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Yesterday
By: Gremlin and Lock
Contributions by Angel, BattleDog, Rogue, and Zippy

[Rainworld, 4 months ABY]

The X-wings of Red Squadron punched through the planet’s atmosphere into a maelstrom of clouds, wind and lightning. “Switch to instruments and loosen up the formation. Windshear can be extreme at this altitude. Weather reports show it’s relatively quiet at the base, though.” The metallic voice of Commander Beck “Flash” Alvers resonated through the squadron’s commlink making one pilot, callsign Red 11, grimace at the reminder.

"We all know what 'relatively quiet' means," she murmured to herself, easing away from Red 12, her friend and wingmate Flight Officer Racyne "Ice" Vel Aath. "Rain, rain and more rain, just not so much in the way of wind."

But they didn't "all" know that, of course. Of the 12 members of Red Squadron, only two now remembered what it was like to fly above the planet without a name: Red 11 and the XO, Red 6, Captain Roy "Lock" Callahan. It had been chosen for a secret Rebel training facility because of its remote location and the weather systems which made it a challenging zone for flight, offering extra protection to the inhabitants. But at lower altitudes the wind was lighter, the conditions for flying better - as long as you didn't mind getting wet. There was a reason why it had become known unofficially among the Rebel personnel posted there as Rainworld.

Now the Imperials had discovered the secret base - how, nobody knew; but Rebel spies had indicated two Star Destroyers were en route to target the training facility. The call had gone out for help to strip the base of as much matériel and equipment as possible. Red Squadron, out on a training mission, had been diverted to join in the escape effort. Commander Alvers had not sounded pleased when she'd relayed the news, but orders were orders.

They touched down on the outskirts of the base’s landing facilities; the nearer pads were being used by shuttles and transports employed for the evacuation. Red Squadron’s pilots left their X-wings, amid many muttered complaints about the rain, and made their way towards the nearest building where the evac co-ordinators were based. Commander Alvers and Captain Callahan were admitted to the control room; the rest of the squadron waited outside, trying to keep out of the way of people streaming to and from the landing-pads.

“Wonder what they’ll get us to do?” Flight Officer Kyle “Gnoizic” Mandal had formerly been a Marine, one of the Red Rancors who had liberated the Mon Calamari cruiser currently heading to join the rescue effort. For the past six weeks, though, he and the surviving Rancors had been integrated into Red Squadron, sharpening their piloting skills while passing on their ground combat knowledge to the existing members. “We’re supposed to be SpecOps - shall we infiltrate the rescue shuttles?”

“Aren’t we meant to take on the Star Destroyers?” Racyne asked with an impish smile. “By ‘we’ I mean Three Flight, of course. Let One and Two cover the evacuation - we’re due some fun!.”

That was a repeated complaint by the members of Three Flight, alleging that they were often left out of the most interesting parts of missions. Gemi had voiced it herself, often enough.

A comm-link beeped. “Flight Officer Gemilan, report!” It was Alvers’s all-too-familiar voice.

Gemi rolled her eyes as she clicked on her comm-link to reply. “On my way, sir!” Checking the communications device was switched off, she added to her friends, “I haven’t said anything, this time! If she’s heard you and thinks it’s me …!” Leaving the threat implied, she headed into the office where the squadron’s CO and XO were talking to someone she knew all too well.

“Flight Officer Gemilan reporting.” Gemi saluted sharply, then nodded to the tall, dark-skinned man who wore a Starfighter Command uniform. “Captain Amonos, sir. It’s good to see you again.”

A tired smile split the base commander’s face. “Good to see you too, Gremlin.” Unspoken, but silently acknowledged, were the ones who were not present: the former cadets and instructors who had left the base along with Gremlin and Lock, but who had died fighting the Empire. Amonos’ expressive voice was subdued as he added, “The more so because we have need of your local knowledge. I want you and Lock to check the outlying buildings - blocks Esk, Forn and Grek - to make sure they’re free of all personnel. Our sensors are being stripped out as we speak so we’ll have to do it manually. Report back here once you’re finished. Understood?”

“Yes, sir!” Gemi shot a glance at Lock, whose response had chimed perfectly with hers, as if it had been rehearsed.

“And be quick,” Alvers added, her voice tinny through her Mandalorian helmet. “We don’t want either of you getting left behind. The Imps are in hyperspace so we don’t know when they’re going to arrive.”

“Sir!” Gemi nodded assent, following Lock out of the room as he headed for the cross-tunnel that linked the building to Esk block. Cadets were running in the opposite direction, many carrying boxes or steering grav-lifts. Uniformed instructors directed them to shuttles, efficiently organising the evacuation. Gemi bit back a curse as someone almost collided with her; an instructor yelled, “Watch out, Stormhand!” as she sidestepped the cadet, managing a quick wave to Ice and Gnoizic before they were swallowed up in the milling crowds.

Gemi accelerated to a jog to link up with the captain. He spared her a quick glance. “I’ll take Grek block, you do Forn and we’ll rendezvous in the briefing room in Esk before splitting the rooms there, all right?”

“Yes, sir,” she agreed before the crowds thinned out and they could run as fast as possible while wearing full flight gear. Fortunately they’d left their flight helmets in their X-wings; given the thrum of activity in the main buildings, their equipment could easily have ended up in one of the evacuation shuttles.

Forn block was eerily quiet. Gemi couldn’t ever remember seeing it empty of people before. Even in the small hours of the morning, when she’d been on shift or unable to sleep, there had been people in the hallways. Now as she ran from room to room, hammering on the door release buttons and shouting to alert any stragglers inside, the block felt void, as if the life had been sucked out of it. But she had her orders, so she’d carry them out.

She ran into the refresher - the male refresher - before realising that she’d been in there before.

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

[Rainworld Academy, just over four months previously - 0 ABY]

The day went by on Rainworld Academy, monotonous as ever. Pilot cadets trained in the simulators, others dealt with day-to-day duties ... as was the case with the attractive female Zeltron who had been assigned to be Lock's aide. The assignment may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that he had spotted her about to kiss a courier pilot, one Ensign Jack “Frosty” McCauley, who had been tasked with delivering supplies to the base. Lock was unaware of the history between Jack and Gemi, but even if he had known, it was doubtful that he would have changed his decision.

The blue-uniformed pilot had said the assignment would enable Gremlin to get a first-hand look at what command was all about, although so far he'd shown her very little. The Corellian had gone from side to side of the secret base, tapping his datapad in his hand as he slowly strolled with apparently no specific plan in mind. No matter where he went, though, he made sure Gremlin was close behind. Outside the buildings, she had to hold an umbrella to protect him from the constant rain. Inside, every once in a while he would pick up a new datapad and hand it over to his aide without even looking at the pad. He rarely spoke with her and would often pause to stare out the windows for long minutes while she waited at his shoulder, stifling her impatience with difficulty.

At one point, he made her enter a refresher room set aside for males and had her stand at attention while he tended to his necessities in the large stall reserved for officers. He was there for an hour, taking his sweet time as he played games on his datapad - his aide could hear the "bleeps" and "bloops" of the keypad.

Initially she was furious at his assumption that his time was more valuable than hers, even if he seemed to do nothing with it, and she seethed silently outside the stall while he played (with himself?) inside. Eventually, though, Gemilan actually started to enjoy the experience: males would scurry inside the facilities and do a double-take when they noticed the red-skinned woman waiting inside. Gemi would stay straight-faced, jerk her head at the closed door and mouth, "Orders!", whereupon they would nod hurriedly and, almost without exception, walk to one of the stalls to do their business. Those few who chose the urinals seemed to take a long time. Performance anxiety, Gemi thought with a smirk, though she took care to keep her face straight when anyone was looking at her.

The sole exception was another cadet, one of the Y-wing trainees, who either misunderstood her mouthed comments or decided that he was going to speak because he'd managed to get Gemi on her own - or as private as it was possible to be in a public lavatory. "Hey - you're Cadet Gemilan, aren't you? Gremlin?"

She looked at him, face frozen, then jerked her head towards the closed stall door again. He didn't take the hint. "I'm Dash. Cadet Harkon 'Dash' Lobe. I'm with Captain Aidem's squad." He looked human, though Gemi couldn't tell whether there might be some other genetic markers in there too. She stayed silent, knowing Lock would hear if she responded.

Unfortunately, Dash kept speaking. "I, uh, hear you're a Zeltron."

Gemi gave him a hard look. 'Hear'? Why didn't he use his kriffing eyes? Red skin, purple hair, killer body - weren’t these enough clues? And surely the fact that she was saying nothing would give him a clue that something was up - aside from the fact that she was in this ‘fresher in the first place, of course? She remained resolutely silent.

Dash took a couple of steps closer. Gemi didn't move, standing rigidly at attention. The other cadet licked his lips, glanced around to check that the place was empty, and spoke quickly, as if he was afraid he'd lose his nerve. "So is it true? Do Zeltrons have sex with anyone? And ... if you had the chance, would you do it? With me?"

She was tempted, sorely tempted, to knock him through the bulkhead but Gemi kept a leash on her temper, knowing that her nemesis was well within hearing range.

There was a sudden flush from the stall that Lock had been in for the past hour. The newcomer's head shot up and looked at the door as he saw the Lieutenant exit. The Cadet immediately went pale and, without even saying anything to Gremlin, dashed off at a run. Lock looked over to his aide.

"Keep your personal meetings to your free time, Cadet," he told her as he walked past towards the faucets. He slowly washed his hands. "We may be Rebels, but we expect a certain amount of decency and discretion of all our officers." He lifted his wet hands from the faucet and pulled a couple of paper towels from the dispenser and dried his hands. "Hmm... I'm hungry," he said, offhandedly, then checked his chronometer. "Ah, the cooks must be about finished making lunch - I need to inspect that it's properly cooked."

Gemi was momentarily struck dumb by his comments. She simply stood, staring at him as she tried to process what she'd just heard. Had he really said that? "Wait!" she called, scurrying after Lock as he started to leave the fresher. Her temper was up, now, but she was keeping her anger leashed with difficulty.

"Personal meetings?" she demanded, catching up with the lieutenant just before he reached the door. Fortunately the fresher was now empty, but Gemi couldn't have cared whether Captain Amonos himself was taking a piss within earshot. "Didn't you hear what that cadet said about Zeltrons? Asking me to sleep with him? And I said nothing - nothing! - in return! How was that a 'personal meeting'? How was saying nothing being indiscreet?" She propped her fists on her hips, determined to face down this slur on her character.

"And what do you know of my personal affairs - not that it's any of your business, sir - that you question my decency?" She was truly irate now, her eyes narrowing as she glared balefully at the lieutenant.

