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Skull Saga

Part 1

Defects Detected

Second Lieutenant Zander Pokri stood up from his seat on the shuttle. Reaching down, he pulled his companion's left arm over his shoulders and helped the man stand.

His wingman protested. "I'm fine, really."

"Sure you are." Zander knew from how much weight Breg put on him that this wasn't going to end well, but he let go of the man's arm slowly.

Breg staggered, but caught himself against the back of the next row of seats. "This is fine."

Taking two wavering steps, Breg grabbed another chair back. "Completely fine."

Behind them, a dozen impatient passengers clumped together, waiting to get off the shuttle and onto the Vigilant. He didn't like the way that wookiee in the back was looking at them. He'd never seen a wookiee in person before, but it looked angry.

"Now's not the time for your physical therapy lessons, man." Zander ducked under Breg's arm, but this time grabbed an arm and a leg, heaving the man onto his shoulders and bodily carrying him off the shuttle. He didn't like how easy it was. Breg had lost a lot of weight during his hospitalization.

"I'm not a flippin' bag of vegetables, sir!"

"Well, you aren't far from it, either." Zander set him on his feet at the bottom of the boarding ramp, taking in the spacious and bustling hangar of the Mon Calamari cruiser. He'd never seen the inside of one of these in person either. "And stop calling me that. We're both second lieutenants now."

"What? You mean I have to pay for drink every other trip to the cantina instead of putting everything on your tab? Karking Rebels!"

Zander smacked Breg upside the head as the wookiee and a variety of other lifeforms filed past them. "It's the New Republic now, and we're a part of it."

"Ow! Doctor said to avoid future cranial impacts, you know." Breg grinned at him. "Might send me back into a coma."

"Do that again and I'll murder you in your sleep."

"Again, you mean?" The grin faded from Breg's face when he saw the look in Zander's eyes. "Sorry, sir. I'm just trying to ..."

"I know." Zander had known his wingman since childhood. He knew Breg coped with tough situations through humor. "But knock it off. We somehow got our transfer approved and your probationary period waived. Don't push our luck."

"Sorry." Breg hobbled forward like an old man. His muscles had gone unused for two months and his fatigue showed, but Zander let him walk on his own two legs. Sooner or later he had to build up his strength. Might as well be sooner.

Zander didn't care to think about how Breg's infirmities would be received by their next commanding officer. There was no way Breg was fit to fly yet.

"Excuse me." A fresh-faced flight officer hustled over to them. "Second Lieutenants Pokri and Mangalla?"

"That's us." Zander elbowed Breg to stand up straight. Their generic, gray flightsuits had been hastily assigned to them without name or rank. "We've been transferred to Renegade Wing."

"Yes, sir." She handed them each a duffle bag. "Here are your uniforms and kits. I'll show you to your quarters, and then I have orders to take you to your squadron leader."

She set off briskly. Zander started to follow her, and then looked back at Breg. Breg grinned uncomfortably, stiffened his back and stoically matched paces with them.

By the time they reached the door out of the hangar, Breg was breathing hard and swaying. He stopped to lean against the doorway, wheezing.

The flight officer noticed their absence a few paces later and turned. "Is everything okay?"

"Everything's fine. He's still recovering from wounds suffered in his last battle." Zander pulled Breg's arm over his shoulder again. "Don't worry about it."

"Uh, yes, sir." She nodded, but walked slower after that.

***

Orange.

Blazing, vibrant, here-I-am-shoot-me orange.

Zander frowned into the mirror in the refresher. The New Republic flight suits were obnoxious and tacky.

He and Breg had finished dressing and freshening up. Zander had already shaved much earlier that day, but he shaved again. It would be poor form to show up on his first day with stubble. "Hurry up. It's time to go meet our new commander."

"Yes, sir."

"Breg, for the last karking time!" Zander grabbed a handful of Breg's flight suit and shook him. "I'm not a major anymore. I don't outrank you. Slip up like that in front of our new squad leader, and he's not going to be pleased."

Breg eyed him, the sheepish grin slowly sliding off his face. He nodded. "Sorry, Poker."

"None of that either. Joker and Poker died back at Ferro City. This is a fresh start. We'll take whatever new call signs they give us."

"Sorry. I'm just happy to be alive." Breg glanced at the floor. "Happy to not be there anymore, you know? Do you know what it's like to hate the Empire everyday and not be able to say anything about it to even your best friend? Constantly hiding your disagreement with everything you're asked to fight for? Cheer up! The New Republic at least gives their people the freedom to breathe and think!"

"It does." Zander had seen that much for himself from his interactions with the NRI agent who had interrogated him after their capture. Major Rosk Vikeron-Silence, he corrected himself-had been anything but disciplined or oppressed. "However, strings got pulled to get us here, so don't screw it up. Not everyone is going to trust us or like us, given that we were trying to kill them a couple months ago, got it? Don't give them any other reasons to hate us."

"Pessimist." Breg tucked his comb back into his kit bag. "Let's go."

***

The instant the flight officer ushered them into the office of "Maj. Tane", Zander felt a chill.

The man behind the desk rose to greet them, gesturing to the two seats before the desk. The wars had not been kind to him. The overhead lights gleamed off of his head, both the shaved side and the metal side. His right eye burned red, clearly a cybernetic implant, and his left stared with equal intensity, cold and blue. The right arm with which he gestured was also cybernetic, a cold-looking appendage of bare and unapologetic metal.

But beyond that, there was something more. The stern face. The stiff motions. Discipline and no-nonsense exuded from this man, and Zander recognized it. Breg, too. Out of the corner of his eye as he sat down, he saw all humor leave his friend's face, replaced by a familiar, grim fa├žade.

