Hunting High and Low
[ABY 0.2; Ryloth, Orbit; ISD Covenant]
Desk Sergeant Kyle Korr glanced at the chrono on his wrist. Only ten minutes until his shift was over. The uniform dark grey walls of the detention centre aboard the Imperial Star Destroyer Covenant did nothing to stimulate him. He merely sat in his chair, his feet up, facing the set of turbolifts in front of the security desk, waiting for something to happen. As if his prayers had been answered, the little light above the turbolift began to crawl from left to right, indicating that somebody was coming up. As the light reached the last shape on the right, there was a ping! and the door slid open with a hiss. From the lift stepped a stormtrooper, much like any other, and at his side, cuffed, was a blue-skinned Twi'lek man who appeared to be just over forty standard years old. Even from a first glance, Kyle immediately noticed his impenetrable countenance.
"Got room for an unscheduled one? This one's been making trouble among the workers on topside, I thought a few days in the hole might teach him to behave," the stormtrooper said, his voice muffled by the speaker on his helmet.
Kyle knew it would be breaking protocol to let them by, but he also knew that if he tried to have it done by the book, he'd end up staying for far longer than necessary. Besides, unless the OIC himself came down to inspect the detention block, it was unlikely that he would be pulled up over the transgression. He sighed, and gave the trooper a polite smile. "Alright, let me see what I can do."
Korr made a quick search on the console. "Cell number two-eight-one-four is free. Stick him in there for a while."
"Much appreciated" the stormtrooper replied as he shoved the Twi'lek forward and through to the cell-lined corridor.
Wally Souther, feeling immensely uncomfortable in the uniform of the stormtrooper he had incapacitated twenty minutes prior, turned around as he reached the stairs to the cell block, and reached for the blaster carbine he had shouldered. Setting it to stun, he carefully attached the silencer to the muzzle and raised it, thumbing the safety off. He fired a muffled shot into the back of the desk sergeant, knocking him out cold and causing him to slump over like a bag of jogan fruit. Wasting no time, Wally uncuffed his Twi'lek friend and removed his own helmet, revealing a thick mane of ginger hair soaked with sweat.
"Okay, Greelo, we got 5 minutes. Let's move!" Wally shouted.
"Cell two-eight-one-oh!" Greelo Blem replied, already breaking into a jog down the seemingly endless hallway. He swept his head from side to side, scanning the numbers marking each door. At last. 2810. He pushed the switch for the door. With a sharp hiss, it slid upwards to reveal...
"Nobody here, kid!" Greelo called back, his lekku swinging slightly as he turned his head.
"What?!" Wally exclaimed, suddenly appearing in the doorway and jumping down the small set of stairs. "Was our intel bad?"
Before Greelo had time to respond, the clatter of boots on hard flooring echoed down the detention corridor. He made eye contact with Wally and brought a finger to his lips in a gesture that said Do not make a sound.
"Check on the prisoners, Corporal!" said the voice of a real stormtrooper from down the hall. Greelo and Wally looked around futilely for some way to escape, but found no recourse. They were trapped. Into the doorway stepped the stormtrooper who had been sent to investigate.
"Freeze!" he yelled, aiming his blaster at the pair and gesturing wildly to the rest of his group. They made their way up the hallway, and before long, Greelo and Wally were being held on the business end of five E-11 blaster carbines.
"This ain't gonna be easy," Wally said quietly.
"Not as easy as it used to be," Greelo replied.
"We've been through worse."
"Yeah?" asked Greelo, raising an eyebrow in a sideways glance, "When?"
"Ord Mantell, there were twice as many."
"We were younger."
"I still am young!" Wally proclaimed, just a little too loudly.
"Quiet!" a third voice interjected— a trooper donning a white pauldron— before continuing, "You will put your hands on your head and explain your presence here. Now."
Truthfully, Wally didn't know why he was there. Greelo, his boss, had needed a second pair of hands for his little operation which was, in Wally's professional opinion, karking ludicrous. He had insisted to Greelo that the mission was simply unnecessary, but as usual, he had been overruled.
"We are..." Greelo began— eliciting a groan from Wally, who could already tell that this was going to be a disaster— "intergalactic businessmen... uh... we got lost on our way to our intergalactic business meeting with the Captain of this ship... and we... uh... demand that you let us go at once!"
The stormtroopers all wore helmets, but despite that, Wally could still make out their bewildered facial expressions. He could even swear that he heard the ventilation shaft above his head sigh in exasperation. Without a second's warning, a ceiling panel above the group of Imperials burst open, and a lithe figure dropped behind them. The figure lifted a solid section of metal piping that had fallen with it, and began swinging the weapon in a wide arc that struck the helmets of each trooper, giving them no time to react. They each took an unavoidable flurry of hits, and collapsed to the ground, beaten. The figure, clad in a white pilot's jumpsuit stained by grease, slowly rose from its fighting stance, revealing green skin, which arced across its head into two lekku.
"Lanie," Greelo said.
"Greelo, what did we discuss?" She asked, raising her eyebrows and crossing her arms.
"—More rescues," she finished his sentence for him.
"Good to see how grateful you are, buddy! Man, I'd have come sooner if I'd known I'd be getting such a warm welcome!"
"Oh you just love being the hero, don't you, Greelo? Please, please come and rescue me, you big strong man!" She yelled sarcastically.
Wally butted in now, "I told you! I said she wouldn't need rescued, I said she was capable of handling herself!"
"Shut up!" Greelo shouted in his direction.
"See!" Lanie yelled back, "even the kid understands!"
"Oh, will you just take it easy?!"
"Take it easy?!" Lanie cried out, "Why do you think I gave myself up?! So you wouldn't fall into their hands!"
"I came here to save you!"
"Oh, yeah? Well who's gonna come to save you?!" Lanie shouted.
From the floor came the groan of one of the troopers, trying to regain the strength to stand up.
"I said shut up!" Greelo repeated, drawing his blaster and shooting the offender in the gut. "We can continue this in the ship. Let's go."
"Wait!" Lanie said, her voice lowering somewhat.
"What now?!" Greelo whined, before being ensconced in a hug from Lanie.
[That Very Moment; Kessel, Imperial Prison Complex]
"Now we're gonna show ya what we do 'ta Imps in 'ere, big fella," A voice from the darkness said. Captain Largo couldn't see his captors through the blindfold tied around his head so tightly it made his temples hurt. Everybody had known he wouldn't last a day in prison. Murderers, thieves, and rapists had their way in this dark place, but Imperials were the only universal enemy, no matter how petty their crimes. If he wanted to get out of this, it was vital that he show no fear, no anxieties.
"On you go, kid. He's all yours," the voice continued. Largo felt a pair of large, strong hands gripping his jaw with viselike intensity. He felt his mouth being pried open with two fingers, his efforts to resist futile. In his heart, he knew he deserved his punishment, however he would not give these savages the satisfaction of knowing that. His attempts to remain calm slowly became less effective as he felt two metallic prongs grip one of his molars. In that moment he experienced pain like nothing else he had felt in his life. At last, an agonised cry erupted from his lungs, begging for mercy with no words. The tooth came loose with a blinding flash of pain, and lowered to a dull ache that was almost numb compared to what he had felt moments before. Words would not come, only the taste of copper and regret. Laughter came from the 'men' holding him there. He spat blood onto his jumpsuit.
"Do you expect me to talk?" He growled.
"No," a younger, yet still rough voice replied, "I expect you to suffer."
The blindfold slowly loosened and fell to the ground, bringing Largo face to face with a man of around twenty-three standard years of age. He had shaggy brown hair, and a short beard covering his face, save for a small area near his cheek that bore a long, thin whiplash scar. He lifted a finger and pointed towards the scar.
"Do you know I got this?" He asked, his voice like two stones being scraped together.
"N-no," Largo replied, his voice quivering at the unsettling sight of his torturer.
"One of the wardens— a real nasty piece of work— lashed me for being too slow after working for twelve hours in the mines in my first week. Can you believe that? Had to get a lot of stitches."