Lock was almost at the door but he didn’t take the final step that would engage the opening mechanism. Instead he turned his body slightly around to look at the female cadet. His dark gaze settled upon her, but he didn't seem angry or annoyed in any way that this cadet was talking to him in such a disrespectful manner. He had spoken to her very rudely and had left a disrespectful assumption out in the open.

"What you did earlier with McCauley left an image, Cadet, and I wasn't the only one who saw it. Rumors spread like wildfire, especially on a base this small," he said in a low voice, keeping it level. "Be more discreet and your fellow pilots won't make you out to be another easy Zeltron fem." Lock paused for a moment and looked thoughtful. "Unless that's what you're going for." Without waiting for a response, Lock pulled on the door and exited the bathroom, fully expecting his aide to follow.

She stood there, completely taken aback.

Lock was telling her to watch out for her reputation?

And yet ... could he be right? There had been a couple of incidents when she had first arrived at Rainworld Academy: cadets who had thought that all Zeltrons were sex-mad, willing to sleep with anyone and everyone at all hours of the day or night. They had been disabused of that notion early on by Gemilan, who had made it perfectly clear that "hedonistic" did not mean "easy". After that initial flurry, there had been no more demeaning offers ... until today. Gemi frowned.

Could Lock actually be right? Had people witnessed her joyful reunion with Jack and assumed that it was just a Zeltron getting passionate with the latest man she liked? Did Lock think the same? If he did, how was she going to tell him what had really happened - the reason why she had been so delighted to see Jack again, especially as she had thought their paths would never cross once more?

Abruptly Gemi realised that the door had closed and she was all alone in the 'fresher. The male fresher. Biting back a curse, she hurried outside to find the lieutenant waiting, arms folded, looking overly patient.

"I'm sorry, sir, I ... I was thinking," was the only excuse she could manage. Lock watched her expectantly. She flushed. "I just ... I wanted to ...." Gemi stumbled, trying to organise her thoughts and words into a coherent order. "I wanted to explain what happened with Ensign McCauley, sir. So you'd understand why I was so pleased to see him - and why I reacted as I did."

"Can you tell me at the mess hall?" asked Lock, pointing behind himself with his thumb. "Never really enjoyed standing in front of a fresher."

She coloured, purple patches appearing on both cheeks. “Ah - of course. Yes, sir. Mess hall it is.”

Lock carried out his “inspection” of the food by filling up a plate and taking it to a table in one corner of the mess hall, where they could be afforded a degree of privacy. Gemi helped herself to a much smaller portion and followed him, sitting opposite and picking at her food while Lock tucked into his lunch. He glanced over, giving her a shrewd look.

“Weren't you going to explain something to me, cadet?”

Gemi put down her fork and sighed. “Yes, sir.” She tried to marshal her thoughts, but it was hard to put something so complicated into a coherent format. “I - I guess it started when I met Jack McCauley and his twin brother Connor - it was a year ago, maybe a little more. I was a trainee engineer on a smuggler's ship …” The Rebels who had recruited her knew something about her background; she had only kept the glitterstim from them. She didn't know how much had been passed on to the training academy, so it made sense under the circumstances to assume that Lock knew little about her past.

Quickly she sketched in the story: the brothers' escape from Coruscant, dragging her along as a reluctant stowaway; evading the stormtroopers; the meeting with a Rebel cell on Pantolomin and Connor's death in an Imperial ambush. “The last time I saw Jack, he said … he said he didn't want to see me, ever again. That I reminded him of Connor and he didn't want to remember. I wanted to help him - I would have stayed, if he'd let me - but he was adamant. So I left. And today was the first time I've seen him since then.” She raised violet eyes to meet the Corellian's gaze.

“I was so pleased to see him; I've thought about him a lot since - well, since we met. He didn't mention Connor at all - in fact, he seemed pleased to see me too, pretty much. And I … I've liked him for so long … only nothing happened, especially after Connor died …” the mottled purple patches had spread from her cheeks to her neck, now, as embarrassment hit home, “so that's why we seemed, ah, close, when you found us, sir. I don't act like that with everyone I meet, as I hope you know.” There was a hint of defiance in her final words. Lock's earlier slur on her character still rankled.

As for Lock’s part, he understood the situation. He hadn’t lived it himself, but definitely could imagine it. He didn’t say anything for a moment as he poked at the mysterious noodle-food things in front of him. Finally he lifted his head.

“I see, cadet,” he replied. He barely knew her, so he wasn’t sure what to tell her. Nevertheless, the situation required a response from him. “Well, I can understand why he wouldn’t want to see you, you remind him of his lover - wait, you said brother - all the time. I wonder why he tried to kiss you ... if he never wanted to see you again. In fact, you remind him of his brother. I would never kiss a woman that reminded me of my brother,” he added thoughtfully. He pointed his fork at the Zeltron. “I’m on to you, cadet... “

He didn’t wait for a response before he turned his attention back to the mystery food.

Gemilan tried not to look as flabbergasted as she felt. What was he talking about? It just didn't make sense! And he was "on to her"? What did that mean? She did the only thing, under the circumstances, that seemed sensible - bent her head, mumbled, "Yes, sir," and ate the rest of her meal in silence.

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

[Grek block, Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

Lock, too, had been experiencing disorientation as he raced through the apparently deserted block, carrying out last-minute checks to ensure nobody was left behind. Though he had spent only a few months at the training facility, it had been an intense period of his life, encompassing many different emotions. He had arrived all but burned out, emotionally drained from the demands of a fighter pilot’s lifestyle, thinking that he would never be able to see combat again. Taking raw recruits and training them to do the job that he had once fulfilled had been an entirely new experience. While he’d enjoyed the opportunities to pass on his skills, he had chafed at the amount of administration required.

When his friend, Captain Dirr “Jet” Sol, had appeared in his office one evening, offering him the chance to return to a combat role as XO in the newly-reconstituted Bantha Squadron, Lock had jumped at the opportunity. Taking the two flight instructors with him, along with a number of the cadets he’d helped to train, he had happily returned to combat … and seen most of the squadron destroyed in their very first action. Losing Jet had been the worst moment, bringing back all the memories of the event that had sparked his initial decision to leave a front-line role and switch to fighter pilot training.

This time, however, he’d held it together. He’d counselled newcomers; paid tribute to fallen comrades; moved to Red Squadron as XO and backed its new OC, the Mandalorian Beck Alvers. Now, as he stood at the door of what had once been his own office at Rainworld Academy, he was able to think back to the moment when Jet had appeared in this very spot and offered him the chance to return to fighting the enemy. He could remember Jet with the familiar stab of loss, but not the grief that had all but consumed him when his friend had died. And not just one friend: he could picture Berserker, the giant Shistavanen flight instructor, hunched at his own desk reading reports on the cadets’ progress. Berserker, who had died during that first fateful battle. He remembered the other instructor, Alien, a feisty Sullustan who had lost an arm and was now Red Squadron’s quartermaster. So many memories: all vivid, all linked to this one location. All part of the kaleidoscope of his life, creating fragments that intersected with others’ lives to create new patterns, new opportunities that he couldn’t have begun to imagine just a few short months ago ....

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

[Rainworld Academy, just over three months previously - Lock’s office, later the same day]

Rain lashed at the tall windows, obscuring the scene outside. A faint mist of condensation had formed inside the glass, fuzzing the reflection of the room's interior. A cleanbot could easily have taken care of the misty panes but Lock had made use of his "command trainee" instead, directing Cadet Gemilan to bring the glass back to its pristine condition.

She had carried out such tasks often enough aboard her first vessel, the smuggler Dropkick Murphy; the newest crew member always drew the dirtiest, most menial duties. When she had commanded her own ship she had often shared these tasks, wanting her crew to realise that young as she was, she still had the ability to lead by example.

Swabbing the deck had always been a favourite job; the repetitive motions were strangely soothing. Washing windows seemed to have a similar effect, but it would have been more relaxing if she hadn't been all too aware of her senior officer playing on his kriffing datapad yet again. Gemilan wondered if Lock ever did any work at all. Maybe he just relied on Alien and Berserker to do his job for him. Either way, she couldn't understand what she was expected to learn by being his aide, beyond interpreting cryptic remarks and practising new cleaning skills.

The tannoy system whistled, sounding the two notes which were meant to attract attention. "Now hear this! All cadets report to the main auditorium in 10 minutes for a briefing. All cadets to the main auditorium, 10 minutes. That is all."

Gemi turned expectantly to Lock, who raised his eyes from the datapad. "Well, cadet?"

The Zeltron held on to her temper. "The briefing, sir - do I have permission to leave?"

Lock appeared to consider his answer while Gemi waited, trying to conceal her impatience. "Yes, cadet, you can go." His expression was sombre; he knew what this briefing was about.

She dropped the cloth in the bucket, relishing the chance to escape, but her steps slowed as she crossed the room to the door. Just out of range of the automatic opening sensors, she stopped and looked back. There was no point in staying silent; she might as well ask. What else could he do to her - get her to wash windows?

"Excuse me, sir," Gemi eyed him cautiously, "but I have to ask - all these things you've had me doing. Holding the umbrella, waiting in the refresher, washing windows - just how do they give me an insight into command?"

Lock looked back at the datapad. Without meeting her eyes, he told her, “It builds character.”

Yet again, she didn’t know how to respond. And as she stood, trying to work out what to say, he glanced up.

"Go, cadet - you don't want to be late." Lock hesitated before adding, "After the briefing, take the rest of the day as personal time. Just be discreet. I'll see you at 0600 tomorrow; I have a full schedule of meetings plus you're due some simulator sessions. Don't be late!" And with that he looked back down again, already absorbed in his datapad.

The succinct advice surprised her. 'Be discreet!' Before she could think too much on the conundrum, though, she realised that she'd have to run to get to the main auditorium in time. With a quick, "Understood, sir," she saluted, exited Lock's office and set off at a brisk jog, her thoughts whirling.

The auditorium was crowded with cadets, both the familiar faces from her own training squadron and the group of potential Y-wing pilots under the command of Lieutenant Aidem. She slipped into a seat beside Sensei, resisting the temptation to scan the crowd for the cadet who had accosted her in the 'fresher. "Hey - how'd your flight go?" The Xexto had been scheduled for live flight that afternoon.

"Good. I was a wingleader - they sprung a surprise on us; jumped us with a couple of captured TIEs. Watch out for that when it's your turn next!"

"Heh, thanks. I'm scheduled for sims tomorrow, live flight day after - guess what, Lock wants me with him at 0600 tomorrow for meetings!" Gemi would have said more, including telling Sensei all the details about the time she'd spent with Lock, but at that moment a door opened and Captain Amonos swept in, datapad in hand, heading for the lectern.

The cadets rose to stand at attention, returning the captain's salute before subsiding back into their seats. Silence gripped the room.

