Tuesday, 24 December 2019

Star Wars: Old Wounds (10)

"Greetings, my fellow denizens of the glorious Empire!" exclaimed Moff Wurmley, with feigned delight. Dak thought him an odious stub of a man, as wide as he was tall, a bulbous parcel of flesh and sweat, held together only by a constricting uniform and the unwavering sense of superiority of a man who spends his life failing upwards. 
"Now, as you are probably all aware, we have once again been the victim of a cowardly attack by Rebel insurgents." Wurmley muttered through his speech, rushing as if he was afraid he'd forget what he was saying if he spoke for too long. The gathered crowd began to jeer, some loudly wondering if further 'voluntary donations' would be asked for, others angry that the Rebels were not yet taken care of. 
"Now, I sense you're angry." stammered the Moff. "So am I. But we have struck a blow to our enemies..." He did not address the crowd directly, but aimed his speech above them, unwilling to make eye contact any of them. The crowd grew increasingly restless. 
"It has come to my, um, attention that there may be... Rebels... among you..." he uttered, flustered. The crowd continued to shout, while Dak and Wedge shared a worried glance.

"Enough!" cried a sudden, bold voice from behind the gathered crowd. The miners turned to see who had called out, and quickly, their murmuring died down. A figure had emerged from the shuttle on the landing platform. He stood tall, dressed in the pristine white tunic of a Grand Admiral. A half-cape billowed in the wind behind him, lined with red fabric, its edged embroidered in silver filigree. His jet black boots, perfectly polished, clacked neatly across the stony ground. His  chiseled features formed a striking image, with a lightly creased brow indicating his age. Combined with a well-trimed beard and greying temples, he appeared more dignified than merely old. He was flanking on either side by Stormtroopers, each clad in unusual, bronze hued armour.

"It appears that our Grand Admiral, Aegis Malefic, has decided to grace us with his presence." Wurmley announced, obsequiously. 

"That will be all, Atticus. I'll take it from here." replied the Admiral, as he took the Moff's place, pointedly refusing to shake the other man's outstretched hand.

"You are all busy people, so I shall be brief." The miners remained silent, seemingly stunned by Malefic's presence.

"Now, as you are painfully aware, Rebels have been attacking this base's supply routes for a number of weeks, despite the...best...efforts of Andriss' ruler here. As a result, I have personally intervened to ensure your protection, and to prevent further disruption to you all, and to your important work. We have already fended off the latest Rebel assault, though I'm sure you've heard the rumours by now. Two pilots were shot down last night. We believe them to have perished, but we cannot rule out their survival until we find their bodies."

"See?" Dak whispered in Wedge's ear. "Nothing to worry about, they think we're dead." Wedge didn't reply.

"However, if any of you have any information on these Rebels, I urge you to come forward. If any of you have helped these Rebels, know we will find out. You face a choice, to aid the Empire, and be a hero, or give refuge to our enemies and face the consequences. After all, none of you, I'm sure, would like to become the reason for further rationing efforts. The sooner these Rebels are dealt with, the sooner your full privileges can be restored." 

Malefic began to stroll through the crowd, casually glancing at the ID numbers stitched onto chests of the miner's jumpsuits. 

"The Empire rewards compliance. The Empire rewards loyalty. That is why I wish to honour the achievements of two of your number... ahh..!" he said, pointing with a flourish at Dak and Wedge. 

"Still think this was a good plan?" hissed Wedge. Dak didn't reply.

"These two loyal workers recently brought to our attention evidence of Rebel sympathisers organizing among the workforce." continued the Admiral. Dak glanced downwards at his armband, finally recognising its design. The mark of an Imperial informant. A quisling's band. He cursed his own sorry luck.

"Thanks to your bravery and dedication, the dissident cell was summarily dealt with, and is no longer a concern." He smiled at the pair, teeth gleaming like those of an apex predator. "I have personally arranged my visit to bestow upon you a great honour. You are to accompany these Stormtroopers to my office to recieve a commendation. The rest of you..." Malefic announced, turning to face the gathered mob, may go about your day, safe in the knowledge that the Rebel threat is very nearly extinguished!"

"Maybe this is a good thing." Dak whispered. 

"Do you honestly believe that?" replied Wedge, tersely.

"Unfortunately not. Let's hope R3 is having an easier time."

***

R3 trundled through the narrow corridors of the administritive building, twisting his dome from side to side nervously. He realised he was warbling anxiously to himself, and forced himself to stop. Instead, the droid began to whistle, almost nonchalantly, as he continued his search for the communications station. One of his internal sensors indicated a drop in pressure of his hydraulic fluid. His shoulder joint was beginning to drip again, which didn't help his disposition.

Despite his fears, the astromech has already made great progress. After he left his master, he joined a group of droids queueing to replace the previous shift. Sandwiched between a dark coloured protocol droid and a limping gonk unit, he made his way through the security checkpoint. The pair of stormtroopers on guard were inattentive, deep in arguement over rival swoop bike manufacturers. Once he was inside, he wasn't given a second glance, just another droid out of the dozens going about their daily routines inside the walls of of the base.

As the nervous droid rounded yet another corner, he trilled with delight upon arriving at a communication terminal, tucked discreetly into an alcove. Retracting his central stabilising leg, he waddled into position and inserted his data probe into the access port. He cast one last furtive glance by spinning his dome, before transferring his message. Every second it took to transmit seemed like a hour to his processing unit, increasing the odds of his discovery, until finally he recieved confirmation of his signal. Yet, despite his success, R3 did not feel relief, or even a simulation of the emotion. Instead, he uttered a series of concerned beeps, as he scanned a stream of internal messages passing through the terminal, concerning two fugitives.

***

Aboard the freighter "Centurion", Lara Sarvak was crouched by an access panel, simultaneously attempting to replace a sub-alternator on the hyper drive control matrix, and fend off the incessant advances of Wes Janson. 

"Sure you don't need any assistance?" asked the pilot, through a smirk. "You know, I'm very good with my hands. Ask anyone."

"I did actually." replied Lara, without turning away from her repairs. "They all told me the same thing: Watch out for Wes. He's a bit of a creep."

"Hey.." he replied, seemingly hurt, though it only took him a second to bounce back. "It's just one of the many comparisons between me and a rash. I'm also irritating, unsightly and very persistent."

Lara laughed, and turned to face him, flashing a slight smile. "Not to mention your rash decisions..." she started, before giving up on her own joke, mentally kicking herself.

"Maybe leave the one liners to me. You stick to the withering comments." he laughed. Lara wondered,  not for the first time, if he was even capable of taking anything seriously. "It's like Wedge always says..."

Then she saw it, a flicker of concern in the pilot's eyes, quickly brushed over. Wes needed to be irreverent, she realised. He had to be loud, always talking, to drown out the silence. Every pilot in the Rebellion had the same fears: the fear of their own deaths, obviously, but also the deaths of their comrades. Every mission was someone's last, after all. The Empire kept their pilots faceless, homogenized, replaceable. Pilots were discouraged from fraternising, but in the Rebellion, squadrons were family. They shared everything, they were each other's support, both in the air and outside the cockpit. Every mission they faced was against impossible odds, against a foe with superior numbers and firepower. Mortality rates were astronomical, so the friendships between pilots were often intensely deep and very brief. Everyone had their own way of dealing with their ghosts, and bluster was how Wes coped with his.

"I'm sure Wedge is fine. That they're both fine." Lara said, softly. 

