Part Six -- The Femme Fatale
The B-Wing fighter bounced mightily under a barrage of fire coming from behind. The scanners blinked, knocked off line. A mechanical whimper sounded behind the cockpit, followed by the spine-tingling crunching of a concussion missile pummeling a thruster control jet into slag.
"Get me those scanners back, right now!" Tonto was working at 72% efficiency today, after a particularly heated exchange with a power generator last night. Should've left him in maintenance, and taken a stock astromech. Loyalty wins out again.
"Shields have priority, Aradia, but if you wish..." Tonto's vox decoder gave away a hint of disappointment.
"Never mind...keep at it."
I shunted all power to the engines, trying to get a boost out of the lumbering craft, then slapped the left control panel to stop that annoying alarm from ringing in my ears. I already knew I was in deep trouble. Didn't need to be deafened at the same time. The TIE Advanced behind me was locking in for yet another missile strike, and I slammed the ship hard to port, in an attempt to circle around.
"Shields back on line, Aradia," Tonto sounded a little more hopeful, but he was not entirely convincing. I transferred all laser power into the shields for a short burst, and flicked the toggle to aft position. The T/I was stalking like a vornskyr, not giving an inch of breathing room. I got tone from his missile lock, and repeated a vulgar trademark slogan appropriate to the situation.
"Way too close for me to pull out of this one," I muttered reaching for the eject lever. But I was too late, as my B-Wing disintegrated around me.
I was nearly blinded by the lights of the training center as I opened the cockpit of the darkened simulator. I took a moment to adjust my eyes, only to see the solemn figure of Captain Jim "Raven" Lee leaning against the control panel, datapad in hand. He did not look pleased.
"Logic would dictate that one should eject in that situation." No, Raven was not at all pleased.
"Yes, sir. I thought I could pull it out, though and waited too long." I removed the bulky flight helmet, shaking back my hair. I really should've bailed out way before that last hit.
"This isn't some video game, Slicer. You can't just put in another credit and start again once you lose a ship. These things go on record. You'd better start taking these simulations a little more seriously."
I was at a loss for a suitable retort and I could feel my face redden, knowing he had hit the mark right on target. I managed to mutter a "Yes, sir", as he removed his hard gaze from me to his datapad.
"Your past scores indicate that you're a fair pilot. Your current simulation scores really aren't all that bad, either, ignoring what I've seen from you over the past three sessions. Would it be wise of me to assume that you're simply adjusting to your new home on the Liberty?" Raven looked down to me again, with a hint of a smile on his face. I couldn't decide if he was offering me an excuse out of an awkward situation, or simply testing me. I chose the latter. Raven didn't strike me as the kind of commander who let his pilots off the hook with lame excuses.
"No, sir. I've had little difficulty adjusting. The crew has been quite accommodating."
Raven crossed his arms, and raised his eyebrows. "So I've heard."
I wondered just what he meant by that remark. Our CO was one I had not figured out yet. He spent all his time drinking in the Lounge but never seemed to get tanked. He was never around unless, like now, you screwed up and then it turned out that he was standing front row center. And for someone who was never seemingly around he seemed to know everything about what was going on in the squadron.
"Then what's the problem, Emerson?" he asked pointedly.
I shifted uncomfortably under his even gaze. I've never been one to break a sweat when cornered, but Raven could look at you like he sees right through you. When I had first arrived upon the CRS Liberty, I had expected the leader of Buccaneer Squadron to be a typical hard-assed military type, or a desk bound pencil pusher. They're usually one or the other. Raven was certainly anything but. I honestly didn't even know if the man had a desk. If he does, it's more likely to be filled with scotch bottles than paperwork.
We were interrupted by my squadmate Flight Officer Brendan "Phrisco" Cohoe emerging from the adjacent room. So Phrisco was the one flying that squint against me. I had to match his wide grin, for he certainly earned one.
"Well done, Phrisco," Raven acknowledged. "But I'd advise you to take a look at your film clip before the next round – frames 471 through 755 particularly. You'll be flying a Y-Wing on the cooperative mission later this week."
"Thanks, sir," Phrisco removed his gloves and helmet, reaching over to shake my hand. "Nice sim, Slicer. You really gave me a good chase. Catch me at the Lounge later, and I'll treat you to a drink." He stepped out of the path of the swinging recovery arm, as Tonto was freed from his chamber.
"Thank, Phrisco, but you deserve the freebies. I'm the one that got slagged, remember?" Phrisco threw me another boyish grin as he headed towards the film room.
"How do you think you'll fare on the cooperative mission, Slicer?" Raven hadn't finished making the roster for that upcoming simulation, and it was doubtful that he would even let me in on the action.
"I wouldn't be at all surprised if you assigned me to fly the transport, after that dismal showing." No need in showing false pride.
