[Deep within the Northern Mountain Ranges of the planet Hekram III, on the Outer Rim]
The shout was loud and harsh, and it seemed to echo through the metallic corridors with a terrible finality. You are caged and always will be, it proclaimed. Then followed the standard morning cacophony of durasteel truncheons being beaten against the corridor bulkheads. Bulkheads was still the word the prisoner's mind conjured up when he thought of walls. A year and a half in an Imperial prison camp hadn't managed to beat his habits out of him yet.
He waited until the force field protecting his cell shut off, then stepped out into the corridor, where several other prisoners were already standing in line. The field reactivated as soon as he had passed through, and he joined the shuffling queue as it headed through the grey corridors towards the mess hall.
The prisoner looked closely at all of the shining grey bulkheads as the column of condemned performed their daily morning ritual - the shuffle to breakfast. They were all the same, and there were many, so many cells that he seemed to lose count. Not that he had too much faith, any more, in his ability to count. Intellectual stimulation was hardly the top priority on the Imperials' list of prisoner activities - in fact, it was actively, and often violently, discouraged. No, they like to break you, keep you under control, the prisoner thought reflectively. If you can't think, then they can do your thinking for you. If you can't think, or you don't think, then you're not dangerous. At that, a gleam forced its way into his piercing blue eyes. Well, I'm still dangerous, Imps. Just you wait and see.
The prisoner looked down at himself as he spoke. The grey prison coveralls were drab, worn, and reasonably uncomfortable. Yet underneath them, his body was relatively healthy. For his first six months here, he remembered, he'd been regularly beaten, even after all the initial "debriefs" - it seemed that some notion of the Empire's current political status as a faction, rather than the dominant galactic Order, had filtered out to the Rim. They actually bothered to call interrogations "debriefs" in the pathetic pretence of civility. But everyone here knew better. And the term "debrief" seemed to be the only thing that had filtered out this far, the prisoner thought grimly. They still know how to run an old-style Imperial prison camp, all right.
Their morning march finished, the prisoners sat down at the long benches where they ate. Meal times were always savoured; always enjoyed, if that were possible in an environment such as this. They were the only time of the day, apart from night - but by then everyone was too tired to do anything but sleep - when the prisoners did not work. The food was barely edible, but at least while at the sterile, barren meal tables, the prisoners' time was their own. As long as they didn't talk too loudly or get up, then they were left alone. Yes, meal times were a welcome time of the day. And they certainly beat digging minerals out of rock for the Empire.
The thought was almost enough to make the prisoner smile, but not quite. Nothing was any more. With that dismal thought, he picked up a hunk of the dry, greyish bread, and set to his breakfast, mentally steeling himself for the new day.
[Pilot's Quarters, aboard the New Republic Strike Carrier Wolf's Lair, on patrol in the Outer Rim]
Second Lieutenant Daniel "Drake" Sutherland frowned at his image in the mirror and pulled his bow tie reflexively. It seemed an anachronistic decoration, he thought, but looked no less impressive for all that. Still, wearing this uniform, no matter how stylish it looked, always made him uncomfortable, for a while at least. Finally, satisfied with his appearance, he checked his shoulder boards, with their twin gold stripes, and brushed off any imaginary lint. Satisfied, he left his cabin and knocked on his neighbour's. A muffled "come" was all that he could make out. With a shrug, he pushed the button and the door slid open to admit him.
Second Lieutenant Michael "Raiven" Rovardi stood in front of his mirror, in a pose almost exactly imitating his wingmate's, although his bow tie hung around his neck - a neck, Drake noticed almost immediately, that was red and rapidly turning crimson.
"Now, calm down, Mike," he said with a grin. "Just let your Uncle Dan fix it for you. I know you can't-"
"Can't? I could strangle someone with this damn thing," Raiven growled dangerously. "Why, a condescending wingmate, for instance."
"Shut up and hold still," the Arrebnacian retorted, taking Raiven's tie in both hands and proceeding to tie it up.
"I don't know why we have these damn things anyway," the former Imperial continued, his face set in a dark scowl.
"Stop complaining," his wingmate admonished him. "It's not like we have them often. The last one was - what? When the Lair was commissioned?"
That earned Drake an affirming grunt.
"You see? What was that now, six months ago?"
"About that," Raiven conceded.
"Just think of it as an excuse to drink beer out of a glass without being thought of as an aristocratic snob," Drake offered cheerfully. Raiven grinned.
"That I can live with," he said with a wicked gleam in his eye. "Now, how do I look?" Drake finished tying, brushed Raiven's uniform over briefly, and stood back to appraise him.
"You look just great, dear," he said with a straight face. Raiven winked at him.
"Thanks, darling. Shall we?" At a nod, the two young Wolfshead Squadron pilots stepped out, heading for the wardroom on board the Wolf's Lair.
[Wardroom, Strike Carrier Wolf's Lair]
Drake and Raiven entered the wardroom on board the Wolf's Lair together, but immediately branched off towards separate sections of the room. The room itself was huge, rivalling its Mon Calamarian Crusier counterparts in size. The Wolf's Lair was, after all, the New Republic Navy's newest ship, and arguably the most comfortable. The two pilots had only set foot in this room once before, although they were fully entitled to at any time. The pilots of the squadron were, in fact, all entitled to the privilege, although none chose to exercise it, preferring instead to eat down in what was called "Pilot Country" by the crew, or, as only the pilots and a few others knew, the dim, concealed compartment known simply as "The Bomb Shelter". That notwithstanding, tonight their presence had been ordered by the ship's Executive Officer, Commander Nil Wumb, the President of the Wardroom on board, and that couldn't be ignored, even by the Wolfshead pilots, whose stance on discipline was thought by the ship's captain (and others) to be shaky, at best.
Commander Wumb, the Sullustan, in co-ordination with the captain, had deliberately spread the pilots out amongst the other officers to prevent what the captain called "Fighterjock Syndrome" occurring. The captain, Colonel Talina Gen'yaa, was as much a political operator as a military commander, but in neither capacity did she approve of the pilots' tendency to stick close to each other in their tight clique. And already, the Intelligence Officer on board, Lieutenant Commander Mesch Dey'jeaa could see, the pilots were unhappy about it. It'll be good for them to learn to socialise with normal people, Dey'jeaa thought smugly. He watched as another group of pilots walked in, all looking as if their mess uniforms had just been issued and unwrapped. Wonder how many times they use these uniforms, the Bothan wondered idly. Then the XO entered, along with the captain and the navigator. The XO took the centre seat at the head table, and the captain sat next to him; the navigator sat at the foot of the centre table. The three sat, and the conversation died as the assembled company sat with them.
Commander Wumb, in his capacity as President of the Mess, banged a small gavel against the table.
Drake rolled his eyes across the room at Raiven, who returned the gesture in like manner. Their looks both said the same thing.
This is going to be a long night.