"Course they will. They have to. I need to ridicule Wedge about being shot down by a TIE. Oh, he'll never hear the end of this one!" Wes replied, coolly. Lara saw a softening of his eyes, and she smiled in response. 

With a sudden shrill alert, their attention was drawn to the ship's main console. Lara sprinted towards it, hopping deftly over piles of spare parts and open gratings, while Wes followed behind somewhat less gracefully. 

"It's a transmission from Andriss." Lara called behind her, as she sank into her flight chair. "From R3, using Dak's personal code."

"Don't describe it, play the damn thing!" replied Wes, settling in the seat beside Lara. She flicked a switch on the console, and a small fuzzy hologram appeared before them, of two figures dressed in Rebel flight suits.

"This message will be brief." Dak's hologram explained. "Wedge and I survived our 'landing' on Andriss, but we are without transportation. The Empire is using this planet to test a new type of TIE fighter, one impervious to conventional blaster fire. The material from which they're made appears to absorb and reflect energy at an astounding rate. We believe this material is mined from this facility. This new technology must be destroyed now, before these advanced fighters are issued across the galaxy. We intend to infiltrate the compound, liberate an Imperial shuttle, and make our escape, with whatever information we can extract. However, escape will be impossible while Andriss remains under Imperial blockade. We will require support from the fleet to cause a distraction, if we are to escape, with information on this new threat. We will be unable to receive communications, and so trust that backup will arrive.  If not, we are willing to die for our efforts. Our position here is untenable, so we cannot wait. There is no time to formulate an alternative plan. If you receive this message, we are already inside the facility, so time is short. We will stall for as long as possible before attempting to escape, but I doubt we can remain undetected for long. If help doesn't arrive, if we die in the attempt, they may this message stand as an early warning for these new TIEs."

The message cut off with a hiss of static. 
"At least they're alive." Wes shrugged. "That's good news. A potential fleet of indestructible TIEs, not so much." He remembered the damage inflicted by a handful of those fighters over Andriss, and dreaded to think about what a whole fleet could do. Let alone capital ships armored in the same material.

"What are we going to do?!" exclaimed Lara, as she slammed the console in frustration. "Admiral Raddus will never sanction a rescue mission with these odss. And even if he did, we don't have anywhere near the firepower to confront a Destroyer." 

"Dont be so defeatist. I can be very persuasive. A little bit of Janson charm will be enough to win over old fishface. You'll see." Wes replied with a wink, as Lara buried her face in her hands, letting out a silent roar of frustration. 

Friday, 1 November 2019

Star Wars: Old Wounds (9)

"That went well." Wedge sighed, as they trudged away from Sloane's residence, with R3 trundling behind them.

"Shut up." Dak replied, without turning back to face Wedge.

"This is why I leave diplomacy to the senators. I'm a pilot: Give me a target, I blow it up. Simple."

"Its rarely so black and white. I've never had time for absolutes." said Dak as he pivoted to lay a reassuring hand on his friend's shoulder. "Take the TIE pilots we fly against, most of them are young, fresh out of the Imperial Academies, just looking for an opportunity to leave their homes."

"I was one of them." Wedge admitted. "Until I found a better cause."

"Exactly. The Empire is built on malice, corrupt to its core, yet often its most loyal subjects are ordinary, decent people. That's the worst part. The galaxy is too busy tearing itself apart to realise who its true enemy is."

"So how do we fight that? How can you make someone act against their own self interest, and do the right thing?"

"You don't. You can't. Everyone has to make that decision for themselves." Dak sighed. "I used to think that setting a good example was enough. But look at the Jedi, supposedly paragons of virtue, heroes to be emulated, but in the end as corrupt and fallible as anyone else."

"So what keeps you going? In the face of all that, if people can't be helped, why bother?" 

"Honestly, I don't know anymore. Stubbornness, if anything. I still fight because I couldn't live with myself if I didn't. And maybe, if enough of us choose to stand up, one day we might actually make a difference." 

With that, the two men continued to hike in contemplative silence. Upon reaching the brow of a nearby outcrop, they found themselves overlooking the Imperial mining facility nestled in a valley below. A small gravel path snaked from their vantage point, down towards a small open area in front of a set of imposing durasteel gates. The base was surrounded by a thick duracrete wall, at least 10-feet tall on three sides. The rear of the enclosure backed up onto a shear cliff face, the base of which was dotted with crudely carved entrances to various mineshafts. The region within the barricades was dived in two by a modest chain link fence. On one side stood a prefabricated building consisting of modular offices, the same architecture as any Imperial base found on countless worlds. Next to the admisistrative building there was a landing pad on which sat an Imperial shuttle, and two modified TIE fighters with an unusual bronze colouration. The other side of the fence was clearly designated for the miners, with scattered mess tents, tool storage and workshops, along with a number of lumbering load lifters obeying their scheduled tasks. A much sturdier road snaked along the valley floor, linking the facility to a small town in which the miners resided. 

"So, what's the plan?" asked Wedge, as they surveyed the camp below them.

"Why must I have a plan? I've been in charge ever since you fell out of the sky. And you out rank me. Technically."

"Fine, fine." muttered Wedge, as he looked through a pair of cracked macrobinoculars. "We could try and commandeer the shuttle, make a break for it?"

"Risky, with the Destroyer blocking the colony. It's a toss up between a tractor beam or straight up vaporisation by ventral cannon. Neither would be ideal."

"Then we get into the facility, patch R3 into the comms system and call for assistance."

"One problem, assuming we survive long enough for help to arrive. There's nowhere near enough firepower in our fleet to take on a destroyer, even if we could convince them to get here." explained Dak.

"We don't need to take it out. Not really."

"How do you figure that? Are you going to ask the Moff really nicely to let us pass?"

"We only need a few ships, enough to cause a distraction. While the Imps turn to deal with them, we take the shuttle and slip away."

"Wedge, when we get back home, you're getting your head examined. I think the crash affected you worse than I thought."

"Do you have a better plan?" Wedge replied, a slight grin creeping across his face.

"On second thought, I love this plan. I'm excited to be a part of it!"

*****

The pilots continued down a gravel trail, descending from their vantage point into the valley below. There was a rough path through the loose shale which they followed, sticking to the shadows where possible as night slowly became dawn. Along the main thoroughfare below them, the first miners were already travelling from the town, to take their places during the next shift change. 

As Dak and Wedge reached the valley floor, they took cover behind a parked load-lifter, and studied the gathered crowd of miners. A couple dozen men had already gathered, split into several groups who were conversing and laughing before their shifts began. However, a solitary pair took Dak's interest, as they were distinctly isolated from the rest. 

"Those two don't seem popular." Dak whispered, drawing Wedge's attention to them with a pointed nod.

"Look at their armbands. Supervisors? Management? Might explain why nobody wants to chat with them?" 

"Possibly. But it is an opportunity. Be ready for my signal." 

"Wait!" Wedge hissed in reply, but it was too late. Dak had already begun to slink towards an adjacent load-lifter, and towards the two isolated miners. As he crept forward, he scooped up a handful of small pebbles from the ground. When he reached his position, a few metres away from the two men with only a load-lifter between them, he tossed the first stone towards their feet. One of the men looked up briefly at the noise before returning to his conversation. The second rock bounced off his boot. 

