time limit for this interview. I need more time.”

“Tell it to tha boss,” the uniformed officer said, nodding his head toward the door. His neck bulged with the movement, straining the tight collar of the ill fitting uniform. Another thuggish looking Devaronian filed into the room, also in a rather ill-fitting uniform that appeared to be stained in either grease or blood.

“Are we in a talky mood now, killa?” The new arrival said with a predatory sharp-toothed grin as he wheeled a cart shrouded by a thick blanket into the room on rickety wheels.

Fear flashed across Bulldog’s face. His eyes met Evan’s, pleading for help.

“I’ll figure out what the charges are and what evidence they have on you. Hang-” A massive hand clamped Evan’s shoulder and dragged him out of the room, cutting off his sentence. The door closed the moment he had cleared it, and he was now face to chest with the hulking goon guarding the door. He crossed his massive arms, and Evan swore he heard the sleeve fabric rip. He looked up and was haunted by the gleeful look in the eye of the guard, as well as his unruly nose hairs poking out of his nostrils that swayed with his noisy breath.

“Time for you to go.”

Evan gulped visibly, but steeled his nerve quickly and hardened his facial expression as best he could. “I need more time with him, and I need to review the evidence you have against him.”

“Talk to tha boss,” the guard said dismissively. He pointed a thumb down the hallway toward the turbolift. “Up three levels, take a left out of the elevator.”

The brightness of the glow panels in the hallway fluctuated rapidly. A sharp crackle could be heard through the door in the interrogation room, and Bulldog’s agonized screams cut through the thick metal door and walls.

“You’re torturing a New Republic officer!”

“Maybe you think there should be two New Republic officers in there?”

Evan put his hands out in front of him as he backed up a few steps. “This is… highly irregular behavior for a security force,” he said as he spun on his heel and walked briskly toward the turbolift. The lights continued to flicker, but Bulldog’s screams only rose in pitch. As soon the turbolift door closed, he ripped his datapad out of his pocket to ensure it had continued to record. Seeing that it had, he compressed the file and sent it to his superiors with a top-level urgency tag attached, ensuring it would be seen immediately upon receipt.

Something troubled him, and he placed it immediately. They had indeed been monitored or recorded during his interview. The moment they heard that the Captain’s wingman was hopefully home by now, they decided to speed up their timetable. But that would mean that they know I recorded the session, and they’ll be waiting at the exit for me to confiscate it. I might not even be walking out of here at all. The thought made his heart race. He had to keep up the masquerade that nothing was amiss, though, or they’d burn him down immediately.

He marveled at how quiet the turbolift was at that moment; silent enough to hear his heartbeat pounding as it threatened to erupt through his chest. A spark of inspiration reached him at that instant, and he quickly copied the message he’d just sent and forwarded it to an ex-colleague of his with the subject line: Are you missing a captain?.

Confirming both messages were sent, he deleted the message log and recording data quickly, assuming he was about to be checked through security as he gained a meeting with the head of this crooked security force. He didn’t want them to know he’d gotten word out for aid, as it might speed up the timetable for whatever crimes these goons had planned.

The doors opened, and multiple pairs of hands roughly yanked him out of the turbolift and pinned him to the floor. He attempted to struggle, but he was quickly overwhelmed and thoroughly subdued.

“Squirmy little scooch, innit!”

“Check his piece to make sure he didn’t send any messages!”

A hand punched him in the small of his back, eliciting an involuntary yelp from the restrained intelligence officer. The hand then traveled around his ribcage as if it was walking across him using two fingers for legs. It reached his pocket, and moments later his datapad was ripped out for examination. Loud tapping was all that was audible for the next several seconds aside from Evan’s heavy breathing as he struggled against his restraint.

“He didn’t send nuthin, we’re clear, Boss.”

“Where’s the recording you took of your meeting, boy?”

Evan struggled for breath at the bottom of the scrum, his words coming out in a huff. “Didn’t. Save. Malfunction.”

“Ok. Put him down.”

“Wait!” Evan resumed struggling with all his might, but the sharp report of a blaster discharge was the last thing he remembered past being proud of himself for correctly deducing he wasn’t walking out of the building alive. He faded from consciousness at least proud that he’d gotten word out to what he hoped were the right people to avenge this injustice.

**********************

Then

The two New Republic snub fighters exited hyperspace near Kijimi. There was enough system traffic for them to get lost in, but it wouldn’t do much good considering their relatively well-kept fighters still stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the junkers coming in and out of the system as they ferried Kessel’s spice to their refinement and distribution centers.

Bulldog surveyed the scene and furrowed his brow in thought. Ant broke him from his rumination.

“So, what now? Do I do some barrel rolls and loops? Target practice on some smugglers while you keep score?”

“No,” Bulldog replied snippily. “We’re going to land… here,” he said as he fed coordinates to his wingman.

“Are you going to judge my ability to land on a planet? I have been doing that my whole life.”

“Just shut up and follow me in,” Bulldog snapped. “Keep an eye on the system traffic. If anybody comes for a closer look, let me know. I’m not sure what they have in the way of system patrol or defense craft.”

“Affirmative, XO.”

Bulldog surveyed the frigid, mountainous terrain the planet had to offer. He was struck by a memory that drew a genuinely giddy smile to his face. Not long after it began his face began to ache, not used to such a large and genuine show of joy. His mood quickly soured as he was snapped back to the present and why he was back here now.

The two fighters came to a rest gently on an icy plateau just inside the entrance of a large cave. He’d used this landing area once before, a long time ago when he and his father had visited on a legitimate business trip to a planet usually plunged into anarchy. A quick visual examination confirmed that nothing had changed in the intervening years, but just to be sure he scanned for any nearby life forms. “Weight, my scanners show nothing but ambient life nearby. Can you double check?”

Nothing larger than a womp rat within a two kilometer radius.

“Ok, Ant, here’s the deal. You’re staying inside of your cockpit while I go into town to handle some business,” Bulldog said as he awkwardly slipped out of his flight suit and into his spacer clothes.

“What? You dragged me all the way out here for a booty call?”

Bulldog’s ears pounded as his gut welled with rage. “This is not a discussion. I will be back in two hours or less. Keep scanning for anything approaching. If it’s not me, blast it and get out of here. Monitor comms but maintain comm silence.”

“Long trip for a short booty call,” Ant muttered.

Bulldog popped his canopy and instantly regretted not grabbing a thicker jacket for this slapdash mission. The biting wind tore through his flimsy long-sleeve shirt and thin leather jacket, temporarily stunning him and making him want nothing more than to close his cockpit up tight and jack up the heater. He shivered heavily and gritted his teeth as he gripped the edge of the cockpit and lowered himself to the icy ground with a crunch.

The cantina he was looking for was only a 2.5 kilometer jaunt away, and he made the trip in record time. With the weather being what it was, there were no other beings out and about for him to avoid, which was serendipitous because he’d likely have frozen solid if he’d been forced to hide and wait for any amount of time. The snow drifts were thankfully not as deep as they could be, but his footprints left a clear pathway.

The door of the cantina whooshed open to admit him, and he entered the dingy building at a trot. Bulldog was moving quickly enough that he almost crashed into the Gamorrean security guard watching the door a few meters inside the entryway.

The hulking pig-like being squealed its displeasure and raised its clawed fists menacingly, tightly gripping a vicious-looking vibrospear of some sort. The blade was curved in the shape of a slithering snake, and at random intervals there would be jagged spikes jutting out in different directions. It was clearly a weapon that was meant to intimidate, but could kill and also tear out all the flesh and bone on the way in and out.

Bulldog backed away and put his hands in front of him. “Woah, no harm intended my friend. Just trying to get out of the cold quickly. It was my mistake.” He started walking toward the bar but was stopped by a massive green hand of the door guard. Feigning forgetfulness, Bulldog pulled out his RSKF-44 and offered the weapon grip-first to the guard. “Right, no blasters.”

The enormous alien roughly patted him down, hitting his buttocks, ankles, and hips lazily. Satisfied, he then took the blaster gingerly and deposited it in a safe, closing and locking the door and then handing the key back to Bulldog. The guard rotated the wheel of safe units with his spear, putting the next empty one at the top for the next patron’s weapons.

