First Encounter

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Leading boundary, Prefsbelt Sector, The Outer Rim Territories . . .

 

With a flicker of pseudo motion, the lone X-Wing reverted back into realspace. It was one of the T-70 models, an improved variant of the T-65, the Rebel Alliance’s valiant workhorse during the Galactic Civil War. Plastered across the nose of the snubship was the distinctive fang-jawed nose art of the Lightspeed Panthers starfighter squadron. Rather than the snarling maw that adorned all the other ships in the squadron, this particular pilot chose to have the mouth turned up in a sardonic grin, and just forward of the cockpit was the name which the same pilot chose to christen his ship: Hutt’s Paw.

Gavin Thayer glanced at the computer readout as R6-D7, his astromech droid, chirped a question at him. “What I’m planning on doing, R6,” the young pilot answered, “is laying an ambush on the sector patrol.” R6 whistled in astonishment, but Gavin felt he had good reason. Despite what all the newsnet commentators termed a “cold” war, out here on the borderland regions, the conflict was most definitely “hot”. Death and destruction was nearly a daily occurrence, yet blandly dismissed by the media as “incidents” or “confrontations”. And way too many squadrons rotating in from quiet sectors treated such descriptions as fact. Security patrols and flights were taken with less and less seriousness, and it seemed many pilots were interested in racking up hours to increase their flight pay.

“No, they’re not going to like it,” Gavin admitted in response to R6’s observation. “But it might teach them a lesson:  You can’t just go through the motions out here, because you never know just when you might get bounc—”

The young Corellian bit off the last of the sentence as he was forced to throw his X-Wing into an immediate dive in order to avoid the pair of starfighters that suddenly reverted from hyperspace directly in front of his own. Gavin swore as his targeting ‘puter identified the two craft: TIEs, standard models from their hexagonal solar panels. But when did the Imperial Remnant start equipping their TIEs with hyperdrives? Not only that, these two didn’t quite appear to be TIE/LN models either.

There was no time to waste. Gavin pulled his X-Wing up in a steep climb and set a pursuit course. The pilots of the TIEs likewise seemed to have recovered from their shock and were taking evasive action. Not quickly enough though, as Gavin latched onto the tail of one of the wildly maneuvering craft.

The sensors of Gavin’s X-Wing—and R6-D7—suddenly screamed out a warning: Targeting lock! As Gavin jinked and juked his snubship, he frantically looked for the enemy that had snuck up on him. How was his demise going to be reported in the news? Gavin thought to himself. Would it be,“One of our starfighters is missing.”? Only there wasn’t any enemy to his rear; the weapons being aimed at him were directly to his front!

The two TIEs abruptly broke off the engagement by jumping into hyperspace, leaving Gavin’s X-Wing alone in the void. The Corellian blew his breath out in astonishment as R6 tweeted insistently at him. “You were able to get a good look at their jump vector? Good work, R6! Contact headquarters. We need to get back to base as soon as we can.”

 

New Republic Defense Force base, Alashan . . .

 

Gavin gulped nervously, positive that he had not persuaded any of the three individuals he was giving his debriefing report to. Paydon Xidgol, the one from Intelligence, appeared bored; Drox Gottil, representative from the New Republic's treaty enforcement commission, looked peeved; and Colonel Rast Brishen, the base commander, was absolutely furious! Still, he knew he needed to forge ahead.

“Sir, I’m certain that this is a new production model of the TIE starfighter, one capable of matching our own,” Gavin stated, pointing at the holographic image of the mysterious craft that the maintenance techs had created from his X-Wing’s telemetry. “Hyperspace capable, shield-equipped, and rear defense weapons that—”

“I’m not convinced, Thayer,” Colonel Brishen replied with a dismissive wave. “What you encountered were some ships modified by outlaw techs. For smugglers, probably. That is the most likely explanation.”

“But Sir,” Gavin persisted, overlaying a holographic representation of a TIE/LN over the one he encountered. “You can see that these new, unknown starfighters have slightly different dimensions, and the energy signature of their reactors doesn’t match any known type in current Imperial use. And these,” Gavin pointed to the gear-shaped housings that flanked the TIE’s ball-shaped cockpit, “have never been observed on any Imperial craft.”

