Walking with exaggerated casualness past the table where the Ombina brothers were seated, Pash Cracken glanced down at the small, rectangular box of chocolates that was lying casually between them, and pretended to do a double take. "You were going to share those Taanabian chocolates with your commanding officer, weren't you, lieutenants?"
Having been intently watching something across the cantina, both brothers jumped in surprise, looking first up at Pash and then down at the box as though it had suddenly turned into a miniature Krayt dragon.
"Ah -" Ficult Ombina moved his hand towards the box while asking, "These Taanabian chocolates, Captain?" Somehow he managed to knock the entire thing off the table so that its contents scattered across the floor. "Whoops, sorry."
"The floor's clean, Ficult," Pash said, testing their reactions. He bent down as though to reach for the nearest one, only to see Solut Ombina deliberately crush it with his boot.
"Ooops," said Solut unrepentantly, confirming Pash's gut feeling that there was more to this scenario, and especially those chocolates, than was immediately visible.
"Huh huh huh," boomed a deep voice behind him. "Captain Cracken."
Turning around, Pash sighed. The 3PO unit had been reprogrammed the day before with the voice and laughter of a Hutt, and everybody in the squadron claimed they had no idea of who was responsible for the practical joke. It had been funny at first, but amusement had quickly given way to annoyance. Pash had generously announced an amnesty of one day for the anonymous slicer to reverse his handiwork without fear of a reprisal - now he wished he'd shortened the time to four hours. Or even two.
"Hello, Doom," he said. The droid seemed to frown at him, as much as a protocol droid with no features for facial expressions could frown, then Pash remembered that more than the voice had been changed.
"Hello, Sunuva," he tried again. Fortunately, he didn't have to say the entire new name. The droid was - thankfully -- content for others to leave off the "Hutt" ending.
"Huh huh huh, and what will you be drinking this evening?" Sunuva asked, laughing before every sentence as he'd done ever since the reprogramming job.
"He wants to help us drown our sorrows by sharing the biggest tumbler of Whyren's Reserve that he can afford," Ficult said.
Pash shook his head. "Nectarwine, please, Sunuva."
"Huh huh huh, coming right up, Captain." Sunuva bowed ever so slightly, then moved away.
"When you are going to stop drinking that berry juice and switch over to a real man's drink, Captain?" Ficult asked.
Pash ignored the oft-heard jibe, seated himself at the table with the two brothers, and asked, "Which sorrows need drowning?"
"Alant," Ficult sighed, then repeated her full name. "Alant Nashuan. She left me for another pilot."
"I didn't know you two were together," Pash said, raising his eyebrows slightly.
"We had one evening," Ficult sighed again. "One glorious evening ... and then he came."
"That long? You boys are making progress," Pash teased. "And who's this 'he?'"
"Lieutenant Witt," Solut explained. Pash nodded at the mention of the squadron's newest pilot, and tried to remember his first name. He was sure it wasn't Half, which was what the rest of the Squadron had immediately started calling him, but Pash simply could not think of what it really was. Was he getting old, or just saving his memory for more important things?
"She vented me for him," Ficult explained.
"She was dumb enough to fall for his speech," Solut added.
"He told her that he'd applied to join this squadron because of you, Captain. He'd heard that your invulnerability made the rest of us invulnerable as well, so he joined because he knew he'd never get killed and would therefore be able to enjoy her company for the rest of his very long life." Ficult mimed gagging.
Solut nodded in agreement. "Makes ya sick."
"Huh huh huh, I hope you are not referring to this wine, gentlemen," Sunuva boomed, coming up with Pash's drink.
"Thank you, Sunuva," Pash said quietly, taking the glass of deep red alcohol and staring at it morosely for a moment before taking a large mouthful. Yes, the lieutenant's speech made him feel sick, but for a completely different reason than the Ombina brothers might think. Pash knew he wasn't invincible. He did know that he was talented, and when his talent hadn't quite been enough, he'd been lucky. At first, he'd dismissed this kind of talk among his pilots, figuring they were only exaggerating, but this report proved it was now getting out of hand.
"We're talking about love and loss, Sunuva," Ficult said gloomily.
"Huh huh huh, I shall leave that to you humans. Huh huh huh, watch your feet, here comes Tidy-Droidy Number Two, to clean up this mess."
Smiling automatically at the designation "Tidy-Droidy", which would have been amusing even if not boomed in Hutt-accented Basic, Pash glanced down to see a small rectangular box go by with what appeared to be a tiny shovel and two spindly arms sticking out its front. It whizzed around the floor, scooping up each chocolate and flipping it into the mouth-like opening in its top before moving on to the next one.
