[Myomar Flight Academy, Myomar. 1 ABY]
Jade Salu shut the door to the dorm room and locked it. Then, while Myke Krenn watched with growing concern, she dropped a towel on the floor and stuffed it across the bottom of the door.
Mavrim Reede, one of Myke's three roommates, lay lounging on his bunk and raised a brow.
"We pre-drinking the flight test today?"
Myke had a similar question but stifled it when Jade opened the breaker box and attached a vidfeed scrambler to the dorm room's camera. They used that plenty of times, especially when they were planning to drink themselves to oblivion after a hard test. Myomar Academy was a dry campus after all.
Without a word spoken, Jade turned and dropped a datadisc on the futon where Vega Vintaka had been sitting. Frowning, he picked it up and looked at it, as if he could discern what was on it with his eyes alone.
"What is it, Jade?" Brun'challa, the blue-skinned Twi'lek asked. Brun was the group's only non-human and one of only two in the entire class. Along with Vega and Mav, Brun was Myke's fourth roommate. Jade lived in the women's dorms just across the street but spent most of her time here with them.
Kneeling on the floor, Jade dug out a small holodisc player from her backpack and powered it. Turning to Vega, she held out her hand.
"We have a disc player right there," Myke pointed out, indicating the spot beneath one of the raised bunks. "It works most of the time too."
"It's connected to the network," she said, her voice hushed. For being such a tall woman, Myke always found it amusing that she spoke so softly. She had several centimeters on all of them and was built like a gymnast.
"Oh kriff, you found us Gamorrean porn again," Mav groaned, covering his face with an arm and collapsing back onto his bunk. It was the only one on the ground and was so routinely covered in snack crumbs that it always got them into trouble with inspections.
Jade rolled her eyes. "It's not porn, you moofdrinker. It's Alderaan."
That made them all perk up. Myke felt his guts twist as he thought of his last conversation with Rieko. They'd heard about the Disaster of course, even discussed it in class. What would make a planet safe from meteor strikes of that size? The whole time they'd discussed it, Myke kept remembering Rieko's words. Don't believe everything you hear about Alderaan. Something is very wrong with the Empire.
Brun leaned closer, his lekku twitching. "Is it true it's gone then?"
"Worse," Jade said, glancing between them all. "It wasn't hit by an asteroid."
Mav chuckled. "No kidding. It'd have to be a rock as big as this damn planet and how do you miss that coming at you? The Alderaanians are all about peace and such but they'd have to have seen---"
"It was blown up," Jade said, her voice taking on a sharp edge, like she was biting into tough meat. "By the Empire."
Silence reigned. Myke saw Rieko's eyes again, the look of determination in them. How she'd disappeared after telling him not to trust the Empire. He remembered the arguments between his father and hers.
"Impossible," Vega said after a moment. "They'd need a thousand Star Destroyers, or more. Waste of resources and the Empire wouldn't just kill a planet. That's... billions of lives."
"Human lives," Brun said, shaking his head. "They definitely wouldn't kill that many humans."
Jade shot him a look that Myke could tell was both impatient and understanding at the same time. She accepted the datadisc from Vega and slotted it into the player. What it showed shook the very foundation of Myke's world. The video was shaky, as if it was being held by hand, and it displayed a group of off-duty imperial pilots in a hangar bay. Behind them, a pristine and lush world floats.
"Here sits Alderaan, so peaceful they don't even have us on alert," laughed one pilot lounging on an ammo crate. Another made a rude gesture at the world, calling it traitor scum.
A voice spoke very quietly close to the camera. "Do you have your feed on? They said to turn all feeds off."
"No, it's off. Just wanted to get a few images of the group." This voice was even closer, the camera operator perhaps.
"Shut it off. You know who's aboard."
The image shifted as the operator did one last pan of the group. "Turning it off now, okay?"