Major Tane wore a New Republic uniform, but he could have walked straight out of an Imperial briefing room.

"Major Alexander Tane, officer commanding of the Skull Squadron." The man held out a hand. "But you can call me Scythe."

Even the names were Imperial in nature.

"Yes, sir." Zander and Breg shook his hand in turn. The metal fingers were as cold as the dead.

Scythe tapped a stack of flimsies on his desk by a potted cactus. "I've reviewed your records. Precious little to go off of. One of you has a decent performance record from helping out at the academy for all of ... two months. The other of you stumbled your way out of a coma, signed papers to defect, and somehow got your probation waived. You don't even have a document saying you're fit for flight duty yet, so I'll assume you aren't."

Zander glanced sideways at his friend, but he needn't have worried. Breg had put on his full Imperial face, stoically saying nothing.

"NRI records state you were both part of an ambush that was planned to destroy this very ship you now stand on."

Zander bit his tongue. He was the one who had given up that information, voluntarily. Yes, he had been a part of the ambush, but he'd also saved the Vigilant and other ships from that demise. But he knew a protest of innocence would only make him look worse.

"You had strings pulled to get you here. If I had a choice, you wouldn't be within ten parsecs of the Vigilant, but command made clear I don't have a choice." The red and blue eyes both locked onto Zander. "I don't appreciate my hand being forced.

Zander waited, still trying to process what he saw before him. Scythe had to be ex-Imperial himself. Either that, or the New Republic wasn't much different from the Empire.

"Loth-cat got your tongue?"

"No, sir." He'd learned a long time ago that there was nothing to be gained by telling a commanding officer something they didn't want to hear.

Scythe shrugged, as if knowing Zander held something back but not caring. "Well, you're here now and I have orders, so let's get a few things straight. One, no one trusts you. Not me, not them."

Who was "them"? Zander didn't ask, but the major motioned vaguely toward the door while talking.

"Two, if you were hoping to defect and skate on the New Republic's lack standards and poor discipline- too bad. This is my squadron, and we don't have room for slackers or slobs."

Shaving had definitely been the right call.

"Three, if you defected to worm your way into the ranks of the New Republic for nefarious purposes ... we will catch you. And that's the last mistake you'll ever make."

"Four, we aren't your friends. We aren't your comrades. Think of us as your prison wardens until you earn our trust."

All four items seemed to be the same thing restated in quadruplicate: you are not welcome.

"Questions?"

Zander shook his head but Breg piped up. "Yes, sir. How are we supposed to earn your trust?"

Scythe glared at him as if he were stupid. "By being trustworthy."

"Yes, sir."

"Skull is composed of Alpha, Beta, and Gamma flights. All new defects go to Gamma flight, under our XO, Captain Seechay Pilt." Tapping a mechanical finger heavily against the desk, Scythe frowned. "Now I have a personal request for both of you."

Something in the man's tone changed, but Zander couldn't quite pinpoint it.

"If you're going to go farking up in front of me, you'll make yourself look bad. Go farking up front of the XO ... you'll make us all look bad. Do I make myself clear?"

No. It wasn't at all clear. But should he point that out?

Breg solved Zander's conundrum by piping up a second time. "I don't follow, sir. What's special about Captain Pilt?"

"So glad you asked. Maybe you aren't an idiot after all." Scythe folded his arms across his chest. "The XO isn't one of us. The XO is one of them. The XO is big brother, always watching for someone to screw up."

Finally unable to bite his tongue any longer, Zander broke in. "Okay, just who is 'us' and 'them'? Aren't we all on the same side here?"

"The question is, 'Are we?' " Scythe snorted softly. "Not because we aren't, but because people keep asking the question. A little history lesson for you, defect. I used to command the Reckoners, an Imperial Squadron responsible for hunting down pirates and keeping law and order on the fringes. We served with distinction and helped a lot of people, but as time went on, things changed. We saw some things. Saw a lot of things. After Alderaan, we packed up and left."

"All of you unanimously decided you were on the wrong side?" Zander exchanged a glance at Breg. Whole units never defected. Individuals defected. Reason being, there was no leeway for talking dissent. If you even hinted at discontent with the Empire to a hard-bitten loyalist, it would be the last time. For an entire unit to agree to defect ... that would require coordination and confidence your squad wouldn't turn you in for treason.

"We've always been on the right side. I hand picked every man and woman in the Reckoners. Heroes, all of them, fighting to protect our citizens from the malicious." The red-blue gaze landed firmly on Zander. "The sides changed, not us."

When Zander refrained from commenting, Scythe continued. "We trusted our lives to each other. We were all thinking the same thing. I scarcely had to say a word. We saw our opening, and we took it. When we approached the Rebels, we had one condition-our squadron remained intact, under my command. They didn't like it, but they were too low on manpower to turn us down."

"So everyone in Skull is from the Reckoners?" Breg asked.

"No. Years have passed. We served with distinction and lost a lot of good men." Despite his apparent sincerity, Scythe looked bitter. "It came at a cost, keeping the Reckoners together. Those of us who served since Alderaan eventually earned a degree of trust, but they like to patch our holes with new defectors."

Breg revised his question. "So ... everyone in Skull is ex-Imperial?"

"Except for the XO. You'll find out sooner or later, so I might as well tell you. The XO is here to make sure no one's planning some secret Imperial plot under their noses. It's the price I had to pay to keep my unit together." Scythe sighed. "I didn't expect to be paying it for quite so long."

Though demoted to second lieutenant through the process of defecting, Zander had also been a major once, the commander of the Dicer Squadron. He understood the burdens of leadership, and he instantly recognized something that had to have been eating at Major Tane for years.