"Alant saw me coming to ask her for another wonderful evening," Ficult was saying. "She just smiled that special smile of hers and said 'Now don't get mad, Lieutenant Ombina, but Lieutenant Witt's already asked me to spend the evening with him.' What else could I do but not get mad? I didn't get mad, did I, Solut?"
"He did not get mad," Solut echoed.
"He just got even," Pash guessed, taking another drink and rolling the alcohol around in his mouth for a moment to savour the sweet berry flavour.
"Alant is special," Ficult said. "She's too good for Half Witt! Where else in the galaxy can you find a beautiful girl who can fly, shoot, and, most importantly, doesn't take all evening to get ready? She came in here early, waiting for him, the same way she got there early and was waiting for me the other night."
"And you offered her a chocolate to help pass the time?" Pash guessed. "All right, what have you put in them?"
Ficult adopted a hurt expression but had no time to protest his innocence. From the table at the other end of the cantina came a sudden shout of "Hey!" and Alant leaped up, running forward and staring at something behind Pash. He turned to look, but couldn't make out what had caught her attention. The door was propped open to let in the evening breeze, and everything that he could see, both inside and out, seemed to be normal.
"Everybody down!" Alant shouted, diving under the table next to Pash and the Ombina brothers, then throwing it to the floor so that its surface provided some cover.
"Huh huh huh, what is going on?" Sunuva boomed.
"Get down or they'll fry your circuits!" Alant shouted, peeping out from behind her makeshift barrier.
"Huh, huh, huh, we're doomed!" In Sunuva's regular voice, it would have been a wail of dismay, but the Hutt voice made it sound like a declaration of the end of the galaxy. The droid immediately disappeared behind the bar, but at the back of the cantina, Half stood up.
"Alant?" he asked as he cautiously approached. With each step, he glanced from her to Pash, and back again.
"I'm going to try to get to the hangar," Alant yelled back. "Come on, all of you, let's blast those Imps out of the sky!"
Pash watched her stand up and make a run for the door as though dodging enemy fire, or waiting for it to come, then turned to Ficult. "What did you say was in those chocolates?"
"It was supposed to be a laxative, Captain!" Ficult exclaimed, too rattled to keep up the pretence any longer.
"A laxative?" Pash exploded. "This doesn't look like your ordinary case of the runs!"
Pausing to reconnoitre from around the doorjamb, Alant raced out, obviously headed for the shelter of the nearest building. Pash could see her hugging the wall of it and peering cautiously around the corner.
"Come on," Pash called out to the others, motioning for them to follow him. "Let's make sure she doesn't get to the hangar. She's in no condition to fly."
Although they exited the cantina at a run and headed straight to the hangar, Alant had too much of a head start. They saw her once, diving to the ground and rolling as though threatened by laser fire from above, then picking herself up almost immediately afterwards. She took a detour around another building, but still managed to come out ahead of them. Pash made his legs pump even faster when he saw that she really was headed to her A-wing.
"Spread out!" he called. "Try to surround her!"
They were too late, though; Alant had already reached her ship. As luck would have it, her A-wing was one of those closest to the opening and was not blocked by other vehicles around it. Nor was there a magnetic containment field to keep the atmosphere in, and the hangar doors were also wide open to let the hot jungle air circulate. There was, in fact, nothing to impede her progress, and Pash growled in helpless rage as he saw Alant vault to the cockpit, settle herself, and slam the transparisteel canopy closed. He tried to follow, to bang on the canopy and get her attention, but she was already powering up her engines and engaging the repulsorlifts at almost the same time.
Stopping abruptly, Pash backed away out of range of the repulsors, and bumped into one of the Ombina brothers. They turned as one and raced out of the hangar again, following the A-Wing as it moved slowly out of the hanger, then launched.
"Maybe she'll just shoot her lasers off into space until the ... ah ... laxative wears off," Solut suggested just as Ficult and Half came running up to join them.
They watched, their hopes sinking, as the A-Wing leveled off instead of continuing to escape the atmosphere. It turned tightly to starboard, reversing direction, and a moment later, there was an explosion in the jungle just outside of the base.
"Maybe not," Ficult amended.
"What kind of laxative causes people to hallucinate an Imp attack?" Pash demanded.
"Uh ... the homemade kind?" Solut replied, withering slightly as Pash and Half glared at him.
"Get to your A-Wings, everybody," Pash said quietly. "We're going to have to stop her the hard way."