"No..." Largo repeated.
"Now, it's not too often we get a chance to exact our revenge on the Imperial regime, if ever. This, though? Prime opportunity. I'll be honest, stitches won't be able to fix what I'm gonna do to you..."
Largo saw the man pick up an iron rod wrapped in wire. He gave a few practice swings, before doing what Largo feared he would do. He swung the rod hard into Largo's chin, and he felt his jaw give way.
"Woah! Look at that, Connor! Takin' it like a champ!"
He lost count of how many times the rod collided with his skull. Eventually he slipped away into unconsciousness. Whether he was dead or alive he did not know, only that he was for now free of the pain he had endured.
[ISD Covenant; Auxiliary Hangar Bay]
Blaster fire spattered all around Greelo, Lanie, and Wally as they dashed up the ramp of the Living Daylight. Wally's ears rang as each blast battered against the hull of the ship. He crossed the threshold of the ship last, and so he slammed his fist upon the ramp control, bringing it slowly upwards and putting one more layer of protection between him and the Empire. Assuming Lanie had retaken her role as Captain of the ship, he ran through the hallways until he found the ladder leading to the dorsal gunwale of the XS Stock Light Freighter. He scrambled up, all of a sudden feeling queasy as he was pulled into a different gravity well. Wally strapped himself into the leather seat, and spun around on his axis to make sure it was working correctly. All he could see in front of him was the rapidly moving grey ceiling of the hangar bay, which all at once gave way to the vastness of space. The headset beside him cracked, and he remembered to put it on so he could communicate with the bridge.
"Kid!" Lanie's voice said, somewhat fuzzily, "we got eyeballs scrambling fast on our tail!"
Wally didn't know what the hell she meant by eyeball, but the five advancing TIE Fighters gave him a clue as to what she may have been trying to tell him. Gripping the controls for the twin blaster cannons, he swung around and brought a twisting fighter into his sights, which his targeting computer had designated Alpha One. He squeezed the trigger and watched red lasers streak out into space, just barely missing their target. The ship shuddered as its shields were sprayed with fire from the approaching fighters. The culprit had gotten too close, and was more or less at point blank range. Wally didn't lose a second. He spun around so quickly that he strained his neck, and blasted the fleeing starfighter into oblivion.
"Alpha Two is down," he said into the microphone on his headset.
"Good work, kid. I see Alpha One coming back around— blast him," Greelo replied.
The kill had reawakened a cockiness that he tried to restrain in battle. It too often led to him being overconfident and making stupid mistakes, but one little trick wouldn't hurt, he thought. The young human adjusted the range that the lasers closed at, and reduced the power by a smidge. Another of the fighters made an attack run, landing several hits and causing the ship to shake violently. As it fleed, Wally lined up his shot. He took aim, and, hoping he wouldn't make a fool of himself, fired. The dual lasers landed precisely in the centre of the joins that connected the wings of the fighter to its cockpit. The fuel lines were undamaged, causing the ball cockpit to release from its wings and spin endlessly into space.
"Alpha One went for a spin." He laughed at himself for a moment, before being hit with a realisation. The Star Destroyer wasn't attacking them. "Cap'n, any idea why that Impstar Deuce is leaving us alone?" He asked as he brought Alpha Three into his sights and fired, shearing off a wing and causing a ferocious explosion.
"Well," Lanie began, clearly annoyed, "I planted timed charges at several key points within the ship, so that they couldn't attack me as I made my escape. Was a pretty clean plan, I might even have been able to do it myself."
He could see her eyeballing Greelo in his mind's eye, however he could not see Alpha Four anywhere.
"Bridge, any visual on Alpha Four?"
"H-he's... hehehe! He's..." the comm cut out.
"Bridge? Greelo? Hello?!"
From the other end of the ship, Wally realised he could hear Greelo erupting in a fit of laughter.
"He's running!" Greelo managed, before disappearing from the comm channel once more and cackling. At last, thought Wally, we're home free.
[Kessel; Cell Block 2105]
Bakk J'ruce had dried blood on his hands. It was not his. As always, he waited for the weight of what he had done to sink in, but it never happened. Much as he tried, his survival instincts overruled any ideas of remorse. He was a bad man, however Largo was worse. Bakk approached his bunk and lifted the frame of the bed to reveal a hollowed out section of the floor underneath. He grabbed his wire-wrapped rod and placed it carefully in its usual hiding spot, where the guards rather conveniently never checked, and slotted in a slice of stone the same colour as the floor, making it impossible to tell there was anything amiss. That is, unless you were really looking for it. He let the bunk frame sit back upon the ground, and sank into his bed, his face like the stony walls which held him prisoner. One day he would face penance for his sins, but not today.
[ABY 22.214.171.124; Toseng, NRSC Barracks]
Flight Officer Bakk 'Wildcard' J'ruce awakened in a cold sweat. As usual, sleep eluded him, and his past haunted him. Every second he spent with his eyes shut, he was disturbed by the memories of what he had done. His emancipation had granted him many things, but the ability to feel guilty was one he had not expected, nor appreciated. He stared at the ceiling, wishing that he could at once be deeply, dreamlessly asleep for tomorrow's briefing, and for once to rest for more than 3 hours a night. Alas, it was infinitely unlikely. He sat up and quietly pulled on his civilian gear, being careful not to wake up Andika, with whom he shared his quarters.
Where there are off duty pilots, there is never a point where one is more than a quarter mile from a bar. One such bar was, in fact, built into the Starfighter Corps base on Toseng. It wasn't the most classy establishment on the planet, but it was cheap and cheerful. Well, maybe just cheap. Wildcard sauntered in, his large frame eclipsing the moonlight pouring into the doorway.
He made his way to the bar, and ordered a "whiskey, neat, please," from the bartender. The glass was at once in front of him. He took a long pull, savouring the burning sensation in his throat as he quickly swallowed it.
"You don't want that cheap shit," a voice remarked from the other end of the bar. Captain Jack 'Frosty' McCauley was in a similar state. That is to say, sitting alone and drinking.
"Try this," he said, sliding Wildcard a bottle and an empty glass he had swiped from underneath the bar. The Flight Officer poured himself a second glass of whiskey, this one more golden than the first. He drained his glass, and grunted, holding in a cough.
"Atta boy," Frosty said, "never let yourself cough. Biggest mistake you can make. Easy way to paint the walls."
Wildcard allowed himself a chuckle at the comment. "Get over here, take a seat," he told Frosty, who obliged him.
"I noticed you've abandoned our daily sim runs, lad. What happened?"
"Didn't like pissing my wages against the wall," Wildcard replied bluntly.
"Heh. Maybe you're just not a dogfighter. You told me that when you were with Jade, you guys were strafing capital ships, for crying out loud. There are plenty of options for pilots who like doing the heavy hitting," Frosty told him with the tone of a much older man giving his protege advice, even though he was two years younger than Wildcard.
"You make a solid argument as always, mate," Wildcard said, raising his glass halfheartedly.
"You wanna shatter that illusion, just watch me argue with my brother. Like explaining a rainbow to a blind guy."
"You never told me you had a brother."
"I've never mentioned Pip? I can't believe that. He's... a character, to say the least."
Wildcard froze. He had shared a cell with a man who went by that nickname. His real name was Connor. Connor McCauley. How he hadn't made the connection upon first meeting Frosty was a mystery, but it made plenty of sense, Frosty and him had easily made friends, just as he had with Connor years earlier. One day Connor had been dragged off by guards, never to return, and Wildcard had never learned what became of him... until now. Although he felt relief from the discovery that his friend was alive after all, the feeling came blended with gut-churning anxiety at the prospect of his past catching up with him. Connor McCauley knew more than anybody else about Wildcard's sins. He had seen firsthand the things he had done to prove himself; the terrible things he had done to other inmates.
"He's alive...?" Wildcard asked, his face still hieroglyphic as he stood up, knocking over his stool.
