Vyper could tell that she was about to explode and that her anger could flare any second by now. He inhaled deeply and vented the smoke through his nose, waiting for the things to come. He didn't care.
"What the hell did you think when you pulled that stunts?", she said with a very dangerous tone in her voice, as she replayed the combat recordings from his A-Wing, that had been uploaded into the Joan d'Arc's computer as soon as he had touched down.
Vyper didn't say anything and impassively watched as the just ended Battle unfolded again in front of him. His lone A-Wing, out for a routine test flight after an motivator replacement, had run into an Imperial Escort Carrier just two sectors away. Vyper saw how his A-Wing swept through the first wave of TIE Interceptors and blew two of them to bits and pieces even before he could halfway recharge his shields, that he had fully drained in order to get more speed out of the agile A-Wing as soon as he had left the Joan d'Arc.
Then he closed onto the third and fourth Interceptor, which frantically tried to evade the seemingly unavoidable collision. Shok'wave squirmed for an instance, as the screen showed the two TIE Interceptor's approaching his A-Wing head on. Vyper had fired in the last possible instance and obliterated the fiercely firing Imperial fighters into expanding clouds of fire and debris, just to plunge through the expanding clouds. He still remembered the thuds and bangs as some bits and pieces had hit his shields and he felt a kind of relief that the video didn't show how close one of the T/I's flailing solar panels had slid past his A-Wing's puny fuselage. The A-Wing spun around in a victory roll, pulled up hard and closed onto the next flight of Imperial fighters that just had launched. The combat recording showed him tangling with the Eyeballs and he shot them down almost as fast as the Carrier could launch one wave after another. After several minutes the furball had drawn him so close to the Imperial warship, that the Carrier's defensive weaponry could leash out onto him. So Vyper had done the only logical thing and brought the fight even closer to the Carrier. The clip showed him racing at top speed towards the Carrier, while blazing green laser fingers sizzled around him and tried to touch his fragile A-Wing. Only a few did actually hit, while he worked the controls and threw the A-Wing from one side to another and spiraled it around in a random fashion. The impressively sized superstructure of the Carrier grew bigger and bigger, until it more than filled out the entire video screen.
Vyper leaned back and pulled on his cigarette again, because he knew what came next. The A-Wing pulled out only two feet above the hull of the Carrier and raced down it's short and sturdy hull, which was small compared to a real warship, but still looking impressively big, especially up close and personal on a video-recording.
At that time Shok'wave keyed the remote, killed the screen and whirled around in her chair to face him. Her sparkling eyes were half shut and if looks could have killed, nobody could have saved Vyper, that he was sure of. With an angry "thump" she slammed the remote on her desk, where it hit a cup filled with pencils, tumbling it over and spreading it's contents all over the desks surface.
"Do you have a death wish or what? What the fuck did you think by pulling a stunt like this? Not only that you engaged into a fight with a craft that has not been certified combat ready by maintenance, you also don't radio for orders or assistance and plow yourself into almost any hostile craft that comes into your crosshairs! You endangered your live and the security of the Joan d'Arc and all hands aboard. Tell me one reason why I shouldn't ground you, once and for all!"
Some time ago Vyper would have cared, but in the last couple of weeks that had changed. Something old, long forgotten, long dead had emerged from the fogs and shadows of the past and that had made a difference. He wanted to explain, wanted her to know, but he knew that this was something he had to deal with all by himself. If he had to break the strong bond of friendship between them, then it had to happen, because there was no choice.
Instead of answering her questions he again pulled on his cigarette. Slowly he let the smoke go and returned her fierce stare without any impression. For an eternity - at least several seconds - they maintained the stare, which turned into a contest of willpower. Finally Vyper gave up and used another pull on his cigarette for an excuse to break the eye contact.
"I nailed them all. I got back in one piece. Nothing else matters, so don't raise a fuzz. Maam!"
Shok'wave's hand washed over a pile of papers on the desk and sent them flying into the air, as she rose from her chair: "Don't get cocky with me! You're endangering your fighter, your comrades and yourself! This is not the time to take stupid risks or to pull stunts like that. I really should ground you until you get back to reason or at least until I have found out what's your problem."
