General Indiana Bridger hid behind the rim of her caf mug. It was far too early to be up, even it if was 1100
hours. She scrubbed at the bridge
of her nose. The quick jump from
the Windstorm to here had taken a lot out of her, partially because it
had caught her coming in from where the Rebel Squadron’s X-Wing undergraduate
Academy was operating – a twelve hour flight, during which she’d gotten no
sleep. She listened to the briefing
though. She caught every word of
Every goddamned word. Dammit, I hate being tapped for a mission like this, especially when I’ve just come in from someplace else. Hope my wingman is sharper than I am…I’m going to need someone that sharp to cover me. That was the one thing she’d missed – who her wingman was going to be. It didn’t really matter, much, though, not in the end. She’d be assigned who she was assigned, and that would be the end of it.
She got up to leave the room after the briefing had finished and the lights were coming up. It was to her shock and surprise that she saw her husband sitting in the row behind her with a smile on his face. “Mike? What are you doing here?”
He flashed one of his usual lopsided grins that only cocky pilots and Corellians could successfully pull off. "Well dear," He lifted his feet up to drape over the arm of his chair, easily sliding himself to look straight up at her. "I believe it's called being assigned to fly your wing, and by the look of you, you'd be better off flying from the bunk."
Her look in response was a confusing mixture of exhausted anger and agreement. Confusing, at least, to anyone but the man looking up at her from such a ridiculous position. She couldn’t help but laugh. “Well, at least they’ve got someone who knows my moves better than I do flying my wing. C’mon, I need more caf and we both need to get ready to go, right?”
Indy waited for him to get up before ducking under his arm and hugging him around the chest, closing her eyes tightly for a moment. It wasn’t often that she flew with him on her wing, and the feeling she got at finding out that he would be watching her back was comforting. I really miss flying with him. Really. Especially since I wouldn’t be able to fly like I do without him.
Then again, she reminded herself silently, I’d be dead without him, more than one time over. The same with him for me… Indy pushed the dark thoughts from her head and waited for him to lead the way out.
"We really should get going now, dear." His smile as he pulled away from her embrace was dangerously close to being infectious. His hand slipped into hers and his feet started pulling reluctantly toward the hangar. He didn't intend to move an inch further away from her until it was time to climb into the cockpit.
They reached the hangar in record time, despite their trying to slow down. The reflex was just too ingrained, the training and force of habit too strong. Indy walked toward the A-Wing she’d have to fly on this run – not her own, but one provided by the fleet, as hers was on Xenen, far away in the Kartuiin Sector. She hesitated at the foot of the ladder. “Mike? Do you have a bad feeling about this mission?”
"Yeah, it could get pretty damned messy..." He hauled himself up onto the hull of his A-wing, beside hers. "But nothing's gonna go wrong. I'm just too damned good to let anything too bad happen." His feet slipped into the cockpit and he began the startup procedure without sparing the board a glance from years of practice and a total at-home feeling in the cockpit. "Besides, didn't I promise ages ago that I'd never let you get hurt? Two lit and green by the way."
Indy smiled as she settled into her cockpit and started her own preflight checklist. “Yeah, you’re right. Roger two lit and green.” She drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. No matter how reassuring her husband’s words were, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was going to go terribly, terribly wrong.
* * * *
Mike's fingers danced over the control boards, directing all of his shields to lasers and scanning the sensors while his knees guided the stick. "All clear for now, but bringing your shields to full might be a good idea." He nearly choked when the sensor screen lit up. "Neg that clear, we have four little stubby looking things and a pair of big backward pistols."
If he could have seen Indy's face through the comms, he probably would have been a few shades paler. "Mike..."
"Okay okay, we've got four corvettes and a pair of frigates at point two-six... Range at ten klicks, and the IFF reads potential hostiles." He pulled in tighter formation high to her aft starboard side, matching speed with the flick of a finger over his reprogrammed controls. "You've got lead, but I advise going through the 'vettes first."
"Gotcha. Just try and keep up." She let herself grin, falling so easily into a matching and perfectly complementary pair. Her ship rolled in Mike's viewport, breaking quickly into a hi-lo formation. His matching but reversed maneuver pulled him wider, and would make it all the harder on incoming fighters who would have to face a crossfire at first engagement.