"Huh? You... oh! You did time on Kessel, didn't you? I can't believe it, you've met my brother already and where was it? Of all places? The bloody clink!" Frosty said, his tone turning nervous as he noticed his friend's sudden change in mood, "Er... listen, sorry if I sprung that on you. Why don't I buy you another drink?"
"Where is he?" Wildcard asked, his voice low and stern.
"What? Oh... listen, why don't we discuss it after—"
"Where is he?!" Wildcard's voice was raised now, and he had taken a step towards the dark haired pilot, now in a threatening stance.
Frosty rose to meet him. "You just calm yourself, now. Sit down and finish your drink," he told Wildcard, his voice low and deliberate.
"You just tell me where the hell he is, before I do something stupid."
"I mustn't have heard you right there, pal. It looks to me as though you're behaving threateningly towards an officer. You wouldn't be that stupid, would ya?"
"The hell I wouldn't," Wildcard growled, before pushing Frosty lightly. The few drinkers in the room had stopped to see if this would become a fight. Their wishes were granted. Frosty shoved Wildcard hard into the bar, making his back ache. Wildcard planted his hands behind him and pushed off, using his momentum to deliver a punch towards Frosty's jaw that missed by a small margin. The error sent Wildcard stumbling, made all the worse as he tripped over Frosty's extended leg. His face smacked into the ground hard, sending a dull throbbing pain through his skull. He grasped around and found the leg of a chair. Standing up, he started to swing it, before being startled by a loud voice interrupting.
"HEY!" a gravelly voice yelled.
Kyle 'Gnoizic' Mandal had grabbed the chair and thrown it with one hand across the room.
"What the hell are you idiots doing?" He growled, as if trying not to be heard. Frosty and Wildcard's eyes reluctantly met.
Caught like banthas in headlights, the pair said nothing. The man with the Mandalorian armour gazed through his visor at the guilty looking pair. "Don't be so stupid. Shen'ryu will have you both locked up in the brig if he catches wind of this. I suggest you take a time out and calm yourselves."
Frosty huffed, drawing a dirty look at Wildcard, and wandered back to the bar, seeking out his half-finished drink. As he made to polish it off, the glass was swiped from his hand.
"I think you've both had enough," said Gnoizic, before emptying the contents of the tumbler onto the floor.
"Oh for—" Frosty protested, before letting the sentence hang in the air, waving his hand in frustration, "that's a waste of good scotch."
Wildcard tasted something metallic. He reached into his mouth and removed a tooth that had been knocked free during the scuffle. He spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor and slinked off to his quarters. Upon getting back to his bed, he lay on his back for several hours, thinking.
Why the hell did you do that? Pip and Frosty are your friends, they're not gonna sell you out, you karking idiot. Now Jack thinks you want to kill his brother or something. Great job.
The occupants of the briefing room stood to attention at the sound of Major Myke 'Wolf' Krenn's voice. He walked in, his helmet under his arm, and set it atop the dais in the centre of the room. "At ease." he said, to which the room responded by sitting down.
He glanced down at the switchboard that controlled the holoprojector, before flipping a small button, causing the lights to dim and the shape of an Action VI transport ship to appear in semi-transparent blue. "This," Wolf began, "is the Disco Volante. It's a cargo hauler for a small shipping company that's been contracted by an unknown beneficiary to transport several thousand credits worth of humanitarian aid to those affected by the fighting on Toseng. Seeing as we're stationed here, it was deemed a wise idea for us to provide escort for the shipment, especially given the Empire's increased focus on intelligence and treachery these days."
"If they're so clued in all the time, surely they'll know we're coming and prepare for that scenario?" Paul 'Rogue' Sweet interjected, his face creased with scepticism.
"You make a good point, which brings me to the operation itself. The squadron will be split into two teams. For purposes of this briefing, we shall be designating them Teams Red and Gold."
A low chuckle emanated through the room. Wolf could not find the culprits in the darkened room. "Is there a problem?" He asked the squad, raising an eyebrow.
"I believe," Gremlin said, suppressing a grin, "that they also think you're a bit of a sucker for nostalgia."
"And here I thought you were meant to be the responsible one."
Gremlin raised her hands in apology.
"Now, to the point. We believe the Empire to have received the information we've fed them, which is, in this scenario, that the Disco Volante will be escorted by a single flight of X-wings and will be taking a longer hyperspace route in order to evade Imperial trade blockades. In actuality, we've seen this as an opportunity to vape two TIEs with one shot. On the route the Imps believe us to be taking, is where Red Team will be, along with a gutted out Action VI transport filled to the brim with explosives. The idea is simple. Wait for the Imps to show up, lose the fight, turn tail and run. Let them board the freighter, and then blow 'em all to hell. Meanwhile, Gold Team will be with the real Disco escorting them to Toseng."
A fit of the giggles started to rise once more.
"Yes?" Wolf asked, slowly losing his sanity.
"Who's gonna be Red Five?" Jeni 'Angel' Courtner questioned, her face turning red as she held back laughter. At this point, try as they might to hold back, the room erupted into laughter.
Stay strong, Major, don't let them break you, Wolf thought. "Are we done?" His voice carried a dull edge now, which gave everybody the message to shut up. "I will be leading Gold Team. On my wing will be Angel. Three and Four will be Damak and FLATTOP. Red Team will be led by Captain Gemilan, who will now brief you on the secondary part of the operation."
Gremlin stood and made her way to the centre of the room, sweeping her violet hair from her face as she began to speak. "Now then, yours is a simple task, Gold Team. You will rendezvous with the Disco at Alba Prime, where you will dock in its hangar bays, ready to deploy at a moment's notice. You'll be taking the road less travelled in order to avoid any Imperial entanglements, although if all goes to plan, Red Team should be the only ones to encounter any hostiles. The Disco is helmed by a crew of around eight with several more employees stationed aboard. The captain, a man named Greelo Blem, is expected to familiarise you all with the crew, their duties, and the ship itself, should it become necessary to know these things in an emergency. If Wolf has nothing else to add, this meeting is adjourned. We all leave at oh-nine-hundred hours tomorrow, so I recommend you all get some sleep."
Several moments later, as they began filing out of the briefing room to get some rest before they deployed, Wildcard felt his ears burning.
"Flight Officer J'ruce. A moment?"
No callsigns, that means I'm in trouble. He approached Wolf and stood at attention. "Sir?"
"Bakk, you're a good pilot. Decisive, good in the fight. These are qualities that I appreciate; that we all appreciate. Although you're also impulsive, hot-headed, still not used to military... decorum, so to speak. These are qualities I'm not so fond of."
"Can I ask what this is about, sir?"
"I think you already know. I'll give you a chance to own up to it, first of all."
Yep, he knows.
"Is this about Captain McCauley?"
"That's right. Luckily for you, the Captain is rather fond of you, and has vehemently denied any rumours that you tried to break a chair over his head. However, Gnoizic told me. Now, I don't know what the hell you're playing at, but it ends here. Count yourself lucky that you got away with it, because were I in Frosty's shoes, you'd be packing your things by now."
"There are things you don't know, sir. Things I could never tell you, or anyone. What I did was a reflex born in an environment of basic human instinct. It was wrong, but it's hard to drop these habits."
Wolf could see that Wildcard's expression had darkened considerably. His knowledge of the pilot's past went as far as his time on Kessel, and no further. He dared not think about the things Wildcard had seen and done there, lest his perception be changed irrevocably. He sighed, his gaze dropping to the floor as he rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
"Speak to Frosty when we get back from our mission," Wolf said.
"Not before?" Wildcard replied.
"He'll need time to cool off, but he'll hear you out. Trust me, I know him well enough."
"I'll do that, sir. I appreciate the advice, and thanks for not having me thrown in the brig."
For the first time in the conversation, Wolf gave a friendly smile. "First fight is free, after that I start shutting it down."
Wildcard started to leave.
"Oh," added Wolf, suddenly remembering something. "I do have one more thing to discuss with you first."
"Yeah?" said Wildcard nervously, his mind racing as he tried to figure out what else he was in trouble for.