Bulldog took the key that looked impossibly small in the palm of the Gamorrean’s open hand and nodded in thanks. He put the key into the breast pocket of his jacket and walked toward the bar. Falling back into his usual bar routine, he ordered a top shelf whiskey. The order drew stares from the other patrons, who eyed the new arrival with more interest now that it appeared that he had money to burn. Retrieving the filthy glass from the massive bartender, he nodded in thanks and found a booth in the corner of the room that was unoccupied. He chose it for practicality, allowing himself to have a full view of the room while avoiding a situation where he could be surprised from behind. On the flip side, backing himself into a corner meant he had nowhere to go but forward if trouble found him. He was no stranger to a bar scrap, but he just didn’t want to get blindsided.

He nursed the whiskey with a cautious sip and quickly realized that it was definitely a top tier whiskey that had been cut with very bad swill, muddling the taste profile beyond repair. He showed no sign of realizing he’d been ripped off, however, knowing that getting into a tiff with the bartender would draw more attention than he’d like to deal with at the moment. Not that he wanted to scrap with this particular bartender, because he was a hulking reptilian alien with massive forearms.

A lithe but dangerous-looking woman wandered over after a bit and eyed him with great interest from the other side of his table. She had dark shoulder length hair that had clearly been straightened by artificial means, as there were some strands here and there that had begun to curl due to the heightened moisture levels within the dingy cantina. She wore a provocative-yet-restrained purple slip that covered one shoulder but dipped down low enough to show a precarious amount of her ample cleavage, She had gaudy bangles on both wrists and a small clutch in her hands clasped in front of her shapely stomach. After examining him for a few more seconds, she sighed dreamily. “What ship did you come in on, Spacer?”

Bulldog felt a pang of something he couldn’t quite place. Whatever it was, her words and pitch struck a chord deep within his being. As if he was repeating himself from a long time ago, he replied. “I’m a captain, darlin.”

The young woman raised an eyebrow and half of her mouth twitched into a smirk. “Oh, a captain you say?”

Another pang. Something deep within him was trying to click with the present, but he still couldn’t seem to make the correct synapses fire. Again, though, his mouth went on autopilot as if it knew the correct response. “That’s right, fastest junker in the Mid Rim.” He winked, again unintentionally.

The girl sat down across from him. “Buy a girl a drink?”

Another synapse dry fired in his brain. He waved a server over and dropped a large-denomination credit chit onto her tray. “I’ll have another whiskey, actual top shelf whiskey this time please, and whatever she’s having.”

“Blurrgfire,” the girl replied. “Name’s Zeva,” she said as she tilted her head provocatively toward him and smiled coquettishly. She batted her eyelashes for extra effect.

This time something clicked, but it wasn’t enough for Bulldog to really make the connection he knew was in his cobwebbed memory banks somewhere. He noted that her irises were an almost artificial shade of blue, one that he’d never seen before. “I knew a girl that used to demolish that drink back in the day.”

“Family favorite,” Zeva responded, shaking her bangs out of her eyes.

The mannerism popped another gear into place, but the mechanism of his brain was still not creating anything useful. He nodded in appreciation as the server returned with their drinks. He took a quick sniff and sip of the whiskey, noting the cleaner glass this time around and identifying the familiar aroma of caramel and veilu nuts he’d been looking for the first time he’d ordered. She prepared to hand him his ample amount of change, but he waved her off. “Keep it.”

The server smiled genuinely and nodded graciously. “I’ll check back on you two shortly,” she said, walking away with a little more pep in her gait.

“A generous tipper and a captain?” She asked dreamily as she leaned forward, accentuating her feminine assets more clearly.

This was getting to be too much for him. It was as if he’d had this exact same exchange in this exact same booth years ago, but the illicit substances and alcohol he’d abused during the intervening years had clouded his brain. “Work hard, play harder,” he responded with a smirk, as if reading from a script.

“I’m impressed. Most of the mud hoppers here are stingier than a moisture farmer in a desert,” she said with a charming, yet familiar giggle.

He was in a strange trance now, unable to control the words that came out of his mouth. “What can I say, I’m a generous soul.”

Zeva bit her lip provocatively. “Are you trying to make me fall for you, or is this happening because you’re just that charming, flyboy?”

“I’m the lovable sort.”

The woman’s smile turned into a familiar mixture of playful and serious. “I don’t do fake love, but I’ll take some from you tonight.”

“I know I’ve got to go, but I just might miss the flight,” he replied as his voice trailed off.

It clicked, and his entire world caved in on itself.

***************

Now

Silence rubbed her eyes with one hand as she squinted at the datapad in her other hand. "Tell me why I agreed to this side job again."

"That's what you get for whining so much!" The scarred R2 head floating next to her bunk crowed unsympathetically. "If you hadn't written up so many violations reports years ago, Cracken never would have enlisted you to do his dirty work."

"It's not dirty work, Jobber. It's—" Yawning cavernously, she slouched deeper beneath her bedcovers. "It's just there's so many files to go through. Cracken thinks there's a spy on the Vigilant? Well, he could have at least pointed in a general direction. Look for someone suspicious, he says. Everyone here has a record a mile long that reads like a serial holodrama kept on life support for far too many seasons. ‘Suspicious.’ Ha! I swear the only suspicious people on this boat are the ones without a rap sheet."

"You really should limit your after-hours work and get more rest." The lights and sensor turned purple as the other droid took control. "You know you can't replace sleep with caf."

"Nope, I don't know that, Doc. That's just a theory I'm trying to disprove." Silence reached for the mug on the floor, only to find it empty. "Son of a pus-bag. Fine, I'll call it a night. Get the lights for me, huh?"

No sooner had the lights dimmed than her datapad beeped with an incoming message. Grumbling, she checked her inbox. " 'Are you missing a—' What?"

Something about the subject read like a badly-translated spam mail, but it came from Captain Evan Feldspar, the junior officer she had mentored back in her NRI days. Back when she'd actually outranked him. She tried reading the subject line again. " 'Are you missing a captain?' Is this some weird joke? If he's trying to get me to admit I miss him, he's going to be sorely—"

Her rambling tirade hushed as soon as she opened the message.

Pulled to question NR cpt on charges of murder. Is he yours? Local authorities are in violation.

"Violation of what?" The terse language wasn't like Evan at all. "Ugh. Lights back on, please."

"What am I, a flippin' light switch?" In the dark the droid's light flared orange.

"Jobber."

"Fine! Let there be light. Oooh. Ahhh!" The droid wobbled in mockery. "Your majesty has light!"

"Sarcasm's going to rust your circuits, and I'm not going to clean it up." Sitting up, Silence opened the attached audio file.

"I'll be honest. I don't even know where to start with something like this . . . ?"

Evan's voice. Was this an interrogation recording? He knew better than to send confidential material to her! Officially, she'd left the NRI and her access privileges had been revoked. He didn't know about her deal with Cracken. No one did.

But it was the next words that made her blink in shock.

"I'm a Captain in the New Republic Starfighter Corps."

She had always struggled with matching voices to faces, and the beleaguered tone didn't help, but the voice sounded familiar.

Well . . . frell.

She hastily called Evan, but he didn't answer. She hammered out a message. Call me back, ASAP.

Jumping out of bed, she dragged on her uniform. She had marched halfway to the brig before she realized Evan would have contacted her sooner if he'd boarded the Vigilant. He'd also mentioned locals, implying he was groundside. But if Evan wasn't here, then . . . where was he and the unnamed captain?

Doc Jobber sailed in her wake as she turned sharply and strode back the way she'd come. Orange and purple flashed, settling on Doc's purple hue. "What's wrong? Is there anything I can do?"

The subject line finally made sense, although nothing else did. "Well, apparently I'm missing a captain!"

Her investigative mind wanted to chase all the oddities in circles, but her gut knew what it all meant: something was horribly wrong, and not just with Evan’s interview subject.

You only sent confidential evidence to someone unauthorized, without explanation, if you were passing the torch.

. . .

Bam! Bam! Bam!

Silence hammered a fist on Syntax's door. "Sir! Sir, it's urg—ayah!"