Dak watched the man through a gap in the load-lifter's frame. He saw anger flare across his face, tinged with a brief flash of resignation in his eyes, as if this was not an unusual occurrence. He tapped his partner on the shoulder and walked in the direction from which Dak has tossed the rocks, muttering quietly about how "they're at it again."

The pair adopted a wide, intimidating stance as they approached the load-lifter. As they crossed around its front, Dak snuck around the opposite side and kept going, looping behind them. The pair stood side by side, looking ahead as Dak maneuvered behind them. With a quick hand signal towards Wedge, he swung a fist into the side of the first man's head. The man fell to the ground, and the other spun around, catching Dak by the throat before he could react. "You'll pay for that, Rebel scum..." he snarled, just before Wedge jabbed his ribs from behind. The man wheezed and doubled over in pain. Dak charged him, driving him to the floor. In the span of a few moments, both miners were unconscious. Wedge looked around nervously, expecting others to have heard the struggle, but nobody came. 

"If you're done gazing around, help me strip these guys." grunted Dak, as he undid the first set of overalls.

"Excuse me?" Wedge exclaimed.

"Keep it down! And give me a hand, unless you'd prefer to infiltrate that base in your very orange flightsuit."

"Next time, tell me your plan first. You could have gotten us killed." hissed Wedge angrily. "I thought you were tired of making plans anyway."

"I was. I am. But you were taking too long." replied Dak with a shrug. "Now come on, the shift is changing soon and we still need to hide these two."

*****

A short time later, the two unconscious miners lay bound and gagged in the back of a load-lifter. Dak and Wedge, in their new uniforms, joined the growing throng of people in front of the facilities gates. 

"Stop fidgeting." Dak whispered. "You look ridiculous." 

"Of course I do. You just had to pick someone two sizes larger than me..."

"Its not like I had a choice." Dak replied defensively. "Just act casual, and we'll get through this."

"I hope R3 is having an easier time." 

"He'll be fine. He always is." 

Dak had sent the astromech droid to join the Imperial droid pool. It would have been too risky to bring him with them as the miners changed shifts, so R3 had to find his own way in by a secondary security gate designated for the mining droids. Dak had, overs the years, fitted the stubby green droid with an array of advanced and somewhat illegal infiltration modules and deception subroutines for such occasions. However, he had a tendency to tremble uncontrollably or leak oil while 'undercover', due to a persistent software glitch Dak had been unable to pinpoint. Something in his motherboard made the poor droid a nervous wreck. Dak smiled to himself as he wondered who would stand out more, Wedge or R3. 

The droid had been given a recorded message from the pair, explaining their plight and requesting assistance. His orders were to get into the base's communications array and send an encrypted transmission to Lara, while the pilots tried to liberate a transport. 

Dak and Wedge ceased chatting as a siren blared out from speakers atop the gate. As the noise ceased, the gates slid open with a mechanical screech, and the night shift workers began to trudge outside, accompanied a squad of Stormtroopers who took positions around the entrance. Some miners stopped briefly to chat with the new shift waiting outside, but most kept waking, either out of tiredness or fear of the Stormtroopers watching them. The pilots waited until a few others began to head inside, then followed in their footsteps. As the strode past the Stormtroopers, Wedge found himself staring directly ahead, desperate to avoid eye contact with any of the bulky white helmets surrounding him. He missed being in a cockpit, and the feeling of control he had while flying. Down here, he felt so exposed, so vulnerable. But he kept walking regardless.

They followed the group into the main courtyard, until a group of Imperial officers halted them. Wedge's eyes widened with fear, but sensing his friend's panic, Dak silently urged calm. 

"What's this all about?" called one of the miners, as he approached an officer. "We got a shift to get started. We've got your precious quotas to fulfil." A couple of others cheered on their fellow with boisterous shouts, but were quickly silenced when a group of troopers raised their blasters threateningly. The accosted officer help up a hand, and the troopers relaxed. Slightly. "Come now, no need for unpleasantness. You local ruler and generous benefactor, Moff Atticus Wurmly merely wishes to address you all on the topic of Rebel attempts to disrupt this mighty facility, and the vital work you do here. Don't worry, it shall be brief."

"I've got a bad feeling about this." Wedge sighed.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Star Wars: Old Wounds (8)

Dak's eyes fluttered open, struggling against the oppressive brightness of his surroundings. While his vision acclimatized, he tried to move, with limited success. His limbs were heavy and stiff, each muscle groaning under the strain, but, he noted with slight relief, nothing seemed to be broken. He staggered to his feet, unsteady, weary, but without any particularly grievous pain. He found himself standing over a makeshift bed fashioned from old sheets and blankets, in what seemed to be a shed littered with dust, industrial tools and other detritus. On the opposite side of the room, he noticed a second figure also on a pile of cloth, Wedge! Dak rushed to his friend's side, checking his condition. Miraculously, Wedge was alive, and in reasonably good health, considering the crash they'd both endured. The worst of his injuries seemed to be a broken arm, which was bandaged in a bacta-cast. Dak stared for a few long moments as the healing liquid bubbled trough the network of narrow tubes encasing Wedge's left forearm, trying to recall how they'd ended up there.

He remembered nudging Wedge's X-Wing, trying to guide it with a tractor beam, and their eventual impact upon Andriss's surface. He and his droid, R3, emerged relatively unscathed, and he remembered racing towards the crater where Wedge had come down. Then, it got hazy. The acrid smell of leaking fuel, smoldering wreckage, ripping open the semi-shattered cockpit canopy, dragging Wedge out, a fireball, a cloaked figure emerging from the shadows, then darkness.

Dak creased his brow anxiously. He didn't like mysteries, or relying on the supposed kindness of strangers. He'd remained alive in the smuggling business because he kept his distance, looked out for himself. The idea that someone had just taken in two injured pilots was suspicious to a man like Dak. But he was also pragmatic enough to be grateful, nonetheless.

"We'll get out of this, Wedge." he said to his unconscious friend. "Just hang in there, okay buddy?"

A short time later, Wedge began to stir.

"What happened last night?" he said, voice cracking.

"You tried to drink Wes under the table." Dak replied, with forced mirth. "Of course, after the Eridian gin, it gets a bit fuzzy."

"My arm?" Wedge muttered, observing his cast for the first time.

"Okay, real talk. You were shot down by Imperials. Wes got out okay but I lost my ship trying to keep you from becoming a tiny streak of carbon burned into this lousy rock."

"No. Not possible. I don't get get shot down."

"Well, that's what happened, unless you want to claim it was falling with style?" said Dak. "The Empire's got some shiny new TIEs, impervious to conventional weapons fire. If we can't find out how they work and figure out a way of shutting down production soon, then we may as well kiss this rebellion goodbye."

"I think you've got bigger problems in your immediate future." boomed a deep gravelly voice from the shed's doorway. "Alone, injured, and trapped on an Imperial mining colony. Which by the way, currently has a Star Destroyer blockading the planet."

Wedge forced himself upwards using his elbows, to confront this new arrival, but the strain he applied to his injured arm caused him to slump downwards again. Dak swivelled around, eyes narrowing with caution as he observed the intruding figure. He was a tall, stocky man probably in his late forties, though the heavy lines scored across his face added a decade to his appearance. His eyes were old and harsh, sunk into a craggy face littered with wrinkles and scars. Rough, uneven stubble framed his weary face, extending up to meet his similarly cropped, fading hair. His hands were large, strong, and covered with thick calluses.