But they didn't. Instead the feed was left on and set against a crate. Whoever was operating it stepped just inside the frame. He was human with dark hair, but he kept his face turned away. And then, a terrible beam shot from somewhere outside and above the hangar bay. It reached out with a terrible green energy and the planet disappeared in a ball of fire and light.
The hangar went silent.
"Fark me," Myke whispered as the operator reached back with a trembling hand and shut off the feed. The projection ended and Jade quickly ejected the disk.
"Destroy this. Put it in your food prep," she told Myke as she handed the disk to him. "Do it right now."
Brun frowned. "What? Don't you want to show anyone else?"
Jade shook her head, then raked a hand through her short brown hair. "Too dangerous. I shouldn't have even carried it here, but I wanted... no, I needed you to see it too."
Myke meanwhile crossed their dorm room in two steps and opened their food prep machine. With shaking fingers, he put the disk inside and turned it on. Sparks flew and soon there was the distinct smell of burned electronics.
The room was still silent as he watched the datadisk smoke and crack, destroyed like the planet in the vid. The Empire really did it. The rumors were true. His dad told him it was ridiculous, but his dad also believed that Alderaan should be quarantined, its leaders rounded up and arrested. They were traitors to the Emperor all because they wanted peace.
"So what do we do about it?" Mav said, surprising him. Turning back slowly, Myke saw his friend was sitting up again, leaning over the project towards Jade. His expression was hard and serious, something Mav rarely was.
Brun snorted, throwing his hands in the air. "What do you mean ‘what do we do about it?' Nothing. That's what. We shouldn't have even seen that. Just knowing this could royally screw our chance at graduating."
Mav turned his gaze on the twi'lek and for a moment, Myke was afraid of what he saw in his friend's dark eyes. There was something predatory in them.
"Graduation? Brun, you'll be lucky they let you stay. You do know they invent infractions for every sim run you do, right? The last run we did, you were the lowest score yet you had the most kills. They want you to fail."
"That's ridiculous. I fell out of formation, you saw it. My fault."
Brun's words felt hollow to Myke. His friend was on the edge of despair and there was nothing he could do about it. The Academy instructors did everything they could to put him down.
"The Empire will never let a non-human fly a fighter," Mav told him, the statement making Brun hang his head. "You know it. We all do."
"They will. It's a merit-based academy. I just have to do better. That's what they teach, Mavrim. If you're the best, you make it. I'll be better."
"This Academy is run by the people who just blew up a world," Myke found himself saying. He turned his gaze from Brun to the other three before settling on Jade.
"So, like Mav said. What do we do about it? I..." He swallowed, a sensation of resolution bubbling up from his gut. It felt light, almost joyous. He knew what he wanted, or, at least, what he didn't want. "I don't want to stay here. My friend told me that there was something very wrong with the Empire and there it is. I can't serve that."
"It's one video!" Brun hissed. "You can't know it wasn't doctored. You don't know if it's authentic."
"It is," Jade said, laying a hand on the Twi'lek's. "The man who gave it to me was the one who shot it."
Vega leaned forward, lacing his fingers between his knees. "He's here? At this academy?"
"No," Jade said, shaking her head. "But in two days, he'll be coming back with a shuttle. He'll take all five of us."
Mav grinned, a look that meant he was waiting for the punchline. "To where?"
Jade hung her head, her fingers twisting in her lap. No one spoke. The whole room felt heavy with anticipation. Myke replayed the vid in his mind, watching the planet disappear. How many people were on that planet? The Empire told them it had been an asteroid. Rieko was right. His dad was wrong.
His world tilted just a little. His Dad was wrong. How could he be wrong? How could his Dad lie to him? Maybe he didn't know? If he knew he wouldn't be so loyal. He wouldn't hang Imperial banners in their windows. He wouldn't buy all of the Emperor's dictates and books. His Dad didn't even read, but Myke saw those documents piled in his study along with books on the "Rebel Conspiracy."