When the door opened abruptly, her whaling fist nearly punched her commanding officer in his shiny, metal face. She snatched her hand away and tucked it securely behind her back. "Sorry, sir. I need to know where all our captains are supposed to be right now? Are any out on assignment?"

Syntax processed her statements. Rather than asking a bunch of time-consuming questions, the droid answered promptly. "There are three captains in Renegade Wing. None of them under my command."

"Right." Silence took a breath, remembering she knew this already from studying their personnel records. "Lock, Bulldog, and Rev. Honestly, I don't see Rev getting into this much trouble. It's probably Lock. Well, or Bulldog. Both of them for all I know. Ugh!"

"Perhaps, Lieutenant," the 9-LOM said calmly, "you'd care to explain this 'trouble' you speak of."

"We're missing a captain. And whoever it is, he got himself in deep poodoo with some planet somewhere. I'm missing a captain, too. Friend of mine. What is it with mud-skiffing captains these days? It's like—" She realized her mouth was starting to babble while her brain grasped for clues. "Sorry, sir. Someone sent me a recording of one of our captains being interrogated, suspected for murder. I think they're both in trouble. I couldn't recognize the voice."

She played it, and after a few seconds of intent listening, Syntax announced, "Voice analysis is a ninety-two-point-three percent match to Captain Clark. As Lt. Col. Tolle is out on assignment, I will inform Lt. Col. Reynolds and inquire as to Clark's possible whereabouts. Thank you, lieutenant."

"Thank you, sir." Silence about-faced, and then thought of something and about-faced again. "Uh, permission to search Bulldog's quarters?"

Syntax's head tilted. "Why?"

"My friend wouldn't have sent me this recording if he wasn't in fear for his life. I used to work investigations and data analysis. It's urgent I find any possible clues as to where he is and why he might be in this position, as well as . . . evidence that might . . . helps us clear his name." Or convict him. But she didn't want to think about that. "Anything that can help us locate them faster is warranted, I promise."

"Permission granted."

None of the hemming and hawing of organic beings, just a straight, simple answer. She loved working with droids.

"Thank you, sir!" She finally remembered to salute.

. . .

"Doc, transcribe a message for me for you-know-who." Silence jogged down the hall, while she didn't see anyone around, she knew better than to blurt out General Airen Cracken's name casually. "Tell him—"

"Ha! Demoted from doctor to personal assistant."

"More like promoted to 'friend I'd trust to do me a favor'." Silence elbowed the droid. "Shut up, Jobber. Now's not the time. Doc, tell him Captain Evan Feldspar of NRI needs immediate back up. Maybe he knows where Evan was last assigned. Wait, maybe I can just look it up myself."

Stopping in the middle of the hall, she pulled up Evan's personnel file. Last assignment had been to meet a contact in Junkfort Station two days ago. It said nothing about interrogating a New Republic officer. The file hadn't been updated yet.

"So much for that idea." She sighed. "Send my message, Doc. I hope he has more current data than that file does. Forward him Evan's message to me, while you're at it. Maybe he can get it traced."

She resumed her jog to Bulldog's room. "Swear on my life, Bulldog, if you murdered someone in a drunken stupor, I'm going to hotwire Iggy so hard you'll never see another sip of booze in your life!"

She let herself in, prepared to overturn every centimeter of his room.

Instead, she saw a datapad lying on the floor near a broken bottle and puddle of whiskey. The entire room smelled of the stale liquid.

That's either very careless or very convenient. Picking it up, she found it was locked, but she'd picked up a few skills during her NRI days. With Jobber's help, she bypassed the lock screen.

Frowning she saw a message, with one of the attached files already open. "What is this?"

Closing the attachment, she read the message:

"Andy. You don't know me, but my sister spoke of you many times, even if she was too stubborn to send this herself. I don't know who else to turn to. We need your help before it's too late."

She took a breath. Well now. The plot thickens.

Had something happened to someone he cared about? Had he killed someone in their defense?

Her comlink buzzed in her pocket. Numbly, she answered. "Maj— Lieutenant Vikeron."

"Reynolds here. Report to the briefing room."

"Yes, sir. On my way."

. . .

"Syntax filled me in on the situation, and I passed the information to everyone present." Lt. Col. Reynolds, who Silence knew better as "Jalb_k", stood behind the holoprojector. Standing around it were other familiar faces: Krayt, Stryker, and Syntax. "Turns out, none of our captains are out on assignment."

"But Bulldog—" Silence bit her tongue. She'd always had a problem talking out of turn, when she talked at all.

Jalb_k cleared his throat. "But, Captain Clark cleared himself and Flight Officer Whitemont for a flight to Rendili under the premise of X-Wing certification testing for Whitemont. Bogus excuse, because Ant's already been certified in that craft."

Rendili? That's a long ways from Evan's last deployment at Junkfort Station. Frowning, Silence checked Bulldog's datapad. No mention of a location or meeting place. The sender, who had given no name, had been banking on him already knowing where to go.

"Lieutenant Vikeron." Syntax's slightly recriminating tone reminding her she was in a briefing, where she was expected to pay attention.

"Sorry, sir. But Bulldog—" Her datapad beeped. Doc Jobber had just forwarded her an encrypted call from Cracken. She answered, backing away from the holoprojector and the senior officers. They frowned judgmentally.

"For the sake of time, I'll skip the pleasantries, Lieutenant." The general seemed to have less trouble remembering her new rank than she did. "Captain Feldspar was at Junkfort Station on his last assignment."

"Yeah, I know, but—"

"A report came in about a New Republic officer needing legal representation on Kijimi. Captain Feldspar was the closest asset we had on short notice. We ran a trace on that message from Feldspar and confirmed it originated on Kijimi."

"He's in trouble. I think he's either been captured or . . . worse. He wouldn't have sent me this file if he hadn't thought his life was in danger. We have to send an extraction team!"

"All our teams in the area are already engaged on higher-priority missions."

"But sir!" She understood, but it didn't help her accept that Evan's life—and Bulldog's—wasn't a priority.

"I'm doing what I can, but calling in operatives from the fringes will take time."

"I see." She swallowed. "I gotta go. Sir."

Looking up to find everyone else watching her, she knew she had breached all manner of military etiquette. She just didn't have time to address it, not when lives were at stake. "They aren't on Rendili. They're on Kijimi."

"According to who?" Jalb_k studied her from across the holoprojector. "Is there anything else we should know that you haven't told us?"

"I, um, have contacts in the NRI. From when I worked there." She tried to force a smile, but couldn't. "Presumably our guys are being held by local law enforcement. Bulldog sounded pretty rough, and Evan was scared for his life, so I don't think they're just going to follow protocol and hand them over to us. Whatever Bulldog and Ant may have done, Evan was just there as legal representation. He's not even a lawyer. He was just the only friendly face we had available to send, so if they are threatening him, too, it must have gotten ugly. NRI is trying to put together an extraction team . . . but Evan's not a priority to them."

Krayt frowned. "That may be, but our men are a priority to us."

"Ant and Bulldog are both in serious trouble for going AWOL, but that's for us to sort out, not local law. We'll get them out." Stryker nodded in agreement with Krayt. "We should be able to pull rank and jurisdiction on them, but we have a complement of commandos who could earn their pay and help us if things get sticky."

"Well, actually . . ." Evan and Ant were one thing, but Bulldog's murder charges might have landed him in deeper trouble than any of them could fish him out of. She considered bringing it up, but it would only delay things. "Never mind. I'm coming too. I'll get my contacts to send me the exact address."

"Silence, you can take a U-Wing." Syntax fortunately agreed with her coming, because she didn't want to argue with him about it. "We need something big enough to carry the troops."

. . .

As Silence threw her helmet on and prepared to climb the ladder to her cockpit, klaxons filled the hangar, warning everyone to clear the deck for an incoming ship. A Buccaneer X-wing sailed through the shimmering opening. She squinted into the blackness beyond, but found no other ships behind it. No wait! A Y-Wing pulled into view from below.

Ant and Bulldog had made it back? Why hadn't Evan contacted her?