"This is what I'd call a milk run, honey. Got your shields charged?" He started acquiring targets even before her double-clicked affirmative came back. I'll have to remember to see if I can get her to drop the cold style, it's gonna get her shot down someday. He thought to himself as he keyed the encryption onto his comm. It was a code that Indy had developed just for the squad. "If you don't mind, you're better laid out for dogging while I'm at full engine. I'll ID while you keep the fighters distracted..."
He could almost hear the swearing even though her comm wasn't set to transmit. It slipped to the back of his mind as he made blindingly fast passes over four corvettes, noting almost absently the presence of freighters near the engagement zone, and the absence of fighters. Something made him wonder at that, at least until the fighters started pouring out of the frigates' bays. "Incoming, Indy."
"If you think I can take on that many at once within range of the frigates, you're crazier than I thought." Her voice came garbled through the comm encryption. It wasn't hard to understand, but only to recognize easily. Nonetheless, he smiled and moved up off her port side.
"Better idea, you pull back and let your shields get a little charge while they close. I'll move ahead and leave you with butter." Butter wasn't a standard term, as far as pilots went, but it served its purpose between them for one of the household quirks they shared. Due to Mike's appetite and sometime sloppiness, all that was left was half-melted butter at times. It did, at least, for breakfast toast on the way out the door.
It did, apparently just as well for Indy's kill count. After Mike's pass through the first wave of enemy fighters there was nothing more relatively functional than a cargo tug. It was easy enough to finish each off before she carried through the line, watching the bright flashes of Mike's lasers, and frequent small explosions as the lasers hit their mark.
Things got a little confusing after Indy finished the second wave. The third wave hit well within range of the frigates' lasers and it was all he could do to keep up. The maneuvering of an A-wing was superior to most of the old Alliance craft, but it was nothing next to the TIEs he preferred to fly. It only got more interesting when his scopes showed more enemies coming in, Assault Gunboats.
"Book it Indy, they've got gunboats coming in on your six, almost in range." If he were a religious man he would be praying right now. "I'll get clear as soon as I can and meet you back home." Even as the words left his mouth he dipped to avoid fire from one of the frigates and started blind-targeting with Indy's fighter on his scopes. A sigh of relief escaped his lips as the craft disappeared and he went on to clear his own path to hyperspace.
* * * * *
"Shaavit," the curse escaped through gritted teeth. Mike was running
up to hyperspace, but Indy had found her path blocked, her communications
jammed, and now was tied up fighting gunboats. "What I wouldn't give for a
little help here....damn it all."
If she'd been in an X-wing, she might've had warning. As it was, focused as she was, blocking out a Jedi's senses unconsciously as she was, she didn't see the gunboat lining up its shot soon enough. Suddenly, her shields were down, and even as she vainly tried to pull up to avoid the flaming debris of a gunboat she'd just destroyed, she could not pull up hard enough, or fast enough, to prevent the disintegration of her ship around her. As her ejection seat carried her clear, the loudest, most resounding thought in her mind was that her gut feeling had been right, and that she wished Mike were still here...because if he had been, that might not have happened. As a shuttle with definite Imperial markings loomed above her, she knew she was in deep shit...as such, she destroyed what identification was not hopelessly encoded that was on her person.
And then, she waited for the pain to begin.
* * * * *
Mike guided his fighter back into the hangar bay, curses flying off his tongue even as he set down. The hiss of pressure stabilizing between his cockpit and the hangar bay barely ended as he glared down one of the hangar technicians with his glowing green left eye. That eye was part of how he intimidated people, it was also part of how he could fly and shoot better than most. "Where's Indy?"
The technician looked up, clearly shifting from foot to foot before he replied. "She didn't get back, sir." Mike's eye flashed briefly, a slight habit that came from a misinterpretation in the cybernetic part's circuitry where it read anger as a desire for an intensified effect.
"Fuel me up, I'm going back out." Mike said, settling back into his cockpit to read the damage indicators. Nothing wrong with this baby…not a scratch. He thought as the tech connected the fuel hoses, delayed only buy a short conversation with his superior officer, the hangar chief. The hangar chief was a little more than miffed as he climbed up the cockpit ladder.