Dad. They murdered billions of people. You wouldn't be okay with that would you? His Mom wouldn't be. He knew that. She was about saving lives, not taking them. She'd taught him all life was sacred, but she read the same things he did. What do I do now?
When Jade spoke, her voice was firm. Her eyes caught each of theirs in turn. "The Rebellion. He can hook us up with a rebel cell in the Outer Rim."
Myke wasn't sure he heard her right. The Rebellion? As in the terrorist group trying to kill the Emperor and take down the entire galactic government?
Everyone reacted at once. Mav's laughter filled the room as he fell back onto his bunk, giggling. Vega laced his fingers together and stared down between his knees. Brun looked like he'd spotted a Krayt Dragon running straight for him. Myke wasn't sure how to react, so he just waited. Jade seemed content to do the same.
"The Rebellion? Have you lost your mind?" Mav asked, grinning at her from where he lay on his bed. "It's a good joke though, especially with all this set up. How long did it take you to create that vid?"
"I didn't," Jade said and stood to her full height. She was imposing when she did that, and Myke found himself leaning away as she pointed at his roommate, whose bed was only a half-meter from where he stood. "It's not a joke. The Empire killed billions of people. As a test."
Mav's mirth drained away slowly, yet a small smile remained.
"Oh come on, Jade. The Rebellion? It's a fantasy."
"And illegal to even be talking about," Brun hissed. "We should shut up about it and just forget we saw anything."
Myke turned his attention to the Twi'lek and frowned. "You want to just forget it? You saw what they did, right? They murdered a planet."
Brun's skin burned a deeper azure. "And they'll do the same to us. We have six months left until we graduate. I say we lay low, forget we saw this, and when we're out? Well... you know. Find a way to figure out if it's true."
"You still think they're going to let you graduate?" Jade asked, her voice soft and gentle. "Brun. Don't be so blind. The Commandant has made sure you'll end up flying freighters. We take this chance and you can make a real difference. Fly a starfighter. Be a real pilot. For a real cause."
Brun went silent, closing his eyes and dropping his hands to his knees. Myke felt for him. Ever since they'd arrived on Myomar, he'd been the subject of ridicule and derision. His every mistake laid bare as a ‘lesson' for the group.
Vega cleared his throat and leaned forward, turning his attention to Jade. His voice remained calm and measured. "This contact. How would we meet him?"
"There's a clearing, south of Rucksack Hill. He'll have a transport waiting tomorrow night."
"Are we really thinking of doing this?" Myke asked, glancing between them all. Vega met his gaze with that flat, measured certainty he approached everything with. He gave a single nod.
Mavrim grinned. "I'm in. Screw this place. I'm ranked even lower than Brun. Rather fly a fighter than some tug."
"That's because you don't show up to half the classroom sessions," Myke reminded him with a grin of his own. Turning to Jade, he felt a certainty he hadn't known before. "Yeah. I can't stay here, not anymore."
All eyes turned to Brun, whose heels were bouncing rapidly on the floor. His lekku twitched and his fingers twisted together. For a number of uncomfortable seconds, he stayed silent and Myke grew afraid of the answer.
Finally, Brun nodded, though his eyes remained closed. "Yeah. Okay. Sure."
A tangible weight evaporated in the room, replaced with anxiety and, at least in Myke's case, a thrilling sense of awaiting adventure. The Rebellion? They were going to join the Rebellion? It was like the vids.
"Be ready to go tomorrow night, sundown."
"We'll be ready," Vega told her, standing and heading to the door, checking the hallway for anyone out and about. "Coast is clear."
Jade strode to the door and paused, glancing back over her shoulder at them all. Mavrim gave her a wink while Brun just sat there, still never opening his eyes. Myke merely smiled, his nerves on fire.
Just like the vids.