The Reckoners had trusted each other implicitly. The Skulls didn't. The New Republic didn't trust them. Neither they nor the XO trusted the new defectors. The XO didn't trust them, and they clearly didn't trust Captain Pilt, because Scythe refused to even use the man's name. How did a squadron operate with so much distrust between each other and the rest of the fleet?

Zander knew a broken unit when he saw one, but it wouldn't do any good to mention the obvious. Scythe clearly knew.

"Our intentions are sincere, sir," Breg promised.

"Save your breath. Your actions will tell me everything I need to know." Scythe lifted a comm. "XO, to my office. Come collect your new defects and introduce them."

***

Captain Pilt was a graying, balding fellow with the perpetual expression of someone who had spilled his caf. Zander could tell this from a single glance at the man's deep frown lines as he escorted them to a briefing room.

Leading them before a line up of assembled pilots, Pilt gestured at Zander and Breg in turn. "Billets Eleven and Twelve have been filled. Introduce yourselves, lieutenants."

Zander pulled himself crisply to attention. "Second Lieutenant Zander Pokri, reporting for duty, sir!"

Breg seemed preoccupied by the row of Skulls. Each of them wore a black flightsuit. "I feel like a neon sign at a funeral."

"Who's this joker?" A muscular woman with white cornrows scowled at Breg.

"Second Lieutenant Breg Mangalla, ma'am." Breg smiled sheepishly. "Can't help but notice I seem to stand out. I think they issued us the wrong flight suits."

"Mmhmm, no." The woman shook her head. "Defects get standard-issue orange until they prove they're going to last long enough to warrant requisitioning a custom flight suit."

Breg turned to Zander. "Orange you glad we're not stuck in this color forever?"

"Shut up, Joker." The woman pointed a gleaming, sharpened fingernail at Zander. "You. What was your name again? Poker?"

"Pokri, ma'am."

"Joker and Poker. Cute."

Zander repressed a sigh. So much for leaving the past behind.

"I'm Captain Fess Astrada. You can call me Nails." She flashed her fingernails at him. Those weren't acrylic nails with metallic polish. Those were durasteel blades.

"Captain Harrison Malone," the next man said. "Skifter to you lot."

The introductions ran on through the remaining members. Zander committed their faces to memory, relying on Breg to memorize their names. Breg never forgot a name or any of the puns he could create around it. Zander dreaded the day Breg and Silence found themselves in a conversation together.

Speaking of Silence, she wasn't to be found. Wherever they'd assigned her in Renegade Wing, it hadn't been to Skull Squadron. But of course not. She wasn't an ex-Imperial.

"Welcome to Skull." Captain Pilt nodded to the others. "Dismissed. Joker, Poker, I have assignments for you."

***

The following week rivaled the grueling nature of their days in the Imperial Naval Academy. Captain Pilt piled them high with busywork like white-gloving the Skull quarters-which Zander mostly shouldered, for the sake of Breg's atrophied muscles. Captain Astrada monopolized the rest of their waking hours with time in the sims, arguably a more effective use of their time.

Zander heard mention of a bar or lounge called the SSD and assumed it was a Skull thing until someone explained it stood for Simmons-Schock Deck, not Super Star Destroyer. Apparently Renegade Wing personnel spent their down time there, drinking and hanging out. Zander wanted to go see if he could find Silence there, but with both Pilt and Nails fighting over their time, Zander and Breg's only "down time" was rack time.

Klaxons blaring yanked Zander out of the aforementioned rack time, and he nearly fell off the top bunk in his haste. Dragging on their blaze orange flight suits, he and Breg burst out of their quarters and into the hall.

"Hurry up, you lazy slugs! To the hangar, now!" Nails waved the other Skulls by but leveled a sharp nail at Breg. "That doesn't mean you, invalid. Poker, get your ass moving!"

"Sorry, man." Zander broke into a sprint, leaving his friend behind, but relieved they weren't pushing Breg into a life-or-death situation in his condition.

***

He'd passed flight certification on X-wings only a day ago, so climbing into his assigned craft felt a weird mix of both new and familiar. He'd outgrown preflight jitters years ago, but as a lowly second lieutenant in a new squadron that didn't trust him, with his wingman counting on him to make them both look good ... he felt the pressure to perform.

Captain Pilt's voice came over the comm. "You're my wing, Skull Eleven."

"Roger that, Nine." No surprise there. He hadn't seen a Skull Ten during introductions, and with Breg grounded, he had no one else to team up with.

He raced through his preflight checks, careful not to skip any, and a few moments later, he streaked out of the hangar on the tail of Skull Nine.

Major Tane's voice cut across the comm. "We've got a mixed unit approaching. Popped out from behind a nearby moon as the ship passed nearby. Battle spread 500 meters. Engage by flight."

"With me, Eleven," Captain Pilt ordered, rolling to starboard to take third flight's position at the far end of the battle spread.

Zander complied, mimicking the maneuver with the precision built into him by his Imperial training. While the outward appearance would make it look effortless, inside the cockpit Zander was a little more stressed than usual as he had to constantly force himself to think in terms of a flight stick rather than a yoke he was used to.

"Outnumbered," Pilt mumbled. "Do keep up, defect."

The line of Skulls met with the line of Imperials with reckless abandon. Red and green lasers whizzed back and forth as the two forces attempted to whittle each other down in a head to head pass. Unfortunately for the Imperials, their substandard armor and lack of shields made this a losing proposition for them, even with the presence of one shielded TIE Reaper attempting to support their comrades with a shield bot and a deployable turret.