"What exactly do you think you're doing, Bullian?" The chief said, splotches of red covering his face in a not-quite-complete angered flush as he climbed the ladder. Mike barely spared a glance as he rechecked his systems nervously.
"I'm going back out." Mike's reply came calm and cold.
"Like hell you a-" The chief was silenced by Mike's hand coming up to shove him off the ladder. Just as the chief landed, flustered and flat on his back, the first tech gave the all clear signal and retreated away from the A-wing. Mike lifted off without a second thought and made his way back onto the hyperspace course he'd just come in on.
* * * *
Less than an hour later his A-wing was touching down on the same deck as it had left. The look on his face could freeze even the stoutest officer in his tracks as he climbed sluggishly from the cockpit. There had been nothing left to see but the debris from the fighters that had gone down in the engagement.
Perhaps now it was time to call in the few favors that NRI owed him.
* * * *
The bunk was hard, and cold, but even lying on the bunk in that tiny prison cell was better than being where she had been. The last time she had suffered interrogation so harsh had been long ago, at the hands of the late Kirtan Loor, when the man had been deep in his search for her fellow precinct members Gil Bastra, Corran Horn, and Iella Wessiri. Loor hadn’t recognized her then, and it had been to her advantage…even if he had almost killed her.
She was in a similar situation now. The Imperial forces holding her were still trying to figure out her identity, and she was hoping that they would try to slice the datacards she’d carried. True, the cards carried her identity, but if they were using the ship’s computers to slice them, they would also shoot a direct line of communication bearing the ship’s IFF and location to certain systems where there were people who could help her. She had little doubt that one, at the very least, probably more, would come.
If they tried to slice the cards with the ship’s computers, at least.
That didn’t stop the pain from coming in waves, though. The mind-numbing hurt had left her lying prone on the narrow, cold bunk in the dark, tiny cell. With each moment, a little more hope died. What was taking so long? What? Why wasn’t someone here? How long had it been? She had lost consciousness during her interrogation session – it had been long, drawn-out, and painful, and while she hoped she had remained silent throughout, there was no way of knowing. Then again, since they hadn’t transferred her elsewhere – at least, she though she was on the same ship that had captured her – that meant they didn’t know who she was, which was best.
The outstanding Imperial warrants on her head would get her killed in no time.
* * * *
She screamed in agony and terror and anger as her tormentor again sent a jolt of electricity through her right knee. Somehow, they’d sensed weakness there, found the injuries to her knee that had never quite fully healed. Now, they were exploiting that weakness and in destroying the joint, were causing her exquisite pain.
Indy squeezed her eyes shut. The pain was so intense it was hard to remember her own name. How did they expect her to say anything if she couldn’t even remember her own name because of the pain? So stupid, she thought, choking on the laugh that shouldn’t have come. So stupid.
The pain stopped for a moment, and a slap to her face brought her eyes open. The interrogator loomed above her, staring at her. “What is so funny, Rebel?”
Indy gathered what spit she could and celebrated her brief respite from new pain by spitting in the man’s face. He roared in anger, and then the pain began anew. Indy clenched her jaw and vowed, for what seemed like the thousandth time, that she would not give them the satisfaction of breaking. Even if it meant destroying herself in the process, she would not break nor bend, nor shatter. Even if it meant wiping her own mind clean to keep the secrets she carried within her safe, it would be done, and her squadron, her fleet, her family, her friends, would survive, even if she did not.
She lay on a cold metal bunk, asleep to escape the pain, the misery, and
the unending sense of hopelessness.
And she dreamed.
It was her daughter, Arilyn, and she knew, suddenly, that her daughter was sick with the illness that had almost killed her, all those yesterdays ago, when they and their brother Michael Jr. and sister Mary were born.
“You won’t win this one, Ispa,” she heard Davil say softly. “You can’t win.”
A shadow moved along the far wall. She saw it, but neither her children nor the dark man saw it.
“Watch me,” Ispa hissed, and struck out at him.
Only to have his lightsaber blade sputter out as Karinlyyn Bridger darted from where she’d been hiding and stopped the blade with a cortosis ore shield. “Get her out of here, now!”
Davil didn’t hesistate, grabbed his sister, and ran. From her hiding place, the woman watched her cousin, looking so much like the last time she’d seen her, after Trystan……
….her “little brother”….