“Even if they are new Imperial fighters,” Xidgol chimed in, “ I’m confident that they don’t pose much of a threat. The Remnant control but eight sectors, not nearly large enough to pose a threat to the New Republic.”

“But these TIEs didn’t come from Remnant Space,” Gavin argued. “They arrived from the Unknown Regions. And that’s where they returned to. We have their jump vectors. A reconnaissance mission would—”

“Be out of the the question!”Gottil finished. “The terms of the Galactic Concordance are quite clear, and the government doesn’t need any young hot-heads looking to exacerbate the situation while looking for fame and glory.”

Gavin drew himself up to his full height. Which, truth be told, wasn’t real all that much. “My report will be forwarded to Defense Force Headquarters?”

“Your report will sent to the proper governing authority,” Colonel Brisher grumbled. “In the meantime, Thayer, I suggest that you concentrate on your routine duties. Dismissed.”

 

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16_Paranoia_Filled_Days_Later.png    


    Gavin encountered the mysterious starfighters three more times during subsequent patrols. The first two were sightings at a distance, and the young pilot was only able to get sensor readings on them, but the final encounter was the one that Gavin was sure that HQ would have to take notice of. This time, he discovered a small convoy: Three bulk carriers, escorted by a Lancer-class frigate and a heretofore unclassified ship, clearly of a cruiser rating, engaged in collecting its screen of TIEs—also of a new type—before making the jump to hyperspace. Once again, Gavin was able to collect all sorts of telemetry on the ships, and R6 got a solid look at their jump vector into the Unknown Region.

   While he waited for HQ to digest his report, Gavin began to haunt Alashan’s operations center, going over every scouting report, com-scan intercept, anything that would help bolster his case that there was indeed an ominous threat building in regions of space hidden from the New Republic’s view.

   Staring at a holoprojection of the sector, Gavin consulted what few scraps on information he had, then cackled with satisfaction. It was going to be there—right there!—where the unknown ships were going to show up next, and Gavin would insist that a full squadron be ready to—

   “Lieutenant Gavin Thayer?”

   Gavin looked over to the entrance of the operations center, and saw an officer in a white coat standing there. “I’m Thayer. Are you from Intelligence?”

   “My name is Major Doz Trammin. I’m a doctor.”

   The young pilot gaped at the officer. “But . . . I-I’m not sick.”

   Major Trammin gave Gavin a sympathetic smile. “My specialty is behavioral health, and I’m an expert in the field.” Trammin’s smile grew wider. “And I’m here to help you. Why don’t we go somewhere quiet where we can have a nice, long talk?”
 *  *  * 
   Clutching his flight bag, a dazed Gavin walked along the flight line toward a landing pad, while being trailed by Major Trammin and Colonel Brishen. Most of the flight crews and pilots working in the revetments gave Gavin a sympathetic look, then shook their heads knowingly as the dreary procession passed. They all knew it was a familiar scenario: The eager young lieutenant who was done in by his own overzealousness.

   R6 came racing up the flight line and beeped frantically at Gavin. “No, R6,” the pilot replied as he gave the ‘droid a sickly smile. “There’s nothing you can do. Just give your new pilot the very best you can. So long, R6.”

   As R6 came to a halt and wailed mournfully, Gavin continued to the landing pad. Looking up, he saw a glint of light. No, there were two ships coming in. Maybe an escort, especially if the patient became . . . agitated. Gavin turned his face to avoid the backblast as the two ships—a shuttle and an older T-65CA4 X-Wing settled on the landing pad.

   “Nice ship,” Gavin called out to X-Wing’s pilot as he clambered down out of the cockpit. “You must be my replacement.”

   “Not my ship,” the pilot, a Quor’sav with blue plumage, replied. “I was just ordered to fly it down. By those two officers on the shuttle. Can you tell me where headquarters is located?”