"We had a communication from the CRS Andor this morning, Jade Squadron has been officially decommissioned, on orders from New Republic High Command. Seeing as we housed them for a time, they thought it right to notify us."
Wildcard was surprised, but certainly not sad. His old unit had been, quite simply, a mess. His OC, Rafesr Dustvain, had been famously bad at his job. Somehow he seemed to have stumbled his way to the rank of Commander, to everyone's bafflement.
"Did they say why?"
"Yeah, and it's not good news. Four pilots defected to the Empire after the unit was reassigned. They left a message blaming Dustvain personally, so he tried covering it up. NRI caught wind of it and things aren't looking good for him. He's been stripped of his rank and is under review by the section chiefs of Starfighter Command."
"That's rather extreme, sir. They couldn't have requested transfers to other units?"
"That's just it. They tried for months and got no word back. Turns out the OC was intercepting their transmissions. He was terrified that if they all left he'd have his command taken from him. Ironic, considering how things are going for him right now."
"Dank farrick... I knew Dusty was desperate to hold onto his position, but I never thought he'd go that far. I suppose the only reason I got out was because I was lifted by the powers that be. I hope he's thrown out on his ass with little fanfare. That idiot has caused me too much trouble."
"When it happens, you'll know pretty soon after. We really shouldn't be telling you, but Command Staff agreed you have a right to know."
"Thanks for letting me know, sir."
"Any time, kid. Now go get some sleep. Big day tomorrow."
Wildcard turned and left, leaving Wolf alone in the room. He sank into the chair in the corner of the room, and set his feet atop the desk in front of it, lifting his datapad. On its screen was a list of potential candidates for promotion. Wildcard's name lay highlighted in yellow, Wolf's code for: Not sure just yet.
The pilot undoubtedly had displayed leadership qualities in battle, however his behaviour on downtime was what threw doubt into the equation. Wolf had considered giving him the promotion and letting the increased responsibility act as incentive to clean up his act, but that carried no guarantee that he would make that effort. He got to his feet, and began to make his way back to his quarters.
[Alba Prime, Outer Rim Territories]
Hadvar Grant, a man of around sixty years of age, sat at his rather brobdingnagian dark oak desk, examining a supply manifest on a datapad. He swept his grey hair from his forehead and leaned back. It had been a long day. For months, his family had been working on the construction of an exclusion zone that would allow them to roam the country without fear of being attacked by great feral viperas. The intercom system on his terminal started to chime. "Yes?" He asked as he pushed the button to activate the microphone.
"Your guest has arrived, Mr Grant," A female voice— his housekeeper— crackled through the speaker grille.
"Send him to the dining room, please, Tanita, thank you." Hadvar stood, pushing his chair neatly under his desk, and approached the small mirror he kept in his office. He straightened his slightly askew tie and swept his hair back.
Grant entered the dining room. Inside, already waiting, was a middle-aged blue-skinned Twi'lek man. He was standing before a large painting adorning the wall, depicting a group of battle-scarred Jedi Knights standing before a ravaged battlefield.
"Mystifying, isn't it?" Grant said.
The man turned to face him, surprised. "Yes, I certainly think so,"
"The painting is so old that nobody knows for sure who they are. The best guess anybody can muster is that the woman in the centre there is Nomi Sunrider, a fabled Jedi Knight. We don't know for certain that she even existed, though. So she may be just that: a fable."
The Twi'lek smiled, taking in the painting one last time, before approaching Hadvar and shaking his hand.
"It's a pleasure to finally meet you, Greelo Blem." Hadvar said to the man.
"Likewise," Greelo replied. The two men sat at the long table, taking a moment to size one another up. Hadvar removed a small box from his coat pocket and carefully lifted the lid to reveal ten cigarras neatly lined up, gold stripes lining the ends.
"Smoke?" he asked his guest.
"My pleasure," he replied, taking one from the box and lighting it.
"They're the best around. Crafted by my own personal team, making them completely unique." Smoke curled upwards into every crevice of the ornate, traditional dining room, leaving the place blanketed in mist. They exchanged a look, and Hadvar removed the cigarra from his mouth. "Shall we get down to business?" he asked Greelo.
"By all means,"
"So, Mr Blem," Hadvar said, intertwining his fingers and leaning forward in his seat, "I have a project underway. Since my family colonised this planet, many generations ago, we have been plagued by the fauna of this world, in particular the great feral viperas. The beasts take every chance to settle on my land, and nothing seems to be able to keep them away. My uncle had a house, about a mile away. One got in through his fence one night about six months ago and tore him to shreds. It was a terrible loss, which I am still dealing with. What I am planning is a large energy fence which will run around the perimeter of my estate, making it impossible for the creatures to get in. Of course, this is an expensive undertaking which will require a lot of materials we don't have here in the Alba system. I've negotiated a fair deal with a construction goods company which will provide the raw materials, provided my own men carry out the collection and construction. I would like you to collect the materials for me, once a week. Your shipping company has a good name, reasonable rates. I'll pay you and your entire crew, as well as provide lodgings for the entire period that you're with us. Of course, I am well aware you'll still have several jobs scheduled, so if you decide to join us, then we are more than happy to wait until you've tied up any loose ends."
"I have to say, Mr Grant, you're clearly a man who thinks things through. Admittedly, there's a lot to take in here. It sounds to me like a good deal, although I prefer to gauge my crew's thoughts on things before I make any decisions," Greelo said.
"Of course, I completely understand. In the meantime, you can have these, whatever you decide." Hadvar slid the little wooden box of cigarras across the table.
"Well?" a woman's voice asked from behind Greelo as he wandered to the lounge area of the Disco Volante.
He turned to face Lanie, his best friend and co-leader of the enterprise they were pursuing. Like him, she was approaching middle age, but was still noticeably attractive. Her yellow lekku hung just below shoulder length and rested on the lapels of her coat.
"He made us an offer. Fixed contract for about six months. Housing for us and the crew, and a nice payout," he told her.
"But..." she countered.
"But we'd be staying in one place for six months. We haven't had a run-in with him in a while but I'm still uneasy. I told him we'd take some time to wrap up our other work and think it over."
"The usual approach, then, good."
"It's rarely done us wrong. Speaking of our other jobs, do we have everything loaded up for the Toseng job?"
"We do, but I'm still not feeling good about this. Greelo, we don't do government contracts, we never have, why are you so keen to take this on?"
"It's not about the Republic or the Empire now, Lanie, it's about the refugees. You remember what it was like after Ryloth. Hundreds of people and ten blankets to share between them."
"I understand that, I do, but we need to consider the risk to us, to our crew. This is handing the Empire an excuse to blow us out of the sky."
"They never needed an excuse to try before. Besides, after everything that happened on Corellia with Shen'ryu, I'm not exactly free of ties to the Alliance— or notoriety within the Empire, for that matter."
"You say that, and yet you still refuse to tell me what happened on Corellia," said Lanie, rubbing her temples in frustration.
"Look, I tell you everything, let's keep one secret from each other. Fith, Frankie, Shen'ryu and I all agreed not to speak of it. I held up my end, as for them? That's their business." Greelo sighed and looked away for a moment. He had found it difficult to get over what had happened on Corellia all those years ago, and he regretted his impulse to bring it into conversation.
"Fine, just... promise me we'll play this one safe, okay?" Lanie said, the edge in her voice melting away.
"Okay. We'd better get going, rendezvous with the Republic in a few hours, best to get to the meet-point early," said Greelo, knowing he had nothing to fear from the Republic, but being cautious nevertheless. His years in the criminal underworld had developed a series of distrustful tendencies that he never could quite shake, but he occasionally found himself wondering if he even wanted to be more trusting of people.
[Hangar Bay, NRSC Barracks; Toseng]
Wildcard had just finished the last of his external pre-flight checks, when a warbling sound drew his attention to the power unit next to his X-wing fighter. His astromech, R2-JZ3— affectionately named "Jazzy"— was emitting a curious series of beeps and bloops.
"Uh... I mean, I don't see why not. I guess it figures they've gotta have at least one droid, yeah," Wildcard replied.
