Snapped Out of His Terror
Csillag and Diana DeRiggs
"Don't get too comfortable in your bunk, Klivian. We got the Imps this time, but they'll soon be after us with a vengeance. We'll be moving out as soon as the Brass decide where we might stand a chance of hiding from them while we regroup."
"Right. Thanks, Tryo."
The fellow pilot who had escorted Hobbie Klivian from the newly arrived transport to his quarters on the Yavin base tipped him a half salute. "The award ceremony'll be in a couple of hours. See you there." He turned to go, but stopped when Hobbie called after him.
"Tryo, where can I find Biggs Darklighter? I know he's been here a couple of weeks already. He and I are friends. We joined the Alliance at the same time, but ended up being posted to separate bases. Said they needed to spread officers around. He would have been in a starfighter, probably saw action over the Death Star. Nearly the best pilot I know!"
Flight Officer Tryo Vigil's composure cracked slightly and he was silent for a moment before he answered. "Only three fighters survived the battle. Two X-wings and a Y-wing." He left the rest of the thought unvoiced. "The two X-wing pilots who survived weren't Imperial Academy grads: Wedge Antilles and Luke Skywalker--" Vigil paused when he saw Hobbie's face turn white. "You know them?"
Hobbie had sunk onto his bunk.
"Klivian?" Hobbie made no response as he absorbed the fact that his closest friend at the Academy and the man with whom he jumped ship, was probably dead.
"Hey. Are you all right? Do you know this Skywalker?"
Hobbie looked up at Tryo, the numbness not really receding. Not really hearing the man's comment, Hobbie visibly trembled. "Do you know where I can find Skywalker? I'd like to talk to him."
"No, but I'll help you look."
The Alliance base on Yavin was housed in an enormous stone temple, once belonging to a now long-extinct race. As more and more transports and fighters arrived from far-flung rebel outposts, the hangar area bustled with activity. Much of that activity centered on the battered Correllian freighter owned by the smuggler, Han Solo. Rebel technicians worked on the ship as if it was a holy relic, under the gruff scrutiny of the towering Wookiee who was Solo's partner.
It was Solo's spectacular and unexpected return to the scene of the battle that had allowed Luke to make the shot that destroyed the Death Star. Solo was surrounded by a small crowd, and was using his hands to detail the maneuver that had bought Luke enough time to shoot off his proton torpedoes where they counted. He had recounted his perspective of the battle numerous times and was now undergoing friendly interrogation about specifics.
Tryo Vigil spotted the fair-haired Skywalker standing next to Solo. The blond man was shaking his head as the smuggler again took credit for something that had been Luke's doing. He was laughing good-naturedly, letting Han have his moment.
Vigil tugged on Hobbie's sleeve to get his attention. "There he is," he said pointing to the man already called the Hero of Yavin. Then, sensing that Hobbie wanted to talk to Luke alone, Tryo gave him a friendly slap on the shoulder and turned and left his new acquaintance.
Hobbie walked up to Luke, who was just turning to leave the noisy group surrounding Han. "Luke Skywalker? I'm Derek Klivian. I knew Biggs Darklighter at the Imperial Academy on Prefsbelt IV."
Hobbie knew that Luke was younger than Biggs, but the look in Skywalker's eyes on hearing the name of his childhood friend reflected the anguish of too many painful losses in his brief lifetime. It made the golden boy from Tatooine seem much older than his years.
He took a moment to compose himself, then reached out toward Klivian to shake hands. "Right, you're called Hobbie, right? I'm glad to meet you! Biggs sent notes and holos to gloat to me about his experiences at the Academy. He mentioned you a few times."
Cracking a smile, Hobbie answered, "He mentioned you a few times, too. He kept saying that you would be coming to the Academy, but that your family wasn't too happy about the idea."
Fresh pain appeared in Luke's eyes and he hesitated for a moment before answering. "I couldn't just leave my aunt and uncle to manage the farm by themselves, but then I found the message from the Princess and the Imps came around and ..." He paused for another moment, then spoke again. "I can't hear myself think in this crowd. Let's get out of here. I'd like to hear more about Biggs and the Academy."
The two young men left the noisy crowd around Han and the Millennium Falcon behind and were soon conversing like old friends, swapping tales of the exploits of their mutual friend.
"Captain Fel had warned us not to do anything as stupid as forming a Rebel cell like those other cadets had done," Hobbie was saying, "There was no way they would not have been discovered sooner or later. I mean, rebels at the Academy, the heart of Imperial officer training, you know? We never did find out for certain what happened to them or who turned them in, but we could guess. It ate at Biggs, he couldn't sleep not knowing."
