Snug in the X-wing simulator cockpit, Colonel Gavin Darklighter, Rogue Squadron's commanding officer, flicked his right thumb against the ring he wore on that hand. Apprehension gripped him, but he knew there was no sense in stalling a second longer. He glanced over his shoulder at the R2-Delta astromech droid sitting behind him. "Okay, Catch, run the simulation designated 'skipchaser.'"
The little gold-and-white droid tootled pleasantly, and the simulator cockpit came alive with lights and data scrolling on the primary screen. Despite the years of refits the little droid had undergone in Gavin's service--including requisite memory wipes and programming upgrades--it always greeted him with a brief summary of the weather on Tatooine and Coruscant. Gavin appreciated that little bit of pleasantry, which is why he'd not traded the droid in for a newer model--though the Delta upgrade had been most welcome for speeding up navigational computations.
The biggest change in his relationship with the droid had been its name. In the early days he'd called it Jawaswag, figuring that any Jawa would love to have the droid. Later, after the Thrawn crisis, a group of Jawas had tried to steal Jawaswag, but the droid had fended them off and actually hurt one. From that point forward Gavin had taken to calling the droid Toughcatch, which had just become shortened to Catch.
The simulator's visual field filled with stars and then an asteroid belt, into which Gavin guided the X-wing. It felt much like the old T-65s Rogue Squadron used to fly when he'd first joined the Rebellion, but the T-65A3 model was a couple of generations advanced over the original models. While not as slick as the new XJ model, the A3 had improved shields and lasers that boasted improvements in accuracy and power. The peace reached with the Imperial Remnant meant that there were few competent foes to test the new fighters against--and the fighter had proved quite lethal when unleashed on pirates in the Rimward regions of the New Republic.
Gavin glanced at his primary monitor, but nothing was popping up as a threat. He punched up a supplemental data plug-in that expanded the available target profiles. "Catch, give me biologicals down to the size of mynocks and anything that appears to be moving erratically or on a course that is beyond norm for orbital debris."
The droid whistled an acknowledgment, but still nothing showed on Gavin's screen. He frowned. What is it I'm supposed to be seeing? It makes no sense for Admiral Kre'fey to have given me access to this simulation if there is nothing out here.
Gavin hesitated for a moment. He knew that his idea of what made sense and a Bothan admiral's idea of same could be vastly different. Many times he'd had to deal with Bothan manipulation of himself or his command, and most of those times had been a disaster. Yet, despite the Kre'fey clan hav- ing a negative association with Rogue Squadron because of events over two decades old, Gavin had found young Traest Kre'fey to be remarkably straightforward in general, and very much more so when dealing with the Rogues.
The primary console beeped, and a small box appeared around a distant object on the X-wing's heads-up display. Gavin selected the object as a target and glanced down at its profile and image on the secondary monitor. At a quick glance it could have been mistaken for an asteroid and dismissed easily, but to Gavin it looked far too symmetrical. It reminded him a great deal of a seed--a bit bulbous in the middle, but tapered at both ends. The rear had a couple of recesses in it that could have hidden propulsion exhaust units, and a couple more up front that could house weapons.
Gavin shivered, then nudged the X-wing's throttle forward. "Catch, start recording this run. I want to be able to study the playback." Applying a little etheric rudder, Gavin pointed the X-wing's nose on a course that would cut behind the seed. Reaching up to his right, he flipped a switch that locked the S-foils in attack position. With a flick of his thumb, he shifted his weapons control to lasers and quadded them up so all four would fire with a single squeeze of the stick's trigger.
The seed shifted itself around so its nose swung into line with his approach vector. Sensors gave him no read on energy weapons powering up, which disturbed him less than getting no power readings for propulsion. How is that thing moving? Before any answers suggested themselves, Gavin quickly kicked the X-wing into a barrel roll to starboard and leveled out with his crosshairs covering the seed. He triggered a quick blast and waited for the seed to explode, but that didn't happen. As the quad burst neared the target, the bolts all whirled into an invisible vortex and vanished into a pinpoint of white light.