Zander broke away slightly to avoid the combined fire of the TIE in front of him as well as the fire from the Reaper's turret seeming to track only him in the melee that had unfolded. Fumbling with his controls only slightly, it took him an extra moment to find his wing leader in the fray. The astromech in his ship helpfully displayed a green box around the ship, as if it knew exactly what he was looking for.

"Smoked three!"

"Break high, One!"

"Bringing him around, Four."

"Nine, watch your six!"

"I don't see him!"

"Six low!"

Zander saw the TIE fighter nestle itself in a prime firing positon behind his wingman's X-wing. Each maneuver the Captain made, the TIE adjusted as it slowly worked its way into a perfect kill position. "This guy's fancy," he mumbled as he kicked his ship over for an intercept. "Eleven on the way, Nine!"

"Well hurry it up!" Pilt cried out in a panicked tone as his X-wing jinked. Unfortunately, it only tightened the hold on his rear end that the Imperial pilot had.

"Engaging!" Zander shouted as he lined up the TIE in his crosshairs. Standard Imperial engagement procedures required that his ally's ship not be in the line of fire. He assumed the Rebels- New Republic- probably had a similar doctrine, but he wasn't about to let the XO perish and stain his standing within his new unit. He squeezed down the trigger, and three things happened at once.

The Reaper managed to sneak a shield augmentation bot in the middle of the engagement. The pilot of the TIE began firing at Captain Pilt, though none of his shots managed to land yet. Zander's first shots impacted the blue-glowing shields.

"Focus that Reaper!" Scythe ordered.

"Another turret out!" Skifter reported.

Zander grimaced as the new turret deployed just to the side of his cockpit close enough that he could hear it deploy and power up. The rhythmic thumping of the new turret jarred his ship slightly as a few of the blasts landed on his shields. He adjusted his stick to keep the TIE centered on his nose as the two ships in front of him jinked around. He squeezed the trigger again, draining the new temporary shields on his target.

Pilt began maneuvering wildly as a few of the TIE's shots found purchase on his own set of shields. The next set scorched the area near the astromech socket, erupting in sparks.

Zander swore as a few of his bolts missed the TIE and shot the area around his wingman, but he continued to bore in as his next two bursts found his target. The first drained the shields completely, while the second blasted the TIE right on the ball cockpit, causing it to explode and send the solar arrays flipping off in opposite directions.

"Got your tail, Nine!"

Pilt's response was almost a snarl, full of venom. "Traitor!"

Before Zander could begin an attempt at parsing that response, everything in his cockpit went dark. "What in the Sith?" He furiously began flipping switches and mashing buttons, but then calmed himself briefly and recalled his Imperial, and then New Republic, training. He began running through the emergency startup sequence, but it was all for naught. Something had happened to his ship that he couldn't figure out or recover from. He looked out into the black helplessly as his new squadmates battled in the space around him.

Without sensors, he only caught occasional flashes of light on a viewport on the Imperial fighters. Unfortunately, one of those flashes seemed much closer than the rest, and his heart caught in his throat.

A TIE fighter was lining up his ship for an easy kill.

***

Breg stood near the other ground crew members as they gathered around a communication device that was linked into the Skull Squadron comm channel. Initially he felt buoyed by the things he heard, but then his stomach fell out of a trap door in his abdomen.

"Eleven is disabled!"

"What?!"

"Keep an eye on him!"

"Another squadron reinforcing them from the moon!"

"They smell the blood in the water!"

"Rally around!"

Breg had heard enough. He looked around the hangar frantically as he searched for his assigned X-wing. Once his eyes settled on the unused fighter, he grabbed a random helmet from nearby and hobbled toward the ship at his best speed. This helmet was different from the one he'd been issued as an X-wing pilot. It had a bottom that covered his chin, and was more akin to his old Imperial flight gear. He threw it on as he jogged toward his ship. His muscles had regained some of their strength, but he was still a far cry from his peak, or even merely adequate, efficiency.

An alien technician held out a datapad in front of himself as he stepped in Breg's way. "Stop!"

Breg deflected the technician with a stiffarm, knocking the strange alien down more roughly than he'd intended. "Apologies! My friend needs my help!"

Before anybody else could react further than helping the poor Abednado technician to his feet, Skull Twelve's X-wing rocketed out of the hangar.

"Twelve inbound!" Breg shouted.

"You're not cleared for flight," Scythe responded.

"Nice kill, Two!"

"His wingman is swinging back for Eleven's ship!"

"Go back, Skull Twelve," Pilt spat. "That is an ORDER! Turn back now or-"

Breg clicked off his comms. "Boring conversation, anyway," he mumbled to himself as he urged his ship to fly faster toward his longtime friend. He saw the TIE closing in on Zander's ship, and he knew that he wasn't going to make it in time. He wrenched one eye shut, but the other remained open and locked onto the scene ahead as if his brain couldn't decide if it wanted to watch the death of his friend or block it out completely.

Just then, a Skull X-wing talon-rolled through the space around the TIE and executed the ship with a surgical plasburst blast.

Breg let loose a sigh of relief as he pulled his ship around to face the new looming threat. He clicked on his comms again just in time to hear his captain cursing up a storm. Before he could thank the pilot that had saved his friend, his own ship shut down around him. Unfortunately, he'd pulled around at just the wrong time and now his forward momentum was sending his ship hurtling through space toward the new squadron approaching the Skulls.

"What gives?" Breg shouted as he attempted to restart his fighter's power plant. "I'm disabled!"

"And you'll stay that way until you can be picked up and arrested for treason!" Pilt howled. "Why are your comms still working? I disabled all of your systems!"

Breg was overcome with confusion as a million different scenarios ran amok through his brain at once. Disabled on purpose. Comms still working. Why couldn't he hear Zander, then? Was it his borrowed helmet that allowed him to continue to communicate? It had to be. "You disabled me? How?"