He crossed his legs and slowly blew a cloud of smoke up in the air, while his face remained totally impassive.
Shok'wave sighed heavily and let go a deep breath. Softness returned to her voice as she said: "Look, I don't know what your poison is, but in the last four weeks you have changed a lot. Everybody noticed it, not only me alone. Most of the time you lock yourself away in your cabin and at nights you've been seen walking around in the lower decks a lot. Not speaking of your unscheduled "Reconnaissance" flights. Fourteen of them in 28 days and none of them had a regular flight plan. I signed them all off, without asking any questions, but for me it looks like you're either fighting a private war against the Empire, or that you're trying hard to kill yourself along the way. You're avoiding your comrades, you're avoiding me and you look like you're hunted by a whole legion of ghosts. Bluntly put: You look like shit. When did you sleep the last time and what is your problem?"
Vyper studied his fingernails, while Shok's words sunk into him. He couldn't help, but what she just had said came very close to the truth. The chilly air, still blowing onto his neck, made him shiver. Slowly and with aching knees he rose to his feet, dropped his cigarette into the ashtray and looked his commanding officer into the eyes again. Then he straightened his shoulders and said: "If that's all then I guess I'm dismissed. See you later."
He gave her a sloppy two finger salute, turned around and walked to the door. Before he had opened it, the remote control slammed into the wall besides him, missing his ear by just a few inches.
"Damn it! I'm not finished yet!", Shok'wave screamed at his back. "Answer the damn questions or ..." She left the rest of her sentence uncompleted, but for Vyper it was more than clear what she meant by it. Maybe she was as scared of saying it, as he was careless of hearing the words that remained unspoken.
Without turning around he said softly, but with an unshaken voice: "You don't want to know. Trust me. You don't want to know."
Then he opened the door and slowly walked out, as if he had to carry the burden of the whole world on his shoulders. He almost ran into Psycho, who was just approaching Shok'wave's cabin. Without looking up Vyper said after a moment of hesitation: "If I were you, then I'd rather come back later. She's in a shitty mood right now."
Psycho shook his head and with his long arms he made a gesture like he tried to shy a cloud of flies away: "Ah, I just want to go over some working details with her. Should be no big deal."
Vyper just gave him his "I warned you!"-look and like being guided by remote he walked through the corridors of the Joan d'Arc until he had reached his cabin. As soon as the door hat closed behind him he turned around and with his bare fist he punched the wall so hard that the skin above his knuckled burst open. Soaring pain shot through his hand, but he welcomed it and the warmth that filled his whole lower right arm and creaped up to the tightened muscles of his shoulder. He let go a deep breath and slowly walked over to his desk, where he slumped into the waiting chair. The bottle was still half filled with the remains from last night and so he unscrewed it and poured several fingers of gold shimmering fluid into a dirty glass. While taking a couple of sips he unfolded the four sheets of papers that he withdrew from a pocket of his flightsuit and with shaking, unsteady hands he straightened the letter out on the surface of the wooden desk. With eyes that didn't see he looked at the unmistakably female handwriting. It was a very unusual message in more than one ways. It wasn't an electronically delivered message, but one that came in an sealed envelope and which had been written on real paper. Blue ink on white paper. An anachronism since eons, but very fitting, as he acknowledged with a feint smile, because it resembled a voice from the past. A voice that he could hear loud and clear in his ears and now it called him to abandon, if not betray his duty and his friends. A voice, that he easily could assign to the beautiful face that it belonged to. A person, that he hadn't seen since a long time and that he thought it would be as dead as the feelings the he once had for this very special person. But he knew better - always had. A love like that never dies and it remains forever and all times. Grows even stronger with time and distance that went by, like a wind that enkindles a tiny, little flame and turns it into a demanding and all consuming wildfire.
