This is one of a series of little vignettes I did when I kinda liked the idea of being on the outside looking in, just watching events unfold. Some are funny, some are sad, and they're not always from the same person's point of view, but they're all on the outside looking in.
The starships in our little group are everything you'd expect from Rebel craft; they're a mixed bunch of rather faded, past their best hardware being held together by ingenuity and heavy-duty tape. I'm on a Frigate of a design I don't recognise, so it must be at least thirty years old. It's kind of beat-up and makes a whole host of noises, from the annoying not-quite-background vibrations of the air-exchanger to the rattles of loose decking-plates as you walk over them. (There's an old but strangely reliable adage that you can tell how old a starship is by counting up the missing number of screws that hold down the decking plates.)
My name is Arco and I'm a correspondent—an impartial observer. I sit and I watch and I write and I remember. Someone should. In six month's time, half the people onboard this ship probably won't be around anymore. That's a lot of souls lost simply because they believed in something. Because they stood up and said no.
Someone should remember that.
I read once that, on being congratulated for some achievement, someone said that if they seemed to stand tall it was because they were stood on the backs of giants. I'm surrounded by them here; beings willing to give everything—life itself—for what they believe in. It's humbling and inspiring and yet…so very normal here. All that heroism gets lost in the day-to-day doldrums of just surviving.
Everyone wants to hear about how the guy diffused the bomb and saved the day. Myself, I want to hear about what he did the ninety-nine days leading up to that, because that's real. That's who he really is. I guess that's why they gave me this job.
All these little things—all these single moments—they make up a life; a real life. And all these lives, they make up the Alliance.
Knowing history, they say, is just reciting dates. Understanding it is in the details.
I'm sat close to the water-dispenser in the crew mess hall close to the fighter docking bays on level fourteen, which everyone approaches with wary hope, then hits and curses it a few times before finally giving up and heading to the hot drinks dispenser. I'm still kinda new around here, but apparently plain water is almost never available because it's hooked directly into the recyc system which serves the whole ship, and is woefully inadequate. After just a few days, I've become an old hand at this myself, listening out for the scuttlebutt about which floor has a working water-dispenser and travelling through miles of corridors and levels like some wandering nomad; like a Tusken Raider in search of water, an empty bottle in my hand.
Bottles and water canteens are like gold-dust here. If you have one, you write your name all over it because if you don't you'll lose it. On those rare days that you do find a working recyc unit that's prepared to put out more than half a cup of water, the chances of it also actually having cups is practically zero, because everyone in the ship is using it right now, and there's nothing crueller than finding water and not having anything to put it in. But most days, like everybody else, I try the recyc nearest me then curse it roundly before, defeated, I head over to the hot drinks dispenser for something hot, sweet and full of caff, which I know is just going to make me thirstier in the long-run.
Just why exactly the hot drinks dispensers always have water when the plain-water dispensers don't is one of the enduring mysteries of shipboard life.
If you're thinking, 'Why don't they just set the 'techs on it?', then I should mention that there are two floors onboard ship partially sealed off for the third day running because their oxygen exchangers are off-line, the starboard gun array has no targeting system, the shields in bay seventeen are on the blink so no-one can enter the bay without a sealed spacesuit on, and the heating systems in all the pilots' sleeping quarters are down. Again. Those are the day-to-day problems I've heard just sitting here in the mess hall.
This is probably also why the 'techs and the mechs' tend to stick together. They stay in groups with hunted looks in their eyes; they want to discourage further complaints and there's safety in numbers. It's all good-natured of course—surprisingly so, considering the amount of stress everyone's under. If anything, it seems to foster a closeness among all the crew. Nothing brings beings together like shared hardships.
A bunch of pilots wander into the mess hall in a group. Their bright orange flightsuits seem incongruous in the drab, chipped-paint greys of the mess. They stick together as they gather round the drinks dispensers, all ordering caff in various forms, all tired and wired after a twenty-hour shift, moving stiffly from being in the cockpit so long. Everyone keeps stretching and rubbing at the small of their back, or their necks.
They're surprisingly subdued compared to the group in yellow flightsuits who were in here eating breakfast less than an hour ago. But then they were the opposite shift, all rested and rezzed up, ready to head out.
When everyone has a drink they wander off to take over a small seating area, one of the only two with pads on the low mesh-metal chairs, and sit with their feet up on the low table, mostly because it's the only way they can stretch their legs in the small alcove.
