The Centares Patrol exercise was notorious among the faculty of the New Republic Starfleet Academy, but largely a well-kept secret from the cadets. Or maybe it was that the new cadets never fully believed the tales told by the upperclassmen. Starfighter pilots might come in all shapes and sizes, but they all shared a common conviction that they were, if not invincible, at least unstoppable by mere mortals.
That conviction wavered to varying degrees following the Centares Patrol. The exercise was a tactical simulation of an engagement with a well-organized insurgent force attempting to blockade fleeing refugees from a nearby system. Its difficulty settings were highly variable, beyond any of the standard level-based sims; if a pilot performed too well, more and better-armed opposing forces simply showed up.
The average time a cadet could continue the exercise was just over thirty minutes before running out of firepower, shield energy, and ideas. The ones with superior piloting skills lasted nearly an hour. The majority of cadets took their failing grade with grudging acceptance and moved on, their egos duly chastened; a few stubbornly retook the test and sometimes extended their performance by a laudable ten minutes, allowing more refugee ships to escape.
They still failed, of course. There was no option to succeed. Rumor had it that Luke Skywalker himself had once flown the exercise and conceded after seventy-five minutes.
Temmin Wexley’s Academy career had followed a slightly circuitous route, so he’d had a considerable amount of X-wing flight time, both real-world and simulated, at the time of his class’s encounter with the Centares Patrol. He’d withstood exactly sixty-one minutes, through a full complement of ‘stolen’ Special Forces TIEs, before attempting a desperate maneuver that failed to take into consideration the location of an orbital gun battery. His flightmates had bought him a lot of drinks that night.
This year, as Cadets First Class, those same flightmates were in charge of the exercise and taking merciless pleasure in creating novel ways to crush the egos of the Fourth-Classers. They all wanted Snap Wexley, the Best Worst Centares Defender, to lead the sadistic charge. And he did enjoy it, a little. At first. It gave him the chance to be more creative, strategically speaking, than his other duties. After a while, though, watching bright-eyed youngsters stride into the sim center and emerge looking hollowed-out and sullen got old.
“I’m gonna go check scores,” he told Brina and Zerr, rising from the duracrete half-wall on which they’d all been lounging to watch the parade of disaster. “You two get started on finding us something to drink tonight.”
“Aww, don’t leave yet,” Brina whined, leaning back so far that her lekku nearly touched the ground behind her. “We’re still waiting on the grand finale.”
“Dameron. Supposedly he’s the best stick in the class, and he hasn’t come out yet.”
Snap narrowed his eyes. “Everybody started at the same time two hours ago. There’s no way anybody’s still at it.”
Zerr shrugged. “Facts are facts. He hasn’t shown his face. Either he’s still at it, or he sneaked out another door, or he’s in there somewhere sulking because he probably lost a bet.”
Snap was aware of the rumors about Cadet Fourth Class Poe Dameron. He’d never put much stock in rumors, knowing how outlandish some of the ones about himself had become. Dameron, though, didn’t have any flashy battle tales to his name. What he had was a legacy, an apparent willingness to try anything—usually successfully—and a reputation for being absurdly nice to everyone, without a competitive bone in his body. Of all the descriptions typically attached to starfighter pilots, even those still in training, ‘nice’ had never been a top vote-getter.
It was that last trait that spurred Snap to investigate. Bruised egos were the cadets’ own problem to deal with, but if Dameron wasn’t an ego case, there might be something else going on.
“Seriously, guys. Head for the mess. I’ll go sort it out and bring you the probably boring gossip later.”
With exaggerated sighs, the other two got to their feet and trudged off toward the dorms. Snap waved his wristband at the entry scanner and waited for the lock to disengage before striding down the long corridor toward the simulator center.
As anticipated, the place had cleared out. For the most part. The droid that operated the sim hardware swiveled toward the doorway at Snap’s approach. “Performance today shows a marked improvement over last year’s class,” V9-C5 reported.
Snap grimaced. “Which means I’m going to get harassed for making it too easy. What were the stats?”
“Average time was thirty-eight minutes and nine adversary targets. Peak time—” It was probably his imagination that inserted a pause for effect. “—eighty-four minutes and seventeen simultaneous adversaries.”