   Gavin jerked a thumb over his shoulder as he eyed to two officers who disembarked from the shuttle. Guess they forgot the straightjacket, the young pilot thought grimly. Something odd, though: While both work rank placards, neither wore any identification tags.

   “Lieutenant Gavin Thayer?” the one on the left asked. Gavin's head bobbed up and down.. “Your orders,” the officer stated crisply, holding out a data card.

   This caused both Major Trammin and Colonel Brishen to step forward. “Thayer has his orders,” Trammin protested. “And it is imperative he follow them.”

   “Who issued those orders?” the officer on the right now asked.

   “I did,” Trammin replied, “and those orders were endorsed by Colonel Brisbhen right here. He is the commanding officer of this base.”

   Right-side officer whipped out a small holocommunicator while left-side officer activated a distortion screen around the group. Gavin couldn’t see or hear what was going on, but the conversation was apparently short and to the point. Once the distortion screen was dropped, Trammin and Brishen—both ashen-faced— spun about and marched off without a word. Observing the two as they passed, R6 suddenly raced toward Gavin.

   “Your astromech?” one of the officers asked as the astromech ‘droid approached. Gavin nodded dumbly. “Good. That will save us the trouble of rounding one up for your X-Wing. Yes, that X-Wing. Now, suit up, Thayer.”

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Mirrin Prime
   Fully suited up, Gavin dashed out from the shuttle’s passenger bay, his cheeks reddening when he noticed the bemused looks to two anonymous officers were giving him. Well, what did they expect? He couldn’t just strip and change into his flight suit right out there on the tarmac where everyone would see him, could he? R6-D7, already seated in the X-Wing’s astromech socket, eyed him with amusement as Gavin clambered into the fighter’s cockpit, then fired up the ship’s engines when the young pilot closed the craft’s canopy. Pushing a few levers, Gavin put the X-Wing into a slow, graceful climb as he followed the shuttle into the skies above Alashan.

   “That was my first thought too, R6,” Gavin replied to the ‘droid’s warbled observation. “They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa! Now we’ll find out where we’re really going.”
* # * # *

   Events turned out to be somewhat anti-climatic when Gavin landed his X-Wing aboard the Nebulon-B frigate in orbit over Alashan. Rather than being given any answers, Gavin and R6 were instead escorted to an interior cabin and instructed to remain there until further notification. And unfortunately, he would not be permitted to contact his family or any associates at this time. So this meant both pilot and ‘droid were just going to have to while away the hours while in seclusion. R6 used the opportunity to plug into a recharge unit and run system diagnostics, while Gavin napped or watched the holovids that were available to him. And it really wasn’t much of a selection: A Wynnssa Starflare drama, the thoroughly risible and utterly contemptible Win or Die, and that old favorite, Varn, World of Water.

   Mostly, Gavin tried to determine the heading of the ship by listening to the Nebulon-B’s engines, feeling the thrum of the ship’s thrusters on the deck and bulkheads, and whenever he felt the familiar lurch, measuring the amount of time the frigate spent in hyperspace. Longer periods spent in hyperspace meant the ship was on an established route; the Braxant Run was the one closest to Alashan, and that route intersected with the Hydian Way.

   Gavin estimations proved correct when the much anticipated and awaited call arrived: Report to the hangar bay so he could fly the final leg of his journey. R6 took one look at the starfield outside the frigate’s hangar bay and identified it as the Trans-Hydian Borderlands. This was a region where the New Republic’s authority was nebulous at best; despite the government’s best efforts, many of the region’s systems and sectors preferred to remain neutral/non-aligned, and a few--Zygerria, Lianna, Vjun,  were rated as “hostile”.

   Once he was secure in the X-Wing’s cockpit, Gavin slotted the data card given to him on Alashan. Finally, the mysterious location of his destination was revealed: Mirrin Prime.

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                                                                                                              Turning the Screws

   Mirrin Prime. The world originally had been scouted and identified as a potential base site during the war against the Empire, and while rudimentary facilities were erected, the planet never developed into major operational center. Yet here it was, still in operation some fourteen years after the signing of the Galactic Concordance.