Emperor's black bones ...
The seed jetted forward, swinging around to bring its nose to bear on the X-wing. Gavin started to roll port and dive, but something shook his ship. In a heartbeat Catch started screeching and the X-wing's forward shields collapsed. Something dully red blossomed on the seed's nose, then shot toward the X-wing. It hit hard and splattered a bit, then what appeared to be molten rock started melting through the fighter's metal flesh.
Warning sirens blared, drowning out Catch's panicky tones. Bright red damage flags began to scroll up over the primary monitor, all but one of them moving too fast for Gavin to read. The one he could see reported a premature ignition of a proton torpedo's engine, which lit up the whole port magazine and tore the X-wing apart.
Stunned, Gavin sat back in his seat as the screens went black and the cockpit's hatch cracked open. He glanced at his chronometer and shook his head. "Catch, we lasted twenty-five seconds. What was that thing?"
A human orderly appeared at the edge of the cockpit. "Colonel Darklighter, the admiral sends his compliments."
Gavin blinked and stroked a gloved hand over his brown goatee. "His compliments? I lasted less than half a minute."
"Yes, Colonel, very true." The orderly smiled. "The admiral said he would meet you in your office in an hour and explain why you are to be congratulated on doing so well."
Gavin sat behind his desk, idly punching up holographic images on his holoprojector plate. The first picture showed him and his two sons--orphaned boys who had lived near the Rogue Squadron hangar after the Thrawn crisis--all smiles. The next showed the boys two years older, still smiling despite being all dressed up, standing with Gavin and his bride, Sera Faleur.
She'd been the social worker who had helped him through the adoption process for the boys. Gavin smiled as he remembered squadron mates telling him that their mixed marriage couldn't last. They were both human, but she came from Chandrila, having grown up on the shores of the Silver Sea, and he was from Tatooine, yet despite the differences in their homeworlds, they easily made a life together.
The next image showed Sera and Gavin with their first daughter; after that came shots of them with their new son and then another daughter. An image made as a New Year's greeting card showed all seven of them together. Gavin easily remembered how happy they'd all been together. Prior to meeting Sera he'd pretty much resigned himself to never finding someone to love, but she'd been the balm to heal his broken heart. She'd not made him forget the past and the lover he'd lost, she'd just helped him recapture the joy of life and all its possibilities.
"I hope I'm not interrupting anything, Colonel."
Gavin looked up through the image of his family and shook his head. "No, Admiral, not at all." He shut off the holoprojector, relieved that the Bothan admiral's arrival had stopped the cycle of pictures right there, at the happy times.
Admiral Traest Kre'fey bore a striking resemblance to the other members of the Kre'fey family Gavin had seen: the late General Laryn--the admiral's grandfather--and the admiral's brother, Karka. Despite having spent a certain amount of time in the company of Bothans, Gavin couldn't remember any outside the Kre'fey family whose fur was pure white. Traest didn't have the golden eyes the other two had; instead his were mostly violet with flecks of gold. Gavin assumed the violet came from Borsk Fey'lya's line, since he knew the two of them were related through some complicated tangle of marriages between the two families.
Traest wore a black flight suit that he'd unzipped down to midchest. He closed the door to Gavin's office, then unceremoniously plopped himself down on the couch to the left of the door. Gavin moved from behind his desk to one of the two chairs making up the conversation nook in his office.
He sat and rested his elbows on his knees. "It killed me in twenty-five seconds. What was it?"
The Bothan smiled. "Congratulations. I died in fifteen in my first engagement. Pulling the biological targeting data on-line is what gave you some warning."
"If I weren't dead, I'm sure that would make me feel better." Gavin frowned. "Do we know what it was?"
The Bothan admiral raked claws back through his pale mane. "Two days ago Leia Organa Solo spoke to the senate and tried to warn them about an unknown alien force that had attacked several worlds on the Rim, out beyond Dantooine. She didn't get a very warm reception. She left data behind, from which the simulation was created."