Amonos was a chunky human male, dark-skinned, with a voice that sounded like chocolate melted through honey. Today, the rich tones were strained, as if the captain was holding onto his emotions. "Cadets. Today I must tell you of two ... encounters ... with the Empire that will have long-lasting consequences, both for the Rebellion and the galaxy as a whole."

Around the room, cadets exchanged glances. This was not what they had been expecting. Amonos continued, as if oblivious to the sudden chill in the room, "First, I bring you news of a new weapon that the Empire has constructed - and tested, with devastating results. This happened some days ago now, but news has only just reached us through the communications blackout. This weapon, this - Death Star," he spoke the name with bitter hatred, "was turned upon the peaceful citizens of Alderaan in an unprovoked attack that ... destroyed the planet entirely. Alderaan is gone and with it, billions of lives."

He looked as though he would have said more but a wave of noise rolled round the raked seats as the cadets reacted to Alderaan's loss.

The shock of the announcement, linked to the emotional response of the massed cadets, battered Gemi’s empathic senses. She reeled sideways in her seat, clutching for one of Sensei’s hands. He grabbed hold and used two more hands to support her while she struggled to sit upright, barely able to stop herself from sobbing aloud.

“Alderaan! But - why …?”

“Sssh.” Sensei held her to his bony shoulder, controlling his emotions with the gravity of his age and his former role as a philosophy professor. “The Captain’s going to speak again.”

She huddled close, trying to tap into Sensei’s calmness as Amonos outlined how the Death Star had then turned on Yavin, now revealed as the Rebels’ main base. “The Imperials didn’t expect what happened next,” the captain declared, his rich tones now resonating with hope and victory. “Plans passed to the Rebels by Senator Leia Organa revealed a structural defect in the Death Star. Thanks to valiant efforts from several squadrons of X and Y-wings flying at extremely low levels, the Death Star was destroyed by a new recruit to the Rebel cause.”

He paused, a small smile on his face, as the cadets erupted into cheers. Gemi was on her feet too, whooping with the rest, luxuriating in the emotions now circulating in the briefing room. Even Sensei punched the air with four of his hands.

Captain Amonos let them celebrate for a minute or so before calling the cadets to order once again. “The Death Star may be destroyed, but our forces suffered severe casualties. Very few pilots who made the run on the Death Star survived. The chances are that we’re going to have to call on you much sooner than we had anticipated, so continue to train hard, increase your sim times, study even more than you did before because the Rebellion is going to need every one of you. We may have won this battle, but the Empire survives and one day, probably sooner than we expect, it will strike back.”

Later that evening, mindful of Lock’s admonition, one of the cadets discreetly made their way outside to where a small, battered freighter hunkered down against Rainworld’s ceaseless downpour. Cadet Gemilan triggered the comm system, alerting the occupant to her presence. Lights flashed, mechanisms whirred and an all-too-familiar voice demanded, “Who’s that? Lock, if you haven’t brought a bottle of something strong …”

“It’s Gremlin. I haven’t brought a bottle. Just me.”

“Oh.” The voice stopped, then resumed in a different tone, “Well, if it’s just you – you’d better come in, then.”

Gemi let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. So Jack did want to see her, after all! The hatch hissed open and she stepped inside, smiling.

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

[Esk block, Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

Breathing heavily, Gemi ran into the main briefing room where she had heard news of the fate of Alderaan and the destruction of the Death Star. The last time she’d been there, she had been told she’d be graduating early, along with seven of her classmates. All eight had been assigned to a re-formed Bantha Squadron along with two of their former instructors, Lieutenant Lock as their XO and Captain Dirr “Jet” Sol as CO. Now most of them were dead and Sensei had retired from flying; he had bought some farmland on Gemi’s homeworld of Zeltros, quite a change of career for the philosophy professor turned pilot. Only Lock and Gremlin remained as pilots.

Gemi subsided into one of the seats, taking deep gulps of air. Fury, it was strange being back on Rainworld again! It brought back too many memories, not all of them pleasant. Her relationship with Lock had been strained then; she had chafed at the restrictions of military life, so at odds with her free-and-easy Zeltron heritage. She had mistaken his reserve for dislike, only later realising that many more factors made up his complex personality.

When Bantha Squadron had lost half of its pilots in their first full engagement, Lock had even comforted Gemi, albeit in his own fashion. She had gradually come to realise that the Corellian was not quite as hard-hearted as he had first seemed, especially when she’d spotted him dancing with Ice and, later, when they’d played cards at a semi-regular get-together aboard ship. So when he entered the room, she felt relaxed enough in his company to risk a joke.

“What kept you, sir?” She pushed herself up from the chair, smiling even though her hair was plastered to her forehead with sweat.

He shook his head, chest heaving. “We’re pilots, not kriffing athletes! Just give me a swoop bike and I’ll show you who’s fastest … cadet!”

Gemi laughed aloud. “If I’m back to being a cadet, you’re a lowly Lieutenant, sir!” She licked her lips. “D’you think we could stop by the mess hall when we’re finished? I’m dry as a droid.”

Lock eyed her. “Well, let’s get this block done, then we’ll see if we’ve got time. You take the rooms to the right, I’ll do the left and we’ll meet back here when we’re done.” He shook his head. “At least this block isn’t as big as the others.”

Esk block was a single-storey building holding administrative rooms which clearly showed the results of the hasty evacuation. It was easy to check if they were empty; Gemi was finished quickly but by the time she’d made her way back to the main briefing room, Lock had got there just before her. He had obviously entered by a door on the other side of the wide room and was sitting on a chair opposite, doing his best to look relaxed.

“What kept you?” he asked with a cheeky smile just as their commlinks squawked.

“Lock, Gremlin, get back here - the Star Destroyers have arrived! TIE bombers are incoming!” Alvers’s clipped tones were drowned out by a noise that Gemi had never heard before, but which she instinctively knew - the scream of a TIE stooping on its target from above.

The first bombs hit nearby, shaking the building and knocking Gemi off her feet. Lock, heading for the door, turned just in time to see her fall. She pushed herself onto her knees, conscious that the sound of the TIE bombers was getting louder, and could see him open his mouth to shout when a blast of air and sound rolled over her and the world turned black.

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

[Landing area, Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

“We’re not leaving without them!” Alvers yelled at Captain Amonos over the unmistakable sound of laser fire as Two Flight’s X-wings attacked the TIE bombers overhead. A shuttle took off nearby, buffeting them with the blast from its engines.

“That’s the last shuttle. The Star Destroyers will be sending down troops next. If you don’t leave, Captain, you’ll be putting your pilots and your starfighters at risk for the sake of two of your people. That’s not a good command decision - and you know it.” Amonos was implacable and worse - he was right. Alvers did know it. Just as she knew what she had to do. But it didn’t mean she had to like it.

“Get me some of your best cadets to fly their X-wings - I’m not leaving them to the Imps,” she growled, “and we’re coming back as soon as I’ve got access to weapons for a ground op. Star Destroyers or no Star Destroyers, I’ll get my people back!”

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

[Lock’s office, Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

The Corellian was crouched at the window, blaster in hand. His office was on the second floor of Grek block, the only other elevated location at Rainworld Academy apart from the control tower, which had been blown up in the first wave of TIE attacks. From his vantage-point he could see groups of stormtroopers disembarking from shuttles and gunboats; he itched to take potshots at them but had no desire to reveal his position too soon.

As soon as Gremlin had been injured, Lock had known that any attempt at escape was doomed. The pounding from the TIE bombers revealed that the Star Destroyers must be close at hand; even if the pilots were able to reach their X-wings before the base was overrun by stormtroopers, Gemi was definitely not fit to fly. Commander Alvers had issued concise orders on a coded commlink and he’d been left with no alternative but to obey.

Lock hoped that hiding out in his office would do one of two things: either keep them out of the stormtroopers’ notice altogether (not impossible, but very unlikely) or else give them as much time as possible to prepare before being discovered and captured.

There was another ending to the second scenario: it didn’t end in capture, but death. Lock had no desire to end his piloting career on the ground. When he went, he wanted it to be flying high in a blaze of glory, in keeping with his pilot’s ego. As far as he was concerned, hiding was acceptable if - and only if - it meant he’d be able to get into his X-wing again.

Lock’s attention was caught by a moan and a faint stirring from the body lying on the floor behind one of the desks. Keeping low, he edged back towards Gremlin. “Stormtroopers are landing. Our orders are to stay hidden till the squadron comes back for us. How’re you feeling?”

She squinted up at him, struggling to focus. “Like … like a shuttle’s landed on my head. Wh-what happened?” Gemi reached up towards the place where the pain was worst; Lock intercepted her hand before she could touch the makeshift bandage he’d applied.

“A bomb hit nearby - brought down part of the ceiling. You were lucky; some of the rubble would’ve crushed you whole. You’ve got a bad cut to your head and I think a concussion, but it could’ve been a lot worse. Like I said … you were lucky.”

“Lucky? Don’t feel like it.” Gemi blinked at him, frowning against the pain in her head. Her voice sounded strained to her own ears. “So the squadron’s … gone?”

“Yeah. No point in sticking around when there’s a couple of Star Destroyers overhead. But they’ll be back for us - you know that.” Lock kept his tone level. He understood why his comrades had left. It had been hard to accept at first, even though he knew that his OC would have fought it every step of the way.

Gemi was clearly thinking the same; she managed a wan smile as she pushed herself up on one elbow. “I bet Alvers didn’t … give in easy. Wouldn’t like to be in her way now.” The young Zeltron propped herself the side of what had been Berserker’s desk, grimacing as the pounding in her temples increased. “Fury, I’m thirsty! We got anything to drink?” She flexed her right knee cautiously. “Kriff - m’head’s not the only thing that’s sore …” Her voice was a little slurred.

“Careful, your head’s not the only thing that got hurt; it’s just the worst.” Lock watched her closely. “Nothing bacta can’t deal with, but you’ll be sore till we can get you in a tank.” A thought struck him and he crawled away from Gemi towards one of the cupboards which lined the office. She watched him go, thinking that it might be a while before the promised bacta appeared.

“So how’d I get here?” she asked listlessly, more to distract herself from the pain in her head rather than expecting an answer.

“I carried you.” Lock turned round from the cupboard he was investigating; his roguish grin was both cocky and proud. “You’re not that heavy. And you’re easier to handle when you’re quiet!”

He forestalled her inevitable protest by holding up a bottle, almost full of a rich brown liquid. “There - I’d forgotten about this, we left so quickly with the Banthas. Vintage Whyren’s Reserve whisky, Corellia’s best.” Lock crawled back, levered the cork out with his teeth and spat it across the room. “Doc Crondon wouldn’t recommend this, but he’s not here. Down in one, Gremlin.”