Jazzy let out an annoyed, rapid series of tones.
"Yes, sorry, sorry. I know, droids are not material possessions to be 'had'. I didn't mean anything by it. Anyways, why are you asking?"
Jazzy sang a timid response.
"Huh? You have plenty of friends, don't be— oh!" Wildcard replied, a teasing tone coming into his voice, "you want a friend. I apologise, I forgot that you're a young model. All you newfangled astromechs think about is getting your scomp-link dirty. Y'know, spreading your software across the galaxy."
The only retort was a sharp buzz, which Wildcard assumed was some kind of expletive.
On the other side of the hangar, Wildcard could see Frosty inspecting his A-wing. For a moment he toyed with the idea of going against Wolf's recommendations and speaking to him before he left, but he came to the conclusion that it was probably best to leave him alone for now. The guilt he felt over what he had done on Kessel was immeasurable. Everybody in the hangar with him had undoubtedly killed people at one point or another, but how many had tortured fellow inmates was another question entirely. No matter how much he told himself that he was a different man now, he constantly ruminated over his actions. Subconsciously, he believed that was why he had been so eager to join the New Republic. Somehow if he saved enough innocent lives, he might atone for his sins; repay the debt that he owed.
Connor and him had shared an unusual relationship. Something less than friendship but more than acquaintance. The man was erratic, unstable. That kind of volatility made it difficult to truly understand someone enough to consider them your friend.
Checking his chrono, Wildcard noted that it was probably time to start his interior pre-flight checks. By now, this routine had become muscle memory more than a conscious process. Almost in sync, he could see in the corner of his eye the rest of Spectre Squadron climbing into their cockpits, just as he was. He checked that his systems were operating properly, before finally checking his engines, which were in the clear.
"Spectre Twelve has four engines lit and ready to roll," he said into the comm system, before pulling on his helmet. From his starboard viewport he spied his wingman, Andika "Damak" Malim, who shot him a mini salute. After several minutes, Wildcard caught the signal from landing control that the squad was cleared for takeoff. Being the twelfth and therefore closest to the opening at the end of the hangar, he switched on his repulsorlifts and slowly guided his snubfighter out of the hangar, then ignited his engines, darting towards space.
Part 2: The Execution
The mottled blue swirl of hyperspace had placed Wildcard under some kind of trance. He stared blankly out of his cockpit window, contemplating all that was weighing on his mind. Dusty's pending discharge from Starfighter Command was something he could hardly believe was happening. His various mishaps had flown under the radar for so long, including his misfire which resulted in Wildcard's X-wing crashing onto a planet whose name he still was not cleared to know. Now that he thought about it, it was entirely possible that Wildcard would be contacted to testify against Dusty. Almost killing your new recruit wingman seemed like something that would probably look pretty bad in front of a review board. His comm system lit up, indicating that somebody was communicating with him on another channel. He cycled onto the highlighted channel.
"Wildcard?" Gremlin's voice inquired.
"Grem. What's up?"
"You've been going pretty quiet again recently, how are you holding up?"
"I'm fine," he replied flatly.
"Bakk," she said firmly.
"Why do you assume something's wrong?"
"Because I know something's wrong, I'm trying to be polite about it. Wolf told me about what's going on with Jade, and what happened with you and Frosty."
"Why would I care about Jade Squadron? The sooner it's gone, the better."
"Wildcard, I know you care. Please, talk to me, like you used to. For a while I felt like you were warming up to everyone and now you're retreating back into your shell again."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Okay..." she said, disheartened, "you know where I am if you change your mind,"
He keyed his comm back to the squadron channel, to find Gremlin speaking, this time addressing the whole team, ordering them to prepare for reversion in five minutes. The group, not including Wildcard and Gremlin, consisted of Rogue, Shadow, Blixus, Talon and T.P. After several moments, Wildcard heard his computer beeping, indicating it was time for reversion. As he returned to realspace, he noted initially how still everything was. Outside his forward viewport was a solitary starship, an Action VI transport. Its brown paint-job made it look bleak and depressing. In many ways, Wildcard supposed, it was. A perfectly good ship being used as nothing more than a mule packed with dangerous explosives.
"Spectres, Gremlin. Deploy into escort formation around the freighter and stay frosty, we're expected," her voice ordered into the comm system in his helmet.
"Copy, Grem," he replied curtly.
Wildcard goosed his throttle and began gliding through the darkness of space towards the ship. Once he was on the freighter's port side, he lightly banked to port and snap-rolled his ship level, bringing his fighter parallel to the freighter. Once the rest of the squadron had completed their manoeuvres, they collectively formed a cocoon around their objective.
"Remember," Gremlin continued, "we'll have to take a few hits to make our escape look convincing. Keep your shields strong."
Taking note, Wildcard shifted some energy from his cannons into his shield system, allowing him to have a bigger safety net than usual, even if he wasn't hitting as hard— which was really an advantage in this scenario. Behind him, he heard Jazzy chirp nervously.
"Try to be optimistic, Jazz."
Jazzy made a snorting sound.
"Yeah, yeah, I'm one to talk, I know."
Cutting through space like a thick sword, a Cumulus-Class Corsair appeared before them, a swarm of TIE fighters spilling from its grey hull, striped with crimson. The fighters formed up quickly and rushed toward the waiting Spectres.
"Pirates," Wildcard snarled.
"Cowards couldn't even do it themselves!" He heard Rogue yell.
"Those fighters look to be Imperial," Shadow mused. "Perhaps it is a joint operation."
"You know the drill, Spectres," Gremlin cut in. "Make it look good!"
Wildcard pushed his throttle forward and selected an eyeball with his targeting computer, coming at him head on. He rolled his fighter onto its port wing, and slammed his foot down onto the right rudder pedal, placing him perpendicular to the eyeball's line of flight as the fighter flew into his sights, unable to slow down in time. Wildcard tapped the right pedal lightly, allowing his ship's momentum to carry the nose to starboard, giving him a perfect shot as he blew the TIE into molten shards. Whoops, he thought, we're supposed to be losing here.
Just as he dispatched his quarry, from behind him came the banshee scream of another TIE. This time, Wildcard decided he would play by the rules and let the fighter "overwhelm" him. He banked to starboard, deliberately holding the stick back just a fraction to keep himself in the fighter's sights. He felt the ship tremble as his rear deflectors were battered by laserfire, but he made an effort not to sweat. Until, that is, he heard Jazzy's deafening squeal.
"What are you scr— oh, karking druk nuts!" Wildcard yelled, suddenly spotting a barrage of blue lightning blasting his fighter. Rockets. His shields rapidly depleted, while various other components in the cockpit sparked and popped. He mentally counted the number of hits he had taken, and started to wonder how his pursuer still had anything left to throw at him. Twisting around in his chair, Wildcard got his eyes on his blind spot. He groaned.
"Spectres, Twelve. Keep sharp, we got Uglies. Suggest we move as pairs, they're too unpredictable, we need to keep it as tight as possible. Join with closest pilot and stick together."
"Copy, Twelve. Nine is your wing," Shadow replied. Hardly a moment later, there were more flashes behind Wildcard and the remains of his pursuer shot by his port side. It appeared to be a B-Wing with the cockpit replaced by that of a TIE Interceptor and its starboard wing.
"I hate Uglies." Wildcard muttered.
"Spectres, we've taken a beating, time to turn tail and run. Head for our agreed escape vector and form up on me," Gremlin ordered.
Wildcard checked his navicomp, and as per its instructions, banked to port and pulled back his speed, bringing him aft of Gremlin's snubfighter. His fighter shuddered as his rear deflector was battered with laserfire.
"Jumping in t-minus 5..."
Empty space in front of them sat eerily still as the timer counted down.
His shield integrity drained away fast.
He reinforced his aft shields to stop his ship from actually exploding.
Shadow's voice came now, "I have a bad feeling about this."
The bright dots that were distant stars stretched into starlines, which began to twist together and... nothing. Wildcard watched his view revert to realspace as a grey dagger erupted into the empty space before them. Far smaller than a Star Destroyer, but equipped with four powerful gravity-well generators.