"Got a loner closing with Twelve's ship!" Crossbones reported. "He's too far for me to get!"

"No longer," Nails replied dispassionately as her X-wing swooped through the area, leaving nothing but a flaming wreck of the TIE in her wake.

"Form up to take on the new threat," Scythe ordered.

"Your services are no longer needed, Skull Squadron."

"On whose authority?"

"The Spectres will clean up your mess. SAR is on its way to pick up your damaged ships."

Breg watched as the new squadron of electric-blue painted X-wings tore into the new squadron of TIE fighters, obliterating over half their number in the first pass.

***

Zander leapt out of his cockpit the moment his X-wing touched down. Seeing Breg's cockpit opening out of the corner of his eye, he pointed at his friend warningly. "Stay put, lieutenant!"

Covering the distance to Captain Pilt, Zander's fury blinded him to the last few months of his life. He was a major again, a leader, and absolutely incensed.

"What the frell were you thinking, captain!"

Pilt had just stepped down from the ladder, and when he turned, his face paled visibly. "Security! Arrest this man!"

"I saved your ass out there, you moron!" Zander grabbed Pilt's lapel and yanked him close. "What kind of stunt do you think you're pulling, disabling not one but two of your own squad in the middle of a firefight! You could have killed us both, you karking pusbag idiot! I will have you grounded and removed from my squadron so fast-"

Inhuman strength tore Zander away from Pilt, and red and blue eyes bored into his. "You forget yourself, lieutenant."

Security arrived, but they looked among the three angry men with uncertainty. Scythe waved them away. "It's just a misunderstanding. I'll deal with this personally."

"Yes, sir." The MPs backed away and returned to their posts.

"And you, captain ..." Scythe turned on the graying man. "You frakked up. This is exactly why I've been warning you about using those kill switches from day one! I saw what happened out there. That TIE smoking your ass until Poker pulled his little stunt and shot him from behind you. Risky? Sure. But if he hadn't taken the shot, you'd be toast!"

"It didn't look that way to me. He's a fresh defect, a second lieutenant barely qualified in an X-wing, and I see red lasers flying over my head- What was I supposed to think?"

"This fresh defect was a major who led his own squadron to victory countless times over the last five years." Where Scythe had gotten that information, Zander didn't know. "He's not some nerfbrain with no combat experience, captain."

By now, Nails and Skifter had arrived to glare at Pilt from behind Scythe. Nails chimed in first. "If I hadn't been on the ball, Joker would be chunks in space right now. Disabling him gave the enemy a choice target."

Pilt backed against his ladder, grasping for an excuse. "He disobeyed orders. I thought he was coming to back up his friend."

"He was coming to back up his friend!" Zander snarled. "That's what wingmen do! They don't wait and watch their wingmen die, and they certainly don't disable their ships!"

"You shut up." Scythe gestured to Zander but nodded to Skifter.

Skifter grabbed Zander's shoulder and pulled him away a few more paces. "The commander's got this covered. The less you say, the better."

Zander held his tongue and seethed, crossing his arms over his chest to keep from punching Pilt.

"I expect thorough reports from every one of you within the hour." Scythe's gaze flicked over them all in turn, but lingered on Pilt, Zander, and Breg. "You three are confined to quarters until this is sorted."

***

"I dreamed of getting out of the Imperial Navy for years, of defecting to the Rebellion." Breg sighed, sitting on the edge of his bunk with his chin propped up by both hands. "This isn't how I envisioned it."

"At this rate, the New Republic will still be the ones to shoot us down." Zander clenched his fists as he paced the small room. "That Agent Zeno, now Pilt ... Silence and Corporal Settich gave me hope things would be different here, but where are they now?"

Breg glanced up. "You keep mentioning that name. Who's Silence?"

"She's the NRI agent who interrogated me after we got captured. Major Rosk Vikeron. Well, Second Lieutenant Rosk Vikeron now, and she transferred from the NRI back to being a pilot. She's somewhere in the Renegade Wing. That's why I got us transferred her."

Breg laughed, sitting up. "You're sweet on your interrogator? Karking frell, man. I thought I was desperate."

"Oh, shut up. Never said I was sweet on her."

"You intentionally got us stationed on the same ship with her."

Zander glared at him. "You've never met her. Not to know it, anyway. She visited you in the hospital. When you meet her, you'll understand. You and her are going to get along way too well for anyone's sanity."

Scratching his jaw, Breg studied Zander. "You mean ... she has good taste in humor?"

"Terrible, terrible taste in humor." Zander shook his head vehemently. "She laughed at every ... single ... one ... of your jokes. Absolutely awful taste."

"I can't wait to meet her then." Breg chuckled. "Better make your move fast. Sounds like she might like me better."

Snorting, Zander rolled his eyes. "First we have to not die to our incompetent XO."

"Right." Breg sighed. "I see now why Scythe-"

With a swishing sound, the door opened. Four New Republic MP's entered, two of them with blasters drawn and two with restraints at the ready.

"The frell is this?" Zander glared at them.

"You're under arrest for the murder of Captain Seechay Pilt."

"Murder? We were in here the entire time!"

"Of course you were. Turn around." The cold metal closed around his wrists.

"You got it backwards. He tried to murder us." Breg reluctantly stood up and offered his wrists. "Check the flight logs."

"Yeah?" The senior MP didn't seem impressed. "Around here, that's called motive."

***

"Second Lieutenant Zander Pokri." An angry, blonde bombshell of an NRI agent sat down across the table from him. The New Republic seriously had better recruiting than whatever the Empire was doing. Even the unflattering uniform had trouble hiding her figure. "I'm Captain Darlene Orvan of New Republic Intelligence. What were you doing earlier today?"