As they began to jog back into the hangar, Half asked, "Ion cannons, sir?"
"A-Wings aren't equipped with them," Pash explained. "The objective is to disable her guns and then her engines if possible, without blowing her to pieces."
"You're the best shot." Half grinned, then volunteered, "I'm your wing."
As he jogged towards his ship, Pash wondered if Half had volunteered to be his wing because he knew the Ombina brothers preferred to fight together, or because he really believed that Pash was invincible and that staying as close to him as possible was the best form of life insurance.
By the time Pash and the other pilots had launched and Pash had put the rest of the base on alert, Alant had burned away part of the perimeter fence and a large strip of jungle just outside it.
"Ace Five, this is Ace Leader," he said, addressing Alant by her designation and hoping for one last chance to resolve the situation peacefully. "Report, Ace Five."
"Six, follow me, I'm going after him," came the reply, and Alant's lasers flashed again. Pash saw fires flare in the jungle below, and thanked the Force - which he'd never believed in until now - that Alant's imaginary enemy seemed to be firing on a location about a klick away from the base. The margin was narrow, but things could definitely be worse.
"Can't kill me, I'm part of Cracken's Flight Group," he heard Alant mutter rhythmically, as though repeating the moral of a beloved story to herself. "Can't kill me, can't kill me ... Hah! I killed you! Cracken's Flight Group wins again!"
Pash felt his heart sink. Did she truly believe that she couldn't be killed, or was it just the hallucinogen?
"Ace Leader to Ace Five, good shot," he tried again.
"I'm on him, Six, I'm on him," was the only response, this time loud and clear. Alant's A-Wing dived to starboard. At least she wasn't firing on her fellow A-Wing pilots, Pash thought. It was quite possible she did not even register their presence. With a heavy heart, Pash followed, checking his targeting scope and watching to see when Alant's weapons systems would be visible in the bracket.
By the time they had disabled Alant's ship, the ground crew had launched one of the large transports that were big enough to catch A-Wings in tractor beams and stow them in the hold, as was sometimes necessary during battles. It landed again immediately after scooping up Alant, and Pash put his A-Wing down not far away. As he exited his cockpit, he saw the team of waiting medics jog over to the hold as soon as it opened, and put on a burst of speed to catch up with them.
"Is she alive?" he asked, watching them pull Alant's limp body out of the cockpit with a sinking feeling in his heart.
"Unconscious," one of the medics replied.
Pash felt the cold sweat of relief wash over him as he followed the stretcher, aware that Half was jogging along behind him. They were already close to Sickbay when the Ombina brothers caught up with them.
"Great flying, Captain!" Ficult said.
"Great shooting, Captain," Solut added with equal enthusiasm. "Half, did you see how he just nicked her weapons systems, just enough to disable them and still not blow the ship apart?"
"I saw it," replied Half. "Right after he ducked out of the way of her concussion missile - that was smooth!"
They continued to describe the battle in admiring tones, and Pash stopped listening until a remark of Ficult's caught his attention again.
"Cracken's Flight Group can survive any situation, whether foe or friend with hallucination," he rhymed, then laughed. "Hey, I'm a poet and don't know it."
Half and Solut groaned and grinned at the same time. Reminded of the chocolates, Pash bit down a flash attack of white-hot temper, spun on his heel, and marched to the cantina.
"Doom - Sunuva!" he called out, glancing around the empty room.
There was motion from behind the bar, and Sunuva raised his metallic head just high enough so that he could see over the surface.
"Huh huh huh, this is no time to ask for a drink, Captain," he said. "Huh huh huh, we're doomed!"
"Use your sensors, Sunuva," Pash reminded him, biting back his impatience. "The danger's over, the shooting's stopped."
Slowly, Sunuva straightened up. "Huh huh huh, so it has, sir."
"Has that Tidy-Droidy Number Two been emptied yet?"
"Huh huh huh, no, Captain, I thought it best not to expose the little one to battle conditions."
"Excellent. Hand it over; I need those chocolates."
"Huh huh huh, as you wish, Captain, however, I must point out that they are rather filthy, having been both on the floor and inside the droid."
"I'm not going to eat them, Sunuva, I'm going to have them analysed." Pashed leaned down and grabbed Tidy-Droidy as it approached his feet. Tucking it under one arm, he turned to leave the cantina again. "Thanks, Sunuva, I'll be back later for that drink."