"Interdictor cruiser in system!" Gremlin yelled over the comm channel, "It's a tr—"
She was cut off as Wildcard watched a large ion blast cocoon her fighter in blue lightning. The fight that followed was short-lived. Sooner or later, every fighter succumbed to the ion barrage, leaving them dead in space. Wildcard's mind raced, trying to think of some way to fix this; to get out and save the day, but there was nothing he could do. They had been deceived. His fighter shuddered as an invisible hand grasped it firmly and pulled it slowly into the bowels of the Interdictor cruiser. The light of the hangar bay grew closer, slowly blinding him. Several moments later, he found his ship had touched down in the landing bay, along with the rest of his squad, surrounded by Imperial troops.
In the centre of the crowd stood a man wearing the uniform of an ISB Agent. He stood at an impressive almost two metres tall, and his jet-black hair was slicked back neatly. His cold blue eyes gave him the appearance of a predator sizing up his prey as he observed the Spectres being forcibly removed from their cockpits. After a moment or two, they all stood facing him silently, a dozen weapons trained on them from every direction.
At last, he spoke. "You will be pleased to know that banal formalities won't be necessary today, pilots. As a man specialising in the extinguishing of rebel activity, it behoves me to know my enemies as myself. Unless I am terribly mistaken, you," his eyes settled on Gremlin, "would be Captain Gemilan, commanding what appears to be half of Spectre Squadron, presumably while Major Krenn conducts the grown-up work."
Gremlin met his icy stare with a fiery defiance. "I'm flattered at the idea that you've spent enough time thinking about me that you can identify me with a mere glance, but you are only two thirds right, you slime. I am Captain Gemilan, and I am commanding half of Spectre Squadron, but you'll find it is I who is carrying out the important task here."
"Is that so?" the Agent asked, smirking derisively. "I wouldn't say you've had much success. You're in my hands and my men have already boarded that freighter you were escorting. You have lost, my dear."
"Well, dear boy, if I have, I'm glad to be able to go out with a bang," she said, winking at him, just as the vacuum of space was filled with the light of an Action IV Freighter filled with explosives being blown to oblivion, hopefully taking the pirates down with it.
By Wildcard's estimation, Gremlin had been taken from the cell block for questioning around an hour ago. He sat in a laser-gated cell by himself, only able to see Shadow in the opposite room, sitting with his legs crossed and his eyes closed. Wildcard could not shake the inexplicable feeling that he could recognise something about the man in charge. He certainly had never met the man, but his mannerisms, the way he spoke to them, were eerily familiar to him. There was the hiss of a doorway opening at the end of the hallway, and Wildcard saw Gremlin— unconscious— being hauled back to her cell by two stormtroopers. He heard the laser gate being reactivated before the troops appeared before him.
"You. With us."
As Wildcard was taken under the arms and escorted away, he caught Shadow glancing at the troopers, deep in thought.
Wildcard had found himself uncuffed, sitting in a chair opposite a desk populated with little more than a datapad and a stationary lamp. The man sitting behind it spent several moments taking in Wildcard's appearance before he spoke. His chillingly blue eyes ran over the whip scar on the young pilot's cheek, lingering over it for a moment before returning his gaze to meet Wildcard's emerald eyes.
"Bakk J'ruce. I've heard a lot about you."
"And I don't know a damn thing about you."
"I am Agent Kyle Korr, of the ISB. I have brought you here to ask you some questions pertaining to a number of things."
"By all means, ask away. I'm not gonna tell you anything, but you have a nice voice that'll help me sleep."
Korr allowed himself a grin at the remark. "Extensive though our sources may be, there is one tidbit I can't seem to get the hold of, and I believe you may be of assistance to us."
Wildcard merely raised an eyebrow disinterestedly in response.
Korr continued, "Tell me, J'ruce. Where is my mentor? Where is Kodo Luidi?"
Wildcard's sardonic expression slackened in surprise. "What...?"
"Oh yes," Korr replied, "my superiors have been hunting high and low for the man, to no avail. You see, he had been stationed on the desolate world of Kranal, where as you know, he headed up the project to resume manufacturing of the TIE Defender. Of course, your unforeseen intervention and the subsequent attack by Rogue Squadron saw to the end of that. Any escaping survivors were ordered to return to high command of our task force for reassignment, however Luidi was neither captured nor did he return to us. As it turned out, he had returned to and assumed command of his ship, the Victory Star Destroyer Crusader, which he then used to carry out an unauthorised invasion of Berchest. Your home. You took a once great man and orchestrated his fall from grace without even trying. You broke the man who taught me everything I know. You, someone as insignificant as you."
Wildcard struggled to comprehend what was happening. Kodo Luidi was, to the best of his knowledge, tucked away on a New Republic prison ship somewhere. It was an open secret that there was an Imperial spy presence within the Republic, which begged the question of how this information had not made its way to Korr and his mysterious overlords. Could it be possible that Luidi was somewhere else entirely? The only proof Wildcard had of Luidi's alleged imprisonment was the word of Vice-Admiral Gio, and misleading subordinates in order to maintain secrecy was something not even the NR was above.
"I have some bad news for you, Korr. I don't know where he is." As the words left his mouth, it occurred to him that he would have said this whether he knew or not. Much to his surprise, Agent Korr didn't push the matter.
"Very well," Korr said, "if you are being truthful, which I believe you are, then I still have uses for you."
"Such as seeing to it that you and your comrades are executed for your acts of depravity."
"I do not fear death, nor anything else the Empire could punish me with. I spent ten years in the spice mines of Kessel. I saw and did terrible things which will haunt me for longer than your Empire ever could. I don't lie awake at night because I'm thinking about what the Empire did to me on Kessel. I lie awake scared of what I did on Kessel. If you're going to 'punish' me for crimes against the Empire, then killing me would indeed be your best option, because as long as I breathe, I will spend every waking moment trying to find you and kill you."
Korr was unfazed; his cold stare continued to bore into Wildcard. "I fail to see why you have such a strong hatred towards me. You and I are only just getting to know one another. Frankly, I believe myself to have been rather accommodating. You aren't restrained in any way, no guards are present."
"My executive officer did not look as though she had been well accommodated for."
"I knew that she had information I desired, and she did not give it to me. I have my ways of dealing with liars."
"What makes you so certain I haven't been lying to you?"
"I've found myself to be an excellent judge of character, J'ruce."
"Kodo Luidi also had an overinflated ego, and it didn't get him very far."
"Be that as it may, I have succeeded him. He lacked the nerve for this work. However, all of this is irrelevant. I wish to know as much as possible about the last time you saw the man. If you cannot tell me where he is, you may certainly be capable of providing some insight."
"I am not telling you anything."
Korr smiled slightly, this time not with derision or condescension, but genuine amusement. "I had imagined you might say that."
There was a sharp ping as the injector gun in Korr's lap fired under the desk, planting a small syringe filled with red fluid in Wildcard's arm. He felt his motor functions loosening as the truth serum coursed its way through his veins; the world became a haze of uncertainty and impulse...
[New Republic Military Hearing; Undisclosed Location]
"Commander Rafesr Dustvain, after a lengthy period of contemplation, a verdict has been reached."
Dusty looked around the room nervously. The repurposed Imperial Courtroom was as gloomy and grey as it had always been. Cogwheels had been replaced by starbirds, but it was nevertheless intimidating. Before him, across the dark grey slab floor, was a table of five New Republic officials, staring him down unwaveringly. The woman in the centre, wearing a blue tailored suit, continued speaking.
"In your time as a high-ranking leader within Starfighter Command, you have displayed what could only be described as gross negligence. Your feckless incompetence has endangered the lives of your subordinates on occasions too numerous to list, and has driven several good pilots into the hands of our enemies. It is not lightly that we proclaim to you our decision. As of this moment, you will be stripped of your military rank and receive a dishonourable discharge. This tribunal has no wishes to see you incarcerated for your actions, as we do not believe you to have genuinely malicious intentions. We would be perfectly within rights to have you imprisoned, however we have decided to make a compassionate judgement as a result of your... "
She paused for a moment, searching for the right term, before settling on: "lesser cognitive processing."