"Can you be more specific?"

"No, just answer the question."

Zander sighed. "Fine. At 0 dark hundred, I was fast asleep in my quarters. I remained asleep until approximately four hundred hours, when the alarms to scramble went off. I got dressed. I helped my wingman get dressed. He's got atrophied muscles from extended hospitalization and-"

"Some idiot cleared him to fly in that condition?"

"No."

They stared at each other for a long moment.

"Well? Go on."

"We entered the hall outside our quarters. We encountered Nails. Captain Fess Astrada of the Skull-"

"I know who she is."

"Got it."

"And then?" She laid the emphasis on thick.

"And she told Breg he was grounded, so I-"

"Breg who?"

"I assumed you knew everyone."

"Who the kark is Breg?"

"My wingman. Second Lieutenant Breg Mangalla. We share quarters? Just arrived last week? We're the new guys. The defects? No one told you about us?"

She scowled as if he'd touched a nerve. "Assume they haven't."

"I ... um ... sure." Zander was starting to wish she were an Imperial agent at this point. At least talking to them, you knew where you stood. "Anyways, we double-timed to the hangar. I got to my ship, did preflight checks, and followed Captain Pilt out."

Her eyes narrowed. "Why were you following him?"

"Because I was his wingman!"

"You said Breg is your wingman."

"I also said he was grounded." Zander swallowed his frustration. "We can keep this up all day. You want me to finish answering your original question, or you want to play semantics?"

"Continue."

"We set course for the Imperials and tangled with them. Captain Pilt got in over his head and was being torn apart. I shot in his direction to-"

"So you admit you shot at Captain Pilt?"

"You know what? I'm done." He leaned back in his seat. "I'm not saying another word to anyone but Rosk Vikeron."

"She is no longer an NRI agent."

"I don't care. I know she's on this ship, so if you want my testimony, you find her. I'm not going to talk to somebody who twists my words every five frakking seconds."

She scowled daggers at him. "You remind me of someone."

"Really?" Zander shot back sarcastically. "He must be quite a stand-up guy."

***

Silence fell face-first into her bunk. Her last mission had left her completely drained, and the subsequent debriefing and medical examination had not helped.

Doc Jobber hovered up to her bunk. Jobber didn't seem happy. "You forgot your contraband. Please remove it before it shreds my innards!"

"Eeeeeeeeeyaaaa," said the droid's belly.

"It may need nourishment," suggested Doc.

"Oh, right!" As if miraculously revived, Silence sat up and grabbed the droid. She opened up a hatch in the bottom, and out plopped a tuber-shaped furball with a stubby tail.

Two huge eyes stared at her. "Meeeeeeee. Myaaaah. Myaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!"

"You've got to be starving. Poor baby." She reached out slowly and petted it gently.

"Meeeya!" It promptly attacked her finger and started chewing on it with tiny razors.

"Ow! Okay, okay, I'll find you some food." Silence scooped up the kitten in one hand and climbed down the ladder, grateful she didn't have to share her room with anyone. "Just pipe down. If someone finds out we smuggled you aboard, I'm going to be in serious trouble."

She rummaged through her stash of emergency snacks. Candy bars, no. Fried root chips, no. Canned nerf. Score. Maybe?

As soon as she cracked open the tin, the kitten shoved its nose into it and started snarfing down the meat chunks.

Silence grinned. She couldn't help it. It was just so darn cute! She had no idea how she planned to keep this thing a secret indefinitely. Honestly, she probably shouldn't have smuggled an unknown lifeform aboard. It was potentially dangerous.

She didn't know what it was capable of, or if it carried diseases or bacteria hazardous to any of the species aboard the Vigilant ... but then, with all the different species coming and going already, that was always a constant risk. Known space was a huge melting pot of germs.

A knock at her door scared her half to death. Had someone found out already? Grabbing the kitten and the can, she shoved them under the lower bunk and dragged a blanket over the edge to conceal them.

Taking a breath, she answered the door and found the last person she wanted to see.

A blonde officer in an NRI uniform stood in the hall.

"Uh ..." Silence stepped into the hall uneasily and closed the door behind her, knowing that even that action would be suspiciously out of character for her. Hopefully Darlene didn't know her that well. "Can I help you?"

"Sorry for bothering you at this late hour, Lieutenant Vikeron." Darlene sighed as if the weight of the world rested on her. "One of my interrogation subjects refuses to talk to anyone but you."

"Uhh ..." Silence glanced down at the PE shirt and shorts she wore as pajamas. She had been looking forward to having a decent bed to sleep in, not grilling people in the middle of the night. "You know I'm not an agent anymore, right?"

"Yeah, I know. Tell that to him. Men, I swear." Darlene noticed how Silence had closed the door. "If I interrupted anything, I am so sorry!"

"Huh?" Silence turned and stared at the door blankly for a good ten seconds. "Oh! Oh, no, no, no. There's nothing to interrupt! Just let me change clothes. Be right back!"

Squeezing hastily inside, Silence closed the door and checked the floor. Tiny nomming sounds came from under the bed still, and she breathed a sigh of relief.

Dragging on her uniform, she realized she'd forgotten to ask who was being interrogated and why. Dragon, maybe? He'd been vague about what had happened on the Interdictor. She smiled. She'd been so certain his capture had meant his death that seeing him alive again flooded her with relief, and no small amount of awe. Maybe that's why he was being questioned. Maybe Darlene didn't believe he had escaped.

Ducking down to pick behind the blanket, she smiled at the adorable furball that now had food all over its face. "You be good."