   As Gavin brought his X-Wing in for a landing, the pilot could see that the base had undergone some recent improvements. The landing tarmac was of newly constructed press-bonded material, and much of the   communication/scanning, shielding, and energy generation equipment was of the latest type. The latest mobile type, required whenever a base was to be deployed—or evacuated—at a moment’s notice.

   An officer was waiting for Gavin as he climbed down out of his fighter’s cockpit. As at Alashan, the officer wore nothing to identify him by name. At first glance he appeared to be Atrisian, but when he spoke his accent was pure Outer Rim. “Lieutenant Thayer,”, the officer said by way of greeting. “I am to escort you to your debriefing.”

                                                                                                              # * # * #
   
   Debriefing, Frell! Gavin thought to himself as a drop of sweat ran down his temple. More like an interrogation!

   The young pilot was seated on one side of a bunker, illuminated by a set of bright floodlights that cast a hot, blinding light upon him. Gavin’s inquisitors remained behind the lights, hidden in the shadows, while they fired off a barrage of questions about what he had seen and encountered on the edge of Wild Space.

   “You’re absolutely certain of what you saw?” one of the shadows asked in a harsh, gravelly voice. Gavin squinted, discerning the dark figure as a Mon Calamari. Not surprising, really; High Command was well stocked with them.

   “Positively,” Gavin replied stiffly. “Analysis of the ship’s energy signature and performance parameters don’t match any known profile. And Asset Tracking has nothing on file about that cruiser I spotted.”

   “Perhaps the reason is no intelligence has been forwarded to that division,” gravelly voice countered. “Do you know how many sighting reports headquarters has received from that sector? Just yours. Do you have any what the odds that—”

   “If I may have a word,” a new voice intervened as Gavin bared his teeth at his tormentor. But this new voice was female. And one that suggested a very cultured upbringing, yet now sounded very weary and somewhat . . . sad?  “Lieutenant, what makes you think that these unknown ships are part of a larger entity? One that threatens the New Republic?”

   Gavin paused before answering. Could it be that this woman was a veteran of the Galactic Civil War, and he was about to tell her that everything that she had fought and sacrificed for was about to start swirling down the refresher? “I,” Gavin began before biting his lip. “It’s just a . . . gut instinct I have!”

   The bunker exploded into an uproar. It seemed like nearly everyone behind the lights was talking—shouting—angrily, hurling accusations, recriminations, and threats with abandon.

   “The sector fleet was to be mobilized based on this?”

   “This could have caused a crisis in the Senate! A no-confidence vote!”

   “Not to mention the harm done to the diplomatic efforts concerning the neutral territories!”

   “You could kiss any mutual defense pacts goodbye in those sectors.”

   “I was expected to recommend to the Commodore a full mobilization order because this kid says ‘I got a bad feeling about this.’!?!”


   “I’m not a kid!” Gavin spat hotly.

   “ENOUGH!” The female voice again, speaking with an authority that instantly silenced everyone in the room. “We will discuss this situation shortly in a confidential matter. In the meantime, Lieutenant, you are dismissed for the time being.?


 
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In the Galaxy, there were many planets.  There were planet-wide cities that drew people to them almost like black holes.  There were planets filled with crime and pollution.  Others who seek more of a balance with nature, and some…well, some that if there is a bright center of the universe, they are on the planet that's furthest from. This was a planet like that.  A small, backwater world on the edge of known space known as G14/F-4.   Its bright blue sky and green pastures made it ideal for agriculture, but its remote location kept it from being fully settled by the throngs of species that were everywhere else.   Living out here attracted a certain type of person.  In short, they were survivors, outcasts, the people who had tried to live everywhere else…and failed.  They named the world Safehaven, and if you went north of the only space hub for about a day via speeder, you'd find one of those people.

Sitting atop a rathier, climbing a hill on the northern plain was a well-built goggled man, his salt and pepper hair and beard were hidden under his wide brimmed hat.  He slowly approached a calf that had gone astray.

