The next morning began far too early for the two young women of Rogue Squadron. They awoke before 0500 Hours to their comlinks beeping urgently. They retrieved them to learn that a full schedule of simulations and briefings had been planned for the day. Anni and Jaina had to report for their first simulator run in less than an hour. They hurriedly took turns in the refresher and dressed, barely making it to the sims on time.
Through the course of the day, the two women took turns flying in either the X-wing simulators practicing for the defense of Ithor or in the other bank of simulators flying as enemy coralskippers trying to conquer it.
Anni and Jaina had just returned from a briefing on Vong biotech that doubled as their chance to get lunch. Having hurriedly eaten while listening to the briefing officer it was now Anni's turn to fly as a skip pilot and Jaina would have her turn after that. But, as they got to the hanger that housed the simulators, Anni saw a bunch of pilots loitering about and a couple of them wore the High Flight Squadron patch on their sleeves.
Anni turned to Jaina excitedly. "What would I need to do to get you to take my shift in the sim?"
Jaina didn't need the Force to see how excited Anni was at the thought of seeing her friend. "Nothing."
"Great!" Anni exclaimed as she turned to run off. She took two steps forward before quickly turning back and lunged forward to wrap her arms around Jaina's shoulders in a quick hug. "You're the greatest," she adding happily before resuming her departure.
Jaina shook her head as a wide smile played across her lips as she realized how happy she had just made her friend. "But you'll owe me!" she called to the running figure.
Upon entering the hanger, Jaina moved to the cluster of pilots standing in front of the bank of skip sims. She didn't recognize a couple of them, but two older men immediately caught Jaina's attention. They turned to face her.
"Well, Lieutenant Solo," the first man said. He wore a flightsuit but with no rank insignia or other heraldry. "I thought your wingy was supposed to be joining us?"
"She was, General Antilles," she informed her long time family friend. "But something has come up and she asked me to fly in her place. So, I'll be here for the next two runs."
The second man smiled brightly at Jaina. "More the loss for our enemies, I fear."
"Now Colonel Celchu, Lieutenant Capstan would do just as good a job as I."
"Well, let's get to it then," Tycho said as he motioned for everyone to load up. Jaina climbed into her sim. As she did, she spared a glance at the hanger's entrance to see Anni talking to a couple of pilots, but she didn't see Casey over there yet.
"Oh well, just more time for Anni to get excited," Jaina chuckled to herself as she closed the hatch and brought the simulator to life. She ran her preflight checklist and commed Wedge, who was her flight leader, to inform him she was ready before sitting back to wait for the rest of the pilots to check in.
"OK, Skip Flight, let's launch and give our friends the practice they need to keep them alive when this goes down for real." The voice belonged to Wedge and had come over the communit in Jaina's sim. The screen in front of her instantly became a starfield that matched the spacescape surrounding Ithor, which dominated the area below and to port.
Jaina was accelerating her fighter to attack speed when she felt a surge through her connection to the Force. Horror and anguish exploded like a nova in her mind. At first, she couldn't identify the source. She first reached out for her twin, who was fine but was now concerned for Jaina and her current feelings. Her other brother, her parents, Uncle Luke and Mara were all fine as well.
"Anni." Jaina slapped the switch on the console that shut down the simulator. She heard Wedge's inquiry to her about slipping out of formation get cut off as she opened the hatch and leapt out. She ran out of the hanger and turned the corner to see Anni Capstan walking hurriedly away from the group of pilots she had been speaking with. She carried a small satchel in her arms but Jaina couldn't make out any more detail.
Despite Anni's deliberate posture, Jaina could easily sense how badly she was hurting. As she walked up to them, the group of pilots nodded to acknowledge her arrival. The two High Flight members had eyes that were red and puffy. "Oh no," Jaina murmured as they directed their attention to her.
Jaina walked over to the human male who headed the group and was the man Anni had been speaking to. He had bags under his eyes adding to his general look of exhaustion. His eyes were also red and his cheeks puffy, an obvious sign he had just been crying and was still in the process of fighting back more tears.
"What happened?" Jaina inquired softly.
