Date: 35:4 (The year of the Battle of Yavin)
The blonde-haired human ducked as a fist half the size of his head swung at him, propelled by an arm of equally terrifying proportions. He charged the humanoid brute, his shoulder slamming into its solid gut—with no appreciable effect. Nick Fel, former colonel of the Imperial Navy, came out slightly worse. The rebound threw him into an already-toppled table and into a puddle of alcohol, which was the least of his worries as his opponent grinned down at him.
From somewhere across the embattled bar, an empty glass sailed through the air and smashed against the thug's head, momentarily distracting him until a forearm followed, shattering the humanoid's already flat nose into a bloody mess. With a victorious grin, Nick grabbed one of the plasteel chairs around him and smashed it down over the huge alien, finally sending him crashing to the floor.
"About time!" Nick yelled at the newcomer.
"I didn't recognise you with the beard!" Mike Burn, once a lieutenant in his TIE squadron, shouted back indignantly. "I've got your wing."
As one, they threw themselves back into the fray, working their way towards a taller man, built like a true ground-pounder, who was in the process of hauling a slightly-built Rodian with a vibroshiv up by his shirt and tossing him across the bar.
Commander Anton Moore, captain of the rebel frigate Free Spirit, to which they'd recently defected, threw them an enthusiastic grin before turning round to punch a human who was preparing to swing a claqball cue at his head. For a moment, the three stood in a triangle formation, fending off blows from all directions as the fight raged around them.
"May I suggest we slip out before someone remembers we started this fight?"
Dodging bottles and furniture, the trio ducked towards the door, tossing a handful of credit chips to the proprietor as they passed him quivering behind the bar.
"Why is it that the first time I set foot on a half-way civilised world since joining the rebellion, I end up in a bar fight?" Nick asked the rebel officer as they slipped away down the dark street.
"Because the Empire doesn't let you have any fun," Moore replied with a grin. "That and people in these parts don't much like the Alliance."
"Tell me again why you chose to be a rebel in the core worlds then?"
"More exciting. Better plunder," Moore reasoned. "Not too far from home."
The sound of pounding feed drifted from behind them, followed by someone hollering: "There they are!"
"You were saying?"
"Oh for…" Anton reached under his battered combat jacket, pulled out his blaster and fired a trio of precisely-aimed misses that quickly scattered the mob. "We probably better get back to the transport."
* * * * *
Nick lay on his bunk in the tiny quarters he had been assigned aboard Free Spirit, slowly going out of his mind. It had been a week since he'd been allowed planet-side and the confinement of the starship was starting to eat at him. He'd been on ships for longer—much longer—but never without flying. Flying for a few short minutes relaxed him like hours of shore leave.
To make it worse, the beard he'd grown for disguise was still itching.
He'd also had to sit here while the ship was quite clearly in combat, oblivious to what was going on. Nobody had seen fit to inform him afterwards either. The most recent attack had been last night, which everyone had seemed quite excited about when he'd finally been allowed to the mess for an evening meal.
Just sitting here gave him too much time to think, and invariably his thoughts turned back to home. It had been almost a month now, but he was still desperately trying to remember whether there had been any sign he could have interpreted, anything he could've done to warn Alderaan of what was about to happen to them.
What more convincing reason could there be for the Alliance to trust him? How long would it take them to put him in a cockpit where he could be useful?
At least he was being trusted to leave his quarter, although not as he pleased and never alone. Still, Commander Moore had been visiting him and Mike more often and taking them down to the officer's mess and limited recreation facilities. The commander was a little uncouth for his tastes, but not bad company when all was said and done.
His door chime sounded, interrupting his thoughts. That would be Moore now. Mike was probably asleep at this time of morning, but the captain would just be heading to the mess for breakfast before he went on duty, although that was an ambitious title for the food they served.
The door slid open and Moore stepped in, dressed in the functional military surpluses from various planetary armies that served as uniform aboard the ship, a commander's insignia pinned onto his breast pocket.
"I've got a proposition for you."
Nick raised an eyebrow. "Does it involve flying?"
* * * * *
"Running a starship isn't cheap," Moore told him, as they walked through the frigate's drab corridors, attracting a fair share of attention from still-curious crewmen. Nick realised they were heading upwards towards the hangar rather than the mess. "But we can't afford not to keep a resource like Free Spirit operational. We need money."
"Have you ever thought about cheating at a sabacc tournament?" Nick asked, deadpan.
"We're far more desperate than that," Moore said. "We've learned of a shipment of crystalline vertex from the Corporate Sector to the Empire. We're going to steal it."