The warmth or the alcohol unfolded it's heat in his stomach, while he listened to the voice from the past and thought of all the dreams that he once had. Dreams and memories ... that was all that was left. Was it? He didn't know. He shifted uneasily in his seat and the holster of his sidearm slumped into the armrests of his chair. Slowly he withdrew it and the cold, polished steel of the FE-MEK 45 Assault Blaster felt very good and comfortable in his hand. He made his decision, knowing that it wasnt even a choice, but the only thing that he ever had wanted and longed for, no matter what the consequences were. A feeling like Deja Vu overcame him, while he shifted the Blaster uneasily in his hands and he remembered that he had been there before, a long time ago. Almost in another live. A live over and gone, but not forgotten. "En Brera. No Choice.", he mumbled, as the blaster slid from his numb fingers and as he allowed despair to take over, as the memories of his darkest hour came back from their grave to haunt him ...
His slow and careful steps could be clearly heard, because every time his boot came down gravel and pieces of broken glass made noise under his feet. The figure in the black leather flightsuit wandered to the middle of the cathedral and sat down on one of the bigger pieces of rock that were laying around everywhere. He sighed heavily and looked up into the beautiful and clear sky, deep in thoughts and low in spirit. He knew that he shouldn't have gotten here. Not tonight, maybe not at all, but he needed to be alone and not in the company of others, especially not while they were celebrating. His mind wasn't on celebrating and all he felt was a very big loss and a grief stronger than he could bear.
His eyes filled with the hint of tears as they scanned the sky for one specific bright star and without much trouble he could make it out. This star had a very special meaning for him. This far away sun was as warm and inviting as it was unreachable, but still it was teasing. Inviting him to come over and at the same time it was reminding him that this wasn't possible.
He could imagine how the bright and warm light of this sun lightened up a sky not much different from this one, creating spectacular sunrises over the grassy hills of a river's valley that had a very special kind of tree on the slopes of a low riverbank. The sweet memory of a dream came to his mind, a dream that had not come true. A dream that he couldn't give up or abandon, because of the power of his love. A love like none before and like none would ever be again. He had to let her go, because it was the only option and it tore him apart. How could he live on without her love? The loneliness, the emptiness and the void that her absence created in his heart was more than he could bear. Every awake hour he thought about her and in his sleep faint images of what was and what could have been haunted him in his dreams. He didn't know how he could live on without her love and for sure he didn't want to live on without her.
His hands clenched to fists as he swallowed another wave of pain and agony that shook his body. He could barely breath and barely think straight. Suddenly he realized that somehow his FE-MEK45 assault blaster had slipped into his hand. It was fully charged, the safety was off and his index finger rested comfortably on the trigger. The cold steel felt reassuring and very comfortable as if it held all the answers he was looking for. He had never thought about that before, but this time it was different. It was the solution he was looking for, as it would end his pain. Then he could dream on forever and maybe ... maybe in another live there would be a chance to make this dream real. Slowly he raised the blaster, his eyes still fixed on the gleaming light of the distant star.
"I will always love you.", his voice whispered, as he increased the pressure on the trigger and readied himself to embraced the kiss of death.
"That's one of my favorite places, too, Lieutenant. I usually come here when I've got a lot of things on my mind and need a getaway from Squadron business.", a loud voice said from behind and out of the darkness.
Slowly the Lieutenant lowered the blaster and switched the safety back on. Then he turned around and mustered the approaching person, whose bulky figure turned into the shape of Captain St. Johns, the executive officer of the Imperial Pilots Training Facility.
"Well, Lieutenant Stauber, looks like I came right on time", the Captain explained as he sat down besides him on the piece of rock.
The young pilot said nothing and looked at the blaster in his hands and then up to the sky. For a long time they said nothing, until Vyper finally broke the silence: "Maybe you should have come a few minutes later."
The Captain slowly took the blaster out of Vyper's hands and inspected it carefully. "Gods of Absalom, you and I have more similarities than you think. The reason why you got so far in your advanced pilot training, so fast and with that kind of success, is easy to understand. At least for me. I've seen it in your eyes the first day when you arrived and I've seen it every time when we put you in a cockpit. You don't care about tomorrow, as if you know that there would be no tomorrow for you. At least none you would like to come true."