Jumping off the ladder, Silence jogged over, with Doc Jobber floating after her, futilely trying to keep up. Jobber grumbled something about underperforming repulsorlifts.

Jalb_k, Stryker, and Syntax also strode over to assemble a rather unnerving welcoming party around the first ship to land. Silence saw the pilot inside pause for a second, as if taking a deep breath before facing the music.

"How do you expect me to protect you with this garbage hardware?"

"Shh!" Silence hushed Jobber's grousing as the droid caught up with her. Her attention had turned to the Y-wing, now settling on the deck next to the first. The cockpit was empty. "Where's Bulldog?"

"Exactly my question." Stryker folded his arms, spitting the lone pilot on a stern gaze as the cockpit lifted. "Flight Officer Whitemont, do you care to explain where you've been?"

"Uhh." Even under his helmet and goggles, Ant paled visibly, offering a shaky salute. "It's a long story."

"Make it short, because my friend—" Silence saw Stryker's scowl. She shut up. Her impatience and concern had gotten the better of her again. "Sorry. Sir."

"Captain Clark told me we were going for a flight certification test."

You're already certified! Silence bit her tongue.

"I thought it was strange, but he's my XO, so . . ." Ant swallowed. "I'm sorry, sir, but you really should just ask Captain Clark."

Silence glanced at the second craft, wondering if she'd been mistaken, but no, it still sat empty.

Stryker waved a hand invitingly towards the other ship. "Perhaps you'd like to ask Clark on our behalf."

"Uhh, yes, sir." Ant nervously got out. No one had wheeled up a ladder, so he jumped down. Walking to Bulldog's Y-wing, he frowned. Dread filled his face. "Is he dead?"

Silence broke away at that point, running back to get the ladder from her ship and bring it over. She knew in her gut Bulldog wasn't there, but the image of him slumped over, hidden from view, still spurred her into action.

Scrambling up the ladder, she peered inside and saw exactly what she expected. "There's nothing in here, sirs."

"What?" Ant's shock couldn't have been more apparent. "No. He said he was right behind me! I mean, that's his ship! I thought he was just being quiet, or that the radio died, or— I swear, I didn't leave him behind. His droid can back me up! Weight, tell them!"

Weight booped in terse confirmation. Silence didn't understand Droidspeak, but Syntax nodded.

Silence slid down the ladder, grabbing Ant's collar. "I know you went to Kijimi. Where did you land? Give me the exact coordinates!"

"Lieutenant!" Stryker's expression said he’d about had enough of her interruptions.

Silence winced and released Ant, knowing she had stepped out of line too many times already. "Sorry, sir."

Satisfied Silence wasn't going to choke out the flight officer or butt in again, Stryker pressed the pilot for details. "Do you have any idea why Captain Clark took you to Kijimi?"

"No, sir. When we landed, he told me to stay with the ships. He wouldn't tell me what he was doing. And when he returned, he was being chased, so we booked it out of there. I mean, I thought we did. He said he was right behind me. Why would his ship follow me if—"

"Weight says Captain Clark ordered him to follow Flight Officer Whitemont." Syntax tilted his head in the direction of the astromech. "He has also transmitted Bulldog's last known coordinates to me."

Silence ran back to her U-wing, hoping the brass would hurry up so she could launch. While she waited in her cockpit for them to finish up and for the commandos to load into her passenger compartment, she went back to the only clue Evan had given her: the recording of the interrogation. It was over an hour long. She hadn’t had time to listen to the whole thing.

Perhaps she’d regret calling everyone to action before hearing it all. Perhaps Evan wasn’t her responsibility anymore. Perhaps Cracken would free up a team in time. But she couldn’t trust lives to “perhaps”.

**************

Farther Back

Andy sat in the corner booth, a death stick hanging from his lips and a half-drank blurrgfire sitting on the table in front of him. Three other empty glasses dotted the table nearby, with varying amounts of red Krait salt still on the rims. He took a long pull from the cancer stick and revelled in the feeling of euphoria that washed over him. He held the smoke in, basking in the glory he was currently feeling. This particular death stick was purportedly laced with pure Kessel spice, and it was clear he hadn’t been swindled this time. The music from the jukebox thundered within his skull.

The simulation just went bad
But you’re the best I ever had
Like handprints in wet cement
She touched me it’s permanent

The young freighter captain took another hit from the illicit substance, and blew the smoke out in a large cloud toward the crowd on the dance floor. At that moment, the lighting in the cantina, the smoke he’d just expelled, and the music coincided in just the right way to put him into a trance-like state. The most beautiful girl he’d ever seen glided through the smoke and stopped at the edge of his table. Her head was in just the right position that it blocked the source of a light, but it shone around her head like a shimmering halo as the light rays snuck through minute gaps in her hair and diffracted through his smoke cloud.

In my head in my head
I couldn’t hear anything you said, but
In my head in my head
I’m calling you girlfriend what the kark

The angelic girl sat down across from him. “Buy a girl a drink?”

Andy’s brain wasn’t capable of forming a coherent sentence. He waved a server over and dropped a large-denomination credit chit onto her tray. He shook his head clear, recovering his power of speech as he broke eye contact with the girl sitting across from him to look at the waitress. “I’ll have another blurrgfire, and whatever she’s having.”

“Blurrgfire,” the girl parroted. “Name’s Zossa,” she said as she tilted her head provocatively toward him and smiled coquettishly. She batted her eyelashes for extra effect.

He again lost power over his mouth as he returned her gaze. Her irises were a peculiar shade of brown, almost bordering on red. He’d never seen anything like that in a human before, and it added to her mystique. “Not a very common drink,” he finally blurted out clumsily.

“Family favorite,” Zossa responded, shaking her bangs out of her eyes. “What’s your name, spacer?”

The girlish mannerism mesmerized him, but he managed to croak out his name. He nodded in appreciation as the server returned with their drinks. He took a quick sniff and sip of the blurrgfire, noting the cleaner glass this time around and identifying the familiar aroma of Krait salt and citrom he’d come to love earlier tonight. She prepared to hand him his ample amount of change, but he waved her off. “Keep that for yourself, and keep the drinks rolling.”

The server smiled genuinely and nodded graciously. “I’ll check back on you two shortly,” she said, walking away with a little more pep in her gait.

“A generous tipper and a captain?” Zossa asked dreamily as she leaned forward, accentuating her feminine assets more clearly.

This was getting to be too much for him. She was clearly only interested in the money he’d been flashing haphazardly around the bar all night, but that was perfectly fine with him. “Work hard, play harder,” he responded with his patented roguish smirk, deciding he’d worked harder to bed less attractive beings in the past.

“I’m impressed. Most of the rock hoppers here are stingier than a moisture farmer in a desert,” she said with a charmingly soft giggle.

He ran his fingers through his now-unruly hair. He’d started the night with perfectly coiffed hair, but his increasingly rowdy drinking interactions with various patrons, some jovial and some bordering on physical aggression typical of drunk young adults. “What can I say, I’m a generous soul.”

She tilted her head back, as if to examine him from a distance. “So, what kind of ship do you have?” she asked as she smiled warmly.

“Why, are you going to try and steal it?” he replied with a nervous laugh, unsure if he was dealing with a smooth operator that planned to take his ship or if she was just making small talk. “She’s the fastest junker in the galaxy.”

She laughed politely in reply, and brought her drink to her mouth and continued to laugh into the cup. Steadying herself, she took a long draught, draining half of the iced drink and seductively licked a large portion of the red Krait salt off of the rim as she brought it away from her lips. “No, just making small talk,” she said with a red-tinged smile from her recent drink.

His eyes widened at the display of drinking prowess she’d just exhibited. The drink, while not overly potent, was strong enough to make such a large gulp slightly difficult. He mirrored her behavior and, turning his head to look at her with one eye, finished his entire drink in one long chug. He slammed it down to the table and hissed as the citrus made his teeth hurt and the alcohol burned its way down into his stomach.

Zossa’s eyes flashed wide. Taking the challenge more seriously, she immediately grabbed her cup and finished the remainder of her drink. “Ok. Next one we’re racing.”