Gemi cocked an eyebrow at the proffered bottle, then took it in both hands and raised the neck to her lips. It tasted harsh and stung her cracked lips, but the moisture was more than welcome. She paused before taking a second draught; this time she started coughing, which made her head hurt even more. Waggling the bottle from side to side, she held it out to him. “S’horrible,” she managed to say, stifling the coughs to force out the words. “Your turn.”

He chuckled, taking the bottle before she dropped it. “You Zeltrons don’t appreciate good whisky.” Lock took a large swig, feeling the liquid burn down his throat. “Ahhh! Corellia in a bottle!”

“Corellia tastes like that?” She managed a grin. “Just as well we can’t visit. Now Zeltron spiced wine, that’s a drink!”

“Wine! Pah!” Lock passed the bottle back to her. “Here, have some more. It’ll help you feel better.”

Gemi took another drink. It didn’t taste quite so vile that time. Was it her imagination, or had the pounding in her head diminished a little? “Y’know … I think it does?” She up-ended the bottle again. “If it stops my head hurting, it’s worth the taste. Sort of.”

They traded the bottle between them a few times, though Lock took care to take small sips. Gemi, on the other hand, was experiencing a comforting glow. She was no stranger to drinking alcohol but she had never experienced a hangover, thanks to Zeltron physiology. Two livers meant that her species usually metabolised alcohol quickly enough to stop them becoming too drunk. In her weakened condition, though, with a concussion to boot, she was beginning to get tipsy.

“What d’you think the stormies’ll do? Go room to room, like we did?” She fumbled at her flight suit for her holdout blaster. “Better be ready if they do …”

Lock stretched out one hand. “Check the safety’s on.” He didn’t want Gremlin to blast herself or, worse, to shoot him. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Gemi squinted. “Uh - three?”

Lock sighed. He’d been holding up one. “Aim for the stormtrooper in the middle, then. Hopefully they won’t search the entire base, just check out the main admin areas and leave now that there’s nothing left for them to loot.”

“Long as they don’t blow th’ place sky-high as they go …” Gemilan sounded gloomy. Lock didn’t blame her - he’d had the same thought himself.

“If they have accurate sensors they won’t even need to search; they’ll spot us right away. Then we’ll just have to fight our way out.” He didn’t add that he was less than confident about his companion’s current ability to fight off a cold, far less a bunch of fully-armed and armoured stormtroopers, but he’d reckoned without the effects of alcohol. Rather than being concerned, Gemi gave him a triumphant grin.

“I c’n fight. Been learnin’ from Rev and Gnoizic. He’s pretty sexy, y’know?” Then, just in case Lock misunderstood who she was talking about, she added, “For a Mando.”

“I worked that one out,” the Corellian muttered, edging back towards the window and taking a cautious look outside. The groups of stormtroopers had dispersed, leaving one pair stationed near the shuttles on guard duty. Lock entertained vague thoughts of fighting his way downstairs, stealing one of the shuttles and rejoining the squadron; had Gremlin been fit, he would have considered it more thoroughly, orders notwithstanding. But the Zeltron was in no state to flee, far less fly, so staying put was really the only option.

Lock glanced back across the room: Gremlin was taking another slug from the bottle of whisky. Their relationship had altered drastically since their time at Rainworld Academy. Then, she’d been a potential troublemaker, which meant more paperwork for him, and Lock had never been keen on anything that caused him extra effort. Since the decimation of Bantha Squadron, though, the rough edges had smoothed over and they had settled into a working relationship which - within the bounds of military protocol - had been tolerant, even relaxed at times.

Now, watching her shift position and grimace against the pain of her injuries, he was struck by her youth. Her vivid personality and laid-back attitude to life, allied to her determination to fight the Imperials, made it easy to forget that she was still a teenager – albeit one who had a string of kill silhouettes painted on the side of her X-wing. And like generations of teenagers, she needed a responsible adult to guide her into making the right decisions.

What she had instead was Lock, whose priorities were very different. Crawling back, he pulled the bottle from her hand. “Ease up on the whisky – we may have to be here for a while. You want to be fit to fly out of here, remember?” Lock plucked the bottle from her hands and tried looking around for the cork which he’d discarded earlier. Gemi tried to protest but Lock shot her a fierce look which quelled any argument. He found the cork and rammed it home in the bottle’s neck.

“Fine,” the Zeltron muttered petulantly, “but you’d better bring that back t’the Star with you. ‘S not as bad’s I thought it was.” She tipped her head back carefully, riding the unfamiliar sensations of intoxication that were starting to grip her body and mind.

Lock would have replied but a faint noise from beyond the office doors made him turn, his eyes narrowing as he strained to hear what was happening outside. Then it came again, slightly louder: the clump of boots, a pause, more stomping. And again, getting louder each time. The Rebel pilots exchanged glances and without a word, Gemi crawled round the desk so she was alongside Lock. Silently she drew her blaster and thumbed off the safety, her forehead creased against the renewed pain in her head and limbs as she aimed unsteadily at the door. Lock placed the bottle of Whyren’s Reserve out of harm’s way and took up his position, peering round the opposite end of the desk.

The noise from outside was clearer now: the hiss of opening doors could be heard, then the slight crackle from commlinks. More footsteps, more speech, another hiss as doors closed. The tension ratcheted up: how many doors to go? How many stormtroopers were there? How long until –

The doors to Lock’s old office slid open, framing two white-armoured stormtroopers, and the waiting was over.

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

[Imperial command post, Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

Major Eristin K’dennet was annoyed. The mission to capture the Rebel base on the unnamed world had not achieved its aim: somehow the insurgents had been warned in time to evacuate the personnel and a large amount of matériel. His stormtroopers were going room to room to check for overlooked supplies and, just possibly, stragglers who hadn’t been able to flee the oncoming Imperial forces, but he was beginning to think that he would have to report failure to his superior officers. Also, the Rebels must have left behind jamming devices that were preventing him from using communications and sensor packages effectively, which contributed to his general irritation. He snarled at one of the lieutenants who approached with a brief dispatch that had been physically brought to the command centre by one of the stormtroopers involved in the search.

“Well? Have your techs managed to block the jamming signals yet?” K’dennet snatched the datapad and began to read the information scrolling past on the screen. “I could have had the entire base searched within minutes if it wasn’t for your inability to countermand Rebel techniques. Call yourself an Imperial officer? Incompetent, more like!”

The hapless lieutenant, silently cursing his bad luck at pulling messenger duty, did his best to keep his tone level. “The jamming keeps switching through a range of frequencies, sir. We’re trying to find a pattern and shut it down, but it’s not like any jamming we’ve had to deal with before.”

K’dennet threw the datapad down onto the portable comm centre desk. “Then I suggest you find the pattern quickly, Lieutenant, or I’ll ….” He broke off as a familiar sound echoed down the corridor, turning heads all around. K’dennet’s hand fell automatically to the blaster holstered at his hip. “Where’s that shooting coming from? Increase power to all frequencies and get that jamming cleared!”

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

[Above Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

A Lambda-class shuttle appeared on the screens of the Imperial Star Destroyer Tempestuous, causing the sensor officer on duty to frown and tap at his keyboard, querying the IFF beacon carried by all ships, small or large.

“Shuttle ZR-076? State your destination and transmit passcode.”

A brief hitch of a second or two – nothing that could not be accounted by communication delays – and the shuttle’s commander responded, sending the appropriate code at the same time as stating their destination as the former Rebel base.

“Shuttle ZR-076, where did you come from? You just appeared on my screen. The other shuttles landed some time ago.” The sensor officer was known to be cautious. It had helped him stay alive. Some Imperial leaders could be deadly if their subordinates made mistakes.

“Control, we’re from the Vantage.” The second Star Destroyer had taken up position a quarter of the way around the planet’s rotation, seeking to deny escape to as many of the Rebels as possible. Unfortunately, it seemed that most had fled before the capital ships emerged from hyperspace. The shuttle’s commander continued, his accent a pleasing burr, “We had engine problems during the initial invasion. Had to set down to effect emergency repairs. You can check our reports with the Vantage’s logs.” A file was transmitted, which the sensor officer began to download. “I’d appreciate a quick clearance to land, sir. I’ve got a shuttle full of eager stormtroopers who aren’t happy about missing out on the action.”

The file checked out; the shuttle had indeed reported problems to the Vantage. The sensor officer relaxed and keyed in the appropriate response which would allow the shuttle to land, undisturbed by automatic intrusion defences. “Good luck with that, ZR-076. Seems most of the Rebels escaped before we arrived but apparently the troopers down there have found a group who didn’t make it away. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the assist.” His tone was wry. Stormtroopers, in his experience, were territorial; if the entire invasion force was hunting a small group of Rebels, they wouldn’t appreciate any extra participants. But that was their problem, not his. He turned back to his screen as the shuttle sped towards its destination.

“Good work, Ice.” Alvers’s metallic voice still managed to contain approval as she nodded at the group’s slicer. Ice had worked quickly to make it seem as if the fake files emanated from the other Star Destroyer; if the deception hadn’t worked, the Reds could have found themselves in a great deal of trouble and rescue for their two stranded comrades would probably have been impossible.

The Pantoran managed a swift smile. She had been all too aware of the pressure riding on her. “Thanks, Commander. I just hope we make it in time.” Ice was concerned about Gemi, her friend and roommate, who had been reported injured during the attack, but she was also worried about Lock. She and the Captain had grown close since the squadron had been based on the Mon Calamari cruiser Morning Star.

“I hope so too.” Alvers turned her head. “Any more news from planetside?”

“No, ma’am. We’re keeping up the jamming as best we can, but some fragments are getting through.” Gulls was monitoring the frequencies as the shuttle, piloted by Frosty, plummeted towards the Academy’s landing-site which was now liberally decorated with Imperial shuttles and troop transports. “Seems Lock and Gremlin are keeping the stormies pinned down. The Imps don’t like it – they’re discussing how best to get them out in one piece. Sounds like they want ‘em alive.”

“That’s one thing we’ve got in common, then.” The Mandalorian woman silently approved of the Imperials’ goal, even though it would probably lead to her pilots being tortured for information if they were captured alive. Alvers was determined that this would not happen. “Start to ease up on the jamming; I want it finished in one minute. It’ll do us more good to be able to tap into the Imps’ communications than it will stopping them from talking to each other.”

“As ordered.” Gulls began to fade down the jamming fields as Alvers turned to her training officer and former head of the Red Rancors marines, who was checking through the range of guns and ammunition that had been stored in the Rebel shuttle. Captain Amonos had arranged the swap in the frantic few minutes before the stormtroopers had landed. The Reds’ X-wings, now flown by a mixture of flight instructors and senior cadets, were currently en route to a rendezvous with all the ships evacuated from Rainworld. The squadron’s pilots-come-commandos were heading back to retrieve their missing personnel.

