Both of them were from backwater planets and most of them were amazed: when they were issued jumpsuits with tattered straps holding decades-old tracking equipment Wash and Connie smiled at each other across the crowded room. Rich in love of justice and working for a Rebellion that couldn't even afford matching prison-orange flight gear.
Their cell of the Rebellion had occupied a planet much like the famed Yavin IV, at least at the equator; humid, once-peopled. No ghosts haunted the stone temples, not that Connie could see. Around the poles fierce storms of acid rain raged, possible holdovers from a civilization that had destroyed itself, and occasionally a storm rollicked down from the north and soaked the Rebel bases.
They barely had two workable X-Wings, plus the smattering of tiny civilian ships and freighters the Rebel hopefuls had brought with them. Mounting a space attack from the planet was a distant dream, but everything about the Rebellion had been a dream to Connie a few weeks ago, and so a little more waiting was acceptable, even accepted. It was a ragtag Rebel group. It would involve waiting.
At least the company was good, even legendary - people who were good, people who were dissatisfied (a trait which Connie valued highly.)
She and Wash had swung their legs over the side of a six-story structure and sat, watching bat-winged creatures flap across the sky, the sunset turning the sky orange, some of the flyers laboring behind.
She met the Imperial on a cantina on a nearby moon - a rocky world that was just a stop-over on a quiet spacelane, a place where some enterprising creature had placed a bar. She drank caf that was slightly better than the dried military stuff, but only slightly. Instead of tasteless and cardboardy it was acrid, with the sour aftertaste of chemical sweeteners. The stormtrooper did not wear his helmet in, but she saw it in his kit bag. A heavy leather jacket almost obscured the chest armor.
He said, "What do you have for me?"
The lack of small talk was refreshing, and she returned it, glancing around with her peripheral vision for the guys with blasters he had probably hidden at the cantina entrances. One far to her left checked all the boxes: human, male, military haircut, a smudge of oil on his cheek more cosmetic than really dirty.
She said, "Everything."
Leonard Church wiping sweat off his brow as he walked through the jungle to a place rife, crowded with ghosts. The outposts of the Sith are not many but they are not few, and every tiny warlord who saw her rage tear apart a skyline had aimed for the immortality she assumed would be the birthright of a creature so essential and connected to the universe. So it was with Leonard Church, human and wearing the orange visor and firebird crest of the Rebellion, except that he didn't have the powers - just the loss, and the hatred of death, and memories.
Leonard Church finding a holocron - amateur, juvenile Sith-work, although he did not know it.
Leonard Church, hearing the voice of the dead Sith and, in a moment of clarity, smashing the crimson crystal.
Leonard Church, releasing the spirits now in shattered pieces, and being inhabited -
Leonard Church, returning quietly and sanely to the Rebel base, shaking only sometimes with hands not quite yet age-spotted, wondering how he is going to get the spirits out of his mind. He begins to wonder what experiments to run. He thinks that maybe he can hear the Sith speaking to him, telling him, martially and effortlessly, that he must fight for her unknown, distant cause.
He does not wonder what to tell his soldiers.
"How did you find this?" The stormtrooper asked Connie with a straight face. Only a tiny part of her mind was worried that he didn't believe her: sure the propaganda said that there was only one Lord of the Sith left, and that Jedi powers were gone. One Rebel leader couldn't have picked them up in a temple like a farmer finding a seed in a sewed field.
Not according to the Empire, anyway. But her contact, all tanned skin and a mohawk flattened and oily from his helmet, seemed to believe her.
She said, "He started acting weird around us. Asking if we'd seen any figures in the woods, people who weren't from our camp. Separating us by skill sets even though none of our missions required it."
Church had begun to form a hierarchy that did not seem relevant to the wider Rebellion's actions. And that, she told herself, was the source of her concerns - not the fact that he seemed to have no use for a comms specialist despite the fact that keeping quiet under the Imperials' noses was of paramount importance. Both curiosity and bruised pride had driven her to Church's quarters, where she had seen the red shards and heard him talking to someone she couldn't see.
She hadn't been able to sense anything, which had been a relief. Whatever problems she was going to have with the Empire, being a Jedi would not be one of them.
"But why bring it to us?" Her contact asked, nervously, looking around the crowded cantina.
Because I wanted to be a pilot and wasn't any good at it, she wanted to say.
Connie wondered whether she should have just gone to the Rebellion high command - but after she had started to see Church purposefully keeping his group away from the rest of the Rebellion she had seen it everywhere, until her certainty of his conspiracy had grown larger and larger.