That wasn't going to work. Animals were like Doc Jobber and rarely did what they were told. She grabbed her commlink and waited until a groggy voice answered. "Hey, Lock, I need you to come watch the ... uh ... you know. The cute thing. Yeah, I know it's late and we're all tired, but I have to go question somebody, so please help. Lock! Please! Darlene is outside my door! If she finds out ... Okay. Thanks."

A few minutes later, Silence followed Darlene down to the interrogation rooms. "It's Dragon, isn't it?"

"No, thank goodness for that! It's too late for another migraine today." Darlene stopped outside a numbered door. "I know this isn't your job anymore, but there's been a murder, and brass is coming down hard to wrap this up ASAP. This guy won't talk."

"Murder?" Silence's eyes widened. "Who?"

"Skull XO. Captain Pilt."

"But he just got here like a month ago!"

"Yeah. The Skulls burn through XOs like refresher paper. What do you want me to tell you? It's a wonder they find anyone to fill the spot anymore."

"And you think they murdered this one?"

"No. I think that man murdered this one." Darlene pointed at the door. "He's got motive, and lot's of it. Just ask him what happened today. I'll be observing if you need anything."

Who the heck did she know that would be involved with murdering a Skull? Bulldog? She doubted even he had any motive for that.

Bracing herself, she stepped inside.

She did not expect what she found.

***

"J-Jock?" The black-haired woman froze the moment she stepped through the door. "Jock? What? Why? Why are you here? And why are you here?"

"We gotta stop meeting like this." Zander grinned. He knew he was in trouble, but seeing a friendly face lifted his spirits immeasurably. "Someone might think-"

"Someone might think you've murdered Captain Pilt!" She scowled at him. "What is going on?"

"I didn't do it."

"Of course you didn't. I've heard that a million times." She rolled her eyes. "Even though I believe you, you know I can't buy that. Explain what happened."

"Breg came out of his coma." He smiled, although he felt a muscle pulling at the corner of his mouth that had nothing to do with happiness. The thought of his hand closing around Breg's face was something he'd never forget. The sound of him flatlining. Now's not the time, Zander. Focus! "He's a bit weak, but he's recovering fast."

"That's great news." She seemed hesitant, as if waiting for the other boot to drop.

"I got us transferred to Renegade Wing."

"And you didn't tell me?"

"We just got here last week. People said you were out on a mission. Also, Scythe is a taskmaster. Barely a moment to myself with his two captains bickering over my time."

"I've been through a week of hell. Look, I'm happy to see you, but we're going to have to catch up later. I need to get to the bottom of this case so we can both get out of here, okay?" Silence rubbed her face. She looked tired, and he wished he could get her some caf. "Captain Pilt being one of those 'two captains'?"

He explained everything in detail. The Skulls' weird attitude towards their XO, the incident that had scrambled Skull and Spectre. Pilt disabling his ship, and then Breg's.

"I just got him back from the dead!" Zander's fingers clenched into a fist. "He's barely fit to fly, and Pilt made him a big, fat, helpless target. If it weren't for the other Skulls, I'd have lost him for good this time!"

"Jock ..." Only she called him that. It was the fake name he'd given her during her first time interrogating him. "You know that's why you're here. You have every reason to go after Pilt for that." Silence frowned, troubled. "I can't believe the New Republic allows remote disabling devices to be installed in our own craft, even if it is for recent defectors."

"I did go after that bastard! Scythe pulled me back, or I would have punched that coward in the face."

"You're not helping your case. Did you kill him?"

"No! I don't even know how or when he died. Breg and I were confined to quarters after the altercation."

"Easy enough to confirm with hallway cameras." Silence glanced at the reflective observation window. "Who confined you to quarters?"

"Who else? My commander."

"Scythe?" Silence tapped her lower lip, thinking. "Seems like he was trying to safeguard you from this very thing. And Breg? He was with you the whole time?"

Zander nodded.

"Also easy to confirm." She leaned back in her chair. "I think we're barking up the wrong tree. Someone else has more motive than you. Darlene, you need to call in the rest of the Skulls. Especially Scythe and his loyalists."

"Loyalists?" Zander raised an eyebrow.

"The other two members of his original squadron, Nails and Skifter. Those three are the tightest clique on the ship. I know the type. They're loyal to each other first, the New Republic second. I think we both know the type."

They both were the type. Zander shook his head. "I'm not saying they don't hate Pilt, but if they wanted him dead, they wouldn't have confined us to quarters. They would have pinned it on the defects."

"Defects?"

"Recent defectors. Me and Breg."

"Ah." She chewed her lip. "Well, you have a point. Darlene, I'm done here."

***

When Silence left the interrogation room, she nodded to Darlene. "Walk with me. You checked the cameras, right?"

"It matches his testimony," Darlene grudgingly admitted. "Unless the videos were tampered with, it wasn't him or Breg."

"And Scythe and his posse?"

Darlene flipped through recordings. "Every single one of the Skulls remained within view of the cameras the entire time. After the initial incident, no one went near Pilt. Well, except for this."

Darlene held up a datapad, and the paused video showed Skifter pinning Pilt to a wall. "This is just outside of the refresher where we found Pilt's body."

"That's not suspicious," Silence commented sarcastically. "Play the rest of the video."

As they walked, Darlene held the datapad for both of them to watch. Skifter caught Pilt, slammed up against the wall, exchanged words, and then left. Pilt hurried into the refresher, alone.

"That's it? Who was in there with Pilt?"

Darlene flipped through camera views. "We don't have cameras in the refreshers, but the ones watching the door don't show anyone but him entering around that time."

"Then how did he die?"

"We don't have the coroner's report yet."

"What about the last XO? What happened to her?"

Darlene shrugged. "She just left. Transferred out the normal way."