She was walking in the woods. It took a moment for her to realize where she was. And then it came to her – she was in the woods outside of Quis and outside of Shay Memorial Military Base, where the Aurora Force was stationed. She was out walking in the woods…but why?
“Oh, hi, Indy.”
She was standing near the cliff that overlooked the pool that the stream started from, at the spring. Trystan was kneeling there, on the edge, looking out over the edge. He looked so sad…it had been years since she’d seen such pain in his face. But why would he need to feel pain? He had family who loved him, two women in his life who loved him deeply, two sons by one, twins on the way by the other. Pain? There should have been joy. In his hands was something she couldn’t quite make out…a dagger? She’d never seen a dagger that looked quite like that before…except….
“Trystan, doesn’t that belong to Arin?”
He nodded. “She gave it to me. A long time ago. After I gave her the ring with the Stargem.” He licked his lips. “Thanks for being there for me, Indy, when I needed it. Take care of my dog, OK? And give the cat to Tag. Isaac always seemed happier when Rogue was around.”
That was when he plunged the dagger into his abdomen and tumbled over the edge.
She screamed his name and tried to grab him. She was a medic above all, and it was her duty to help him. But she was also his friend, and he was as close as family. She missed by mere inches, but unbalanced herself. Suddenly, she was falling…
Her last thought before she hit bottom was to wonder who would take care of her children when she was gone.
Someone was shaking her. “Mom? Mom, wake up. Mom!”
She startled awake to see her son, Davil, again, looking like he was about nine or ten. She sat up from where she’d been laying on the couch and ran a hand back through her hair. “What is it, sweetheart?”
“You told me to wake you up at 1700. It’s 1701.”
She nodded, suddenly remembering. “Right. Dinner.” She got up and started moving toward the kitchen of the home she and her husband had comissioned on a piece of prime real estate on Xenen. “Where are your brothers and sisters?”
Davil followed her and began to help in the kitchen, beginning to set the table. “Well, Ari and Mary are over at the Bel Iblis’s, with Cay and Loren. They’re playing, but Uncle Wyv and Aunt Alty said they’d make sure they got home for dinner. The twins are playing with Dorin and Allie, and Mikey went with them – he said he was going to watch them, but I think he’s probably bothering Commander Taylor and Captain Drake. Brenden stopped in, but you were sleeping, so he went to go talk to Uncle Wheels about something, and Dad called.”
“Your father called? Did he say what it was about?”
Davil nodded. “Yeah, he said that they were delayed at Coruscant, so he’ll be a couple hours later than he expected. What time is he going to be home?”
Indy smiled at her son. “After your bedtime.”
“Can we stay up until he gets home? Please?”
Indy smiled again and tousled her oldest son’s hair. “We’ll see, Dav, we’ll see.”
“My…Gods….” The red-haired woman with the slightly pointed ears reeled back from the table, trying to grasp what she’d just seen. “It’s not possible. No. No. Not my children. Never my children. Not with all…not with all…no. No!” She flung the scrying mirror at the wall.
Her frightened familiars – the ferret and the cat – darted from the room as her husband stepped in, a book in hand and his wire-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose. “Jude? What’s wrong? What’s happened? Ooof.” Drew set the book down on a nearby table and wrapped his arms around his wife, who had just flung herself into his chest, crying. “Jude? Sweetheart, what is it?”
“Our children, Drew…not our children. Not after all we went through to make this world right again. She can’t have them. No. She won’t have them.”
Their half-dragon children, even as young as they were, had proven themselves to be more than a match for most of Haven’s bullies. Her husband stroked her hair, confused. “Jude?”
“Just hold me,” the once-immortal wizard whispered. “Just hold me.”
When she returned to her senses, she saw the body lying at her feet. She looked up at the man standing nearby. “Did I--?”
“Kill her? Unfortunately, yes. I couldn’t give you much.” The man pushed glasses up his nose and shook his head. “C’mon. I need to get you someplace where you can hide out during the day, and take care of this.” He toed the lifeless husk at her feet.
She started shaking and suddenly looked up at him. “This was the only way?”
He nodded grimly. “The only way to save your life, Beck, was by taking it and giving you this unlife. Welcome to the Masquerade.”