"You'll be lucky if I let you fly it, period." Raven looked down towards the deck plates, pensive, then back to me again. "I won't say that your sim was a total loss, because you showed some good maneuvers. But, listen, there is a lot more at stake here on the Liberty than meets the eye. Rumor in the Fleet has it that the rebuilt Buccaneer Squadron won't last past its first mission. Brass is betting that if it doesn't implode from internal shifts, it'll get blasted from the outside. Whether your problem is overconfidence, or lack of it, is something you'll have to settle for yourself. If you need help, ask. But I don't need any more head cases in the squadron than I've already got." He looked away for a moment, gritting his teeeth. "I don't want you to 'think' you can pull it out. Either know you can or eject. Get your scores up. It could mean the lives of your squadmates someday. Oh, and your billet here on the Liberty is depending on it."
He left me standing there, unsure of which of the ten emotions I was feeling should be primary. As the training center door whizzed open, he turned back towards me. "Oh, and when you're done practicing, come down for a drink and a few hands of Sabbacc. I have to win some cash back from Mike." Good, I thought. No hard feelings. But his invitation to Sabbacc was a definite dig, considering that my horrid performance in the last sim was still better than my last game of cards. Mixer must be crabbing about Raven's tab again. I managed a smile in his direction, which he returned three-fold before exiting.
"Guess he told you," Tonto chirped a mild rebuke as we strolled towards the turbolift.
"Hush, Tonto, else you'll find yourself crunching numbers up in Accounting." At least I had one more sim scheduled tomorrow morning, giving me a chance at redemption. The roster for practice sessions was filled, so there was little chance of my getting any more rounds in before that. Checking my wrist-chrono, I noticed there was still some time to get over to the gym and then catch some snooze.
The scheduled physical training program was the brainchild of Buccaneer's Executive Officer, Adam "Guardian" Burns. His dedication to the physical well being of the pilots went far beyond flying missions. He believed that a healthy mind was impossible without sound physical health, and incorporated this theory into the program. I had always thought I was in decent physical shape, but I would still wake up nearly every morning with some new ache or pain attributed to Guardian's workouts. He claimed this would go away in a few short weeks, apparently with the help of massive infusions of Ithorian Green Tea. I noticed, however, that Raven never seemed to join us for the exertions.
Exiting the turbo-lift, I was quite surprised to find the gym nearly deserted. I checked my chrono again, to ensure that I was not late. No, actually I was early.
"Where is everyone?" I asked, to empty air.
"My sensors pick up several life forms in the adjacent area," volunteered Tonto. Approaching the next room, I heard the telltale signs of one of Paladin's workout. The clanging of steel weapons rang throughout the center. I poked my head in, finding several of my squadmates watching Paladin and Valkyrie in a mock battle. I had spent several of my workout periods just watching these two, for the skill involved simply amazed me. Whenever Valkyrie closed in on Paladin with a flourishing flurry of swings, Paladian would parry them repeatedly. And vice-versa. These two would go at it for hours, each looking to best the other. I often failed to complete my own workout, due to watching them.
I managed to swap some sim time with Greywolf and cut short my workout. After a better showing in the sim that Phrisco had waxed me on I felt better. I was approaching my quarters when Groznik stuck his furry head out of his room, located next door to mine. "Slicer, where you been the last few days? I haven't seen you at the Lounge..." his translator decoded. I showed him the flight helmet in my hands, smiling.
"Tell me Groz, how do you handle helmet hair?"
He grinned, and I had to stare at those pointy canines. "Yeah, I just came back from the sims myself," he howled softly. "They've really got Bucc going through the paces. Not to spoil anything, but Raven rigged a few surprises up in the sims while I was there."
I raised an eyebrow, contemplating this. "Surprises? I'm surprised when I survive the thing, period." Groz whuffed a throaty laugh.
"Raven's mantra is 'tough missions make tough pilots.' " Raven had that base covered, for sure. I retired to my quarters, with the Wookiees' words still echoing in my mind.
"Tonto, wake me up in six hours time. I don't want to be late." I pulled off my boots, and settled back onto the uncomfortable bunk, not even bothering to remove the flight suit. Trying to drift off to sleep, I couldn't help but think about the words Raven had spoken to me earlier. I had heard of the fate of the previous Buccaneer Squadron, and definitely shared my COs concern about the squad being decimated a second time. I certainly didn't have enough information to determine whether that prior disaster was the result of poor training or simply sheer bad luck. If the former Buccs were in the same program that I was struggling through, it couldn't have been because they were unprepared. The fight against the Adamant had cost the Buccaneer dearly.
The Adamant. Kendall. Just the name out loud was enough to give me shivers. I knew not only the name but the man it belonged to. When I was briefed on First Flight I made a quick search of the datanet and verified my suspicions. What in the world would make the Empire choose him as the commander of the Adamant?