Just like the vids, Myke sighed as he stared out into the pouring rain. The sudden storm had rolled in without warning, as was common on Myomar. Lightning flashed through dark clouds that had kept the sun hidden most of the day. It was only his chronometer that kept the time of day straight.
"Where's Brun?" Mav said, chewing on a nutrient bar. The young man's normally shaggy, light-brown hair was plastered to his forehead, soaked through along with the light-gray flight suit they all wore. The Myomar Flight Academy patch with the words "Loyalty, Esteem, Dedication" on Mav's shoulder stared accusingly at him. He longed to rip his own off.
"You know his nerves. Probably in the ‘fresher," Myke said, feeling a spike of nervousness in his gut. He longed to do something to get the energy out.
"He better get here fast. It's nearly time," Vega said as he leaned against one of the massive white pillars that ringed the Academy's dormitory, staring out at the jungles beyond. He'd had the foresight to bring an umbrella.
For a time they said nothing, each lost in their own thoughts. Myke had called his parents the night before, something he tried to do when he had time but often never did. They'd been happy to hear from him, asking how he was doing. His mom, as expected, quizzed him on stupid medical facts to make sure he was keeping his promise to stay up to date. His dad asked about his scores and progress.
"We're doing great, dad. I think you'd be proud."
"I–we–are always proud of you son. What you're doing is admirable, committing to a life of service like that. Your mother wishes you'd become a doctor of course."
They'd laughed. It felt like home again for just a moment. Then he remembered this would be the last time he'd ever talk to them. Tears had stung his eyes.
"I love you," he said. "Thanks for everything."
"We love you too, son. We have to go, food's done! Talk again soon, okay?"
"Okay," Myke lied. After the call ended, he sat alone in the call center and sobbed.
Motion brought him out of his reverie and relief accompanied Brun as he jogged through the rain towards them. He looked like utter crap.
"Didn't sleep?" Myke asked him, noticing the bruising beneath his eyes.
"No," the Twi'lek said and shoved his hands into his pockets. "So? Where's Jade?"
Mav blew a bubble from his chewing candy and grinned at Brun. "Nervous? She'll show. Got two minutes."
"Better show. I don't like standing around like this. I feel exposed."
Brun glanced around, his nervousness clear. His eyes darted from building to building, looking very much like a scared womp rat. Myke didn't blame him. He looked like he felt.
Jade came running out of the shadows of the cafeteria building. Located caddy-corner to the dorm, Myke spotted her before she made beneath the awning where they stood. Her heavy footsteps sloshed in the rain, so there was no need to warn the rest.
"Ready?" she said, glancing quickly at them as if taking a headcount. "Let's go. Bridge is empty right now. We'll get across the river and into the jungle. They should be there by now."
"How do you know it's empty?" Myke asked as they rushed out into the rain.
"I paid them off!" Jade replied with a laugh.
As they rushed down the main concourse towards the bridge off campus, Myke felt ultra-aware of every sensation. The downpour that immediately soaked through Myke's flight suit and hair was warm but thick, feeling more like oil than water. The air smelled heavy with humidity and the heady scent of the jungle. Their footfalls on the duracrete sounded unnaturally loud with each step.
They were running away and they were never coming back. He might never see his mom and dad again. Once they crossed that bridge, it was over. They were committed. One video and they were committed. Yet... it hadn't been just one video. It was the last five weeks.
It was so many other things too, like seeing Brun treated so unfairly or listening to the tactics for dealing with unruly populations. It was sheer brutality and oppression by overwhelming force. Mav wouldn't shut up about how terrible TIE Fighters were. It was only Vega's tactics that kept the four of them in the running for the top half of the class.
No, this was a long time in the making. The more Myke thought about it, the more he knew. He couldn't see himself at graduation, or joining his first TIE unit. It all felt unreal. Ridiculous. It wasn't him. He'd done it to make his dad proud.
Dad. Who believed so much in the Emperor and his vision that he gave so much of his time away to it. He'd be away for weeks and months on end, working on some comm project or another while he helped Mom with the clinic.