Two more pilots appear in the doorway, obviously from the same flight, their orange flightsuits shrugged off their shoulders and tied about their waists by the sleeves, gloves tucked into them. There's a vague cry from the group as these two, obviously the Flight Commander and Lieutenant Commander who've had to debrief, lift weary arms in acknowledgement whilst heading for the drinks dispenser. The Lieutenant Commander kicks the water-dispenser and gets caff instead, ignoring the Commander's laugh.
As they pass me the Commander glances my way and we make eye contact. He smiles casually, curiosity in his eyes as they flick down to my datapad. He has a friendly face. He's incredibly young; not yet twenty, I'd guess.
Then they're past me, and they settle down with the group, chatting, taking their own datapads out and balancing them on their knees as they write up their final report of the shift, occasionally comparing notes.
There's a sense of people biding time, coming down from their shift; a quiet hubbub.
The techs appear next, in a group of course. Obviously from the same fighter-wing as the pilots, 'cos although they wear the drab grey of tech's boilersuits, they all have a wide orange band sewn onto their sleeve. Just like everybody else, they curse the water-dispenser then get some hot caff.
They wander over to the pilots and stand with hands in pockets to chat. I overhear that there's water on level six near the Deep Storage hangers, and there's a general discussion as to whether it's worth heading down that far on the off-chance of the unit still working. The final decision is that it's too far and everybody's too tired to bother.
The techs say they'll keep their ears to the ground; techs always seem to know this kind of stuff. They're the disseminators of all gossip on-board ship. If you want to know who was seen sneaking out of who's quarters in the early hours between shift changes, listen to the techs. Who's in line for a promotion, who got a dressing-down, where the fleet is heading, why they're going there…they have all the answers.
The pilots call them 'Radio Tech'—though never to their faces.
Time ticks by.
The serving 'droids change the food on offer from breakfast straight to supper, to account for the shift change, and pilots and techs and various support staff wander up and take a plate.
The pilots begin to quiz the support staff on where they're going to sleep, as there's frost on the walls of their bunk rooms. Plans are made, as people genially offer spare beds and remember empty rooms.
Room twelve on the ninth floor is free, but no-one will sleep in there because it's considered bad luck. The last six pilots who were in that room have all met their untimely ends within a month of being assigned to it. Everyone laughs and jokes and teases about it, but there's a genuine reluctance underlying it. I guess when you're a combat pilot, you have these little rituals that you cling to. The average life expectancy of a green pilot in pitch battle is about twelve minutes. Number twelve; just like the bunk room on level nine. Probably none of them consider themselves particularly superstitious, but…you take any help you can get.
The average age of the flight who are here now is perhaps nineteen. Apparently they were one of the units who flew up against the Death Star, losing all their pilots except two. They fared better than Gold Wing, who had one returning pilot.
Against the cold reality of those kinds of odds, a little superstition can be forgiven.
One is left wondering why they still do it. What deep trauma has so colored their lives that they're willing to exchange their entire future, for just a chance at hurting the Empire in some small way.
They all look so full of life right now, jockeying for the best rooms, flirting with the ground staff, laughing…
Statistically, a quarter of them will be dead before the month is out.
I make eye-contact with the young Flight Commander again. He's just woken up one of the pilots who was asleep, head in his arms folded on the table, to tell him that he's got a bed with one of the flight controllers who plucks tiredly at his sleeve, wanting to head off for some rest.
The pilot stands up and topples his chair over behind him, which his Commander catches with his booted foot and pulls back up. Then he calls the pilot back for his gloves, forgotten on the table. He's like a big brother, teasing the man when he retrieves them, but still looking out for him—there's genuine affection there.
Aware of my watching, the Commander glances over at me and rolls his eyes, sharing the joke, which makes me smile. I guess he's one of the two who flew against the Death Star, and that his Lieutenant is the other. They seem a little more together than most of the rest, not just in terms of experience, but more generally.
They seem like they'll make it through the long haul.
A call goes up over the shipboard comm, and it must be for him because he lifts his comlink from his belt immediately. I watch him frown, can see his lips mouthing, 'Be right there'.
All the other pilots have paused to watch him, and now there's a barrage of questions, everybody instantly awake. If they have a 'Beat to Quarters'—shipboard vernacular for a general alarm—they'll all have to be back in their fighters within minutes, exhausted or not.
The Commander calms the group down with open-handed gestures and a few words before leaving in a hurry, his Lieutenant following.
Already the techs are on their comlinks—'Radio Tech' in full swing.