Gavin sat back in his chair. "You're telling me that seed, that 'thing,' is a starfighter being used by folks who attacked the Outer Rim?"
"Yes. Technically it's called a coralskipper by the species that created it. They grow them out of something called yorick coral. I know the name is not terribly inspiring of fear, but I assume it loses something in the translation from their tongue. I've designated them 'skips' for our purposes."
"And the princess brought this to the senate's attention, and they didn't listen?"
Traest shook his head. "Opposing forces have been gathering power to fight over the whole Jedi question. It's heated up because of the charge that a Jedi's rash action sparked the Rhommamool conflict. A number of powerful senators saw the princess's story as an attempt to divert attention from the Jedi question. It didn't help that Jedi were key to defeating the invaders."
Gavin nodded. He'd never had a problem with Jedi and, in fact, counted one of them, Corran Horn, as a very good friend. There were some high-handed Jedi, but Gavin had seen those sorts of ego cases among fighter pilots, so their existence didn't surprise him at all. The fact was that there were some tasks only Jedi could perform, and he'd been too long in the military to discard a force just because some of the elements were disruptive.
"Is there any evidence that the invaders are still com- ing in?"
"Actual, no, but logic suggests that the expenditure of resources needed to travel from galaxy to galaxy necessitates gaining a foothold through which those resources can be replenished." The Bothan smiled. "If you spend enough credits to get somewhere, you usually plan to stay for a while."
"Right, and the Rim worlds really aren't the sorts of places you'd drop in for a vacation." Gavin rubbed a hand over his mouth. "These skips--they're fairly formidable. How do they move? How did they take my shields down?"
"We need more research to be certain, but it appears that they have creatures called dovin basals that are part of the fighter itself. They manipulate gravity, which is how they were able to soak off your shots and rip down your shields. We think that boosting the sphere of the inertial compensator can actually prevent shields being taken down. I also think that cycling more, lower-power shots through the lasers will force the skip to expend a lot of energy creating those black-hole shields. As long as it's worried about catching shots, its maneuvering ability is degraded. These strategies are hypothetical, however, and can really only be tested in combat."
"I see." Gavin pressed his hands together. "I can have the squadron simming against these things, then you can point us at them in the Rim and we'll try it."
"I knew you'd be game for that, which I appreciate. We have another problem before that, though."
"And that is?"
The Bothan sighed. "Because of the way Princess Leia was dismissed, any action that even hints that she might have been right is frowned upon. Though my command is out in the Rim right now, I can't order up sweeps of any of the battle sites, I'm not allowed to help others look, nothing. It's political suicide to act as if her report has any credence to it."
"Yeah, but isn't it real suicide to assume it doesn't?" The man glanced down at the floor and then back up into Traest's violet eyes. "Given that Borsk Fey'lya now leads the New Republic, this can't be easy for you, but to ignore--"
Traest held a hand up to forestall Gavin's comment.
"Colonel, because of my grandfather's failure at Borleias, my family's power waned around the time I entered the Bothan Martial Academy system. I went to one of the smaller satellite schools, and I had an instructor there who pointed out certain flaws in the way Bothan society functions. I would hope you've seen enough of me through the years to know that being of a newer, younger generation, I'm not one to follow exactly what my superiors think I should be doing. For example, if they knew I'd run you through that sim, I'd be busted down to flight officer and have to work myself back up to flag rank again."
"You did it quickly enough the first time, Admiral."
"Having key personnel in the upper echelons of the Bothan military resign as a result of the Caamasi problem sped me on my way. I don't mind using politics when it moves me in a direction I want to go, but I resent it when it prevents me from doing what is right." Traest opened his hands. "I was thinking, Colonel, that I'd like to use Rogue Squadron in the Rim, having you simulate a pirate group in attacks on outlying systems. My forces out there will pursue you, but you'll be free to run and hide and explore anywhere you want to go."
"And if we happen to run across a force of skips while we're out there?"
"I hope, for all of our sakes, you don't." The Bothan smiled grimly. "But if you do, we'll take them apart and give the senate evidence it will never be able to dismiss."