Nick nodded, impressed if a little sceptical. Crystalline vertex was widely accepted as currency and more importantly, it was real money with intrinsic value that couldn't be wiped out or frozen by Imperial-controlled banks. It would no doubt go a long way towards funding Moore's rebel cell, but he severely doubted their ability to pull it off.
They finally came to a stop outside a set of heavy duty doors that led into the hangar bay, where Moore's Corellian freighter BlackNova resided, along with the ship's few military transports and the two TIEs once piloted by Nick and Mike.
"A sympathiser's told us exactly where and when the exchange is going to happen," Moore continued. "The problem is, they'll bug out the moment we drop in there. We need someone who can get close to—"
"Won't work," Nick said, shaking his head as he realised where the rebel was going. "Our TIE transponders will be blacklisted by now. Besides, no hyperdrive, nowhere near enough weaponry."
"We've got something better," Moore grinned, leading Nick into the hangar and gesturing proudly to the boxy, five-winged starfighter within. "An Alpha-class Xg-1 Star Wing."
Nick looked at him blankly. Better known as an assault gunboat, the hyperdrive-equipped fighters had been commissioned by the Empire in small numbers to operate without starship support. He'd trained in one several times and come to the conclusion that it was a useful customs vessel and little else. Certainly it couldn't hold its own against X-wings or swarming TIEs.
"How is that better?"
"It has shields!" Moore protested, looking crestfallen. "Look, we were damned lucky to capture this intact last night."
So that was what all the commotion had been. Nick sighed and looked the starfighter over distastefully. He supposed he had wished this upon himself. "What's the plan?"
"You drop into the system and keep them talking until you can disable the transport," Moore said. "Then you cover us while Free Spirit drops in to tractor it away."
"There's going to be escorts and system patrols," Nick told him. "I'm going to get blown out of space."
"Well I can always ask Mike," Moore said with a sly smile, "if you're not up to the task."
* * * * *
"Sigma One to Control," Nick's voice announced over to the comm. "Setting course for the rendezvous point. And suicide I might add."
Moore snorted. "Copy Sigma One. May the Force be with you."
"I hope you've packed some in the hold," Nick replied. "I'm going to need it."
The gunboat appeared at the edge of their viewport as it cruised towards the hyperspace co-ordinates, drifting into the centre of the screen before rapidly dwindling. In front of him, a Devaronian named Jantz looked round from one of the stations. "You sure we can trust him, boss?"
"I like the guy," Moore said, watching the gunboat leap into hyperspace. "He's good in a fight. But he's no rebel."
"Must know the Empire's not going to take him back now," Jantz replied. "More likely sell the gunboat for a tidy fortune and buy a new life in the outer rim."
"He doesn't know anything that can hurt us," Moore said. "Besides, we have our insurance—you get that set up okay?"
"Working like a charm."
"Good. Better prep the ship for hyperspace," Moore said, moving towards the bridge doors, "on the off-chance there's more to Fel than we think ."
* * * * *
If this was an intelligence test, Nick thought while hurtling through hyperspace, he'd already failed by agreeing to it in the first place. But if it was a test of his loyalty, he'd fare a lot better.
He was familiar with the system from his fleet's time spent patrolling these sectors. A white dwarf orbited by a small depot just off the Hydian Way close to its junction with the Perlemian Trade Route, it served as a transit point for goods coming from the Corporate Sector towards the rest of the galaxy. What he hadn't known was that the Empire was quietly shipping funds through the station, no doubt to keep the shipments quiet as rebel activity in the area targeted Imperial convoys.
Nick drew the hyperspace lever back and eased the ship back into real space, grimacing behind his faceplate. His finger tensed around the laser cannon trigger. This wasn't going to be fun.
Star lines shrank into pinpoints as the jump ended, dropping him in front of a small, unexceptional refueling platform silhouetted against the system's dim star. Immediately, a pair of TIEs broke off from their patrol route and moved towards him, making an inspection of the unannounced visitor.
"Gunboat Sigma One, this is system control. Explain your presence in this system," a bored voice demanded.
Nick flicked on his comm. "This is Sigma One of Bormea Sector Fleet. My patrol group was attacked by rebels and destroyed. I was forced to make a blind jump to escape and protect my vessel and intel. Requesting refuel so I can return to base."
"Hold Sigma One," the voice replied, now piqued with suspicion. "I'm verifying with sector command."
Nick took the opportunity to check his sensor readouts—no sign yet of the transport yet, but those two TIEs were closing quicker than he'd have liked. Fortunately, the system was otherwise empty apart from a handful of freighters around the station itself. Apparently, the Empire was counting on the station's obscurity to make up for a lack of traditional defences.