"You're the one who found us in the wreckage." Dak stated, with belated recognition. "I suppose a thank you is in order." His tone was neutral, bordering on friendly, yet he remained wary of this seemingly helpful ally.

"Sloane Fell, mining sub-subsupervisor, night shift. Just be glad I found you before any of the patrols." The man answered cheerily.

"And you just took us in, out of the kindness of your heart?" Dak asked, pointedly. "I'm sure the Imperials would reward anyone with information on two rebellious fugitives. Rare to find a person who values morality above credits." As he continued to probe their rescuer, Dak couldn't help but feel the lack of weight tugging at his waist, due to an empty holster.

"Being straight with ya, I value my freedom above either." replied the man as he met Dak's glare with one of his own. "Best way to avoid trouble is to avoid attention. Bringing down the wrath of that sniviling Moff sounds like attention to me."

"Yet you took us in. You could have just left us in the wreckage." added Wedge, with some effort.

"In which case I may as well have just shot you both. Death sentence either way." He sighed, before continuing: "Look, I happened to walking along the ridge when I saw you come down. I was close enough to help, so I did. I couldn't live with just doing nothing and letting you die, so I got you to my cabin before the Imps came knocking. I can't house you for more than a few days, without drawing suspicion, but that should be long enough for you both to heal up and arrange safe passage."

Dak was still unsure if he could trust the man, despite how sincere he appeared to be, so he tested the water again. "If the Empire is going to come looking for us though, perhaps we should be armed? Could you return my blaster, by any chance?"

Sloane shook his head in reply, but upon noticing Dak's deepening scowl, he added "Must have been lost in the crash, you weren't carrying anything when I found you.... but feel free to borrow one of those mining lasers. Limited charge, but should pack enough of a punch on the highest settings, if that'll make you feel better."

"And my droid? Where have you hidden R3?"

"Not hidden. He took off towards the condenser relay about half a klick that way." Slone said, pointing westward. "He's a loyal little machine. Refused to leave your side for hours, until my protocol droid convinced him to help with a recalibration. Your droid is as loyal as mine is... relentless."

In spite of his own suspicions, Dak laughed. While still unsure if they could fully trust Slone, he certainly made it difficult not to. Not that he and Wedge really had a choice anyway, there wasn't much of an alternative. After a little more convincing, they decided there was nothing to do but rest, wait until nightfall, then come up with a plan. Attempting anything else during daylight hours would be too easy to draw the attention of a passing patrol.

***

As the last remnants of the light faded away from outside the windows of the modest domicile, the three men had reconvened for a light meal. Slone's protocol droid was clearing away the remnants of supper. Designated A-1FN, or 'Al', its ancient casing was a mix of scavenged spare parts, with rust being the only unifying theme to its colour scheme. R3 followed along behind Al, warbling a series of unwanted suggestions, attempting to improve his fellow droid's efficiency, despite Al's continued protestations.

"So, what do you know about Andriss?" Sloane asked, while mopping up the few remaining crumbs from his plate.

"Not much, mining colony, moderate resources, fairly unimportant." Dak replied with a shrug.

"I think what my friend means to say is that..." started Wedge, before Solane shushed him.

"Spare me the platitudes, it's true." admitted Slone. "This colony was founded about 200 years ago, when some probes from the Mining Guild suggested it showed mild interest. Nobody's dug out anything other than mediocre quality ore since."

"If you'll excuse the question, why is it still here then? Surely there are more profitable planets you could have moved to?" Wedge asked, pleasantly.

"Stubbornness, plain and simple. We were born here, as were our fathers, and their fathers. We belong here, not that the powers that be ever saw it that way."

"What do you mean?" Dak asked.

"Andriss has never had a voice in the Senate. We're too small to be considered an official colony world. Same with the Guild. Our production isn't valuable enough to give us any say. No control over the regulations that bind us, or the rules which govern us." Sloane ranted, his face reddening with indignation. "But still we've clung on, dug in, and kept on working."

"Why not channel those frustrations against those who cause them? The Empire won't give you a say, why not help us?" urged Wedge. "The Alliance wants to help planets like yours."

Sloane scoffed, and clapped his hands suddenly. "It was the same under the Republic as the Empire, kid. Your Alliance won't be any different."

"But..." Wedge started, but was cut off.

"Don't even bother. You talk a good game, full of hope and wishes, but what about cold, hard, honest facts? If Andriss signed up to your little Rebellion, how would you ensure we continue to get contracts? What kind of tariffs will we face? If the Empire comes back looking for the resources you've denied them, will you defend us? I doubt you have the firepower to repel even a single Star Destroyer."

Wedge couldn't help but feel frustration of his own. "I'm not saying it'll be easy, but we want to help anyone subjugated by the Empire."

"Wedge." Dak said, laying a hand on his friend's shoulder. He gave a quick look, urging caution against a pointless argument.

"Help? Don't make me laugh. Let me tell you what your help has done for us, shall I? You've been raiding transports coming to resupply the base, three or four times now. What do you think happens after each one? Sloane jeered. Wedge was silent, fearing he already knew the answer.

"They take food from us. Increase rationing, horde everything for themselves. If you liberate machinery, we're forced to dig regardless, with broken tools. Backbreaking labour, for little reward. Your attempts to disrupt their supply lines only affect us, not the Imperials."

"What would you have us do?" asked Wedge in response. "Stand by, not interfere, let the Empire expand until nowhere is safe, or free? If the gain any more control, there will be no resistance. No options, except subservience."

"Call this resisting? You say you want to help, but what you do only hurts the people like me. Citizens, trying to make a living. All the while the Empire continues without challenge. You haven't a hope of stopping them directly, so you raid their supply lines, winning little victories here and there, patting yourselves on the back while nothing changes. If you want to help, take out the Emperor, and leave us innocents out of it. All you're managing to do is bloody the Empire's nose, while innocent civilians pay the price." Sloane said, seething.

"Enough!" bellowed Dak, loud enough to silence the room. "Our actions have consequences, of course they do, but get some perspective man! Now, I'm sorry our efforts have inconvenienced you, truly I am, but look at the Empire. It bleeds worlds dry, enslaves entire populations, suppresses facts and instills fear into billions if not trillions. It is evil, and must be fought. Doing anything else is merely condoning their actions. Call us the enemy if you wish, if it helps you sleep at night. I'm stained by the blood of innocent lives, but don't pretend your hands are clean. Every crime of the Empire is one in which its citizens are complicit."

"But nobody can do it alone. We don't have the resources to face the Imps head on. Only by standing together, in defiance, can the Galaxy hope to free itself." continued Wedge.

"It's all too easy to sit on the sidelines, as long as you're able to ignore the harm the Empire causes. Surely taking a stand, resisting its evil, is worth some mild personal suffering? Compared against the plight of political prisoners, of the slave labour camps, the xenophobia, all rampant under Imperial rule?"

"I will not be berated, in my own home, by a pair of fanatical terrorists!" Sloane roared, his head now tinged apoplectically purple. The Rebel's words had cut him surprisingly deep, and even he was taken aback by the vitriol in his voice. "Get out now, leave me alone, and I might not alert the Stormtroopers!"

***

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Star Wars: Old Wounds (7)

The crumpled remains of Wedge's X-Wing tumbled through the upper atmosphere of Andriss, blazing like a meteor. Thankfully, the damage had mostly affected the wings, engines and nosecone, leaving the cockpit relatively untouched. Dak stabbed at the communication panel of his fighter, in a futile attempt to reach his wingman. His droid warbled hurriedly in his ear.