Vyper turned his head and looked his superior in the eyes. He saw understanding in this fatherly eyes and he also saw pain.
"Yes, it's right. I've been there before and I know how you feel.", St. John added.
Then he pointed up to the sky and said: "Do you see the faint red light at the lower end of the Crimean Cluster? That's Paladia, the star that my eyes automatically search for when I visit this place from time to time, at clear nights like this."
The Captain paused for a moment and then he continued with a low voice: "We were outnumbered, outwitted and outmaneuvered. Half of our fighters went down in an eyeblink and she was the first one who died. Something inside of me died, too. We won the battle, but at a terrible price and never again it has been like before for me. Often I still wonder what I did do wrong, what else I could have done, or what else I could have said to make a difference."
The captain paused for a moment as his eyes searched those of the Lieutenant. "Sometimes you can't."
Vyper looked at "The Old Man" as they had called him more often than not, but always behind his back. His skills as a pilot and as an officer were undoubted. Every time when they had flown against him he had run circles around the trainees and caused much embarrassment and red ears. But he never had let them feel the kind of superiority that many other imperial officers showed. Instead he had always been the one who offered his advice and helped them to overcome any weakness and lack of experience that they had. For the first time Vyper was able to see behind the impenetrable mask of his superior and he didn't know what to say.
The Captain sighed and handed him the blaster back, while he slowly raised himself to his feet. "I don't have any answers for you. You can leave this building together with me and join the others to celebrate the successful completion of your training and your upcoming transfer to Shadow Strikefighter Wing, or you can stay behind and deal with the past. Whatever you do, remember that there is always an end to a night and that there is another sunrise. There will never be a sunrise like the one you grief about, but nobody can take you the memory of it."
With a low voice he then added: "Sometimes it's all that prevails: Dreams and memories."
Then Captain St. John slowly walked through the dark hallway and his bulky figure merged with the darkness that surrounded them both. A chilly, cold darkness under a star-spangled sky.
Vyper glanced up to his star and the blaster felt very heavy in his hands. The pain was still there and he knew that it never would go away. Not for the rest of his live, no matter how long it would last. But he then knew that it would last longer than this night. "En Brera - No choice? Maybe.", he thought. "Maybe ..."
Dario didn't look up as he shook his head. Then he for himself took a big sip from the blue stuff that he preferred. "I have no idea, but I'm worried, too. Our higher up's seem to be in a shitty mood. Did you hear the screaming coming from Shok's office yesterday?", he said, while shaking his head. Then he nodded at Torpedo, who just joined them at the bar and took possession of a free stool.
Granite nodded slowly and a wry smile appeared on his face, as he said: "Yeah, I was in CIC at that time, just two rooms and a couple of ventilation ducts away. But I'm sure you could also hear it as far as Engineering."
The pilot from planet Iberya played with his empty glass and then ordered a cup of coffee to get his head clear. He had to fly tomorrow, so he needed to be up to speed.
Torpedo laughed, while he grabbed himself a beer and popped the bottle open. He looked around before he finally said: "As far as I know Psycho stumbled into it by accident, but the way it looks a lot of feathers got ruffled. Shok's is pissed - god knows why, Psycho is upset because she denied him the additional workers for his security detail and the hell knows what's bothering Vyper. He doesn't even attend to the briefings anymore."
Dario finally took a sip from his fresh served coffee and looked at Torpedo with amazement. "Really?"
Granite and Dario exchanged looks.
Torpedo shook his head. "Yeah, and I hope that means theyve finally grounded him. Heck, each time he returns from one of his sorties I'm wondering what's falling apart first: His A-Wing, or it's pilot."
The Caldanian pilot shrugged Torpedo's remark off and between to sips he said: "Ah, I don't know. You need more than a bunch of Imperial wanabe pilots to scorch our evil one. He's more than able to handle whatever they throw at him, but maybe he needs a brake, like we all do. Heck, this patrol duty is getting on everybodys nerves ..."