Alvers cleared her throat, the noise making her microphone squeal. “Rev? Condition report?”

The former Marine glanced up as he clicked home the power pack in an E11 sniper rifle. Beside him, Gnoizic – another former Red Rancor – and the remaining members of the squadron were carrying out their own checks. “Everything looks in good condition, Commander. We’ll be well equipped. Could do without the orange flight suits but if it comes to the toss between guns and camo gear,” he shrugged, “I’d rather have firepower. It’ll just make us more conscious of the need for good concealment.”

“Don’t you all wish you had Mando kit?” Gnoizic teased his squadmates, covering his own concern with humour. “Mine may be colourful, but at least it offers some protection!”

“Careful, Gnoizic, you may just score point duty.” Ice thrust a DH-17 blaster carbine into her holster and started stripping down another, checking it for use. She staggered slightly, then regained her balance as the shuttle resumed a more level flight.

“Time to strap in for landing,” Frosty shouted from the cockpit. “And keep one of those blasters for me. I want to be part of the team, not left behind!”

“Don’t worry, we’ll all be needed.” Alvers took a seat and started strapping in. “There are plenty of shuttles and gunboats down there – if the Imps find this one, we’ll just steal another. One way or another, we’re getting off this rock … all of us.” Silently, she hoped her confidence was not bravado. The Reds were still in shakedown mode, engaged in assimilating pilots and marines into one coherent unit. Hopefully they’d work together to save their comrades. If they didn’t … Alvers shut off that thought before it was fully formed. They would work together. She was sure of it.

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

[Lock’s office, Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

The air inside the office was thick with the ozone of discharged blaster bolts, intermixed with the stink of melted plastics and singed wood. Several waves of stormtroopers had tried to force their way into the room only to be successfully held off by two Rebel pilots, one bottle of alcohol and their dogged determination to succeed.

Command had informed Major K’dennet, quite succinctly, that they required the pilots to be taken alive for questioning. ‘Alive’ also meant conscious, as Command were interested in quickly identifying the location which the fleeing Rebels had made their rendezvous point. If they could assemble enough ships to pound the evacuees, the Imperials could deliver a devastating blow to the Rebels as well as depleting the supply of replacement pilots for some time to come.

For Lock and Gremlin, just staying alive was their main focus. In each lull after a burst of stormtrooper activity, they traded the rapidly diminishing bottle of Whyren’s Reserve between them, swigging at the amber nectar in a silent celebration that they were still able to do so. Lock had taken a graze from a blaster bolt which had seared across his black flight suit; fortunately the shot had hit his upper arm, leaving him still able to shoot, but the pain was beginning to mount. Drinking whisky helped to take his mind off it, at least for a short while. Gemi was pale beneath the rough bandages that swathed her head. Her aim was less than accurate but she could still give suppressing fire while Lock tried to pick off the stormtroopers who attempted to breach their hold-out.

She was half-sitting, half-lying against Berserker’s desk, awaiting her turn with the bottle, when a man’s voice – cultured, smooth and confident – rang out.

“Rebels! This is Major K’dennet from the 143rd Expeditionary Force. I’m sure you’ll agree that there is going to be no escape from here – we have you pinned down on all exits. So why don’t we come to an agreement about calling an end to hostilities and dispensing with further injuries – to you, as well as to us?”

Lock raised his eyebrows at the change in tactics. He swiped his mouth with the back of his hand and held the whisky bottle out to Gremlin as he responded, “Who says we’re injured, Imperial? We’re just sitting back and waiting for you to come to us!” He felt expansive; serene, even. The combination of alcohol and adrenaline was a potent one. It struck him that it was absurd to be conversing with an Imperial officer in such circumstances. Lock had to stifle a snigger.

Gemi noted his amusement and took a second swig from the bottle. “Yeah, Impy, c’mon an’ get us, you an’ your stormie friends! You got a hot Zeltron in here who’s able to take you on!” It wasn’t clear whether her slurred words came from the amount of alcohol she’d imbibed or her head injuries, but her bravado was definitely inspired by drink. Lock reached out and snagged the bottle, re-corking it. Gemi poked out her tongue at him. “Spoilsport …” she muttered, low enough so the words wouldn’t reach the Imperials waiting outside.

What she had already said, however, was having an impact among the Imperials. In the hallway outside, Major K’dennet blinked. The woman had sounded … drunk? Surely not! But even that short exchange had given him some guidance: they were dealing with at least two Rebels, one male and one female, and the woman sounded ill – possibly injured, K’dennet decided. He sent the stormtroopers some quick hand-signals, ordering them to take up positions for another assault even as he raised his voice again.

“Your female companion, at least, sounds quite unwell,” he observed, trying for the pretence of chivalry. “If you surrender now, I shall ensure she gets the medical attention she deserves. I’d advise you to take advantage of this offer, Rebels. I won’t be making it again.”

“If he surrenders, I’ll shoot ‘im myself!” Gemi rolled sideways, squeezed off a quick shot that ricocheted through the doorway, then pulled herself back behind the desk in anticipation of return fire. Lock sighed in exasperation and kept his voice low.

“He’s trying to provoke us, Gremlin. Shut up and stop shooting – that’s an order. Let me do the talking.” He ignored the face that Gemi pulled; now wasn’t the time to take her to task for insubordination. They both knew the situation was dire. The chances of them making it out alive were miniscule and diminishing further with every minute that passed.

“Sorry, Major, but I agree with my companion – we’re not planning on surrendering. If you want us, you’re going to have to do it the hard way.” Lock checked the remaining power pack on his blaster. It was just over half-way discharged. He glanced across at Gremlin, who gave him a tight smile.

“I like it hard,” she started to say, but then the shooting began again and they scrambled for cover.

As the stormtroopers put out a barrage of blaster bolts, a white-uniformed communications specialist tugged at K’dennet’s sleeve and indicated that they needed to speak. The major moved back down the corridor, out of the immediate range of the firefight, so he could hear the conversation.

“The jamming’s stopped, sir, and we’ve received a message from Control.” The tech held out a datapad; K’dennet thumbed on the switch and read the dispatch. When he glanced up, his expression was unreadable.

“So is the Holonet crew on its way?”

“They were filming in another part of the base, sir, but they should be here imminently.”

“Excellent. Show them up as soon as they arrive.”

K’dennet kept the stormtroopers engaged until the two-man Holonet news crew made their way cautiously to the communications post, a safe distance from the firefight. Only then did he tell the troopers to stop firing.

“Be ready – this won’t take long,” he murmured to the holocrew. K’dennet waited a few seconds for them to lift the camera and start filming before he shouted, in his best authoritative voice, “Rebels! This is Major K’dennet from …”

“You’ve already told us!” came the reply in a sing-song voice. The Zeltron woman, of course. It was followed a second later by the male Rebel.

“We’ve told you, we’re not surrendering. If you want us, you’ll have to come and get us!”

K’dennet smirked. “That’s your choice, Rebel scum. Sergeant ….” He nodded to the waiting stormtrooper, who pulled the pin on the stun grenade and hurled it into the office. The watching Imperials turned away, K’dennet protecting his ears with his hands; the Holonet crew had headsets. The flash could be seen through his closed eyelids and the stun-bang resonated through his body. When he opened his eyes, there was silence from the Rebels. K’dennet’s smile widened.

The message from Control had been short and to the point. “New orders from Command. The rendezvous point has already been identified. Rebels must be captured for execution live on Holonet – news crew is heading to your location. Execution must take place within the next hour to gain maximum viewing figures. Use all force necessary to achieve this objective. Control out.”

The stormtroopers were advancing into the office now, blasters at the ready, but no firepower greeted them. An “all clear” call came over the Imperials’ commlinks and K’dennet followed the troopers into the Rebels’ hideout. He smiled at the sight of the two bodies lying crumpled on the floor, then took a quick glance at his chrono. “Medics, in here! Get them awake – I don’t care how you do it; I want them moving. We have an execution to carry out.”

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

[Forest surrounding Rainworld Academy, evacuation day]

Commander Alvers’s initial concerns appeared unfounded. After the shuttle had landed, the remaining members of Red Squadron worked together like experienced Spec Ops operatives to neutralise the stormtroopers who had been left to guard the Imperial craft. Splitting into three groups led by Rev, Gnoizic and Alvers herself, the pilots began to approach the sprawl of buildings that they had left in such haste just hours before.

Gulls’ voice came over the squadron’s frequency. He sounded strained. “Lead – I’m monitoring the Imps’ communications. Five and Eleven … they’ve been captured. According to this, they’re going to be executed live on the Holonet just as soon as they can get them out of the building.”

Alvers swore to herself before replying, her voice harsh. “Right. The game just changed. Listen up, Reds, this is what we’re gonna do …”

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

[ Kessel; the same day ]

"So that's when I hit the thrusters and pulled on the yoke as hard as I could!"

A human dropped from the top bunk into a crouched position and turned to a second human, laying on the second bunk, staring straight ahead. The first one didn't seem to mind or notice, as he continued with his story, using a flattened hand to represent the ship travelling.

"So I pulled and pulled," he said as his hand slowly turned to the side, demonstrating the maneuver. The man was bald and wore a patch over his right eye; from the same brow a scar ran its course along his head, stretching over to behind his skull. Abruptly, he arm shot forward. "Zoom! Right between two buildings! But I knew that wasn't it--that was just the beginning!"

"--that was just the beginning!" the man on the bed repeated with the first, nearly in sync.

"Am I boring ya, Bakk? How many other pilots do you know that left Imperial Center Security in the dust?"

"I've heard your stupid 'legendary,'" Bakk made sure to include air quotes, "tale of your escape a thousand times, Connor. We all have!"

Connor grinned, "Take that 'Bakk.'"

Bakk rolled his eyes. "Not this again."

Instead of taking the bait, he turned to his side, away from Connor.

He grinned. "Giving me ya Bakkside?"

"You are so annoying!" Bakk answered and tossed his pillow aside to jump off his bed and tackle Connor to the ground. He had the bearded young man in a headlock when the door to their cell suddenly opened, revealing one of the guards. Bakk immediately let go of his laughing cellmate, "He started it!"

"You Connor McCauley?" the guard spat out, aiming one of his stun batons at Bakk.

"Frak no!" the prisoner answered.

"Then get out of our way!"

Bakk turned to look at Connor who just grinned and shrugged. The guard caught the glance and turned now to his new victim. Connor was still on the ground, so it wasn't difficult for the guard to place one of their dirty boots on his chest and point the stun baton at his face.

"Are you Connor McCauley?" the man growled.