I arrive at the Bridge to find the Commander and his Lieutenant deep in discussions, despite the fact that I left only seconds behind them. Clearly they know a short-cut which I don't, but then this is their home I guess, and the savvy ones make it their business to know it inside-out.
I'm not the only one making a bee-line for the Command Deck, as a steady flow of senior officers come in with serious looks on their faces. Trying to stay out of their notice, I make my way over to the main group who are gathered around the long-range scanner array holo, studying a series of distant dots, with numbers lit next to each which clearly mean a lot more to the gathered officers than they do to me, because the atmosphere is cranking up.
Occasionally someone points at the radar dots, and a second set of information comes up on the transparent board above the scanner array with the spec and the ID of the ships. This one I understand.
Two Imperial Star Destroyers and a military Frigate. And if we're close enough to see them, then they can see us. We're a small contingent of just four Frigates. Rebels tend not to travel in large groups unless they have good reason—it attracts too much attention, makes it easier for the Empire to judge overall numbers, and a single engagement could cause lasting damage.
A short argument erupts as to how they got this close, but is interrupted as a tall, dark-haired man in civilian clothing pushes for the front.
"Trouble?" His eyes are on the Flight Commander, who's staring out of the main viewport rather than getting into the squabble.
"Who let you in here?" I can't see who said that at first, as she's pretty small, and hidden from me at the front of the group of people, but I recognise her voice. This is Princess Leia Organa, ex-Senator of ex-Alderaan. She perhaps has more reasons than most to be here, if people were counting.
I've met her several times—when I was allowed to go before a panel of senior Alliance members to put my proposal forward, when it had been accepted and I was being introduced to key personnel, and again during my induction, when I was being told in no uncertain terms the reaches and restrictions of my brief as an independent 'War Correspondent'.
I'm not a journalist or a reporter. They work for the Empire, and they do as they're told. Write what they're told. I'm here as an independent observer, and what information I send out will be disseminated on the HoloNet by those who know how, available to those who have learned where to look. Not exactly galaxy-wide coverage, but as near as we can get while our glorious Emperor keeps his stranglehold on the press.
So I'm a War Correspondent. And anyone who thinks we're not at war should be stood on the Command Deck with me now, looking at the sea of strained faces.
The tall man with the civilian clothes and the Corellian accent reaches the front and sees the scanners, turning to the Commander without acknowledging the Princess' harsh words. "Company?"
The Flight Commander turns briefly from the viewport to the holo, pointing. "Two Star Destroyers and a Nebulon Frigate. They've seen us, but they haven't changed course yet."
Everyone is very still, watching. I move around slightly and notice that the Princess has taken tight hold the of the Commander's sleeve, just above the wrist. 'Radio Tech' maintains they're more than just friends—speculates that they've been having a very secret affair for a while now. But then it also says the same of the Princess and the tall Corellian.
I must admit I've seen her in the mess halls with both of them, separately and together. But then again I've seen the Corellian and the Flight Commander together quite often, and they seem good friends.
I'm betting they're both just friends with the formidable Princess, though I'd say she seems more comfortable and relaxed around the Commander. The Corellian just seems to aggravate her—though with Corellians, annoying someone and flirting with them generally amounts to the same thing.
Still, she's not holding the Corellian's sleeve right now.
Everyone continues to stare at the scanners, myself included. I may not be a soldier, but I'm on a Rebel ship. There's no grey area for the Empire, no levels of involvement. I'm guilty by association, and there's only one penalty for treason in the Emperor's brave new galaxy.
"Why aren't they turning?" someone asks, the suspense laying thick, straining their voice.
The young Commander abruptly whips 'round, catching the Captain's eye. "Put out a General Call, all ships. Get airborne fighters and support craft into the nearest docking bay, any Frigate. Sound the Beat to Quarters and get all fighters ready, but don't launch." He's already backstepping, turning to face Helm as he continues, tone short and sure. "Keep our blindside toward them and turn us round slowly so we'll pass well under them. Program jump co-ordinates, any clear course on our new heading. We should leave. Now." The last he says to the Princess, and she frowns, nodding tightly.
Finally I see why he's a Commander. Despite his youth, he speaks with absolute authority and people rush to comply. A few glance at the Captain, who nods in assent.
The Princess seems strained, but clearly willing to go with her Flight Commander on this. "What is it?" She's speaking quietly, but I'm stood quite close to the small remaining group of the ship's Captain, the Princess, the Commander and the Corellian.