“Bet,” he replied. He waved at the waitress across the room to draw her attention, holding up four fingers. She nodded eagerly and stopped taking another patron’s order while he was mid-sentence and scampered off to the bar to retrieve their drinks.

Zossa barked out a laugh at the dumbfounded expression on the patron’s face that the waitress had just left hanging. “I wonder though, is the waitress going to bring us four drinks each, or four total?”

“Ah, good question.”

“Are you trying to get me drunk to take advantage of me, flyboy?” She asked with a wink.

Moments later, the server indeed returned with a tray stacked full of eight carefully arranged blurrgfires. She carefully set the tray down on the table and divided up the drinks, arraying four apiece in front of the two customers.

Andy pulled an even larger denomination credit chit from his pants pocket and tossed it onto her tray, and nodded to let the waitress know she could again keep the change. He smiled as she almost pranced away this time.

“Just how much money are you packing tonight?” Zossa asked offhandedly as she grabbed one of the glasses in front of her.

He mirrored her and grabbed his own glass. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” he responded coyly.

“Yeah, I would,” she responded, playfully. “I’d hate to be on the hook for more drinks if you ran out of money.”

“Well, you’d have to get into my pants to find out,” he replied, breaking out into a fit of laughter before he could finish the line.

“Oh, ugh” she groaned as she facepalmed, stifling a giggle. “What a terrible line.”

“Yeah,” he replied, quickly deciding to change the subject. “So, drinking contest?”

“Drinking contest,” she replied coolly. “And the winner gets what?”

A sly expression danced across his face. “A kiss?”

She arched an eyebrow and turned up one corner of her mouth in a half-smile. “You know, I’m not sure there’s a loser in that scenario.”

“I could turn out to be a really lousy kisser,” he replied with a chuckle.

Zossa’s mouth opened into a toothy smile. She then softly bit her bottom lip in the middle in a provocative fashion. “I absolutely adore your sense of humor. Are you trying to make me fall for you, or is this happening because you’re just that charming, flyboy?”

Bulldog noted that all of her teeth were present and the proper color that they should be, which was an even bigger turn on than her shapely form and girlish charm. “I’m the lovable sort.”

The woman’s smile turned into a familiar mixture of playful and serious. “I don’t do fake love, but I’ll take some from you tonight.”

“I know I’ve got to go, but I just might miss the flight,” he replied as his voice trailed off as the two of them had just said the next lines of the current song blasting out of the speakers.

I don’t do fake love but I’ll take some from you tonight
I know i’ve got to go but I might just miss the flight

I can’t stay forever, let’s play pretend
And treat this night, like it’ll happen again
You’ll be my bloody valentine, tonight

8 new glasses devoid of alcohol were added to the ones that had already been on the table. The room swam slightly as Andy tried to count them. “I can’t believe you beat me,” he mumbled sheepishly.

“Like I said earlier, the blurrgfire is a family favorite,” she replied with a kind smile. She rose slowly and approached his side of the table. “Time to collect my winnings.”

Andy looked up into her reddish eyes and involuntarily licked his lips in anticipation. He was momentarily distracted by some sort of commotion across the room by the door, but was shaken back to his immediate surroundings by Zossa’s hand on his shoulder.

“So, are we doing this?” She asked, standing next to him with a manicured hand held out. Her nails were moderate length, holding a metallic sheen that reflected the light in dazzling fashion.

“Where are we going?”

“I beat you four times in a row. You owe me more than a kiss by my calculation, spacer.”

Andy looked up at her, still mesmerized by the figure she cut through the smoke and haze mixed with the low-quality light machine. “Uh… perhaps I should find out what this is going to cost me first?”

Zossa slapped him hard across the face, sending the sip of ice-melt diluted blurrgfire he just drank splattering across the booth and nearby wall. The red drink would have made it look like she had just slapped him so hard blood had erupted from his mouth. Tiny scarlet rivulets ran down his chin as his mouth hung agape.

Andy’s hand came up to his face reflexively. It wasn’t the first time he’d been slapped in his life, but usually he knew when he had it coming before it landed. This one stung worse because it caught him completely by surprise. “What was that for?!”

Zossa’s face was screwed up in rage. “How DARE you assume that, you piece of sky trash!”

Andy was truly perplexed. He was well-traveled enough to see a callgirl’s wiles coming a mile away, and every part of this interaction fit the bill. “We just met and started talking an hour or so ago, and now we’re talking about sleeping together. I thought…”

“You thought I was some dirtside Jelucani floosie looking to make a quick buck!” She stormed away through the crowd, elbowing beings out of her way as she went.

I’m overstimulated and I’m sad
I don’t expect you to understand
It’s nothing less than true romance
Or am I just making a mess

Andy was dumbfounded, but recovered his senses quickly. “Wait!” he shouted as he rose quickly from the booth, but had to steady himself with a hand on the table as his equilibrium rebelled momentarily. “Woah, didn’t think I drank that much tonight,” he muttered as he shook his head repeatedly to clear his vision.

After a few vigorous shakes, his vision squared itself with his actual surroundings and he resumed his clumsy pursuit through the crowd. Where the crowd had easily parted for Zossa, they were less compliant with his wishes. He bumped into and jostled what seemed like every being in his path, drawing a colorful bouquet of curses in multiple dialects in response. A few of the larger beings shoved him out of their personal space, which sent him hurtling into another’s space, which also shoved him in another direction.

Andy ping-ponged around the dance space, not getting any closer to his target. By now he was thoroughly disoriented by the constant jostling of the dancing beings as they continued to push him out of their personal space. He couldn’t get his bearings, and he couldn’t find Zossa amid the mosh pit he was currently trapped within. He was about to give up and just find any way out of the dance floor possible when a shriek pierced the air.

“Let go!”

Through the sea of bobbing heads and bodies, Andy could finally see Zossa. She was being hassled by a larger man. They were speaking to each other animatedly, and the man gripped her arm roughly while she struggled to free herself. He gestured with his free hand in Andy’s direction angrily while he locked eyes with her. Snow fell freely from his jacket, indicating he’d just been outside. She pushed away from the larger man in another attempt to flee, but his grip on her arm was tight enough to pull her back in close to him. She slapped his chest as she got closer, but it made no change to her current situation.

“HEY!” Andy roared, cutting through the music and atmosphere. Most beings looked in his direction and stepped out of his way this time. Seeing a clear path, he charged through the crowd and slammed his shoulder into the other man’s tight stomach and carried him forward, slamming the small of his back forcefully into a wall-mounted table. Before Andy could press the advantage he’d gained through surprise, he felt a double-fisted hammer blow land in the middle of his back. It felt like a sack of wheat had been dropped from a storey up and landed right on top of him. He fell to one knee as the wind left his lungs, and looked up just in time to see the man’s knee coming straight for his face. It connected with his nose with a sharp crack, and Andy fell to the floor on his back and groaned. Blood that had arced through the air as he fell splattered the nearby patrons, drawing more curses. He rolled slowly to his stomach and attempted to rise, but the torrent blood streaming out of his now broken nose made him slightly queasy and he fell back to the dusty floor. He huffed in defeat, sending a cloud of dirt particles away from his mouth while half of his face lay in the pool of blood from his nose.

“Jorgen, STOP!” Zossa shouted.

Andy raised his head slowly, following Zossa’s feet and continued to look up. His eyes reached her shapely rear end and paused there. Expending more effort seemed fruitless as this was the best view he was going to get the rest of the night.

Zossa had interposed herself between the prostrated freighter captain and his opponent and had a small shiv gripped tightly in her right hand.

“You’re leaving me for… him?!” The man identified and Jorgen laughed derisively.

“You and I were never a thing.”

Jorgen smiled wanly. “I’d have never believed you’d try to get away from me. Got a call from one of my men, but I told him he was mistaken. ‘There’s no way she’d run around behind my back.’ Had to run down and see you two-timing me with my own eyes.”

“You’re delusional!”

For the life of him, Andy couldn’t figure out where she’d been concealing that weapon. He gathered his hands closer to his body and began to try to push himself up off the ground.

In my head in my head
I’m lying naked with you yeah
In my head in my head
I’m ready to die holding your hand

“Why are you running away from me, Zee?” Jorgen asked, taking a cautious step closer. “It can’t be because you’ve fallen for this rich whelp after a brief canoodling.”