"Thanks R3." he replied, breathing a small sigh of relief. R3 had managed to connect to the X-Wing's telemetry, and found that while Wedge was unconscious, his flight suit was reporting a steady pulse. Not that it would matter for long if they couldn't get the broken shell of a starfighter under control.

"Buddy, any chance you can remotely access his engines?" Dak asked while consulting the altimeter. R3 gave a negative chirp in response.

"How about repulsorlifts?" Another negative bleep. Dak cursed under his breath.

"Okay, think. Think." he said, urging himself.

"Ready the tractor beam, R3." It was a long shot, and Dak knew it. Tractor beams were almost utterly useless when fitted on small, one-man craft, useful only for deflecting slow-moving space debris too big to bounce off a deflector shield. Missiles moved too fast for the generators to get a lock-on, and also only works on objects significantly smaller than the operating craft. A tractor beam operates on a principle of equal and opposite reaction, thus, attempting to use it on anything larger than a droid would only pull a fighter towards its target. But it was the only thing Dak could think to try. With careful speed modulation, he intended to repeatedly grab and release Wedge, hoping to act as a brake by slowly leeching the falling fighter's velocity.

With a calming sigh, he activated the beam, to no effect. He had missed! Dak grunted, then tried again, also failing. Wedge was simply falling to rapidly to latch onto. R3 echoed a mournful melody.

"Less of that buddy." said Dak, determined. "Trust me."

With that, Dak increased his throttle and soared forwards until he was directly beneath the X-Wing. R3 began to screech in alarm, but Dak shushed the droid, saying, "Relax, I've got this." He almost believed himself. Almost. Then he began to fly upwards. With a sudden deafening thud and a wail of colliding metal, he made contact with Wedge's fighter. As long as he maintained his speed and trajectory, they we both fine, but one slip, one errant twitch could send either spiralling out of control. Dak tried not to think about that eventuality.

He risked a brief glance upwards, towards the jagged stump of the X-Wing's nose. Mentally, he followed the shape of the ship back, working out how the two ships were connected. Thanks to the particular shape of the Y-Wing, it's parallel engine cores acted like rails, holding the other ship by its wing structure, while the bulk of it nestled in the hollow area behind Dak's cockpit. The Y-Wing was a sturdy hunk of a ship, dating back to the early Clone Wars, where it had been the backbone of many successful campaigns. Here, it was serving the same purpose, in a far more literal sense. With the practised deftness of an ace pilot, Dak began to decrease his throttle, while banking the front of his craft slightly. He winced at the shuddering, shifting mound of mangled metal above him, as he slowly robbed it of its momentum. With each movement, the weight distribution upon the Y-Wing fluctuated, requiring Dak to constantly react just to maintain control. It was like trying to juggle while skiing down an icy peak, during an avalanche, an event which Dak had surprising experience of.

Slowly, both ships began to slow to a more measured pace. Below them, the craggy outcrops of Andriss still zoomed past, but we're no longer the chaotic blur they had appeared to be. Though Dak couldn't help but note that they were much closer to said ground, and he still had to work out a way to land safely.

"Not now!" growled Dak as several warning lights lit up simultaneously. R3 summarized the faults in a rapid flurry of beeps.

"Multiple structural weaknesses, aft fuel compressors offline, failing motivators..." he muttered, repeating the droid. As good as his ship was, it couldn't withstand much more punishment.

"We've got to set down, now!" he exclaimed. "Let's try the tractor beam again." Once again, Dak attempted to activate the tractor beam. Unsurprisingly, he managed to lock on this time.

"Now for the fun part." he said, as he drifted away from under Wedge. His entire ship began to shudder under the tractor's strain. Both ships struggled as they began to balance around a point midway between them, like two balls connected by a rope, each mass pulling the other. Sweat glistened on Dak's brow as he struggled to maintain event a semblance of control over the system. In a testament to his talent, he discovered a series of subtle inputs which helped to control both ships, but it was still a terrifyingly complex and chaotic system. More alarms and warning signalled the imminent failure of this own ship's critical system. He was losing control, and both ships began to circle each other, drifting in gyroscopic synchronicity like a pair of bolas. He checked his velocity one final time, with a short exhalation of breath. He wasn't going to be able to slow them down much more, and the ground was skimming past very close now. All he could do from here was trust in the Force and hope.

"Good luck Wedge." he said to his friend, as he braced for impact. "And may the Force be with....". His final words were cut off by the impact of both fighters with the Rocky terrain below.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Star Wars: Old Wounds (6)

Later that night, Dak wandered the narrow corridors of the Centurion alone, reminiscing on the long-lost glory days of his youth, remembering the ghosts of old friends. His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden clattering coming from the boarding ramp. He turned and strode in the direction of the sound to find Lara attempting to sneak onboard, carrying armfuls of ration packs, her subtlety ruined by a few stray packets which had fallen to the floor. Bending to help her relieve her lost supplies, Dak asked,

"Felt like a midnight snack? I'd be careful if I were you. Wedge is in a bit of a court-marshaling mood today."

"No, I think it's just you he has an issue with. He wouldn't be the first, Gramps. Besides, if he wants to come after me for this, he'll have his hands full. Janson and Porkins are still in the mess, digging into the puddings." Lara replied. Dak chuckled in response.

"Well, then we can form an orderly queue to face his ire." he added, before trailing off. Lara was staring at him, a hard edge in her eyes. A look he'd received frequently of late. She spoke, her voice laced with concern.

"Enough jokes Dak. What's up? You not sleeping again?"

"It's nothing." Dak said, quickly. "I'm fine. Just missing the old girl." he added, gesturing at the ship.

"Don't try and flip a blast shield over my eyes. I know you too well. I know when you're not alright. You've been having those nightmares again. What is it this time?" Lara urged him to speak.

"Nothing. Just an old man's weariness. Don't fret about me." he sighed.

"Don't give me that. I've told you, you need to talk to someone. I understand not wanting to bring it up with the fly-guys, but I'm practically your daughter. You raised me for over ten years. You can talk to me." A silent pause hung in the air for a few moments. When it became clear that he wouldn't reply, Lara tried a different approach.

"So, what was it this time? That time on Rhyindar? The mines of Preet? The fortress of K'ddash?" Still, Dak remained silent. Lara's eyes widened with realisation.

"No, not Xantu... you haven't had those dreams in years."

"Well, having all the bones of your right arm ground to dust is just the kind of trauma that stays with you!" Dak snapped. He paused to compose himself, before continuing,

"That was the day I failed. The day I lost everyone I ever cared for, bar you, each one believing in me until their final breaths. The day the man I was died, leaving me in his place. A lingering shadow, a pale imitation."

"So stop trying to fill his shoes. Embrace who you are now, don't wallow in the past. The galaxy still needs you, it needs everyone who's willing and able to rise up, if the tyranny of the Empire is to be opposed. The Rebellion is full of broken people. Ex-criminals and scoundrels, slaves and the oppressed, and every single soldier here has lost someone they care about. We have to take that pain, hold it tight, let it be fuel for our struggle, rather than for our funeral pyres."

"I wish I shared your optimism, Smudges. But I lost that spark long ago." said Dak, with resignation.