“Eighty-four? Kriff.” Snap scrubbed a hand over his jaw, which was finally starting to show a shadow after two weeks of deliberate but ineffectual missed shaves. “Wait ‘til that one gets out. Was it Dameron?”
“Affirmative. Cadet Dameron is currently reviewing his post-exercise debrief holo.”
“What, now? He’s got all morning tomorrow for that.”
V9-C5 regarded him primly. “The cadet was made aware of the schedule. He elected to continue on his own time.”
Great. “He’s gonna miss dinner if he stays another eighty-four minutes. What room’s he in?”
“Simulator Four Alpha.”
“Thanks, Vinni.” Clapping the droid on its scuffed blue shoulder, Snap started down the hall toward room 4A.
The cadet inside barely glanced up when the door first slid open, sitting on the sill of the mockup cockpit and focusing on the screen in front. After a moment, though, situational awareness kicked in, and he looked up to check the identity of his visitor. Upon seeing that it was a first-classer and not, say, a droid, he promptly leapt to his feet. “Sir.”
“As you were,” said Snap. He’d never actually met Dameron before, and was a little surprised to discover that he was small. Barely up to Snap’s shoulder and looked like a stiff breeze might carry him away. Human fourth-classers were only eighteen standard years old, of course, and it was possible he’d still grow a couple more inches, but even so…the idea that this kid had run amok on Snap’s gloriously brutal exercise was tough to fathom. “You know you still have to do a full debrief in Commander Mnesta’s class tomorrow even if you review most of it tonight.”
“Yes, sir. I still want to take a look at a few things.”
“From what I hear, it’s everyone else who will want to take a look at a few of your ‘things.’ Eighty-four minutes?” Snap gave a low whistle. “That’s legendary.”
“It would have been longer if the fuel reserve was modeled accurately.” Dameron’s tone wasn’t grumbling or boasting, simply matter of fact. “There’s room to improve the fidelity of the sim. I know it’s based on the T-70, but the T-85s have automatic compensation for fuel flow changes based on atmospheric density. I could have extended my range a lot in a T-85 just by going suborbital.”
“You think they’re going to hand you a T-85 anytime soon?” Snap asked, amused. “They’ve barely produced enough of them to support the Core Fleet so far.”
“By the time my class graduates, they’ll be the standard.” After a beat, the younger cadet seemed to remember that he was technically talking to a senior officer. “…Sir.”
Snap shook his head. “You kicked a lot of ass here, Dameron. When the scores get posted tomorrow, you’ll have more friends and drinks than you can handle. Forget about the fuel reserve and call it a day.”
“As soon as I’m done, sir.”
If the kid wanted to waste his time trying to be perfect, that was his business. Snap shrugged and left him to it.
He didn’t log into the sim server to review and validate the scores until well past dinnertime; Brina had been holding court in the first-classers’ mess about her political science project and the fascinating customs of the polyamorous society on Belsion III. When Snap finally escaped to his room after sundown and called up the fourth-class roster on his computer terminal, once again cursing the instructor who’d recommended him as a course assistant, he skimmed down the list until his gaze snagged on a name.
Frowning, he accessed V9-C5’s com through the terminal. Why is Dameron’s sim file still showing as open? Did he forget to log out when he left?
The droid’s response appeared instantly on the screen. NEGATIVE. CADET DAMERON IS STILL IN THE SIMULATOR.
Snap checked his chrono and swore. The exercise started FIVE hours ago.
FIVE HOURS AND SIXTEEN MINUTES. DAMERON IS BEGINNING HIS THIRD ATTEMPT AT THE SCENARIO.
Has he at least taken a break?
ONE PAUSE AFTER ATTEMPT #2 TO VISIT THE REFRESHER FACILITIES. TIME ELAPSED—
I do not need to know how long he took in the ‘fresher, thanks. Snap rested his forehead on the cool duraplast surface of his desk. He’s alone?
Well, hell. Okay, I’m on my way over.