Instead, she leaned forward, narrowed her eyes, skewered the bridge of his nose with her gaze. "Those shards can tell you all about the Sith presence on that planet. I bet Lord Vader would be interested."
"Far from me to say that," the stormtrooper said, and Connie was about to slam her fist on the table when he spoke again.
"But give us those shards and we'll see you survive when we bomb the kriffing planet."
How many times had he used that line on other traitors? He sounded bitter but energized. Her stomach growled, with both hunger and stress. "Not so fast," she said. "I don't have them with me."
"Then give us the coordinates."
"And let Church see you coming and panic when the Star Destroyer shows up? I may be the comms officer, but I'm not the only one on the planet with working eyes."
"Then get the job done and we'll extract you." His desperation almost humanized him. Then, though, it turned to an impatient, heated snarl. "And we'll know if you decide not to go through with it."
Then she did look at the man at the door, pointedly, telling the trooper that she had seen through his plan just as thoroughly as she saw through Commander Church's. "Fine," Connie said.
He repeated it after her, "Fine," and laughed it a little like they were discussing some personal irony instead of the fate of twenty idealists on a jungle planet, and she wondered, just as she had before, whether she was on the right side.
Not all Rebel leaders were doing what Church had done, right?
But Connie could only fight one war at a time, and Church had made that war very small.
Then that war put a blaster in her hand and she hesitated, leaves dripping with dew brushing past the thick orange canvas of her sleeve, waiting for Imperial troops to rush through the jungle in front of her. They had landed sooner than expected, bringing a bomber with them. If there was a Star Destroyer in orbit she couldn't see it, but the Imperials had contacted her yesterday and she knew where to go.
Behind her, Wash and the others were in a loose formation at the edge of the man-made pond that ringed the temple, some ankle-deep in clear water. She could hear South cursing and Carolina rustling branches. Mysterious, aloof Texas followed the traditions of whatever martial planet she called home.
Stormtroopers shouted to her left, and she touched the scrap of cloth in her pocket, the white Imperial symbol that the stormtrooper had given her to show that she was a conspirator. A flag of allegiance she didn't care about and surrender she didn't trust.
"Did you hear that?" Wash said, and she turned around, momentarily messy, pointing her blaster at his gut because he was there and because she was not a soldier, not really. She had not had enough time to become one, and Church had become too distant to teach his people.
Wash did not back up.
She did not respond, just turned her back to him and started moving through the woods. She heard him whine behind her, a clenched-teeth anticipation of the creatures that South had told him lurked in the trees.
She started to move away. Started to anticipate the voices that would call after her, the blaster bolts that would fire in the distance, drawing the Rebels the other way. Wash's farmboy concern, South's inner-city ferocity. Carolina, black streaks in her red hair, trying to hold them all together. The single red shard in Connie's pocket seemed to slice into her side, painlessly making its presence known. She had only been able to steal one, but it and the flag should be enough. Her two proofs.
Connie left. She weaved between the trees, trusting the jungle to hide even her brightly-colored flightsuit as she ducked under vines and contorted her way around trees. She had always been good at not being seen, and what was usually a weakness was now an insidious advantage.
Although, she forgot that other people could take advantage of the heavy cover too. Suddenly a hand lashed out of the trees, attached to a white plasticine arm. The stormtrooper caught Connie under the neck and flipped her, leaving her throat feeling bruised and her back bowed over a thick root. She pushed the blaster up toward the trooper, fumbling for the white flag with a left hand caked with black dirt.
"I'm the contact," she said, her voice never rising from a conversational pitch.
The stormtrooper looked down the rusty barrel of a double-barreled repeater. "Get up."
"Take me to your shuttle," she said, leaving the flag on the ground while she wiped the dirt on her jumpsuit.
She named it.
Something else rustled in the leaves, fighting against thick branches. She thought first of the animals - some were South's pranks, all in her head, but a jungle would have predators -
Then she saw a blaster, and an orange sleeve and a hand, and Wash pushed through the trees. He had been starting to say something, but caught the sounds in his throat mid-word when he saw her.
She felt a cool calmness in her head as she looked him in the eye. Their night on top of the temple returned to her, bringing a new clarity. She was fighting so that she could get back to that, after all. She was fighting so that they could all look at the horizon without having to wonder what was heading toward them, and the faster she did this the faster Wash would understand.