"Really? Then why did you join the Rebellion? Was it just to keep an eye on me? Because I don't need your protection. If that's all that's keeping you here, go and leave the fighting to those who have the heart." Lara blazed with anger. She knew Dak better than he did at times. She knew he still cared, too much.  That was why he tried to close himself off, tried to erect walls to distance himself from suffering. She had to be harsh to force him to see himself.

"I..."  Dak started, before trailing off. He couldn't find the words he wanted to say. He half smiled to himself with pride in his surrogate daughter. She was stubborn enough to bring down the Empire single handed. He admired her determination, her endless, hopeful resolve. She never stopped believing in him, something he had always struggled with.

"You're right Lara." he said, finally. "We've got a battle to win in a few hours, so I'd better try and get at least a few minutes of shut eye." as he strode out of the ship, he called back, while waving two ration packs, "Oh, and I'm keeping this Bantha jerky. Consider it a bribe so I don't tell Wedge about your thievery."

***

Wedge had a bad feeling about the mission. If he was being honest, he always had a bad feeling, a flutter of nerves before every encounter he was involved in. But this felt different, somehow. Privately, he wondered if attacking the same convoy so soon was wise, surely the Imperials would be on the defensive, but who would expect such a blatantly audacious attack? Besides, he reasoned, it was necessary if they were to uncover the details of Project Indomitable. He kept his concerns to himself, no point in distracting his wingmates, instead he gazed out into the void of space, watching for the approach vector of the vessel.

With a silent pop, the Imperial cargo transport stretched into real-space. Moving with practiced elegance, the Rebel pilots began their assault, mirroring their previously successful tactics. Wes was the first to notice that something was amiss.

"Red Leader, do you see the TIEs it's carrying?"

"Affirmative Red Three. Are they painted gold?!"

"It's more of a dull bronze colour." Dak added, needlessly.

"Are we facing off against an agent of a particularly ostentatious Moff or something?" Wes asked, exasperatedly. "Is it too much to ask for the Empire to show some class?"

"Maybe it's a new trick to confuse and dazzle us?" said Dak. "Because if so, I have to admit it's having the desired effect."

"Whatever the reason, it can't be good. Form up and stay sharp. Those eyeballs are undocking, and we don't know what they're capable of." Wedge ordered.

Like Mynocks from a cave ceiling, the sheltered, shining TIEs dropped from the transport, preparing to engage the Rebels, though each moved slowly and deliberately, as if pushing against a massive resistance. They appeared as if they were attempting to force their way through a viscous liquid, rather than the empty vacuum of space.

"These things are ridiculously slow!" Dak laughed. "Whatever they're covered in, they've lost all maneuverability."

"Easy pickings then!" said Wes in agreement. "Going in!"

Wes' X-Wing banked towards the nearest fighter, easily locking onto its lazy listing trajectory. He squeezed his triggers, and his quad-cannons barked hot bolts of plasma at the gilded TIE. To no effect.

"Nothing! These eyeballs must have some high powered shields to tank that much firepower." Wes exclaimed, with frustration.

"I don't think so." Wedge replied, uncertainly. "Look at the wing's surface." The exterior of the TIE seemed to fizz as electrical energy sparked across it, slowly dissipating. Several isolated spots where Wes' attacks struck glowed a molten red, but still the surface was unbroken. "I think the hull absorbed your blasts somehow. You hit it, but nothing happened. How is that even possible?"

"No..." Dak muttered to himself, an old memory surfacing from his mind. "It can't be..."

Before Red Squadron could regroup, the bizarre, armoured TIEs began their counterattack. Each fighter spat harsh green energy at the Rebels, monstrously powerful blasts that were more akin to the turbolaser batteries of a capital ship than a one-man craft. For a while, both sides were locked into a stalemate. The nimble X-Wings able to weave between and evade the Imperial fire, but unable to inflict any damage of their own on the lumbering TIEs. As the battle lingered, weariness began to burrow into the resolve of the Rebels, until...

"I'm hit!" Wes cried out. As he tried to swerve left from the TIE on his rear, he drifted into the stray fire of a second fighter. Smoke and sparks trailed from two of his engines, and one of his S-Foil wings had sheared off entirely. "Port engines are fried, but I can hold it." he growled through gritted teeth.

"No you can't. Get out of here, while you still can!" Wedge demanded, narrowly avoiding more enemy fire.

"I've got this!" Wes pleaded.

"I said leave. That's an order!" Wedge yelled. "You're no good to us dead. And someone has to get word back to the base about these new fighters."

Reluctantly, Wes peeled off from the group and made a break for open space, and the safety of Lightspeed. One of the TIE Fighters followed, determined not to lose its prey, but even in his damaged state, Wes could outmanoeuvre a single ship. Instead, as he fled, all he could do was listen helplessly to his friends continuing a futile struggle.

"This is hopeless!" Dak said, finding a brief moment of calm before having to dodge fresh fire.

"Agreed." Wedge concurred. "We need more firepower. Prepare to..."

Wedge's voice cut off abruptly, as his X-Wing took a glancing blow from a TIE. The nose of the craft was blown clean off, and his engines flared with a quickly smothered conflagration. The remaining husk of his fighter drifted in the void, just inside the outer edges of Andriss' atmosphere, just within its gravity well. Slowly, the burning cockpit fell towards the planet below, its edges beginning to glow as it streaked through the atmosphere.

"Wedge!" Wes cried, in desperation.

"I've got a plan." Dak replied, gunning his Y-Wing towards the falling wreckage. "It's not much of a plan, but it's something. Wes, you have to tell High Command about these new fighters. In case we don't make it out..."

"Don't. Whatever it is, don't say it. The three of us can discuss it over an Alderaanian Ale when  it's over. Wes out."

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Star Wars: Old Wounds (5)

In the hanger bay, surrounded by a motley assortment of Rebel fighters, Dak was tinkering with a a fried plasma oscillator, deep in the bowels of his craft. He lay on a mechanic's trolley, which hovered several inches above the ground, while he reached up towards one of the Y-Wing's service hatches. He still wore his orange flightsuit, though the helmet had long since been discarded, revealing a tousled mass of unevenly cut hair, distinctly greyed. It was late and he was alone in the hanger, with only the scurrying servomotors of the mouse droids for company. That and his lingering, unwanted thoughts. Mechanical, menial tasks helped him clear his mind, to distract him from himself, but it wasn't always successful. Sometimes he couldn't drown out his endlessly looping ruminations, no matter what. But even on such nights, keeping himself occupied was still preferable to lying awake in his bunk, or the fitful nightmares of his fractured sleep.

His left arm began to tremble, at first softly, almost imperceptibly, gradually increasing in severity. An old war wound, the kind that can never truly be healed, the kind of injury which marks more than just the physical self. It always flared up during periods of stress, Dak had learned to cope with it, adapt to it and mask the worst of his symptoms, though he was always left with the pain. He willed his appendage to behave, even as waves of resignation ate away at his resolve. As if to spite him, his arm spasmed, fingers stretching open involuntarily. The sound of his hydrospanner colliding with the concrete floor rang through the silent hanger. As the echo faded, Dak thought he could just make out the sound of faint footsteps. With a groan of effort, he pushed himself upright, his old bones creaking slightly under the strain.

"You're not getting any younger." Dak thought to himself. "You can't keep this up forever." He stopped to retrieve his dropped tool, before facing in the direction of the footsteps just in time to see Wedge approaching. The young pilot was dressed in casual clothing, consisting of a beige leather jacket with Rebel insignias embroidered on the shoulders and navy trousers featuring a vertical red marking, a Corellian Bloodstripe. Dak idly spun his hydrospanner through his fingers, seeming casually, to hide his lingering tremor.