"And the rest of them before that?"

"They come and go." Darlene checked her records. "Frequently. But none of them ever died under questionable circumstances."

"Huh. Well, this is me." Silence stopped at the door to her quarters. "Let me know if I can help tomorrow, but right now, I just want some shut eye."

"Right. Thanks for your help."

Silence fumbled her door open, yawning, and froze mid-yawn as she saw Lock sitting on the lower bunk. He yanked the zipper of his flight suit up to his chin, startled.

Darlene stared. Silence stared. Lock grabbed his belly as if suddenly afflicted with stomach pains.

"Gotta go!" He hurried past them and jogged down the hall. "Turns out a week of emergency rations and alien wildlife don't agree with me!"

Silence slowly turned to Darlene, mortified. "It's ... not ... what it looks like."

"Or is it?" Gremlin also emerged from the room, and she swished passed Darlene and Silence with a wink and a finger to her lips.

"What the ..." Silence stared after her. "I don't even ... I don't ..."

"No one ever invites me to these things," Darlene grumbled, storming off.

"What things ... ?" Silence blinked, lost. She was too tired for this.

***

Zander considered resting his face on the metal table of the interrogation room, but he refused to show exhaustion to whomever might be beyond the window. It had to be well past midnight. Why hadn't they taken him either to a prison cell or back to his quarters yet? Was Breg in the same predicament? Surely Silence and the surveillance videos had cleared their names by now.

Darlene eventually returned, looking as tired as he felt. She swiped a card over his restraints and they fell off his wrists. "You're free to go."

He stood up stiffly. "Don't sound so disappointed."

"I know you're up to something!" She pointed a finger at him.

"Me? I just got here."

"You. The Skulls." She waved a hand towards the rest of the ship. "You lot have the highest turnover rate for XOs in the entire New Republic. I know it's not a coincidence."

He rubbed his face as he squeezed past her. "Of course it's not."

"You know something!" She blocked his exit with an arm, trapping him in the doorway. "What's going on?"

"Have you ever spied on your friends? Tried to find guilt among them when there was none? Falsely accused someone?" He tried to ignore her uncomfortable closeness.

"How dare you imply-!" Her words stuck in her throat.

"You hate your job, don't you?" The flash of anger in her eyes proved him right. "No one likes a person trying to rat them out. You want so badly for someone to be guilty, so that you can show you were doing something worthwhile all this time. You have no friends. You're dedicated to your job because you have nothing else, and it's unsatisfactory because no one appreciates that your work is actually to keep them safe, not to get them in trouble."

Her mouth opened slightly in shock, and her voice reduced to a whisper. "They don't... ."

"That's the reason for your high turnover. Skull XO is a miserable job." He waited, but she didn't move. It was making him extremely uneasy. Maybe the New Republic worked differently, but this didn't seem professional. Maybe he had said too much.

"Release my man, Captain Orvan." Scythe's gruff voice startled both of them. He strode up with Nails at his side. "You proved his innocence, now let him go before I write you up for harassment ... of one sort ... or another. I'm aware of your reputation."

Darlene flushed angrily and backed off, letting Zander escape into the hall. "Yes, sir."

Nails gave the woman's back a scathing glower. She held a black bundle under one arm, held tight under her silver nails.

Once they had put some distance between her and themselves, Scythe cleared his throat. "You'd be wise to stay clear of that one. She's got an axe to grind the size of a Death Star."

"Yes, sir."

"Captain Pilt died of a heart attack." Scythe's prosthetic hand held up a flimsy, showing a coroner's report. "You and Joker had nothing to do with it."

"Yes, si-"

"But you could have." Scythe stopped in the hallway and turned to face him. "You could have broken confinement. You could have cornered him. That woman's right about something. You had motive. Your wingman had even more. I had to reprimand him for leaving the flight deck after I grounded him."

"Yes, sir." Zander frowned, holding his tongue for the umpteenth time that week.

"You have something to say. Say it. This isn't the Imperial Navy."

"Breg only disobeyed orders because he thought I was in trouble."

"I'm aware. And noble as that sounds on the surface, it put him in even more trouble. We nearly lost him today, and not just because Pilt was a coward and an untrusting fool. This might not be the Imperial Navy, but I'll be damned if I let my men think orders are merely suggestions." Scythe stepped aside to let several pilots in orange jog past towards the hangar side of the ship. "You've noticed by now we have a public relations problem. We have no room for lax attitudes or failure. Nor can we let the ignorance of others make us bitter. We have a job, one job, and that is to protect this fleet. You understand that?"

"Of course, sir." Zander stopped biting his tongue. "But I get the impression you're telling me this for reasons unrelated to today's incident."

"Astute. But very much related, I assure you." Scythe tucked the coroner's report into a pocket. "I know why you're here. I know why Breg barged out of that hangar after you."

"He's my wingman, sir."

"Don't play naive, Dicer Leader. You know what he did was wrong and why it can't happen again." Scythe folded his arms. "He's your friend. Your only friend, if I'm not mistaken. I've read the NRI records on you. Vikeron's reports and assessments. Your probation logs. Am I wrong?"

"No, sir."

"Get it out of your head. It's no longer you and him against the world. You have to trust his life to us, and he has to trust yours to us." Scythe took the bllack bundle from Nails and shoved it into Zander's arms. "You're both part of a team now, so act like it."

"Yes, sir."

After the major had disappeared around a corner, Zander shook out the bundle. A black flight suit, identical to the one the other Skulls wore.

It was reminiscent of the Imperial flight suits he'd so recently worn. "Zander 'Poker' Pokri" was embroidered on it, just as it always had been.

But this time, it felt different.

To be continued...