"Here girl, c'mere" he said softly while he fashioned a lasso from the rope hooked to the rathier's saddle.  The calf spooked and started to run.  The man swore under his breath and threw the rope expertly over the calf's neck, halting its momentum with one flex of his arm.  Leading the calf back to the rest of the herd, Marcus Arete reflected on his journey here.

Three years ago was really the beginning of the end for the life he'd come to know.  Even out of the service for years, Marcus never really left it behind.  They had molded him into a weapon, and Marcus struggled to squelch that instinct.  Marcus wasn't a very good civilian.  Constantly training in between his job, and stockpiling weapons.  When the Empire invaded Ithor, it was the fight Marcus had been waiting for.  But once the body toll was counted, Marcus realized there was a problem with killing over 150 soldiers, and not feeling anything. He tried to find another way, but the universe–or more specifically, his old commander, Colonel Troutman–wouldn't let him. Then came Naboo, crime syndicate-involved rescues, joining Rogue Squadron, and of course the Vjun mission.  Marcus didn't talk about Vjun; too much pain in a small concentrated package.  Afterwards, Marcus didn't know where he belonged.  Mentally and physically, pieces were missing from him.  He had sought solace for a time with Rogue Squadron.  He passionately argued for his spot back.  Which made it all the more hurtful when he left after only three missions.  Marcus' heart wasn't in the fight anymore.  He'd never known his family.  He'd lost his home.  His mind and soul were scarred, his heart was shredded by his ex, and several bits of his anatomy had been sacrificed to war.  He didn't want…couldn't lose anymore.  Marcus retired from the military, and bought a new Uulshos DPx yacht.  It was his one selfish gift from his mustering out pay, and guaranteed to whisk him away from his past.  For a year he bounced around the galaxy, eating his favorite foods, taking a 6 week retreat on Ithor communing with the Mother Jungle, and trying to…date.  It was one of those "dates" where he found his future.  Marcus had been on the dating subnet for a few months, and he'd had three spectacularly bad dates.  After the last one, Marcus had the thought that "…maybe it was ok to die alone".  Marcus had received a 4th invitation to connect, but the holo-message was unique to say the least.

The hologram of a mid-thirties woman with long brown hair tied in a braid slung in the front over one shoulder, her muscular frame was just barely visible through her t-shirt and overalls.  She looked nervous, but then looked into the camera with an earnest determination.
"Hi, Marcus.  My name is Maven…Maven Arete.  I think we need to talk."

After the initial shock, and a few searches on the net to verify she was legit, Marcus made contact, and traveled to Safehaven.  Marcus then discovered his family history.  How he was born to slave parents, and sent away after being born on Nar Shadaa.  A freighter pilot took him and Maven to adoptive families.  He was suppose to find one family, but through circumstances… Marcus got sent to Ithor, and Maven ended up with an elderly farming couple on Safehaven.  Maven grew up never knowing who she really was, only that she was adopted.  Once her adoptive parents died, she learned about her real family, and twin brother in a letter left in their will.  That had been 2 years before, but being poor, Maven didn't have the resources to seek out Marcus.  It was only through dumb luck that she found him on the dating subnet.  Marcus knew that the subnet was the only public profile he'd had except for a low rated tourism license on Ithor that technically never left his Ithorian father's name.  Everything else about him would have been classified.

That had been 2 years ago, and he'd never left.  Safehaven had become his home, and Maven his family.

"UNCLE MARCUS!" A young teenage girl with flowing auburn hair down her back, and looking like the clone of her mom, called out as she galloped up to him.

"Hey Mabby, how are you this fine morning?" Marcus said, greeting his niece.

"Mom says breakfast is ready, and don't try and be all nice to me. I'm still mad at you," she chided him as her rathier stopped in front of his.

Marcus gave a great big belly laugh. "Oh come on, it wasn't that bad," Marcus said, taking one last look at the herd before heading back to the farmhouse.  Mabby kept pace, and responded, "He pissed his pants, Uncle Marcus!"

"Serves him right," Marcus said in between chortles.  They tied up their rathiers in the stable, and were still arguing when they entered the house.