Sweat was starting to collect uncomfortably underneath his helmet. They were taking an awfully long time for a routine check…
"Corulag confirms Sigma group missing," the station said at last, sounding no less suspicious than before. "Power down all systems, we'll tow you in."
"No need, control," Nick said. "Should have enough fuel to make it over."
"Power down, Sigma One," the voice repeated, as the two TIE Fighters swooped by, as if to emphasise the order. "You know the procedures."
Stang, Nick thought. The transport was still nowhere to be seen, but if was going to power down his fighter he might as well just put stun-cuffs on himself to save them a job. He was just starting to think about turning round and jumping straight out of the system when his tactical computer began bleeping excitedly.
It was here. He glanced round and saw a transport emblazoned with the livery of the Corporate Sector Authority just entering the system to his starboard, well clear of the station defences.
Nice timing, he thought, hitting the switch to call in Free Spirit. He accelerated to attack speed while hauling back on his flight yoke to invert the craft, then cursed when it didn't react as fast as he expected. The two TIEs noticed his sudden movement and looped round towards him, as did the two Z-95 Headhunters that had dropped into the system with the transport. If he was going to be rebel pilot, he'd better get used to these kinds of odds.
A pair of warning shots from the lead TIE splashed against his shields along with a terse warning from the station. Nick responded in kind with a twin blast that shredded the TIE, feeling a pang of guilt at the death of the pilot, someone who until recently he would've considered a comrade in arms.
"Sigma One! Cease your hostilities and power down all systems!"
He flicked off the comm and pulled up as hard as the gunboat could manage, just fast enough that the twin streaks of laser fire from the second TIE flashed under him instead of hitting his shields. This pilot was apparently more talented than his wingman, or at least now expecting to be shot at, and used his fighter's superior speed and manoeuvrability to avoid the slower gunboat's laser cannons. Right now, he didn't have time to pursue him.
Nick armed his concussion missile launchers, readying the single payload that formed the most critical part of the mission, and lined up on the helpless transport. It was already turning to exit the system, but making an unplanned hyperspace jump would take time while the ship's navicomputer crunched the numbers to ensure they didn't fly into a star or other gravity well. In the mean time, there was little it could do to avoid him—the targeting lock came quickly and Nick hit the trigger, sending the missile streaking across space on a trail of red plasma. Unusually, it detonated just short of the transport, releasing the Conner net that Moore's men had packed inside, a mesh of highly charged fibres that wrapped around the transport like a cocoon, coursing with energy as it discharged, overloading the ship's systems and bringing it to a halt.
His primary mission objective complete, Nick turned to locate the remaining fighters. They didn't pose much threat to Free Spirit in the brief time it would take to tractor in the transport, but there was no point in taking risks. The second TIE was looping round for another pass at him, launching a smattering of cannon blasts against his shields.
Nick grinned as he pulled round to face the oncoming TIE. He'd spent years drilling rookie pilots to never, ever go head-to-head with a shielded starfighter, but they never listened. For the first time, he was glad. The TIE came straight at him, canons flaring and Nick fired off a handful of blasts that turned the Imperial fighter into a fine cloud of debris and flame.
Belatedly, he noticed warning lights flashing across his consoles. He'd taken a lot more damage from the confrontation than he expected, nearly wiping out his forward shields. That would teach him to get overconfident, he thought. He'd have to learn the limits of the rebel ships before he tried anything too fancy.
Unfortunately, the job wasn't done yet. After a few moments of confusion trying to establish what had happened to the transport they were supposed to be protecting, the two Headhunters were regrouping to join the battle. He switched over to ion cannons—it wasn't the Corporate Sector's civil war, after all—and engaged the two escorts. The first fighter fell quickly, barely able to fire before he was out of the fight. Unlike the hardy Assault Gunboat, the shields on a Headhunter were a mere formality, quickly stripped away, and the disabled fighter now hung dead in space, helpless and harmless.
The second proved to be more of a challenge. Whoever he was, Nick thought as the nimble starfighter twisted of his sights, he was far too good to be flying for the Corporate Sector. Before Nick could coax the sluggish gunboat into responding, the Headhunter was above him, pounding his shields mercilessly. His weakened deflector shields collapsed completely under the strain, leaving him with just his hull armour to protect him from laser cannons that could slice through durasteel like butter.
This wasn't going as well as he'd expected. Actually, he corrected himself, it was going exactly as he'd expected, which was the whole problem.