The Commander is shaking his head. "Something's wrong."
"If we pull all peripheral craft back to bays now, they'll know we're purposely trying to avoid them," the Princess maintains.
"They already know, Leia. No matter who we were, they should be coming over to check us by now."
This is the first time I've heard anyone not call the Princess by her title. Maybe the techs are right?
There's a flurry of activity as the claxons rev up to sound the Call to Quarters through the ship's corridors, muted on the Bridge. Comm Officers and Flight Control mutter calmly into headsets, assigning docking bays and flight paths. An open comm is established between the four bridges of the allied Frigates, the background chatter of each bridge the same. Slowly the noise dies down as the last of the smaller ships are stowed and accounted for, and all eyes turn to the Navigator, who's waiting for the navicomp to calculate flight co-ordinates for the jump.
"If they already know, we should turn portside-on to them for a clean volley," the Captain says quietly.
I remember now that only our portside guns are operative—the side we presently have facing out to dead space.
The flight Commander shakes his head. "They must have scanned us—they know we're operating with dead gun batteries. They want us to turn active batteries to them."
"They've still not moved, sir," the Watch announces.
"Are we sure they've seen us?" That's one of the Captains on the other frigates. Captain Atigo, I think.
"Oh, they've seen us all right," the Corellian assures from close by me, squinting at the screen.
The 'nav system counts down its calculations. The Princess turns to the Flight Commander, who's chewing his thumbnail. Suddenly he looks very young again.
Finally the Watch shouts out, "They're turning to an intercept course, sir!"
"Took their time," the Captain murmurs before turning to step to the centre of the Bridge, barking out, "Bring up particle and ray shields. Weapons, charge up any active lasers and turbolasers. Which gun batteries are down? Get our port sideout toward them. Ask the Glory to move to our…"
"Wait!" It's the Flight Commander again, stepping forward. "Keep our operative guns out to open space. Something's coming in, now..."
With a flicker of motion something huge appears just below and off our port bow, and my heart lurches as it fills the viewports to that side almost entirely.
"Star Destroyer off port, just out of hyperspace," Watch announces tightly. "Co-ordinates—"
The Captain cuts him off as he turns to the 'nav officer—at this kind of close range co-ordinates are pretty much irrelevant. "How long?"
"Less than a minute. We need to turn all ships to 37 by 216 by 774 now, to line up for the jump."
Several sets of eyes take a very long look at the Flight Commander who called the warning about the incoming Star Destroyer, before turning back to their stations without comment.
I've heard he's known for playing hunches. I've heard he's generally right.
My own eyes are dragged away as the bridge's lights flicker, deckplates rumbling beneath us as the first barrage hits us broadside, making the ship buck.
"Open fire, all guns as batteries. Confirm vector co-ordinates to the other ships. Best course to keep our guns between us and the Destroyer." The Captain is very calm. Everybody is. Even I am. There's very little else you can do in battles between ships-of-the-line. You just stand there and watch them throw enough raw power at each-other to keep a small city running for a month.
But this is hardly a fair fight. The Star Destroyer is thirty times our mass, and far more than that in firepower. Already we're taking damage. Fortunately, there are four of us and only one of it, so we're holding our own as we re-align for the jump.
The Destroyers in the distance are also closing though, beginning to take ranging shots as they appear to do a slow clockwise spin on their axes, because we're half-turning, half-rolling anticlockwise to align for the jump co-ordinates as quickly as possible without leaving ourselves unprotected.
Still stood quite close to the Commander, I hear the Corellian mutter a terse question as he steps in close to him. "What?"
I glance at the Commander, who's looking not at the holo-screens but out into the middle distance, every muscle taught, voice strained. "We need to reverse spin. There's more Destroyers—they're gonna come out above and to starboard…"
The Corellian shakes his head. "You just said port-you called it, it's here already."
The Flight Commander looks young and slight compared to him, but he's shaking his head as he murmurs to the Corellian. "There's more."
The Captain turns to face him. "You're sure?"
It seems an absurd thing to say, since clearly he can't be.
The Commander is silent for long seconds, clearly hesitant to play a further hunch, before finally nodding. "Reverse spin."
Still the Captain hesitates. Seconds tick by as all ears strain to listen without appearing to turn. I get the general feeling that people want to play the hunch, but I can well appreciate why the Captain is reluctant.