Zossa hardened her gaze and curled her lips, baring her teeth. She swiped her shiv to keep the larger man at bay. “Stay away from me, I mean it!”

Jorgen took another step closer, stopping just out of range of Zossa’s blade. “Come on, deary. You know you’re meant for me.”

Zossa snarled. “I want nothing to do with you anymore after what you did to my dad!”

Jorgen smirked. “Your dad made a mistake that got some security officers hurt. That ain’t my fault. Now get out of my way while I finish teaching this spacer peacock a lesson.”

“It was your mistake!” Zossa shrieked. “You put the blame on him!” She lunged forward to stab Jorgen, but the man was prepared and clearly had close-quarters skills training of some sort. He grabbed her arm at the wrist and twisted it with enough force to elicit a pained scream from the enraged woman. The torque on her wrist and arm forced her fingers to open, and the shiv clattered to the floor.

“There we go, deary. No need for a poker,” Jorgen soothed, slightly letting up on his pressure on her wrist. He looked down and kicked the blade away dismissively.

At that moment, Zossa clawed him across the face with her nails, drawing three rough furrows across his cheek.

Jorgen roared in surprise and pain, and threw Zossa forcefully into a wall. Her head impacted the pitted duracrete wall with a smack. She slid to the floor in a daze.

Andy roared, regaining his feet and swiftly placed a booted foot into the groin of Jorgen with all his might. The blow landed with enough force to lift the larger male off the floor slightly, and both of his hands reached down reflexively to cover his genitals. Andy pressed his newfound advantage and delivered a wild haymaker to Jorgen's bloodied cheek. The blow snapped the larger man’s head to the side and dazed him.

Andy looked back to Zossa to check on her and saw that she was stirring on the floor slowly. He growled and tackled Jorgen to the ground and straddled him. He started raining a flurry of blows down upon the already bloodied bully’s face and chest, but it appeared the force behind the punches was only strong enough to revive the dazed man from his stupor.

Jorgen’s eyes widened and his lips curled back in rage. He roared in exertion as he bucked Andy off of his chest easily with his arms. He rolled to his feet and launched himself like a ballistic projectile with the crown of his balding head leading the way.

Andy thrust his hips back, assuming his opponent was going to tackle him around his stomach. Unfortunately, his maneuver instead ensured that he took the flying headbutt dead center of his own forehead. His head snapped back with a loud thud, causing stars to explode all over his field of vision and a high-pitched ringing assailed his ears. He staggered as his brain ceased to give commands momentarily, beginning to fall backwards.

Jorgen recovered quickly with a brief head shake and saw his opponent was out on his feet. He darted forward and wrapped both of his arms around the stunned spacer, clasping his hands tightly in the middle of his back.

Andy felt himself rising off the floor, quickly followed by an intense pressure around his ribcage. He choked out a cough immediately, and started panicking when he found it difficult to draw in another breath. He looked down into the vengeful eyes of the hulking brute he’d been brawling and saw that the man had killing in mind. He weakly brought his hands up to Jorgen’s throat and attempted to strangle him, but he was too depleted and numb to get enough force into his grip to constrict Jorgen’s airway.

Jorgen smiled darkly. “Is this all ye got, ya wiry scrapper?” He guffawed loudly, and the sound was mirrored by many of the onlookers. He felt his opponent’s hands fall away from his neck and saw his head drooped down. He reared back slowly, taking time to smile at the crowd that was cheering the fight on. When he was done showboating, he delivered another headbutt to the nearly unconscious Andy, snapping his head back again with little more than a whimper. Jorgen sneered in disgust and roughly discarded the dead weight to the dirt-scuffed floor.

Andy gasped for air, taking in his first deep breath in the last two minutes. He choked on dust bunnies and dirt particles that got sucked into his panicked lungs. Pain wracked his ribs as he coughed violently, and he curled into the fetal position.

“You moved in on the wrong girly, pretty boy,” Jorgen bragged, raising a booted foot slowly, making sure to again mug for the crowd watching the fight. Even the ones that weren’t cheering weren’t eager to draw attention to themselves, and they certainly weren’t going to intervene.

“Let’s just mess up that pretty face a bit more to force you to develop a little personality!”

Zossa screamed from out of nowhere as she plunged her recently recovered shiv into Jorgen’s side, slipping the blade between his ribs. Before he could even react to the new wound, she quickly withdrew the blade and slashed it across the same cheek she had previously dug deep gashes with her nails. The path of her blade intersected the three scratches she had given him earlier in the scuffle, giving him a sort of tally mark on his cheek. She pulled the small blade back and prepared to thrust it again, but Jorgen’s friend pulled him away and out of the room.

“I’ll KILL you!” He was heard shouting as he was dragged off into the night.

I don’t do fake love but I’ll take some from you tonight
I know I’ve got to go but I might just miss the flight

I can’t stay forever, let’s play pretend
And treat this night, like it’ll happen again
You’ll be my bloody valentine, tonight

“Damn, he got thrashed!”

Andy felt heavy hands attempting to gain access to his front pockets that were currently flat against the floor. He thought he should try to stop them, but he didn’t quite know why or how to go about that task. The hands roughly rolled him onto his back to gain easier access. His limp arms flopped with the movement.

“Don’t even think about it!” Zossa shouted, pointing her bloodied stiletto menacingly. The attempted pick-pocket backed away with his hands raised.

Andy opened his eyes, and immediately closed them when the room spun in kaleidoscopic fashion. He groaned again and curled up into a ball.

“No, don’t do that,” Zossa urged from above. She knelt down and gripped the fabric of his jacket by his shoulder and pulled upward. “Get up! We have to get out of here.”

Andy tried to sit up, but then laid back down when he couldn’t find the energy to complete the simple task.

“Get up Flyboy!”

Andy grunted and levered himself into a sitting position. The movement hurt his ribs, and it reminded him of almost being crushed. For a brief second, he panicked as if he felt that pressure again and couldn’t breathe.

“UP!”

“Here, Miss B, let me help,” a deep voice rumbled from nearby.

“Thanks, Kypper,” Zossa said, genuine relief flooding across her face.

The large Houk waved dismissively. “That’s not necessary, Miss B. I wish I could have intervened, but you know Jorgen would have taken it out on my family while I work the bar,” Kypper croaked apologetically as he bent slightly and gripped the slow-moving pilot at both shoulders and lifted him to his feet effortlessly. His muscular forearms appeared to expend little to no effort in the action.

Andy shook his head to clear his vision, blinking rapidly. He nodded thanks to the middle of the three large humanoids shimmering in front of him. “Anybody catch the plate on that skimmer that ran me over?”

Zossa moved in close and put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Your sense of humor seems to be intact, so that’s good.”

“Can you walk, sir?” Kypper asked in polite concern. “She is right, they will be back in greater numbers. He is a security officer, and well connected.”

Andy wrenched his eyes shut in an attempt to rectify his multivision. Opening them slowly, he saw only one massive Houk male and one small human female nearby. “Yeah, I think I can manage. Thanks.”

Kypper shook his head. “I’m going to try and get the cleaner droid functional again so it can clean up the blood. Hopefully it’ll stop them from getting your DNA on file. No promises though- it’s been glitchy for some time.” He turned and stomped off, waving farewell over his shoulder.

“He’s a sweetheart,” Zossa whispered as she leaned in close to him. “Let’s go out the back,” she said as she started to lead him away, her hand holding his.

His heart stopped. It had been the first time she’d been close enough for him to catch her scent. It was a combination of spice and florals he’d never experienced before, and it was intoxicating. He let it waft over him and inhaled deeply. The feel of her fingers intermingled with his as she led him away was soft and smooth, as if they’d been recently lotioned.

“Bundle up, flyboy,” Zossa said as they reached the back door, pulling on a thick winterized coat that went down to her knees.

“This is all I had,” he said sheepishly fluttering his flimsy leather jacket.

She pursed her lips. “Well, this is Kypper’s jacket, and as you can see, it’s massive. Let’s share it.” She pulled one arm out of the sleeve and handed it to him.