Luke shook his head slowly, "But he never said anything to you about forming a cell? Biggs may have been a spoiled rich kid, but he knew what was right and wrong. He warned me just before he left home the last time that sooner or later, I would have to choose which way to go. I know he was basically saying, fight with me, or be on the other side and fight against me."
Hobbie gave him a grim smile, "That sounds like Biggs, all right."
They had left the hangar and made their way to the mess hall. After getting themselves a couple of cups of caf and some sweets, they sat down at a table in a relatively quiet corner and Hobbie continued. "Even before the cadet cell had been arrested, I could tell that Biggs had something churning in his head. Our final live fire exercise just before graduation had really gotten to him." Hobbie took a long, slow sip of caf, forming the words in his head to explain to Luke.
"We had already learned what our first posting after graduation would be. As luck would have it, Biggs and I were assigned together on the Rand Ecliptic. We'd get a short leave to go home and then report directly to our posts. But before we were even off the flightline after the battle exercise, Biggs grabbed me and said that he would defect to the Alliance ... Like he told you, he told me: I could come with him or stay behind, and he'd wax my tail either way."
Luke was stunned, "I saw Biggs just before we launched for the Death Star ... He said we'd have stories to swap when we got back from the battle, but I had no idea ..." He took a large gulp of his caf, wincing at its sour flavor.
The two men let the silence fill the space.
When Luke spoke again, his voice was low and trembled a bit, "Hobbie, what happened during the exercise that would have driven Biggs to defect? I mean ... in the middle of the Academy, that's crazy to come up with that idea! Look, I know from personal experience how vicious the Empire is, but what turned a guy like Biggs?" His voice trailed off as he looked back up at Hobbie.
The somber-faced pilot was no longer seeing the mess hall where they sat. The fateful 'exercise' and its aftermath was replaying itself in his memory.
"Clean up duty," muttered Lieutenant Darklighter, "one dirty blaster butt screw and I score clean up." The words came out bitter and short.
The dour-faced Derek Klivian smiled beautifically at his roommate and friend, "Hey, at least you deserved it! My name just got pulled out of a hat! I don't deserve this! Our first real battle and I get stuck with Dirty (butt-screw) Darkligh--" He narrowly ducked under his classmate's swing. Klivian put his head down and rammed his shoulder into Darklighter's midriff, propelling the latter's body into the bulkhead. The two of them pinned each other in classic wrestling moves, both out of breath.
"Hey!" A senior student, serving as commanding officer, barged into the room, "Knock it off, you idiots! There's no room for that, or I'd beat the crap out of you myself, right now!"
The two young men let go of each other as Student Commander Celchu grabbed them both, hauling them to standing position. "Just look at you! You're supposed to be targeting and collecting debris from the battle field orbit, not acting like a couple of Correllian public school boys! Start acting like Academy graduates-to-be or you're on report!"
The two men cheered up when they recalled that Tycho Celchu, ace of their class and all-around goody-two-shoes, was also pulling debris-clearing duty. He hadn't been able to fly in the live exercise either. It was curious that their instructor and class sponsor, Captain Soontir Fel, had assigned the best and the brightest to what was essentially garbage scow duty.
Fel would tell them that every piece of garbage they picked up had meaning and information both obvious and hidden, from identifying remains of traitors to determining the preparedness and maintenance record of the fighters the enemy flew. If they worked the data hard enough, they could even tell something about their intelligence, where their fuel was acquired, who had supplied their parts. He undoubtedly believed these three men were senior officer material, and was making them go through the grunt work, showing them that the glamour and excitement of starfighting was only a thin veneer of the battle work.
The two men went back to work, targeting every piece of debris with finely focused tractor beams, no matter how small or apparently insignificant the jumbled junk. There was a secondary reason for collecting the debris: so that it would not penetrate the planet's atmosphere and drop onto the surface. Not only might it injure the inhabitants, but also the Empire did not want to risk others finding and analyzing their debris. Really small pieces would burn up in the atmosphere, but they could contain valuable information, so the students worked hard to collect those, as well.
The students worked in shifts. It was tedious and exacting work, and because the debris could contain explosives, it was stressful work. After an hour, the teams rotated to get rest, then rotated again after two hours to sort through the debris in the landing bay, which others had piled into each student pair's "catches of the day."
Biggs and Hobbie suited up in modified stormtrooper body stockings and turned on the personal magcon shields. They stepped out onto the docking bay designated for debris collection, walked toward their marked pile, and started classifying their catch.