"Dak, thought I'd find you here." Wedge announced, his voice clipped and authoritative. "We need to talk."

"Save your breath." replied Dak. He knew why Wedge had sought him out, and was in no mood to be disciplined. "Unless you're here to ground me, can we just assume you've said your piece and move on?"

"A perfect example of your troublesome attitude." Wedge sighed. "Look Dak, I hate to do this, but you're giving me little choice."

"You know as well as I do that I'm one of the best pilots you've got, if not the best. Besides, you can't even fill an entire squadron, you need all the pilots you can get. Including me."

"We also need trust, and discipline. Every mission puts our lives on the line. Each of us needs to be able to rely on the others. Loose cannons and wild cards only create chaos and confusion."

"And a synergized squadron is greater than the sum of its fighters. Any more saccharine platitudes?" Dak bit back, harsher than he intended. Wedge turned away, rubbing his forehead with frustrated contemplation. He spun back towards Dak, pointing a finger at the other pilot.

"Why are you even here, Dak?"

"Excuse me?"

"In the Rebellion. Why do you fight?"

"I told you when I signed up. There's a death mark on my head, I crossed the wrong Hutt when I 'lost' a shipment. My options were either spend the rest of my days fleeing from bounty hunters, or joining the Rebellion and letting the Empire take me out instead. Jabba found it most amusing, this way it saves him on paying out when I'm blown from the skies."

"Is that really your only reason? You joined the Rebellion out of convenience?" Wedge exclaimed, incredulously.

"More or less."

"The rest of us, we're risking everything we hold dear to bring down the Empire, its corrupt systems and its cruelty and malice. We fight to liberate the Galaxy from its terror." Wedge was shouting now. "But you, you treat this struggle like it's just a game, just some hobby to breathe some excitement into your life. If that's the case, you've better off joining a swoop racing circuit on some backwater Outer-Rim world and clearing off. Leave the fighting to those who actually care."

A stony silence sat between the two pilots for a few moments. Dak couldn't fail to see the passion in Wedge's eyes, and felt a pang of remorse deep within himself. He'd promised himself years ago, on the day that all his hopes had died, that  he wouldn't care anymore. He'd spent so long keeping himself at arm's length from all those around him, afraid of attachment, of hope, and of the inevitable loss that such bonds must bring. Despite himself, he couldn't help but see a spark of his younger self reflected in Wedge, a man who wanted to fix the Galaxy, a man who would let nothing get in his way. With a sigh, he finally spoke, repressed words tumbling forward like water held behind a dam.

"Okay then, you want to know the full story? I was your age, or a bit older, in the last years of the Republic. It was a fine time to be a smuggler then, so many Coruscanti elite who wanted to import exotic foods and exquisite goods from across the Galaxy, but were less keen on paying taxes and tariffs. The kind of people who have an excess of credits, who you don't feel bad for swindling. Then came the Clone Wars, the fall of democracy, a rise in military expansion, and the beginnings of the Empire. I lost a lot of friends and family in those early days, as did we all. But I was there, powerless, as the Dark Side flourished, as evil was invited to take control. All I could do was watch as decency was strangled and hope withered. So I kept my head down, only looking out for myself, and for Lara. Spent years trying to survive as a smuggler. Suddenly the elites were able to simply take what they desired, so that left me with few options. I refused to traffic slaves or spices, so that ruled out most of the pirates and cartels. The only other jobs available were smaller communities, desperate for food, or medicine. Vital supplies which the Empire hoards for itself. But even only charging for cost felt like fleecing such folk. I couldn't keep going, ignoring the problem, I had to do something."

"So, that's why you really joined. You want to make a difference after all."

"Don't get ahead of yourself, Wedge. I'm not a naive romantic like you. I don't burn with the fire of resistance. In fact, we're unlikely to make even a dent in the Empire's fierce chokehold of the Galaxy. But at least we're doing something."

"I admire your optimism." Wedge said with a smirk. "Honestly though, thanks for sharing. I had a feeling you did care, no matter how deeply you try to bury it. You're a decent pilot, but please try and follow orders, or I will have to drop you."

"No promises." Dak added, with snark. "And what do you mean 'decent'? I'll have you know I'm..."

With a screeching whine, R3 came trundling into the hanger with some urgency, beeping and whistling hurriedly.

"Slow down, buddy." Dak said, soothingly. "What's gotten into you?"

"He was helping me go through the logs I ripped from the transport we boarded." Lara explained, breathing heavily as she followed the droid into the hanger. "He's found references tosomething called Project Indomitable."

"Some sort of Imperial scheme? Were there any other details?" Wedge asked, his jaw stiffened with concern.

"Only a partial copy of some encrypted files. We weren't expecting anything like this so I only pulled a basic transcript from the transport."

"Wonder if it's connected to the mining equipment we liberated?" Wedge wondered aloud.

"When's the next shipment scheduled for Andriss?" Dak queried. "If we can take the next transport, maybe we can access a completed file from the ship's database."

"In about 16 hours, give or take." Lara replied, consulting her datapad.

"Then we'd all best go get some rest. We're scrambling the fighters in the morning." Wedge announced. "Dismissed."

***

The Imperial Star Destroyer Escutcheon drifted through the endless dark void of space, it's motion presided over by Admiral Aegis Malefic. He was a tall, imposing figure, his naval uniform impeccably creased, his rank insignia perfectly polished. His face was aquiline, and set in a permanent scowl, though he would, very occasionally, allow a toothless smile to flash across it. His high, sharp cheekbones were a rival for even Grand Off Tarkin himself. His short dark hair was perfectly groomed, as was his precisely sculpted curling moustache. Given his stature, it constantly appeared as if he was looking down upon those around him, and moat of the time, he was. At this moment, the target of his ire was a grovelling Captain Atticus Wurmly.

"So you see, it wasn't my fault! The Rebels, they were sneaky, they surprised us. Caught us with our guard down. But I assure you, if I ever encounter them again, I'll be ready!"

"Indeed." Aegis said laconically. He was a man of few words, as he prized his time very highly. "See to it that you do. You shall be witness to the first practical demonstration of Project Indomitable."

"Oh, well, this is such an... an honour! Yes, I shall not let you down again." Atticus blathered.


"See to it that you do not. Or I shall consider your usefulness expired." Aegis said, his clipped tone implying a certain finality to his words.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Star Wars: Old Wounds (4)

With the TIE fighter formation in tatters, Wedge and Wes made short work of the stragglers. On the bridge of the transport, the captain seethed with barely contained fury. His complexion had transitioned through various shades of red, until reaching its current sickly purple hue. Thick, bulging veins pulsed across his damp brow while his left eye twitched incessantly, like some malfunctioning droid with a faulty processor. His crew had failed him, he reasoned inwardly. Ineptitude and incompetence amongst his feeble pilots, a pathetic bridge crew, he felt surrounded by the dregs of the Imperial war machine. How could he be expected to fight back against rebel scum and saboteurs in these conditions? While the assault continued, he turned his attention towards blame, beginning to piece together the report he would send to the admiral, and how best to absolve himself of recrimination.