It was time to find out what he believed in.
The bridge was dark. The lighting had been removed, making the whole block difficult to navigate, especially in the storm. The five of them paused almost in unison.
"This part of the plan, Jade?" Vega asked, his voice losing a little of that calm he always had.
"No, but maybe they gave me a break."
Myke felt sweat mix with the warm rain and a spike of fear surged through his gut. Why were the lights out? That seemed a bit more suspicious than just having the cadet guards take a break.
"Did you tell them we were having a five-some on the bridge or something?" Mav asked with a chuckle. When no one else laughed, he sighed. "Well are we going or do you want to try the damn river?"
"We go," Vega said. "That river is deep and fast. In the dark, that'd be suicide."
Mav slapped Myke on the shoulder and grinned. "Remember when I said, I'd follow you idiots into the dark? This isn't what I meant but it works."
They were half-way across when it all went to hell.
The lights went on with a dazzling brilliance, revealing several of the Academy's guards and one of the officers standing on the far side. The officer was a middle-aged man with graying red hair and a doughy expression that always reminded Myke of bread gone soggy. Captain Jaremee Shull was–or had been until now–one of their Ethics instructors.
"Hello, boys and girls," Shull said with a grin that was anything but pleasant. "Going somewhere?"
Mav shrugged. "Five-some in the woods?"
"I doubt that." Shull's smile didn't waver, but his eyes grew harder. Myke felt his nerves freeze, his arms and legs refusing to move. That spike of fear rooted him to the spot as the guards raised blaster rifles at them. They were real ones, not the stun guns they usually kept on hand.
Shull took a step onto the bridge and Vega made a hand signal that Myke recognized. They all would. He'd used it a hundred times in exercises.
How? The bridge was open and wide. There was nowhere–.
Shull raised a pistol and aimed it at Brun. The Twi'lek let out a squawk of surprise and held up his hands. No one moved and Myke felt sweat suddenly soak through the neck of his flight suit.
"I'll ask again. Where were you going? Alien, speak. You have five seconds."
"W-we–I mean they–I–"
"Stop talking, Brun," Jade said, her voice uncharacteristically commanding. "We'll take our punishment before the Commandant for being out past curfew."
Shull armed his pistol and took two steps towards Brun, aiming it directly at his head. Maybe it was the fear, maybe it was the impossibility of it all. After months of discussion, conjecture, they'd finally decided to leave and this was the end?
Vega made the hand gesture again.
"I already told you they're defecting!" Brun shouted.
A stillness washed over the group. Vega's hand gesture was frozen in place. Mav stared daggers at Brun while Jade merely shut her eyes. Myke didn't know what to feel beyond shock. What was he hearing?
Shull lowered his pistol with a deeply satisfied smirk. Letting out a breath of pure contentment, the imperial officer turned to the rest of them.
"Boys and... girl... you disappointed me! Well, not Mavrim. His scores in my class were always pure spite. I was going to enjoy failing you out. But the rest of you? I thought my lessons were sinking in! Oh well. At least one of you had the spine to do the right thing."
"Brun, you kriffing traitor!" Mav raged, striking the Twi'lek hard in the face with a well aimed fist. The blow knocked Brun to the ground and Mav fell on top of him, getting two more punches in before two guards pulled him off. "I'll kriffing strangle you with your own karking lekku, you asshole!"
Brun was silent, but when he rose to his knees, blood ran from above his left eye. The look on his face was pure despair.
"Why?" Myke asked. He knew it sounded like pleading but he didn't care. They were so close. So close.
"I wanted to fly... he said this would wipe away my bad marks..." Brun said, though they sounded empty. "I couldn't just leave. I doubt the stupid Rebels are going to treat me any better! Seen their leadership posters lately? Humans. All of them."
"You bloody fool," Jade sighed, shaking her head.