If we reverse roll, we'll present our unprotected side and our engines to the nearest Star Destroyer that came in from lightspeed, just so we can play the Commander's vague hunch that another few Destroyers might emerge above and to starboard, so we'd need our guns there. That's a big gamble with a lot of lives, which probably won't sound nearly as convincing when you're the one who has to answer to Mon Mothma and Ackbar for the break from protocol which lost perhaps two frigates and over a thousand souls.
Assuming any of us survive the next few minutes. The Captain's being asked to make that call as our ship's already shuddering beneath us under heavy fire.
The petite Princess half-steps toward the Commander. "Luke?"
He nods tightly, whispering, "Two. Above and to starboard."
She steps forward with absolute authority. "Captain, reverse roll, please?"
It's spoken as a request, though as one of the major figures in the Rebellion she has the power to simply override him, of course. But she's also a politician, and would never overrule a Captain on his own bridge.
He turns, the decision made; you don't waste time debating in the middle of pitch battle, he's good enough to know that. "Helm; reverse roll. Maintain present heading. Tile shields to compensate. Weapons; keep the Star Destroyer in our guns as long as you can, then bring them about to empty space. Send it to the others."
We begin a tight reverse roll which makes me grab at the wall, momentarily dizzy as the artificial gravity rushes to compensate. No-one else seems to notice.
"Do you want fighters out to run interference?" The Flight Commander is stood in stoic readiness, his comlink in his hand. He's very calm now, all business, though he's basically just offered to put his neck in the noose to get the Frigates through.
Which is, I suppose, what fighters do.
"No, Commander," the Captain smiles good-naturedly. "I'd like you here to be able to yell at you if you're wrong."
This little aside makes everyone smile a little; relaxes the moment just a fraction and clears the air between them. Lets everyone realise that whatever else is going on, there's no lingering dispute between the Captain and his Flight Commander.
The Commander lilts his head a fraction with a slight smile, eyes on the viewport again—he seldom looks at the holo or the scopes, I've noticed—then adds quietly, "The Harkon can keep her guns to the port Destroyer, as long as she maintains course heading."
Orders are given for one of our four Frigates to hold target on the existing Star Destroyer as the other three twist away in staggered formation to turn their batteries toward empty space, probably making our Imperial counterparts frown.
The distant Star Destroyers who had been holding our attention while their companion jumped into close proximity using co-ordinates they supplied, fall away beneath us as we alter our flight path. Our horizon spins and the huge bulk of the closest Star Destroyer slips from view, but makes its presence felt all the more as we turn our belly to it.
"Heavy damage to the aft lower hull. They're targeting the engines."
"Put all power to the lower shields. Be ready to cycle it if something should come in to starboard."
"Sir, the Spirit is reporting hull breaches. She's tiling shields to compensate."
We rock again and again, until even the most experienced begin to stagger.
Everyone looks to the clear skies in the viewport, except the Captain, who keeps his steady gaze on the Flight Commander. I can see the resolve wavering in the Captain's eyes.
"They're coming!" The Commander's voice is quiet but absolutely sure, for the Captain alone.
Then with a blaze of roiling turbulence the black of space is illuminated as the entire run of starboard viewports are obscured by a flash of mass in motion.
The Weapons officer stands from his seat. "Two Star Destroyers, above and to starboard!"
Our guns already trained, we open fire as if our life depends on it.
Being in comm blackout during hyperspace, the last co-ordinates the new Star Destroyers had of us were probably with our bridge faced exactly where they came out. Now we have our batteries facing them instead, and that buys maybe nine or ten seconds of surprise as they re-acquire targets.
Both ourselves and the Glory take heavy damage exactly where our bridges would have been. It must have been a short jump for them to be so confident.
A perfectly executed trap, our vulnerable bridge co-ordinates being fed to the two incoming Star Destroyers by the decoy Destroyer who drew our fire. Only our unexpected manoeuvre has kept us in one piece.
"Calculation's in, sir!"
"Scramble and confirm on a secure channel. Ready to jump on my mark."
"All ships stand ready, sir."
By early evening, the scuttlebutt on 'Radio Tech' is that the Flight Commander of Rogue Group played another hunch which got all four frigates out of a tight corner.
It also claims that a Lieutenant named Celia from Gold Wing and a Special Ops Trooper named Dasko were seen sneaking into Deep Storage with a blanket.
The running pool on how many times the Flight Commander is going to pass up on monthly scheduled memory wipes for his R2 astromech is now up to eight.
And rumour has it that there's a working water-dispenser near the medi-centre on Level Ten.
I'll let you know…