Indeed, they did find ships logs and what appeared to be battle materiél, as Fel promised they would. They carefully moved and labeled each fragment, entering their finds into their networked datapads. Both men grew excited at the prospect of reporting these to their Captain, and having him explain how to analyze the material. Every student of Captain Fel respected him and his knowledge; unlike other instructors, he never suffered from disinterested students.
Hobbie was quite enjoying the work, and he hummed to himself as he sorted through the bits of metal and textiles until he felt a pressure on his arm. Turning toward it, he looked into the breathing mask of Biggs. Noting his partner's tense body posture, he turned on his comlink, "You okay?" He was careful not to use Biggs' name, since this communiqué was likely being recorded.
Bigg's pointed down to the ground, about 5 meters away from them. Hobbie only saw a jumble of junk and shrugged, "Not mine, buddy." He'd be damned if he'd sort through someone else's pile of debris, and anyway, why deprive someone else of their own prizes?
As he turned away, Biggs jerked his arm harder and pointed adamantly. Hobbie peered more closely at the pile, taking a few steps toward it.
Then he saw.
Partially obscured by a helmet were the charred remains of what was once a human head. It had been ripped off its body by an explosion. The burned skin had shrunken back, showing off the human's gleaming teeth and hollowed eye sockets. Exposure to the vacuum of space had caused any liquid blood to boil, deforming the burned skin into bubbles and blisters. The mouth was agape in a silent scream of pain and shock.
The helmet was splattered with liquefied human skin and bio-products. Non-standard issue, it looked more like a zoneball or podracing helmet than a fighter pilot's equipment. But it was the slogan and insignia on the helmet, Hobbie finally realized, that Biggs was pointing to. Through the charring and the rips, Hobbie was able to read, "I love you Mama, take me home to the Tatooine Eight!"
Hobbie realized ... Biggs knew the person to whom this head once belonged.
Captain Fel had congratulated the crew of the Pikha Megmento for their excellent work in sweeping the orbit of the planet Lignemande. No debris had been reported fallen to the planet's surface, and there were only reports of minor meteor showers following the end of the battle. The Imperials were convinced they had gotten everything available to be had.
Hobbie shifted his weight carefully during the speech, hiding his discomfort. He was standing at ease, and he looked slightly to his left. But Biggs Darklighter wasn't there. He was in sick bay, being treated for post-battle trauma, but Hobbie knew it was more than that. As soon as they'd gotten back to the airlock of the ship, Biggs peeled off his helmet and was coughing, gagging and crying. Hobbie held him up, helping him to walk, listening to him.
It was more than just the head ... Biggs had also pointed to a large piece of ship's hull in someone else's debris pile, marked with unnecessarily ornate letters. Blithered something about how he and Luke had built that piece from scratch, had graffitied it on the inside before installing it on one of Biggs's dad's trade ships while it was in the shop. How that guy back in the loading dock wasn't a rebel, that he was a trader with eight kids eking out a living shuttling supplies and trade items for Huff Darklighter. How they'd jumped an innocent trade convoy. How that ship he and Luke repaired had inadequate weapons to defend itself.
Hobbie put the picture together of what was going on in Bigg's head from the panicky, tearful fragments and bursts of outrage that came out of his friend's mouth. His first priority was to calm Biggs down so he wouldn't say such treasonous things that could get him confined to the brig. Then the second was to get him to the infirmary for treatment. Biggs just wouldn't stop vomiting or shaking or crying!
But it made sense. The convoy's defense had been too inadequate and haphazard; the ships were all barge and freighter types, with no undetonated weapons or missiles retrieved in the clean up. Indeed, there were no enemy survivors of the battle. The student double-squadron had been amazingly successful. Only two students had been killed, only three more injured. The remaining pilots managed to kill nearly 50 vessels, which the Empire claimed held rebel supplies and traitors.
If that was the case, why not just force them down or pull them in by tractor beam into a bigger ship? Weren't the cargo and the people in the vessels more valuable to the Empire intact and alive? Then they could simply ask and interrogate, look at the whole ship and its cargo and manifests, rather than pulling fragments of machines and people out of the sky and analyzing them.
It all pointed to this: the Empire had set them up. Unless the Alliance was really very poorly off, they couldn't have hit a rebel attack or supply force, flying without support or weaponry. These lives meant nothing to the Imperial government, and these lives and ships had been sacrificed as mere teaching tools! Hobbie's gut roiled as he thought these things.
"Lieutenant Klivian," Hobbie stood a little straighter upon hearing his instructor voice his name, "please stay behind." The student stopped breathing as his classmates and shipmates filed past him in silence.
"Sir!" Klivian stood at attention and saluted as Fel approached.
