8. Before

I wake.  I feel cold, and I wrap the fibres of the blanket tightly around me to absorb the sweat.  I know the cabin temperature is maintained at a constant throughout the night.  I know that there is nothing here to be afraid of, and yet knowing is not enough.  I can sense the uncertainty.

I think I am alone, but then TI-7663 knocks on the wall and strolls through laid back as ever, but with a wary expression I have seen before.  Why knock, when his bunk is right opposite mine?  The same reason that on mornings like these my brothers in arms like to rise early and get out of my way.  The same reason I am cold.

‘Squadron leader wants to see you’ he drawls, in the bastardised accent of some distant planet, ‘straight after mess.’

‘Fuck it’ I roll over, ‘Tell him to fuck it.’

‘I’ll let him know’ TI-7663 laughs and fiddles with his dog tags, ‘sure will.’

I groan and roll back over, dropping my feet to the floor, my toes curling around the unforgiving grille plates.  TI-7663 slopes off to the showers.

I know the nightmares are getting worse.  TI-2272 told TI-7663 he saw me punching the wall one night.  I don’t remember, but my fists were bruised all right.  TI-2272 thinks I should talk it through.  TI-7663 says I need shore leave.  TI-4380 doesn’t like it mentioned; says its bullshit and what happens in the cabin stays here.

Those three guys hear me at night, but they can’t know what I see.  Somewhere in my head there is a knot of uncertainty, a seething mass of black worms that breed with every mission.  The better I am at my job, the more accomplished a Pilot I become, the greater their hold over me.  Something is not quite right.

‘Enter!’

The Squadron Leader waves me over to a metal chair in front of his desk.  There’s nothing on the desk apart from a data panel and his grey cap.  When he looks up from the panel he realises the cap is there and carefully folds it away.  I can see that he wanted to snatch it from sight but forced himself to control the manoeuvre.

‘Sir’ I give him a nod, real slow, nicely controlled.

‘Ah yes’ he says, and looks me up and down.

I stay silent.  I have had many Squadron Leaders over the years.  This one is strong on rules and regulations, less keen on the use of initiative.  He certainly isn’t the worst.  He wasn’t a bad pilot, and maybe he’s a great leader, how the hell would I know?  One thing is for sure; he doesn’t like my style.

‘Mission FOA-5791-3050’ he intones, ‘I will have to file a report.’

‘A report, Sir?’ I raise my eyebrows, guessing it won’t be a commendation.

‘Your mission was to destroy a dam’ he reminds me, ‘interrupt the power supply to Mahreb 4, believed to be harbouring Resistance sympathisers.’

‘Affirmative’ I nod, ever so slowly, ’Mission accomplished, Sir.’

‘I don’t deny that the dam was destroyed Pilot’ he concedes, ‘but you also destroyed their Citadel and 16 of their fighters.’

‘They were firing upon us Sir’ I remind him, ‘TI-7663 took two hits, he could have been in real trouble.’

‘You destroyed a two thousand year old Citadel and wiped out most of their fleet on one run’ he says, but it isn’t meant as a compliment, ‘and now you think controlling their energy supply will be enough to win them over.’

‘Sir, I know diplomacy isn’t my strong point but-‘

‘You’re damn right’ he says, almost forgetting himself, ‘we wanted Mahreb 4 as a supply base, we were planning to trade energy for their assistance.’

‘Well I didn’t know-‘

‘Enough Pilot’ he unfolds the cap and pulls the peak down almost over his eyes, ‘You are off active duty, effective immediately.’

‘Sir-‘

‘Pilot’ he bangs his fist on the table, and shoots to his feet, ‘don’t think I can’t tell a plasma junkie when I see one.  This is the end of your run.’

I stay seated when I should be standing.  I stare at the cabin window.  We are jumping into hyperspace.  The Squadron Leader is on the Comm.  He sounds concerned.  I glance over at him and I can tell he has had no warning of whatever is happening.  The lights flash red and the low wail of the siren permeates the cabin.   

‘Battle-stations, report to the ready room Pilot’

‘But-‘

‘I will file the report tomorrow.  This is a Priority Mission for ESF.  Your team will fly point.  One last mission and you’re off this ship, understand?’

‘Sir, yes Sir’ I stand to attention.

I am in the corridor and en route to the ready room before he can change his mind.  The others are already in their flight suits, strapping on their armour and checking the hose fittings.  I grin at them as I pull on my gear.  TI-2272 rolls his eyes and TI-4380 slaps me on the back. TI-7663 looks at me like a dead man walking.

‘What’s going on boys?’  I ask, already halfway into my flight suit.

‘Something big’ says TI-4380, ‘not sure what-’

‘But we know where’ adds TI-2272.

‘Where?’ I pause for a second.

‘Jakku’ says TI-2272, raising his eyebrows.

‘Jakku?’ I shake my head and laugh, ‘As in the Battle of Jakku?’

‘The very same’ says TI-4380, ‘one of those places we just don’t go.’

‘Heads in boys’ I tell them, still the senior man, the old war dog, ‘let’s make the most of this one, it could be our last.’

‘We are ESF’ we all shout together, ‘Tie ‘til death!’