Dusty's eyes welled for a moment. He faced the tribunal, unsure of what to say in his defence. Not that it would have made a difference; their judgement was final. "I didn't mean to, Vice-Admiral..." he squeaked, his face now stricken with tears.
"We believe you, Mr Dustvain."
"Is there nothing else? Can't there be another way?" he implored desperately.
"What would you suggest?"
"By all means, strip me of my command, my rank, anything you want. But this is my only purpose in life— it's all I have! Let me start again! I'll go back to Cadet, all the way back to basic training, I'll do everything from the ground up!"
There were murmurs among the five officials.
"One of the fundamental problems, we agreed, was the rushing of your training and promotion during the Alliance days," a Mon Calamari man on the far left said, his barabels twitching with every word, "I believe this may not be such a bad idea. If it does not work as planned, we always retain the right to discharge him."
The woman in blue, Vice-Admiral Gio, nodded thoughtfully. "I concur."
There were murmurs of agreement all around.
"Very well. You are hereby demoted and cleared for basic training. You will be returned to your quarters while awaiting assignment. This session is adjourned."
Wildcard found himself once again in his cell, with a hazy memory of the past few hours. The last thing he remembered was Korr injecting him with a dose of truth serum strong enough to knock out a bantha. He was nearly certain of one thing, regardless: he had talked. Despite his lack of short term memory, he knew that resisting truth serum was a feat unheard of. He sighed, rubbed his eyes, and leaned his head against the cold, hard back wall. He had tried his best to give everything for this cause; to finally make something of his life, and yet here he was, captured for the second time in only a few seemingly long weeks. It occurred to him just how much had gone on in such a short period of time, and how much of that had been down to his own blunders. The crash at what Korr had now identified as Kranal, the Siege of Berchest, and now this. His entire life had been for nothing. He would never have a significant impact upon the Republic's fate. Bakk J'ruce was truly little more than a washed up criminal in his own eyes. He stood, letting out a yell as he punched the wall of his cell, hard. His knuckles bled, leaving a red imprint on the otherwise unharmed wall.
"Hey! Quit it!" one of the guards yelled as he stormed up the hallway, a shock staff sparking threateningly. Wildcard merely glared in response, before lying back against the wall. As the guard, clad in the black uniform of a security officer, turned around to return to his desk at the end of the corridor, he lingered on Shadow's cell. Shadow sat cross legged in the centre of his cell with his eyes closed, in plain sight, but the officer seemed to almost be looking through him. He brought his fingers up to his lips in a shushing expression. Wildcard watched the affair, completely confused, but in an inexplicable way, mystified.
"Where the frak..." the guard turned off the laser gate, before walking into the cell and looking all over, seeming to subconsciously step around Shadow without realising. In a flash, Shadow's eyes snapped open. His hand slowly reached into his boot, from which he produced a blade. With impressive dexterity, he sprung to his feet, plunging the blade into the guard's stomach and holding a hand over his mouth to suppress the sound of the wind being forced from his body. Wildcard couldn't seem to look away. There was something incredibly methodical, yet personal, about the way Shadow had killed the guard. For a moment he stood, seeming to be exhausted. He picked up the guard's shock staff and blaster pistol, before advancing towards Wildcard's cell, sweeping the corridor as he did.
The gate switched off, removing the red hue from Shadow's face as he strode purposefully in, handing Wildcard the blaster.
"If you'd prefer, you can have the blaster," said Wildcard.
"The staff and my knife will do me just fine," Shadow replied curtly.
In a matter of minutes, the Spectres were free. Rogue, Shadow, Blixus, Talon, T.P., Wildcard and Gremlin all stood together in the corridor.
"Okay everybody, we have one chance, let's get it right," said Gremlin, still looking weary from her interrogation. "On our way in I spied a Lambda. We'll make our way to the hangar bay, if getting to our fighters seems unattainable then we pile into the shuttle nearest the door. Our main objective is to jump out of here alive. So far as we know, Wolf's team, and the rest of the Wing, haven't noticed we're missing yet, so we should act accordingly. No expecting help to arrive; we're on our own here."
"Wait," Wildcard interjected, "this is an Interdictor, we'll need to put their gravity well generators out of action, otherwise they'll blow us out of the sky, this time not with ions."
"I studied these things at the Academy," Rogue said, "someone's gonna have to stay behind and make sure they stay off. It's not ideal, but like Wildcard said, otherwise we're done for."
"I'll do it," said Wildcard.
"Wildcard, no," Gremlin replied sternly.
"It's that, or we all die." He paused for a moment. "This is my chance to do something useful for this cause. Now, we can sit around debating while the Imps get tooled up to come and stop us, or we can go. I know which I'm choosing."
Wildcard turned, blaster raised, and began walking towards the turbolifts.
R2-JZ3's power started up, performing various self tests before fully booting up. He swivelled his green-silver dome around, taking in his surroundings. As far as he could tell, he, along with various other droids, had been dumped in some kind of surplus tech-storage room. The notion that he, a mechanically bodied being capable of intelligent thought— more intelligent than some organics— was considered 'surplus' was frankly offensive, and he very much looked forward to finding the meatbag who had made that judgement and causing them great pain. Firstly, however, he had a more important matter to attend to: rescuing Master Bakk. Painful though it was to admit, Master Bakk had a habit of getting captured, and R2-JZ3 was the one saving him rather often. This was not something he would hold against the Master, of course. He was simply unfortunate enough to have been born as an organic. Nevertheless, JZ3 wanted little more than to ensure Bakk's safety and happiness. Now, the first thing he would do—
An interrupt routine halted this train of thought. There was somebody outside, trying the door. The doorway slid open, revealing seven organics clad in black Imperial flight suits, their helmets held in their off-hands. Master Bakk caught sight of him and gave one of his rare smiles, before patting the droid appreciatively on the dome.
"We got work to do, buddy. Let's go," Bakk said.
JZ3 caught Captain Gemilan shooting him a quick wink as she saw to her own astromech. The two of them had come to an arrangement whereby JZ3 would inform Gremlin of any concerning activity on Bakk's part. Bakk was unaware, of course, but she wanted him to be okay almost as much as he did, so it was all in good intentions.
Wildcard jogged down the hallway to the centre of the ship, where the gravity well generators were controlled. He had briefed Jazzy on the plan, who had agreed to help him every step of the way. The two would stay behind to keep the generators disabled while the squad escaped. In due time, if he were still alive, the New Republic would return to rescue him. He hoped. He stopped at the doorway to the control station, a huge cascade of walkways sat atop an abyss. He crouched, as did several other Spectres, to fire upon the various guards stationed in the room with blasters scavenged from the off-duty squadron of pilots they had ambushed in their ready-room, where they had also procured the flight suits to help them blend in. Their white-clad bodies were scorched, and fell from the walkways, freefalling into the void. Once the huge room had been cleared, Wildcard turned to Gremlin.
"Wildcard, there are other ways. I can stay behind, it's my duty."
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I don't see any other w—"
There was a startling hiss as the doorway slammed shut behind him. He spun around, to see Jazzy, no longer by his side, but zooming towards the control panel. His heart sank. The door had been deadlocked. Nobody could get in, but at the same time, nobody could get out. There had to be another way. Some way to open the door and stop Jazzy from doing this.
"NO!" he yelled, banging on the thick glass. The droid turned, a mournful glassy eye taking one last look at Wildcard, who could feel himself being tugged away. He couldn't leave him. Jazzy was too important to him.
"He's giving us the chance to get out of here alive. If we don't go now, we'll all die. Don't let his sacrifice be for nothing. Please, Wildcard," Shadow said to him quietly.
"I'm sorry..." Wildcard whispered, before turning to run to the hangar.