He took the offered sleeve and gingerly slid his arm into it. He then stretched his other arm around her back inside the coat, hissing at the pain as he did so.

“Smooth, flyboy,” she barked out a laugh. “Real smooth. Let’s get it.”

Andy wasn’t capable of comprehending speech. An excited tingling was running through his body as he felt her body up against his. The sheer fabric of her dress left little to the imagination, and despite the throbbing pain in his face and scraping pain in his ribcage, he was fastly becoming aroused.

That feeling was quickly doused as she kicked open the door and the biting wind from outside washed over them. The cold immediately infiltrated the coat, and Zossa turned her body so her chest was hugged up tightly against the side of his chest.

The pain from the bearhug earlier didn’t even register to Andy. Instead, he felt an electric jolt radiating from where her chest was up against him. It took all of his concentration to keep his feet under him at that moment in time.

They walked out into the squall in unison, huddling their heads in close together under the massive hood of the Houk’s jacket. “What’s the story about your dad?” Andy asked to break the silence as they trudged on.

“He’s on the security force. He WAS in line for a promotion, but that karking sleemo Jorgen panicked while collecting a bribe and got some good officers hurt. He blamed it on my father, and nobody else said otherwise.” Zossa was silent for a while, and then continued. “So, when the promotion came down, Jorgen received it while my father received a demotion and a reprimand.”

“What a scumbag,” Andy said after a while.

“I’m more worried about what will happen to us now,” Zossa continued sadly. “The only thing really keeping him in check was his delusion that we were in love.”

“I clocked that bit,” Andy replied, wincing as his nose decided to throb at that instant. The blood crusted on his face had quickly frozen solid, and every movement of his face sent some of the frozen flakes on a crash course with her shoulders and face.

“Ew,” she replied, elbowing him playfully. “Your frozen blood is snowing on me, flyboy.”

Andy hissed in pain and recoiled from the playful blow.

Zossa recoiled in horror, bringing her free hand up to her mouth. “Oh, I’m so sorry!”

Andy pulled her back in close. She didn’t fight it, snuggling in even closer and wrapping her arm around his back.

“We can’t go to my place. He knows where that is. He’ll definitely look there tonight.”

“My ship’s too far away for us to make it in this weather with me in this condition,” Andy replied, perplexed as to their next course of action. He smirked slyly. “I’d suggest a motel, but last time I went down that path I received a slap.”

A spark of inspiration clearly crossed Zossa’s face, because she abruptly pulled him into a dark alcove. Her lips met his, cautiously at first, and then a little more urgently.

Andy’s legs went weak as he was overwhelmed with ecstasy. He returned the kiss hungrily.

They parted after a minute, gasping for air. Zossa looked up into his eyes, and Andy was horrified. Some of his blood had smeared her otherwise perfect face, dotting the tip of her nose, chin, and the right side of her mouth where it had come into contact with the bloody half of his face.

She mistook his expression and pulled away abruptly with a hurt look in her eyes that quickly shifted to anger.

Andy laughed. “Easy, darlin. I got my blood all over your face is all.”

Zossa laughed loudly, and then caught herself with her hand in front of her mouth to turn it into a suppressed giggle that vibrated her entire body against his. “Then you’ll be my bloody valentine tonight.” She gripped the back of his head with her free hand and kissed him hard, her tongue playfully dancing around his mouth as it hunted for his.

He recoiled slightly, his eyes widening in surprise. Before he could reciprocate, she pulled him into a door he hadn’t seen before because he’d been so fixated on her brown-red eyes and perfectly shaped lips.

I can’t, hide how I feel about you
Inside, I’d give everything up
Tonight, if I could just have you
Be my, be my baby

Andy found himself in a dark but warm and dry basement. A heater unit nearby was already running, giving the room a faint orange glow as it continued to pump out heat. A cursory glance was all the surroundings got from him though, because once the door was shut behind him he was forcefully whirled out of the coat onto a pile of burlap sacks containing some sort of grain. “Woah!” he said as he fell, then facepalmed himself for sounding so cliche.

Zossa stood above him in her sheer dress from earlier in the night, and the shadows of the room accentuated her feminine physique in all the right places. She stood above him, straddling him with a foot on either side and looked down upon him. Her face was bathed in shadows as her bangs hung loose and blocked the light. The only thing visible was her bloody chin, and again her coquettishly bitten lower lip. She tossed the coat carelessly to the side and smiled.

Andy could just about see all the way up her dress at this angle and his heart threatened to jump out of his chest and fly across the galaxy. He stared for a long time before he reluctantly tore his eyes away to meet her gaze and motioned for her to come down to his level.

She shook her head from side to side as she scrunched her nose, her hair casting about freely.

He sat up, reaching for her hands. As their hands met, he intertwined his fingers with hers until their palms were touching. Before she could react, he pulled her down on top of him. She ended up straddling his thighs with a leg on either side of him while he sat up. He pulled her close, bringing her nose to within a hair's-breadth of his. They both breathed in heavily with anticipation, but remained in this position for what seemed like an eternity, just staring into their endless eyes.

He slowly pulled her hands to his back, and then quickly let go and brought his hands up to her cheeks. His mouth met hers then, this time catching her by surprise. Her eyes widened and she pulled back slightly, but they slowly closed as she leaned back into the kiss. Her hands grasped the back of his head and ran through his hair as she pulled him in closer.

They clanked teeth at that moment, and pulled back to giggle about it. She bit her lip as she gingerly removed his leather jacket, being careful not to hurt his previously damaged ribs. Once it was removed, their lips met ravenously again while their hands expertly explored each other’s bodies.

Zossa broke away and heaved for air. She looked down at him and slowly ran her fingers down his chest until they came to rest on his belt. She gave it a playful tug and smirked dangerously. She bit her lip again as she once again descended to meet his lips.

He ran his hands along the small of her back and began to pull up her slip. Once he bunched enough of it up, he slowly pushed his hands underneath and kept moving them up to her shoulders, gently scratching her back with his nails as he went. When he reached the top of her shoulders, he gripped hard and pulled her down tighter against him.

Both of her hands went down to his belt and began to work the buckle vigorously. She shifted her positioning so her right leg was now between his legs and was straddling just one of his legs. Zossa’s blind hands finally fumbled with it correctly and got the belt undone. She put the palms of her hands against his lower abdomen and began slowly inching them downward.

“Oh woah oh Ok ok ok wait,” Andy said as he reluctantly pulled away from her lips and put his hands on her wrists to stop her.

She pouted, but conspicuously left her hands where they were. “What?”

“Are we sure we should be doing this? I don’t want to take advantage of you,” he said earnestly as he looked her square in the eyes.

She pitched her head back and laughed. “How did I manage to find the one spacer in the bar with any sort of conscience or care for consent?”

Andy shrugged. “What? I’m just saying, we’re both pretty drunk, and I’ve already caused you a few problems tonight…”

Losing all sense of patience, she ripped his belt out through the belt-loops in one fluid motion and flung it across the room. She then rolled her body and pulled him down on top of her, meeting his lips with hers while she began ripping his bloodied shirt over his shoulders and head.

I can’t, hide how I feel about you
Inside, I’d give everything up
Tonight, if I could just have you
Be my, be my baby

Andy awoke with a start and recoiled once he realized somebody was gripping him roughly.

“Get up!”

Andy squinted his eyes. The familiar fanged face of the hairy Shistavanen his father employed as his first mate stooped over him and shook him again.

“We need to leave. Now.”

“Daqwee, relax!”

The wolfman responded by throwing discarded clothes into his face.

“How did you find us- wait, where is Zossa?”

“Who?” Daqwee replied, perplexed. “Nevermind that. I tracked the security tag in your belt here. Security bulletin came through, with your face on it. We need to get you back to the ship and dust off. Immediately.”

Andy sat up and started dressing quickly, motivated by the news of his notoriety. He sat on the makeshift bed and pulled his bloodied shirt over his head, but paused as he saw the hairy alien regarding him intently. “What?”

“Did you get into another fight last night?”

“Yeah, how’d you guess?” Andy said with a sheepish grin.

“I was just admiring the bruises and scratches around your ribs, chest, and back. And what looks to be quite a few love bites on your neck...”