Vega caught Myke's attention again, once more making the hand signal. This time it was followed by another. Prepare.
He nodded and took one small step to the right. One of the guards, a young man in black with a breastplate and half-helmet was only a few steps away. His gaze was fixed on Shull.
"Yes, Brun'challa is right. All of his previous demerits will be wiped clean, as if they never existed. A new spotless record will remain instead. The Empire thanks you for your loyalty, but unfortunately the Empire has no place for things like you."
As Brun looked up towards the Imperial Captain, Shull shot him in the head.
The young Twi'lek fell to the metallic decking with a clang. Later, Myke could only recall how it sounded like a bag of dirty laundry being dropped off a truck and not a collection of life experiences, hopes and dreams. Even the guards seemed shocked by the act.
In the years they'd spent together at Myomar, Myke had never seen Mavrim Reede move as fast as he did in that instant. The two guards holding him gave a shout just before one fell over the edge of the bridge while the other slipped on the rain-soaked deck and fell. Mav was inside Shull's reach before the man could turn his weapon on him. Driving the Imperial Captain to the ground, the blaster pistol splashed across the ground.
Vega picked it up and shot one of the guards in one smooth motion. He did so without emotion, just a textbook lesson in precision. Myke meanwhile slipped and fell but managed to take the legs out from the guard nearest him, a stun bolt sizzling the water just inches away.
Another blaster bolt seared over Myke's head, blowing a chunk out of the decking. Rolling over the prone guard's back, Myke pried the E-11 Carbine from his limp hands and fired back. The circle of blue stun bolt caught another of the black-suited guards in the left arm, serving only to make his next shot miss. Jade shoulder-tackled him to the ground and brought her elbow into his face, breaking his nose with a wet snap.
Behind them, a cry for help whimpered through the night. Mavrim Reede stood over the prone form of Jaramee Shull, one of the guards' E-11s in his hand and pointed directly at the Captain's head. Behind him, one of the guards had smoking wound in his chest.
"W-we can still make this right," Shull stammered.
"Mav, let's go!" Vega called. The way was clear, but it wouldn't be for long. Already an alarm was blazing back in the Academy.
The look on his roommate's face worried Myke. It wasn't blank, or enraged, or even upset. It was again predatory.
"Did you guys know my grandmother was from Alderaan?" he said, not looking at anyone but Shull. He grinned, as if it was a joke. "Yeah. Went home to celebrate her eightieth."
Myke hadn't known that. Mav never said a thing about it. It was hard to know what was true and what was a joke with him anyway.
"T-Terrible loss," Shull said, his hands shaking as he kept them raised even from his prone position. "L-look, Reede. We'll scrub your record. You'll all be top of your class."
"Shut the kriff up," Mav said and the blaster discharged.
An hour later, they were climbing aboard a beat-up U-wing. During the journey through the woods, no one had spoken. Mav was especially silent. Their Rebel contact was a pilot no older than they were. Dark-haired and short, the human man called himself Fox Shuli and had an oddly familiar sounding voice, yet Myke couldn't place where it was from.
As the U-wing lifted off from the jungles of Myomar, Myke glanced back at the lights of the Academy which burned bright with flashing alarms. For a moment it reminded him of the spotlights that lit up the mines of Sluis Van, of home. It made him think of his mom, who was probably treating someone with a burn or broken bone even now. She abhorred violence. It was against everything she stood for. Dad felt that means usually justified any ends.
Myke was running away from evil and taking up arms against it. His dad would disown him. His mom would die of worry. The Alliance? They'd want to know all about them. Where his mom got the bacta from. Where his dad worked on secret comm projects. They didn't need to know about them or what they did, at least not yet.
"Here we go," Fox said from the cockpit, shooting a toothy grin back at them as he shoved the hyperspace levers forward. Myke turned to look at his friends as the U-wing shot into hyperspace.
Whatever happened next, this was his family now.