Spurred on by a burning desire not to be finished off by a Corporate Sector pilot, Nick redoubled his efforts. The Headhunter was behind him now, trying to line up a clear shot. Laser blasts streaked past him as a jinked left and right, some of them close enough to scorch the paint on his wings. He feigned a left turn and smiled as the pursuing pilot took the bait. It was only a small error on the pilot's part, but it was enough for Nick to turn the tables. Moments later, the Headhunter was dead in space.
Before Nick could relax, his cockpit erupted into a cacophony of alerts and sirens.
The first Headhunter, he realised. While Nick had been busy with his wingman, the pilot had managed to restore just enough power to fire off a missile.
He dived sharply, sending the missile soaring overhead, but it wasn't to be fooled. The projectile's guidance system had a lock on him, sending it arcing back around towards him. Nick had outrun missiles before, but this ship just didn't have the manoeuvrability for it. It relied on shields to absorb a missile or two—and he didn't have any.
As the proximity warning ticked down to zero, he punched out blindly at the hyperspace controls. It was an act of desperation, but the only option he had left open to him.
The starfighter accelerated towards hyperspace just as the missile finally found home, ploughing into his engines. Nick was thrown forward into his restraints as the ship bucked violently and energy cascaded across the cockpit consoles. The last thing he saw was space twisting and contorting sickeningly around him as the ship lurched uncontrollably into hyperspace.
* * * * *
Consciousness came slowly and painfully, creeping in as the black haze in front of his eyes parted, revealing the universe spinning lazily around him. His first thought was that he'd somehow managed to eject from the fighter, but as he regained focus, he saw the dim, powerless controls and realised the ship was tumbling end-over-end. It seemed that the inertial compensator was offline too, because he was beginning to feel the unwelcome sensation of motion sickness.
As it rolled past his viewscreens, the star he'd jumped away from was little more than a pinprick in space, barely distinguishable from the next nearest star. The jump must've thrown him to the edge of the system before the hyperdrive failed, far enough away that the outpost would never detect him. Nobody knew where he was, nobody would come for him.
Shields and hyperdrive were overrated, Nick decided. This had never happened to him in a TIE. Shields just encouraged you to accept stupid odds.
His cockpit instruments were lifeless and the engines, from what he could see of them, wrecked beyond even a skilled mechanic's ability to repair. Briefly, he began considering what parts of the starfighter might be stripped to build a new subspace transmitter or even a primitive electromagnetic device, but quickly abandoned the idea. Even if he could build one, which he doubted, he'd be lucky to contact anyone but the Imperial outpost he'd just fled. Given a choice of dying in space or returning to face the wrath a spurned Empire, he knew which he'd prefer.
Resignedly, Nick closed his eyes again. It was only fair, he supposed. You couldn't cheat death, only delay it. He'd survived an obscenely long time as an Imperial pilot, survived the genocide of his people. Now he'd join them as space debris.
* * * * *
He had no idea how long he'd been out when he opened his eyes again, but the flash of grey in the top corner of his viewports brought Nick quickly back to full attention. He strained against his restraints to try get a better view, but the starfighters continued drifting meant whatever it was—if anything—had passed out of sight.
It had to be Imperials. System patrol craft would already be scouring the area for any trace of the attacking rebels. His heart pounded against his chest, his eyes fixed in the bottom corner of the viewscreen as the ship's slow somersault brought him round again. Any minute now, they'd have him in a tractor beam, ready to cart him off.
A pair of running lights appeared first, blinding him before his helmet lenses adjusted. The vessel coalesced slowly in his vision has he focused again, but rather than the patrol craft he was confronted with a battered Corellian freighter. Moore's battered Corellian freighter, BlackNova. As his vision cleared further, he could just about see the commander sat in the cockpit, waving merrily.
How did they find me?
With a snarl, he realised the only possible answer.
* * * * *
Moore set his freighter down gently on the deck plates, its cargo hold loaded with the crystalline vertex they'd transferred from the captured transport after towing it into deep space. It had been a job well done and the cash would keep them operational for a year or more, but he wasn't looking forward to what was inevitably coming next.
"He's not going to be happy," Jantz said from the co-pilot's seat, running the final shut down procedures on the engines.
"I'm hoping he'll see the good side." When they'd arrived and found no sign of Fel, they'd assumed he'd fled, until their sensors picked up the homing beacon they'd installed on the ship just few light-hours towards the edge of the system. As much as he'd hated to let Fel know about the beacon, he couldn't just abandon him either. "The one where we saved him from a slow death."