"This particular combination of ingredients found inside the chocolates could, depending on the constitution of the human who ingested them, cause vomiting, diarrhea, muscle tremors, insomnia, and, in rare cases, hallucinations," the 2-1B medical droid announced.
Pash nodded acknowledgment, and indicated the bacta tank where Alant was peacefully floating. "Will she be all right?"
"The head injury was not serious, and the bacta will purge the poison from her system. She will be ready to resume normal activities within two days," 2-1B reported.
"Thank you," Pash said, turning on one heel and leaving the infirmary. The sun had set over Generis while he'd been inside waiting, and it was fully dark now.
There was a tense atmosphere inside the cantina; it seemed as though the entire squadron had gathered to sit in silent vigil. The Ombina brothers were at one table, obviously isolated in disgrace, as everybody else had squeezed into the other side of the room. They all looked up expectantly as Pash entered, but nobody spoke.
"Lieutenant Nashuan will be resuming normal activity within two days," Pash announced quietly.
There were sighs of relief, and a few muted cheers, and then the pilots' attention turned from him back to the Ombina brothers. Pash fixed them with a glare and waited until they stood up and snapped to attention.
"Lieutenant Ficult Ombina, Lieutenant Solut Ombina," he said in the same quiet, controlled tone of voice. "Can either of you give me a good reason why you should not be court martialed?"
"We didn't mean for it to end this way?" Solut murmured.
"The New Republic needs good pilots?" Ficult suggested hopefully.
"Yes," Pash declared. "The New Republic needs good pilots. Pilots who attack the enemy, and not their fellow pilots."
The Ombina brothers wilted visibly.
"But I know that you did not mean to cause Lieutenant Nashuan to hallucinate. I know that you did not mean to endanger both her life and the lives of everyone on this entire base. I know that you simply meant to ruin her evening with Lieutenant Witt. I've had the chance to think long and hard about this, and instead of having to decimate our squadron even further, I think I've found a way to turn this unfortunate incident to our advantage and use it to strengthen us. Therefore, I am willing to treat this as a practical joke gone wrong, like the way Doom was re-programmed into a Hutt."
"How'd you know it was us?" Solut asked.
"You just told me," Pash replied, and Solut grimaced at the way he'd walked into the trap. There were a few outbursts of muffled laughter from the other pilots, which were quickly silenced as everybody waited to hear what else Pash was going to say.
"However, you will both be grounded for a minimum of six weeks. You will be temporarily transferred out of the squadron and your acceptance back into it will depend on one thing. This will be the successful completion of an intensive course in etiquette specifically designed to teach you how to treat women with respect, a course that will be given to you by a protocol droid I know named C-3PO."
Both brothers stared at him, stunned and horrified. From the other pilots, especially the women, there were loud shouts of surprised joy and the sound of hands slapping hands.
"C-3PO?" Ficult repeated.
"Intensive etiquette?" Solut echoed.
"Captain, that -- that is cruel and unusual punishment!" Ficult protested. "Couldn't you court martial us instead?"
"Or just kill us and get it over with?" Solut pleaded.
"Send us into Imp territory with a crippled ship and no weapons?"
"Surely there's a Saarlac pit on Tatooine with our name on it."
"The deepest mine in Kessel!"
Pash shook his head. "Objections noted, requests denied. As you were, gentlemen."
The Ombina brothers began to splutter even more, but Pash turned towards the bar and said, "Sunuva, give me a double shot of Whyren's Reserve."
It was strange that it took the order of a drink he never normally touched to shock the Ombina brothers into total silence. Reflecting on it as the unfamiliar whisky seared his mouth and throat, Pash finally decided that they'd taken it as a serious sign that they'd gone too far.
After a moment, he heard one of the other pilots comment, "Ficult and Solut learn how to treat women right? That's gonna take a lot longer than six weeks."
Laughter broke the silence, and then there were a few cheers of "Woo-hoo, Captain!"
"You really know where to hit them where it hurts, Captain!"
"This'll be the best thing that happened to the squadron since we left the Empire!"
"And great flying up there, with Alant. We'd have hated to lose her!"
"Yeah, great shooting, too!"
"You're charmed, Captain, truly charmed."
"Three cheers for the Invincible Cracken!"
Frowning, Pash turned to face them. "I'm not charmed, and I'm not invincible."
For a moment, watching them listen with intent faces, Pash had hopes that his statement would actually have an effect on them. But then he saw how politely his pilots were nodding, and his heart sank as he realized that they didn't really believe him.
We're doomed, he thought to himself.
Original cover by Darth Minus. HTML formatting copyright 2003 TheForce.Net LLC.