It was a ten-minute walk across campus, and Snap resented every step of it. Graduation was getting ever closer, and while it had never represented the pinnacle of anything to him the way it did for some of his classmates, he still had work to do—he had no desire to babysit the Academy’s most sincere overachiever. There were time limits on simulator practice for a reason: starfighter flying was a strenuous undertaking, using muscles to their fullest and subjecting bodies to intense forces. Vinni would have handled it if the kid G-locked himself or passed out from dehydration, but in the end, the duty officer of record was Cadet First Class Wexley, and that made it all his problem.
He stalked through the central monitoring area and headed straight for 4A. As he passed, Vinni informed him, “Duration of attempt two was ninety-three minutes.”
“Start a fan club,” Snap tossed over his shoulder.
The simulator was in motion when he entered the darkened room, and the unoccupied instructor console in the corner showed that there were already a half-dozen virtual enemies swarming the fighter. He didn’t stop to analyze Dameron’s performance, just took three long strides over to the console and smacked his hand down on the override control.
Promptly and smoothly, the simulator returned to its proper orientation and settled back onto its base. The lights in the room brightened to fifty percent, and the fighter’s canopy clicked open.
“Was I not clear when I told you to call it a day, cadet?”
Dameron peeled off his helmet, strands of dark hair escaping from the short ponytail that hours earlier had been neatly tied at the nape of his neck. “I said I would when I was done, sir, and you didn’t stop me.”
There was a challenge in his voice, and for a moment they stared each other down. The younger man was covered in sweat, chest still heaving from the interrupted battle, and there was a fire behind his eyes that surprised Snap. Was there a competitive streak in there after all? This didn’t feel like that kind of determination, though. This looked more like desperation.
“You can’t just keep going,” Snap said, folding his arms across his chest. “You hit ninety-three slagging minutes. What more do you want?”
“I want it to make sense! If this were a normal exercise, there would be a way to…figure it out more.” Frustrated, Dameron shoved himself out of the cockpit. “This is so far beyond logic that it’s getting ridiculous. Did you know that if you take out the seventh element, a Force-damned old-school Star Destroyer shows up? Can any of those still even fly?”
“You never know,” Snap said, more blithely than he really felt about the topic.
“It’s stupid. It’s not teaching us anything if it’s just going to keep hammering us!”
The kid seemed pretty worked up, and it was wicking away some of Snap’s own annoyance. “This isn’t a tactical exercise, Dameron,” he said quietly. “It’s supposed to be teaching you something different.”
Looking torn, Dameron bit his lip for a moment. “I get that, sir,” he said finally. “There are battles that can’t be won, and all that. I might be a colony hick, but I’m not that naïve.”
“So if it’s not real and it absolutely can’t be won, why are you still trying to win it?”
“I’m not trying to win it. I’m just trying to protect my squadron.” Dameron leaned back against the cockpit, his chin falling to his chest. “I tried sending them away right at the beginning, but the programming won’t let that happen. If I have to fight until I’m vaporized, okay, but do I have to watch them get blown up no matter what? All of them?”
Snap opened his mouth to point out that they’d been watching their friends get ‘killed’ in the sims all year—but for all he knew, maybe it had been bothering the kid the whole time.
Dameron lifted his eyes from the floor, giving Snap an unreadable look. “You know how when something bad happens to you—I mean something really bad—sometimes you replay it over and over in your head, hoping it’ll change even though you know it can’t?”
Snap didn’t dare close his eyes, knowing Chandrila would rise to fill the darkness as it had so many times before. “Yeah.”
Dameron’s gaze was steady. “Here I can change it.”
“A little, maybe,” Snap allowed. “But not enough to make a difference.”
“It made a difference to Stiletto Three on my first run. And most of Dagger Squadron on the second run. I know they’re simulated now, but they could be my best friends. They could be you.”
It was then that Snap started to understand. “They could be your mom.”
Dameron’s eyebrows climbed, but he kept his reaction well in check. “Are we at that point? Where we stop pretending we haven’t heard all about each other and start figuring out how many of the same Alliance vets we know?”
“Looks like it,” Snap said amiably, taking a seat on the instructor chair. “So you know I’ve flown combat, and I know your mom was Banshee Bey.”