The man extended his hand to Jaina and she shook it softly. "I'm Flight Officer Leye Jesks. I was Casey's wingmate." Jaina nodded and waited for him to continue. Leye wiped a new tear from his cheek before continuing. "Major Leitz was killed two days ago defending a refugee convoy near Yaga Minor."
It felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of Jaina. She stood there, her mouth agape in disbelief. She struggled to find words to say, anything that might help, but she found none. Leye kept his eyes on her but shifted uncomfortably.
"We all knew how close Anni and Casey were, so we wanted to be able to tell her in person," he continued, his voice shaky and weak. "We wanted Anni to know how much we are all going to miss her and how many people she saved that day..." He took a deep breath, trying to steady his voice. "…who will return to their friends and family directly because of Casey's sacrifice."
Jaina reached out to touch his shoulder. "I'm very sorry for your loss."
The pilots nodded at her in unison. Jaina excused herself suddenly feeling very much like an outsider. She was just about to run off down the hall when Wedge Antilles came out of the hanger. "Lieutenant Solo," he called, his tone harsh. She stopped short and trotted back to stand in front of Wedge. "Is there some reason you are not in your simulator?"
Leaning in closer, so the pilots didn't need to hear the words yet again, Jaina whispered her answer to Wedge. "A close friend of Anni's was killed a few days ago protecting a refugee convoy. She just got the news from her friend's squadron mates." Jaina nodded in the direction of the High Flight pilots.
Wedge's expression immediately softened. His eyes seemed to reflect a deep pain, that of someone who had delivered such news far too many times. He gave Jaina a gentle pat on the shoulder. "I think we can give them a challenge without you."
"Thank you, Sir," Jaina said as she turned and ran off down the hallway in the direction of the quarters she shared with Anni. After a short distance, she slowed her pace.
Anni is probably going to want a little time alone. I'll walk around and do a little thinking myself. I haven't the slightest idea what to say to her, so a little time will do me some good too. Jaina spent the next half an hour walking around the sparsely populated portions of the ship. She tried and tried to come up with something to say to help her friend, but nothing came to mind. She decided to play it by ear and just be there for Anni in any way she would allow.
Jaina arrived at the door and took a deep, calming breath. She dared not open herself fully to the Force and risk the potential flood of anguish from behind the door washing over her. The door slid open after Jaina had keyed in her code. Leaning in, not wishing to intrude, she called softly, "Anni?"
"Come in." The voice Jaina heard was Anni's, but it lacked the strength it usually contained.
The door slid shut behind Jaina after she entered. She stood at the door and saw Anni with her back to her, obviously looking through some things on the small desk they shared. Jaina slowly walked over to her and laid a hand on her shoulder. "You okay?"
Anni sniffled but nodded slowly. Jaina slowly peered over her shoulder. On the desk was a small duroplast container holding several objects. The one that immediately caught her eye was a framed holo of Anni and Casey. They each had an arm draped over the other's shoulder and were dressed in evening clothes, with the vast skyline of Coruscant behind them. That looks like it was taken at the Senate building, Jaina thought. Finally she noticed the picture had tiny droplets of water dotting it. Jaina's chest tightened when she realized they were Anni's tears that had fallen onto it.
In a whirl of motion, Anni spun around and wrapped her arms around Jaina. She buried her face against her friend's shoulder and wept. Sobs wracked Anni's body as Jaina held her and rubbed her hand soothingly over her back. Unsure of what else to do, Jaina simply held her, offering silent support. After almost half an hour, Anni's sobbing finally slowed and she reluctantly pulled away from her friend.
Turing her attention back to the container, Anni pulled a small stuffed animal from it. It was about half a meter tall and very round with soft brown fur. It was easily recognizable as a stuffed animal representation of an Ewok. Anni hugged it close to her chest before flopping down on her bunk. Curling her legs up, Anni leaned against the bulkhead and Jaina moved to sit at the foot of the bed.
Jaina eyed the children's toy with more interest than it probably warranted. Anni saw this and took the Ewok's right hand in hers and pushed it out towards Jaina. "This is Kettch," Anni choked out, a fresh tear rolling down her cheek.