"They've captured me, Wash. Go help the others. And don't..." She reached into her pocket, felt both Wash and the stormtrooper flinch but neither of them stopped her. That made her wonder whether both of them felt she was on their side. The red flake of stone caught between her fingers and she held it tight and withdrew the shard, its flat edges prickling at her skin. "Don't touch anything that looks like this."
The stormtrooper prodded her with the side of his gun, play-acting but also sending more prickles up her spine, tensing her whole body enough that she knew it would make it more difficult to keep her footing on the rough ground.
"What?" Wash said, all restraint gone from his voice, and as she felt the stormtrooper's fingers close around her arm and he started to guide her backward Wash repeated himself, even more frenzied and lost. "What?" Drawing out the syllables instead of doing anything about it.
"Back off," the trooper said, and leveled his blaster at Wash at the same time as Connie did.
As she left she thought she felt the shard move in her canvas pocket, felt it soaking up the distress and fear twisting at her gut.
There was a Lambda-class shuttle, its wings folded like a predatory beast. There was an interior padded with black leather and floored with silver metal. There was a ride off of the planet in which Connie wished she could see out the closed ramp door. Her comm occasionally crackled, a high-pitched voice screaming in anger, but it died as Connie left the atmosphere, and she did not have a ship-based comm with which to replace it.
The three troopers in the bay with her remained silent, sitting wide-legged, blasters lying along ridged plasticine cuisses.
"Which one of you is my contact?" Connie said.
The man from the cantina pulled off his helmet to reveal the familiar crooked mohawk. "You're lucky we could spare a ship to get you out. This one will go back to the battle after you're away."
"Do you know what's happening down there?"
He laughed, awkward and staccato. "There were about fourteen Rebels down there, Connie. Your commander wasn't exactly working on building his army."
She knew that he was right: Church had disappeared into his experiments, and most of his troopers had been too new to know that, although there was a lot of waiting in the army, it didn't usually come at the planning stage. "That's because he was working on this," she said, and drew out the shard. It glowed slightly, the light filtering through the outer layers of her skin like an x-ray.
The trooper nodded. "Vader is interested," he said. "They say Sith can bring people back from the dead...but that could all be ghost stories."
Connie shook her head. "That's nothing to do with me. These things infected Church." She propped her elbows on her knees, digging in. Her flag of surrender had been returned, crumpled, to one of her thigh pockets. The other troopers exchanged leisurely glances.
She wanted to ask them what was happening below, but also felt that admitting any tension would be a sign of defeat, and she had too much to lose to give ground over an answer she would find soon enough.
Would Wash die down there? Would Carolina be able to outrun the war? Would Tex's unearthly strength save her? These thoughts eddied in Connie, exacerbated by every uneven rumble of the engine underneath her. She shifted her feet as if that could banish the slightly sick inner-ear feeling of the artificial gravity.
A moment after she thought she couldn't stand the silence any longer, her contact lifted up his helmet to his ear and listened to it, squinting as if that would help him decipher the tinny voices from the comm inside. Then he dropped the helmet over his head, and said "Here we are," just as the engine stopped. Connie could hear the clatter of the landing legs hitting the hanger floor in what she had to assume was a Star Destroyer.
The two stormtroopers flanking Connie stood up and exchanged glances.
She turned aside to watch the ramp lower away from the ship, and then the trooper on her right stepped forward and slammed the body of his blaster into her contact's neck, pressing as if to go straight through the wall. The mohawked man was lifted, gurgling, and the third stormtrooper flicked his skull-white gaze toward Connie. She raised her hands in fists.
The trooper lifted a hand. Connie flinched, but the trooper hooked that hand under the skull mask and lifted, revealing pale, mottled skin and painted lips. By the time her red-gold ponytail swished down across her shoulders Connie had realized that Carolina having followed her meant either death or rescue.
The possibility of the former kept her fists raised; the possibility of the latter let a relieved sigh escape Connie's mouth. Behind Carolina, the ramp had hit the floor, and more troopers were gathering, not yet crossing the painted caution lines on the shining surface. Connie did not trust the pattern: they were waiting for a reason, and she did not want to meet it.
"Back off, Connie," Carolina said.
Connie could not - Texas was in the way, standing with one armored ankle shoved against the seat and the other stretched out almost all the way across the bay. She had a better grip on the actual Imperial now, one arm locked around his shoulder and his own blaster shoved into his armpit. Texas did not take her helmet off often, maybe because she was self-conscious about the cybernetic implants spidering their way across her cheek.