"At ease, Lieutenant," instructed Fel when the chamber was empty save for the two of them, "don't look so frightened, man! I need to ask you about Darklighter. He lost his nerve - not part of the agenda. Observations, please. Straight."
"Stat, sir," answered Hobbie, knowing Fel expected no less than a prompt reply, "The Lieutenant appeared to identify a ship part as one he repaired as a lad on his home planet, sir." He'd already decided to tell the truth, but not to give more information than asked for.
Captain Fel looked thoughtful, "I see. Anyone he knew?"
The ensuing silence was making Hobbie perspire.
"Thank you, sir!" and Hobbie tried very, very hard not to run out of the chamber.
Biggs was awake, but he didn't dare open his eyes. If he opened his eyes, he'd see Delian Rinn's mouth, sculpted forever in an eternal scream. Rinn worked for his Dad, and Biggs had known him all his young life. He didn't dare move, in case he bumped into the charred remains, the pieces of the bulk freighter he and Luke fixed up when they were still in their adolescence.
They weren't more than 17 when Huff hired them on to get a hunk of metal into flying condition. Biggs recalled how intuitively Luke had fitted the pieces together, had machined new parts, and welded the engine into a working, living thing. How they'd goofed around and wrote their names on the inside of a hull plate. No one would ever see it but them, they said, but they felt special knowing that this ship would at least transport their names to the stars, even if their young bodies couldn't go with the ship.
Hobbie sat in the corner of the tiny room, watching his friend lie rigid, facing the wall. Biggs hadn't spoken or eaten in 20 hours, a cause of amazement and concern. Usually, the lanky, energetic man ate everything that wasn't tied down, even resorting to hazing younger students for their extra food and care packages. It was said that Biggs Darklighter couldn't go an hour without ingesting some sustenance. Twenty hours was probably a lifetime record of some sort, for sure.
A sharp knock came on the door and Captain Fel stepped in. Hobbie quickly got up off the floor and stood at rigid attention, saluting. Biggs didn't move.
"As you were," said Fel, looking down at his stricken student's prone figure. Hobbie stood at ease until his instructor gestured to him to sit back down on the floor. To Hobbie's great surprise, Fel joined him down there. The two men sat side by side, their arms propped comfortably on bent knees, backs to the wall.
"I can't say, one way or the other, anything conclusive about the mission, Lieutenants," making it clear he was speaking to both men, though one lay on the bunk facing the wall, "but sometimes it is not up to us to question. There is always a bigger picture that mere soldiers cannot hope to comprehend. Some of it is due to strategy, some due to luck, both good and bad."
Fel was not looking at either man, but at a point about a meter in front of him, as if he was talking to an invisible holo. "It's not easy to follow orders, and sometimes, you end up losing a bit of your humanity in the process. You have to build walls around your true self, protect it from harm and from insanity. Be a soldier or be a man. Remain above the battle, gentlemen. To get too close is to test the strength and integrity of those walls.
"Every soldier needs to decide whether to shore up those walls, or to let them fall. Both actions have their consequences."
Captain Fel, the star of his Academy class, an ace over a dozen times over, zoneball champion center, and perhaps the wisest man in all the Empire, got up, smoothed out his uniform, and left.
The two men sat at the table, their caf long cold, sweets untouched. Luke Skywalker, hero of Yavin IV, had not blinked since Hobbie had started talking. Still, his eyes shone wide.
"This man, Fel ... Biggs talked about him," whispered Luke, "said he was worth all the other instructors and pilots on a dozen Academy systems put together. Now I know it's true."
Hobbie quickly wiped away his tears, "And a brave one. No one else would have had the guts to essentially tell us to bolt. That's treason, and if the Empire knew about it, he'd have been executed by now, no matter how great he was as a soldier and fighter pilot. Biggs sat up right after the Captain left; he finally snapped out of his terror. He had a path to take."
Tears glimmered in Luke's eyes, understanding exactly how Biggs had felt, for he had witnessed his family's death on Tatooine, felt the same betrayal and sickness. The waste - no reason for it. No reason at all.
The deck officer made a blaring announcement over all comlinks, "All personnel report to the main temple chamber for the ceremony, by order of General Dodonna and the Princess Organa, 15 minutes, starting ... mark!"
The two men moved in slow motion as they stood up. Luke extended his hand, gripped Hobbie's. "Derek, thank you. I know that was hard, but thank you. Biggs was my oldest friend, maybe sometimes my only friend."
Hobbie clapped his free hand on Luke's shoulder, "Yes, and a good one. Thanks for sitting through that. I - I guess I needed to mourn a bit, and that was perfect. Hey, see you after the ceremony?"
The blond man from Tatooine smiled, "Count on it! Later!"
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