Moore hit the hatch controls, then ducked to one side as an Imperial flight helmet soared towards him, clattering noisily down the freighter's main corridor. On the flight deck below, Nick Fel was stood in his black flight suit, tugging off his gloves angrily. "Or not."
"I risked my life for you," the pilot growled, "and you put a kriffing tracer on me."
"Tell me you wouldn't have done the same thing," Moore said, holding up one of the dozens of security cases they'd unloaded, "and you can take this."
"If I didn't trust my pilot I'd have done the job myself," Nick said, turning away. "You can keep your loot. I thought you were freedom fighters, not common pirates."
Moore winced as Nick stormed out of the hangar bay, shouldering his way past a guard who tried to stop him, then turned to see Jantz making his way out of the ship.
* * * * *
Three days later, Nick regarded his reflection and dropped his razor in the cabin's basin with a satisfying plop. The beard hadn't suited him in the first place and no disguise was worth that much discomfort. Behind his reflection, Mike sat with his feet up on the tiny desk, next to the plate of food he'd delivered.
"You've got to go out there and talk to them eventually," Mike said at last.
"No I don't. And that's 'you've got to go out there and talk to them eventually, sir'," Nick corrected. "I still outrank you, Lieutenant."
"Nuh-uh, we're civvies now."
Civvies, he thought. Concentrating on surviving from one dogfight to the next, it wasn't something he'd ever given much thought to. He'd always assumed that, were he lucky enough to retire, he'd be able to enjoy his golden years in peace on Alderaan. Spending the next seventy years keeping a low profile on some backwater planet while forever glancing over his shoulder didn't hold quite the same appeal.
"So they followed you, big deal. I'd've just been glad to fly again," Mike said. "Besides, if Moore had defected to the Empire, he'd have been dragged away for one of the ISB's 'special' debriefings and never seen again, right?"
Nick just grunted, but he had to admit Mike was right. Both sides were wise to suspect defectors, but at least the Alliance had been willing to set aside just how many of their pilots he'd shot down and give him a chance to prove himself.
"The Alliance might be a little rough around the edges, but the Empire's rotten to the core," Mike said. "We've both known that ever since we had to shoot up that market square full of dangerous women and children."
Nick's reply was interrupted by a knock on the cabin door, which promptly slid open to reveal Moore. He turned an accusing glare at his wingman. "You left the door unlocked."
"That I did," Mike said, grabbing a handful of food from Nick's plate and popping it in his mouth. "I'll be in the mess."
Nick waited for the door the slide shut behind his wingman before turning his attention to Moore. "What do you want?"
"I wasn't completely honest with you before," Moore started, then stopped as Nick cut him off with a contemptuous snort. "I meant, before that. About why I'm a rebel in the core worlds."
"So why is it?"
"I'm Ralltiiri. So are most of my crew. You know what happened to Ralltiir recently?"
Nick knew well enough. Just a few weeks ago, after the planetary government began to seek neutrality for the planet's famous banks, an ambitious Imperial commander had been sent in to subjugate the insubordinate planet by means of orbital bombardment and blockade.
"This ship is vital for getting relief supplies through the blockade," Moore said. "And that means we need to keep it fuelled and the crew fed."
He realised, belatedly, that he'd let himself think he had a monopoly on suffering and loss in this war. It might have been the most significant act of barbarism committed by the Empire so far, but Alderaan was only the latest in a long line of victims that had felt the grip of the Emperor's iron fist. Everyone had their own reasons for joining the rebellion and Nick was ashamed that he hadn't seen there was more to Moore than the pirate and mercenary he'd first taken him for.
"I came up here to tell you we got word from Princess Leia's Alderaanian cell," Moore said, breaking the silence and passing him a slip of flimsi with a set of hyperspace coordinates and a codename scrawled across it. "If you're still interested."
Nick memorised the details and passed it back, nodding. He'd flown hundreds of missions, he realised, but his first mission for the Alliance was the only one he'd flown that had been worth dying for. It might have been borderline piracy and it might take them a little time to trust him, but the rebellion was right.
"I'd actually wondered if you might stay aboard," Moore said. "You're a good pilot and I've got a contact that could get hold of some Y-wings…"
"I appreciate the offer," Nick said and meant it, "but I need to be with my people right now."
"Can understand that," Moore said, offering the other a hand. "With wanted notices propagating you should probably get the hell out of the core worlds anyway. Even if the plunder is better here."
"Don't spend all the vertex in one place," Nick said, taking the proffered hand in a firm grip. "Until next time."
"It's a small galaxy and a smaller rebellion," Moore said. "I'm sure we'll meet again."