Tex spoke without looking at her. "I know you sold us out."
Connie couldn't help but flinch, but instead of moving backward she straightened up, drawing herself almost painfully tall. "You don't understand. Church was never going to train us to fight. He was using us."
"Why would he do that?" Carolina said, but Connie thought she caught some curiosity in the quirk of the other woman's words.
"I'm going to get it out of my pocket," Connie said.
The Imperial struggled, but Tex was as immobile as the wall she shoved him against.
Connie drew the crystal out. "He was obsessed with these."
Her contact used the moment of Tex's inattention and shoved not forward but downward, onto the gun, teeth clapping together as his jaw hit her wrist. "Don't just stand there!" he shouted, to the troopers outside or to Connie she didn't know, and Tex shot him.
The blaster bolt burned a neat hole into his shoulder, then another, ringed with yellow ashes, as she pumped the trigger again. Connie shouted and kicked forward, catching Carolina off guard. The other woman caught her foot on a shaking forearm and swung backward as Connie brought her right foot around, aiming for Carolina's ribs.
Carolina elbowed her hard, and Connie stumbled closer to the far wall in the narrow space. The stormtroopers outside the ship were massing again, and now she could see an officer, his outline blurred by the coruscating energy shield behind him, heading for the Lambda shuttle.
"What's happening here?" The officer said, his voice clipped and distant.
Tex grabbed Connie by the shoulders. She felt the thin armor plastoid piece on the back of Tex's hands press against her clothing.
Before she could respond, Carolina was moving past her, kicking at the splayed legs of the dead contact in order to stand by Tex's side. "Get to the front of the ship," Carolina ordered Tex.
"Get on your knees," Tex said to Connie.
"Texas!" Carolina said. "We can bring her with us."
Tex was going to kill her. The realization was dreamlike: she would wake up at any moment in her pallet at the ruined temple and see the pink light from across the jungle falling through a battlement. There was no chance for Connie to make the Imperial think that she was in charge, not now that he had seen Tex's face. Even if it would save their lives, trading allegiances easily and with no loyalty seemed distasteful to her.
Connie craned her neck to look up at Texas, noticing bloody red flecks in the woman's mud-colored brown eyes, and received a prod with the blaster in return.
"Stand up," Texas said. Connie did. She obeyed the new order.
The Imperial officer approached, his pale skin looking dry and reptilian as he tipped his head.
"This wasn't part of the plan," Carolina said, turning toward the officer and his army.
"Oh, there was a plan?" Tex said. "I thought we were just trying to stay away from the Empire."
The officer looked at all three women disdainfully, as if their arrival was more an inconvenient stain on the floor than a security breach. "What's going on here?"
Doesn't he know I'm on his side? Connie thought. Communication couldn't be that bad. Not when her contact was lying on the floor, if not dead than dead soon. After all this, would the size and complexity of the Imperial army be the thing that finally beat her? That would be just like war, for her to die for an accidental cause. It would be foolish to move now, and talking her way out of it sounded like an exhaustive, petty option, especially when tens of stormtroopers were working their way around the Lambda, surrounding the ship. Where had they gotten so many troops? What affluent place? The ship was the Rebels' only weapon now.
Carolina opened her mouth, but Tex spoke first. "You're being invaded, barve," she said, shifting her shoulders and hips without moving the gun from Connie's neck.
The officer mouthed something to the trooper nearest him.
Connie was dropping before the yellow flash started. Her knees ached as she swept one leg back to catch Tex's ankles. The stormtrooper's first shot missed; the second one burned into Connie's shoulder, pain sweeping across her left side like an advancing army. She choked on her fear and crashed onto her left arm. She had not caught Texas.
The officer moved toward her, troopers behind him shuffling forward in syncopated steps. Wincing, Connie dragged her right hand toward the crumpled flag in her pocket. The crystal shard was digging into her left side. This close to the floor she could see the thin film of static dust on the Imperial decking. Feet stamped above her, and stormtroopers looked down at her like tens of floating skulls, hefting but not firing identical black blasters.
Connie eased to her right side, realizing that the pain was just barely possible to see around if she concentrated hard, and saw Tex scoop Carolina up around the waist and haul her backward. The officer scowled as Tex leaped, arcing over the top of the Lambda in a blur of motion that Connie thought might be an effect of her blood loss rather than an actual move a human could manage. She pushed over on her shoulder and shrimped, realizing as a crash sounded on the other side of the ship that if Tex and Carolina were trying to get out of here they would activate engines about four feet above her head in a minute.