Meanwhile, Dak's mission was not yet completed. With the freighter now unguarded, he could concentrate on disabling its shields. He readied his craft's ion bombs as he passed over the transport, before dropping his payload. Eight glowing balls of blue energy spewed forth from the underbelly of his Y-Wing, and arced towards the vessel below. The first pair of orbs collided with the forcefield projected by the freighter's shield generators. Upon impact, the bombs spread a large electrical discharge across the shield, causing it to flare brightly before flickering and fading momentarily. A moment just long enough for the remaining bombs to slip through and impact the hull. The freighter's surface sparked as ionized tendrils of electricity danced across it. The charge spread throughout the vessel, conducted through its metal frame. Throughout the ship, power conduits, energy couplers and electrical fuses blew out as the ship's systems were overloaded. Even the main reactor shut down, stranding the transport and rendering it as immobile and defenceless as a junked husk.

Aboard the bridge, the lighting dimmed before switching to the dull, red glow of the emergency illumination. The backup generators were used in such scenarios to provide essential systems such as lighting and life support. The captain scowled in the half light, disturbed by the scarlet tint surrounding him. He hated the colour, it always seemed to him as if the bridge was suddenly coated in blood, and he hated blood. He grew faint even when he cut himself shaving, for Sith's sake. 

"How long until full power is restored?" he asked his first officer, his voice quavering oddly with a mix of anger and anxiety.

"Ten minutes until the reactor is re-primed sir. Full operational capabilities will take longer, until the service crew patch the fried systems. It's over sir. The Rebels have us dead in space."

The captain thought of retorting, admonishing his officer for admitting defeat, until he caught himself. Such patriotic zeal was unlike him, all the excitement of the battle must have gone to his head. Instead, he resignedly said "Open a comms channel. We have no choice but to surrender."

Wedge smiled to himself as his comms board lit up, signalling an incoming transmission on an open frequency. 

"Okay, R5. Patch it through."

"Rebel pirates, this is Captain Atticus Wurmley of the Gozanti-Class Cruiser Exigious. Please state your intentions."

"Ah, Captain. What a pleasure it is to hear from you." fawned Wedge, exaggeratedly. "As you are painfully aware, we have disabled your vessel and have you at our mercy."

"Yes, but to what end, exactly? If you plan on destroying us, then I hope you don't expect me to beg."

"We have no desire to attack you further, provided you follow our instructions."

"Oh, and what is it that you demand of us?"

"Your entire cargo."

"And how exactly do three snubfighters  plan on hauling such a cargo?"

"We don't. That's her job."

There was a sudden shimmer of movement at the edge of the system, as a Corellian freighter entered realspace. A momentary blur appeared and contracted into a recognizable shape, as the craft emerged from lightspeed. It was a YT-1000 model, nearly a century old and practically a museum piece, the precursor to the more popular (if still outdated) YT-1300, of which the Millennium Falcon was the most infamous. The YT-1000 bore a lot of similarities with its successor, though in a more primordial implementation. Like the YT-1300, it was shaped like a saucer with two forward facing angled protrusions jutting outwards. The YT-1000 however, had much stubbier cargo mandibles. Its cockpit was nestled between these mandibles, along the centerline of the ship, unlike the side mounted cockpit of later models. Overall, this gave the craft the look of a paddling turtle when viewed from above. At the helm sat Rebel mechanic Lara Ashanto, and her co-pilot, a Sullustian male called Teebo-Neit. Lara was wearing a set of navy overalls, whose upper half was tied around her waist, allowing her greater movement of her upper body, along with a shirt which must have once been white, now stained by years of grease and carbon dust. Her sleeves were rolled up to her elbow, revealing equally filthy arms scored with various nicks and scrapes from her duties. Over her shirt she wore a black waistcoat, its multitude of pockets and pouches bulging with an assortment of tools and instruments. Her hair was short, a brunette mop and unevenly cut.

"Right Red Leader, we can handle the transition from here." she announced to Wedge, her voice lightly accented. "Imperial transport, prepare to be boarded."

***

Some time later, the Rebel raiding party had returned to their moon base in the Grebb System. Tucked away in a nondescript cave nestled in the desolate, umber landscape of crumbling crystalline crags, the base was about as remote as feasibly possible. It was only a staging post, converted from an old smuggler's hideout, and used to coordinate raids and take stock of the bounties captured before shipping them to more significant Rebel locations. In the hanger bay, Wes and Dak leaned against a stack of crates observing Wedge and a loader droid remove the last of the liberated supplies from Lara's craft. Lara meanwhile was tapping on a datapad, generating a log of the supplies.

"So that's 2,500 ration packs, enough to keep a few Corvette crews flying for over a month at least." she said aloud, while continuing to type. "Plenty of bacta and other medical sundries..."

"And what's in this last one?" grunted Wedge, struggling to lift the final crate. "It's heavier than a Bantha!"

Wes and Dak struggled to contain their giggling as Wedge continued to strain against the crate, while the droid admonished him for his inefficient lifting techniques.

"Fine. You two have had enough fun at my expense." Wedge announced, with a smirk. Wes' face fell suddenly. He knew that look, and from experience, it never ended well for him. "Move this crate. That's an order."

"Is that all?" Dak asked, either oblivious to, or uncaring of, Wedge's tone.

"Yeah. That's all. The loader droid and I have both earned a break though, so don't count on his help." The two pilots groaned as Wedge stepped over to Lara.

"Good move. Those two were starting to grate on me." she said, with a grin.

"They're good guys, really. When they're quiet. So, what's in the mystery container, anyway?"

"Just mining equipment, according to the ship logs. Tool heads, saw blades, that sort of thing."

"Worth anything on the black market?"

"Ordinarily no, there's no big demand for industrial tools. But this is some high grade kit, doonium tipped. Just selling the metal will give us enough to cover months worth of fuel."

Wedge pondered for a moment, his brow furrowed quizzically. "Why would Andriss need such specialized gear?"

"Who knows? Maybe they found a new vein of a more difficult to mine mineral, or the local Moff just had to use his quarterly budget?"

"Or it's not actually doonium. Could be some Imperial bureaucrat hiding a credit swindle with a false manifest." Dak interjected as he rejoined the conversation, followed closely by a slightly panting Wes.

"Spoken... like a true.... scoundrel..." Wes wheezed.

"Takes a crook to spot one." Dak admitted, before turning towards Lara. "By the way Smudges, I noticed the door hydraulics could do with replacing. There's some shoddy patchwork on display. You better not be running my ship into ruin."

Lara jabbed a finger into his chest, causing him to recoil with surprise.

"Firstly, that's your darn patchwork. Secondly, the Centurion is mine now, shock-jock. You gave it to me, remember?"

Wes clapped his hands with smug glee, having caught his breath.

"Gramps, you gave her your ship? I mean, as grand romantic gestures go, it's not bad, but don't you think Smudges here is a little young for you?" Wes had faced down countless TIE fighters, and gazed at so many barrages of deadly laser fire, yet not of it felt quite so fatal or frightening as the look Lara was giving him in that moment.

"It wasn't a romantic gesture, fly-guy. If anything, Dak is like a father to me. I inherited the Centurion when he took to a Y-Wing. But don't go getting any ideas Wes, your time would be better spent trying to chat up my loader droid." With Wes suitably admonished, she made her exit, striding gracefully toward her quarters. As she passed Wes by, she whispered one final declaration.

"And if you ever call me Smudges again, I will personally feed your organs to a Sarlacc." with that, she gave him a wink and continued on her way.