"Who's asking?" Connor choked out with a defiant grin. The guard didn't care for his disobedience, ramming the tip of the rod into Connor's clavicle. Yelping with pain, he tried to bat it away but the guard just increased the pressure and put more weight on his chest.

"Are you Connor McCauley?" the guard repeated, shouting this time.

"Yes! Kriff yes!"

Connor was pulled to his feet, muttering, "Should really buy a man dinner 'fore ya shock 'em with ya rod..."

No one bothered giving him a response. As soon as he was shoved out of his cell he came upon two more guards and a bearded man who gave Connor a look over and asked, "Is this him?"

"Yes, sir, Agent McKenna," answered the guard.

"I'm popular today," Connor interjected. One of the guards hit him in the ribs with the butt of their stun baton and Connor dropped to his knees. Briefly he glanced around to see Bakk watching from the cell they shared, concern on his face. All Connor was able to do was give him a confident wink before the guards dragged him back up to his feet again.

The bearded agent stood right in front of him, his expression stern. "Follow me," he said as he turned.

Whether Connor wanted to or not, it didn’t matter, but one of the guards decided to remind him of his options anyway by smacking him between the shoulder blades with their baton, forcing him to begin walking. It was slow going, as the prisoner barracks of the Mines of Kessel had been built over eons; every level was a labyrinth and between every level there was a security gate to get through. By the time they reached the turbolift, Connor had already lost count of how far they'd travelled.

The doors of the turbolift reopened on the top floor, which was noticeably cleaner than the rest of the facility. He was led to a waiting room where he noticed that some guards and some staff had stopped to watch the holoscreen in a corner of the room..

Forced to watch from afar, Connor couldn't help but take notice as he recognized one of the faces ….

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

[Outside Rainworld Academy; evacuation day]

It was raining. It was always raining on Rainworld. Gemi turned her face up to the drizzle, feeling each drop on her skin like a caress. It was easier to think about the non-stop rain than what awaited them at the end of their walk. Even through the muzziness of alcohol, that finality couldn’t be evaded. Gemi blinked away the drops of water which were trickling into her eyes. The last thing she wanted to do was to look like she’d been crying. Not that she had. Not that she would.

Lock walked with a steady step, belying the pain of his injuries. The major – K’dennet – had ordered their bandages and field dressings removed for the cameras. There was no point creating any sympathy for the Rebels by highlighting their injuries, after all. The binders had been expertly applied, locking around their wrist-bones, creating little jolts of pain whenever their steps were jarred by the rough ground. Lock was looking up and around, constantly checking for potential escape routes, sharp eyes calculating possible trajectories to give him the best chance of avoiding the stormtroopers’ fire. But escaping would leave Gremlin to die alone and the Imps were too close, right now, for any sort of run. Lock kept walking but his mind, ever active, was continually seeking new routes to freedom.

Beside him, Gemi drew breath. “The survival challenge.” Her words were whispered, barely audible over the footsteps of the stormtroopers and the occasional guttural comment over their headsets. “Thass what this is like.” She glanced up at Lock, her gaze unfocused. “You remember – the challenge Sensei won?”

Lock grunted, remembering against his will the multi-limbed Xexto, philosophy professor turned Rebel pilot, who had been one of the oldest – and oddest – pilots he’d ever trained. That survival challenge had been memorable for several reasons, not just because Sensei had actually made it to the finish point untagged.

“I meant t’do it, you know.” Gemi sounded dreamy, like she was re-living the moment. “I meant t’drop that poodoo on your head. You were such a nerf then, Lock. Really.” She stumbled, lurching against him; he had to brace himself to stop them both falling. One of the troopers pulled her upright, giving her a shove to get her moving again.

“Watch it – she’s hurt!” The words burst from Lock’s mouth. Even with minutes left to live, he wasn’t going to let some Imperial kriffer hurt one of his pilots!

The trooper turned a helmeted head in his direction. “She’ll be more than hurt soon, flyboy, and so will you. Shut up and keep moving.” He sounded bored.

Gemi waited a few steps before whispering, “Thanks, Lock.” She gave him a luminous, slightly lopsided smile. “Thanks for havin’ my back. You’d’ve been a great OC, y’know?”

Despite himself, he smiled back. “Yeah, well, the first thing I’d’ve done is make you regret the poodoo!”

“I hate t’say it,” she murmured, her words slurred, “but you’re gonna have to be quick ‘bout that.” Her breath hitched. She was thinking about her family, back home on Zeltros, and the price she was prepared to pay for their safety.

********

[Zeltros; the same day]

It was evening, almost time to stop work, but Pascan was at a particularly intricate section of coding in his latest sim so he had decided to keep going for a little longer. As a long-term holosim designer he could pick and choose his freelance projects, selecting ones that would test his unique skills and experience. Since discovering that his granddaughter Gemilan had joined the Rebel Alliance as an X-wing pilot, he had stepped up his workrate on some highly illegal commissions which he hoped would eventually help keep her safe. Missing dinner to focus on a new sim for the Alliance was hardly a major issue, he felt.

Around his workstation monitors logged all his coding, offering images of the sim designs so he could check his progress. Above the monitors Pascan had mounted three other screens to show different Holonet feeds, providing relief from the intense concentration of coding. Minutes earlier one of them had announced breaking news, trumpeting details of another Imperial “victory” over Rebel forces. He had been dismissive at first - until they had shown the images from the unnamed world. Now Pascan stood, one hand at his mouth, his gaze fixed on the pictures of a handsome dark-haired man and a woman with pale red skin being pulled into position by white-armoured stormtroopers. They stood, side by side, against the wide trunk of an impressively large tree as the stormtroopers retreated. It looked as if they were talking to each other but the Holonet transmission didn’t pick up their words.

The elderly holotech knew, intellectually, that there was nothing he could do; that the pictures were probably being beamed from millions of light-years away and, given any possible time delay, his granddaughter may already be dead. But he couldn’t look away from the screen. He had promised Gemilan to speak to her mother in the event of her death but he never, ever thought he’d see her face a firing squad in such a public execution. Agonising though it was to watch as eight troopers lined up in front of the two Rebels, Pascan kept his gaze fixed on the scene, even though tears blurred his vision and he felt as if his heart was being torn out of his chest.

On the monitors below, a pair of X-wings continued to fire on a flight of TIEs, the image fading and resuming on a loop as Pascan ignored his sim to watch the horror of real life.

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

[ Hidden Rebel Training Facility; Unknown System ]

Paul “Rogue” Sweet was looking at the schematics and training manual of a T-65 fighter, or X-Wing as it is more commonly known as.

He was still getting used to flying a fighter that came with shields as standard with the emphasis of bringing the pilot and the fighter back home in one piece, something that his former Imperial colleagues didn’t care for, as in the grand scheme of things, in the Empire you’re just an expendable number, ready to be replaced by the next expendable number.

It was just over four weeks since he and Cally had defected from the Empire; it had been her suggestion that they should put the skills they had learned in the Empire to good use and join the Rebel Alliance. It had been easier than Rogue had thought, but with the Empire just recently destroying Alderaan with the Death Star followed by the Rebel Alliance destroying it. Those events along with the skill sets both he and Cally brought with them, they had both been snapped up relatively quickly by the Rebels.

The questioning and debriefing Rogue had gone through had been more intense than what Cally had gone through, given his former life, and Rogue had expected this, but still here he was in a class with other newly recruited pilots, studying the X-Wing’s system schematics.

Abruptly, the Holonet receiver in a corner of the room lit up with the bright flashes that indicated a breaking news story. “This just in – Imperial troops have attacked and subdued an important Rebel training facility,” the announcer said, her expression neutral, coolly professional. “The Emperor’s crack stormtroopers overwhelmed the Rebels but two held out, engaging in a fierce blaster fight before they were captured. These live pictures are coming from the pilot training facility on an unnamed world …”

There was a brief commotion in the classroom as the students started talking, Rogue strained to hear what else was being said over the noise.

Captain Maynard, their instructor, spoke up. “Quiet, settle down.” He increased the volume on the display so that everyone could hear. The room fell silent as the feed went from showing the announcer and the scene to just showing the footage from Imperial forces.

The camera feed was jerky at first but it settled into a steady image within a couple of seconds, framing two figures in flight suits – one a standard Rebel orange, one a dusty black; both were crumpled and stained. They were surrounded by the familiar white-uniformed stormtroopers, who were clearly escorting them. As Rogue watched, one of the figures – smaller, with pale red skin and vivid purple hair – stumbled and was hauled upright by a burly trooper.

“They are scheduled for summary execution,” the announcer said, her tones as untroubled as if she was outlining the next day’s weather. “We’ll be staying with this live feed for now but first, here are some messages from our sponsors …”

“Are you kriffing me?” One of the trainee pilots shouted out. It was a young male Tholothian, he stood up, his fists clenched. “Sponsors and then an execution, what kind of sick Kriffers are they?”

“Settle down and sit down, Swift.,” Captain Maynard shouted at the pilot.

The Tholothian reluctantly took his seat once more, not taking his eyes off the display as an advert for a popular energy drink started playing.

“This is what we’re fighting against people, an enemy that casually shows executions on prime time!” Captain Maynard said as he pointed to the display. “If you ever have any doubts about what we’re doing and why, I want you to remember this day.” Two more sponsored messages played before the image returned.

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

[Imperial hospital ship Emperor’s Benevolence]

Junior Lieutenant Ikurrece "Zippy" Ojima wearily placed the tray containing his first hot meal in days onto the table in front of him and sat down heavily, the plastoid composite seat beneath him creaking as he did so. Zippy looked around the wardroom of the aging Medstar-class hospital ship Emperor’s Benevolence at the grim joyless faces nearby. A low murmur filled the room as those around him ate and conversed. Currently in orbit above Rodia in support of the 224th Imperial Armored Division’s counter-insurgency operations there, the Benevolence and her crew had been on station for several weeks medivacing wounded mud troopers up from the fetid swamps below.

Zippy began to eat just as the Holonet receiver on the far bulkhead lit up with the bright flashes that indicated a breaking news story, catching the attention of many in the room.

“This just in – Imperial troops have attacked and subdued an important Rebel training facility,” the announcer said, her expression neutral, coolly professional. “The Emperor’s crack stormtroopers overwhelmed the Rebels but two held out, engaging in a fierce blaster fight before they were captured. These live pictures are coming from the pilot training facility on an unnamed world …”

Zippy paused, fork halfway to his mouth, and shook his head in disapproval, “You wouldn’t catch the mudbugs taking any prisoners down on Rodia, that’s for sure,” he thought to himself. The murmur of conversation quieted entirely as the newscast continued.