"Yeah, it's almost as if he isn't himself anymore.", Dario said. "He's been taking a lot of risks in the last weeks and I wonder if it has anything to do with the re-supply ship that docked with us four weeks earlier. Maybe he knows something that we don't know. Maybe there's some trouble ahead like the last time when High Command pulled us back for some R&R. Sheesh, now that was fun!"
Owen rolled his eyes and then finished his flame-thrower. "Oh yeah. If that's what they call a day on the beach, then I'll pass this time. But then again, if the news are that bad, then the rest of our Command Staff should chicken out as well. Let's keep an eye on the situation, OK?"
"Sounds fine with me.", Torpedo said. "But right now I wouldn't want to fly on Vyper's wing and I don't envy anybody that has to."
With that he glanced at Dario, who was assigned to fly patrol with "Captain Zombie", a term which originated from the lower decks of the Joan and had come up two weeks earlier when a strolling tech had run into what looked like a ghost for him when he bumped into Vyper in a dark hallway, late in the night.
Dario shrugged it off and even though that he had some concerns, which he preferred to withhold, he admitted: "Sometimes we all have our problems and then it's good to have someone out to watch our backs. I'm prepared and I can handle it."
Torpedo finished his beer and put the bottle back on the polished surface of the bar.
"I hope so, my friend, but if I were you, then I'd watch my back very carefully out there. Never forget where he comes from."
Dario straightened his back, clenched his fists and gave Torpedo a very hard stare: "What do you mean by that?"
The Security Officer maintained an impassive face and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You know what I mean."
Then he dropped a couple of coins onto the bar and slowly walked away. Dario couldn't help but to shake his head, while heavy thoughts filled his mind.
Granite rose and patted Dario on the back as he left for his quarters. He wasn't scheduled for flying the next day, but there was something he had to check before he could call it a day.
Vyper mumbled a greeting and opened his locker to pull a fresh flightsuit out of it. "No. I had a bad night."
Ibero zipped his flightsuit close and then lifted his right foot on one of the benches to tighten his boots. While doing so he examined his comrade closer. Vyper had dark rings under his eyes and looked like he hadn't slept since a long while. He was unshaven, his hair was a total mess and he looked a even more pale than usual. But there was something else. He moved like an old man, as if he had a heavy burden to carry. What scared Dario the most were Michael's eyes. Apart from being all red from sleep deprivation or sorrow, they weren't focusing on anything and had lost all of their intensity. Dario "Ibero" Pozo had seen this look in the eyes of men and women before. Most of them had went into battle and never came back.
"Did you have a bad dream?", Dario asked and shifted the other boot onto the bench, while Vyper slipped out of his training suit and into his black flightsuit, which was very out of the ordinary. It was no secret that he hated the white colored flightsuits that Shok's had issued to the Squadron, but so far he had always complied to the dressing rules. But apparently not this time, because he had picked his old Imperial one which had been deprived of each and any rank and unit insignia and looked very worn and battered. It was also the flightsuit that he had come aboard with when he first arrived on the Joan d'Arc, fresh out of the Alliance Training Frigate Regis, the home of Red Squadron, which had been Vyper's first assignment after leaving the Empire and joining the Rebel Alliance.
Vyper ignored him until he had strapped the belt with his FE-MEK45 assault blaster around his waist.
"Yeah, sort of.", he sighed, while he put four, then even a fifth spare magazines into his belt pockets. "I don't want to talk about it, OK?" He looked Ibero sharp into his eyes and then started walking towards the hangar. But Ibero stepped into his way and held up his hand. Softly he said: "Look, I don't know what bothers you, but I have eyes and I can see. Talk to me, man. What's the deal?"
His eyes trailed into the distance again and almost as soft as a whisper the former Imperial pilot said: "Sometimes I wish I could turn back the wheel of time, to stop it entirely or to at least blow the candle out and call it a day, but that's not an option."
Then he walked around the pilot from Iberya and left him wondering what this was all about. But then Dario shrugged it off and raced after Vyper, because duty was waiting.