She swallowed hard, although it had little effect, and drew a deep breath, although it was unnecessary in her current state. She steadied herself, not looking at the body, and nodded. “Right. Let’s go, OK? Let’s just get out of here.”
He nodded and took her arm. They left the subbasement of Au Sable hall together and walked out into the world of darkness.
“Failed your dex check there, huh, Klitzke?”
She turned around and gave him the finger as she waited for the machine to kick her bowling ball back out at her. The scent of cigarrette smoke mingled with the smell of the oil on the lanes. As she picked up her ball and hoped that she’d actually hit pins this time, she heard her roommate’s boyfriend speak up.
“Are you offering?”
“Not to you,” she grinned, and threw the ball down the lane. Picked up the spare. She sighed and turned toward the rest of her friends. “Why can’t I do that on the first shot?”
“Because you have bad aim?”
“Aw, c’mon, now, Doc, not everyone can be as lucky as I am.” Another of her friends grinned at her.
She made a face. “Drink your Shmirnov and then your water, huh?”
“You can’t tell me what to do.”
“Sure I can. I’m older.” She grinned at her friend.
“What are you talking about?”
“As Beck, I’m older. Now please don’t make me haul more people out.” She grinned wickedly. “Like maybe the Bitch.”
“I thought Ashfire was the Bitch,” her roommate began.
“Not that bitch,” she remarked, “Kaven.”
Her other friend snarled.
The only other male in the group beyond her roommate’s boyfriend spoke up. “You know, Erin, I could’ve killed you for that thing you pulled.”
“Oh, I don’t know ‘cut the crap and help us, Niku?’ I was ready to walk out of the room right then and there.”
She rolled her eyes. “You’re up, Eddie. Bowl.”
It was good to be back aboard the Saratoga after such a long time away. She leaned against the bar and glanced at the bartender. “Glass of scotch, please?”
“Sure thing. The bartender disappeared toward the back to find the dusty bottle of scotch that only saw use when she was aboard.
“Make it two,” a voice said from behind her, “and put them both on my tab.” A young man in a pilot’s uniform slid up next to her at the bar. He had a jacket slung over his shoulder – she could barely see the crest of the 58th Wildcards on the shoulder. The pilot smiled at her. “Come here often?”
The medic smiled back at him. “Often enough, but I’ve been…out of town lately. So, I see you’ve been assigned to the 5-8?”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am, the best damned fighter squadron in the fleet. You’ve heard of us?”
“No one can serve on this ship and not know about the ‘cards,” the medic smiled. “But I’ll tell you the truth, I’ve got something of an inside line to them.”
“Oh, really?” The pilot seemed interested as their drinks came. They wandered over to one of the Saratoga’s observation windows. “So, how do you have an inside line to the ‘cards?”
The red-haired medic smiled. “Well, you know the former CO, Lex Geütan? She’s like a little sister to me.”
She nodded. “Yeah, really.”
The pilot glanced at her. “So that means you’re Doc McCullough, right? Jade?”
She nodded again. “Yes, that’s right.”
“Well, it’s nice to meet the woman sis always wrote home about.” The pilot offered his hand. “My name is Derek. Derek Geütan.”
“The Queen of Diamonds? That’s Chance’s card.”
One by one, in front of a startled Alexis “Whiplash” Geütan – not their Chance Geütan, but a mirror of her from another life, another world, -- they took out old, worn playing cards from pockets and wallets. Doc – Tag, in this world – was still the Ace of Spades. The rest of the cards were unfamiliar, except for one. The King of Hearts. But it wasn’t in Wire’s hand, like she expected it to be – he had the Jack of Spades in his hand.
Holding the King of Hearts was Jack “Crash” McCullough, the firefighter, who was looking at her with such pain in his eyes she had to turn away.
She turned away and ran, ran outside to look at the MIG she would fly for them, because she said she would, because she believed these people deserved to have a chance – even if it wasn’t theirs.
Her eyes landed on the painting near the nose of the plane. It looked so familiar and yet so alien. Then again, to these people and this world, the 58th Wildcards were from a TV show, and an old one at that. To her, they were very real and truly did exist. The insignia on the plane was painfully like that of the Wildcards she knew, with two changes.