The camera feed was jerky at first but it settled into a steady image within a couple of seconds, framing two figures in flight suits – one a standard Rebel orange, one a dusty black; both were crumpled and stained. They were surrounded by the familiar white-uniformed stormtroopers, who were clearly escorting them.

Shrill whistles pierced the quiet as several officers whistled their approval at the appearance of the stormtroopers on screen.

As Zippy watched, one of the figures – smaller, with pale red skin and vivid purple hair – stumbled and was hauled upright by a burly trooper.

A few sporadic whoops joined the whistles as the stormtrooper manhandled the smaller of the Rebel prisoners. Zippy smiled and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table, enjoying the newscast, his meal forgotten.

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

[Outside Rainworld Academy; evacuation day]

Major K’dennet cleared his throat before speaking. He projected his words carefully, all too aware of the Holonet crew recording the entire scene.

“Rebel pilots, you have been sentenced to death by order of Emperor Palpatine. Your crimes include fomenting insurrection against the Empire and carrying out armed missions against Imperial forces. Your right to appeal has been revoked; your sentence is to be carried out immediately.”

Lock tipped back his head, gazing briefly skywards. If he couldn’t die behind the controls of his X-wing, at least he could remember what it felt like to fly with his squadmates, defying the Empire one more time. A slow, cocky smile spread across his lips. “It’s been an honour flying with you, Gremlin,” he murmured as the Major issued a command and the firing squad snapped to attention.

Her eyes were clogged with unshed tears. She took a long, shuddering breath and kept her voice steady with an effort. “You too, Lock. I wish …”

K’dennet’s voice cut across her words. “Ready!” The eight troopers in the firing squad brought their blasters to their shoulders.

And through commlinks, a single word crackled: “Fire!

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

The broadcast carried away from Rainworld, across the vast network of interconnected satellites and communication stations that spanned the Galactic Holonet. In the age of Empire these places were carefully monitored and controlled but even the best of directors could not react fast enough to live broadcasts.

The image and sounds of the broadcast echoed out further and further into the galaxy, reaching into the lives of many millions of viewers ...

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

[CRS Morning Star]

Crowded with the other pilots and evacuees from Rainworld in the main hangar of CRS Morning Star, watching a transceiver some tech had set up, Cadet Sigurd Stormhand felt … numb. Most of the trainees were teenagers, farm boys from the Rim; many had arrived without even a basic pilot’s license - some had tried nicknaming him “Gramps” until his complete lack of humour dismayed them. When the order came to leave, the instructors had tried to organise a smooth evacuation but everything pretty much went to hell once Star Destroyers had appeared in orbit. Sigurd had made the trip up into orbit more times than he could count but nothing could have prepared him for the experience of doing it under fire. Now, to discover that two of the pilots sent to help them had been captured … Sigurd wondered, not for the first time, if he was really doing the right thing.

The male pilot was the sort of generically handsome core-worlder who graced both Imperial and Alliance recruitment posters, right down to the three-day stubble. With a shock, Sigurd realised that the Zeltron girl was the pilot he’d almost knocked over in his rush to get to the landing field. Had he slowed her down? Was that why they’d been captured?

The Imperial officer was speaking: “Rebel pilots, you have been sentenced to death by order of Emperor Palpatine. Your crimes include fomenting insurrection against the Empire and carrying out armed missions against Imperial forces. Your right to appeal has been revoked; your sentence is to be carried out immediately.”

Sigurd gritted his teeth and closed his eyes …

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

[Zeltros]

The sound of blaster fire, flattened and distorted by the Holonet link, made Pascan jump. Through his own tears he watched – first in disbelief, then amazement, then astounded joy – as the stormtroopers either fell to the ground or turned to shoot at new attackers, clad in distinctive orange flight suits, who emerged from the forest. The battle was short but effective: in less than two minutes, the troopers had been neutralised – either dead or wounded – and the officer was in custody, his arms held high in surrender.

Just before the Holonet image flickered and died, Pascan saw Rebels reach the two prisoners and he knew that they were safe. He groped for his chair and sat, knees abruptly weak from the stress he’d been suffering.

“Granfer?” There was a knock at the door as a shrill voice piped from outside, “Granfer, dinner’s out. Ma says come quickly or it’ll get cold.”

“Right. I’m on my way. Thank you.” His voice sounded odd to his own ears but clearly his grandson hadn’t noticed anything different. Pascan reached out towards the blank screen where he’d last seen Gemilan and her squadmate, but the image had already faded into nothingness.

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

[Rainworld]

Lock was determined to go to his death with his eyes open, but the fusillade of blaster shots took him by surprise. He hadn’t counted on the shooting coming from the side, not in front. Involuntarily he half-turned to look in the direction of the incoming fire and saw, glimmering through the trees, several splotches of vivid orange. Lock reacted instantly, lurching sideways to push Gremlin to the ground. She grunted in pain as her body struck the damp, moss-covered ground then lay still as Lock sprawled half-atop her, trying as best he could to provide cover for his wounded squadmate while keeping an eye on the firefight that was developing around them.

Red Squadron had taken the stormtroopers completely by surprise. The former Marines were displaying impressive skills in marksmanship while the pilots were proving no mean sharpshooters themselves. Gulls took out one trooper who was drawing a bead on Gnoizic; the Mandalorian repaid the debt by using his blaster-rifle as a club when its power pack jammed midway through the brief battle. Ice spotted the one remaining member of the firing squad taking aim at the captive pilots. With a warning yell she dropped to one knee and sent blaster bolts sizzling towards the trooper, sending him diving for non-existent cover. Rev’s shot from a sniper rifle entered the slot between the trooper’s helmet and his neck-guard, blowing him backwards and leaving his body twitching on the ground. Frosty poured deadly fire onto a small group of stormtroopers trying to cluster behind a single rock. The growing number of bodies scattered nearby was testament to his accuracy.

The Holonet crew had raised their hands long ago, indicating their surrender, even though the camera equipment they wore continued to record the short but intensive battle. As the final shots dwindled away, Alvers marched towards the hapless Major, a blaster in each hand. “Do you surrender?” she demanded, her voice reinforced by her helmet controls.

K’dennet wordlessly raised his hands. Alvers stood over him, a short but menacing figure in her beskar’gam. “If you’ve done any serious damage to my pilots, you kriffer, I’ll tie you to my X-wing and use you as a meteor shield!” Deliberately she turned away, leaving Frosty guarding the prisoner, and marched over to where Rev was wielding a field medic kit over Gremlin, who was lying prone on the ground. Lock was sitting nearby as Ice ran a scanner over his body. The Corellian looked up as Alvers approached. She put out her hand, indicating that he should stay seated.

“Good to see you again, Captain.” Her voice sounded gruff, but she was glad for the tinted eye shields of her Mandalorian helmet. It was easier to hide her delight at finding both pilots alive, though she could see that they had been wounded.

“Not as good as it was to see you,” Lock replied with a ghost of his usual grin. “Congratulations on your timing, Commander. That was as sharp a SpecOps operation as any I’ve seen.”

Alvers cleared her throat, trying to sound stern. “Let’s not make a habit of rescuing our own, all right? I’d rather you and Gremlin were with us next time.”

Lock eyed the young Zeltron, noting with relief that her wounds were being covered by field dressings. “I think we’d both be happy with that.” He levered himself to his feet, aware that Ice stationed herself close by in case he needed any extra support. “So where did you leave my X-wing? I want to get off this mudball!” Lock staggered slightly but regained his balance on his own, giving Ice a wink as he did so.

“No X-wings. We came in on a shuttle and we’re going out on one, too. Don’t worry, your snubfighter is safe – as long as the cadet flying it didn’t make any mistakes.”

“They’d better not!” Lock looked suitably outraged. Alvers clapped him gently on his uninjured arm before turning to shout to the rest of the squadron.

“Hurry it up, Reds! We need to get under way before the Star Destroyers get reinforcements down here.”

Rev helped Gemi to sit up. The combination of the alcohol and being knocked to the ground by Lock had jarred her injuries, making her feel even worse, but she had been listening to the conversation and now she decided to join in. “I jus’ wan’ my Eksh-wing back,” Gemi called, keeping her eyes closed against the whirling sensation that was building in her head. “My Eksh-wing - an’ shome whishky, thass all I wan’!”

Alvers looked in disbelief at the young pilot then glanced at Lock, who was trying to keep a straight face but failing. Slowly the OC shook her head. “This is when I wish I had an ops officer to deal with all the reports for me. Your explanation had better be good, Captain Callahan. I’ll look forward to receiving it … later.” She turned away, barking orders to the rest of the squadron, trying to ignore the sound of Gremlin being violently sick.

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

[ Hidden Rebel Training Facility; Unknown System ]

The screen fixed on the pictures of a handsome dark-haired man and a woman with pale red skin being pulled into position by white-armoured stormtroopers. They stood, side by side, against the wide trunk of an impressively large tree as the stormtroopers retreated. It looked as if they were talking to each other but the Holonet transmission didn’t pick up their words.

Rogue focussed in on the two Alliance pilots. He couldn’t quite make out what the male was saying but as he concentrated on their lips, he swore that the female pilot said, “Get ready.” Rogue looked at the demeanor of the two pilots; he could see some apprehension, defiance but no fear.

Major K’dennet cleared his throat before speaking. He projected his words carefully, all too aware of the Holonet crew recording the entire scene.

“That arrogant kriffer!” Swift shouted out.

“Reign it in, Swift,” Captain Maynard shot back.

“Rebel pilots, you have been sentenced to death by order of Emperor Palpatine. Your crimes include fomenting insurrection against the Empire and carrying out armed missions against Imperial forces. Your right to appeal has been revoked; your sentence is to be carried out immediately.”

“Oh stang! They’re really going to do it!” This came from a female Bothan trainee.

“Ready!” The eight troopers in the firing squad brought their blasters to their shoulders.

The sound of blaster fire, flattened and distorted by the Holonet link, made many of the class members jump. They watched as the stormtroopers either fell to the ground or turned to shoot at new attackers wearing distinctive Rebel flight suits who were emerging from the forest. In less than two minutes, the troopers had been neutralised and the officer was in custody, his arms held high in surrender.

For a few moments there was silence in the classroom, as everyone absorbed what had just happened. A wry half smile appeared on Rogue’s face at the scene unfolding on the display as Major K’dennet was hauled away by two pilots. At the corner of the screen the original two pilots who were about to be executed could be seen, no doubt happy to be alive.

Someone in the class let out a loud whoop, it was followed by someone else who also started to clap. Soon the entire class was clapping their hands, including Captain Maynard. About a minute later, Captain Maynard brought the classroom back into order. “All right, people, there we have it. Pilots are more than just pilots - they need to be able to be proficient in many other aspects and this will be made clear to you as you progress through your training.”