“What scratches?” Andy asked, and then looked down to examine himself. He saw red criss-crossing patterns of scratches across his chest, and then felt similar raised welts on his back and sides of his neck. He smiled, remembering the source of the scratches last night and sighed wistfully.

“Hurry!” Daqwee snapped, snapping the smitten pilot out of his pleasant reverie.

Andy jumped at his father’s first mate’s urgency. He gingerly pulled the shirt over his head and threw his hands into the sleeve. He pulled his leather jacket on, and then retrieved his discarded pants from the floor. A slip of paper fell out of his pocket onto the floor, drawing his attention away from the task at hand yet again. He picked it up and turned it over.

Can’t wait for round four.

It was ‘signed’ with the mark of a kiss in the familiar shaped lips that had explored his body thoroughly the night before. His heart fluttered again.

“Get up you love-struck laggard!” Daqwee looked out of the windows to see if anybody was nearby. “Why did you decide to break into a bakery to do the deed? Was your ship or her place out of the question for some reason?”

Andy quickly pulled his pants up and bent over to secure his boots. He finally took the time to look around his surroundings, noting various ovens and shelves full of ingredients and seasonings. “This is a pretty well-stocked bakery for a backwater like this,” he mused.

Daqwee nodded in agreement. “Whoever owns this business has money. Some of these flavoring spices are extremely rare and expensive.”

The human finished securing his belt and stood upright fully for the first time, finally feeling the pounding of an impending hangover from last night’s binge. “I’m never drinking a blurrgfire ever again,” he groaned as he rubbed his temples with his hands.

“Are you done whinging?” The nervous Shistavanen asked, moving toward the door they’d used the night before. “We need to go, now!”

“I need to find her, Dak,” he replied. “It wouldn’t be right to leave her without so much as a word goodbye.”

The furry alien grabbed him by the shoulder roughly and dragged him close to his fanged face. “Look, I was ordered by your father to retrieve you. I’m going to do that, directly. Whatever happens after that is between the two of you. Got it?”

Andy nodded, stunned. He was not used to being intimidated by his father’s employees. The directness of the speech and ease with which he’d just been manhandled cowed him completely.

“Good. Follow my lead.”

“Where are we going, Dak? The hangars are back that way.”

“We moved the ships once the security bulletin came through.”

After a circuitous trip through back alleys to avoid unwanted attention, they finally reached a tree-line. They broke out into a jog that carried on for about 2 kilometers. Finally, they reached the cave that housed the two ships of Clark and Son Shipping Co. Pre Flight warmup sequences could be heard through the cavernous maw, indicating the plan was to dust off immediately. Daqwee pushed him through the threshold and the previously muffled sounds rose to an echoing rumble. He firmly gripped Andy’s shoulder and dragged him into the cave toward the ships.

Clark Sr. stomped down the gangway of his pristine Corellian freighter cursing up a storm. “Do you have any karking idea how much trouble you are in?”

“No sir,” Andy responded sullenly out of reflex. They’d had this same opening line in many conversations between them.

“You have GOT to clean up your act! One of these days you’re going to end up killing somebody in one of these silly scuffles and I won’t be able to stop them from slapping a pair of stun cuffs on you!”

“Breaking and entering,” Daqwee coughed out surreptitiously.

“Breaking and entering?” Father asked, shaking his head in disappointment.

Andy shrugged as if to say it wasn’t his fault. “I didn’t know where she took me.”

“One of these days, boy, somebody is going to kill you.”

Andy shrugged again. “Yes sir.”

“Fighting with a security officer! I raised you to know better!”

It was Andy’s turn to be angry. “Raised me? You were always gone! I raised myself! I was the one home alone getting the tar kicked out of me by the local bullies. I was the one that had to figure out how to survive! I was the one that had to learn how to cope with a world that wanted me beaten down! ME! You were off gallivanting around the galaxy while I was alone.”

Father nodded sarcastically. “Here we go again, ‘woe is me, daddy didn’t love me’,” he said mockingly, spitting a wad of chewing tobacco on the floor of the cave in disgust. “We don’t have time for this discussion right now, son. We have to dust off immediately before they come here and take you away for questioning. The security force here is more farkled than I can fully describe in the next second, and I can’t guarantee they won’t just take you into a basement and torture you.” He sighed, his expression softening at the sight of his depressed son. “Look, boy. I’m not mad, just disappointed.”

Andy felt gutshot. His mother had used that line on him once as a young child when he’d been caught stealing something from a store. The fact that his father would resort to using that memory against him was too much. He sneered. “You were gone when she died. You were always gone.”

It was Father’s turn to falter. But instead of reflecting on the past, he reached back and delivered a fist straight into his son’s stomach, dropping him to the ground. He instantly regretted it, and threw his hands up in frustration. “Ah stang! I’m sorry, son.” He reached down to help his son up from the ground.

Andy slapped the hand away and stayed down. “Dad, I can’t just leave this girl. She’s in danger from the guy I scrapped with last night.”

“You’re no white knight, son.”

Andy nodded. “Fair. But this time it’s serious. She might die.”

“If you stay here, you’ll surely die,” Father said somberly. “I can’t let that happen to you.”

Andy barked out a sarcastic laugh. “Now you care?”

“I’ve always cared. Now get up. We’re leaving.”

“No.”

Father leaned back, a determined look crossing his face. “No?”

Andy rose, his fists balled at his side. “Not this time.”

Father quickdrew his blaster and stunned his son. Daqwee quickly caught the unconscious youth under his arms and held his lifeless body. Without a word, he threw Andy over his shoulder and carried him aboard the other ship.

Moments later, the two Corellian model freighters lifted off and tore away from the system at top speed, ignoring all comms from the local security force.

I don’t do fake love but I’ll take some from you tonight
I know I’ve got to go but I might just miss the flight

I can’t stay forever, let’s play pretend
And treat this night, like it’ll happen again
You’ll be my bloody valentine, tonight
Be mine tonight

Week after week, port after port. Drinking, gambling, scrapping, occasionally brawling. This was the routine of Andy’s life as a freighter captain and heir to a successful shipping company. He worked hard, but played harder. However, for the intervening weeks, he didn’t also try to bed anybody while his ship was in port. Outwardly, he was his usual roguish self. Inwardly, however, he was increasingly troubled.

He hadn’t received one message from Zossa. For his search efforts, he was also coming up short finding a directory listing for her. Even the droid brains on his modified Corellian YT-1200 couldn’t come up with a message address for her. No stories or obituaries from local Kijimi news outlets turned up any results for her.

He opened a file in his cloud drive dedicated to letters he’d have sent her, determined to give it to her when he found her again. Pages flowed at first, letting her know that he missed her and was sorry. Hoping she was ok. Hoping she forgave him for leaving her behind. Promising that it wasn’t his fault, and he’d fought to stay behind to find her and save her.

As more weeks passed, his pages a day turned into a few sentences. The word love started appearing in his writings. The file in his personal cloud drive spanned more than 100 pages at this point. The drinking and drug abuse ramped up. Bar fights became more brutal.

Finally, a break. Their next run would have a lengthy layover while they tried to find another contract. Business had slowed considerably in the year after the first Death Star had been destroyed. He would have a chance to crew up and return to Kijimi and find her with backup to handle the corrupt security force.

Unfortunately, his life changed forever during that run. He and his father were ambushed by pirates and the imperial fighters rendering aid had turned on them. Rebels rescued them and pressed them into service at their snowy hidden base. He lost his father at Hoth. He’d joined the Rebel Alliance soon after, and became too busy to finish his quest of love. Each sortie seemed to take him farther and farther away from her. Each parsec he lost a little bit of his former polish and charm. Each battle he lost more of his humor and optimism. He was sure she was dead at this point, having found no information on her in any system search he conducted.

He gave up, and in doing so, completely shuttered the doors of his heart to make sure a pain like this never got past his defenses again.

Na-na-na, Na-na-na
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
(Just tonight)
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
(Just tonight)
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
(Just tonight)
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
In my head, in my head
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
Na-na-na, Na-na-na
(Just tonight)
We’re on time, should we try?

End part 1