"Hi," Jaina responded with a weak smile.
"You have to shake his hand," Anni insisted.
Jaina reached out, feeling a little silly that she was shaking hands with a toy. But, she could tell how much it meant to Anni so she indulged her, even though she had no idea as to why it was so important. "Nice to meet you, Kettch," Jaina said as her fingers closed around the tiny stuffed paw. As she gave the first shake, Jaina was hit with a flood of emotion.
Jaina was overwhelmed by the conveyed joy she was experiencing. She saw, deep in her mind, Anni laying on a bunk very similar to the one they were on now. She was clad in a civilian style flightsuit, but was barefoot and her hair was free and cascading over her shoulders. Lying across her was Casey. She was dressed much the same and was holding Kettch in her hand.
The two girls giggled as Casey pantomimed the Ewok walking up her partner's body. The fuzzy toy started at Anni's waist and slowly waltzed up her chest. When it reached her neck, Casey nuzzled it against the side of Anni's neck and made a loud kissing noise with her lips. Their laughter grew louder and more excited. Just as Casey darted up to plant a deep kiss on Anni's lips, the vision faded.
Jaina leaned back, startled by what she had experienced; not only by the suddenness of its arrival, but also by its content. How could I have not seen it? Jaina asked herself. She struggled with the question for a moment, but was unable to find an answer.
Anni looked at Jaina quizzically for a moment about her reaction to shaking hands with Kettch. Affecting a genuine smile, Jaina leaned down towards the stuffed Ewok before looking again to Anni. "So, why don't you tell me about Kettch."
Jaina hoped that the obviously pleasant memories of the toy would help her friend. By the Force, I hope it doesn't do the opposite, she thought. Anni looked down lovingly at Kettch and slowly stroked his fur.
"He was the reason Casey joined Starfighter Command. Why she wanted to be a fighter pilot." Anni looked up at her wingmate, but continued to stroke Kettch. When Jaina offered no sign of recognition, Anni raised her eyebrow quizzically. "You've never heard of Lieutenant Kettch?"
Sifting through her memories, Jaina tried her best to come up with something. But, despite her best efforts, she had to admit her ignorance. "Nope, not that I know of," she said with a shrug.
Anni smiled. "Perhaps you should ask General Antilles sometime whether the rumor is true or not. But, for Casey, it wouldn't have made any difference if it was or not."
"I believe it was shortly after the Bacta War that Commander Antilles was moved from Rogue Squadron to work with another group of elite pilots. For some reason during their mission, they needed to disguise themselves as pirates. His face was so well known, Wedge couldn't just pretend to be someone else. So, they came up with a different kind of disguise," Anni explained.
"As a joke, they rigged Wedge's comm unit to make his voice sound like an Ewok. They eventually added a life-sized stuffed toy Ewok that Wedge strapped to himself in the seat of his fighter." Anni displayed a huge grin throughout the tale.
Jaina smiled. "And Casey identified that cute image with being a fighter pilot and decided to become one?"
"Yes. And soon after she got this toy as a gift from her parents, naming him after the famous stuffed animal that was Wedge Antilles' alter ego."
"I wonder if that's really true or if it's just one of those tales fabricated from one tiny fact about something that occurred often during the war with the Empire." With a chuckle, Jaina added, "If I ever feel brave, perhaps I'll ask General Antilles about the truth of this little tale."
Anni smiled a bit as she nodded, but quickly her expression turned to one of anguish and a strangled sob escaped her lips. She reached up to hug Jaina as her tears came again and Jaina held her as she sobbed. Calling upon the Force, Jaina tried to ease her friend's pain. But her efforts did not seem to do much, helping very little, if at all.
Jaina lost track of how long Anni sobbed, but eventually she laid
back on the bunk and her eyes closed. She shifted uneasily for a
few minutes, but soon fell off into a fitful sleep. Not wanting to
wake her, Jaina stood up carefully before gently covering Anni with
her blankets. Jaina settled into a nearby chair, wanting to stay
nearby in case Anni woke and needed her. As the hours crawled by,
eventually Jaina drifted off as well.
Continued in Part Three