For an instant Maynard paused and his eyes slowly drifted over all of them. Rogue knew the look. He’d given it himself when recruits had been assigned to work with him. The look of a man who knew that most of them would be dead before he could properly learn all their names.

“Let’s get back to it,” he said after a moment. “Who can tell me what the optimum speed for atmospheric combat is?”

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

[Imperial hospital ship Emperor’s Benevolence]

“They are scheduled for summary execution,” the announcer said, her tones as untroubled as if she was outlining the next day’s weather. “We’ll be staying with this live feed for now but first, here are some messages from our sponsors …”

The wardroom broke into a loud buzz of conversation mixed with laughter as the Holonet cut to commercials. A jovial spirit of camaraderie suddenly filled the compartment as the assembled officers waited in anticipation for the promised executions. Zippy felt his weariness abate as the mood of the room took him. He sat up, back straight, gaze fixed on the screen, an almost unbearable feeling of lightness within him.

The newscast resumed, every eye fixed on the pictures of a handsome dark-haired man and a woman with pale red skin being pulled into position by white-armoured stormtroopers. They stood, side by side, against the wide trunk of an impressively large tree as the stormtroopers retreated. It looked as if they were talking to each other but the Holonet transmission didn’t pick up their words.

Loud whistles and loth-catcalls filled the compartment as the scene unfolded. Zippy joined in with those showing their approval by rhythmically slapping the tabletop before him open-palmed, others joining in as he continued. On the screen before them, an Imperial Army Major was about to speak.

“Rebel pilots, you have been sentenced to death by order of Emperor Palpatine. Your crimes include fomenting insurrection against the Empire and carrying out armed missions against Imperial forces. Your right to appeal has been revoked; your sentence is to be carried out immediately.”

The rhythmic slapping became a pounding as the tempo increased, the plasteel bulkheads not absorbing a single decibel of the increasingly loud, primal sound.

“Ready!” The eight troopers in the firing squad brought their blasters to their shoulders.

The pounding crescendoed and fell abruptly silent, Zippy felt an intolerable joy wash over him like exhaust plasma over bare skin.

And through commlinks, a single word crackled: “Fire!

The sound of blaster fire, flattened and distorted by the Holonet link, made the wardroom cheer, at first. They watched – first in amazement, then disbelief, then abject horror – as the stormtroopers either fell to the ground or turned to shoot at new attackers, clad in distinctive orange flight suits, who emerged from the forest. The battle was short but effective: in less than two minutes, the troopers had been neutralised – either dead or wounded – and the officer was in custody, his arms held high in surrender.

The Holonet newscast abruptly ceased and was replaced on screen by a sportball game in progress on Coruscant. The wardroom erupted around Zippy, a discordant babble of shouting voices. Zippy slowly stood up from the table, his weariness returned, his bones aching for a rest.

“Nothing good ever comes of taking prisoners,” Zippy thought to himself as he left the compartment, headed to his berth.

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

[ Onboard BFF-1 Grand Majestic; the Mid-Rim ]

The freighter’s tiny crew cabin smelled of leaky coolant, bad hygiene, and Jeni Courtner could not get the engine oil off her hands no matter how hard she scrubbed. The Grand Majestic was neither grand nor majestic, but it was willing to hire on two unknowns for a cargo run to the Rim. The adventure had begun.

And it had a tiny viewport.

She loved that viewport and could stare out into the vastness of space forever. After living nineteen years underground on Sullust, the stars were everything she dreamed of. More. And then there was …

“Jeni, come here.”

She turned, unable to resist the sound of Risha’s voice. It was like velvet rubbed across sandpaper, lovely and rough like the girl who owned it. The Zabrak sat on her bunk, cross-legged with a small datapad in hand. A news broadcast flickered across the screen, a clear sign of the Majestic’s crap holoband antennae going on the fritz again. No doubt they’d have her climbing up through the narrow passages again to fix it.

She sat next to Risha, her hip pressing against the other girl’s. The feel of her warmth radiated up her whole side, igniting her chest and sending its fire through her whole body. I’ll tell her tonight, she thought. Tonight.

“Look at this, can you believe this?” Risha said, showing Jeni a broadcast where a squad of Stormtroopers were taking aim at two people in flight suits. They were backed against a tree, clearly prisoners.

“Are those…” Jeni began, looking closer. “Rebels?”

“Yes, and they’re going to execute them on live holovid.”

Jeni reached a hand out as if she could wipe away the static and get a better look. Her gaze fell on the woman with the light red skin. Devarronian? No, she’d met a few of those before. The Rebels took in non-humans of any kind, Risha told her.

“What did they do?”

Risha waved a hand to silence her and pointed at the screen, upping the volume.

“--been sentenced to death by order of Emperor Palpatine. Your crimes include fomenting insurrection against the Empire and carrying out armed missions against Imperial Forces. Your right to appeal has been revoked; your stance is to be carried out immediately.”

“Bastards,” Risha hissed.

Jeni paled, watching. They’d left Sullust to find the Rebellion. To join it. This could be them. For a moment, she imagined it was her and Risha standing there against the tree. The stormtroopers raised their rifles.

Jeni reached for Risha’s hand and grasped it tight.

“Fire!”

Risha squeezed her hand but the rebels remained standing. It was the Stormtroopers who fell and there, live on the holovid, rebels came running out of the woods. Soon the Imperial officer was raising his hands and the feed was cut.

Risha turned to look at her, her smile bright enough to illuminate a thousand stars. Jeni smiled back, filled with hope and something like love. She wanted to reach out, take Risha’s face in her hands and, finally, tell her. Now was the moment. They left to find the rebellion and now … it was a sign.

She let go of Risha’s hand but before she could move it to the Zabrak girl’s face, Risha was up and pacing.

“It’s really happening. Don’t you see? We’re going to do this, you and me. We’ll find the Rebellion. The Empire has no idea what’s coming.”

Jeni smiled in return, happy for her friend. Happy for the rebels. Happy for the promise of hope.

Tomorrow. She’d tell her tomorrow.

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

[ Kessel ]

"Whoo! Did ya see that!?"

Connor leapt from his chair in the waiting room when he saw Gremlin and her friend get rescued by the Rebels. He got a few dirty looks from the people huddled around the holoscreen and his guards decided it was a good moment to remind their prisoner of his place. Once again, his torso received the brunt of the attack and Connor immediately returned to his seat, nursing his bruised rib cage. It didn't matter because for the briefest second he'd seen him. A rebel now, brother? he asked himself. It's hard to believe. And Gremlin, too! I guess they stuck together after all ...

At about this time, Agent McKenna, who had disappeared at some point, returned as well.

"She's ready for you," he said. The guards pulled Connor up from his seat and pretty much dragged him to the office that had been set aside for whatever this was.

It was nearly entirely empty except for one long sofa, an armchair, and a small table between them. In the armchair sat one of the most beautiful women he'd ever seen. Though her hair was silver, Connor could see that she was still young. As lovely as her features were, her cold blue eyes pierced him like stun bolts. He froze for a moment as those eyes sized him up and decided that he was barely worth her time. Her frown momentarily turned to a sneer before returning to its previous form.

"Enter," she ordered. The guards brought him in. She pointed at the couch and they unceremoniously dropped him on it. Snapping her fingers, she looked at the guards, "Out."

"But, ma'am, that is against--"

"Out," she repeated, the coldness in her voice freezing any attempt at talking back. If that wasn't enough, Agent McKenna, now standing behind her, very clearly had his hand on his blaster, ready to carry out her next order. The guards finally got the hint and retreated.

"Ya really got a way with words," Connor mused from the couch, warily eying her and McKenna.

The woman continued to stare at him for what felt like an eternity. Finally, she decided to speak. "I am Agent Zeno. I've been looking for you for quite some time, Mr. McCauley."

Connor's grin widened. "I'm not surprised, my skills as a lover are legendary."

She did not acknowledge the comment. "I have a need for a pilot. I won't tell you why or for what, so don't bother asking, but I will get you out of here if you accept my offer."

For a moment Connor was silent. He thought back to what he'd just seen on the holoprojector. Gremlin and Jack were having adventures and ... he was here, rotting in prison, annoying his cellmates and doing menial labor. A huge smile grew on his lips.

"Ya need a pilot?" he asked. "Ya've come to the right place. Let me tell ya about the time I out-flew Imperial Center Security ..."

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

[Sickbay, Morning Star, unknown location; 36 hours later]

Lock spoke briefly to the Two-Onebee med-droid on duty before making his way to Gremlin’s bed. She was still in sickbay, not because she had to recover from her injuries – bacta had seen to that – but she was coping with the after-effects of a stinking hangover that the miracle liquid could not cure. Normally a hangover wouldn’t last for 36 hours but Gemi, debilitated by the stress on her system, was still suffering from nausea, headache and gastric pain with the symptoms exacerbated by the fact that she had two livers. The Onebee assured Captain Callahan that the effects were slowly diminishing and she should be back on duty within two days, at most.

Grinning broadly, the Corellian swaggered up to her bedside, concealing something behind his back. “Hey, Gremlin! How’re you feeling? You’re looking better than the last time I saw you.”

She winced at the volume then swallowed, flicking out her tongue to moisten dry, cracked lips. “Thanks. Glad you think so … sir,” she added as an afterthought. “The droids say I’ll be fit to fly soon, once I feel better.” She managed a pallid smile, even though mentioning flight made her feel more than a little queasy.

Lock perched on the side of her bed, ignoring her faint grimace at the rocking motion that ensued. “That’s good! Hey, this is from the squadron – they pried it from Alien’s private stock. Thought you might like it.” From behind his back, he produced a full bottle of Whyren’s Reserve.

Gemi turned even paler. “Ugh – you have it. I’m never going to drink again. Never!” She looked away, as if even the sight of the whisky pained her.

Lock hid his grin, as well as the bottle. “Fair enough. Commander Alvers sends her regards and says she’ll be along later. She was going to tell you herself, but I asked to let you know and she agreed.”

The Zeltron frowned. “Tell me? What do you have to tell me?” Hope flared, pushing aside the hangover for a few seconds. Maybe she was getting more leave?

Lock gave an expansive gesture with the hand that wasn’t holding the bottle. “The Commander feels – and I agree – that your performance during the evacuation demonstrated some of your better qualities, Gremlin. Qualities which, frankly, the squadron can use.” He paused, just long enough to let her wonder, before adding, “And this is also payback for the poodoo. It took me hours to get that stuff out of my hair.” Lock stood.

“Congratulations, Gremlin. You’re the new Ops Officer for Red Squadron.”

Her curses – fortunately in a Zeltron dialect – followed him out of the sickbay until the door cycled closed. Lock sauntered off, smiling cockily, the full bottle of Whyren’s Reserve tucked underneath his arm.