The other cadet grimaced. “She wasn’t wild about that nickname.”
Snap raised his hands in surrender. “Fair enough. Since we’re talking about no-win situations, was she at Scarif?”
Dameron shook his head. “That’s actually my fault, to hear my dad tell it. I’m not sure the math works out, but my mom was sick for a while in there and they were both off duty for a couple of weeks. Missed Scarif, fortunately for Dad, but also missed Yavin. Mom never said anything directly, but I think she wondered what would have changed if she’d been there—if maybe a couple more of them would have lived.”
Snap could imagine. At twenty-two years old, he’d already spent half a lifetime wondering about such lost chances.
“But you’re right,” the younger man continued. “It’s never going to be enough. You can’t keep anyone safe forever. I guess I’m just…having a really hard time with that.”
“I get it, kid.”
Studying him a little too closely, Dameron asked, “So how do you do it? What kept you going, when you were out there?”
“I don’t know. In the moment, they’re not people—the ones flying with you or the ones shooting at you. They’re machines, built for a purpose.”
“I don’t like what that would make me.”
“In the moment, I said.” Snap fixed him with a reproachful glare. “When you get back—when you see who didn’t come back with you—then they’re people, friends and leaders who deserve to be remembered. So you do. You remember how they laughed, where they were from, what mattered to them. Until you go out again and you have to tell yourself you’re all invincible in order to preserve what they fought for.” Under the weight of Dameron’s gaze, he wanted to look away, but didn’t. “I never said it was a perfect system.”
“As long as it works.”
“I can’t vouch for how long it works. I’m still here—that’s all I’ve got.”
After a long moment, Dameron nodded and pushed himself off the side of the cockpit. “Thanks for not laying into me about abusing the sim. I’ll get out of your hair.”
“Just don’t spread the word around that I don’t care who does what in here. That kind of latitude always ends badly.” Snap stood up as Dameron cracked his first smile of the night. “Seriously. You’re doing the right things and asking the right questions. You’ll be fine.”
“Thank you, sir.” Dameron turned toward the door.
“Cadet.” When he paused, Snap extended his hand. “One Alliance kid to another. During the duty day, ‘sir’ is the reg, but after hours, I’m Snap.”
The smile broadened, shifted into something more genuine. Dameron reached out his own hand to shake. “Snap. I’m Poe.”
After he’d gone, Snap figured he might as well review scores from the mainframe itself since he was already in the building. He went through the files by rote, his mind a few years and half a galaxy away. By the end, he’d come to a decision.
One of the perks of being an assistant instructor was access to the external com terminal. It was set for intrasystem calls by default, but anyone could make longer-distance calls with a personal account.
Snap input the direct-access code for the Senate offices on Coruscant and waited for the channel to connect.
“Temmin Wexley for Senator Organa.”
After a minute or two, Leia Organa Solo appeared in the holoframe, elegant as ever. “Cadet,” she greeted. “Are you nearly done playing rookie?”
“Had to be done, ma’am. They don’t give out commissions unless you put in some time in the classroom too.”
“Not these days, anyway. What have you got for me?”
Snap didn’t make these types of calls often, but he knew that hesitating would only waste her time. “Ma’am, you told me to keep my eye out for your kind of people.”
Organa’s eyebrow rose gracefully. “I’m listening.”
“There’s a cadet here. Dameron. I’m sure you know who he is, or whose kid he is, at least. He’s ridiculously good in the cockpit, but more than that…” Uncertain how to word it, Snap finally settled on, "He’s got what you’re looking for. If things go the way you’re worried about them going, he’s what you’re going to need.”
He wasn’t sure what he’d expected in response, but it wasn’t her obvious amusement.
“Sometimes I forget how young you were back then,” she said. “How young you still are.”
From anyone else, it would have sounded irritatingly patronizing. From the princess of lost Alderaan and hero of the Rebel Alliance, it was worthy of being understood. “Ma’am?”
“You’re right about Dameron, of course. And you’re right about what I’m looking for.” In the blue glow of the holo, her eyes held an undimming spark of purpose. “Your only error is in thinking that I haven’t been watching him all along.”