When I escaped the slave ship Chupacabra, I took some solace in the knowledge that the Empire would surely demote Captain Kendall to deck officer, or worse. When I had heard that he was at the helm of an Imperial Frigate, I had nearly choked on my juri juice. Kendall was the same man who had murdered half a dozen helpless slaves before my eyes, savoring the sheer power of the act. The same man who summoned me to his quarters, as he had done to countless other female slaves, insisting upon total submission. I had spent nearly a month in the infirmary and a year in the brig after that visit--his stormtroopers had to physically take me from the room, for I nearly murdered him with my bare hands. I believe he still bears a scar from that visit.
I never got the six hours of sleep I desperately needed, between dwelling on Raven's words, trying to isolate the probable causes of my recent lack of success, and thinking about Kendall. Tonto was little help to me, for his recorded flight data contained nothing but proof of some seriously stupid maneuvers, making me all the more miserable. Arriving back at the training center, the others present were politely oblivious to my foul mood. Several members of Buccaneer Squadron were present, taking their turns, and being evaluated by Guardian, our XO.
As Tonto was being fed into his socket, I was approached by Guardian, who regarded me with a concerned gaze. "Everything okay, Slicer? You look a little tense. You should really cut back on those stim drinks." Oh, but a stim drink would've hit the spot all right.
"Just having a little problem with scoring, that's all," I said.
Guardian looked around at the other pilots preparing for their sims, then nodded, lowering his voice. "So I've noticed. Anything I can do to help?" I gave him my most stunning smile, for I was hoping he'd ask.
"You could volunteer to be my wingman for the sim..."
Guardian responded with a quiet laugh, shaking his head. "Sorry, but you have to stick with the AI guys for this one." Knowing I'd have a useless artificial wingman didn't help my mood one damn bit.
"Can I be a little blunt, concerning your scoring?" Guardian pulled a datapad out of his flight suit pocket, calling up the relevant information. "Seems your scores were just fine until three recorded sessions ago, and that would put it, oh..." he paused for a moment, thinking back. "About 7 days ago. Wasn't that about the same time you came down ill? If I recall, you had to leave the Lounge on rather short notice that evening. But you were quite fine the next day."
I thought back… that was the night was when Raven and Electro offered the new recruits the story of the Alliance versus the Adamant on Corsair's first flight.
"Is that right?" he asked again. In the short time I had known him, Adam had struck me as abnormally observant. Making that connection was just too creepy for words.
"Uh, yes. That would be about right," I offered, avoiding his eyes.
He knew by my awkward silence that he was getting closer, so he pushed once more, quite gently. "I took the liberty of checking your records that evening. It appears that you have met the commander of the Adamant before."
I turned then, to meet his eyes. "Yes, we have met."
Guardian sighed, and nodded, offering me a courteous hand up into the simulator cockpit. "Maybe one day you'll tell me what happened. But until then remember this: You were lucky to escape him with your life. The last Bucc 8 was not so fortunate."
Guardian leaned over the cockpit, his voice a harsh whisper. "We're gonna go get him, Aradia. The best revenge you could ever exact upon him requires that you be here with us." He looked at me, his eyes a stony glare. "So do your job and kill some Imps." Guardian jumped down from the sim cockpit, and slapped the side of the simulator, smiling once again. "Light 'em up, Bucc 8."
I sat in the darkened cockpit for several moments, stunned into silence, preparing for battle. Tonto was chirping some silly fast food jingle in MIDI, ready to mix it up. Primary diagnostics put him at 89.4 % --a marked improvement from yesterday. Suddenly the cockpit lit up with starlines, marking the start of the exercise. Raven's reassuring voice filled my headset.
"Okay, Bucc 8, you've got a cover mission coming your way. There's a frigate out there that needs fragging, and you're to cover the Y-Wing group assigned to the job with your B-Wing. There are quite a few gunboats patrolling the area, along with the usual TIE squads. Good luck."
The starlines were replaced with an iconized map of the battle area. I counted three initial GUNs, and the frigate. I assumed that the frigate would be spitting the fighters out at me. My stomach churned a little, remembering Guardian's words. Just do your job, cover the others. That's all. Cake, right? Keep the TIEs off their sixes. Toss a few missiles here and there, give the Ys a hand. Draw fire from the frigate. What made me most nervous was knowing that instead of the usual stellar lineup of Buccaneers in the Y group, I would be stuck with the AI pilots. I had to keep an even keener eye on these auto-pilot ships, because they weren't particularly well suited to defending themselves.
The starlines faded into spots as the sim engaged. Powering up lasers, I drained power into shields, glad that the B-Wings had a healthy rack on them. The Y squadron set up their formations as we approached the frigate. Light them up indeed, I thought...