The Imperial officer seemed to have realized the same thing, and began gesturing for his troops to clear to the side of the launch corridor. Some behind Connie hesitated, and the officer took two steps toward her.
Her hand closed around the white flag and drew it out.
The Imperial swung a polished brown boot and kicked her in the shoulder. The pain reared up.
Seconds later she woke up as she was jostled in the arms of a stormtrooper, who dropped her onto a gurney. The Lambda had only just taken off. She could hear the roar of it. The sound abruptly cut out, replaced by shouting Imperials, when the ship passed through the force field. She wondered whether the Empire would turn the whole Star Destroyer around to go after it, and then wondered whether she was missing something important, whether she was thinking straight; the pain in her arm and shoulder were tensing up the entire left side of her body, and she could feel her ragged heartbeat in her throat.
The officer was standing a few feet from her, looking irritated. A trooper passed him an inactive vibroknife as long as his arm. It looked like a kitchen knife, but Connie would have bet that it balanced a lot better.
The officer looked at her, but did not come any closer. Other stormtroopers around her were shuffling, and continued to do so as she sat up. The white flag was on the floor next to her, now blackened with ship wash or boot tracks.
"You're still alive because we need to know about that Jedi." The officer said.
Connie blinked. Her arm was aching powerfully, part of her brain rebelling against the idea that she could move it at all. She needed to kick herself into high gear fast, but the pain from the blow that had knocked her out still swarmed her. She wanted to hurt the officer, and told herself to wait. She could get him later.
She said, "What Jedi?"
"The one who jumped six meters in one go." His Coruscanti accent lengthened the words, dragging them protesting out of the air. "This is a side issue," he said, gesturing at the white cloth.
"Did they get away?" Connie asked. It helped the pain if she talked about something instead of focusing on the red knot in her shoulder, not bleeding outright but steadily pulsating and flooding with her heartbeat. Tex, a Jedi? The crystals could have been imbued with the Force. It wasn't a long shot. That would make the Empire twice as likely to come after their Rebel cell. Connie's second thought was that she had thought the Jedi were nobler than to try to shoot a dissenter and then leave her to die without explanation. Carolina's atheist curiosity had been kinder. Disappointment would have to get in line.
The Imperial officer's face couldn't get more pinched and wrinkled unless he aged twenty years. Either he wasn't bothering to hide his disdain from one small, injured Rebel or he had a terrible sabacc face.
Connie said, "I'm on your side, remember? I want to know if they got the..."
But they hadn't. The red shard was sitting in a specimen tray beside her.
A medic in a rumpled gray uniform arrived, fretted over her wound without asking her any questions, and refused the offer of the vibroknife.
Connie could grab it, she thought, but what then? Some of the stormtroopers had been dismissed from the side of the landing strip, but there were still crowds of them.
"They did not get the item you procured," the officer said as the medic started spraying bacta on the wound. Connie tried to crane her neck to see what he was doing, but he had a firm grip on her lower arm, and she felt tired and heavy. She needed to bargain, to give them something without outright telling them that she needed them.
"There's something strange on that planet," she said around the blur of receding pain. "My contact worked with Imperial Intelligence. I should be directed there."
Appealing to a higher authority worked: it seemed to give the officer pause. "Where is your clearance?"
"Either there on the floor or in my contact's...ugh." Pain travelled down a vein and burst as the medic straightened up and stepped away from her. "His pocket. Is he all right?"
The officer ignored the question. Considering that she couldn't see any other gurneys being wheeled out, Connie thought she knew the answer. And Tex, some sort of Jedi.
She tried to ignore the medic next to her even as the blaster wound kept aching and tugging at muscles she didn't think she should be able to feel so acutely. All the unmasked people around here were human men, she noticed. Strange that the Empire enforced homogeny to such a degree as to exclude over half of the people in the galaxy from its ranks. The painkillers were kicking in and she was angry.
"You'll see Intelligence all right," the officer said. He did not sound pleasant about it, and she narrowed her eyes, bracing for not just today but the next and the next, whatever adventure lay before her. If she could get off this ship she would be okay. She had walked from the frying pan into the fire, that was verifiably true.
Connie twitched her arm experimentally until she didn't want to any more. The medic glanced at her, as if wondering what an idiot she was for moving a blaster shot so soon. She looked around the silver room and sighed. She thought about where she would go next: what tomb where the dead Sith could be found, what Rebel stronghold, what other great cities.