"Mom, tell Uncle Marcus to apologize," the teenager demanded.

Maven rolled her eyes at her brother. "What's this all about?"

"Nothing," Marcus said, grabbing himself some blue milk.

"Nothing!  You call humiliating my boyfriend nothing?  I'll be lucky if he ever speaks to me again!" Mabby said, getting louder with each exclamation.

Maven turned to Marcus, put her hand on her hip, and cocked her eyebrow.

Marcus sat at the table, and shrugged in acknowledgement. "It really was nothing, Mav," he said.

Mabby sat at the table, and continued to stare daggers at Marcus as she explained. "Somehow, Ben's speeder started itself, chased him down the driveway, cornered him next to a tree and threatened to to behead him." Marcus couldn't help but snicker.

Maven looked back at Marcus as he ate his eggs, "Why?" she asked, not even bothering to ask if he did it.

Marcus swallowed and looked at Maven and Mabby's crossed arms. "Well, I . . . oh come on," Marcus began.  "Fine, you want to know why? A, that boy is bad news, he's mixed up with bad guys in town, and he's broken your heart 3 times already.  B, . . . well . . ." Marcus brought his left wrist up to his mouth. "Play Mabby promise 27." Marcus arm blinked in confirmation, and then Mabby's crying voice came out. 'Promise me, Uncle Marcus, if I ever get back together with that guy, promise me you'll chase him off the property, and tell him to never come back.'  Marcus responded on the recording with, 'I promise sweetheart, he'll never hurt you again.'  Marcus looked up from his plate and saw Mabby's features softening slightly.

 Maven just ate her breakfast and said, "Sounds pretty straightforward to me Mabs".

The family ate the rest of their meal in agreed silence until Marcus announced, "I'll head back out and see if there are any more strays.  Should only be 30 to 40 chronos, then we can head into town for supplies."

Maven responded, "The droids can get the strays Marcus. How 'bout you head down to the mines, and fix the irrigation system in field 2?"

"Sure, shouldn't take long," Marcus replied, and walked out the side door.  Mabby followed him.  "Mabs, what are you doing? You know your Mom doesn't want you in the mines," he warned.

"You're wrong about Ben, Uncle Marcus. He's changed this time," Mabby said with the overinflated confidence only a teenager could have.

Marcus didn't even turn to respond. "People don't change Mabs, trust me."

"How can you say that…you did!" she challenged.

Marcus stopped dead in his tracks, and turned to Mabby.  "There a difference between changing and keeping a lid on it, Mabs," Marcus stated, pausing before he continued. "I've seen things, people, actions that I would never describe to you.  I know how black the hearts of men can become, and I'm trying to protect you from that.  If I do anything right in this universe, let it be that.  Ben is mixed up with bad folks, and I don't want you caught up in that," Marcus finished as he reached the underground bunker and swung open the door.  Mabs stormed back to the house, apparently giving up her argument for now.

"Fine, be mad!" Marcus said. "Just be smart!"

The tunnels under the property were there when the farmhouse wasn't. They were originally access tunnels for a miner who was convinced that the property had glitterstim spice deposits.  He didn't end up finding it, but what he did do was dig and support over 15 different interconnected tunnels all over the property.  Marcus had helped shore up the tunnels, and automated the irrigation system ever since he started living here.  Even though the tunnels had a generator, Marcus rarely used it, as the natural darkness allowed Marcus to have a few moments where he could let his eyes free of their goggled prison, and still be productive.  After adjusting the flow valve, the water to the trough in field 2 started flowing again.  The nerfs would be happy.  Marcus walked up into the sunshine and lowered his goggles back over his eyes, then rubbed the scruff on his beard.  "After everything, I ended up a scruffy nerf herder," Marcus laughed at his own observation, and then called to the house. "Let's go girls, farmer's market isn't gonna wait for us."

"We're coming!" Maven yelled back sweetly.

Marcus hopped in the family speeder, and started it up.  The girls came out, and hopped in, and they were off to the last day they would spend together.
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