The name of the unit was the Fire-Ice Brigade. Their motto, in red, diagonal across the bottom of the image, read “Mercy is Dead.”
“The fates were merciful. We’re alive to be here.” Karrially Darjinn was tucked under her husband’s arm. The woman she was facing smiled at her.
“Well, I’m glad you and Slate and the 5-8 could be here. I can use all the help I can get whipping this crew into shape.”
“It’s not going to take luck, little sister, just a whole lot of hard work.” Slate Bridger smiled at his younger sister, who just shook her head.
“Guess you’re right, Slate.”
A non-com came up behind them. “General? We’ve got a man down on the practice field. You want to go take a look at them?”
The woman turned, nodding. “Sure thing. I’m on my way.” She turned back and smiled at her brother and his wife. “Duty calls.”
“Doesn’t it always?” Karrially grinned knowingly. “We’ll go handle what needs to be handled and catch you later. Dinner at Hope’s Landing, right? With Tag and Dalsuna?”
“Right. See you then.” The woman turned and headed down a corridor toward the practice field.
“No. No way, Mike, you can’t do this to me. Not now. Not now, dammit!” Thoughts raged through her head as her brother, Bethan Leitbur, Stephen Baron, and a couple of others gathered around her, watching her back. I swore I would never use these talents again. I swore I wouldn’t. Why must I break that oath I made to myself? She drew on power she didn’t know she possessed to heal her husband, her beloved, of the wounds he had appeared with, all the while damning the fates that condemned her to such action. Nothing ever seemed to go right. Nothing.
“Don’t die on me, hon,” she whispered. “I love you too much. You can’t die on me. You promised me a lifetime, and that lifetime’s not up yet.”
Her best friend had picked out the music for the dance she would share with her older brother, and as Slate led her out onto the floor and the music struck up, there were already tears in her eyes. "Indy, what's wrong?" Slate asked her as they began to dance.
She swallowed against the lump in her throat. "This was supposed to be Daddy's dance," she said quietly. "If only there had been a few more months......"
The Force-shadow of Davil Bridger smiled. "I am so proud of you, Indiana," he said. He reached out to her, to embrace her. Had he been flesh and blood, it would have been the hug of a lifetime. Even as a Force-shadow, the emotion that went along with the motion was felt, full-force, by the bride. Slate stepped away, acquiescing to the spectre that was their father.
Tag signaled for the music to strike up again. Although Davil was nothing more than a Force-shadow and could not truly touch his daughter, they shared the dance, as it should have been. Tears shown in the bride’s eyes as she danced with her father's ghost. The one
The spectre smiled. "I know, Indy. I love you very much. Remember, I am always watching you, and I am very proud to have you and your brother as my children. Good-bye, I love you." With those words, the figure vanished.
She felt arms come around her from behind, but she didn’t look back as she took her husband’s hands. She knew it was him. Her gaze was transfixed to the floor, to the single red rose lying there – her father’s favorite flower.
Even half-conscious in the bacta tank, she knew someone was there, keeping watch over her. She wasn’t sure who it was, but she was laying odds that it was Stephen Baron – he owed her a lot, or so he felt, and if he was going to discharge his debt to her by guarding her bacta tank, that was fine with her.
She closed her eyes. The pain was unbearable. Mike was gone, lost while trying to rescue her. This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. This wasn’t the way. No one was supposed to get hurt. Everyone was supposed to come home.
No one was supposed to die trying to save her. Her life wasn’t worth it. It never was. It never would be.
She came awake lying on the cold metal bunk, startled from strange dreams by a feeling…a sudden feeling of warmth and reassurance. They were coming for her. Her squadron was coming for her. She’d be safe again soon.
Indiana Bridger drew a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It was only a matter of time before volunteers arrived to rescue her. The question was, would they be too late? She was fighting a losing battle against the pain and the drugs. She would sooner succumb to death than give up the secrets of the New Republic. If it was indeed her death that it took to keep the Republic safe, that would be a price she would pay.
She drew another breath to steady herself and tried to think of something other than the pain – the future, perhaps, and seeing her husband and children once more, in the vineyards on Coruscant that was the birthright of her family.
She held that vision close as she closed her eyes again and drifted back to sleep.
To be continued.....