The squad marched into the hangar bay, helmets donned to avoid being recognised. Near the mag-con field sat their seven starfighters, in a prime position for their getaway. The astromechs rolling alongside them garnered looks of suspicion from various technicians around the hangar, one of whom stood in their way.
"Pilots. I wasn't aware anyone was deploying just now." he said, his voice dull and unamused.
"We've been ordered to carry out test-flights for those Rebel fighters. Need to gauge their state before they're put to use in any way," Rogue said casually.
"I see," he replied, disinterested but not particularly sceptical, "I hadn't been notified, but that seems to be par for the course these days. The Agent seems to be more interested in his spook work than running a ship."
"That sounds to me as though you're questioning the procedure of a superior officer, technician," Rogue replied, jabbing him in the chest with a finger.
The technician paled. "I apologise, sir. I spoke out of turn."
"Agent Korr is not as forgiving as I am. See to it that you don't make that mistake again," Rogue said, an ominous edge to his tone, before shoving the man to one side and continuing on.
Wildcard was shocked at the boldness of the move, but it seemed to have worked. The questioning faces were now avoiding them entirely, fearing a chewing-out. Gallously, they climbed into the cockpits of their snubfighters. Wildcard's comms crackled.
"Landing control here. We don't have any scheduled departures. Stand by while we verify."
Yeah, watch me.
Wildcard and the Spectres got the ships in the air as quickly as possible. His X-wing raised up on its repulsorlifts, before he kicked in thrusters and blasted from the hangar. For a split second before he hit the magnetic containment field, he heard the wail of the ship's klaxon. The fighters flew in loose formation, racing to reach their escape vector. Lasers rained around them from the Interdictor. Wildcard's heart felt as though it might explode from his chest. He pushed the hyperspace lever as he got within range, and miraculously, he saw the stars stretch before his eyes and burst into the flurry of light that was hyperspace. He let out a sigh from somewhere deep within his soul. He had left Jazzy behind. By now the Imps would have noticed something was wrong and blasted their way into the control room.
In spite of this hardship, however, Wildcard was left with the inescapable feeling that the whole thing was too easy. Their escape had gone off without a hitch. They had taken out a myriad of troopers without so much as a scratch, and had escaped to hyperspace without taking a hit on their fighters. In his gut, Wildcard could feel that he had not won today, it just wasn't yet clear who had...
Wildcard took a deep breath. He had been sitting in a corner booth in the bar, trying to put the right words together; trying to decide what he was going to say to Frosty. After a while, he chose to stop finding ways to prolong it. He stood, swaying slightly in his half-inebriated state. Wildcard walked over to the bar, where he found Frosty sitting alone once more, deep in thought. He tapped the brown haired man on the shoulder.
Frosty swivelled in his chair, his expression darkening at the sight of Wildcard. "Oh... hey, kiddo," he said, looking away to find his drink.
"Frosty, listen. I came here to apologise. I've done some bad things in the past, and I suppose recently I've been letting that fact dominate my present. To tell you the truth, Connor knows things about me that nobody else does... and I panicked. Wherever he is, just tell him I'm glad he's still kicking around."
Frosty sighed. "Listen, you're far from the first guy who's wanted to kill my brother. That being said, I don't think you had any ill intentions. I'm just protective, I'm sure you can understand."
"Of course. Are we good?"
Frosty grinned. "We're good, kid. I can't stay pissed with you forever."
Wildcard sat down, placing his drink on the bar, before draining the glass of its golden liquid. The whisky burned on the way down, before settling in a warm feeling in his stomach.
"Didn't catch sight of you for a few days there. Where you been?" Frosty asked.
"That's a big question, one I really don't feel like getting into. But I've come out the other side thinking that perhaps it's time I move on; change for the better."
"All of us have demons up here," Frosty pointed to his head. "It's up to you whether they run the joint or not."
"You're a wise man."
"It's true," he said sardonically, "I am a wealth of great advice. Now, you up for another round?"
"I'll pass tonight, Jack. Got a debrief tomorrow morning. Only reason it's not happening now has something to do with the fact that Wolf's busy sleeping."
"Princess needs her beauty sleep," Frosty observed drily.
Wildcard patted Frosty on the back before throwing a pile of credits on the bar to cover his tab. He slipped on his battered grey suede jacket and made his way to the door. The cool air felt soothing on his skin as he left the hubbub and chatter of the bar behind him. The night was quiet, serene. For a moment Wildcard stood, taking it all in, listening to the whine of distant speeder engines mixed with the muffled sounds of off-duty personnel laughing and drinking.
"Hey, kid!" a voice called out.
Wildcard turned towards the voice to see an older Twi'lek man leaning near the doorway, smoking a cigarra.
"You're Bakk, right?"
"That's me. Do I know you?" Wildcard replied, a cautious intonation in his voice.
"Call me Greelo. I ran the transport job with your boss, Krenn."
Wildcard noted the man's cool exterior. He exuded a kind of quiet wisdom with every word. "That so? How'd you recognise me?"
"The scar. He ended up talking about you over a drink after we got here."
Wildcard's hand unconsciously shifted up to the whip scar on his cheek, feeling it's slightly raised line curve down his face. "So what can I do for you?"
"Just take my advice, kid. Let it go. What's done is done."
Wildcard pondered it for a moment, before nodding solemnly at the man. "I've been thinking about this a lot lately. People been telling me the same. Maybe it really is time to look onwards and upwards. I'll see you around, Greelo."
"Farewell," Greelo said, throwing his cigarra onto the ground and stubbing it out with his foot.
Wolf's voice broke through Wildcard's trance. For the first time in years, Wildcard had climbed into bed and slept for a solid 8 hours, and his body was demanding more of it. He had more or less slept with his eyes open throughout the whole debriefing.
"Yes, sir," he said tiredly.
"Did you hear me?" Wolf asked, raising an eyebrow in bemusement.
"Er... yes, sir."
He saw the rest of the Spectres observing this interaction with great enjoyment.
"Get your ass down here then, pilot."
Wildcard, still clueless as to what was going on, sauntered down next to Wolf, who turned to him.
"Flight Officer J'ruce, in your recent operation led by Captain Gemilan, you showed exemplary dedication to the New Republic by choosing to place the safety of the squad over your own. You were unflinchingly willing to lay down your life, so that your allies might have a chance to escape. For this, I am proud to bestow upon you the rank of second lieutenant, thereby introducing you to the joy of... official paperwork!"
Bakk J'ruce smiled as his comrades in arms congratulated him, feeling for the first time in his life that he had truly earned the right to feel proud of himself.
Trainee Rafesr "Dusty" Dustvain sat on the edge of a bunk, turning over a small holocomm projector in his hands. The room was dark, only illuminated by strips of moonlight split by the slats of his blinds; the silence only broken by the occasional sound of a speeder shooting by. He checked the chrono on his wrist. It was time. Carefully, he placed the projector upon the ground, genuflecting before it. The small circle sputtered with light, eventually forming into the image of Agent Kyle Korr.
"Agent Dustvain, report," he said with a perfectly received accent.
"My objective has been achieved. I have been demoted and assigned to the 39th New Republic Training Squadron. The first stage of Renegade Wing's infiltration has been completed." he said, only now lifting his head once he had been spoken to.
"Excellent. I myself happened to encounter Spectre Squadron very recently, in fact."
"I allowed them to escape."
"Might I ask the reason for this?" Dustvain asked, uncertainty creeping its way into his voice.
"You may. It occurred to me that with your operation entering its next phase, it might be more fruitful to allow them to operate under your watchful eye. If we are patient, we have potential to unearth a much greater prize alongside the Rebels."
"That prize being...?"
"The exact whereabouts of Commander Kodo Luidi."
Dustvain couldn't stop the surprise from registering on his face.
"Yes," Korr continued, "I have a feeling you are soon going to carry out the most important work of your career. We shall communicate again at our usual interval."
"Oh, and Agent Dustvain?"
"Congratulations on your acceptance into the New Republic Starfighter Corps." Korr smiled before his image dematerialised, leaving Dustvain alone in the darkness once more.